Sometimes it happens. The unexpected suddenly and ferociously rips into a person's life. Quotidian routine is upended, the familiar becomes strange, time is bent out of shape. It was Christmas 2003 when such unanticipated events pounded into the life of celebrated author Joan Didion.
Didion and her husband -- fellow writer John Gregory Dunne -- had successful careers as novelists, essayists and screenwriters. They traveled widely. They hobnobbed regularly with the beautiful and stylish. They dined and drank with accomplished artists, celebrities and movie stars. With ease they observed, wrote about and moved through the environs of the rich and famous. It was a good life and one they shared with their beloved only child, daughter Quintana Roo, who they adopted right after her birth in 1966.
On Christmas Day Quintana was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit of Beth Israel North in New York City. What had been thought a bad cold had morphed into pneumonia and septic shock. She was unconscious. Five days later, after having spent the afternoon by their daughter's bedside, Didion and her husband returned to their apartment to have a quiet dinner alone. Fraught with worry, they were trying to come to grips with the swift and frightening magnitude of Quintana's life-threatening illness. It seemed to come out of nowhere.
Then as they sat down at their table, Dunne suffered a massive coronary. He died instantly on the dining room floor. In her memoir of that turbulent time, "The Year of Magical Thinking" (Knopf, 2005), Didion writes: "Grief is different. Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life." All the while Didion went about the business of dealing with her husband's death, her comatose daughter was perilously close to dying. It had all happened so fast. "Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it."
In "Blue Nights" Didion reflects further on life's vicissitudes, unpredictability and seeming unfairness. The book is a paean to the daughter who never recovered her health. Quintana had been married on July 26, 2003, in a beautiful ceremony at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York. Five months later, the first medical emergency took her to the ICU. She was not yet 40 years of age when she died on August 26, 2005.
Writes Didion: "Medicine, I have had reason since to notice more than once, remains an imperfect art." Quintana's condition became so serious that she was able to walk unsupported for only brief periods, for a total of about one month. She would spend weeks at a time in the ICU's of four different hospitals. These crises were excruciating for a mother to witness as profound debilitation inundated a beloved daughter's life: "This was never supposed to happen to her, I remember thinking -- outraged, as if she and I had been promised a special exemption -- in the third of those intensive care units. By the time she reached the fourth I was no longer invoking this special exemption."
With both her husband and daughter gone, Didion must walk through life encountering its daily offerings and challenges bereft of the two people closest to her. She still has good friends. There are extended family members who care about her. She can still write. She is still Joan Didion the author, a known and respected name in literary circles and in the media. But a palpable and poignant sense of loneliness and uncertainty is persistent and pervasive. Physical changes are accompanied by an erosion of confidence.
Circumstances force Didion to contemplate her own mortality: "In fact I had lived my entire life to date without seriously believing that I would age. I had no doubt that I would continue to wear the red suede sandals with four-inch heels that I had always preferred." The gradual diminution of her physical surety evokes the memory of her own mother and how aging and illness stifled her mother's outlook on life: "I recognize now that she was feeling frail. I recognize now that she was feeling then as I feel now."
This book's title evokes that time prior to and after the summer solstice "when the twlights turn long and blue" and "you think the end of the day will never come." Yet day's end always arrives. Eventually the light of each day grows less and summer ineluctably gives way to a darker season.
Didion has composed a sad yet beautiful little book in "Blue Nights." In spite of the pain and loss she has endured, Didion surely must know that those gorgeous blue nights in their splendid turn do come again and others, in their time of life, will live, love, hope and dream in those light-filled extended days.