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The Year of Magical Thinking

The Year of Magical Thinking Summary


Here you will find a The Year of Magical Thinking summary (Joan Didion's book).
We begin with a summary of the entire book, and then you can read each individual chapter's summary by visiting the links on the "Chapters" section.

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Last Updated: Monday 1 Jan, 2024

The Year of Magical Thinking Summary Overview

This narrative revolves around a woman navigating her way through bereavement following the sudden death of her husband, who suffered a fatal heart attack one evening. Simultaneously, she also has to care for her critically ill adopted daughter. In her struggle to comprehend her husband's death, she delves into a state of denial, hoping that her wishes could resurrect him, leading her to retain his belongings in anticipation of his return - an irrational belief she identifies as "magical thinking". She finds solace in literature on grief and mourning, identifying fragments of her peculiar behavior reflected in various texts. In her desperate bid to reverse her reality, she is plagued by recollections of the events preceding her husband's death. Her daughter had been diagnosed with a serious flu that escalated just before Christmas, leading to a hospital admission. This news immensely impacted her husband, leading him to evaluate his own life. The daughter regains consciousness in January, only to be readmitted to the hospital due to complications. After her second discharge, they proceed with her husband's funeral arrangements and the daughter moves to California for recovery, marking the woman's reluctant acceptance of the need to continue with life. However, upon the daughter's arrival in California, she suffers a debilitating brain hemorrhage, necessitating immediate surgery. The woman is overwhelmed by what she coins as "the vortex effect", where seemingly inconsequential triggers incite incapacitating emotional responses due to her past memories. Despite attempts to steer clear of reminders of their past, she often encounters them unexpectedly. Thereafter, the daughter is transferred to a rehabilitation institute in New York, where she embarks on her gradual recovery while the woman attempts to regain semblance in her life. The woman examines her past for signs overlooked regarding her husband's impending death, and struggles with the societal perception of self-pity and grief. She tries to resume her normal life, but is persistently haunted by memories. She begins to believe she is losing her sanity due to her magical thinking and the vortex effect, and grapples with making sense of her bereavement. She finally accepts his death a year later, after receiving the autopsy reports. Although her intense emotional turmoil eventually subsides, it is not replaced by a clear sense of purpose. Nevertheless, she begins to focus on day-to-day routines, acknowledging the inevitability of change and the necessity of moving forward.

chapter 1

"The Year of Magical Thinking" commences with Joan Didion reflecting on her husband's abrupt demise and contemplating on the phrase “The ordinary instant”. Didion muses on the irony of tranquility preceding disastrous events, citing the peaceful mornings before the Pearl Harbor and World Trade Center incidents. She discusses her exhaustion from recounting her husband’s death, noting how her rendition of events seemed to overrule factual contradictions. Didion narrates the events of December 30, 2003, when her husband, John, suffered a fatal heart attack during dinner at their New York home. Earlier, they had visited their comatose daughter, Quintana, who was battling flu complications at Beth Israel Medical Center. Didion discloses that this book is her endeavour to comprehend the aftermath of her husband's passing. As an author, she believes that words and their arrangement hold meaning. She expresses a wish to use a digital editing system to convey her story, allowing her to condense time and present distinct frames of her recollections.

chapter 2

After going to see Quintana on December 30, Didion and her husband, John, start making dinner. Suddenly, John stops speaking and slumps in his chair. Didion initially thinks it's a prank, but soon calls an ambulance. The medics start work immediately. Didion grabs her purse and John's medical records, fearing she'd be left behind when they transport John to the hospital. Arriving at New York Presbyterian Hospital, a social worker introduces himself to Didion. It's at this moment she realizes John is gone. In denial, she goes through the motions, even considering transferring John to another hospital. When the doctor confirms John's death, the social worker comments on how composed Didion is. After visiting John's body and receiving his belongings, she takes a taxi home, pondering how a less composed person would react to such news, and feeling an intense need to discuss everything with John. The following day, Didion picks a coffin at the funeral home, though her thoughts are on Quintana. Trying to make sense of the events, she finds out the medics were in her apartment for 45 minutes, contrary to her perception of time. At the hospital, she permits an autopsy, despite her discomfort, as she needs to understand John's cause of death. A few weeks before John's death, he requested Didion to note down his thoughts about “the militarization of sports”. He encouraged her to use the idea for her book, which now makes her question if he had an inkling about his impending death. She reflects on the weeks prior to his passing, filled with memories of a summer spent in Brentwood, a period of relaxation and writing. Didion includes a quote from Philippe Ariès’ The Hour of Our Death, which discusses death foreknowledge. Didion comments that grief isn't as we imagine it. When her parents passed, their deaths, though painful, were expected and didn't heavily disrupt her daily life. In contrast, John's death has a profound effect on her. She mentions a study by psychologist Eric Lindemann on the concept of waves of grief. For Didion, these waves hit when she's alone in the apartment. Their agent, Lynn Nesbit, calls the New York Times obituary writer. The idea of an obituary, which would publicly confirm John’s death, unnerves Didion. Despite this, she reassures Lynn she's fine to spend the night alone. The next morning, she wakes up alone and confused. Despite her understanding of John's death, she clings to the idea that it's reversible, thus beginning her year of magical thinking.

