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A Widow's Story: A Memoir

A Widow's Story: A Memoir

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A Widow's Story: A Memoir

4/5 (26 évaluations)
515 pages
8 heures
Feb 15, 2011


Unlike anything Joyce Carol Oates has written before, A Widow’s Story is the universally acclaimed author’s poignant, intimate memoir about the unexpected death of Raymond Smith, her husband of forty-six years, and its wrenching, surprising aftermath. A recent recipient of National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, Oates, whose novels (Blonde, The Gravedigger’s Daughter, Little Bird of Heaven, etc.) rank among the very finest in contemporary American fiction, offers an achingly personal story of love and loss. A Widow’s Story is a literary memoir on a par with The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion and Calvin Trillin’s About Alice.

Feb 15, 2011

À propos de l'auteur

Joyce Carol Oates is the author of over seventy books encompassing novels, poetry, criticism, story collections, plays, and essays. Her novel Them won the National Book Award in Fiction in 1970. Oates has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters for more than three decades and currently holds the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professorship at Princeton University.   

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A Widow's Story - Joyce Carol Oates


Part I

The Vigil

My husband died, my life collapsed.

Chapter 1

The Message

February 15, 2008. Returning to our car that has been haphazardly parked—by me—on a narrow side street near the Princeton Medical Center—I see, thrust beneath a windshield wiper, what appears to be a sheet of stiff paper. At once my heart clenches in dismay, guilty apprehension—a ticket? A parking ticket? At such a time? Earlier that afternoon I’d parked here on my way—hurried, harried—a jangle of admonitions running through my head like shrieking cicadas—if you’d happened to see me you might have thought pityingly That woman is in a desperate hurry—as if that will do any good—to visit my husband in the Telemetry Unit of the medical center where he’d been admitted several days previously for pneumonia; now I need to return home for a few hours preparatory to returning to the medical center in the early evening—anxious, dry-mouthed and head-aching yet in an aroused state that might be called hopeful—for since his admission into the medical center Ray has been steadily improving, he has looked and felt better, and his oxygen intake, measured by numerals that fluctuate with literally each breath—90, 87, 91, 85, 89, 92—is steadily gaining, arrangements are being made for his discharge into a rehab clinic close by the medical center—(hopeful is our solace in the face of mortality); and now, in the late afternoon of another of these interminable and exhausting hospital-days—can it be that our car has been ticketed?—in my distraction I’d parked illegally?—the time limit for parking on this street is only two hours, I’ve been in the medical center for longer than two hours, and see with embarrassment that our 2007 Honda Accord—eerily glaring-white in February dusk like some strange phosphorescent creature in the depths of the sea—is inexpertly, still more inelegantly parked, at a slant to the curb, left rear tire over the white line in the street by several inches, front bumper nearly touching the SUV in the space ahead. But now—if this is a parking ticket—at once the thought comes to me I won’t tell Ray, I will pay the fine in secret.

Except the sheet of paper isn’t a ticket from the Princeton Police Department after all but a piece of ordinary paper—opened and smoothed out by my shaky hand it’s revealed as a private message in aggressively large block-printed letters which with stunned staring eyes I read several times like one faltering on the brink of an abyss—


In this way as in that parable of Franz Kafka in which the most profound and devastating truth of the individual’s life is revealed to him by a passer-by in the street, as if accidentally, casually, so the Widow-to-Be, like the Widow, is made to realize that her situation however unhappy, despairing or fraught with anxiety, doesn’t give her the right to overstep the boundaries of others, especially strangers who know nothing of her—Left rear tire over the white line in the street.

Chapter 2

Car Wreck

We were in a car wreck. My husband died but I survived.

This is not (factually) true. But in all other ways, it is true.

January 2007. A little more than a year before my husband was stricken with a severe case of pneumonia, and brought by his anxious wife to the ER of the Princeton Medical Center in blissful ignorance of the fact—the terrible and irrefutable fact—that the reverse journey would never occur bearing him back home—we were in a serious car accident, the first of our married life.

It would seem ironic in retrospect, that this accident in which Ray might easily have been killed, but was not killed, occurred hardly more than a mile from the Princeton Medical Center at the intersection of Elm Road and Rosedale Road; this was an intersection we drove through invariably on our way to Princeton, and on our way home; it is an intersection I must drive through as in a dream of nightmare repetition in which my very grief is rebuked You might have died here! You have no right to grieve, your life is a gift.

The accident occurred on a weeknight as we entered the intersection: out of nowhere—on the driver’s side—there came a hellish glare of headlights, a screeching of brakes and a tremendous crash as the front of our car was demolished, windshields shattered and air bags detonated.

In the immediate aftermath of the crash we were too confused to gauge how extraordinarily lucky we’d been—in the days, weeks, months to follow we would try to fathom this elusive fact—that the other vehicle had struck only the front of our car, the engine, hood, front wheels; a few inches back and Ray would have been killed or seriously injured, crushed in the wreck. It was beyond our capacity to grasp how close we’d come to a horrific accident—if for instance the other vehicle had sped into the intersection even a half-second later . . .

Inside the wreck of our car there was a gritty smoldering odor. Our air bags had exploded with remarkable rigor. If you have never been in a vehicle in which air bags have exploded you will have a difficult time imagining how violent, how forceful, how bellicose air bags are.

Vaguely you might expect something cushiony, even balloon-like—no.

You might expect something that will not injure you in the service of protecting you from injury—no. In the instant of the air bag explosion Ray’s face, shoulders, chest and arms had been battered as if he’d been the hapless sparring partner of a heavyweight boxer; his hands gripping the steering wheel were splattered with acid, leaving coin-sized burn marks that would sting for weeks. Beside him I was too rattled to comprehend how powerfully I’d been hit by the air bag—I’d thought that this was the dashboard buckling in, all but crushing me in the passenger’s seat so that I could barely breathe. (For the next two months my bruised chest, ribs, and arms would be so painful that I could barely move without wincing and dared not laugh heedlessly.) But in our wrecked car in the euphoria of cortical adrenaline we had little awareness of having been so battered and bruised as we managed to force our car doors open and step out onto the pavement. A wave of relief swept over us—We are alive! We are unharmed!

Princeton police officers arrived at the accident scene. An ambulance arrived bearing emergency medical workers. I recalled that one of my Princeton undergraduate students, a young woman, was a volunteer for the Princeton Emergency Medical Unit and I hoped very much that this young woman would not be among the medical workers at the scene. I hoped very much that this episode would not be reported excitedly back and circulated among my students Guess who was in a car crash last night—Prof. Oates!

Strongly it was recommended that Raymond Smith and Joyce Smith be taken by ambulance to the ER to be examined—especially it was important to be X-rayed—but we declined, saying that we were all right, we were certain we were all right. Yet in the faux-euphoric aftermath of the crash in which there was no pain nor hardly an awareness of the very concept of pain we insisted that we were fine and wanted to go home.

Standing in the cold, shivering and shaky and our car pulverized as if a playful giant had twisted it in his hands and let it drop—there was nothing we wanted so badly as to go home.

We were asked if we were refusing medical treatment and we protested we weren’t refusing medical treatment—we just didn’t think that we needed it.

Refused then, the officer noted, filling out his report.

Two police officers drove us home in their cruiser. They were kindly, courteous. Near midnight we entered our darkened house. It seemed that we’d been gone for far longer than just an evening and that we’d been on a long journey. Our nerves were jangled like broken electric wires in the street. I’d begun to shiver, convulsively. I was dry-eyed but exhausted and depleted as if I’d been weeping. I saw that Ray was all right—as he insisted—we were both all right. It was true that we’d come close to catastrophe—but it hadn’t happened. Somehow, that fact was difficult to comprehend, like trying to fit a large and unwieldy thought into a small area of the brain.

I began to feel the first twinges of pain in my chest. When I lifted my arm. When I laughed, or coughed.

Ray discovered reddened splotches on his hands—I’ve been burnt? How the hell have I been burnt? He ran cold water onto his hands. He took Bufferin, for pain.

