Lakshana Palat

Didion, magical thinking, and the metaphors of grief

‘Grief comes in waves’ is a phrase so common that most of us believe that grieving is synonymous with the sea. We imagine grief hitting us and washing over us without mercy, while our arms and legs flail, trying to escape to the surface and breathe. Sometimes, we’re too tired to struggle.

We just wait for the waves to recede.

In a rather scrambled year where the waves didn’t seem to recede, I read Joan Didion’s book ‘The Year Of Magical Thinking’. Perhaps, like other readers, I believed that she would somehow provide a path to resilience and strength in the leering face of grief (I sometimes see grief as an animal ready to swallow you whole too). Yet, as I read it, I realised that it’s not what she intended. The fact of the matter is, she didn’t intend anything—except to quietly take the reader into her world that had been turned on its head.

The reality of her words, her seemingly dispassionate narration of a year soaked in devastation, left me thinking about the moments in my life that are now frozen in amber. I thought of 2005, when I lost my grandmother. I don’t know why I had an iron belief that she would recover, and that everything was momentary, though all around me, everyone knew. Maybe I was too young to understand the gravity of the situation. I remember strangers walking around the house, patting me on my head, narrating memories of my grandmother to me, while my mother and aunts were inconsolable. Yet, in the days to come, with weariness they pieced themselves together as they had to discuss paperwork, which is an exhaustingly sobering, and relentless part of loss. I might have been fourteen, but today, I still don’t like it when my mother wears the pale yellow saree she wore that day.

I prefer to think of my grandmother’s house in Trivandrum as intact, preserved as it was back in 2005, with her sitting outside watching the rains, waiting for us to come home. I know the reality of it is different as the house doesn’t exist anymore and that’s why I don’t want to go back to Trivandrum again, because I know the waves will hit and I’ll be powerless to fight them.

If I thought that I would get some inspiring answer from Didion’s book on how to cope with grief, boy I was wrong. She wasn’t providing any magical solution, escape, or easy catharsis, for which we hoped. Yet, without referring to it, a faint trace of hope still lingers between words and sentences—in the first half of the book at least. It exists in the passages where she meets her dying daughter and when she recalls snatches of a former life with her husband. It’s not much, but it’s there.

For those unversed with Joan Didion and her book, like I was, ‘The Year Of Magical Thinking’ is her retelling of the year that was, after the sudden death of her husband John Gregory Dunne. It was the year where Didion struggled with overpowering guilt about the things she could have done to save him. It was the year where she found herself in a vortex of memories of her life with John. It was also the year when her daughter Quintana almost died, twice. Didion struggles with control, the constant friction between circumstance and free will, and the gruelling battle of preserving sanity in the face of turmoil. It’s an enormously herculean task, as Didion sees herself growing irrational or ‘unhinged’ at points, as grief overwhelms her.

And I thought about guilt that is deeply entrenched in grief, sometimes. In 2016, I couldn’t even say goodbye to my brother. I received a phone call, quietly announcing the news. As you can see, I prefer to use the phrase ‘saying goodbye’, rather than the actual terms. I like to believe that the pain abates marginally, if I write as if I just waved a goodbye to him, as if he was going away momentarily. In the days after that phone call, I kept reliving one conversation with him. I had gone to Bombay to meet my best friend. He lived a little far away from her, but he insisted that we must meet. “We’ll have butter chicken and naan, just like you want. Just come home. I’ll kick you, if you don’t meet me this time,” He had said with a laugh.

‘I’ll kick you if you don’t meet me this time’

I did meet him, not at his house for dinner, but at a Café Coffee Day which was right next to my friend’s house, where we laughed over chocolate truffle. That was the last time I met him. Years later, whenever I visit my best friend, I keep looking wildly for that Café Coffee Day, as if I expect to see him there again. I find it hard to breathe as I think of just one thing, what if I didn’t see him that day? Why didn’t I meet him at his house for butter chicken and naan, like he wanted? I’ve found myself thinking, what if he was secretly upset with me for not coming home?

With thoughts like these, I was swallowed whole.

