When I walked by the Second-hand Prose shop window, a hardback loose covered book seemed to jump out and grab me by the collar. ‘You need me, and you need me now,’ it said. I would have fought back and said ‘I’m grand, thank you, doing just fine,’ but when a book gets mentally physical with you, I knew it was important.
Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking opens up with the night her husband died at the dinner table. The story is her response to the events surrounding his death and her learning about grief, her grief, when her mind is telling her, he’ll be home soon.
A Year of Magical Thinking has been on my list of reading for some time. I realized as soon as I opened the first page what this book meant, at this time. My father died a year ago and I have done a great job of ‘managing’ my grief, by ignoring it as best I could. And here was the book that would change that, would teach me, and would scream at me loudly, that there was work to be done in the grief department. I was procrastinating my grief, not knowingly of course. Only in hindsight do you realize you’d happily procrastinate forever, because to dance with grief is a traumatic horror show. To face your grief is a minefield of the heart and mind battling at opposing sides of reality.
Reading this memoir, I move closer to my father’s death once again. Reading Joan Didion is to drink from her words, and there he was – gone and as she brings the lens and words to the event, right to the exact microscopic moment her John fell over and died, I am drawn back to the very moment of my beloved father’s, my John’s death. Right to the very last exhale.
This was the first chapter. I was inclined to close the book.
We are conditioned to forget our traumatic moments for a damn good reason. From giving birth to final life moments they are utterly painful experiences. Our memory protects us every time by suppression, dodging and hiding the pain wrapped in the memory. On the eve of my father’s one-year anniversary, I tried not to remember him in detail. Yes I can see his favourite baby-blue jumper, his helping hand, his white hair and glasses that slip from the top of his nose to the bottom, but to remember deeply is painful, those tender memories, the music and the laughter and the greatest moments of his life and ours, brings me to his death and all of the life of him gets washed away with this suppressing, and to the sudden horror of the last day or days.
So I picked up the book again, and tucked into chapter two, it was with much trepidation, it was with many alarm bells going off. Do I really want to go there?
I deliberately stayed with Joan’s story, with her experience and her magical thinking that her husband would be back soon. I had no such notions. I understood my father died, and wouldn’t be coming back. So with this clear thinking I was good at staying in my lane.
Until page 55.
Words. There are words that open windows and holes in your head that you jump into and follow and feel.
I didn’t want to feel words like anger and rawness or even acknowledge them. For example when Joan wrote about anger, I denied feeling any anger. I am also great at denying feelings, because again, it is a coping mechanism. We all do it. “I’m fine.” When you are not, not, not fine.
Two weeks before my father died, I bought a black wool coat because I was hosting the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins and wife Sabina, on the hill of Howth to launch the EIRE 6 sign. It was the proudest moment of my life. I had led the restoration of the 40 foot stone sign built in the summer of 1943 during WWII and most proudly, I wrote the presidential address and delivered it on a sunny April day with the highest dignitaries in the land, our beloved community and my daughters, in attendance. I bought the new black coat in Ted Bakers on Grafton Street. It was the most money I ever paid for a coat and probably it would see me out of this world. But my father was in hospital struggling with Covid.
Anger, the word, and now a feeling I was visiting, brought me to the call he made in the days before his death. “I’m in trouble,” he said. And I said, “I’m coming in and I’m going to talk to the doctor and I’m going to see you and sort this out, fuck them.” We both knew they wouldn’t let any visitors into a Covid ward, but the anger I felt towards the hospital would shift things. I had to see him to save him, to get him out of there and bring him home. Our family hadn’t seen him in ten days and we believed he’d be coming home soon, he wasn’t on a ventilator and was past the dangerous stage, we believed it, so did he. So what was going on?
I put on my new wool coat its gold coloured plated ends on the collar and belt shone in the grey morning light. I had a green shirt underneath it, a lovely touch of Irish green, a pair of diamond earrings and black pants, nearly the identical outfit I wore to impress the President. I’d show them I was serious. I mean if the President could bow his head humbly in greeting to me (and I to him) maybe the hospital porter could see his way to letting me get to Dad?
