eighteen

The back cover reads simply, “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”

On the evening of 30 December 2003 Joan Didion was preparing the evening meal for her and her husband John Dunne. They had just returned from a visit to the ICU of their local hospital where their adult daughter was being cared for. Joan turned her attention to something in the kitchen of the flat, the flow of John’s conversation stopped…when she stepped through to the dining room to find out why, John was prone on the floor with some blood spreading from his head. He had suffered a massive cardiac ‘event’, which as is later discovered, killed him almost instantly.

This book is the scream of incomprehension, the open wound caused by this devastating loss. Repeatedly Didion recalls events, ‘clues’ she ‘should have picked up on’ over the preceding years and chastises herself for not acting on them: for not ‘doing something’ that would have altered the path of John’s medical history. Slowly she comes to realise that nothing would have prevented this, that in fact, earlier medical interventions had already extended his life expectancy after earlier lesser episodes and she comes to feel that ‘John knew’ while she ‘just wasn’t listening’.

She also carries on expecting him to be there when she got home, expecting his voice to offer answers to her habit of asking questions out loud…a habit she realises borne of their unusually close life together – for almost thirty years they had both worked from home, writing in separate rooms in their home, days of cross reference, reading each. other’s work, suggestions for editing, arguments, shared meals and patterns of daily routines taken together as a couple. More than many two people in a relationship they were mutually reliant, interdependent in almost every aspect of life.

Didion is a successful writer (journalist, novelist, screenwriter), as was Dunne, moving in Hollywood circles, hiring the best medical advice, as such there is a level of living not available to the rest of us. It would be interesting to hear what level of care and attention would be available or affordable to someone living a working class life in the states, suffering similar ailments.

The book is heartbreaking. As a straight forward account it is brutally honest, making you realise how closely everyday mundanity rubs against the possibility of devastation and how much we should really pay attention to often spouted homily to ‘seize the day’.

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