By Joan Didion
Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.
Those were the first words I wrote after it happened. The computer
dating on the Microsoft Word file (“Notes on change.doc”) reads
“May 20, 2004, 11:11 p.m.,” but that would have been a case of my
opening the file and reflexively pressing save when I closed it. I
had made no changes to that file in May. I had made no changes to
that file since I wrote the words, in January 2004, a day or two or
three after the fact.
For a long time I wrote nothing else.
Life changes in the instant.
The ordinary instant.
At some point, in the interest of remembering what seemed most
striking about what had happened, I considered adding those words,
“the ordinary instant.” I saw immediately that there would be no
need to add the word “ordinary,” because there would be no
forgetting it: the word never left my mind. It was in fact the
ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me
from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating
it, getting past it. I recognize now that there was nothing unusual
in this: confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how
unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable
occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine
errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the
swings where the children were playing as usual when the
rattlesnake struck from the ivy. “He was on his way home from
work—happy, successful, healthy—and then, gone,” I read in the
account of a psychiatric nurse whose husband was killed in a
highway accident. In 1966 I happened to interview many people who
had been living in Honolulu on the morning of December 7, 1941;
without exception, these people began their accounts of Pearl
Harbor by telling me what an “ordinary Sunday morning” it had been.
“It was just an ordinary beautiful September day,” people still say
when asked to describe the morning in New York when American
Airlines 11 and United Airlines 175 got flown into the World Trade
towers. Even the report of the 9/11 Commission opened on this
insistently premonitory and yet still dumbstruck narrative note:
“Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless
in the eastern United States.”
“And then—gone.” In the midst of life we are in death
Episcopalians say at the graveside. Later I realized that I must
have repeated the details of what happened to everyone who came to
the house in those first weeks, all those friends and relatives who
brought food and made drinks and laid out plates on the dining room
table for however many people were around at lunch or dinner time,
all those who picked up the plates and froze the leftovers and ran
the dishwasher and filled our (I could not yet think my
otherwise empty house even after I had gone into the bedroom (our
bedroom, the one in which there still lay on a sofa a faded
terrycloth XL robe bought in the 1970s at Richard Carroll in
Beverly Hills) and shut the door. Those moments when I was abruptly
overtaken by exhaustion are what I remember most clearly about the
first days and weeks. I have no memory of telling anyone the
details, but I must have done so, because everyone seemed to know
them. At one point I considered the possibility that they had
picked up the details of the story from one another, but
immediately rejected it: the story they had was in each instance
too accurate to have been passed from hand to hand. It had come
Another reason I knew that the story had come from me was that no
version I heard included the details I could not yet face, for
example the blood on the living room floor that stayed there until
José came in the next morning and cleaned it up.
José. Who was part of our household. Who was supposed to be flying
to Las Vegas later that day, December 31, but never went. José was
crying that morning as he cleaned up the blood. When I first told
him what had happened he had not understood. Clearly I was not the
ideal teller of this story, something about my version had been at
once too offhand and too elliptical, something in my tone had
failed to convey the central fact in the situation (I would
encounter the same failure later when I had to tell Quintana), but
by the time José saw the blood he understood.
I had picked up the abandoned syringes and ECG electrodes before he
came in that morning but I could not face the blood.
It is now, as I begin to write this, the afternoon of October 4,
Nine months and five days ago, at approximately nine o’clock on the
evening of December 30, 2003, my husband, John Gregory Dunne,
appeared to (or did) experience, at the table where he and I had
just sat down to dinner in the living room of our apartment in New
York, a sudden massive coronary event that caused his death. Our
only child, Quintana, had been for the previous five nights
unconscious in an intensive care unit at Beth Israel Medical
Center’s Singer Division, at that time a hospital on East End
Avenue (it closed in August 2004) more commonly known as “Beth
Israel North” or “the old Doctors’ Hospital,” where what had seemed
a case of December flu sufficiently severe to take her to an
emergency room on Christmas morning had exploded into pneumonia and
septic shock. This is my attempt to make sense of the period that
followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had
ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck,
about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory,
about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with
the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about
life itself. I have been a writer my entire life. As a writer, even
as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I
developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms
of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding
whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly
impenetrable polish. The way I write is who I am, or have become,
yet this is a case in which I wish I had instead of words and their
rhythms a cutting room, equipped with an Avid, a digital editing
system on which I could touch a key and collapse the sequence of
time, show you simultaneously all the frames of memory that come to
me now, let you pick the takes, the marginally different
expressions, the variant readings of the same lines. This is a case
in which I need more than words to find the meaning. This is a case
in which I need whatever it is I think or believe to be penetrable,
if only for myself.
December 30, 2003, a Tuesday.
We had seen Quintana in the sixth-floor ICU at Beth Israel
We had come home.
We had discussed whether to go out for dinner or eat in.
I said I would build a fire, we could eat in.
I built the fire, I started dinner, I asked John if he wanted a
I got him a Scotch and gave it to him in the living room, where he
was reading in the chair by the fire where he habitually sat.
The book he was reading was by David Fromkin, a bound galley of
Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?
I finished getting dinner, I set the table in the living room
where, when we were home alone, we could eat within sight of the
fire. I find myself stressing the fire because fires were important
to us. I grew up in California, John and I lived there together for
twenty-four years, in California we heated our houses by building
fires. We built fires even on summer evenings, because the fog came
in. Fires said we were home, we had drawn the circle, we were safe
through the night. I lit the candles. John asked for a second drink
before sitting down. I gave it to him. We sat down. My attention
was on mixing the salad.
John was talking, then he wasn’t.
