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Joan Didion once wrote that “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” These words, conceived before she turned 45, took on a new meaning for the author as she became 75.
Her latest book, Blue Nights, is a memoir about becoming a parent, losing a child, growing old. It’s about her adopted daughter, Quintana, who died at the age of 39 after a long illness.
Its 188 fluid pages weave in and out of her memories. In an early chapter, Didion looks back at photographs of her daughter. Didion’s memories are like these snapshots – frozen moments, snippets of life, details: a plaid uniform jumper, a cashmere turtleneck sweater.
“These very clear moments stand out, recur, speak directly to me, on some levels flood me with pleasure and on others still break my heart,” she writes of the stories she tells. Her talent is the way she shares these memories so that they speak directly to readers – fill us with pleasure and break our hearts. She paints her scenes vividly, yet in few words. The heartbreak lies in this sparseness – not so much in her words, per say, as in the space around her words.
The heartbreak also lies in the repetition, in the “dwelling on it,” as Didion calls it. In the way that it’s obvious this grief consumes her. Not just the grief that her daughter is dead, but in her belief that she failed as a parent. Interwoven with her memories are “rosaries of our failures, our neglections…” The accuracy of descriptions such as this one is stunning.
The mantras of guilt that haunt her over and over again – “How could I have missed what was so clearly there to be seen?”, “Brush your teeth, brush your hair, shush, I’m working,” and her ultimate failure to protect the child, “The gurgling through plastic tubing. The dripping from the IV line, the rails, the alarms”- are exactly rosaries: the repetition, the prayer, the repentance.
It’s a credit to Didion’s writing that I felt this heartbreak. That I actually shed tears while reading this book.
I should tell you, I’m not a parent. I can’t know what it’s like to be responsible for a helpless creature, or what it’s like when you can’t protect that creature. I’m a professional woman. A writer. Much (I like to imagine) like Joan Didion the day she went to St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica and chose the baby with the bow in her hair.
Until that day, a baby was a hypothetical. “I had not considered the need for a bassinette,” she admits. She was prepared for the idea of the child – a beautiful baby, a doll with 60 dresses – but completely unprepared for the execution of parenthood. “Until the bassinette, it had all seemed casual, even blithe…”
Full of idealism, she named her baby Quintana Roo after a place she saw on a map in Mexico – a place “frequented by archeologists, herpetologists, and bandits…terra incognita. Terra incognita, as I had seen it until then, meant free of complications.”
But parenthood, Didion shows us, is never simple and never free of complications. Quintana remained terra incognita in many ways – a separate person who Didion is afraid she never really knew.
In the present day, Didion searches her memory, her closets, Quintana’s old papers, for clues about who she was and what she experienced as a separate being from her mother. When she was in high school, Quintana wrote a novel. “Just to show you.” To show you just what remains unclear. That like her parents, she can write, too? That she’s hurting, feels her parents don’t care? Didion cannot or will not answer those questions, at least right away.
“Quintana is one of the areas about which I have difficulty being direct,” Didion writes, by way of being direct.
Didion addresses the reader in a very personal way. She also addresses herself. She seems determined to get to the emotional heart of the story. She revisits scenes in this slippery narrative, each time digging deeper, questioning herself, her daughter, her memory, and chipping through her own human defenses.
Eventually one gets the impression that her defenses have crumbled – that we’re seeing Didion at her core. And at this core is now fear.
At 75, Didion has struggled with neurological inflammation and unexplained falls. Her doctor pointed out a small aneurysm at the base of her brain. She begins to question her own memory:
“You have your wonderful memories.
I do, but they blur.
They fade into one another.”
But remember who we’re dealing with.
“Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.” She makes this statement, perhaps, to draw attention to the act of editing – something at which Joan Didion has always been a master. The memories that she chose to dwell on, and those she left out (she tells us just enough about borderline personality disorder and Quintana “wishing for death as she lay on the floor of her sitting room…Let me just be in the ground and go to sleep,” to hint that there are many memories she’s left out) make me think we have not quite reached Didion’s raw inner core.
The memories she shares are for the most part “determinedly conventional.” She opens the book by describing Quintana’s wedding: “cucumber and watercress sandwiches, a peach-colored cake from Payard, pink champagne…Sentimental choices, things she remembered. I remembered them too.”
Of course this is deliberate. I see it as an act of love. Perhaps it’s the un-initiated idealist in me speaking.
Like Quintana’s early attempt at novel writing, Didion wrote Blue Nights “just to show you.” Yes, to show us the readers, and even herself that, at 75 years old, she still has the cognitive prowess to write a beautiful and moving piece of literature. But more importantly, I believe she wrote it to show Quintana.
“Only one person needs to know.
She is of course the only person who needs to know…
I imagine telling her.
I am able to imagine telling her because I still see her.”
We tell ourselves stories in order to live. Didion is telling these stories not only to keep herself alive, to “maintain momentum” after a tragic loss, but to keep Quintana (the best parts of Quintana) alive in her memory. She tells these stories of connection and shared memory to reconcile the distance between them.
To tell her daughter now everything she feared she had not communicated during her life: I noticed. I cared. I always loved you.