chapter 3

Didion refers to work by Freud and Klein which describe grief as a short phase of intense sadness and delusion. She explains that in the year following John's passing, she loses her ability to think rationally. She starts to think her thoughts and desires can influence reality. For instance, she refrains from reading his obituary as its existence confirms John's death to others. She doesn't donate his shoes, convinced he will require them when he returns. Her illogical thinking begins with John's autopsy, where she assumes that if the coroners identify the cause of his death, they can reverse it. The day of the autopsy, she gets a call from the hospital requesting John's organ donation. This unsettles her and she later understands they most likely wanted his eyes - one of the few organs that can be retrieved from a deceased person. His eyes remind her of an E. E. Cummings poem that she tries to locate in her library. Instead, she comes across a poetry book that John used in school. She discovers his method of poem analysis in the book: “1) What is the meaning of the poem and what is the experience? 2) What thought or reflection does the experience lead us to? 3) What mood, feeling, emotion is stirred or created by the poem as a whole?” She uses these questions to understand the call she received from the hospital, treating the situation as if it were a poem. Didion seems to acknowledge the permanence of John's death on a superficial level. She organizes the autopsy, cremation, and settling of his ashes. They conduct a funeral service after Quintana recovers from her coma. Although she publicly accepts his death, Didion still maintains the illusion that she can restore John to life.

chapter 4

She shares that she's always turned to scientific research to navigate hardship. Self-help and motivational books don't cut it for her, but she finds solace in professional psychological literature. Alongside her research, she dives into her personal history, recalling the joy of her daughter Quintana travelling on PSA flights, referred to as “going on the smile” due to the planes' distinctive smiling nose art. Her husband John borrowed Quintana's childlike expressions for a character in his novel, Dutch Shea, Jr., a book centered around grief, a theme she only now realizes. She oscillates between recollections of budget flights and her wedding day. She also remembers “Rose Aylmer,” a poem she studied in college that grapples with the profound grief of a young woman's death. Researching grief, she discovers a paper by Dr. Vamik Volkan on a therapeutic approach to understanding the mourner's connection with the deceased. However, she bristles at the notion of a stranger comprehending her unique bond with John. She also references Emily Post’s 1922 guide on post-death etiquette, which she contrasts with works by Philippe Ariès and Geoffrey Gorer on society's shift from accepting death as natural to viewing mourning as "morbid self-indulgence." She mentions her own upbringing where there were established protocols for death: cooking a ham, delivering it to the bereaved, and attending the funeral. During her own mourning, a friend brings her congee from Chinatown each night, the only food she can stomach.

chapter 5

Didion attempts to piece together the events leading up to John's passing and the subsequent aftermath. In late December, their daughter Quintana was taken to the hospital after a persistent flu, later diagnosed as pneumonia. Her condition rapidly deteriorated into septic shock, battling for her life after just recently being married. Didion had to face the harsh reality that her daughter's recovery was uncertain, yet clung to hope. At John's memorial service months later, Quintana recalls a phrase her father whispered to her during her ICU stay from a film, Robin and Marian—“I love you more than one more day”. This sparks memories for Didion, not only of Quintana's wedding at the same cathedral but also of her own nuptials in 1964 at San Juan Bautista.

