Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story: A Painful, Powerful, Rich Memoir
I’ve finished reading Joyce Carol Oates’ memoir A Widow’s Story, though I’m far from being finished with it. I don’t know when I’ve bookmarked a book more. It’s full of striking passages that I want to revisit and share with you. I felt riveted by the unexpected loss of her husband, and the vivid, impassioned depiction of her “posthumous” life, as she describes it, in the moments, hours, days, weeks and months following his death. The memoir is first and foremost a purge of uncensored grief, but it’s also revealing, more so perhaps than she intended, about herself and her marriage, and it gives glimpses into her life as a writer. I’m fascinated by JCO in part because of her mind-boggling prolificacy (a word I learned from the memoir). From a quick scan of her bibliography, I count that she’s written 26 novels under her own name, 11 under the names Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly, 23 short story collections, 10 poetry collections, 8 novellas, 9 plays, 15 non-fiction books, 5 young adult novels, and 3 children’s books. It is impossible to understand how this is even possible!
Oates’ husband of forty-one years, Raymond Smith, editor of the Ontario Review, was seventy-seven and quite fit when he came down with pneumonia. Joyce recognized that something was “not-right” and drove him to the Princeton Medical Center. In less than a week he would be dead from a secondary infection contracted in the hospital there. She’s brilliant at capturing the nightmare roller coaster of his hospital stay, all the while expecting that he would be shortly discharged and life would resume. At one point she gets a shocking phone call from the medical center that Ray’s heartbeat has accelerated and they haven’t been able to stabilize it. Does she want extraordinary measures to be used to keep him alive? At first she’s so stunned she can’t speak, but then is able to stammer Yes! Yes of course! Do anything you can to save him. A “sickening feeling of vertigo” overcomes her and she falls against the dining room table and onto the floor. This is “the first unmistakable sign of horror, of helplessness—impending doom.” In an italicized section at the end of the chapter, a device used throughout much of the memoir to highlight the insights of the seasoned widow looking back, she recounts that she acquired from this fall an “ugly bruise of the hue of rotted eggplant and of a shape resembling the state of Florida…” but the widow will almost forget this terrible phone call, “For soon there will be so much more to recall, from which mere fainting onto a hardwood floor will be no reprieve.”
The memoir proceeds in present tense, which gives it dramatic intimacy and immediacy. Indeed, it is impossible not to identify with Oates as if the reader is living through her story also. “Now into my life—as into my vocabulary—there has come a new, harrowing term: Telemetry.” Ray is moved into this unit adjacent to Intensive Care, where over the next few days he appears to be recovering. But E.coli sets in in his right lung, and Joyce will receive another shocking call at night, waking her from sleep, telling that her husband is in critical condition, and again asking if she desires extraordinary means to keep him alive. Her husband is still alive, according to the voice on the phone, and in a panic she drives to the hospital. “In the ghost-white Honda I am veering over the yellow line into the other lane, for some reason I am having difficulty gripping the steering wheel—my hands are bare, the wheel is cold yet the palms of my hands are slick with sweat. I am having difficulty seeing, too—the road ahead, in the Honda’s headlights, looks smudged.” We are caught in the same grip of fear and disbelief that she describes, even as we know the outcome.
What follows is as painful as anything I’ve read: the shock of finding her husband already dead, the disbelief of not hearing his voice saying Hi honey when she enters the room, her “pleading with him as a child might—‘Oh honey what has happened to you!—what has happened to you!—Honey? Honey?’” Oates’ ability to render the dissolution of the self she has known, the sudden plunge into the totally unknown and terrifying universe of losing her husband, with the shock and disorientation that accompany it, is amazing and heartbreaking.
The book continues to track moment by moment, feeling by feeling, thought by thought, her transition from life as she has understood and lived it to the complete sea change of being a widow. More than many wives, perhaps, Oates seemed to have relied to a great degree on her husband, who was eight years older than she when she married him at age twenty-two, an inexperienced young woman somewhat awestruck by this almost thirty year old PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin, where she had just enrolled in the M.A. program. Upon his death she can’t imagine life without him:
“You made my life possible. I owe my life to you.