I took Bufferin, for pain. I had no wish to go to bed anticipating a miserable insomniac night, but by 2 A.M. we’d gone to bed and were sleeping, to a degree. Glaring headlights, screeching brakes, that moment of astonishing impact. . . . The sharp chemical smell, the air bags striking like crazed aliens in a science-fiction horror film . . .

I’ll go to get us a new car. Tomorrow.

Calmly Ray spoke in the dark. There was comfort in his words that suggested routine, custom.

Comfort in that Ray would supervise the aftermath of the wreck.

Raymond—wise protector.

He was eight years older than I was, most of the calendar year. Born on March 12, 1930. I was born on June 16, 1938.

How long ago, these births! And how long we’d been married, since January 23, 1961! At the time of the car wreck we would celebrate our forty-seventh wedding anniversary in a few weeks. You would not think, reading this, if you are younger than we were, that to us these dates were unreal, or surreal; we’d felt, through our long marriage, as if we’d only just met a few years before, as if we were new to each other, still becoming acquainted with each other; often we were shy with each other; there were many things we did not wish to tell each other, or to share with each other, in the way of individuals who are only just becoming intimately acquainted and don’t want to risk offending, or surprising.

Most of my novels and short stories were never read by my husband. He did read my non-fiction essays and my reviews for such publications as the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker—Ray was an excellent editor, sharp-eyed and informed, as countless writers published in Ontario Review have said—but he did not read most of my fiction and in this sense it might be argued that Ray didn’t know me entirely—or even, to a significant degree, partially.

Why was this?—there are numerous reasons.

I regret it, I think. Maybe I do.

For writing is a solitary occupation, and one of its hazards is loneliness.

But an advantage of loneliness is privacy, autonomy, freedom.

Thinking then, that night of the car wreck, and subsequent nights and days as phantom pains stabbed in my chest and ribs, and I despaired that the ugly yellowish purple bruises would ever fade, that, if Ray died, I would be utterly bereft; far better for me to die with him, than to survive alone. At such times I did not think of myself as a writer primarily, or even as a writer, but as a wife.

A wife who dreaded any thought of becoming a widow.

In the morning our lives would be returned to us but subtly altered, strange to us as others’ lives that bore only a superficial resemblance to our own but were not our own. It would have been a time to say Look—we might have been killed last night! I love you, I’m so grateful that I am married to you . . . but the words didn’t quite come.

So much to say in a marriage, so much unsaid. You reason that there will be other times, other occasions. Years!

That morning Ray called the Honda dealer from whom he’d bought the car and arranged to be picked up and brought to the showroom on State Road, to buy a replacement—a Honda Accord LX, 2007 model (with sunroof) which he drove into our driveway in the late afternoon, gleaming white like its predecessor.

Do you like our new car?

I always love our new car.

And so I would think He might have died then. Both of us. January 4, 2007. It might have happened so easily. A year and six weeks—what remained to us—was a gift. Be grateful!

Chapter 3

The First Wrong Things

February 11, 2008. There is an hour, a minute—you will remember it forever—when you know instinctively on the basis of the most inconsequential evidence, that something is wrong.

You don’t know—can’t know—that it is the first of a series of wrongful events that will culminate in the utter devastation of your life as you have known it. For after all it may not be the first in a series but only an isolated event and your life not set to be devastated but only just altered, remade.

So you want to think. So you are desperate to think.

The first wrong thing on this ordinary Monday morning in February is—Ray has gotten out of bed in the wintry dark before dawn.

By the time I discover him in a farther corner of the house it’s only just 6:15 A.M. and he has been up, by his account, since 5 A.M.

He has taken a shower, dressed, and fed the cats breakfast at an unnaturally early hour; he has brought in the New York Times in its transparent blue wrapper; he has made himself a spare little breakfast of fruit and cottage cheese and is eating—trying to eat—seated at our long white Parsons table; through our glass-walled gallery I can see him, across the courtyard, a lone figure haloed in light amid the shadowy room behind him. If he were to glance up, as he has not done, he would see me watching him, and he would see our dogwood tree in the courtyard transformed in the night, clumps of wet snow on the branches like blossoms.

In fact this is a white-blossoming dogwood Ray planted himself several years ago.

This little tree Ray takes a special pride in, and feels a special tenderness for, for it hadn’t thrived initially, it had required extra care and so its survival is a significant part of its meaning to us, and its beauty.

If in wifely fashion I want to praise my husband, or to cheer him if he requires cheering, I have only to speak of the dogwood tree—this will evoke a smile. Usually!

For Ray is the gardener of our household, not me. As Ray is an editor of literary writing beloved by writers whose books he has edited and published—so Ray is an editor of living things. He doesn’t create them or cause them to live but he tends them, cares for them and allows them to thrive—to blossom, to yield fruit. Like editing, gardening requires infinite patience; it requires an essential selflessness, and optimism. Though I love gardens—especially, I love Ray’s garden in the summer and early fall—it’s as an observer and not as a connoisseur of growing things that to me send cruelly paradoxical signals: the exquisitely blooming orchid that, brought home, soon loses its petals, and never again regains them; the thriving squash vines that, mysteriously, as if devoured from within, shrivel and die overnight. Ray is of an age to recall victory gardens in the early 1940s in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—in his telling, there is an echo of childhood romance about such gardens, which everyone kept as in a communal civilian war-effort. Ray’s garden is a way of evoking these idyllic memories. How happy he has always been, outdoors! Driving to the nursery, to buy plants! And how eager for winter to end, that he might have the garden plowed and dare to set in early things like lettuce, arugula despite the risk of a heavy frost.

The gardener is the quintessential optimist: not only does he believe that the future will bear out the fruits of his efforts, he believes in the future.

You would see that all the growing things Ray has planted on our two-acre property, like the dogwood tree, forsythia bushes, peonies, bleeding hearts, tulips, hillsides of crocuses, daffodils and jonquils, are utterly commonplace; yet, to us, these are living talismans suffused with meaning. Thoughtfulness, tenderness. Patience. An imagining of a (shared) future.

A memory comes to me: in our shabby-stylish rented Chelsea duplex, in the belated and chilly spring of our sabbatical year in London 1971–1972, Ray is tending a bedraggled little clump of brightly colored nasturtiums on our small terrace. The potted soil is probably very poor, there are rapacious insects devouring their leaves, but Ray is determined to nurse the nasturtiums along and through a window I observe him, unseen by him; I feel a sudden faintness, a rush of love for him, and also the futility of such love—as my then-young husband was determined to keep the bedraggled nasturtiums alive, so we are determined to keep alive those whom we love, we yearn to protect them, shield them from harm. To be mortal is to know that you can’t do this, yet you must try.

Our sabbatical year in London was a mixed experience, for me. I was homesick, rootless. Unaccustomed to not working—that is, to not teaching—I felt useless, idle; my only solace was my writing, into which I poured enormous concentration—re-creating, with an obsessiveness that swerved between elation and compulsion, the vividly haunting oneiric cityscape of Detroit, in the novel Do With Me What You Will. Ray, however, thoroughly enjoyed the sabbatical year—as Ray thoroughly enjoyed London, our long, long walks in the beautiful damply green parks of London of which our favorite was Regent’s Park, and those parts of the U.K.—Cornwall, Wessex—we saw on driving trips. My husband has a capacity for enjoying life that isn’t possible for me, somehow.

There are those—a blessed lot—who can experience life without the slightest glimmer of a need to add anything to it—any sort of creative effort; and there are those—an accursed lot?—for whom the activities of their own brains and imaginations are paramount. The world for these individuals may be infinitely rich, rewarding and seductive—but it is not paramount. The world may be interpreted as a gift, earned only if one has created something over and above the world.

To this, Ray would respond with a bemused smile. You take yourself so seriously. Why?

Always Ray has been the repository of common sense in our household. The spouse who, with a gentle tug, holds in place the recklessly soaring kite, that would careen into the stratosphere and be lost, shattered to bits.