chapter 6

After her husband John's passing, Joan Didion refrains from looking at their early marital photographs out of fear of being overwhelmed by memories, particularly of a time in the 1970s when they were part of a close-knit group, most of whom have since died. She feels a sense of invisibility and intense longing for John, noting a distinct vulnerability in those who have recently suffered a loss. She recalls experiencing strange visions and dreams that presaged death, but instead of inspiring fear, they gave her a feeling of transcendence. She ponders on her self-pity and her tendency to view John's death as her own personal tragedy, rather than his. John had expressed his fear of dying to Joan, attributing it to his book's uncertain fate and his deteriorating heart condition, for which he had a pacemaker fitted. Although Quintana's wedding and the successful pacemaker operation had lifted his mood, his spirits fell again in autumn. Joan remembers a heated argument about a trip to Paris, which John had insisted on, fearing he would never get another chance. They went, despite Joan feeling manipulated. Before his death, John conveyed a feeling of worthlessness, which Joan dismissed. He also made a cryptic remark about Hawaii, leaving Joan unsure if he was referring to a recent idea of hers to rent a recuperation house there for Quintana, or to an old conversation about buying a property in Honolulu. His tone suggested the latter, but Joan chose to believe the former.

chapter 7

Quintana awakens from her coma in 2004 and is told by Didion about her father's demise. However, she doesn't fully comprehend this until several months later during a hospital stay in Los Angeles. Not long after regaining consciousness, Quintana is transferred from Beth Israel hospital to Didion's home. She then experiences chest pain and fever, leading to a diagnosis of a pulmonary embolism at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, a condition that should have been predicted by her previous doctors. After stabilizing on anticoagulants, she is released and assists Didion in planning John’s funeral. Despite her weak state, she is able to attend the service and dinner, where she socializes with her relatives. Post funeral, Quintana informs Didion of her and Gerry's plan to move to Malibu, which Didion supports. As Didion contemplates her own life without her daughter and husband, she daydreams about Quintana and Gerry's new life in Malibu. However, her reverie is interrupted by a call from Tony informing her of Quintana's emergency neurosurgery at UCLA Medical Center. Gerry had found Quintana collapsed on the ground while they were on the way to the rental car shuttle. She was rushed to the hospital, where she started to lose coherence and convulse. A CT scan revealed a subdural hematoma, a serious brain injury caused by hemorrhaged blood pressuring the brain tissue. Despite having just recovered from a critical situation, Quintana's condition was now more perilous than ever.

chapter 8

Tony shows up, and they promptly get Gerry to the ER, where the physicians' faith in Quintana's recovery has improved. Didion is considering flying to Los Angeles, but Tony advises against it due to Quintana's impending surgery. So she gets in touch with two friends in L.A. who can stay with Gerry at the hospital. She then arranges to use a friend's L.A. house, who even offers her a spot on his private flight the next day. Gerry calls at midnight to update that Quintana's surgery is finished, and she's having a CT scan. At 4 a.m., Gerry calls again to share that the CT scan showed no problems and a barrier has been set up in her heart to avert blood clots. The following morning, prior to boarding the plane, Didion researches "fixed and dilated pupils" (FDPs) and discovers the frightening reality that survival rates are low for patients with FDPs, and most survivors end up in a vegetative state or brain-dead.

chapter 9

As Quintana regains consciousness, Didion comforts her, vowing to remain by her side till they can depart jointly. She reflects on her adoptive bond with Quintana, realizing her lifelong commitment to safeguarding her daughter has underpinned their relationship. Yet, as Quintana aged, Didion faced the harsh truth that she couldn't shield her from everything. A deep-seated fear of uncontrolled circumstances manifesting in her life becomes evident to Didion. Trying to comprehend Quintana's health crisis, Didion grapples with the fact that Quintana's bleed, potentially caused or elicited by her fall, can't be conclusively established due to her anticoagulants. Seeking answers from the doctors proves fruitless as the aftermath remains unaltered regardless of cause-effect sequencing. A prognosis of an uncertain coma duration, spanning days or even weeks, is relayed to her by the doctor. The doctor also mentions that a full understanding of Quintana's brain condition will take a few days. This, however, is overshadowed by the looming threats of possible re-infection, pneumonia, or additional swelling requiring another operation.

