Blue Nights by Joan Didion

I woke up at 1:30 am last night and couldn’t get back to sleep. Casually grabbed Joan Didion’s new book Blue Nights I got from the library and started reading, thinking I could read myself back to sleep. But I was kept awake the next few hours until I finished it. I simply could not put it down.

Blue nights are the span of time following the summer solstice when the twilights turn long and blue… and over the course of an hour or so, this blue deepens, becomes more intense even as if darkens and fades… Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.

A poignant ‘sequel’ to The Year of Magical Thinking, which is about the death of Didion’s husband of 40 years, the writer/screenwriter John Gregory Dunne. That all happened in December 2003. John had a heart attack right in the living room of their home as Joan was preparing dinner in the kitchen. That was also a few days after their daughter Quintana Roo was hospitalized with septic shock and a coma.

Blue Nights is a memoir of Quintana, who died of her illness twenty months after her father’s passing. To say it’s a memoir is sanitizing it. In her sensitive and moving voice, Didion describes a searing separation. She recalls the memorable moments, and the mementos around her NYC apartment that prove so futile in evoking a life, a daughter adopted since birth.

Didion remembers the leis Quintana wore at her wedding in NYC’s St. John the Divine on July 26, 2003. Thus begins the book. The wedding reflected Quintana’s yearning for her childhood in Brentwood Park, California.  In the garden were stephanotis, lavender and mint. And it was stephanotis that she wore on her braid as she walked down the aisle.

All the deaths that Didion had encountered among friends and all the ICU visits of others seemed to foreshadow the ultimate fate of her own daughter, dead just 20 months after her wedding.

But nothing can prepare one for the death of one’s child. In fact, Didion painfully states that, time and time again in the book:

When we talk about mortality, we are talking about our children.

Deaths of friends since had only reinforced the looming weight of a blue night. In the spring of 2009, upon a short notice, one of those phone calls everyone dreads, Didion went to say farewell to Natasha Richardson in a NYC hospital, transported there from Montreal. It was only a minor fall on a bunny slope of a Quebec ski hill, but she succumbed to a brain injury soon after. Didion had known Natasha since she was a young teenager, daughter to Vanessa Redgrave and Tony Richardson, among Didion’s closest friends.

She is particularly disturbed by those who label her and her family ‘privileged’. As I read the book, I can see why she rejects such a term. Death befalls all, even the ‘privileged’, and spares no one with the subsequent pain. It is the starkest common denominator. And with both her husband and only daughter passing within months of each other… she has a reason to rage.  But the pathos lies in the muffled cries she lets out.

And to say one still has memories to cherish is the most ironic euphemism ever to console the grieving:

Memories are by definition of times past, things gone. Memories are the Westlake uniforms in the closet, the faded and cracked photographs…

Alas, Blue Nights is exactly that book, an attempt to capture memories before they slip away, and a grief made public so others can share and maybe by so doing, preserve a life.

This is not just a grief observed and incisively expressed, it is also an attempt at keeping the momentum to live. Writing down the pain and loss could well have a certain therapeutic effect as we see the slight humor sprinkled towards the last chapters in an intense and poignant recollection. And yet the end is still the loss, albeit now is shared and hopefully a suffering lightened, however minute the relief.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

Blue Nights by Joan Didion, Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 2011, 188 pages.

***

Other related posts on Ripple Effects:

Natasha Richardson, Nell & the White Countess
Reading the Season: C. S. Lewis

The Savages (2007, DVD)

the-savages-linney-hoffman

After my last post I had to take some time to withdraw. That’s when solitude can work as a soothing balm, allowing the personal space for reflection. Whether sudden or expected, young or old, death affects us all. And some strike a deeper chord.

A couple of days ago I got hold of The Savages on DVD. I thought I was late in watching this highly acclaimed indie film, and writing a review two years after its release. But watching it, I was surprised by the coincidence; for alas, it’s about death and aging. It’s ever timely now. I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much if I’d seen it then. For now, I’ve the first-hand experience of caring for two aging parents, and with my mother being in the early stage of Alzheimer. Two years ago I would not have imagined this scenario. But as those who have cared for the old can attest, two months can make a lot of difference.

As baby boomers begin to pass the turnstile into midlife, they now have to face the hard fact about their parents, and preparing for the ultimate to befall. Herein lies the story of The Savages.

Wendy Savage (Laura Linney, Best Actress Emmy for John Adams, 2008; Love Actually, 2003) and her brother Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Oscar Best Actor for Capote, 2005) live miles apart. Their childhood home had been dysfunctional. Their mother left them when they were still young, their father was neglectful and abusive.  Now as adults, they both have trouble committing to intimate relationships. Jon teaches theater at the University of Buffalo, while Wendy is a struggling playwright, working as a temp to make ends meet in NYC. Living apart from each other and their father, both strive to carve out some sort of meaningful existence with their life. Now they are brought back together by the tie of responsibility, reluctantly, in the caring for their ailing father (Philip Bosco). An old man who is afflicted with Parkinson’s related dementia, Lenny Savage is still fiery and intimidating.

