Devastated by the sudden death of her 71-year-old husband, John Gregory Dunne, on Dec. 30,2003—a loss made even harder because the couple’s grown daughter Quintana Roo Dunne Michael had been hospitalized with life-threatening pneumonia five days earlier—Joan Didion coped the best way she knew how: She observed her own grieving and wrote about it. The process, she says, helped ease the pain and produced an elegant memoir-cum-meditation on mourning, The Year of Magical Thinking, out this month.
And then there was another tragedy. On Aug. 26, as Didion, 70, prepared for the book’s publication, Quintana, 39, a photographer, died of complications from abdominal infection. Plunged once more into nightmare, Didion is still working as best she can. At her Manhattan home, she spoke with People’s Allison Adato.
When Quintana died, I was working on a screenplay that was due. Three or four days after she died I told people I had to finish it—which I’m sure struck everyone as a case of extreme denial. But it wasn’t. It was just-there’s a point at which you can’t sit and have people say to you anymore, “I don’t know how you’re walking around.” Well, you know, neither do I. But what else is there to do?
Quintana first got sick the weekend before Christmas 2003. She went to the emergency room at Beth Israel North in Manhattan, and they said she had the flu. By Christmas morning she could hardly speak. Her husband, Gerry, took her back to the hospital.
By December 30 she had more than pneumonia—she was in septic shock, which means the infection has entered your bloodstream and it’s overcoming everything. John and I had been to see her, and we came home and I was getting dinner, and then, when he sat down to dinner, he had a heart attack. An ambulance came but he was dead by the time they reached the hospital.
I did not want to tell Quintana immediately. But all she had to do was see me there without him. When she asked, I had to tell her where he was. After some weeks she got out of the hospital, and we managed to have a funeral for John, at which she spoke. But two days later, when she and Gerry were in L.A., she had bleeding in her brain—she was on blood thinner for the pulmonary emboli she had developed from the long hospitalization. She needed brain surgery immediately. She spent five weeks at UCLA Medical Center, then two and a half months at a neural rehab unit back in New York. She had difficulty moving her right arm and leg from the brain injury.
I realized, as that summer came to an end and Quintana was recovering, that I’d been crazy since December. I’d had to focus on Quintana, so I didn’t really come to terms with John’s death. When I realized how crazy I had been—and to some extent still was—I thought, “Maybe I can write this down.”
By crazy I mean I was engaging in magical thinking—it’s a term psychologists use. You think that if you do certain things, you can change reality. In my case I felt if I did certain rituals, time would go backwards-John would be back. If I didn’t give away his shoes, he could come back. I still have them. I mean, if s silly. If ever there was a time to give them away I suppose now would be the time, right after Katrina.
I started writing in October. I’d write during the day and go over the pages before dinner. I would—frankly, I would cry. There’s not much crying in the book because less is more for me, you know? I don’t find wailing and gnashing of teeth very affecting. I just get irritated, and I assume that other people do too.
When the book was finished, I gave it to Quintana. She usually didn’t read work in progress. She explained why once, and it was very moving to me. She said when you read something, you make a judgment on the writer, and you don’t want to make a judgment on your parents. But I needed her to read this, because it involved her. She said she liked it.
She got sick again six months later. She was having lunch with Gerry, and she started throwing up. She thought she had stomach flu. That night Gerry noticed she was having trouble breathing. It was pancreatitis, an infection of the pancreas, that is not necessarily fatal. But the previous infections had weakened her immunity.
At New York Hospital they didn’t know if she was going to live when she was admitted, but then she seemed to be making this miraculous recovery midsummer. And then the infections overtook her. She had exploratory surgery and basically never recovered.
These days I am feeling the exact things I recognize from after John’s death. I wanted to be hidden for a period of time then. I wanted to wear one of those things that cover your face, not because I was crying, but because I felt exposed.
Also, when you are in grief there’s something that happens to your throat. It’s from not crying. You’re choking. I recognize that, totally. It doesn’t make it easier, but I do know it will go away. Another thing is, when you wake up in the morning you have to sort of reinvent your life every day because in the dream state you try to forget.
I don’t have conventional faith, the kind of faith that other people seem to have. I don’t believe God intervenes in my life. You know that question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The only possible answer is, “Stuff happens.”
One thing I want to do on this book tour is figure out what I want to do next. I’m not even trying to think about it until I get by myself in a hotel room. I want to be away.
I remember I left town—on a book tour, again—a week after 9/11. I thought the whole thing would be worrisome, depressing. Yet the minute that plane lifted off the ground into the sunshine, I had such a feeling of well-being. I’m hoping to have some similar sense of moving into the sunlight.