On this Monday morning in mid-February 2008 the sun hasn’t yet risen. The sky looks steely, opaque. Approaching my husband I feel a tinge of unease, apprehension. Sitting at the table Ray appears hunched over the newspaper, his shoulders slumped as if he’s very tired; when I ask him if something is wrong quickly he says no—no!—except he has been feeling strange—he woke before 5 A.M. and was unable to get back to sleep; he was having trouble breathing, lying down; now he’s uncomfortably warm, sweaty, and seems short of breath . . .

These symptoms he tells me in a matter-of-fact voice. So the husband shifts to the wife the puzzle of what to make of such things, if anything; like certain emotions, too raw to be defined, such information can only be transferred to the other, the cautious, caring, and hyper-vigilant spouse.

More often, the wife is the custodian of such things. I think this is so. The wife is the one elected to express alarm, fear, concern; the wife is the one to weep.

Shocking to see, the smooth white countertop which is always kept spotless is strewn now with used tissues. Something in the way in which these wet wadded tissues are scattered, the slovenliness of it, the indifference, is not in Ray’s character and not-right.

Another wrong thing, Ray tells me that he has already called our family doctor in Pennington and left a message saying he’d like to see the doctor that day.

Now this is serious! For Ray is the kind of husband who by nature resists seeing a doctor, stubborn and stoic, even when obviously ill the kind of husband with whom a wife must plead to make an appointment with a doctor.

The kind of person whose pain threshold is so high, often he tells our dentist not to inject his gums with Novocain.

Ray flinches when I touch him, as if my touch is painful. His forehead is both feverish and clammy, damp. His breath is hoarse. Close up I see that his face is sickly pale yet flushed; his eyes are finely bloodshot and don’t seem to be entirely in focus.

In a panic the thought comes to me Has he had a stroke?

A friend of ours had a stroke recently. A friend at least a decade younger than Ray, and in very fit condition. The stroke hadn’t been severe but our friend was shaken, we were all shaken, that so evidently fit a man had had a stroke and was exposed as mortal, as he had not previously seemed, swaggering and luminous in our midst. And Ray, never quite so swaggering or luminous, never so visibly fit, is taking medication for hypertension—high blood pressure—which medication is supposed to have helped him considerably; yet now he’s looking flushed, he’s looking somewhat dazed, distressed, he hasn’t finished his breakfast, nor has he read more than the first sprawling section of the New York Times in whose ever more Goyaesque war photos and columns of somber newsprint an ennui of such gravity resides, the sensitive soul may be smothered if unwary.

Post 9/11 America! The war in Iraq! The coolly calibrated manipulation of the credulous American public, by an administration bent upon stoking paranoid patriotism! Avidly reading the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker and Harper’s, like so many of our Princeton friends and colleagues Ray is one of those choked with indignation, alarm; a despiser of the war crimes of the Bush administration as of its cunning, hypocrisy, and cynicism; its skill at manipulating the large percentage of the population that seems immune to logic as to common sense, and history. Ray’s natural optimism—his optimist-gardener soul—has been blunted to a degree by months, years, of this active and largely frustrated dislike of all that George W. Bush represents. I have learned not to stir his indignation, but to soothe it. Or to avoid it. Thinking now Maybe it’s something in the news. Something terrible in the news. Don’t ask!

But Ray is too sick to be upset about the latest suicide bombing in Iraq, or the latest atrocity in Afghanistan, or the Gaza Strip. The newspaper pages are scattered, like wadded tissues. His breathing is forced, labored—an eerie rasping sound like a strip of plastic fibrillating in the wind.

Calmly I tell him I want to take him to the ER. Immediately. He tells me no—That’s not necessary.

I tell him yes, it is necessary. We’ll go now. We can’t wait for— naming our Pennington physician whose office wouldn’t open for another hour or more, and who probably couldn’t see Ray until the afternoon.

Ray protests he doesn’t want to go to the ER—he isn’t that sick—he has much work to do this morning, on the upcoming issue of Ontario Review, that can’t be put off—the deadline for the May issue is soon. But on his feet he moves unsteadily, as if the floor were tilting beneath him. I slip my arm around his waist and help him walk and the thought comes to me This is not right. This is terribly wrong for a man’s pride will rarely allow him to lean on any woman even a wife of forty-seven years. A man’s pride will rarely allow him to concede that yes, he is seriously ill. And the ER—emergency room—the very concession of helplessness, powerlessness—is the place to which he should be taken.

He’s coughing, wincing. His skin exudes an air of sickly heat. Yet the previous night Ray had seemed fine for most of the evening—he’d even prepared a light meal for us, for dinner; I had been away and had returned home at about 8 P.M. (This, our final meal together in our house, the final meal Ray would prepare for us, was Ray’s specialty: fried eggs, whole grain bread, Campbell’s soup—chicken with wild rice. I would call him from the airport—Philadelphia or Newark—when my plane arrived and he would prepare our meal for my arrival home an hour later. If the season was right he would also place on my desk a vase with a single flower from his garden . . . ) At dinner he’d been in good spirits but shortly afterward with disconcerting swiftness at about 10:30 P.M. he began coughing fitfully; he’d become very tired, and went to bed early.

Forever afterward I would think: I was away for two days. I was a visiting writer at U-C Riverside at the invitation of the distinguished American studies critic and scholar Emory Elliot, formerly a Princeton colleague. In these two days my husband had gotten sick. Ray would acknowledge, yes, probably he’d been outside without a jacket or a cap and possibly he’d gotten a cold in this way though we are told that this isn’t so—scientific tests have proved—that cold air, even wet, doesn’t cause colds; colds are caused by viruses; bad colds, by virulent viruses; you don’t catch a cold by running out to the mailbox without a jacket, or hauling recycling cans to the curb; unless of course you are exhausted, or your immune system has been weakened. In these ways you may catch a cold but it is not likely to be a fatal cold, possibly just a bad cold which is what my husband seems suddenly to have, that has spiraled out of control.

Yet another wrong thing—I will recall this, later—as I reason with my husband now in the kitchen where our two cats are staring at us wide-tawny-eyed, for how incongruous our behavior, at this twilit hour before dawn when we are usually in another part of the house—suddenly he gives in and says yes, all right—If you think so. If you want to drive me.

Of course I want to drive you! Let’s go.

So long as the ER is the wife’s suggestion, and the wife’s decision, maybe it’s all right. The husband will consent, as a way of humoring her. Is this it? Also, as Ray says, with a shrug to indicate how time-wasting all this is, our Pennington doctor will probably want him to have tests and he will have to go to the Princeton Medical Center anyway.

Without my help—though I’ve offered to help—Ray prepares for the trip to the ER. He doesn’t want me to fuss over him, even to touch him, as if his skin hurts. (This is a flu symptom—isn’t it? Our Pennington physician makes me uneasy at times, so readily does he prescribe antibiotics for Ray when a bad cold is interfering with Ray’s work; I worry that an excess of antibiotics will affect Ray’s immune system.)

The cats stare after us as we leave the house. Still so early in the morning, scarcely dawn! Something in our manner has made them wary, suspicious. And then how strange it seems, to be driving our car with my husband beside me. Rarely do I drive our car—we have just the single car, the Honda—with Ray beside me, not driving; unless we are on a trip, then we share the driving; still, Ray does most of it, and always difficult driving in urban areas and on congested roads. I am less anxious now, for we’ve made a good decision, obviously; I am in control, I think. Though our Princeton friends without exception insist that only in Manhattan and (possibly) in Philadelphia can one find competent medical treatment, this ER is the closest by many miles, and the most convenient; there Ray will be given immediate treatment, and he will be all right, I’m sure.

He isn’t taking anything with him to suggest that he expects even to stay overnight.

