September 29th, 2008

ozarque figure

Eldering; things that are inevitable...

Every so often I re-read Joan Didion's The Year Of Magical Thinking. I'm not sure exactly why I do that. It's not a cheerful read. It's a book about two terrible experiences: the sudden and totally unexpected death of someone you love; and having to stand by while someone you love suffers through a desperate illness. It's about trying to stay sane during those two experiences and discovering that you don't do that very well.

Like most people who live past seventy, I've had both of those experiences -- in my case, I've had both of them more than once. And I've had the experience of realizing that although I was walking through all my roles in a way that apparently was convincing enough to fool other people, I was so out of touch with reality that I shouldn't have been allowed out without a keeper. And for some reason, each time I read the Didion book I feel as though perhaps the next time I'm facing either of those things -- which is probably inevitable -- I may do it just a little better. Just a little more sanely. Reading that book seems to function for me as a kind of rehearsal for the next time... Didion walking me through it one more time, helping me be more ready for the next time.

I recommend The Year Of Magical Thinking, for anyone who is, as they say, "getting along in years." Here's a quote from page 225, to show you what it's like:

"I realize as I write this that I do not want to finish this account. Nor did I want to finish the year. ... I did not want to finish the year because I know that as the days pass, as January becomes February and February becomes summer, certain things will happen. My image of John at the instant of his death will become less immediate, less raw. It will become something that happened in another year. ... All year I have been keeping time by last year's calendar: what were we doing on this day last year... I realized today for the first time that my memory of this day a year ago is a memory that does not involve John. This day a year ago was December 21, 2003. John did not see this day a year ago. John was dead."

Reading the book one more time this past week was enough to finally get me moving on the unfinished business of learning how to drive again. Yesterday afternoon, with my husband and my little dog in the car for company, I actually drove all the way to the nearest tiny town and back. I made it through both of our gates, twice, without tearing anything off either the car or the gates; I did all that driving without killing anybody or destroying any property. I wasn't as terrified as I'd expected to be, but I hated every minute of it exactly as much as I had expected that I would. Nevertheless, it had to be done and I did it. And I will, Providence willing, do it again next Sunday afternoon, and every Sunday afternoon after that, until I am an old lady who could competently drive into town and pick up the mail and do the shopping. [Assuming that this country and this world somehow manage to stagger out of the current mess we're in and there are still places in town where it's possible to pick up mail and do shopping.] I am also determined to learn how to put gas in my car myself; when I last had to drive a car, people at the gas stations did that for you. That's how long it's been.

My little dog was absolutely outraged. She knows that I'm not supposed to be the one who drives the car, George is the one who's supposed to do that. She didn't like it one bit. It was a violation of her worldview, and she had a lot to say on the subject.

All this is not quite as hard as getting through a Ph.D. program in linguistics -- but it's almost that hard. And I'm grateful to Joan Didion for stiffening my spine for it.