chapter 10

Over her stay at the hospital, Didion delves into Intensive Care: A Doctor’s Journal by John F. Murray, a detailed account of a month in an ICU. This read equips her with knowledge to query the doctors. In a bid to further grasp her husband's condition, she purchases Clinical Neuroanatomy, which mostly eludes her understanding. Nevertheless, it contains a baffling account titled the “gilded boy story” used for assessing memory and comprehension in recovering comatose patients. The tale portrays a boy dying from wearing toxic gold foil during a papal coronation 300 years ago. This peculiar narrative seems to echo Didion's current perplexity. While at Beth Israel Hospital earlier that year, Didion experienced what she termed “the vortex effect.” She suddenly remembered a past coworker, “X,” who had an abortion in the same hospital. This incident had been mirrored in her book Play It As It Lays. The flashback to her writing days triggers memories of Quintana, leading to the vortex effect. This is a cycle of vivid recollections about John and Quintana, and to evade it in Los Angeles, she plans to steer clear of any places with family history. Yet, the Beverly Wilshire hotel, their former home while on a film project, provides her with comfort and familiarity instead of igniting the vortex effect. Didion finds solace in routine; she orders the identical breakfast daily, drives the same route to the hospital, and has dinner with friends every evening. Regardless of her meticulous avoidance strategy, some unsuspected landmarks catch her off guard, triggering intense emotional reactions. On one occasion, a TV ad showcasing a coastal highway revives memories of a house they rented after Quintana's birth. Another time, a drive to Rite Aid is interrupted by the sight of a bistro she and John used to visit, stirring memories of a trip they took to Bogota. These surges of memories brought on by the vortex effect hinder her from reaching her destination of Rite Aid.

chapter 11

Quintana moves from UCLA to the Rusk Institute at NYU. She tells Didion that her memories of the past months are “mudgy.” Didion identifies with this confusion, as she tries to piece together her time with Quintana at UCLA, which was filled with anxiety over delaying Quintana's tracheotomy. She later connects this resistance to the fact that it meant Quintana couldn't return home easily. Despite the improbability of such a fast recovery, Didion clings to the hope of leaving the hospital and recuperating in LA or flying to New York. After Quintana's tracheotomy, she's moved to a stepdown unit. Didion continues questioning doctors with persistence, finding a measure of control in asking questions. Gradually, Didion becomes familiar with medical terms and procedures, enabling her to express her concerns more effectively. However, hearing that Quintana is at risk for sepsis again, she finds herself staring out the window at an empty hotel swimming pool, reminiscing about a party where she had clogged the pool filter with gardenias. This memory, not involving Quintana or John, doesn't trigger a vortex of grief. Another memory though, involving the sudden death of a neighbor, does trigger a vortex as it makes her reflect about the decision to move to New York. She questions whether this decision caused John's death and regrets not being able to find him at their old house in Brentwood Park. Despite knowing that the house was demolished, she can't shake off these thoughts. In late April, doctors decide Quintana can be moved to New York's Rusk Institute via air ambulance. Watching the helicopters, Didion recalls a day in 1970 when she and John witnessed a passenger in an adjacent car die abruptly, reminding her of John's sudden death. The transfer day comes, and after some confusion about the departure location, they board the small plane. In-flight, Didion checks a paramedic's misidentification of Lake Mead as the Grand Canyon, reminding her of John's comments on her need to be right, which she often felt was incorrect. After landing to refuel in a Kansas cornfield, Didion finds herself contemplating a part from John's unpublished book on tornadoes. She'd been uncertain about a sentence in the manuscript, feeling overwhelmed by having to make the final decision without John's input. Once in New York, she reviews earlier drafts of John's book and decides to retain the sentence, recalling John's criticism of her need to be right.

