It is that time of year. The light is dying. The trees are skeletal. The sky is low and grey around the edges. Rather than seeming full of possibilities, the world narrows in scope. Climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa get less and less ambitious. Can they reach an accord to reach an agreement to lower emissions by a date too late to avoid dangerous consequences? Domestic politics limp along. Can we extend a payroll tax that everyone supports? Which of the recycled republican presidential candidates will inch toward nomination? It all seems small and shrinking.
This too will pass. The shortest day of the year is coming, and then the possibilities will open up again. December 22 has the most promise of any day on the calendar. This is the flip side of Joan Didion’s observations about the blue nights of early summer. “In certain latitudes there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice … when the twilights turn long and blue.” For Didion, these nights portend their own end, and the end of summer. “During the blue nights you think the end of day will never come. As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill … the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone.” December’s grey days foretell the opposite. Their dank brevity hints at the lengthening to come.
But until then, Joan Didion’s book about the death of her daughter haunts the season. Didion’s only child, Quintana Roo Dunne, died after a year of terrible illness and complications. Didion’s memoir is an unnerving confrontation with loss– the loss of an only child, the loss of a husband the year before, the impending loss of Didion’s tightly held memories. The book is a repository for those memories, insistently repeating them, but for the reader’s sake? For the writer’s? By the end of the book, it is hard to tell. Didion has forced the reader to accept her memories, and to fear their loss as she does. And I do. Why did I read this book, about the writer’s loss of her only child, a daughter? It was like rubbernecking at an accident scene. I couldn’t look away. Maybe if we read about death and loss, stare at it hard, it won’t happen to us. Or it won’t destroy us if it happens. Will staring death in the face inoculate us?
That sounds absurd. But thinking about death and its inevitability may keep the dying of the light at bay. People outlive their bodies because we remember them, we cherish their details and conjure their gestures, words, and scents. When their bodies are gone, what haunts us (because losing their bodies can no longer haunt us; it has happened) is losing our memories of them. This is how Didion ends Blue Nights: “The fear is not for what is lost…. The fear is for what is still to be lost. You may see nothing still to be lost. Yet there is no day in her life on which I do not see her.” Derek Parfit, the philosopher, would agree. Death is not the end of what we think of as identity. How and when identity dies is composed of other physical and psychological questions.
In this time of grey days, when every religion responds by bringing the light inside, when stories of birth and miraculous survival are told, here is another story. On December 21, 1988, a plane flying over Lockerbie exploded and pelted the ground below with fuselage and death. We were young, my college friends and I, and in full thrall to the myth of our immortality. It made no sense that Julian Benello, with whom we played, argued, and went on crazy road trips, had been on the plane. It made no sense that he had died. It still doesn’t. He can’t be gone because I can see him still, on the first day I met him, splashing water in his face as the punchline to a dumb joke. (Knock knock. Who’s there. John the Baptist.) For his friends, remembering Julian is nothing like it must be for his mother and his brother. But we remember him still. And on the anniversary of the shattering of his body, the days get longer and hope creeps back with the light, all kinds of hope. Hope that the world will address climate change, that domestic politics will be serious instead of silly, that young men and women, boys and girls, will never die before their parents. These are the necessary hopes (illusions?) and they will take us through, at least until the light ebbs again.