In writing of death, two women focus on those who live

October 25, 2005|By SUSAN REIMER

A year ago, on the occasion of the last Halloween of her life, Washington journalist Marjorie Williams wrote this:

"If you have cancer, if you've had it for a while, at some point you start really seeing all those skulls and skeletons and Styrofoam headstones, all those children in hooded capes, bearing scythes on their little shoulders."

It seems eerily coincidental that a collection of her essays will be published this Halloween season, including her heartbreaking account of her losing battle with liver cancer.

It was a battle doctors told her would be over in three months. She lived three years, fiercely grasping for time with her two young children, Will and Alice.

Also at bookstores in this season when everything dies, is Joan Didion's account of the year after the death of writer John Gregory Dunne, her husband of almost 40 years.

On Dec. 30, 2003, after returning from the hospital where they had stood vigil over their gravely ill daughter, Dunne died of a massive heart attack as the two were about to sit down to dinner.

"Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends," Didion writes at the beginning of a piercing inspection of her grief.

The title of her book is The Year of Magical Thinking (Knopf, $23.95), reference to a phrase psychologists use to describe the madness of grief.

"I felt if I did certain rituals, time would go backward," Didion writes, "and John would be back."

Didion's book and Williams' collection, The Woman at the Washington Zoo (PublicAffairs, $26.95), are joined in death, but with a critical difference: Didion survived both her husband and her daughter, who died at age 39 just two weeks after this book was finished.

Williams did not.

But death happened to them both, and they used their brilliant craftsmanship to inform the hearts of those of us who still live.

Williams was known as an unsparing portraitist of the Washington elite in profiles she wrote for The Washington Post and Vanity Fair magazine. You knew you had arrived when Marjorie Williams called for an interview.

They are collected in this book by her husband, journalist Timothy Noah.

Her reporting was exhaustive, but it was her wit and insight and her effortless way with language that made her such a pleasure to read.

She brought those same skills to bear on her life in "Cancerland," as she called it, and the final third of the book deals with the time she dwelled there.

"I live at least two different lives," she wrote. "In the background, usually, is the knowledge that for all my good fortune so far, I will still die of this disease.

"But in the foreground is regular existence: love the kids, buy them new shoes ...

"What you do, if you have little kids, is lead as normal a life as possible, only with more pancakes."

Didion, too, was focused on her child, critically ill from a flu that quickly turned to sepsis, and that postponed not only Dunne's funeral, but her mourning.

"I realize as I write this that I do not want to finish this account. Nor did I want to finish the year. The craziness is receding, but no clarity is taking its place. I look for resolution and find none," she writes.

Didion observed her own grieving, and wrote about it. Williams observed her own dying and wrote about it. But there is so much intersection in their introspection.

Both women recognize the privilege of their lives and decline to curse their luck.

Both savage the haughty medical gods.

Both pick apart the grieving mind, its digressions, its disorder, the way it is overtaken by memories.

And both women understood that death is really about the ones who are left behind.

"There are days when I can't look at them - literally, not a single time - without wondering what it would do to them to grow up without a mother.

"What if they can't remember what I was like? What if they remember, and grieve, all the time?

"What if they don't?" Williams writes.

Though Didion's daughter, weakened by so many infections, finally succumbed to one on Aug. 26, Didion declined to revise her book.

She said during an interview that she was no longer afraid of death.

"One of the things that worries us about dying always is, we're afraid we're leaving people behind, and they won't be able to take care of themselves.

"But in fact, you see, I'm not leaving anybody behind."

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