What if you hadn’t been home

Mary-Kay Wilmers

  • Blue Nights by Joan Didion
    Fourth Estate, 188 pp, £14.99, November 2011, ISBN 978 0 00 743289 9

This is how it begins:

July 26 2010. Today would be her wedding anniversary.

Joan Didion’s daughter, Quintana Roo, was married at the Cathedral of St John the Divine on Amsterdam Avenue in New York in 2003. Dates are important. In a writer as fastidious as Didion they carry a lot of weight. Detail matters too, sometimes more than the main thing, or instead of it:

Seven years ago today we took the leis from the florist’s boxes and shook the water in which they were packed onto the grass … The white peacock spread his fan. The organ sounded. She wove white stephanotis into the thick braid that hung down her back. She dropped a tulle veil over her head and the stephanotis loosened and fell. The plumeria blossom …

What Didion doesn’t say, here or elsewhere, is what Quintana looked like: was she tall or short, plump or skinny – who knows?

Blue Nights is dedicated to Quintana. The reference in the title is to a colour of evening light – ‘the French called this time of day “l’heure bleue”.’ You see it first in late April when ‘suddenly summer seems near, a possibility, even a promise,’ but only in certain latitudes: in New York, for example, where Didion now lives, but not in California, where she is from and where much of the book is set. When the days begin to shorten it fades: ‘as the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness.’ Didion is nearly 77; between Quintana’s wedding and the writing of Blue Nights, first her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, then Quintana died: the meaning of the title is obvious.

Dunne died of a heart attack in 2003: ‘My attention was on mixing the salad. John was talking, then he wasn’t.’ His death and Didion’s response to it – her grief with all its complexities, her uncertain state of mind, her lingering fantasy that he might be back (he would need his shoes), her guilt that she hadn’t believed him when he said he was dying – is the principal subject of The Year of Magical Thinking, published in 2005, and not long afterwards made into a Broadway play starring Vanessa Redgrave. Dunne died on 30 December. ‘You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.’ Eight days earlier, Quintana, with a temperature of 103 and ‘feeling terrible’, had gone to the emergency room at Beth Israel North on the Upper East Side and been told she had flu; on Christmas Day the hospital admitted her and by the evening she was in intensive care. X-rays showed double pneumonia; her blood pressure indicated septic shock. ‘I don’t think I’m up for this,’ Dunne had said in the taxi on the way back from visiting her. ‘You don’t get a choice,’ Didion replied. Later she wondered if she’d been wrong. At that point it wasn’t clear whether Quintana would live. Her illness is The Year of Magical Thinking’s second subject. ‘When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.’

In the middle of January Quintana’s sedation was reduced and she was told her father had died. At his funeral, ‘in the same cathedral where she had eight months before been married’, she read a poem she had written in his memory. Two days later, ready to start her life again, she set off for Los Angeles with her husband. That was in March, three months after she was first taken ill. ‘Do you think I’ll be okay in California, she said. I said yes.’ As she was walking out of the airport towards the car hire she collapsed:

They had gotten off the plane.

They had picked up their shared bag.

‘When I’m working on a book,’ Didion told Hilton Als in a Paris Review interview, ‘I constantly retype my own sentences. Every day I go back to page one and just retype what I have. It gets me into a rhythm.’ Had she done that for The Year of Magical Thinking? ‘It was especially important with this book,’ Didion replied, ‘because so much of it depended on echo.’ There and in Blue Nights, its companion, the rhythm, with its two or three one-line paragraphs coming at the end of a longer paragraph, its dates, its italicised tags, its almost liturgical repetitions, can feel like a snare, something one can’t escape from, a spell, a seduction. You think you are writing your own sentences: you find you are imitating hers.

Quintana was now in the neurosurgery unit at UCLA Medical Center. Either her fall had led to a brain haemorrhage or a haemorrhage had caused the fall. It didn’t seem to matter which. (‘There were two possibilities, both of them, I came to see, irrelevant.’) The question again was whether she would live. Didion flew out to LA and resumed her vigil. ‘She’s a pretty cool customer,’ they’d said of her in the hospital in New York when they told her John Gregory Dunne was dead. Didion hadn’t found the remark unwarranted, merely wondered what an uncool customer would be ‘allowed’ to do. Would they scream?

