Life changes in the instant.
The ordinary instant.
Joan Didion employs this observation as a type of refrain, which hauntingly echoes throughout The Year of Magical Thinking. In this book, the great American novelist and essayist bears her innermost thoughts about the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Donne, and the near-fatal illness of their daughter, Quintana, all within the span of a few weeks. These shocking, life-altering losses and the utter, soul-shaking grief that ensues are described by Didion with a series of stream of consciousness, almost quotidian sentences. She writes that, before he died, she and her husband were discussing some obscure aspect of World War II. She had made a fire. He had a drink. They sat down at the dinner table…and then he was gone. Her daughter was married only five months ago, her hair braided in a single strand down her back as she wore it in her childhood. She used the wedding china for the first Thanksgiving with her in-laws. She lies, comatose, in an ICU; the doctors say it could go either way.
The “magic” of the title refers to Didion’s wishful thinking that, somehow, someway, she could bring her husband back to life. She wants him back. Her days are spent reminiscing about the times they shared: simple things, like making soufflés with friends and eating ice cream sandwiches with Quintana. Both Didion and Donne were famous writers, sought after by movie producers for scripts, and flown all over the Western world. They were rich and famous; yet she realizes that the magic moments were those instances in time that seemed so ordinary. Making a fire. Discussing a book. Laughing with their child. If only she could get them back!
Like Didion, my brother and sister-in-law live in New York. We are separated by a great distance and get together only a few times throughout a typical year. Just recently, however, they were traveling back from a wedding in North Carolina and were able to spend a night here in Dublin. We had a simple meal, which was picked fresh from the garden behind my house. We ate on the front porch, talking of simple things like our dogs. Heat lightening flashed across the night sky and lightening bugs lit up the field. We went inside, and I showed them the nursery where my son will spend the first weeks, months, and years of his life. Doubtless, many of those moments will be routine; yet standing there with the people I love, imagining what it will be… I sensed the magic in the air.
Didion writes, “We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.”
Life changes in an instant. In the ordinary instant. O Lord, teach us to mark our days by the joy we share and the people we love.