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November 6, 2011

Blue Nights

by Anne Paddock

Several years ago, after my 14-year old golden retriever died, a friend gave me a book called “The Magical Year of Thinking” written by Joan Didion.  The book is about the sudden death of Didion’s husband and the grief she experienced:  reliving the last few days, imagining different outcomes, and sometimes pretending the loss isn’t real, that it was all a bad dream. As time goes by, the reader realizes that time doesn’t heal all wounds; time just makes the wound more bearable. And, although the loss of a beloved pet cannot be compared to the loss of a partner, “The Magical Year of Thinking” doesn’t distinguish between types of grief. Grief is grief no matter how you experience it.

Joan Didion recently published a new book called “Blue Nights” which I immediately bought and read. The story is about Didion’s adopted daughter, Quintana Roo who died at the age of 39 – less than two years after Didion lost her husband – in 2005.  The book, at 188 pages is a quick read filled with the deeply personal journey of Didion through motherhood and aging.  As any mother knows, the gift of motherhood is not free and in fact will bring a person to her knees for she will never know fear or vulnerability as strongly as she does when she has a child.

Didion is deeply introspective and reflects on how she unknowingly then but now clearly sees that she treated that “beautiful baby girl” like a doll.  That realization caused me to pause and think that we all have made that mistake at times.  That beautiful baby girl that emulates you, repeats your sentences, and parrots your opinions eventually develops a sense of self and becomes her own person.  Didion points out that we often fail to see that separate person emerging and don’t really know our children because we haven’t changed as they have evolved. Our sense of our children is finite – she will always be my child but her sense of self is like a seed.  We are the parent; we are always the parent, but she was an infant, baby, toddler, little girl, big girl, tween, teen, and eventually an adult. We don’t always see or want to see differently than what we’ve known from the past.

The funniest part of the book is when Didion shares her thoughts on aging.  At 75, she is starting to feel frail and afraid.  A doctor suggests that she has made an “inadequate adjustment” to aging when in fact, she admits the doctor is wrong – she has made no adjustment whatsoever to aging by admitting “I had lived my entire life to date without seriously believing that I would age.”  Those words hit me hard as I subscribe to the same mantra feeling relieved that someone else out there also feels exempt from a process we are all destined to go through should we be lucky enough to live so long. I can no more picture myself at 75 than I can picture myself at 60 – that’s how old grandparents are, not me.

Several months ago, my daughter and I were driving through West Hartford, CT and while waiting at a stop light, we watched an elderly woman dressed in black capris, a crisp white shirt, and a cashmere sweater tied over her shoulders emerge from a store. Her straight grey hair was smartly combed into a neat ponytail tied with an elegant clip at the nape of her neck. My daughter and I gazed at her admiringly and my daughter broke the silence by saying “Mom, that’s you in 20 years. That’s what you’re going to look like as a grandmother.” Me, look like a grandmother – hard to fathom, but my daughter who sees things, is probably right.She sees me for who I am and what I will become.  I, on the other hand have a hard time seeing that I will grow old and that she is no longer a little girl who needs to be protected, reminded, and coddled at every turn.

When I finished “Blue Nights,” I was humbled because Didion points out that most parents don’t feel they really succeed at parenthood – it’s a day-to-day evaluation that is life long. You may pass second grade but fail high school and then graduate with honors from college. Of course, there are parents that do feel that have succeeded and Didion points out this elite group tends to use mile markers – the acceptance to an elite high school or college, completion of a Harvard MBA, or a job at a white-gloved law firm or bank – but these markers don’t really measure the success of parents for we all trip, fall, and hopefully pick ourselves up through the bumpy journey of life.  We all need to be less judgmental of our peer parents and have more empathy for each other as we journey though parenthood because the process never ends.
The significance of the title “Blue Nights” is something we can all identify with but have rarely focused on.  Blue Nights are those evenings when the sun is beginning to set in late Spring when summer “seems near, a possibility, even a promise.” As the sun starts to set, the sky becomes bluer with the color deepening.  During this period, the thought of the day ending doesn’t seem possible but it will end and when it does, the summer is gone and the days are shorter.  Blue Nights are a warning that the end is near.

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