Leftover Life to Kill

By Caitlin Thomas

Book CoverJoan Didion mentioned this book in The Year of Magical Thinking, saying that when she read it in her 20s, she was exasperated with what she felt was Caitlin, Dylan Thomas’ widow, wallowing in self-pity, but that she could relate better now.

I was immediately struck by the name, because at times it describes my own feelings perfectly: how on earth am I going to get through the potential decades I have left when all of my plans for the future involved Thomas?

Unfortunately, Caitlin Thomas’ own strategy of alcohol, drugs, and shallow affairs while living off others’ charity in a small Italian villa is not the most helpful, and I have to admit to agreeing with 20-something Didion, that Caitlin’s raging against the world gets to be a bit much, even while I often feel similar myself. I would say that the entire book reflects my state of mind at the very worst 10% of the time, an emotional state of impotent rage and self-pity and self-destructiveness that I spend the rest of the time fighting against.

The most important piece of awareness this book did bring to me, though, was gratitude for the job that I often have to drag myself to with a combination of internal threats and bribery. I was occasionally resentful of Didion’s freedom from the need to work and juggle finances during her own recovery, but Caitlin (I’m avoiding calling her Thomas for obvious reasons) describes the emptiness of her days and her need for any sort of task to fill them (though she also refuses to find one), and I recognized that my work has kept me on a more structured path than I would have been able to create for myself during this time, and I am (grudgingly) grateful for that.

So, while the book was eventually worth while reading if only for that, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone not particularly interested in the subject matter for one reason or another. Caitlin most often comes across as the stereotype that shows up in Austen novels and other period pieces of that time, always complaining of the ill treatment she gets from everyone around her, from no possible cause, since she herself is nothing but kindness, and would be more than happy to be of assistance to others if only she were in a better condition to do so.

I also had some doubts that I would even be able to finish the book, since Caitlin has an incredibly difficult writing style, which uses punctuation marks in very strange ways that actively block comprehension. Semi-colons are often used where comas should be, and comas are just sort of haphazardly thrown in wherever, along with the random colon and hyphen, as well. I eventually decided that I wasn’t going to get so hung up on reading comprehension, and instead was simply going to charge through the book at 50 pages a day and I would simply settle for taking in whatever I was able to at that pace, and that ended up working fairly well.


The Year of Magical Thinking

By Joan Didion

Book CoverOn Wednesday, March 19, I sat in the living room and wrote my last post on this site, while Thomas, my partner for almost eight years, lay down for an afternoon nap that he wouldn’t wake up from. Thomas had been quite ill for several months, and I thought I had to some degree prepared myself for any possible outcome, but the immediate implosion of one’s life is literally unimaginable. There is no way to prepare for this, and no way to understand it without going through it. I don’t have the words for what the past couple of months have been like; everything seems insufficient.

A couple of weeks later I ran across a copy of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. I went back and forth on whether to read it; I wasn’t sure I was ready, but a phrase on inside blurb resonated with me: “This powerful book is Didion’s attempt to make sense of the ‘weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness…about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.’” I felt so cut loose myself that even reading those words felt like a stabilizing force.

The Year of Magical Thinking describes the year in which Didion’s adult daughter almost died of a sudden blood infection and her husband did die of heart failure. She describes her various emotional states, along with research she did around the psychology of grief. I could read this book when I rejected more direct help books because I could experience her story at a little bit of a distance, even while I felt “yes, this is exactly how it is” at the same time.

It wasn’t always the same, of course; it couldn’t be since grief is so personal. I also had to remind myself that Didion writes from a world of great privilege: both she and her husband are renowned authors, very comfortably off in both finances and independence. They had top-quality medical care, and Didion was able to spend all her time and resources with her slowly recovering daughter and her own slow emotional recovery. Several times I had to decide not to get resentful of what she had, but instead to take advantage of what she was giving—a thoughtfully written account that kept me from feeling quite so isolated.

Several people expressed concern about reading this book right now, since it is not an uplifting or inspirational story. However, the reality is so much worse that her words were soothing and comforting. She doesn’t have any answers because there aren’t any. Didion simply gave me a way to define, and then begin to accept, something that still often seems indefinable and unacceptable in a very literal sense.