When I began writing these pages I believed their subject to be children, the ones we have and the ones we wish we had, the ways we depend on our children to depend on us, the ways in which we encourage them to remain children, the ways in which they remain more unknown to us than they do to their most casual acquaintances; the ways in which we remain equally opaque to them.
The ways in which neither we nor they can bear to contemplate the death or the illness or even the aging of the other.
As the pages progressed, it occurred to me that their actual subject was not children after all…; their actual subject was this refusal even to engage in such contemplation, this failure to confront the certainties of aging, illness, death.
Blue Nights is an emotionally searing little volume. Reading it for me was like touching my fingers to a fire that’s always burning in my mind, but one I’m usually too afraid to get close to.
The eternal conflagration that is aging, illness, death.
And the fear of it.
If you read this blog very often, and especially if you read my other blog, you’ll know that my life is perhaps too enmeshed in these things – elderly parents and relatives and neighbors, each one treading a hopeless downhill path leading directly to the grave. It’s an ugly thing to say, but it’s a thought that burns in my head every day and one from which I endeavor to maintain a respectful distance.
Until someone like Joan Didion comes up behind me and shoves me right up close to the fire.
While Blue Nights is ostensibly a memoir about Didion’s daughter Quintana, and her death in 2005, it’s really almost more about Didion’s own decline and the fears associated with it. She uses the word “frail” again and again to describe herself, and if you’ve seen photos of her recently you know that word to be a huge understatement. Of course Didion has been gutted in the past decade by her husband’s very sudden death in 2003, her daughter’s long, drawn out illness (which was already underway at the time of his death), and by the inevitable losses of aging. Didion, who is 75 years old, “spends whole days” wondering who to notify in case of emergency,” now that Quintana – the “one person who would need to know” -is gone.
Of course losing a child must be like losing all light from your life, like the eternal ending of “blue nights,” the extra long hours of daylight we experience during the summer months for which the book is named. That light is like a grace bestowed on us after the weary darkness of winter, and every year when they end and the inevitable twilight falls earlier and earlier, it’s a little like death.
Didion’s exploration in this book startles and pangs me. She takes no comfort in memories, and in fact wishes she could forget them. She remembers Quintana’s death, she looks at “what was lost,” but she looks harder at the “real fear” – knowing that we all “pass as the blue nights pass, into nothingness.”