That night the first snow falls, although only a dusting, no avalanching off the roof of St. James’, nothing like my birthday a year ago.
My birthday a year ago when he gave me the last present he would ever give me.
My birthday a year ago when he had twenty-five nights left to live.
On the table in front of the fireplace I notice something out of place in the stack of books nearest the chair in which John sat to read when he woke in the middle of the night. I have deliberately left this stack untouched, not from any shrine-building impulse but because I did not believe that I could afford to think about what he read in the middle of the night. Now someone has placed on top of the stack, balanced precariously, a large illlustrated coffee-table book, ‘The Agnelli Gardens at Villar Perosa’. Beneath it is a heavily marked copy of of John Lukacs’s ‘Five Days in London: May 1940’ in which there is a laminated bookmark that reads, in a child’s handwriting, ‘John, happy reading to you – from John, age 7.’ I am puzzled by the bookmark, which under the lamination is dusted with festive pink glitter, then remember: the Creative Artists Agency, as a Christmas project every year, ‘adopts’ a group of Los Angeles schoolchildren, each of whom in turn makes a keepsake for a designated CAA client.
He would have opened the box from CAA on Christmas night.
He would have stuck the bookmark in whatever book was on top of the stack.
He would have had one hundred and twenty hours left to live.
How would he have chosen to live those one hundred and twenty hours?
Joan Didion, 2005
I finally got around to reading Joan Didion’s memoir, as urged by several friends, last month on a trip to New York. I made a pilgrimage to Strand Books on Broadway and it was the first book I saw on the table. I spent the next two days reading it, mainly on subways, and had to keep tilting my head back against the seat so the tears wouldn’t roll down my face. As an investigation of grief I think the book’s power resides in its utter lack of sentimentality. Didion is able to turn an almost dispassionate but exacting eye on the unexpected death of her husband John Gregory Dunne and her personal journey through that loss. Perhaps this skill comes from all her years as a journalist spent turning public spectacle into an intensely private experience for the reader. In this particular book she does the reverse, to stunning effect. Julia and I have tickets to see David Hare’s adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking at the National Theatre later this month, but I am almost more excited about watching Didion talk at the subsequent Theatre Platform. I don’t usually get giddy at the thought of seeing writers in the flesh. This time I will be agog.