If I owe being a writer to anyone it must be my mom. She was the one who first fed my passion by passing onto me the books that she was reading with her book club. I’ve always remembered myself as being twelve when I started enjoying reading. But the three novels that I remember as my introduction to the world of fiction, independent of the required ‘classics’ we had to read at school, were all published in 1976.
I would soon discover Hemmingway, Steinbeck and Faulkner, in another household, and that would be it, I would be hooked for the rest of my life on literary fiction.
First though I read and delighted in the world—large as an entire universe—of Leon Uris’s Trinity. Thomas Thompson’s Blood and Money was intriguing, complex for me then, and a bit racy. And there was a third of these first novels that I remember whose title and author I’ve long forgotten, a story that involved both a pack of vicious wild dogs racing through a woods and an anal sex scene that left me baffled.
While my dad read everything Louis L’Amour wrote my mom’s tastes were influenced by the book clubs she belonged to throughout most of her adult life. When I visited my parents in Atlanta—and every trip to either England or the United States would involve hours and hours and hours of my ransacking all the used bookstores I could find and shipping boxes full of the ‘treasures’ I found back to my home in the village of Villanueva de la Vera—my mom would inevitably ask me if I’d read a certain book and if she was through reading it she would give it to me.
So I got used to taking good books from her that I might or might not have heard about and had not yet read, like Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha or Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke, books I might start reading while waiting at Hartsfield-Jackson to fly back to Spain, books that would allow for some of that tenuous link my mom sought to establish with her middle child, the one she probably felt she understood the least and yet in some ways might have identified with the most, books signed Jeanne Eriksen in that always enviable and elegant hand of hers.
When my dad died six weeks after they called me to tell me that he might have cancer my mom was devastated, lost, bewildered, terrified and overwhelmed. They had been together ever since she was a freshman at K-State, when she was barely eighteen years old and her childhood came to an end. They married within a year and nine months after they were married my brother was born.
Soon after my dad’s death my mom started undergoing tests for dementia, which came on slow. Ever since he died she had been distraught and distracted and forgetful. So we moved her down to Florida where my sister—who didn’t have any kids—could look after her. And then one day my mom found herself in downtown Palm Beach with no memory of having driven there. Strangers were kind enough to lead her back to Jupiter, where she was living in the little condo my parents had bought in the nineties. After that we called it Alzheimer’s.
For a while longer she kept reading the local newspaper. When I would visit she would show me the weather page where she had circled both Boston—where I was living during the academic year—and Colorado Springs, where my brother lived after having moved back to the States from Spain. Now, a decade after my dad died, my mom can’t read anything at all.
Before we moved her down to Florida I rented a U-Haul truck and filled it with things from the house in Atlanta that had, for me, immense sentimental value. Most of these things—small sculptures, oil paintings, and other art objects—had originally been my Uncle Conrad’s, my dad’s younger brother. It was precisely at the beginning of 1976, days after the new year had begun, when my uncle, an alcoholic gay man who had an unhealthy and ultimately destructive relationship with his dad, shot himself in the stomach two times while talking on the phone to his parents and bled to death in the house in St. Louis that looked—when we walked in and saw the plaster David standing there, with a wide-brimmed hat slung over his forehead—like a live-in museum.
None of these art objects were worth anything in monetary terms, but they had been around me when I was beginning the blind and faithless emergence into the artist that I would eventually become. And along with these art objects I took from the house in Atlanta any and all books that my mom had read and left in boxes in the basement. Among these books was Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.
I mention all of this because hers is the copy that I read, a copy highlighted in almost completely faded yellow and marked with a pen sometimes. Since my mom bought many of the books she read secondhand I can’t be sure whether or not these markings are hers. But I read this copy of Didion’s memoir of her own grief after her husband with whom she had spent almost her entire adult life suddenly died one evening from a heart attack believing that every time I came across something that was either highlighted or marked with a pen these underscored lines were lines that resonated with my mom after her husband, with whom she had lived for almost half a century, died so suddenly and unexpectedly.
Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it,
Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.
The emphasis is not mine, it was my mom’s. And although these lines are poignant regardless of the circumstances of the person reading them, they are so much more poignant when they look like this:
Ever since I began to love books I have read with ulterior motives. It is not enough—for any writer—to simply read for pleasure. Long ago I became aware of how reading—anything at all!—always involves study, informed consideration and appreciation, of not only what is being ‘said’ but of how it is being said, and not only this but of everything, it seems, that the writer might be attempting to do with words, both consciously and unconsciously, while they wrote and after that endlessly revised the text that is now before me.
I mention this because I read The Year of Magical Thinking after two things happened: after I finished a complete draft of my last novel, which is in some ways a fictional account of grieving; and after my mom was mistakenly diagnosed to be suffering from a strain of Staphylococcus after a weak dizzy spell led to her being hospitalized and the antibiotics she was given to combat this presumed infection nearly ended her life.
As far as I know Alzheimer’s doesn’t kill its victims, something else—like pneumonia or an allergic reaction to a powerful antibiotic—always does the job. What happened to my mom right before I left for Spain in July of 2017 was a trial run. She survived then, but this will happen again. And again. Until her life is over.
And that’s what The Year of Magical Thinking is really about, the finality of our lives. And the fact that, sooner or later, everything has to end for us. And about how painful dealing with the loss of the people we love—and need—most really is. And how impossible it is to anticipate what dealing with the loss of such a loved one will be like.
In some ways my dad’s death ended my mom’s life. Didion notes a study in an issue of Daedalus that reported that there are
some events to which people are slow or unable to adapt completely.
My mom presumably highlighted—in now faded yellow—the parallel finding,
that it takes the average widow many years after her spouse’s death to regain her former level of life satisfaction.
Something Joan Didion might have done, but my mom never did.