November 28th, 2006

ozarque figure

Memoir; Back on Terra, postscript...

Last night I read Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, the book she wrote after the sudden death of her husband. Not an obvious good choice for someone like me, in whose extended family there has been so much sudden death; still, I have always enjoyed Didion's books and I wanted to read this one. And it turned out to be a good thing, because she wrote about something that I haven't seen written about before -- it may be a staple of memoirs, for all I know, but I haven't seen it before -- something that it did me good to read. Which brings me to this post. "On most surface levels I seemed rational," Didion says on page 42, but she explains at length and in detail, over the course of many chapters, that she was in fact not rational at all, she was just going through the motions of being rational while being quite mad.

This got my attention because it is precisely what was true of me when my first husband -- Peter Haden -- died suddenly and without warning at age 29. I went through the motions of being rational while being quite mad. Over the years since then I've wondered now and then why somebody didn't notice what was happening and take some sort of action to look after me; reading Didion, I suppose that it must have been because "on most surface levels I seemed rational."

I know the technical word for what I did; it's called "dissociation." I had three small children to take care of, right then and there, with no one to help me, and so I just split into two parts. One part -- the part that was in pain -- went somewhere else; the other part took over daily life and, so far as I know, did the things that needed doing.

It was many many months later before I really understood that Peter was dead and came back to myself; I remember the exact moment when it happened. I had remarried by then; I was taking a nap, and a noise woke me. My first thought was that Peter had come home, and I said "Peter?" And George -- my husband -- said "No, honey, it's me. Peter's dead." And it was like a lightning bolt going off in my head; suddenly I was wide awake, in all senses of the word, and I was back in the real world again, and I finally knew that Peter was dead.

For almost all of my life my memories are clear and detailed, often more clear and detailed than I'd like them to be; not for this period. From the day Peter died until the day I finally understood that he was gone my memories are like a slide show. Click. I am at his military funeral and someone is handing me a folded flag. Click. I am standing at a microphone with my guitar, doing a folksinger gig. [There are quite a few slides like that one -- in different places, but otherwise just alike.] Click. I am at a courthouse, getting married. Click. I am standing by a VW bus fitted out as a camper, in a California desert, holding my younger daughter. Click. I am standing in a line at Chico State University, registering for classes. Click. I am in a classroom where a prof is lecturing about a French poet. Click. George and I are eating dinner in a really terrible restaurant with really terrible food, and laughing about it. Click. I'm trimming a Christmas tree in the livingroom, with the children helping me.

And so on. I don't have any connecting memories between the slides, although I could sit down and reconstruct the things I must have done and the things that must have happened, mechanically; the part of me that kept track of the memories just wasn't on deck during that time.

To people watching me I must have seemed entirely normal; I must have looked like someone behaving normally. I know this from reading Didion's book; I know this because if I had been failing to cook meals and do laundry and turn in homework assignments, if I had been standing at microphones and failing to provide entertainment, if I had been wandering through the streets in my nightgown, someone would have stepped in and done something about it. I was protected, I suppose, by the fact that all those things I needed to do were routines that I knew upside down and backwards and could have done in my sleep; that was enough to make it possible for me to do them in the strange sleep that I actually was in at the time. I may have done them very badly; I'll never know. [It may be that my children know how badly, and have just been too kind to tell me.]

I am blessed -- and so grateful -- that I came out of it without having done anyone any major harm. The human mind is a miracle.

[The link to the rest of the memoir posts in this journal is at ; the entry specifically about my first husband's death is at .]