How Joan Didion Diagnosed the Hole in My Heart

By Austin Lammers

My father grew up in a small town called Fordyce, Nebraska. Placed in Cedar County about 15 miles south of Yankton, South Dakota, this “village” (as Wikipedia calls it) of 139 people includes his childhood home, which touches the 200 acres of corn and soybeans my grandfather farmed annually. My father, Roger, was the oldest of the five Lammers children. Paul, Christine, and Jamie followed. Born in January of 1979, seven years and 359 days after my dad, was the youngest, Chad.

Chad was born with a hole in his heart, making his survival unlikely. Doctors originally told my grandparents he would live only a few weeks. But he lived more than a few weeks. The estimate turned into a few months. And he lived more than a few months. It increased to two years. He lived more than two years. The doctor’s final estimate stood at 12 years. So, blowing out his cake’s candles on his 13th birthday, Chad had outlived all expectations. In 1998, just a few weeks after I was born, Chad graduated from Cedar Catholic High School in Hartington, NE. Then he graduated from Wayne State in 2004. His early life was plagued with check-ups and prescriptions and surgeries, but it never seemed to dishearten him. The only Chad I ever saw was a happy one.

 

As a kid, trips to my grandparent’s farm (aka The Place) were special times. My family and I usually made a trip in August, when my baseball season ended and the sweet corn eating began. During this trip I would ride the three-wheeler, play basketball or catch with my dad, feed weeds to the cattle, skip rocks on the “crick,” venture into old buildings I shouldn’t have, drain my body of water in the hot sun, and fill it back up with Oreo Ice Cream Pie, my favorite. We’d also take a trip for Thanksgiving or Christmas. For this trip I would play football outside, launch orbs of snow at my cousins, and stuff myself with Christmas cookies and pumpkin pie. It was an escape from the daily life in the city, a trip where my stress and worry evaporated. That’s why I loved it.

Yet while I enjoyed playing outdoors and stuffing my face with food, it didn’t compare to spending time with Chad. Due to health reasons, Chad lived with his parents after he graduated from college, so every time we pulled into the gravel driveway, he would be alongside my grandparents to greet us. This also meant he wouldn’t have to commute to and from The Place every day to see us, which meant the only time I would have to say good-bye was when my family and I left. And that was nice, because I hated good-byes.

Hanging out with Chad during our visits meant I didn’t have to hang around the adults. Instead of sitting in the living room listening to conversations about politics and guess-who-I ran-into-the-other-day, Chad and I would go upstairs and play Super Mario World or Super Mario Kart on the Super Nintendo on the Super Old Television. We spent hours dueling on the ancient technology, and as much as we enjoyed it, we enjoyed each other’s company more. When we weren’t launching red turtle shells and trash-talking, we were sharing our stories and visions and jokes. He never let the kid in him fade, and that’s why I, along with my other cousins, connected with him so easily.

When I was in 6th grade, Chad found a job at a computer tech support company (he was a genius when it came to technology), moved out of The Place, and into North Sioux City¹. On trips back to Fordyce I was given his room to sleep in (and still am). After his departure, I couldn’t help but snoop around his room. I learned more about Chad from the stuff he left in that room than the stuff he took from it. I found comic books, baseball cards, collectible action figures from both Star Trek and Star Wars, models to construct, old computers and their gadgets. I found his childhood interests, and they seemed similar to mine.

He left pieces of him in that room, but it didn’t compensate for his absence. Though he was only an hour away from The Place, it wasn’t the same. If I wasn’t outside, I would have to play the Super Nintendo by myself, and that wasn’t as fun.

I thought Chad living an hour away was miserable, but I didn’t know he was about to move further.

Fordyce Aerial
Fordyce, Nebraska.

 

It was conference night at South Middle School in November of 2011. I was in 8th grade. I was sitting at the kitchen table drawing on my math homework. My sisters were in their room being loud and giggly, like Chad and I were when we played Mario Kart. My parents had just left 30 minutes earlier to receive an oral critique of their son as a student.

“He’s quiet and keeps to himself, but he gets his work done,” my teachers were going to say.

In other words, it was just an ordinary night. Then I heard the garage door open. Why are they already home? I wondered. Were my reviews really that bad? Should I hide?

My mother entered the house first, a trail of tears following her from the kitchen to the living room. My sisters heard her soft cries and stood at the edge of the living room before taking a seat on one of the couches. My dad walked in next, expressionless with lost eyes.

Am I really that terrible of a student? Am I being disowned?

“What’s happening?” I asked.

My dad started saying something, cut himself off, and turned around for a moment. He turned to face us again.