On the drive into Princeton Ray gives me instructions about work he needs to have me do: calls to make, book orders to process, his typesetter in Michigan to contact. Though he’s ill he is also—he is primarily—concerned with his work. (It has been a matter of concern to Ray in the past year, a cause of both anxiety and hurt, that in our declining American economy, in which libraries have been cutting budgets, fewer small-press books are being bought and subscriptions to Ontario Review are not increasing.) His breathing is hoarse and his throat sounds raw and when he falls silent I wonder—what is he thinking? I reach out to touch his arm—I’m moved to see that he took time to shave. Even in physical distress he hadn’t wanted to appear in the ER unshaven, disheveled.

I am thinking that this is the right thing to do of course. And I am thinking that it’s a minor episode—just a visit to the local ER.

I love him, I will protect him. I will take care of him.

Ray has been to the Princeton ER before. A few years ago his heartbeat had become erratic—fibrillating—and he’d stayed overnight for what seemed to be a commonplace non-invasive cardiac procedure. Then, everything had gone well. He’d come home with a fully restored normal heartbeat. I knew that Ray was well when I’d entered his hospital room to see him scowling over the New York Times Op-Ed page and his first remark was a sardonic complaint about the hospital food.

This was a good sign! When a husband complains about food, his wife knows that he has nothing serious to complain of.

And so today’s ER visit will turn out well also. I am sure. Driving on Rosedale Road in early-morning traffic—to State Road/Route 206—to Witherspoon Street—with no way of knowing how familiar, how dismayingly familiar, this route would shortly become—I am certain that I am doing the right thing; I am a shrewd and thoughtful wife, if an unexceptional wife—for surely this is the only reasonable thing to do.

Knowing of my dislike of high-rise parking garages—these ascending and descending labyrinths with their threat of humiliating cul-de-sacs and no-way-out—Ray offers to park the car for me. No, no!—I bring the car around to the ER entrance so that Ray can get out here; I will park the car and join him inside a few minutes later. It is just 8 A.M. How long Ray will be in the ER, I estimate a few hours probably. He will be home for dinner—I hope.

What relief to find a parking place on a narrow side street where the limit is two hours. I think, I may have to come outside and move the car, then. At least once.

In this way unwittingly the Widow-to-Be is assuring her husband’s death—his doom. Even as she believes she is behaving intelligently—shrewdly and reasonably—she is taking him to a teeming petri dish of lethal bacteria where within a week he will succumb to a virulent staph infection—a hospital infection acquired in the course of his treatment for pneumonia.

Even as she is fantasizing that he will be home for dinner she is assuring that he will never return home. How unwitting, all Widows-to-Be who imagine that they are doing the right thing, in innocence and ignorance!

Chapter 4


This is unexpected!

The first response of the afflicted man—I’ve never had pneumonia before.

The first response of the wife—Pneumonia! We should have known.

Naively thinking This is a relief. Not a stroke, not an embolism, not a cardiac condition—nothing life-threatening.

Quickly Ray is checked into the ER. Quickly assigned a cubicle—Cubicle 1. Now he is partly disrobed, now he is officially a patient. The essence of that word has to be patience. For the experience of the patient, like that of the patient’s wife, is to wait.

How long we must wait, how many hours isn’t clear in my memory. For while Ray is being examined—interviewed—his blood taken—re-examined—re-interviewed—another sample of his blood taken—I am sometimes close by his side and sometimes I am not.

The minutiae of our lives! Telephone calls, errands, appointments. None of these is of the slightest significance to others and but fleetingly to us yet they constitute such a portion of our lives, it might be argued that our lives are a concatenation of minutiae interrupted at unpredictable times by significant events.

If I’d known that my husband had less than a week to live—how would I behave in these circumstances? Is it better not to know? Life can’t be lived at a fever-pitch of intensity. Even anxiety burns out. For now after the urgency of the drive into Princeton it has come to seem in the ER—in the cubicle assigned to Raymond Smith—that time has so slowed, it might be running backward. Waiting, and waiting—for test results—for a doctor-specialist—for a real doctor, with authority—until at last the diagnosis is announced—Pneumonia.

Pneumonia! The mystery is solved. The solution is a good one. Pneumonia is both commonplace and treatable—isn’t it?

Though we’re both disappointed—Ray won’t be discharged today after all. He’ll be transferred into the general hospital where it’s expected he will stay at least overnight.

Of this, I seem to hear just overnight.

If I have occasion to speak with friends I will tell them Ray is in the Medical Center with pneumonia—overnight.

Or, with an air of incredulity, as if this were entirely out of my husband’s character—You’ll never guess where Ray is! In the Medical Center—with pneumonia—overnight.

Why the diagnosis of pneumonia is so surprising to us, I have no idea. In retrospect it doesn’t seem surprising at all. Ray reacts by questioning the medical workers about pneumonia—asking them about themselves—speaking in such a way to suggest that he isn’t fearful, and has infinite trust in them. Like many another hospital patients wishing to be thought a good sport, a nice guy, fun! he jokes with nurses and attendants; through his stay in the Princeton Medical Center he will be well liked, a real gentleman, sweet, fun!—as if this will save him.

So much of our behavior—our personalities—is so constructed. The survival of the individual, in the service of the species.

Our great American philosopher William James has said—We have as many personalities as there are people who know us.

To which I would add We have no personalities unless there are people who know us. Unless there are people we hope to convince that we deserve to exist.

I love you! I’ll be back as soon as I can.

Yet what relief—at mid-afternoon—to leave the ER at last—to escape the indescribable but unmistakable disinfectant smell of the medical center if only to step outside into a cold cheerless February day!

I feel so sorry for Ray, trapped inside. My poor husband stricken with pneumonia—obliged to stay overnight in the hospital.

A multitude of tasks await me—telephone calls, errands—at home I sort Ray’s mail to bring to him that evening—Ray tries to answer Ontario Review mail as soon as he can, he has a dread of mail piling up on his desk—as a Catholic schoolboy in Milwaukee he’d been inculcated with an exaggerated sense of responsibility to what might be defined loosely as the world—repeatedly I call the medical center—again, and again—until early evening—to learn if Ray has been yet transferred to the general hospital and always the answer is No. No! Not yet.

At about 6:30 P.M. as I am about to leave for the medical center, bringing things for Ray—bathrobe, toiletries, books—at his end of our living room coffee table are the books he is currently reading or wants to read—as well as manuscripts submitted to the magazine and the press, a burgeoning stack of these with self-addressed stamped envelopes for return—the phone rings and I hurry to answer it assuming that it’s the medical center, telling me the number of the room Ray has been moved to—at first I can’t comprehend what I am being told Your husband’s heartbeat has accelerated—we haven’t been able to stabilize it—in the event that his heart stops do you want extraordinary measures to be used to keep him alive?

I am so stunned that I can’t reply, the stranger at the other end of the line repeats his astonishing words—I hear myself stammering Yes! Yes of course!—gripped by disbelief,

