Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Year of Magical Thinking

I finally gave up on my friend's book, Red Sorghum, and started on one of the many I bought during my shopping week. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion is amazing. Last night my eyes welled up at one passage (featured below). The book is what I'd describe as a personal essay. I don't know how memoir-esq it is, but it reads more like an essay of a chatoic period in her life. The book starts out with the death of her husband and the hospitalization of her daughter. She focuses on the closeness in dates (this all happened within a few days of each other and during Christmas, no less) and designates whole chapters to discussing the psychology of grief.

I couldn't put it down. I was up until 3am reading it. The time that I went to bed is not abnormal for me, but usually I'm sitting mindlessly in front of the tv or Youtube. I got a little over halfway through and hope to finish it tonight.

This excerpt made my eyes well up with tears and has inspired me to add an "On Promises" section to my own essay. In this passage Quintana, Didion's daughter, has just been readmitted to a hospital for collapsing in LAX while attempting a celebratory recovery trip with her new husband. She had just recovered from septic shock and was planning on spending time on the beaches of LA with her East Coast native husband.

UCLA Medical Center ICU:
"When do you have to leave," she asked me on the day when she could finally speak. She said the words with difficulty, her face tense.
I said I would not leave until we could leave together.
Her face relaxed. She went back to sleep.
It occurred to me during those weeks that this had been, since the day we brought her home from St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, my basic promise to her. I would not leave. I would take care of her. She would be all right. It also occurred to me that this was a promise I could not keep. I could not always take care of her. I could not never leave her. She was not longer a child. She was an adult. Things happened in life that mothers could not prevent or fix. Unless one of those things killed her prematurely, as one had almost done in Beth Isreal and another could still do at UCLA, I would die before she did. I remembered discussions in lawyers' offices during which I had become distressed by the word "predecease." The word could not possibly apply. After each of these discussions I would see the words "mutual disaster" in a new and favorable light. Yet once on a rough flight between Honolulu and Los Angeles I had imagined such a mutual disaster and rejected it. The plane would go down. Miraculously, she and I would survive the crash, adrift in the Pacific, clinging to the debris. The dilemma was this: I would need, because I was menstruating and the blood would attrack sharks, to abandon her, swim away, leave her alone.
Could I do this?
Did all parents feel this?
When my mother was near death at the age of ninety she told me that she was ready to die but could not. "You and Jim need me," she said. My brother and I were by then in our sixties.
You're safe.
I'm here.

I've known for a while that it is silly to make promises, which is why I don't do it anymore. I can't remember the last time I've actually said "I promise." But what is even sillier is to believe that other's promises will come true. I remember one of the first things an ex-boyfriend said to me was "I promise that I'll never hurt you." I had scoffed and told him that he couldn't promise such a thing because he didn't know what would happen in the future. As it turns out, he was the boyfriend who hurt me the most. Since then I've been fairly skeptical of promises, though I did move to Troy because of one. The problem is that I lost faith in that promise even though eventually it may have come true.

This passage elicits a different outlook on promises. Perhaps I am too skeptical. Didion's fear of not being able to keep her promise because she would die scared her. It scared her more that she could keep her promise. What I think I'm getting at is that not all promises should be kept. Didon's rational is exactly how I feel about irrational promises. Why would she make that promise when under normal circumstances couldn't keep it? Unfortunately, she was able to keep it, which I learned on Wikipedia because I was reading up on Didion's background.

Promises are meant and should be broken sometimes. I probably won't be making many promises in my life because of this.

Work Cited
Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. New York: Vintage Books, 2005

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