chapter 12

As Quintana's condition improves following her move to Rusk, Didion's role in her recovery lessens. She comes to understand that Quintana will soon be self-sufficient and that she must also take steps towards her own recovery. She starts by dealing with the unattended mail and finds herself actively mourning John's loss, a different experience from the passive grief she's been enduring. Among the mail is a book, "Lives of '54", containing updates from John's Princeton peers. Reading it, Didion realizes John had seldom talked about his time at Princeton, except for his disdain for the Nassoons, a male singing group. She had found his imitations of them amusing and now finds herself searching for the lyrics of the song he used to parody. Her search leads her to the obituary of the song's writer, John MacFayden, and she mourns the loss of discussing it with John. Before his death, John had discussed his new novel, "Nothing Lost", with Didion, pointing out the number of characters who die in it. This leads Didion to contemplate how long John had considered himself among the dead. She recalls a doctor's assertion in 1982 that life and death weren't clearly divided, during a time when John’s niece, Dominique, was on life support after a near-fatal strangulation. Despite this, Didion had viewed life and death as distinct, believing Dominique to still be alive despite her reliance on life support. The sudden deaths of various friends in the aftermath of her return from Los Angeles reaffirms her view of death as a sudden and definitive event, even after protracted illnesses. Didion revisits the Greek drama "Alcestis", which had once offered her insight into the concept of life and death. The drama tells the story of Queen Alcestis who dies, makes a trip to the underworld, and then returns to Earth, remaining silent thereafter. Didion ponders over how John might have changed if he had returned from the dead. Later in the summer, one of John's Princeton classmates sends Didion a first-edition copy of John’s novel "True Confessions", which he had borrowed for a class exhibition. The novel was dedicated to her and Quintana, and she regrets not appreciating it enough at first. She revisits John’s works and reads a passage from his memoir, "Harp", about John's doctor warning him of a potential heart event. Despite the successful angioplasty that followed, Didion realizes that John's persistent belief of his imminent death was perhaps the more accurate outlook.

chapter 13

Following John's passing, Didion stopped dreaming until the summer of 2004. She recalls a dream where she lost John at an airport, and he flew to Hawaii without her. Living alone, she found solace in items that held memories of him, like a china set bought by his mother for his initial New York residence. They spent almost all their married life together, leaving her with no letters from him, only mementos from their travels. She recalls a family New Year's Eve in Honolulu while they were working on a film. As John slept, she watched fireworks from their hotel balcony, feeling a deep sense of satisfaction. A few weeks before his death, John read a passage from her book, A Book of Common Prayer, which led to a poignant moment where he reminded her of her writing prowess, a compliment that moved her to tears. Reflecting on it, she views this emotional exchange as a forewarning.

chapter 14

Didion's concern over her personal health increases during the summer. When she trips over because of her sandal, she becomes afraid of getting injured when she's alone at home and hence, opts for sneakers. She also leaves the lights on throughout the night. Upon a request from a young author for a profile, she strongly declines; feeling too exposed and doubting her ability to “present a coherent face to the world.” Sometime later, while organizing magazines, she finds a story by Roxana Robinson, an acquaintance. The story revolves around a man grieving his daughter's loss, and Didion sees her own vulnerability reflected in him. During a doctor's appointment with a close family friend, she lets out her tears when asked about her situation. This doctor was also instrumental in caring for Quintana during her sickness. Didion feels a sense of discomfort for expressing her emotional distress, especially after his benevolence. She struggles to find any positivity in her situation, which is unusual for someone who has always found the brighter side. Didion considers herself fortunate and reevaluates her stance on luck. Remembering a time when Quintana lost two family members, she recalls how John had comforted Quintana implying that bad times affect everyone eventually. Initially, Didion was puzzled by this, but she now understands that John was not suggesting a balance between good and bad times but rather that everyone will experience hardships. Didion has always believed in controlling her own destiny rather than relying on luck, yet she understands that part of her blames John and Quintana for their own illnesses and demise instead of blaming her inability to prevent it.

chapter 15

In early 2004, Didion decides to report on the upcoming summer's political conventions for the New York Review of Books, hoping it could help restore her normalcy. After Quintana leaves Rusk, Didion goes to the Democratic Convention in Boston. She thinks she can escape the vortex effect as the city doesn't hold many family memories. Yet, being at the Fleet Center, she recalls Quintana’s wedding a year ago and breaks down crying. Overwhelmed with fear, she exits the center and follows the remainder of the convention from her hotel. As she waits for her flight the following day, she contemplates if she could ever revisit places linked to John, given that even Boston feels overwhelmingly hard.