At one point in the seconds or minute before he stopped talking he
had asked me if I had used single-malt Scotch for his second drink.
I had said no, I used the same Scotch I had used for his first
drink. “Good,” he had said. “I don’t know why but I don’t think you
should mix them.” At another point in those seconds or that minute
he had been talking about why World War One was the critical event
from which the entire rest of the twentieth century flowed.
I have no idea which subject we were on, the Scotch or World War
One, at the instant he stopped talking.
I only remember looking up. His left hand was raised and he was
slumped motionless. At first I thought he was making a failed joke,
an attempt to make the difficulty of the day seem manageable.
I remember saying Don’t do that.
When he did not respond my first thought was that he had started to
eat and choked. I remember trying to lift him far enough from the
back of the chair to give him the Heimlich. I remember the sense of
his weight as he fell forward, first against the table, then to the
floor. In the kitchen by the telephone I had taped a card with the
New York–Presbyterian ambulance numbers. I had not taped the
numbers by the telephone because I anticipated a moment like this.
I had taped the numbers by the telephone in case someone in the
building needed an ambulance.
I called one of the numbers. A dispatcher asked if he was
breathing. I said Just come.
When the paramedics came I
tried to tell them what had happened but before I could finish they
had transformed the part of the living room where John lay into an
emergency department. One of them (there were three, maybe four,
even an hour later I could not have said) was talking to the
hospital about the electrocardiogram they seemed already to be
transmitting. Another was opening the first or second of what would
be many syringes for injection. (Epinephrine? Lidocaine?
Procainamide? The names came to mind but I had no idea from where.)
I remember saying that he might have choked. This was dismissed
with a finger swipe: the airway was clear. They seemed now to be
using defibrillating paddles, an attempt to restore a rhythm. They
got something that could have been a normal heartbeat (or I thought
they did, we had all been silent, there was a sharp jump), then
lost it, and started again.
“He’s still fibbing,” I remember the one on the telephone
-fibbing,” John’s cardiologist said the next morning when
he called from Nantucket. “They would have said ‘V
V for ventricular.”
Maybe they said “V-fibbing” and maybe they did not. Atrial
fibrillation did not immediately or necessarily cause cardiac
arrest. Ventricular did. Maybe ventricular was the given.
I remember trying to straighten out in my mind what would happen
next. Since there was an ambulance crew in the living room, the
next logical step would be going to the hospital. It occurred to me
that the crew could decide very suddenly to go to the hospital and
I would not be ready. I would not have in hand what I needed to
take. I would waste time, get left behind. I found my handbag and a
set of keys and a summary John’s doctor had made of his medical
history. When I got back to the living room the paramedics were
watching the computer monitor they had set up on the floor. I could
not see the monitor so I watched their faces. I remember one
glancing at the others. When the decision was made to move it
happened very fast. I followed them to the elevator and asked if I
could go with them. They said they were taking the gurney down
first, I could go in the second ambulance. One of them waited with
me for the elevator to come back up. By the time he and I got into
the second ambulance the ambulance carrying the gurney was pulling
away from the front of the building. The distance from our building
to the part of New York–Presbyterian that used to be New York
Hospital is six crosstown blocks. I have no memory of sirens. I
have no memory of traffic. When we arrived at the emergency
entrance to the hospital the gurney was already disappearing into
the building. A man was waiting in the driveway. Everyone else in
sight was wearing scrubs. He was not. “Is this the wife,” he said
to the driver, then turned to me. “I’m your social worker,” he
said, and I guess that is when I must have known.
I opened the door and I seen the man in the dress greens and I
knew. I immediately knew.” This was what the mother of a
nineteen-year-old killed by a bomb in Kirkuk said on an HBO
documentary quoted by Bob Herbert in The New York Times
the morning of November 12, 2004. “But I thought that if, as long
as I didn’t let him in, he couldn’t tell me. And then it—none of
that would’ve happened. So he kept saying, ‘Ma’am, I need to come
in.’ And I kept telling him, ‘I’m sorry, but you can’t come in.’
When I read this at breakfast almost eleven months after the night
with the ambulance and the social worker I recognized the thinking
as my own.
Inside the emergency room I could see the gurney being pushed into
a cubicle, propelled by more people in scrubs. Someone told me to
wait in the reception area. I did. There was a line for admittance
paperwork. Waiting in the line seemed the constructive thing to do.
Waiting in the line said that there was still time to deal with
this, I had copies of the insurance cards in my handbag, this was
not a hospital I had ever negotiated—New York Hospital was the
Cornell part of New York–Presbyterian, the part I knew was the
Columbia part, Columbia-Presbyterian, at 168th and Broadway, twenty
minutes away at best, too far in this kind of emergency—but I could
make this unfamiliar hospital work, I could be useful, I could
arrange the transfer to Columbia-Presbyterian once he was
stabilized. I was fixed on the details of this imminent transfer to
Columbia (he would need a bed with telemetry, eventually I could
also get Quintana transferred to Columbia, the night she was
admitted to Beth Israel North I had written on a card the beeper
numbers of several Columbia doctors, one or another of them could
make all this happen) when the social worker reappeared and guided
me from the paperwork line into an empty room off the reception
area. “You can wait here,” he said. I waited. The room was cold, or
I was. I wondered how much time had passed between the time I
called the ambulance and the arrival of the paramedics. It had
seemed no time at all (a mote in the eye of God
phrase that came to me in the room off the reception area) but it
must have been at the minimum several minutes.
Excerpted from The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan
Didion Copyright © 2005 by Joan Didion. Excerpted by permission of
Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No
part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without
permission in writing from the publisher.
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