She didn’t scream or break down or require sedation. And she didn’t keep asking the doctors for ‘the prognosis’, as other relatives in the neurosurgery unit did. Instead, she found herself ‘pointing out oedema to one intern, reminding another to obtain a urine culture to check out the blood in the Foley catheter line, insisting on a Doppler ultrasound to see if the reason for the leg pain could be emboli’. If this didn’t endear her ‘to the young men and women who made up the house staff’ so be it. Didion is a spellbinding writer: she isn’t necessarily likeable, or un-scary.

‘In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control.’ She knew the names of the neurological tests the doctors had ordered (‘The Kimura Box Test. The Two-Point Discrimination Test’) and the scales on which Quintana’s coma was measured (‘The Glasgow Coma Scale, The Glasgow Outcome Scale’), just as she knew the names of the antibiotics Quintana had been given in Beth Israel North. Azithromycin, gentamicin, clindamycin, vancomycin: it’s all part of the rhythm. And if she didn’t need ‘the prognosis’ it’s because she was well aware that there couldn’t be one – ‘I recall being told that it would be a minimum of three days before anyone could begin to know what shape her brain was in’ – and knew better than to ask pointless questions.

Five weeks later, at the end of April, Quintana was well enough to be flown back to New York in an air ambulance. The next phase was a rehabilitation unit at a different New York hospital. The feeding tube was still in place but no longer necessary. She was recovering the use of her right arm and leg and the mobility in her right eye without which she couldn’t read. At weekends her husband took her to lunch in the neighbourhood. Her husband, incidentally, is called Gerry. He has his bit part in Didion’s story; he isn’t left out.

Didion finished The Year of Magical Thinking on 31 December 2004: the year was over. ‘John did not see this day a year ago. John was dead.’ She no longer disputed it. She would no longer hold on to his shoes. Or see herself through his eyes: ‘this year for the first time since I was 29 I saw myself through the eyes of others.’ On 31 December 2004 Quintana was still alive. The previous year, when she’d been in intensive care in Beth Israel North, her Christmas presents were stacked away in her old bedroom, waiting for her to get better, but now there is no mention of presents; is that a bad sign?

She died eight months later, on 26 August 2005, two months before The Year of Magical Thinking was published. She had been ill in all 20 months: ‘20 months’, Didion tells us in Blue Nights, ‘during which she would be strong enough to walk unsupported for possibly a month in all’.

Blue Nights, a more anxious, self-questioning book than The Year of Magical Thinking, is about fear, Didion’s and Quintana’s principally: fear of being abandoned, of time passing, of losing control, of dying; and about the memory of a time between the mid-1960s and the late 1980s when Didion and Dunne lived in California and Quintana was growing up; a charmed time when ‘there had been agapanthus, lilies of the Nile, intensely blue starbursts that floated on long stalks’; when children might develop a liking for caviar; and there were birthdays at which rafts of balloons were released to drift over Hollywood Hills; a time when fear was glossed over or unrecognised and Didion was a mother who wrote books:

The oleander branch on which she swings is familiar, the curve of the beach on which she kicks through the wash is familiar.

The clothes of course are familiar.

I had for a while seen them every day, washed them, hung them to blow in the wind on the clotheslines outside my office window.

I wrote two books watching her clothes blow on those lines.

It sounds good. Who, on paper, wouldn’t like to have children and write books? But what about the children? Quintana was born in March 1966. She wasn’t Didion and Dunne’s biological child. Didion had first wanted a baby when she was in her mid-twenties, living in New York and working for Vogue. She was now 31. Had she gone on thinking about babies and then despaired? Or had other thoughts taken their place? In The Year of Magical Thinking, remarking on how easy everything had been in the past, Didion describes ‘a time in our life when most things we did seemed without consequence, no-hands’. Was that true of the decision to adopt? A moment – there are several – of 1960s heedlessness? It’s New Year 1966, she and Dunne are on a boat with friends: they’re thinking of the next drink. ‘Maybe because the Erskines were there’ – the Erskines, friends of friends, had an adopted daughter –

or maybe because I had mentioned wanting a baby or maybe because we had all had the drink we were thinking about having, the topic of adoption had entered the ether …

That was all.