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Avis des lecteurs

  • (3/5)
    The memoir details what the author went through and experienced just before, during and after her husband died.To begin with, it's clear that Oates is a literary person, both due to the way that she writes, as well as the references that she makes.However, there was too much use of stream-of-consciousness for me to particularly enjoy reading the book. I can understand why Oates uses it so consistently in her memoir. Suddenly, her brain is moving a mile a minute, repetitively - she's not thinking in complete sentences. Often, her brain may not even be coherently registering a complete thought, let alone think in complete sentences. It's all fragments and confusion - and stream-of-consciousness perfectly portrays that.Just as it is difficult to live in a state where you're constantly overwhelmed with thoughts that are vague, unclear, and half-stated, however, it is also difficult for me to READ something that is written in such a manner, if it occurs for more than a few paragraphs. Oates used it a lot in the galley which I received, and after a few chapters utilizing it, my attention span began to wane. Dramatically.The memoir also necessarily repeats - usually stated in slightly different ways, after awhile, it was glaringly obvious that Oates was repeating the same material. This means, of course, that she was also GOING THROUGH the same things numerous times - which is a true-to-life sentiment. It also means, however, that much of the memoir, if you're not interested in reading repetition, feels unnecessary.The concept of the memoir is interesting, and I feel that if you like non-fiction, this book is probably something that you should check out. If you're generally a strict fiction fan, however, avoid this book, as it will probably not hold your interest for very long.
  • (4/5)
    Thank you Joyce Smith for the much needed bibliotherapy.
  • (4/5)
    In this haunting and lyrical memoir by Joyce Carol Oates, a wife speaks candidly about her husband’s untimely death and the repercussions it has on her life after the unthinkable happens. When Joyce’s husband Ray is up earlier than usual one morning, she immediately notices that something is just not right. Ray looks pale and clammy, and is sitting amid a tower of crumpled tissues, and when Joyce suggests that he may need to go to the emergency room, the two think this trip will be just an annoyance and interruption. But it turns out that Ray has pneumonia, and though at first he improves, a secondary infection suddenly takes his life. Joyce isn’t able to see Ray before he dies, and it’s only one of the things she begins to obsesses about after Ray’s tragic death. Now Joyce is alone and becoming unhinged. Though she immediately begins thinking about suicide, she decides against it and begins her painful days as a widow in a world that feels alien and hostile to her. As she begins to live a life without Ray, her most steadfast and loyal companion, Joyce becomes troubled by insomnia, anger and depression, and repeatedly considers suicide as the answer to the pain she feels. Her only redemption is through her steadfast friends and the writing classes she teaches, but in times of immense stress, even this seems like it’s not enough. In this memoir filled with remembrances, email correspondence and personal asides, we see Joyce Carol Oates as never before, and are on the sidelines as she reveals the shocking destruction left behind when her life mate tragically passes away.Not having read any of Oates’ previous work, I wondered if I would be able to connect with the story the author tells. Not knowing much about Oates seemed like it would be a hindrance in this case, but ultimately, this book tells the story of what could happen to any one of us. With Oates’ ability to capture the hidden sides of her life along with the more personal topics, I was able to make a connection with her that made this book come alive in my hands. Oates captures all the rage, frustration and pain that losing Ray has caused her with a fluidity and emotional resonance that surprised me and wrung my heart in the most tender way possible.Joyce and Ray had somewhat of a restrained relationship which I initially found odd. This could have been because Ray was somewhat older than Joyce and had grown up in a different era. They didn’t have conversations about painful or uncomfortable topics, and Ray was sometimes emotionally distant when it came to his previous life. They didn’t share their writing with one another and they never had children. I think Joyce looked at Ray as sort of a father figure, and what she got out of her marriage was stability, affection and comfort. This is very different from my marriage and most marriages I know, for it would never cross my mind to be reticent with my partner and not share everything that was on my mind with him. It was almost as if there were barriers between the two that would not be crossed, but it worked for the two of them and there was certainly a lot of love shared within the confines of their relationship.When Joyce loses Ray, she loses a significant piece of herself as well, and it was frightening to hear her speak so matter-of-factly about taking her own life in response to losing her husband. She couldn't take the well-meaning condolences her friends and acquaintances offered her, and became very despondent over all the things she now had to deal with. She relates some of the insensitivity that Ray’s death inspired and speaks at length about the monster that lived inside her soul eating away all that was healthy and good from her life. Joyce was ill-equipped to deal with what was going on around her and often she spoke about having two personalities: the public one that functioned and even smiled and laughed around her friends and colleagues, and the private one that was desperately trying to hold on to life. She dealt with horrible insomnia and felt like an alien in her empty house, eventually becoming addicted to various medications in her efforts to stave off her despair and apathy. Joyce found her life again through the careful ministrations of her friends, but her road out of the hell she was in was long and painful, and even towards the conclusion of the book, it was clear that she still had a long way to go.One of the things that made this book so compelling was Joyce’s ability to candidly express her despair and confusion over the loss of Ray. She’s extremely capable when it comes to relating her feelings and emotions that were provoked within her, and at times the book read like a lyrical portrayal of heartbreak. It was easy to empathize with her because she was so familiar with the contours of her heart and mind, and when utter destruction set in, she was able to give her words and feelings a gravity and depth that they would touch even the coldest reader. it was hard to watch her struggle like this, and very hard for me to realize that even when I turned the last page, her heartache hadn’t yet abated. I found her willingness to be open about even the most minute details of her life with Ray and the chronicling of the impact of her loss to be very courageous and noteworthy. Hers was a landscape of horrible despair, but nothing was done to sugar-coat what she was feeling at any time.This book would be ideal for anyone who’s gone through a similar loss, and even for those who are dealing with crippling emotional circumstances of a different nature. Oates’ ability to capture the fragility of a wounded soul is remarkable and will make readers feel as if they’ve found someone who can share and understand their pain. It was a dark read for sure, but one that made me think about many things and made me realize just how the death of a loved one can change a life. A very intense and worthy read. Recommended.
  • (4/5)
    From the first I have to admit to being a huge fan of Joyce Carol Oates. Her writing is just incredible and having read most of her 115 books, I could not resist this one.This memoir is a moving tribute to her beloved husband Ray, who died somewhat unexpectedly in February 2008. JCO, as she often refers to herself, has quite literally poured her heart out through her writing. She recounts her every feeling in short chapters from her "role" as an executrix of her late husband's will to the way their cats react to her when Ray does not come home from the hospital. It is interesting to note that she often refers to herself in the third person as "The Widow" and this gives her the opportunity to almost distance herself from what is happening to her. This is a very intimate portrait and JCO is brutally frank about her desire to commit suicide, her need to take anti-depressants and her anger at the way some of her friends, acquaintances and total strangers have treated her in her new role as "The Widow". The book is peppered with wonderful quotes and poetry which Ms Oates uses to further express her deep feelings.For all this, I never felt this memoir was depressing or self indulgent. It is an honest, frank depiction of one woman's plight on the death of her soul mate. I imagine it would be a great comfort to any recently bereaved wife or husband, if only to understand that the desperate feelings they are having are not unusual or abnormal.This book will stay with me for a long time and I feel I know a great deal more about one of my favourite authors. I wish her peace and courage for the future without her charming and clearly much admired late husband. This book was made available to me, prior to publication, for an honest review.
  • (5/5)
    I tend to not enjoy reading memoirs, which Joyce Carol Oates describes in this poignant book as at once the most seductive and dangerous of genres. At their worst, they come across as whiny (look at poor me and the vicissitudes I've overcome...) and at best, self-congratulatory. But then every so often one comes along, like Ann Patchett's memoir of a friendship in "Truth and Beauty", and this book by Oates about surviving the death of her husband.At some point, most of us will survive the loss of a loved one -- a parent, a child, a spouse. It's almost banal. And yet out of this experience, Oates has crafted a book that is unsparing of herself and yet a tribute to the value of loving and being loved. The death of her husband, Ray Smith, literally unmoors her, and she drifts far away from her former life, uncertain of whether she wants to return to it or if she ever can. Thoughts of suicide tempt her -- a basilisk figure lurking in the edge of her vision eggs her on, repeatedly, reminding her that she is a valueless person on her own -- even as she battles through the practicalities (disposing of the endless Harry & David "sympathy baskets", coping with distraught cats, reading a stream of sympathy letters.What struck me as most authentic and valid in this memoir is something that we should all try to remember (including the reviewer who described the author as arrogant and self-pitying): we cannot ever see inside of another's soul to fully understand the torment they are going through. If we are honest, we don't want to. What Oates has done in this memoir is to force us to confront the magnitude of the pain that the death of a spouse of 47 years brings in its wake; a pain that can be amplified rather than muted by the well-meaning gestures and platitudes of others. For whom do we exist? That's a question that Oates tackles indirectly and her verdict is mixed. Despite pondering suicide (periodically, throughout this memoir, she pauses to contemplate just how many pills she has available, and rejoices when she can obtain more) Oates opts for survival, of some kind. But it's as much despite the care and attention of her friends (appreciated, yet never a panacea as no panacea exists) as because of it. This book is more an act of catharsis than it is one that is intended to be helpful to others in similar situations. But it's also the most honest I've ever read about the way death of a loved one pushes one into oneself, into a state of mind and being that others too often dismiss as "selfish" or self-absorbed. I didn't find this book depressing, for it is as at least as much about the tremendous power and endurance of love as it as about the sorrows and traumas associated with its loss. As we age, we realize how inextricably the two are linked, and Oates is to be praised for not letting us get away with thinking that we will find the process inspirational or ultimately of value. It's not an easy book to read, but it's powerful, and it goes on to my list of the best books of the year that I've read so far. I wouldn't recommend that anyone who has recently lost a loved one read it -- it may rub salt in the wound, may irritate or anger someone who feels and reacts to that loss in a different manner -- but anyone over the age of 40 should read it, as well as anyone who wants to be reassured that a memoir isn't just a "look how great I am" book in disguise. I've rated it 5 stars.Full disclosure: I obtained a copy of the book from the publishers via NetGalley.com
  • (4/5)
    This intense and moving portrait of grief was heartbreaking and riveting. But it was also very, very difficult to read, given its subject matter. It's worth the immersion, however. This book changed me, and maybe it will change you, too.
  • (4/5)
    One year and six weeks before her husband’s death, Joyce and Raymond were lucky to walk away from an automobile accident that could just as easily have killed both of them. Joyce Carol Oates and her husband, publisher and editor Raymond Smith, would look upon each day after that accident as a gift, bonus time granted them on their time together. That would all change on February 18, 2008, when Oates would so suddenly be thrust into widowhood that she would be left reeling from the shock for months to come.Joyce and Raymond Smith had been married for forty-seven years, and they expected to be together for a good many more, on the morning Joyce awoke to find her husband feeling poorly. Because she could see that his illness was more severe than he believed it to be, Oates convinced Smith to let her drive him to Princeton Medical Center. There he was admitted with pneumonia, but the couple expected that he would be treated and released in only a few days. Up until the early hours of February 18, when Oates received an urgent phone call from the hospital, that seemed to be exactly what would happen.Technically, Raymond Smith did not die of pneumonia or its complications. He died, instead, from a secondary infection he picked up inside Princeton Medical Center, and his was a death for which Oates was completely unprepared. One minute she was feeling optimistic about her husband’s homecoming; the next, she found herself trying to make it back to the hospital before he died.Suddenly, her life seemed to lose all meaning. Gone was the man around whom she centered her world and, staggered by her grief, Oates lost all desire to go on alone. She could not sleep, had no desire to eat, and felt even her spirit fading away as the thought of suicide more and more appealed to her. What kept Oates going in those early months was her ability to lose herself in her “JCO” personae; she became a Joyce Carol Oates impersonator, an author with commitments that allowed her to travel from reading-to-reading across the country. She did not have to be Joyce Smith, widow, until she returned to her lonely New Jersey home.A Widow’s Story will remind many readers of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), in which Didion explored her own reaction to sudden widowhood. Like that memoir, A Widow’s Story can, at times, be disturbing in its frankness about the effects of the despair and grief that follow the loss of a longtime spouse and companion. Most disturbing to me, personally, was the realization that even someone like Oates, with her vast network of friends, colleagues and well-wishers, essentially had to weather the storm on her own. Good intentions and simple kindnesses did little to relieve her of the pain that crushed both her spirit and her will to live. Oates is a survivor now, as is Didion. What she tells us about her experience is not pretty, and it is not particularly inspirational. But it is real, and that, after all, is what Joyce Carol Oates is all about. This woman pulls no punches in her fiction, and she pulls no punches here.Rated at: 4.0
  • (2/5)
    Okay....this book reminded me so much of Joan Didion's "A Year of Magical Thinking", and I discovered the similarities in the first few pages of the book. The two are so similar in many ways..they are both authors, they were both married to authors, and they both wrote a book mourning the loss of their husband. The process of writing and publishing their book helped with their grief.

