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Joan Didion’s most recent book is a meditation on the death of her only child — a death which followed shortly after the death of Didion’s husband, which she had recorded in her previous book. Such events stagger the imagination and most of us avoid thinking of them. Jo Page, the essayist and fiction writer, is also a Lutheran pastor and has thought about these things longer than many of us. We’re happy to present her reflections in the essay below.
I started reading Joan Didion’s book, A Year of Magical Thinking, out of a blend of fear, horror and a voyeurism I didn’t like in myself. In it she details the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, which occurred while she was also dealing with a succession of illnesses that afflicted her 39-year-old daughter, Quintana Roo. Quintana died after the book was completed.
The Danish proverb, “shared sorrow is halved sorrow,” may be true, but in my reading the book I was not doing anything to reduce Didion’s sorrow. I was just looking in at it.
Didion now has a new book out, Blue Nights, which is another foray into the landscape of loss, in this case, the life and death of her daughter. Writing in New York magazine, Boris Kachka says “The book is about many things: mental illness, fate, and our overgrown faith in medical technology. But it is most importantly a reckoning with her shortcomings as a mother.”
Though I was drawn to read A Year of Magical Thinking, I will not be reading Blue Nights for more reasons than the obvious one: that the subject matter is brutally sad. It’s more complicated than that and more personal. I’m a mother watching the slow ascent into adulthood of my two daughters and I find it a difficult and sometimes heart-wrenching job.
In parenting—or at least in mothering—there are always two constants: fear for your child’s welfare and doubt about whether or not you are doing a good job in loving them and raising them. These twinned constants—fear and doubt—are absolute states. Why I ever thought this would lessen as they grew up I have no idea.
But as I watch my daughters outgrow their childish need of me, I feel a fear of becoming useless and a sense of my own mortality. That all sounds grim, I know, but I’m not alone in this. Kyra Sedgwick of all people, with brilliant insight, described mothering grown children in terms of employment: “You’ve had this job forever, it’s the job you always wanted to do, and you were pretty good at it. Then you get fired for no reason!”
Once they’re past a certain age you recognize there are no do-overs. You recognize that what you’ve done as a mother, you’ve done. You can’t shelter them as you once could from all the perils we move among in our lives. You can’t shield them from the slings and arrows of adulthood.
Didion, however, wades deeply into the fear and doubt terrain.
When we talk about mortality, she writes, we are talking about our children: “Once she [Quintana Roo] was born I was never not afraid. I was afraid of swimming pools, high-tension wires, lye under the sink, aspirin in the medicine cabinet. . . . I was afraid of rattlesnakes, riptides, landslides, strangers who appeared at the door, unexplained fevers, elevators without operators and empty hotel corridors. The source of the fear was obvious: it was the harm that could come to her.”
She fears she is neglecting her daughter. She feels she bears some responsibility for Quintana’s mental health issues, her overuse of alcohol. She finds Quintana’s journal and castigates herself for reading from the perspective of a writer rather than a mother.
Enough. In fact, too much.
When my children were younger I used to write about them fairly frequently. As they have gone from childhood into early adulthood I write about them less and less. I think it’s partly out of a sense of respect for their lives. Their stories were once mine to tell as I wished. Now they belong, fully, to them.
It isn’t that Didion discusses her daughter’s life story that bothers me about Blue Nights. It’s that she’s calling awareness to the irreversible and the irretrievable. Unlike her long partnership with her late husband, the relationship between parent and child is unstable and mutable; its hallmark is that children grow up, move on, and claim the rights to their own stories.
Parents lose the rights to those stories, however close the bond between parent and child remains. And I do hope the bond between my daughters and me remains strong; I’d love to be one of those mothers whose daughter lives close enough to see each other frequently, without involving long car drives, plane tickets or hours of separation.
But that’s not my decision anymore.
They will make their own choices. They will tell their own stories. And I will remember, not without bittersweetness, the stories of theirs that I have been able to tell.