Yet the next week I was meeting Blake Watson.

Blake Watson was the obstetrician who’d delivered the Erskines’ adopted daughter.

Three months later he rang Didion and her husband to say he’d just delivered ‘a beautiful baby girl’ to a mother who was unable to keep her: were they interested? After they’d been to the hospital and looked at the baby and made up their minds to have her they called on Dunne’s brother and his wife in Beverly Hills for a celebratory drink (‘only when I read my early fiction, in which someone was always downstairs making a drink and singing “Big noise blew in from Winnetka”, did I realise how much we all drank and how little thought we gave to it’). Lenny, Didion’s sister-in-law, offered to meet her at Saks the next morning to buy a layette (in the 1960s people still talked about ‘layettes’); if she spent 80 dollars Saks would throw in a cot – a ‘bassinette’.

I took the glass and put it down.

I had not considered the need for a bassinette.

I had not considered the need for a layette.

It’s hard to imagine that happening now, when having a baby and having the stuff seem to be inseparable parts of the same enterprise.

Not that Didion isn’t interested in stuff – clothes and their provenance most of all. Like dates, clothes are freighted; they signal the passing of time (‘When I bought that black wool challis dress Bendel’s was still on West 57th Street’), the good times especially (‘She was wearing Christian Louboutin shoes’: ‘you saw the red soles when she kneeled at the altar’) and they distinguish one era from the next (‘I look at those photographs now and am struck by how many of the women present were wearing Chanel suits and David Webb bracelets’), one mood from another. The bassinette was a turning point: ‘Until the bassinette it had all seemed casual, even blithe, not different in spirit from the Jax jerseys and printed cotton Lilly Pulitzer shifts we were all wearing that year.’

Before the bassinette there had been a plan to go to Saigon: ‘we had assignments from magazines, we had credentials, we had everything we needed. Including, suddenly, a baby.’ It was a particularly bad year for that sort of tourism – US planes had started bombing the North – yet it didn’t occur to her to alter or give up the plan: ‘I even went so far as to shop for what I imagined we would need: Donald Brooks pastel linen dresses for myself, a flowered Porthault parasol to shade the baby, as if she and I were about to board a Pan Am flight and disembark at Le Cercle Sportif.’ In the event the trip didn’t take place but not for ‘the obvious reason’. Dunne, it turned out, had to finish a book.

With Quintana and the Lilly Pulitzer shifts soon enough came fearfulness: ‘Once she was born I was never not afraid’: ‘afraid of swimming pools, high-tension wires, lye under the sink, aspirin in the medicine cabinet … rattlesnakes, riptides, landslides, strangers who appeared at the door, unexplained fevers, elevators without operators and empty hotel corridors’. It’s a bewitching list: ‘riptides’, ‘landslides’ – the words sound so nice side by side. Until Quintana was six months old and her adoption became legal Didion had also worried that the baby might somehow be reclaimed, removed, taken away from them. A few years later she realised that she ‘had never been the only person in the house’ to have fears of that sort: ‘What if you hadn’t answered the phone when Dr Watson called,’ Quintana would say: ‘What if you hadn’t been home, what if you couldn’t meet him at the hospital, what if there’d been an accident on the freeway, what would happen to me then?’ Didion’s response was brisk: ‘Since I had no adequate answer to these questions, I refused to consider them.’ Fair enough, I suppose, if literal-minded. Didion is more interested in what people say than the reasons they say it, in what they feel than the reasons they feel it: Freud & Co – they don’t do much for her. She has her own sentences to deal with these things.