chapter 16

Prior to her journey, she had saved a New York Times article about Stephen Hawking, the physicist. This article covered Hawking dismissing a former hypothesis of his, suggesting that any matter swallowed by a black hole is lost forever. The article detailed the significant implications of this change in thinking for the field of science, as it signified the potential for time to be reverted and for outcomes to be amended. The piece had resonated with Didion, but she only comprehends why when she goes to the Republican Convention at Madison Square Garden in New York, a month later. At the convention, Didion encounters a whirlwind of memories recalling two prior events at the Garden. First, she and John had attended a Lakers-Knicks basketball game, which was uncommon for them. This led John to express their lack of fun and insist on taking part in more spontaneous activities. She also recollects covering the Democratic Convention in Madison Square Garden in 1992, when John would patiently wait for her to have dinner each evening, even though she would not return home until 11 p.m. After these memories flood back, she discerns that she cannot alter the happenings of the past, but ever since John’s death, she has been tirelessly striving to turn back time. John would sometimes remark on the monotony of their married life. Didion notices that his statements were partially influenced by Joe and Gertrude Black, a couple they had become acquainted with during a lecture tour in Indonesia in 1980. Joe had left a role at the Rockefeller Foundation to teach political science at a university in Jogjakarta. The couple had a significant impact on John, who admired them as an example of the kind of lifestyle he aspired for him and Didion. John had brought up the Blacks shortly before his passing, causing Didion to search for them in his computer. She uncovers their names in a file John had created for notes for an upcoming book, next to which he had written “the concept of service.” Didion ponders if she and John had squandered their time by not being more like the Blacks. She notices that the last time he edited the file was on the day he passed away, while they were both in their separate offices. She believes they should have spent that time together, much like the Blacks.

chapter 17

Didion conveys that grief often belies our expectations. Despite realizing death is inevitable, we seldom prepare for the long-term effects, expecting initial despair, but not the "literal craziness" that convinces us we could resurrect a deceased loved one. Funerals, assumed to be the hardest part, often prove comforting due to the presence of others and the significance of the ceremony. The true challenge arises in the ensuing weeks and months of isolation and a creeping sense of futility. As a child, Didion found solace in geology and the age-old Episcopal mantra, reassured by the earth's unyielding unconcern. Despite human loss, the world perseveres. Her marriage and motherhood further anchored her, finding solace in daily household routines. According to Didion, those grieving are haunted by self-pity, despite it being shunned by society. After her husband's death, the absence of their shared discourse forces her to retreat into herself, a path that often leads to self-pity. Although some sense the presence of their departed loved ones, Didion doesn't. She often dialogues with her late husband, aware that her writer's imagination fuels these conversations. However, this practice reveals to her that she only knew a small part of her husband’s thoughts. Despite his pre-death advice to stay in their home, maintain friendships, and remarry within a year, neither truly grasped the full weight of these suggestions. As she reflects, Didion notes her marriage encapsulated and transcended time. She had viewed herself through her husband's perspective since her twenties. Now, seeing herself through others' eyes ages her significantly. Mourning, she says, extends beyond the loss of a loved one to the loss of our former selves.

chapter 18

When Didion started penning The Year of Magical Thinking, she confesses, she was clueless about the specifics of John's death, despite being present. A year on, she gets hold of the autopsy and ER reports, delayed due to her mistakenly noting down an incorrect mailing address eleven months prior. The documents reveal that the EMS call was placed at 9:15 p.m., the ambulance reaching five minutes later and various medications were given. The doorman’s record shows the ambulance departed for the hospital at 10:05 p.m., where John was processed for triage at 10:10 p.m. The doctor's record mentions John was examined at 10:15 p.m. and declared dead from cardiac arrest. By 10:30 p.m., the log reveals, the wife was at his side with a social worker. The autopsy stated that both of John’s main arteries were nearly completely clogged. The records confirm John's death occurred post initial collapse and the hospital time was just procedural. Even though she's aware that most cardiac arrest victims outside a hospital don't survive, she stubbornly clings to the idea that a medical oddity caused John's death, and constantly hunts for it. In a similarly irrational vein, when she learns about the death of renowned chef Julia Child, she finds comfort in the thought of John and Child keeping each other company in heaven. Didion pays more attention to health news and is unsettled by an advert claiming that Bayer, an over-the-counter aspirin, can lower heart attack risk. Despite being aware that John had been on a stronger anticoagulant, she is agitated that she might have missed something as simple as Bayer. Other research concerning heart attack risks also unsettle her. Her unease leads her to comprehend that people often assume they can prevent death, and subsequently blame themselves when it occurs. After reading the autopsy report, Didion finally grasps that there was nothing she or anyone else could have done to halt John’s death.

