A WIDOW’S STORY: A MEMOIR
by Joyce Carol Oates
(February 2011, $27.99, 432 pages)
It is a rare opportunity to gain an honest glimpse into the private life of a public persona. When it happens, the reveal is often surprising because the discovery of the “real” life is quite different from the character known to the public. Joyce Carol Oates’ memoir of her husband’s unexpected death and the aftermath of grief over her loss is a deeply personal and honest look at her submersion into the ill-defined world of present-day widowhood.
In 1961, after a brief courtship and at the tender age of 23, Oates married the love of her life, Raymond J. Smith, in Madison, Wisconsin. Their marriage was her foundation for nearly 50 years. In her private life, she was Joyce Smith. She and Ray shared a deeply loving marriage marred by few upheavals, trials or separations. Their academic careers mirrored, they often taught in the same universities or at colleges located close together. In 1974 they founded a literary magazine, The Ontario Review and its publishing house The Ontario Review Books. Ray left academia to become editor of The Ontario Review and while Joyce continued to teach and write, she also took on the role of an associate editor. Their union, by her own definition was, “a marriage of like minds.”
A Widow’s Story begins with Ray’s hospitalization for pneumonia at Princeton Medical Center. Ray, an editor, runner, writer and husband, had been in good, if not excellent health, for all of his 68 years. His bout with pneumonia, requiring hospitalization, was unexpected but not catastrophic. Both patient and wife expected a speedy discharge with life quickly returning to its happy and peaceful domesticity. Oates was blindsided by the rapid decline of her husband’s illness: heart arrhythmia, admission to the Cardiac Care Unit and the close monitoring of low oxygen levels. Throughout, she expected that he was going to rally and return to his usual healthy state. However, within the week Ray was dead of a rare but deadly hospital acquired infection, E coli bacterial pneumonia. Ray’s sudden, brutal and unexpected death unceremoniously threw Oates into a panicked state of widowhood. She tried desperately to comprehend the wrenching loss of her husband.
Oates’ widowhood is dark, full of grief and provides a frank look at the abyss of absence. Her observations mirror some of the bleak themes she has explored in her own writing as her author-self, Joyce Carol Oats, to whom she refers to as JCO. A Widow’s Story is deeply personal and painful to read because it describes a wrenching end of a loving marriage. We as readers experience a Pandora’s Box of the unexpected and unwanted as she writes about the aftermath of death and of a life she never expected, wanted, or planned.
Ray was her life. They had only each other; there were no children, just two cats and a garden, (mostly Ray’s cats and Ray’s garden). She compartmentalizes the year following his death into 5 distinct periods of time: I. The Vigil, II. Free Fall, III. The Basilisk, IV. Purgatory, Hell, V. “You Looked So Happy”.
Oates is brutally honest with her reflections and recollections and she writes with a rawness that thankfully lacks self-deprecation or the canonization of the departed. She is truthful in her fear that she may not be able to carry on and writes poignantly about the difficulty of daily tasks and of wearing a brave face. Equally, she’s brutally honest about her perception of living up to others’ expectations of her as The Widow. Her grief does not follow any predictable stages. She is able travel and give speeches within a week of Ray’s death but she is unable to write. She cannot sleep, although she is perpetually exhausted. She keeps an exact inventory of pain pills, anti-anxiety pills and sleeping pills and, in the beginning of her life without Ray, she thinks often of making a quick and peaceful exit from her own painful existence. She has flashbacks of his death, she dreams that he is alive and she feels she is being watched by a reptilian creature who wants her to die. This honest recount of raw grief is painful, wrenching and lonely.
A Widow’s Story is not only a memoir; it is also a social commentary on widowhood in the 21st century where there are no set rules. The formalities that mark the phases of widowhood are nebulous and isolating. Oates finds herself buried in food baskets she can’t consume and plants she can’t care for. She is never able to write acknowledgements of Ray’s death nor can she even pick up the phone. Her most uplifting and meaningful correspondences are via e-mail. Oates takes a very difficult look into the modern age of widowhood, speaking to the greater societal issue of avoidance and of the compartmentalization of people who are no longer part of what was once a comfortable whole.
Yet, A Widow’s Story is not without humor and light: lives well-lived and full of love must have their glory. Thankfully, Oates reveals many of her beloved husband’s traits, characteristics and talents. She is able to describe the Ray she knew, lived with and loved for almost 50 years. She recognizes that while it is painful to imagine the loss, it is also an honor to share in the life. Her year ends with hope and with a small kernel of insight which reveals that grief, even fathomless and unimaginable grief of love lost, is worth wading through. Life will go on.