    I have never read Oates' fictions, so I have no idea what her writing style is. In Didion's book I found grief, but also strength, lots of selflessness, and persistence. In this book, I found grief, hysteria, helplessness, complaints (all about others, including her dead husband), lots self pity, and too many exclamation marks...
  • (4/5)
    Oates book is a help for people like me who can't understand overwhelming grief, When her husband died at age 77 Oates was overcome by grief. At times I wanted to say "Get Over It." and yet her insight as to what it was like helped me to see someone else's world. Yes, it was definitely self-centered grief. Her honesty in talking about suicidal thoughts, how others didn't understand, and the overwhelming burden of paperwork, as well as well intentioned depression and sleeping medications was at times hard to read. I did relish the fact that she overcame her grief by turning to daily jobs, like continuing Ray's garden.
  • (4/5)
    A stunning tell-all from a very private person.  In this brutally honest memoir of grief, Joyce Carol Oates the author gives us the reactions and emotions of the months of anguish endured by Joyce Smith the wife of Raymond Smith, a renowned editor when he unexpectedly died of complications of pneumonia after a short stay in Princeton hospital in February 2008.Stunned into almost complete catatonia, she is unable to function as Joyce Smith. She cannot believe Ray has left her. She neglects her person, her house, her mail, her expected duties, and often almost forgets the cats. She becomes particularly distraught at the continual appearance of the "Harry and David condolence baskets" which she does not want, and has no idea how to dispose of. Nights, which are the hardest for her to endure, bring thoughts of suicide, but her mind is too numbed even to bring her to action to complete the act. She gathers all the medications previously dispensed to her husband and herself, counting up and listing different anti-depressants, sleeping pills, muscle relaxers, antihistamines, and other pain killers, trying to decide if she has enough to accomplish the task of putting herself out of her misery. Daytimes bring a trance like state that can still find fault and hurt in every well-meaninged remark by friends and strangers alike. She is unable to accept that people want to help. By day Joyce Carol Oates continues teaching at Princeton, refusing to believe that Ray is gone. By night, returning to an empty house, Joyce Smith cannot function, unable to open condolence notes, email, or answer the phone. Friends gently guide her through the funeral process. Gradually, she allows herself to consider continuing with life. By April, when Ray's garden begins to sprout with the bulbs he had planted the previous fall, she experiences the stirring of life, and to the accompaniment of her memories, begins to mend.The writing in this work is exquisite. The reader feels the pain, the desolation and the total emptiness Oates experienced during this traumatic period.  By speaking in the first person, she allows us to enter her isolation so we can experience the enervating emptiness she feels. She is constantly working at simply getting through each day, each chore, each next step. She intersperses her recollections with copies of notes, emails, and letters from and to  friends and acquaintances. Periodically she will shift to a recap in the third person, almost as if she wants to look over the widow's shoulder to produce a how-to (or how not to?) guide for widows. At one point, (pgs 40-41) she gives us a sentence almost two pages long....very similar to a Saramago train of thought. It was enormously effective to show us the complete disintegration of her thought processes as she tries and fails to come to terms with her husband's death.As she works her way through the grieving process she is able to look outside herself : "For the widow is a posthumous person passing among the living.  When the widow smiles, when the widow laughs, you see the glisten in the widow's eyes, utter madness, an actress desperate to play her role as others would wish her to play her role and only another widow, another woman who has recently lost her husband, can perceive the fraud." (pg. 332). I've been reading a lot of memoirs in the past two years.  This is not an uplifting book in the style of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, or Kate Braestrup's Here if You Need Me, but it is an affirming book, one that assures us that life can go on :"Of the widow's countless death-duties there is really just one that matters: on the first anniversary of her husband's death the widow should think I kept myself alive." (pg. 416.)
  • (3/5)
    3 out of 5 starsI immediately requested the ARC of Joyce Carol Oates' A Widow's Story: A Memoir when it was first offered. I had had such strong reactions to Joan Didion's memoir, A Year of Magical Thinking, which I read shortly after the death of my son. I thought maybe my reaction would be different since 5 years have passed. Not so. Although the two authors' styles are miles apart, the raw pain and emotion are the same. Joyce Carol Oates is a well known, "instant recognition" name in writing but her private life for the past 48 years was that of Joyce Smith, wife of Raymond Smith, a well known editor. That private life collapsed, disappeared, and became a kind of nightmare when Raymond suddenly died. Like death of any kind, we never prepare for it. It doesn't matter if the loved one is older or young. We simply stay in denial about the mortality that we all have. How we deal with the loss is another matter. I am jealous of these writers that they are able to express and put to paper the madness, angry, rage, and all the other emotions that cannot be suppressed. All of us who have suffered such a loss feel and experience this wide range of emotions but we are unable to verbalize or explain them to our friends and family. Some of us are lucky enough to maybe have a close friend or a therapist that has also had such a loss and can identify with the feelings that are surging through us and help us survive those waves, but many are left to flounder on their own. You hear about the families and friendships that break apart after such a loss, and you can clearly see why when you read of the near insanity that Ms. Oates is able to reveal in her grieving testament. I really struggled through parts of this book. I wanted to shout to her to get help from her close friends. I felt her anger at the medical community prevented her from getting the help she might have benefited from if she had sought grief therapy. And ultimately I realized that each of us must bear these feelings and sense of loss on our own terms.
  • (3/5)
    Skimmed through this book. I felt, to the degree that skimming will allow, how the author lived through her husband's death and her acceptance of the immense change that ultimately came to her life.
  • (4/5)
    this is Ms. Oats memoir of her grief and loss after the death of her husband. Similar to the year of magical thinking. I found to be a very powerful and moving book. I am a huge fan of Ms. Oates, I think she is a wonderful writer. This book reinforces that believe. I learned alot about her. She makes grief very real
  • (2/5)
    If you are a widow or someone else who has suffered a loss and are seeking comfort, run, run as fast as you can, away from this book. There is little, if any, comfort to be found here.Joyce Smith, known to most of us as Joyce Carol Oates, had been married to her husband for 47 years when he died after a short illness. She was, of course, devastated, and I truly am sorry for her sorrow. Still, I really didn't like this book.Initially, I was annoyed by all the unnecessary exclamation points and italics, but those are minor annoyances, ones I can easily overlook. What bothered me more was the combination of extreme self-pity, condescension, and arrogance.She includes italicized third-person guidelines as The Widow, almost a primer of widowhood. I think that her experiences are not every widow's experiences, and it is presumptuous to write as if they are; it is disconcerting to read.There is much too much detail. I really am not interested in every sleeping pill she took, every email she sent or received, every thought of suicide, the extreme minutiae of her life. She was battling depression, certainly understandable, but did she have to work so hard at dragging me into her depression?Concerned friends gave her endless support, but others sent her baskets of fruit, flowers and plants, things to express their sympathy, and she resented these as she dragged them to the garbage unopened. She resented well-meaning acquaintances who tried to express condolences when she didn't want to hear them. She resented people who didn't know the right thing to say so said the wrong thing, even though it seems very likely that she did the same thing before she became a widow.When meeting with friends who were divorced, who had been betrayed by their husbands, she writes: Where there is betrayal, there can be anger, rage. I am thinking with envy how much healthier, how much more exhilarating, such emotions would be, than the heavyheartedness of grief like a sodden overcoat the widow must wear.Excuse me? She presumes to feel that her pain is greater, and that there would be exhilaration if she had been betrayed rather than widowed?Not one person in this room would want to trade places with you: widow.And...Trying to cheer yourself up when the only significant fact of your life is, you are alone. You are a widow and you are alone....You are a failure, you are an unloved woman no longer young, you are worthless, you are trash. And you are ridiculous....At one point, JCO is thinking of having a T-shirt imprinted with:YES MY HUSBAND DIED,YES I AM VERY SAD,YES YOU ARE KIND TO OFFER CONDOLENCES,NOW CAN WE CHANGE THE SUBJECT?I wanted the subject changed long before the book ended. The book was not badly written but did not appeal to me; perhaps it will to other readers. Because of that and because I admire some of JCO's writing, I am giving it one star more than I would have otherwise.I was given an advance copy of this book by the publisher, and the quotes may have changed in the published edition.
