A Widow's Story: A Memoir
by Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates Works Through Her Grief
A review by Anne Saker
Grief is an overpowering, devastating illness, and if it had evolved in the species as terminal, homo sapiens would have stubbed itself out long ago from the rapid-cycling sensations of drowning, burning, suffocating and going mad.
That righteous smackdown is grief's universal. But as with everything else, the drama rests in the particulars, and a rising tide of such stories appears destined for its own shelf at Powell's: Great Women Writers Contemplate Widowhood.
Joyce Carol Oates, long a pilgrim through the darkest, wildest corners of the soul, acknowledges early in A Widow's Story: A Memoir that except for the deaths of her elderly parents, she had not experienced grief. Then in February 2008, her husband of 48 years, Raymond Smith, died suddenly. Oates dissolves into the maelstrom that is the widow's portion:
Inexplicable actions, behavior. The murderer who swears that he doesn't remember what he did, he'd blacked out, no memory, not the faintest idea, and no reason, no motive -- such behavior makes sense to me now.
Where some may be frightened by the thought, the temptation, of suicide, the widow is consoled by the temptation of suicide. For suicide promises A good night's sleep -- with no interruptions! And no next-day.
I am thinking of having a T-shirt printed: Yes My Husband Died. Yes I Am Very Sad. Yes You Are Kind To Offer Condolences. Now Can We Change The Subject?
In a way, it's a comfort to know that artists who have devoted their lives to the journeys of the human spirit also wallow in denial about death ... no, no, no, la la la, I write about it, but it's an abstraction. Yes, people die ... but not my husband.
Joan Didion published The Year of Magical Thinking in 2006 to acclaim, and the book has joined an informal canon on grief that relatives and friends press into the hands of the grieving. In spare but locomotive prose, Didion recounts the sudden death of her husband, author John Gregory Dunne, and the ultimately fatal illness of the couple's only child.
In November came the stiff-upper-lip version from Lady Antonia Fraser. Must You Go? My Life With Harold Pinter compiles 30 years of the British historian's diary full of the couple's exuberant life. But the entries turn anxious and fearful as Pinter endures the rigors of chemotherapy, and Fraser describes the grief of a cancer siege. The Nobel laureate's death ends the book.
Oates, though, goes inward to the core of her grief, and it turns out to be quite an opportunity for her tool kit and palate for weirdness. One chapter tells of discovering that the cat has urinated on the death certificate, and her solution is to clean and dry it, hoping no one will notice. She quotes the strangely comforting words of a friend, a widow: "Suffer, Joyce. Ray was worth it."
Her Princeton, N.J., home is deluged with love offerings. "On the dining room table is a mad jumble of things -- vases of beautiful flowers, baskets of beautiful flowers and fruits, 'gourmet sympathy baskets' adorned with special velvet 'sympathy ribbons' in tasteful dark colors. 'What, have we won the Kentucky Derby?' -- Ray's droll voice sounds in my ear."
She's not wild, either, about the boxes and boxes and boxes of stuff from Harry and David of Medford: "Why are people sending me these things? Do they imagine that grief will be assuaged by chocolate-covered truffles, pâté de foie gras, pepperoni sausages?"
Sometimes, Oates observes the condition clinically, in italics. "In this way, at this moment, the Widow acts instinctively -- she does not drive home alone as perhaps she'd fantasized and she does not do harm to herself as perhaps she'd fantasized -- she calls friends."
In the weeks after her husband's death, Oates writes, she is aware in her mind of the presence of a "basilisk" hissing its slithery accusations and condemnations of her. She hoards and takes comfort in her stash of pills. Insomnia works her over real good, fueling the suicidal ideation.
Believing work would give her ballast, within a few short weeks Oates resumes her speaking engagements and teaching load at Princeton University. She thinks no one knows what has happened. Then two students stop after class to offer condolences.
When they leave, I shut my office door. I am so deeply moved. But mostly shocked. Thinking They must have known all along today. They must all know.
This being a Joyce Carol Oates story, here comes the sharp plot twist. She unearths the manuscript of a novel that her husband wrote as a young man, before he met her. At first, she feels sick just at the thought of touching it -- could it be in league with the basilisk? It is not until Oates gets medical care for her depression and insomnia that she finally summons the will to read the manuscript.
What separates Oates' memoir from Didion's and Fraser's is a simple reminder: At some point, the widow recognizes, usually when she's doing something ordinary, that life moves forward anyway, and that singular power alone eases the illness of grief.
Collecting the contents of a garbage can that raccoons have knocked over, Oates recovers, to her relief, a lost earring, "and I thought: This is my life now. Absurd, yet unpredictable. Not absurd because unpredictable but unpredictable because absurd. If I have lost the meaning of my life, and the love of my life, I might still find small treasured things amid the spilled and pilfered trash."
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