Author Joan Didion died in December. I’ve always enjoyed her writing, but I owe her a special debt of gratitude for her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. In it, she described the grief and pain following the death of her husband, and the lost sense of reality that resulted from her grief. (She also refers to this state of grief as “disordered thinking,” “delusionary thinking,” and “occasions on which I was incapable of thinking rationally.”)
The book was written in 2007, but I didn’t discover it until the month following my own husband’s death in 2017, when I, too, was in the beginning throes of “magical thinking.” For me, it was a period of living in a fog while navigating between two realities: wanting to leave the world behind and bury myself in my memories of life with Rick, yet knowing I still had a life to live and people who cared enough to want me to stay around and see it through. I understood the “delusionary thinking,” as I listened and watched for signs of Rick everywhere. Was that him trying to reach me when the lights flickered? When the seat belt chime went off as I drove alone to our Florida vacation spot? Was he trying to contact me? Yes. I still believe he was. Magical thinking.
After hearing of Didion’s death, I was reading an article about her, and I had the opportunity to come across this quote from the book. Reading it now makes it even more apparent that Didion understood and wrote about grief as no one else could.
I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. Let them become the photograph on the table.
It’s been four years since Rick died, and I’ve learned how to relinquish the dead. I’ve relinquished most (90%?) of Rick’s things by now. I still have a pile of his “vacation” hats. He insisted on buying one on every trip we made. I kept most of his splashy button down and Hawaiian print shirts, and I have his T-shirts that were so special to him… The Elvis T-shirt, Superman, Flash, and several others that he loved to wear. It’s funny, in Didion’s book she keeps her husband’s shoes “in case he comes back” because he’ll need them. Rick’s shoes were the first thing I gave away. They didn’t mean anything to me. He simply had big feet and wore big shoes. But the shirts and the hat, those were him. They made a statement. I couldn’t get rid of those. I plan to make the shirts into a quilt someday.
I recently turned 65, and decided it’s time for some Swedish Death Cleaning. I need to purge my life of the unnecessary things I’ve amassed over a lifetime. Last week, I sorted and purged some boxes of items from my mom that are in the basement storage cupboard. I happened upon a couple of boxes of Rick’s things, items he didn’t want in his office anymore, so he boxed them and stored them. I had forgotten about these boxes and felt a little twinge upon seeing his things when I opened the first box. But it’s been more than four years since he died, and none of the items were very personal, so I found myself quickly sorting through them and making a donation pile. Of course, every once in a while, I picked up something that gave me pause. Something that was very “him.” Things I haven’t seen in years. A belt buckle. A picture he took and framed. A favorite book. And, soon, the memories flooded in. A few of these things I will not relinquish. Memories of him are all I have.
But the depth and the frequency with which the memories overtake me has changed. I get what Didion is saying. After Rick first died, I wouldn’t let the memories go away. I wouldn’t let HIM die. I strove to keep the memories at the surface. I buried myself in his things. I sat in his office chair slowly turning it around and around, looking at everything he had amassed and how he had it set up. Taking it all in. This was him. That was his favorite portrait. That was his favorite knickknack. Here’s where he touched the pens. Here’s his keyboard where he plunked away loudly with his hunt and peck typing. Here’s where he sat daily creating websites, reading news sites, surfing the web, writing emails to people, and posting on Facebook. Here’s the blue chair in the corner where – once every blue moon – he put his feet up and read or listened to his iPod or played his guitar.
Rick’s office WAS Rick. And I still remember when I started to dismantle it. When I moved things and shifted things and gave things away. His office closet is where he kept his clothes. First the shoes went, and then the jeans, and then the sweaters, and the generic shirts that meant nothing. Finally the coats. And now my clothes are stored in that closet: summer clothes in the winter, winter clothes in the summer. Some days, I would walk past the “office that was no longer his office” and burst into tears. But eventually, the pain subsided and I got used to it.
About a year after Rick died, I went to IKEA to buy the couch we picked out together but never bought because he was diagnosed with the cancer that overtook our lives. That couch was “us.” It was a couch we agreed upon. It was a big roomy comfy couch. And Rick was a big roomy comfy man. If there was anything he hated, it was those fancy little spindly chairs at sandwich shops or ice cream parlors. Rick wanted things big and solid and strong. Furniture that could withstand his 6 foot five, 307-pound, frame comfortably. I agreed to this couch because he liked it and I didn’t find it offensive. That was how we dealt with things in our marriage. One of us loved something and – if it was more important to that person – the other (who had no great stake in the matter) said, sure. Decision made.
So, here I was in Ikea about a year after his death. Staring at the couch. Sitting on it. Trying it with the matching footstool. Debating whether to purchase it or not. But the more I stared at that IKEA couch, the more I thought about how my grief therapist kept telling me to work to define things that were me. To keep the things I loved that we did together and we bought together, and bring them along with me into my future, but to also discard the things that didn’t fit any more. To discover myself on my own, as a person apart from the man I had just shared twenty years of compromised purchases with. Be me. And now, instead of the IKEA couch, I have a sleek mid century modern sofa. I love the look. Rick would’ve hated it – not big and cushy enough for him. And those thin armrests to support his huge, muscular forearms? No way! But I had to be firm with myself. Rick won’t be sitting on this sofa. Rick isn’t here. And there’s no more need to compromise to please him.
And that’s how little by little I relinquished him from my life. I made choices that I would not have made with him. Over and over, with each choice, I really wanted to please him, the memory of him. But he’s not here, and they are all my singular choices now. And how many times did I have to remind myself of that? Many. What color should I paint this room? Well Rick would’ve liked this. Or Rick would’ve liked that. But Rick’s not here. I’m choosing the color to please myself now.
How many things can I do in his memory? I spent two years submerged in those memories. Refusing to let them go. Striving to keep him with me as long as I could. Until one day, (and what day that was, I don’t know, because it didn’t hit me like a thunderbolt or anything)… but one day, possibly after making all these solo choices, I was “me” again. I wasn’t a woman walking around in a cloud of grief. I wasn’t the widow, the wife… Rick’s wife. I was me.
I look back on that time in the year or more after his death, and the memories are fuzzy. My brain was fogged. I was enveloped in a cloud of sadness. I was participating in my own version of Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking. But as time has elapsed and Rick didn’t magically return, I slowly shed that miasma of grief.
I can see clearly now. I still miss him. I still long to be with him. But I’m pretty wrapped up in my own life now, and that makes me sad. I don’t want to forget him. I don’t want him to not be part of my life. I don’t want to leave him behind. All I can do is carry him with me in my heart. Because the way I was living wasn’t living at all. As Joan Didion so aptly put it…
…if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. Let them become the photograph on the table.
The time is different for everyone. It was different for Joan Didion than it was for me. And no two people will make the same decision about when they’re able to pick up the pieces and build a new life, to put away that time of magical thinking. For me, it was two years after his death. But, even now, I still need to make the choice often – to stop dwelling on the memories we shared, to take another step forward without him, and to create new memories on my own – even to seek a new partner to join me in making those memories.
If I’m going to live, I have to relinquish the dead.
And I want to live.