by Roxanne Krystalli
My father died quickly in the middle of the day. Mona Simpson, Steve Jobs’ sister, said in her eulogy of him that his last words were “oh wow. oh wow. oh wow.” My mother told me that my father’s last words were “κορίτσια μου”, which means “my girls” in my native Greek.
For some time after his death, words escaped me. He had had a lot of faith in my words, in my ability to make magic with them, even if I could not quite grasp what that meant at the age of 11. He read every word I ever produced, from history papers on Otto von Bismarck to letters that I wrote home from camp. After glaucoma deprived him of his sight, my mother and I read my words to him and he made suggestions — sometimes gentle ones, sometimes proclamations that “this is crap!” and I needed to start over. My sense of faith in myself was tied to his vote of confidence in me. His loss rendered me mute.
With the brains of a very young woman, I thought I could hide from grief. I packed the memories of the early days of mourning and sealed them, hoping that if I did not cross their path again, I could escape a confrontation with grief. Many years later, it was Joan Didion who caused my unraveling.
A year after my own graduation from Harvard, I found myself sitting in Tercentenary Theater next to the father of a beloved friend. My friend was clad in graduation regalia that made even the most attractive people look like they had the wingspan of a bat. Drew Faust was presenting Joan Didion with an honorary degree that day and her speech was packed with allusions to Didion’s recently-published work, The Year of Magical Thinking. Faust said:
Improvisation. Joan Didion, a writer who has been charting our responses to change since the 1960s, has a memorable passage describing how her husband said they’d begun a trip to Paris in the right spirit: “He meant doing things not because we were expected to do them or had always done them or should do them,” she wrote, “but because we wanted to do them. He meant wanting. He meant living.”
She was referring to life as a kind of improvisation: that magical crossroads of rigor and ease, structure and freedom, reason and intuition. What she calls being prepared to “go with the change.” Uncertainty, in other words, makes us feel alive.
Feeling alive was my most prized craving at that point in life. “I need to be shaken by the shoulders,” I kept telling my friends. “I need to be moved by the world.” What I had not realized was that to feel shaken at all, I needed to unfreeze the box of grief that was casting a spell of numbness over me. Two events transpired after the graduation ceremony during which Joan Didion walked into my life: Half of the newly-minted diploma-holders came down with swine flu, and I read The Year of Magical Thinking in two sittings in front of Widener Library.
What I most value about Joan Didion is that she transformed her pain into insight, her grief into magic. I have been told that sometimes I value insight too highly, that it’s ok for pain to be just pain, free of lessons, teachings or magic. I hardly think Didion set out to be the Universal Articulator of Grief; she even expresses her own frustration at the title:
“I always felt misrepresented by the ‘Empress of Angst’ crap,” she says; being funny was a necessary casualty of the need to demonstrate seriousness of intent. “In America, if you have a sense of humour, you’re not serious. So, since I pretended to be serious, I couldn’t possibly have a sense of humour.”
Through gravity and lightness, humor and insight, pain and magic, Didion has taught me most of what I know about love, loss, and writing. She wrote The Year of Magical Thinking, after her husband, John Dunne, passed away as suddenly as my own father. This November, Didion is releasing Blue Nights into the world, a book about losing her daughter Quintana 18 months after her husband’s death. I have been trolling the press for interviews with Joan Didion these days. After The Year of Magical Thinking, I unraveled. I cried, I fell apart, I shied away from all labels, from “depression” to “writer” to “love.” Now that I am reading the latest round of Didion’s words, I am whole again. I am approaching grief like a student, protected from harm by the luxury of the classroom.
Didion worried: “What if I can never again find the words that work?” As I seek my return to the classrooms of graduate school next year, I worry about finding the words that work to tell my own story. I miss my father and his painstaking editing. I miss how he always looked for the words that worked. Didion feels that, even through their love, parents are always failing their children:
“I don’t think it’s possible to have children without having a sense that you’ve failed them. And that’s what I kept edging around, in there. You are always failing them, and they are always your… hostages.”
I am sometimes a hostage of my father’s memory, of his projected ambitions onto me. But mostly, as I embark on another journey of service, self-discovery and writing, I feel freed by his faith in my heart. The crippling, all-encompassing pain of grief has dulled. It has given way to sweet nostalgia, to pinches of “I wish you were here.” As I agonize to find the words that work, I sometimes wish my father were still solving equations across from me at the dining room table. Once again, in an interview with The Telegraph, Didion puts words to wishful longing:
But one of the aspects of Dunne’s absence that has troubled her most frequently is the way she keeps thinking of things she would like to tell him; her office at the end of the dimly lit hall continues to face the one he used and, especially in the months after he died, it was often hard to remember that his was no longer occupied. Today, she says she still finds herself wanting to share things with him, although not as often as she once did. Towards the end of our conversation, I wonder what she does now with these thoughts, when they occur to her; what does she do, instead of telling John?
“Instead?” she asks in surprise. “It’s not an either-or situation. I don’t tell anyone. I just keep it to myself.”
Roxanne Krystalli is a regular contributor to Gypsy Girls Guide. You can also visit her at her site, Stories of Conflict and Love, or join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.