  • (5/5)
    Memoir is not my favourite genre, but as far as memoir goes this one is right up there. Coincidentally, Oates' colleague, Joan Didion wrote a very similar and also excellent memoir of her husband's death, "The Year of Magical Thinking". Where would we be without dying husbands? I'm not a huge fan of the entire output of Joyce Carol Oates, with the horror genre definitely not appearing on my reading list, but reading this memoir has encouraged me to go back into her extensive backlist and have another look. Actually I didn't read this in the strict sense, I listened to the audiobook version while I ran through the streets of Sydney at night. There's another coincidence - Oates is a runner, She said in an interview once: "I like to run every day. It's part of my writing. It helps me think. I get so many wonderful ideas when I run." I can relate to that, and I can relate very well to the story of the loss of her husband, although thankfully my partner is alive & well. This audiobook had a really excellent reader: Ellen Parker.
  • (5/5)
    The famed author Joyce Carol Oates drove her husband to the emergency room with a bad cold/ pneumonia; he seemed to be improving during his few days in the hospital until she received a call in the middle of the night. She rushed to the hospital and found that he had died. This book details her experience of losing her beloved husband after a very long marriage, her shock at the quickness and finality of the death, her resulting insomnia and depression, her inability to connect with friends and the world for several months thereafter. This is a very sad book but very engrossing. I recommend it but it isn't light reading. There is just a hint at the very end of possibilities to come, and in fact Ms. Oates within the year was engaged to be married to another Princeton professor. I hope she writes a sequel to this book so we can know exactly how this came to be!
  • (4/5)
    I have started many books by Oates and never finished any of them, as it was not my type of reading for enjoyment. But as a journalism student, I was assigned her articles in PLAYBOY as a class project, and thought I'd try again, only this time from her very personal view of widowhood. I have a friend who is newly widowed, and one who is looking at it soon, so I wondered if this book would be of any help to them. After reading a similar book on widowhood and so disappointed, I was hoping for a great read. Alas, this book is not one I would suggest to anyone suffering from a loss and seeking comfort. Yes, Ms. Oates is able to, with her writing skills, to describe her emotional pain at the unexpected death of her husband, but the style is more from a narcissistic view of the tragedy. I was appalled when she negatively described the sympathy gifts from her friends, throwing them out unopened .. could they not have been donated somewhere? Her resentment at everything done by anyone, including the hospital treatment of her husband, is too much for this reader to handle. My mind was questioning why losing a husband to death was any more traumatic than losing one to another woman, and when she encountered such a lady friend whom was taking her out for a meal, she berated the woman. Oates loss was much more magnificent, in her eyes, and yet when this woman expressed how she was left with no financial means, Oates went on later to resent having to handle all of the finances, something her husband did. She calls betrayal much more healthier. Presuming her pain is greater just because she had been widowed, not divorced. Excuse me, Ms. Oates, but loss is loss. My choice would be to be left with money, not penniless, or at least to have a female friend who would not insult my situation in comparison to hers.. Parts of her memoir were repetitious and other parts were so detailed that I turned the pages quickly. The style of writing, as if thinking by using exclamation points, italics and dashes, was cumbersome, but the worst part for my eyes was the extreme self-pity, condescension and arrogance. Sharing the emails to her friends only emphasized how she focused on herself, normal enough in such a loss, but her using the 3rd person and calling herself "The Widow" seemed a bit dramatic. The final straw was, that even though she went over and over again the many years of their marriage and even their courtship, and some other personal stuff that was filler, she suffered only long enough to get engages eleven months later, and married shortly thereafter. I have sat with friends and relatives who lost loved ones, sometimes unexpectedly,and it is always an emotional time for all. Death is a loss and must be dealt with, hopefully with friends surrounding a person. Oates shut out her friends emotionally in her depression, but her criticism of them and their efforts was a low point in the book. 400 pages of about 6 months of detailed mourning, and then on to another man. Good reading for those who want to see how not to behave when in mourning. Drop the resentment,Ms. Oates. None of us know how to react in such situations. We have your memoir to see that you most certainly did not know to be kind to those who were just as shocked as you at your husband's sudden death.
  • (5/5)
    I haven't read much by Joyce Carol Oates considering how much she has written. I read one or two of her novels when I was much younger and I'm a big fan of her short story, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" I have been feeling disappointed by memoir as a genre lately, but the Times Book Review spoke very highly of Oates' new contribution, so I requested a galley.The book begins on a normal day with Oates just returning from a speaking engagement. When she arrives, she finds that her husband has gotten ill while she was away. It is incredibly pedestrian, and yet from the first pages her story compelled me. Husband and wife fuss and decide that they won't wait to see their general practitioner, deciding instead to go to the emergency room, where Ray (Oates' husband of almost 50 years), is admitted with pneumonia. Considering the title of the book, it is no spoiler to say that, only a few days later, Ray passes away. And yet, reading those heart-wrenching chapters, I felt like I was reading a brilliantly crafted work of fiction. I could turn the pages fast enough on my I-pad; I was rooting for Ray despite knowing the outcome. The suddenness of his passing was distressing and the portrayal of Oates throughout rang to me as heart-breakingly accurate.After Ray's death, Oates explores what it means to be a widow and how she coped-with the help of friends and work and medications- in the months following her loss. There are sad moments and funny moments, and the reader feels the surreality of the writer's current state. Throughout the book, however, she writes with clarity and a competency that reminds us that she is a professional story teller. She explores the form of the memoir, eventually coming to the realization that "all memoirs are journeys. investigations. Some memoirs are pilgrimages." She sees her journey as the latter. I felt like I was on the journey with her, and it seemed to be a journey in many senses. Not only did Oates embark on the obvious journey of coming to terms with the death of her partner of many decades, it also seems to be a journey in which she merges her identity as Joyce Smith with her writer's persona-Joyce Carol Oates, or as she refers to her- JCO. She claims midway through the book that she has "walled [her]self off from 'Joyce Carol Oates,'" and has also created "walls" between herself and Ray by keeping their professional identities separate from their identity as a married couple. Through the book, she gets to know Ray better in crucial ways, and that is part of the journey as well.What I liked best about the book was its readability. Like I mentioned earlier, the reader knows that she is in the hands of a professional. I also found the book honest - at times beautiful and at others baffling. The author doesn't hide the moments in her relationship that some of us might find a bit strange (What? They didn't read each others' writing?). Overall, this might be one of the best memoirs I've read, and it makes me more than likely to pick up some more of Oates' fiction in the future.
  • (5/5)
    Should be required reading for all new widows, excellent book.
  • (5/5)