When should Didion have realised that all was not well with Quintana, that her mood changed too quickly, that she would grow up to be depressed and anxious (‘we went through many diagnoses, many conditions that got called by many names’)? Was it when she nailed a list of ‘Mom’s Sayings’ to the garage door that read: ‘Brush your teeth, brush your hair, shush I’m working’? Or earlier, when, aged no more than five, she told her parents that she had rung the local psychiatric hospital while they were out ‘to find out what she needed to do if she was going crazy’? Or when she rang Twentieth Century-Fox ‘to find out what she needed to do to be a star’? Or when, some years after that, she told her parents that she was writing a novel ‘just to show you’: a novel, Didion discovered after Quintana’s death, whose heroine, called Quintana, dies and her parents ‘didn’t even care any more’.

Looking now at photographs of Quintana as a child, Didion wonders how she could have missed ‘the startling depths and shallows of her expressions, the quicksilver changes of mood’. But what’s the standard here? How alert do parents have to be not to find themselves looking back with dismay? Or how lucky? ‘When we talk about our children … are we talking about … the whole puzzle of being a parent?’ Didion asks. When she talks about Quintana is she always thinking about herself?

‘Was I the problem? Was I always the problem?’ she asks when she fails to find a way to pull out the five-year-old Quintana’s tooth:

My most coherent memory involved my mother tying a piece of thread around the loose tooth, attaching the thread to a doorknob, and slamming the door. I tried this. The tooth stayed fixed in place. She cried. I grabbed the car keys: tying the thread to the doorknob had so exhausted my aptitude for improvisational caretaking that my sole remaining thought was to get her to the emergency room at UCLA Medical Center, thirty-some miles into town …

The next time a tooth got loose she pulled it herself. I had lost my authority.

‘I do not know many people who think they have succeeded as parents,’ Didion says sniffily. ‘Those who do tend to cite the markers that indicate (their own) status in the world: the Stanford degree, the Harvard MBA, the summer with the white-shoe law firm.’ These aren’t markers likely to impress Didion – that’s why she chose them. And in any case she was OK: she didn’t need Quintana to shine on her behalf. But the markers of success her parents no longer had any need for were precisely the ones that preoccupied Quintana. As well as writing novels Didion and Dunne wrote for the movies, they had Hollywood connections and, to the extent that they wanted them, Hollywood lives. Hence Quintana’s novel, hence her call to Twentieth Century-Fox. When she was four or five Didion took her to see Nicholas and Alexandra and when Didion asked her how she had liked it she said: ‘I think it’s going to be a big hit.’ ‘Was this confusion about where she stood in the chronological scheme of things our doing?’ Didion asks and I suppose one might wonder why Quintana had been taken to see Nicholas and Alexandra when she wasn’t yet six, maybe not even five. ‘Did we ask her to assume responsibility before she had any way of doing so? Did our expectations prevent her from responding as a child?’

In one form or another and in different contexts the questions recur. They don’t expect an answer. Reassurance too is something Didion doesn’t need. She is talking to herself, weighing up the past, going over old stories, keeping herself company. Staging herself. ‘Was I the problem?’ she asked after describing the tooth-pulling fiasco and maybe she was, but her decision to drive thirty miles to UCLA Medical Center to get a doctor to pull the tooth out doesn’t answer the question, funny and revealing though her account of it is. Like the trip to Saigon that didn’t happen it’s the sort of comic story we – by ‘we’ I mean women – like to tell against ourselves. Usually we tell the stories winsomely, self-deprecatingly, but Didion, even down in the dumps, is more ruthless.

Take Quintana’s troubles – the ‘quicksilver changes of mood’ etc. ‘How could I have missed what was so clearly there to be seen?’ Didion asks herself – another question that has no answer. Later on, there are names – ‘manic depression … became OCD and OCD was short for obsessive-compulsive disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder became something else, I could never remember just what’ – and as one diagnosis succeeds another Didion becomes increasingly intemperate: ‘I have not yet seen that case in which a “diagnosis” led to a “cure”, or in fact to any outcome other than a confirmed, and therefore enforced, debility.’ Eventually borderline personality disorder is settled on: ‘Such patients,’ the manual says, ‘may seem charming, composed and psychologically intact one day and collapse into suicidal despair the next.’ At last an account Didion is willing to accept: ‘I had seen the charm, I had seen the composure, I had seen the suicidal despair’:

I had seen her wishing for death as she lay on the floor of her sitting room in Brentwood Park, the sitting room from which she had been able to look into the pink magnolia. Let me just be in the ground, she had kept sobbing. Let me just be in the ground and go to sleep.

