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At 76, Didion is beautifully old, her highlighted gray bob freshly cut, her lips carefully lined and her nails manicured. She wears a blue and red–checked dress, a fraying red cardigan sweater, and sneakers. On Christmas Day 2003, Quintana was admitted with a life-threatening flu to Beth Israel North Hospital. Five days later, December 30, after Didion and Dunne returned from the ICU, Dunne suffered a fatal heart attack.

Quintana recovered slowly over the next few months through various hospital stays. That summer, she flew to L.A. with her husband, Gerry Michael, and upon landing, was taken to UCLA hospital with a cerebral hemorrhage. Didion reflects that before she got the news, “I had spent the day thinking I’d come out the other side”; then: “The doctors didn’t think she’d make it off the table.” Quintana survived the surgery, but died August 27, 2004.

Blue Nights begins on July 26, 2010, what would have been Quintana’s seventh wedding anniversary, and it recounts the picture-perfect ceremony at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The narrative then zigzags back and forth through Quintana’s life—and Didion’s.

Didion was an unconventional mother who came by the status unusually. She and Dunne got a call from a Beverly Hills obstetrician on March 3, l966, saying he had a baby girl for them. “I had been thinking about a baby for a while, but I hadn’t been thinking about bringing one home. They are forever. That seemed impossible that I would forever be responsible,” she recalls. The couple had met with the doctor a few months before, but “didn’t actually make a decision. We said call us, but I’m not sure.” There were no second thoughts when they saw the perfect baby with the “pink ribbon in the fierce dark hair.”

“Not that baby... that baby. The baby with the ribbon,” Didion writes of how Dunne would tell Quintana about the day they chose her. Dunne saw Quintana off to school in the morning, Didion tucked her in at night. Didion often read poetry to put Quintana to sleep. Once “Q” was asleep, Didion says, she would stay up late into the night and work, then read poetry before she went to sleep.

A framed copy of “The World,” a poem Quintana wrote when she was seven, hangs in Didion’s kitchen, printed carefully on construction paper:

The world/Has nothing/But morning/And Night/ It has no/Day or lunch/So this world/Is poor and desertid.

Quintana, Didion says, was preoccupied with dying, but she adds, “We lived always in sunny places.... it was hard to see the dark. I didn’t want to see it. I didn’t see any reason to see it.”

Didion was able to ignore other things as well. She says she wasn’t aware of getting old “until John [Dunne] died.” She refused to acknowledge her mother’s decline. She only wanted to see the lightness in her child, the beautiful baby, the young girl in her school uniform, the bride with flowers in her hair. All those Quintanas are there in the photographs in her living room, one a life-size poster.

Quintana’s look-alike sister tracked her down with a Fed-Ex letter in 1996. Quintana’s birth parents had married after they gave her up for adoption and then had two more children. Her biological mother called Quintana until, when Quintana asked her to give her a little time to get used to what she called “being found,” the mother disconnected her phone, saying she did not want to be a burden. Didion is sparing in the details of her daughter’s blood relatives, even kind. “I had a very strong feeling that this family had given me their child.”

When asked how she defines herself—a wife, a mother, a writer—Didion says she knew she was a good wife; she isn’t sure what kind of mother she was. “I used to say I was a writer, but it’s less up front now. Maybe because it didn’t help me.” She’s not sure whether she will write again, certainly not about the topics she took on in the 20th century. Writing about morality and culture is like “pushing the stone uphill again. You write about X political events and nothing happens. That doesn’t push you to write again.” She continues to read. There is a galley near her chair: Sherwin B. Nuland’s The Art of Aging. But she doesn’t read poetry any more. She goes to bed at 7:30 most nights, and gets up at 6 a.m. “In fact, I can hardly stay awake. I go to bed earlier and earlier for reasons that escape me. If I stay up any later, I’m ruined for the next day.” On this late August afternoon, the day before the anniversary of her daughter’s death, she says, “Of course, that’s going to change now that the light is changing.”

Carrie Tuhy, former editor of Real Simple, is cofounder of SecondLivesClub.blogspot.com.

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