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    A beautifully written memoir, which took quite some time to read. A good reminder of how people who appear so lofty and successful are as human as anyone else.

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  • (5/5)

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    Ms. Oates is a tremendously gifted writer, and in this book she takes us through the pain and confusion of the sudden and unexpected loss of her husband of 47 years. In a visit to the hospital, Ray is found to have pneumonia. A couple of days before he was to be released, Ms. Oates receives a call in the middle of the night - please come, he is still alive. By the time she reaches the hospital, he is no longer alive, and thus begins her journey into the numbness and bewildering sadness that comprises a deep grief. As we journey with the author through her memories and through the aftermath of losing her life partner of almost 50 years, those of us familiar with grief may recognize the numbness and disorientation of loss so aptly chronicled in this memoir. Those who haven't gone through a sudden loss would do well to read this account, as it may help give a deeper understanding of the wandering, disconnected thoughts which accompany the effort to cope with loss. Of particular interest to me was her description of suicidal thoughts - not that she wanted to commit suicide, but that the idea that it was available as an option helped power her through the times when she falls into "sinkholes" of memory and loss.There are transcripts of some of the mails she received included in various places throughout the novel, and I feel that she is indeed a fortunate woman to have such supportive friends and acquaintances. From the note that says so truthfully, "...you are going to be so unhappy" to the note that states, "one breath at a time", it is obvious that these friends know the true depth that a loss like this entails - that it won't "get better" for a long time, and that even when the numbness eases, it will never be the same.If you've ever gone through your own loss, these words will comfort you as you realize that you are not and were not alone in your inability to inwardly cope. I thank the author for sharing her experience with us; it had to be extremely difficult to put these feelings into words that could so accurately convey it.QUOTES....sometimes, I call our home number from my cell phone, to hear Ray's recorded voice that is so comforting, and which, when they call this number, our friends will hear for a very long time.It is strange to be so assailed by rushing thoughts when I am moving so slowly - speaking so slowly - like one who has been slammed over the head with a sledgehammer.For this is the great discovery of my posthumous life - I am not strong enough to continue a life to no purpose except getting through the day followed by getting through the night. I am not strong enough to believe that so minimal a life is worth the effort to protract it.BOOK RATING: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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  • (4/5)

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    Actress Lauren Bacall on being commiserated on the death of her husband Humphrey Bogart is quoted as saying, “All love stories end as tragedies.”And surely most of those who love deeply wonder how they will cope when that tragedy occurs.Prestigious author Joyce Carol Oates, whose trenchant novels are known for their insight into the human condition, had a long and close relationship with her husband, Ray Smith. And as all such stories must, it ended with a death.Ray Smith’s quiet, unexpected death changed Oates life forever. ‘A Widow’s Story’ details that death and the painful changes that followed. Oates is honest in her grief, anger, and hurt as she explains the day by day survival skills that she is forced to acquire. When one has lost a part of herself that can never be replaced how does one rebuild a life? And why would she even try? ‘A Widow’s Story’ isn’t a feel good, self-help guide. It’s an intimate, honest portrait of the suffering and grief that are a natural result of great love and great loss. It wasn’t an easy book to write and it isn’t easy to read. Oates’ grief is brutal; it isn’t sanitized; her loss hurts. But as she fights to face each new day, the reader is granted insight into the courage and resilience of the human spirit.

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  • (4/5)

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    A WIDOW'S STORY, Joyce Carol Oates's memoir of the year following the sudden unexpected death of her husband of 48 years was a simply wrenching read. She holds nothing back in her interior monologues showing her inconsolable grief, loneliness and suicidal thoughts. That part of her narrative is indeed very hard to read, as it makes one wonder if most, if not all widows, go through such agony.But Oates is a writer, and this book is obviously one of the ways she worked her way through what has been one of the most awful times of her life. I was reminded of another such book I read a few years back, Anne Roiphe's EPILOGUE. And Oates herself mentions the bestselling memoir written by Joan Didion, following the loss of that writer's husband. Perhaps it is not surprising that the parts I found most interesting in Oates's story are the memories she shares of her long marriage, particularly those from the early days of their marriage, when the world was filled with so many possibilities. Since then Oates has become nationally famous as an author, of course, with over 60 books published. She is even aware that her obsessively prodigious writing output has made her something of a joke in some writing circles, albeit, I think, a very gentle sort of joke, since writers in general are simply in awe of the sheer volume of her work. The truth is, although I've been very aware of Oates's work for forty years, I've only really read one of her books - a short one called BLONDE. I've started reading a few others, but never managed to finish any of them, beginning with THEM, back in the 70s. Her fiction is generally simply too 'dense' for my taste.The memoir is a well-blended pastiche of journal entries, emails and frankly-voiced fears that must face all long-married people who are suddenly alone, for whatever reason. I was moved deeply by the distress evidenced so eloquently by Oates. I will admit that I was initially a bit intimidated by the sheer length of the book (over 400 pages), but found it to be a surprisingly quick read, owing I have to assume to Oates's skill as a writer. (Even so, it probably could have been pared down a bit; could have benefited from an astute and sympathetic editor.) It's not an easy book to read. It's a hard subject. But it is a beautifully written account of the long and painful trajectory of grief.

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