Note the pink magnolia: however painful the moment, Didion never lets go of the rhythm and the décor. There are intervals in the book, one or two moments when people come in from outside. Quintana’s biological mother is one and the episode gets short shrift: Didion is slightly appalled and not very interested. Another, more vexed, concerns Vanessa Redgrave’s daughter Natasha Richardson who, like her parents, was a friend of Didion’s and who died as a result of a skiing accident at the beginning of 2009. Three or four years older than Quintana, she appears to be many things Quintana is not (Le Nid du Duc was her father’s estate above Saint-Tropez):

by the time John and I arrived … Tasha was running Le Nid du Duc, the 17-year-old chatelaine of what amounted to a summer-long house party for a floating 30 people. Tasha was managing the provisioning of the several houses that made up the compound. Tasha was cooking and serving, entirely unaided, three meals a day for the basic 30 as well as for anyone else who happened up the hill … Tasha made certain that Quintana and Roxana got to the correct spot on the beach … Tasha made certain that Quintana and Roxana got a proper introduction to the Italian boys … Tasha did a perfect beurre blanc … Tasha devised the fables, Tasha wrote the romance.

Poor Quintana. While Tasha is rustling up the beurre blanc she is lying on the carpet wishing she were dead. There are several reasons why Didion might write differently about her friends’ daughter from the way she writes about her own. Tasha is an outsider, however fulsomely praised, or fulsomely praised because she is an outsider (and no reason to think she doesn’t deserve the praise). Unlike Quintana, she isn’t folded into the rhythm of Didion’s sentences; hasn’t been allocated any lines/allowed any interruptions in Didion’s conversation with herself. And given the painful contrast with Quintana it’s hard to know what part Tasha is playing here unless as another loss that Didion suffered in the timespan covered by the book.

Blue Nights has been billed as a book about Quintana, it is dedicated to her, there is an enchanting photograph of her on the back cover looking as if Twentieth Century-Fox had already made her a star; she is the focus of the book, or more precisely of Didion’s memories, as well as being the object of her loss, but Didion herself is its subject, its best subject. That doesn’t mean that she doesn’t miss Quintana, far from it; or that she hogs the limelight or lets herself off the hook or appears to be more than normally self-obsessed; her writing is measured and has its own kind of narcissistic grace.

Towards the end, as Quintana fades out of the picture Didion writes about herself as she is now: frail, uncertain, unsteady, childless; afraid to get up from a folding chair; afraid to admit she might not know how to start a strange car; afraid that she is no longer able to tell a story, that she will ‘never again locate the words that work’; afraid to die and afraid not to die; she tells herself not to whine, to get used to being alone; faints and wakes up on her bedroom floor unable to move and not within reach of any of the apartment’s 13 phones. In short, finds herself not growing old but old already:

One day we are looking at the Magnum photograph of Sophia Loren at the Christian Dior show in Paris in 1968 and thinking yes, it could be me, I could wear that dress, I was in Paris that year; a blink of the eye later we are in one or another doctor’s office being told what has already gone wrong, why we will never again wear the red suede sandals with the four-inch heels, never again wear the gold hoop earrings, the enamelled beads, never now wear the dress Sophia Loren is wearing.

‘When I began writing these pages,’ Didion says quite early on in the book, ‘I believed their subject to be children, the ones we have and the ones we wish we had, the ways in which we depend on our children to depend on us … The ways in which neither we nor they can bear to contemplate the death or the illness or even the ageing of the other.’ Then, ‘as the pages progressed it occurred to me that their actual subject was this failure to confront the certainties of ageing, illness, death … Only as the pages progressed further did I understand that the two subjects were the same. When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.’ The children who won’t be there to mourn us when we die.