‘A Widow’s Story’

Circumstances prevented earlier posting. Will do two today. Well, actually four with two migrations from MySpace.

This entry isn’t the best for Valentines Day, but in a way, Joyce Carol Oates’ essay about her husband’s sudden death is a form of valentine. The anniversary of his death is approaching, so this is perhaps the best time pay tribute.

A Widow’s Story” appeared in the December 13, 2010 issue of The New Yorker and is a part of a just published memoir of the same name. Oates and her husband, Raymond Smith, had been married just over 47 years when Smith went into Princeton Medical Center with fatigue, a fever, and shortness of breath. A diagnosis of pneumonia followed but instead of some immediate improvement, his heartbeat accelerated, then he developed an E. coli infection in one lung. He rallied, but another infection appeared in the other lung. He began to rally again, and Oates returned home thinking that he would be going to a rehab facility and then home. Just after midnight the next morning the phone rang. It was the hospital calling with news that her husband’s condition had turned critical and that she’d better hurry right over. She did but arrived too late. He died moments earlier.

For the next minutes, which she accounted for on his wristwatch, Oates tried to hold onto to reality – but behaved as anyone would who had received a severe shock: She picks up things and drops them, hears a roaring her ears, is unable to make decisions.

Since this is Joyce Carol Oates writing, I cannot possibly do justice to her eloquence, but I can pay tribute to genius. She interweaves a car accident that happened the previous year. She even resurrects the nasty message that someone left after she hurriedly parked her car outside the medical center. She has also given expression to something I’ve thought about but never put into words – that feeling that the dead person is not really dead. “… I am thinking – and the thought comes to me – that Ray is, in fact, breathing, but very faintly, or he is about to breathe; his eyelids are quivering, or about to quiver. It seems to me that Ray’s eyeballs are moving, beneath the lids, that he is dreaming something and I shouldn’t wake him.”

As I mentioned Oates’s essay is in some ways a valentine to her husband: Their marriage of almost half a century that sustained itself by their mutual passion for each other. The car accident that crystallizes her feeling of absolutely needing his presence in her life even if she doesn’t share the bulk of her writing with him. The camaraderie of Sunday in the hospital, reading the paper, listening to music.

Even though the essay reduced me to tears, I definitely plan to buy A Widow’s Story: A Memoir.


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