As I write this I realize my own magical thinking had started before my father had died.
There’s a moment in writing about grief and death when things get hard. When you’re writing towards a memory that will erupt and blow the doors of pain wide open. During the years of working with writers in my own writing workshops, I coach each brave writer to that point. Our instincts are to move past the pain as quickly as possible. Most stop writing. I tell them to breathe, then breathe deeper, to stay there for a moment, to sit with the pain just for another second, if they can, to keep the memory there and see it, feel it, see it, and ask yourself what were you thinking at that moment, what was the name of the feeling? Many times we put the wrong word or we mislabel our feelings, others have sharp clarity, I was mad, I was so angry with him/her/it. But keep pulling that heartstring.
On the approach to the hospital doors I passed sick people in wheelchairs and others pulling oxygen tanks, and puffing on cigarettes. Judge not I thought it could be any one of us outside pulling on nicotine at any time. I stood at the door of the hospital, at the reception area, and held my head high. I meant business after all. “I’m here to see John O’Brien, he needs me.” I said. A woman who looked as busy as expected really, being it in the height of COVID times and with an accident and emergency department that didn’t stop moving people in and out, plugged his name into a computer and looked up. “He’s in the COVID ward love, you can’t see him. Wait over there,” she said, “I’ll call his doctor.”
I chose to stand near the wall, mask on thankfully as it covered a lot of ugly cries, and I stared straight ahead. I wouldn’t let the waiting dissipate my mood. My father was so close. Maybe he was in a bed in a ward above my head? I schemed up ways to put him in a wheelchair and run out the door. I looked for security guards. I would bring him back to 9 Cannon Rock.
I stood for maybe twenty minutes until finally a young doctor asked if I was John’s daughter. “I am,” I said. He was kind and that made me madder, I wanted to scream and shout at what I knew he would say, ‘you can’t see him.’ I wanted to force him to take me to him. I wondered how I could convince (with or without force) him into meeting my demands. But he had a gentle way about him, empathetic and he was so young he reminded me of my son. How could I get angry with him? I could feel the anger slip. This anger, I learned, is called irrational anger.
“Your dad’s sodium levels dropped to a dangerous level, we’re working to restore them, we’ll know more in a day or two,” he said. “If you call me later, ask for me, otherwise, I’ll call you and keep you updated.”
“I need to see him, to reassure him he’ll be ok, he needs to see me,” I said. I could hear the plea break in my own voice. Certain the young doctor couldn’t say no to a father and daughter in need. So sure he would understand that my father’s very survival was in the balance and it was not medicine or COVID anything that would save him, it was me reassuring him I was taking him back home, that was what would keep him alive.
Here it was, I breathe, in and out, deeper and deeper, and explore the minute, what was it? Yes, it was the feeling of helplessness, that of failing my father, of not saving him. That is what appears.
I can breathe now, wipe the tears and write on. I can see behind the anger, Ok, it was the feelings of helplessness. There was more, because behind the anger is always a deeper feeling, and in my case, I believed if I could save him, he would approve so much of me. We would celebrate this one together. He would say, “Well done, you told them Lara, you got me out of a tough spot, love. I’m so proud of you,” Just like when I published my first book, “I’m so proud of you.” Or more recently when he texted the day the President came to Howth and I welcomed him on behalf of the community, all the time thinking of my father, who couldn’t be there. “So proud of your work, Lara.” And now, I imagined, the time I got him out of hospital and home to his family. Not anger, helplessness, could I have done more, made a scene or screamed for help? Begged and pleaded to release him? At the very least, he would have been with us, his family who have loved him for nearly sixty years.
More magical thinking. Breathe again here now, Lara, I remind myself. There’s more remembering and connecting to come. I turn the page and its only Chapter 3.