In a clinical, non-linear manner, traversing the past and present, Didion moves between the cherished memories with her husband in the past, to the present, a reality that she hasn’t grasped yet — the seemingly hopeless hospital visits, the formalities and paperwork that can’t be avoided, the words of well-meaning people and, at times, the realisation of staring into the abyss. Loved ones always mean well in times like these, with touching words and sentiment; it’s just that we can’t register most of it, when we grieve. We’re told that we’ll always have memories. But we don’t want memories; we want the person in front of us, in flesh and blood, a feeling that Didion puts across.

But sometimes, well-meaning words hurt. When I lost my dog Phoebe after twelve years, I was told that I could get another dog, as if it was that easy. I’ll reiterate they meant well. But at that time, I didn’t want another dog. I just wanted Phoebe, the puppy I had picked up from the litter of nine. The puppy who ran across the room and slept on my lap. The crabby dog who refused to eat food, unless someone fed her. Yet, the dog that stayed by my family’s side, whenever one of us was unwell or sad. So, when people tell me I will always have my memories of her, yes I do. But I want to see her running out of the house to meet me, flop on her tummy while I scratch her ears.

Didion carries her readers straight into the depths of her despair, so they can experience the depth of her profound loss in real time. Her precise, restrained, yet raw writing is the reflection of a grieving person’s mind. As my fellow reader pointed out, it’s like reading a private journal, a feeling that can be so deeply uncomfortable that at points you don’t want to follow through with the book. She examines and scrutinizes the act of mourning itself, shares passages from other authors, as if she is forming a rather fragile thesis on the subject, like a scholar. She is not effusive with her emotion, but her quiet prose still elicits several feelings in the reader.

Didion tries to understand grief, rather than explain it. It’s perhaps different to everyone that experiences it. Like she says, ‘Grief turns out to be a place none of us know till we reach it’.

This was a year where I grieved in confused bits and pieces because I was trying to get things done simultaneously, such as organising medicines, oxygen cylinders and look for hospital beds. The words ‘oxygen levels’ became part of my daily vocabulary, something I had never imagined. I just was saving new contacts, calling new people, asking for help. More often than usual, the numbers were switched off. Those few weeks in April seemed like a lifetime—wake up, check on everyone, look for numbers, make calls, beg and plead so that someone’s life could be saved.

I almost bid goodbye to my close friend one night, a conversation that I’ve relived several times in my head. She recovered—it was an arduous recovery, but I don’t forget the night where I thought that she wouldn’t be there in the days to come. I didn’t cry, I had to keep talking to her, that’s all I knew—desperately, even. I just kept walking up and down the room, and showered five times that night.

Words didn’t come easy this year, and I felt that I would be chewing on a rock, if I tried uttering them. Tears would have been a relief, but they weren’t there either. I don’t think I cried much during this time, I just remember constantly being on the phone. I remember the heaviness that didn’t let me breathe easily, the exhaustion that didn’t let me sleep or want me to stay awake.

Other close friends were suffering from the aftermath of the illness and the toll it took on them. There was a paralyzing fear when another friend contracted the illness, along with her family. There was another night of just trying to breathe, while reading her disconnected messages. A close friend, burnt out and exhausted from hospital visits, broke down and I had no words. The words ‘We’ll get through this’ had never rung so hollow. We didn’t have words, we just had understanding silences. Maybe, that’s all you needed sometimes.

Grief is many things. It’s the waves that crash over you. It’s an animal that can devour you suddenly on some days. It’s a place. Perhaps, there are more analogies that I don’t know about.

But there was one thing I was, and am grateful for. My sense of community, small as it was. I found hope in the little good morning messages, the laughs we snuck in while sharing our old photos and videos, and recalling memories of dancing together, eating cake at midnight, and playing games. It gives me the little strength to find my grandmother in old letters with her neat handwriting on yellowing paper. I can find my brother again in Shah Rukh Khan songs, in old photos of a trip to Pokhran and Jaisalmer. Phoebe’s old bed is still there and the toy she chewed out of shape, lies next to it.

I don’t think I’ll have the courage to read Didion’s book again, but for those who do wish to do so, it’s a potent, compact, raw and even brutal memoir on grief. It’s not an easy read, but it does leave you examining those moments in your life that you might have folded away.

Article by Lakshana Palat

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