When my mum was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, months before my dad collapsed and died and my marriage fell apart, I sought solace in books. But it wasn’t my usual reading material, I couldn’t concentrate on the latest novel or must have hard back.
Unable to articulate the relentless visceral pain that was my new normal, I found comfort in other people’s real life turning points. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking spoke to me the loudest, or perhaps the softest is a better way of explaining it.
I read it late into the night, when the silence and darkness made me feel closest to those I had lost. For although my dad had died, a grief so deep I was barely treading water, my mum was also leaving me: Alzheimer’s is known as the long goodbye. Her final farewell would take eight long years.
Why then would I want to immerse myself in other people’s pain when I was struggling with my own?
Because I felt isolated, despite the comfort and kindness of friends and family. I was knocked off course, compass-less, stranded. I needed someone who had been in a similar place and found a way through.
Joan Didion’s book is about her husband’s death which coincided with her daughter – her only child – being gravely ill. As the mother of an only child, I could not imagine the desperation and terror Joan must have endured. Yet somehow, she did. That gave me hope.
Joan Didion’s true story helped me find my way again. It wasn’t a quick fix, grief and loss never are, but I will always be grateful to the fact she sat down and wrote about the worst time in her life when I was going through the worst time of my life.
Her book was so much more than a memoir to me. Thank you Joan.
Max Riddington has written five books and many articles for national newspapers and magazines. She is working on her memoir.