“I can’t do this alone.
“And yet–what is the option? The Widow is one who has discovered that there is no option.”
Friends rally immediately, but her deep fear and distress at being alone almost destroy her. “When you are not alone, you are shielded. You are shielded from the stark implacable unspeakable indescribable terror of aloneness.” She has a recurring fantasy of a basilisk, an ominous lizard figure, which she first sees on the periphery of her vision or against her eyelids when she shuts her eyes:
“At times it appears to be sheerly light, luminous. But it’s a dark-luminous like ebony. Yet not a smooth beautiful ebony, more a rough-textured ebony. Something glimpsed at the bottom of the sea? It is covered with a rough shell, or scaly armor. Shimmering eyes—not living eyes—beady dead eyes like gems.”
The appearance of the thing with the beady, dead gem-like eyes becomes more frequent and what it wants is for her to erase herself. It wants her to die, and she wants to die, feeling tremendous guilt about living on after her husband has died. She thinks of life as “back when we were alive” as if she is already dead. The possibility of suicide is a solace in the first weeks and months of widowhood. She can’t sleep, has to take pills to get any rest, and both longs to be alone and is terrified of it. She carries on a social self, but the book captures deeply the dark night of the soul when she is by herself, left with her own traumatic images, memories, emotions and thoughts she can’t control.
She is overwhelmed by all there is to do now that she is a widow—the financial and legal affairs that must be attended to. She is also beset with well meaning expressions of sympathy. After reading this book, you will never again send anyone a sympathy gift basket, especially from Harry and David’s:
“As if in a silent film accelerated for crudely comic purposes there appear in the courtyard of our house in the days following Ray’s death a disorganized army of delivery men bearing floral displays, crates of fruit, hefty ‘sympathy gift baskets’ stuffed to bursting with gourmet foods—chocolate-covered truffles, Brazil nuts, honey-roasted cashews; smoked salmon, pickled herring, smoked pepperoni sausage; lemon cake, Key West Lime Pie, fruit tarts, chocolate-pecan fudge; ‘gourmet’ popcorn, ‘gourmet’ pretzels, ‘gourmet’ mixed nuts; Vermont cheddar cheese, and Vermont jack cheese; ‘drunken’ goat cheese; jars of peach butter, Russian caviar and pates of the most lurid kinds. ‘Mrs. Smith? Sign here, please’—on his way out of the courtyard the UPS man nearly collides with the FedEx man on his way in…”
I wonder if she made notes or kept a journal as she was living through these days after the death, so detailed, full and specific is her rendering of them, despite her dazed state. She doesn’t say. As one who doesn’t have children, I was struck by how she is alone, with no family staying with her, though there are many friends in her life. She feels assaulted by all these gift baskets because she has to deal with them alone, to the point that trash becomes a central concern (and metaphor) of her life – “Do they imagine that assistants shield me from the labor of dealing with such a quantity of trash?”
[She is] “infuriated, disgusted, ashamed—for of course I should be grateful, I should be writing thank-you notes like a proper widow, I should not be weeping and muttering to myself in icy rain at the end of our driveway bareheaded and shivering in a rage of futility accusing my husband You did this!—you went outside in the freezing cold, I know you did, this is exactly what you did, when I was away…you were careless with your life, you threw away both our lives with your carelessness contracting a cold, a cold that became pneumonia, pneumonia that became cardiopulmonary collapse—and here as if in rebuke to my raging despair is a Harry & David Miniature Rose…” which when she opens it is already wilting, near-dead.
It’s all painful to read, but rings true. It feels as if nothing is censured or held back, though the memoir is not just a stream of consciousness outpouring, but actually quite effectively paced and structured. It is remarkable how close she lets us in to her experience.