Among the acclaims the film has garnered (AFI movie of the year, Golden Globes, Independent Spirit Awards…) are two Oscar nominations, one for Laura Linney for Best Actress, the other for Tamara Jenkins’s  Original Screenplay.  Both deserve the recognition hands down.  Unlike Sarah Polley’s impressive film Away From Her (2006) with Julie Christie as an Alzheimer stricken wife, The Savages looks at dementia and death from the point of view of the son and daughter, and delicately explores their conflicting emotions of having to care for an estranged father. The rebuilding of sibling relationship has also proven to be difficult, yet through the process, both find the experience to be worthwhile.

The Savages is classified as a comedy. The script is smart and funny. But it is dark and deadpan humor that marks its appeal. The reality of human failings is handled with care and sensitivity. Linney, Hoffman, and Bosco form a dynamic trio in portraying the tension of love hate emotions among family members.  Despite the past failings of their father and their present perplexities of how best to care for him, the siblings know where their duty lies. Screenwriter and director Tamara Jenkins has effectively explored the issues without sentimentality and imbued humor at the appropriate moments. As with all of life’s predicaments, a little dash of humor can offer the most direct perspective into our shared humanity.

The special features offer insights into the making of the film and into the mind of the screenwriter and director Tamara Jenkins. Of all the subject matters, she chose the caring of our aging parents. I’ve appreciated her intent: “The idea was to make you realize that you’re not alone, that you’re part of the human race, that we’re all going through this together.” She’s done a great job in doing just that.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

(photo source:  mtv.com)



Reading the Season: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

c-s-lewis2To embrace the Christmas season in a more meaningful way, I’ve been trying to stay close to the heart of the matter by reading.

A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis is one of my selections. Now, of all the wonderful books by the Oxford scholar, why would I choose this title for the Season?

From my reading of Joan Didion’s The year of Magical Thinking, I learned that during her mourning for the loss of her husband, she had read C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed. That sparked my curiosity. After finishing Didion, I turned right away to explore Lewis’s book about his own experience of loss.

After 58 years of bachelorhood, Lewis found the love of his life in Helen Joy Gresham, an American author who had come all the way to England in search of a genuine and credible faith. Their love story is poignantly portrayed in the movie Shadowlands (1993). In Helen Joy Gresham (‘H’ in the book),  Lewis found his equal in wit, intellect, and a faith that had endured testing and evolved from atheism to agnosticism and ultimately reaching irrevocable belief. Lewis entered into marriage with Joy at her hospital bed as she was fighting bone cancer. She did have a period of remission afterwards, during which the two enjoyed some traveling together. Regretfully, only four years into their marriage, Joy succumbed to her illness.

shadowlands

A Grief Observed is a courageous and honest disclosure of a very private pain. But what’s so different about this personal loss is that this prominent Christian apologist, acclaimed academic and writer, was willing to lay bare his questioning mind and disquiet heart to his readers. As his step-son Douglas Gresham wrote in the Introduction, the book is “a man emotionally naked in his own Gethsemane”. By crying out in anguish and exposing his torments, he shared his personal journey of painfully seeking the meaning of death, marriage, faith, and the nature of God. Lewis was brave enough to question “Where is God?” during his most desperate moments, when his heart was torn apart by searing pain and his intellect failed him with any rational answers.

Gradually he came out of despair realizing that the loudness of his screams might have drowned out the still, small voice speaking to him.

The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it:  you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs…

After all, you must have a capacity to receive, or even omnipotence can’t give.

After the fog of doubt has dispersed and the dust of despair has settled, Lewis saw the dawning of a gentle glimmer. He realized that he had been mourning a faint image or memory of his beloved, but not beholding the reality of her. The fickleness of his senses offered only fading fragments of her image. However, it is in praise that he could enjoy her the best.

I have discovered, passionate grief does not link us with the dead but cuts us off from them. This become clearer and clearer.  It is just at those moments when I feel least sorrow–getting into my morning bath is usually one of them–that H. rushes upon my mind in her full reality, her otherness.

Praise is the mode of love which always has some element of joy in it. Praise in due order; of Him as the giver, of her as the gift.

Further, as with God, he knew he should grasp the reality, not just the image.  He should treasure God Himself, not just the idea of Him:

I need Christ, not something that resembles Him.  I want H., not something that is like her.

Upon this revelation, Lewis powerfully points out that the Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, is how God reveals Himself to us in His full reality.  Our ideas of God are shattered by Christ Himself.

The Incarnation… leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.  And most are ‘offended’ by the iconoclasm; and blessed are those who are not.

As Christmas draws near, I ponder once again the humbling of the Creator God, born a babe to grow up to experience the full spectrum of being human, showing us by His life and death the reality of God, an iconoclastic act only He can perform.

Lewis has drawn me to the heart of the matter, the crux of the Season:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

— John 1:14

*****

Click on thse other ‘seasonal reads’:

2012 Reading the Season: Surprised by Joy

Reading The Season: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle

Reading The Season: Luci Shaw

Reading The Season: Fleming Rutledge

Reading The Season: Madeleine L’Engle