chapter 19

Didion struggles to identify with her new status as a widow, much like she previously grappled with the concept of being a wife. She recalls provoking John early in their marriage by implying he desired a spouse akin to his brother Nick's wife, Lenny, who was always hosting and appeared immaculately dressed. John would counter, insisting he would've married someone like Lenny if that was his preference. Feeling clueless about her role as a wife, the couple found themselves continuously navigating their relationship during their initial years. Frequently, they would attempt to strategize for their future, though these brainstorming sessions would often generate no tangible results, aside from the collection of random notes and bills. Upon discovering an old file from one such session, she is reminded of the financial dilemma they faced in 1978 while trying to offload their home. In an unusual move, they decided to escape to Hawaii for a holiday to contemplate their predicament. Though she acknowledges this was an odd reaction, the sight of the sun reassured them things would eventually settle, which they did. Didion observes this pattern of “improvisation” spanned their entire marriage. She used to believe this phase would persist indefinitely, but now realizes it has concluded, leaving her pondering about the changes she could've made if she had been aware of this end earlier.

chapter 20

Almost a year has passed since John's demise. Didion replaces the old Christmas lights, a gesture showcasing her belief in tomorrow. Despite the familiar December routines and holiday preparations occasionally reminding her of John, she continues. However, Didion feels her social skills fading and acknowledges a loss of resilience since his passing. She manages to write an article about the political conventions, though finishing it is a struggle without John's input. She even visualizes John encouraging her to complete it as a professional. Upon reviewing the final draft, she discovers numerous errors, attributing them to the "cognitive deficits" she has suffered post John's death. Recollecting John's insistence on her being right always, she questions if she could ever regain that precision.

chapter 21

Didion recollects a moment in Beth Israel's ICU when Quintana's spouse, Gerry, emotionally stated his wife's beauty remained despite her unconscious state and connection to life-sustaining devices. This deeply touched John. The specific timing of this, like the occasion when John confessed to feeling his life held no value in a taxi ride with Didion, remains foggy in her memory. She reflects on Quintana's childhood fear of an entity she named the Broken Man. Her parents reassured her they'd protect her from him, to which she bravely vowed to resist his grasp by clinging onto a fence. Didion poignantly observes that this Broken Man eventually visited both Quintana and John - one managed to resist, the other succumbed.

chapter 22

This section begins with Didion referencing her own novel, Democracy, which discusses how landscapes alter due to geological changes. This resonates with her after a devastating tsunami ravages coastlines of the Indian Ocean. She can't help but mentally revisit the catastrophe, picturing the moving tectonic plates beneath the sea, instead of the destruction above. She hosts a dinner on Christmas Eve, almost a year following John's demise. Despite her initial apprehensions, the evening flows smoothly. A Hawaiian friend sends leis which, along with the company of other friends, help mute the painful echoes of a piano CD John listened to on his last night. Christmas Day finds Didion at St. John the Divine, reminiscent of Quintana's wedding and John's funeral, with its congregation of Japanese tourists. She places one of the leis in the vault with John and her mother's ashes. Exiting, she fixates on a significant stained glass window, anticipating the moment it's awash with a radiant blue light. In documenting her experiences, Didion finds it hard to conclude her narrative. The initial chaos subsides, yet it isn't replaced with understanding or closure. With the passage of time, John’s memories become hazy and indistinct. She struggles to recall the days preceding his death and shockingly realizes her recollections of his death night don’t include him. This triggers an understanding that at some point, one must release the deceased. Reflecting on the lei left at St. John the Divine, she remembers how departing Hawaiian travelers would cast leis into the sea as a pledge to return. Like the gardenias obstructing their Brentwood home's pool filter, the leis would disintegrate in the boats' wake. Attempting to visualize their Brentwood home, she later realizes she forgot a room. She envisions the cathedral leis turning brown, mimicking the constant shifts of tectonic plates, disappearing islands, and forgotten rooms. She recalls swimming with John at Portuguese Bend, anticipating the wave that would draw them into the caves. John was never afraid of missing the wave because, as he said, “You had to go with the change.”

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