She describes how when Ray was alive she never read in bed. But now she makes a “nest” in bed, “a swirl of pillows, bedclothes, a rainbow-hued quilt crocheted by my mother—books, bound galleys, copyedited manuscripts and page proofs, drafts of things I am working on…”
[Before Ray’s death] “I would have considered working in bed, especially, clumsy and messy and not very efficient—excusable if one were ill, or an invalid. Our evenings at home were spent in the living room, on our sofa, where at opposite ends of the sofa we read—or Ray copyedited manuscripts or read page proofs—or I took notes on whatever it was I was writing at the time, or trying to write—the effort of ‘Joyce Carol Oates’ to compose something of more than fleeting value out of our—(unknown to us at the time)—rapidly fleeting lives.”
Now she looks forward to her nest as the reward for having gotten through the day:
“It is a place where I am not ‘Joyce Carol Oates’—still less ‘Joyce Carol Smith’ – whose primary worth has been to sign legal documents, multiple times, a smile clamped on her face like a steel trap. In the nest, there is anonymity. There is peace, solitude, ease. There is not the likelihood of being asked How are you, Joyce?—still less the likelihood of being asked, as I am beginning to be asked Will you keep your house, or stay in it?…”
It’s fascinating to see how there is the personal, private Joyce who burrows in the nest, and the public, professional Joyce Carol Oates who goes forth to have dinner with friends, and teach her students at Princeton two weeks or so after Ray’s death. Her public self is an oasis from the abyss of her personal self struggling to survive her loss:
“At the University it is my task to impersonate ‘Joyce Carol Oates.’
“… This ‘Oates’—this quasi-public self—is scarcely visible to me, as a mirror-reflection, seen up close, is scarcely visible to the reviewer. ‘Oates’ is an island, an oasis, to which on this agitated morning I can row, as in an uncertain little skiff, with an unwieldy paddle—the way is arduous not because the water is deep but because the water is shallow and weedy and the bottom of the skiff is endangered by rocks beneath. And yet—once I have rowed to this island, this oasis, this core of calm amid the chaos of my life—once I arrive at the University, check my mail and ascend to the second floor of 185 Nassau where I’ve had an office since fall 1978—once I am ‘Joyce Carol Oates’ in the eyes of my colleagues and my students—a shivery sort of elation enters my veins. I feel not just confidence but certainty—that I am in the right place, and this is the right time. The anxiety, the despair, the anger I’ve been feeling—that has so transformed my life—immediately fades, as shadows on the wall are dispelled in sunshine.”
The grief and despair depicted in A Widow’s Story is strong stuff. I wonder how other readers respond to it, if they feel it is too self-dramatizing or melodramatic. Oates herself wonders at a certain point if she is being self-indulgent. She quotes from an unnamed friend’s letter, who is probably Joan Didion, in which the friend writes, “…it took me a long time to get beyond being stunned by [my husband’s] death, which was in fact quite predictable. (I see now.).” Oates says:
“The author of these words is in fact a very well known writer whose memoir of her husband’s death and her own survival a few years ago was a highly acclaimed best seller. Rereading her letter now, I wonder if it was the fact of being ‘stunned’ that propelled my widow-friend into writing the memoir, that so combines the clinical and the poetic—if she had understood at the time of her husband’s death that his death was ‘in fact quite predictable’ would she have written the memoir? Could she?
“Now I am being made to think: is there a perspective from which the widow’s grief is sheer vanity; narcissism; the pretense that one’s loss is so special, so very special, that there has never been a loss quite like it?”
She wonders if such grief is a kind of “pathological pastime, or hobby” like OCD, “not unlike washing one’s hands for hours every day…If only someone would publicly ridicule the widow, give the widow a good solid kick, slap the widow’s face or laugh in her face—the spell might be broken.”
The thought provides little perspective, for it’s just one of many “epiphanies that rush at [her] like miniature comets.”
I’ve not had such a profound loss as Oates’ in my life, beyond the loss of my parents in their old age, expected as such. But I have witnessed the shock and pain from varying distances of others who have lost a spouse or child. I can only believe that A Widow’s Story is powerfully true to what many “survivors” experience. I found it rich and revelatory.
I have more to say about A Widow’s Tale and JCO—in particular her marriage and her writing life as depicted in the memoir–but I’ll save that for another post.