“Chad went to heaven today,” he choked out.

Apparently my grandparents had called Chad multiple times that day, and had gotten no answer. My grandfather drove to his apartment, walked inside, and found Chad asleep in his bed. Just a deep sleep, I later wanted to believe. He’ll wake up soon.

I don’t remember what happened after my dad broke the news that night, but I do know our carpet soaked up a lot of tears.

 

I hated funerals.

I hated seeing my loved ones in pain. I hated seeing anyone in pain. I hated the funeral’s energy. It wasn’t a negative energy. It wasn’t a bitter energy. It certainly wasn’t a positive energy. It was a mixture of helplessness and shock; maybe desperation and depression. It’s hard to put into words, but it’s not hard to notice.

I hated looking down at the body in the casket. I hated standing and staring, waiting for a fluctuation of the chest or a twitch of the hand. Just a deep sleep. He’ll wake up soon. I hated how the beautified shell of the once-living looked so much different than the mental image of the still-living. It felt fake. It felt impure. It made the last goodbye harder, less sincere, which was unfortunate because I already hated goodbyes.

Hundreds of people gathered in Fordyce’s small church to say their last goodbyes to Chad. I didn’t say my last goodbye to him at the funeral. I had said my last goodbye months before, when his tired, though full, heart was still pounding. I said my last goodbye to him before either of us knew it was our last goodbye. I wanted my last goodbye to be one he could respond to, and it was.

St. John's
St. John’s in Fordyce, Nebraska

 

A few days ago, I finished a book called The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. I had read Didion in the past, so I knew who she was. I knew she was one of the greatest essayists in existence. I knew she wrote with a slight tone of depression and paranoia, but I didn’t know why. I did know that I could learn to write better by studying her prose, which prompted me to purchase the book in the first place. However, eloquent writing wasn’t the only thing I learned about.

The Year of Magical Thinking was published in October of 2005. Didion finished the manuscript 88 days after her husband’s sudden death. The book was not just a memoir of her husband, John Gregory Dunne (who was also a writer), or an account of almost losing her daughter within months of her husband²; it was a dissection of death through a narrative. In it, she tells her and her husband’s story, and how it turned into just her story. She explores the stages of grief and mourning, how she coped, and how she didn’t. She includes her research, literary and scientific, about human emotion after death. Simply put, the book is about her connecting the dots.

 

Life changes in the instant.

The ordinary instant.

Didion repeats this at least a dozen times throughout her narrative. It’s her theme, and she gives it to you on the first page. They were the first words I read, and after I read them, I already knew what the book was going to be about. I knew about instants.

One instant I’m drawing baseballs in the margins of my math homework, and the next instant I’m learning my favorite uncle left for heaven. One instant Chad is asleep, and the next his heart halts. One instant I’m sitting in my grandparent’s kitchen fighting back tears, and the next instant I’m filling Chad’s room with them.

All death happens in an instant, even if we can see it coming. The bridge linking life and death may deteriorate over time, but it crumbles in one instant. It’s an amazing phenomenon, and it happens every day. Every instant.

 

After Chad’s death, when I was less naive, I learned that the one thing he adored was family, specifically the kids. A line in his obituary even reads, “He thought the world of his family, especially his nieces and nephews.” He thought the world of my cousins. Of my sisters. Of me.

When The Place filled with his nieces and nephews, I believe Chad faced a bittersweet feeling. Yes, he loved his little relatives running around, but I think he wanted some of his own, and it hurt him because he didn’t have any. Why doesn’t Chad have his own family? I used to wonder when he was alive.

Didion writes,

Phillipe Aries, in The Hour of Our Death, points out that the essential characteristic of death as it appears in the Chanson de Roland is that death, even if sudden or accidental, “gives warning of its arrival.” Gawain is asked: “Ah, good my lord, think you then so soon to die?” Gawain answers: “I tell you that I shall not live two days.” Aries notes: “Neither his doctor nor his friends nor the priests know as much about it as he. Only the dying man can tell how much time he has left.”

Of course, after reading this, I thought back to Chad.

Why doesn’t Chad have his own family? Did that answer my question?

Did he know how little time he had left?

 

According to Didion, there are two emotional stages a human experiences after a loved one dies: grief and mourning. Many think of these two as the same, but they are actually quite different.

Grief is the first, more violent stage, and it’s often the one we think about when the scenario of a loved one’s death runs through our minds. Didion explains grief well in her book: “Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life. A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.”

Grief can be the denial of death. Grief can be the obsession to reverse death. We may all experience grief in different ways, but pain will be present, regardless of which way you live through.

