Death is not easy to talk about. It never has been for me. It’s scary. It’s final.
I have death anxiety. Severe. There are extended periods of time (ie: the winter, bad break-ups) where I’m completely preoccupied with ‘the end’, obsessed by the idea that it may be right around the corner. Will my next step be the wrong one? I’m superstitious. I’m extremely paranoid. I’m not comfortable writing any of this right now, because I feel like something bad will happen to me.
The other day I stood outside The Dakota at the corner of West 72nd and Central Park West, gazing up at the top. It’s an imposing building with it’s gargoyles and gothic architecture, but in a way, it’s wickedly beautiful. I visit often because I’m a big Beatles fan. It’s where John Lennon lived. It’s also where John Lennon died.
As I looked at the archway – that archway, I imagined what it must have been like that balmy Monday night – December 8, 1980, Lennon walking out of his limo and through the archway before a man stepped out of the shadows fired gunshots into him. He probably had no idea what happened. Did he feel them? Was he sure they were gunshots? Did he experience pain? Could he feel death coming? Just minutes later, it was all over. Gone forever.
Exactly four years and 356 days later, I was born. My first breath came that long after his last. It’s stunning to think that these people live their entire lives before others are born. I mean, this has been happening for thousands of years. It’s just a weird thing to think about.. Why do I think this about John Lennon? I don’t know. There’s something personal about his death, so unfair and sudden that even those who didn’t even exist when he lived can feel that injustice on such a visceral level.
That brings me to the book I just read. A book about death. Real death. Personal suffering. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.
Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne were two renowned authors who worked and lived together for nearly 40 years. They mostly worked together, were close confidants and aided each other in their writing process. Throughout their time together, they had one daughter, Quintana. Sometime in 2003, Quintana became gravely ill and ended up in a coma. This is essentially where the book begins.
On the night of December 30, 2003 the couple returned home from the hospital. As Didion began to prepare dinner, Dunne suffered a fatal heart attack. Within seconds, Didion’s life is changed forever. She loses her confidant. Her daughter is gravely ill, and she’s right in the middle of it.
This detail of the story should be compelling enough to make it a book worth reading. What surprised me the most was the clarity Didion recalls this year. Her process of grieving. Trying to come to terms with her husband’s death while she needs to tend to her very sick daughter. It seems insurmountable. But she finds a way to do it.
What’s special about this book is that It’s free of melodrama and self-help anecdotes – instead, there’s a plainness to it. Crisp, clear and direct. She doesn’t want sympathy and doesn’t provide the reader the opportunity to feel bad for her. This is her life. This is her experience. This is how she is dealing with it. Cut and dry.
The Year of Magical Thinking made me feel better about dying. Of course it’s going to happen to me. It will continue to happen around me as the years go by until it’s my time. What I learned from Didion is this: You must keep on. You must persist. If you don’t, you’re doing just as well as those that are already gone.