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The Year of Magical Thinking

Lessons of loss

By Joan Didion
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The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) is a poignant memoir about loss and grief. It tells the deeply personal story of Joan Didion’s experiences with the life-threatening illnesses of her daughter and the death of her husband. But more than that, it’s also a thought-provoking philosophical exploration of the meaning of mortality, the fragility of life and the mutability of everything that surrounds us.

Key idea 1 of 13

Joan’s story of loss began under circumstances that were simultaneously extraordinary and ordinary.

On the evening of December 30, 2003, Joan Didion and her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, sat down for dinner in the living room of their apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. 

In some ways, the circumstances were highly unusual. Joan and John had just gotten back from the intensive care unit of Beth Israel Medical Center, where their 37-year-old daughter Quintana had been hospitalized. 

Five days prior, on Christmas morning, Quintana had been taken to the emergency room with what seemed like a severe case of the common flu. It turned out to be pneumonia, which soon began to spread, sending her body into life-threatening septic shock. By the evening of December 30, she was entering her fifth night of unconsciousness. Her chances of survival lay somewhere between 56 to 69 percent.

Needless to say, the possibility of their daughter dying weighed heavily on Joan and John’s minds. The death of a child is always one of the most heartbreaking prospects that a parent can contemplate, but in this case, it would have been all the more tragic given the fact that Quintana had just gotten married five months earlier.

On that day, July 26, 2003, she’d been a joyful bride – leaving the wedding ceremony at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine with her entire married life in front of her. Now she was lying comatose in a hospital bed – her debilitated body being kept alive by a breathing tube, arterial lines and IV bags delivering a host of antibiotics with grim-sounding names: azithromycin, clindamycin, gentamicin, vancomycin. 

Those were the extraordinary circumstances in which Joan and John sat down for dinner on the evening of December 30. But in other ways, it was just an ordinary occasion – one of the thousands of dinners they’d had together in their almost 40 years of marriage. As on so many other evenings before, Joan made a fire, prepared a meal and fixed a drink for John. 

They were in the middle of an equally ordinary-seeming conversation at the dinner table when it happened. John was saying something either about the scotch he was drinking or the historical significance of WWI – Joan can’t remember which. Then, all of a sudden, he stopped talking and slumped forward in his chair. Joan thought he was trying to play some sort of joke on her.

“Don’t do that,” she said. 

John didn’t respond. 

He wasn’t joking. 

He’d just suffered a cardiac arrest.

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