October 19, 2011

Things I Learned From Reading Joan Didion’s Blue Nights

After spending a month begging and pleading all of my powerful friends for the new Joan Didion book, Blue Nights, which is out November 1st, I finally managed to get my hands on a copy. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect either. I received it last night after spending an extended weekend with my father for his 60th birthday. Together, we did his most treasured activity, which is to take a mini-road trip to Cape Cod on route 6A. It adds about an hour and a half to the journey but the scenic views are worth it. You pass through the most charming small towns—places you would never want to actually live but enjoy looking at through the window of your rental car—passing small candy shops, immaculate town halls, and oddly named restaurants. Things like this, I’ve learned, make my father happy. They soften the blow of old age and allow him to create new memories.

Didon is nearly 20 years older than my father but both seem to be coming to terms with old age. Approaching the end of your life is the focus of Blue Nights along with grieving the loss of her adopted daughter, Quintana Roo. It’s heartbreakingly honest, which is a theme that’s more evident in her later work than in the beginning of her career, and Didion doesn’t shy away from critiquing herself as a parent. In fact she gives many examples in which she felt she missed the mark entirely as a mother. The woman who has made her career out of critiquing everyone else has ended her body of work with a critique of herself. She seems more broken and fragile than ever.

I didn’t mean to draw connections between the book and my own experience with my father but his visit was too fresh in my mind not to. For a long time, my father has alluded to feeling like his life is over. He would say things like, “I’ve had a good life. I feel like I did right by my kids. Can’t complain.” and I would respond with, “Dad, you’re only in your fifties. Chill out.” In reality, however, my father had good reason to feel a sense of finality. In the past two years, he managed to dodge a near fatal case of Swine Flu and beat prostate cancer. On top of that, he also battled a deadly brain tumor over a decade ago. Like Didion, he’s acutely aware of his own mortality.

In Blue Nights and The Year Of Magical Thinking, Didion recalls instances in which she felt disenchanted with hospitals and their standard of care. She needed to be her daughter’s advocate because, as she quickly discovered, things weren’t necessarily going to get done without her vigilance. My father can relate to that as well. When I was hit by a car at 21 years old, I watched my father fight the doctors about their approach to my care. And you know what? My father usually had good reason to be critical. It’s alarming how often things get missed, even in the top hospitals in the country. I often think of where’d I be if he weren’t up the doctors asses while I was drugged on morphine and in a ton of pain. I couldn’t fight for myself. I needed him to do it for me. And he did. Didion’s maternal instinct ultimately couldn’t save her daughter’s life but my father may have saved mine.

You don’t appreciate what it means to be young until the antithesis is reflected back at you. At 60, my father seems to spend more time at the doctor’s office than anywhere else. Getting pre-cancerous moles removed from his skin, undergoing invasive tests to check on his heart, dealing with the fact that he has to pee every three hours: This is the reality of old age. In Blue Nights, Didion recalls times when she felt helpless, when she took a bad fall in her apartment and needed someone to take her to the hospital, getting MRI’s done, sitting in so many hospital rooms, watching her loved ones pass away in an ICU, being treated like an invalid. This is apparently what it’s like when you get older. Didion says, “I realized that I was no longer, if I had ever been, afraid to die: I was now afraid not to die.” When I read that line, I wondered if my father would agree. I wonder if this is a conclusion everyone reaches in their life. I wonder if we all end up being more afraid of life than death.

What I took away from Blue Nights and the weekend I spent with my father is that life is precarious. We all claim to know this but we don’t truly understand it until it’s staring right at us in the face. When I read this book and when I hold my father’s wrinkled hand on a long drive, I think of moments that will eventually be taken away from me. This might sound bleak but, in actuality, it allows your life to feel so damn special. TC mark

image – David Shankbone