When I lost Chad, the pain I endured didn’t match that of someone who lost a parent, sibling, child, spouse, or best friend. Their livelihood crashed down, mine didn’t. Their grief “obliterated the dailiness of life”. I didn’t experience the grief that my grandparents and the rest of their children did. I would be lying if I said I did. This didn’t mean I evaded the emotional pain. I was sad. It just meant the piece they lost was much bigger than the piece I lost.

Didion goes on to say: “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death.”

What follows those “few days or weeks” is the second step: mourning. Mourning is the gentler version of grief. If grief is denial, mourning is acceptance. Often times, mourning comes after grief, but that’s not always the case.

After the initial shock of learning about Chad’s death, I moved straight to mourning. I was extremely saddened and distraught and an uneasy feeling churned in my stomach, but I was able to accept the event immediately. I was able to wake up and get dressed the next day. I was able to eat. I was able to travel 300 miles to The Place without vomiting. I knew I still had responsibilities and obligations. My dailiness of life wasn’t obliterated.

Mourning may lack the same intensity of grief, but it does not lack the influence on the mind. Sadness does loom for some time, but after awhile, the sadness can turn to guilt. Why guilt?

Weeks passed after the funeral, and when I thought about Chad, the uneasiness in my stomach began to dissolve. Months passed, and I thought back to my last memory with him less and less. A year passed, and he only popped in my head when I saw or heard something that triggered a memory. The pain was healing, I guessed, but guilt took its place.

Am I allowed to leave him in the past? I kept asking myself. Was it okay to move on? I was back to a new normal, and for some reason it ate away at me.

“I know why we try to keep the dead alive,” Didion answered my question in the second-to-last page of her book.

We try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.

Let them become the photograph on the table.

Let them become the name on the trust accounts.

Let go of them in the water.

This last Christmas, my family and I made another trek to Fordyce. Once again, my grandparents’ old house was filled with nieces and nephews and aunts and uncles (20 to be exact). Once again, my cousins and I exchanged snowballs. Once again, I devoured Christmas cookies and Oreo Ice Cream Pie.

As I sat in the living room reading, I looked up at Chad’s small shrine hung upon on the wall. My grandparents had made it after his death, filling it with toys from his childhood and pictures from his decades of life. My stomach remained at ease when I saw his picture. Sadness didn’t run over me. My mind let me go back without pain. I let Chad become the “photograph on the table,” and I was free of death’s aftertaste. I was sad that God took him up early, but I was thankful he did it 21 years late.

 

Footnotes

1 – I remember asking him about the calls he would get from people with technical issues. Some people would call him when they spilled coffee on their laptop or dropped it in the tub and expect him to know what to do. One lady even called him when her computer somehow caught on fire. The tales were hilarious.

2 – Her daughter, Quintana, almost died twice within months of John due to a full body infection and brain complications. Then Quintana passed away in August of 2005, in between the completion of the book’s manuscript and its publication. That means Joan Didion lost her husband and her only child within a year of each other.


Austin Lammers is the editor-in-chief of the Pine Needle.

 

 

 

 

7 thoughts on “How Joan Didion Diagnosed the Hole in My Heart

  1. Great article. I’m so sorry for your loss and pain. I read The Year of Magical Thinking in college and it floored me. Didion is incredible and the insights she shared into grief were truly remarkable. Thank you for sharing your pain, even though I’m sure it was hard.

  2. Wonderful article and Chad would be very proud! He was a classmate and shared the early years of our life then later we shared medical obstacles through his heart issues as well as my son’s congenital heart anamoly. Chad always had a smile on his face and I will always remember him. Thank you Austin for sharing!

  3. I enjoyed this. I too, knew Chad as a high school classmate. Over the years, as I have attended several class reunions, I have thought about Chad (and John, who has also passed), and thought of their families who are living on without their loved one. I have always wanted one of them (parents and/or siblings) to know I have thought and prayed for my classmate, wondered what they would be like if they were still here… I am sorry you lost someone you loved, but I am confident in knowing they are watching down over you and family , feeling the love of the Father like none of us know here on earth. Thanks for sharing.

  4. My mom’s family is from Fordyce (Keiser), and I too grew up visiting multiple times a year. Thank you for this lovely piece. Brings up some awesome realizations about losing my grandparents and other relatives, and especially about the hardest death I have been touched by.

  5. Austin,
    This is a beautiful story. Grandpa and I are so very proud of you. I’m sure Chad is also. He really did think the world of his whole family. Thank you so very much!!!!! There was always be Oreo ice cream pie for you.

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