On an early morning in February 2008, Joyce Carol Oates took her husband to the ER at the Princeton Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. He would recover and be released in just a few days, they were told. But then unexpectedly, he developed a secondary infection and died, just a couple days before he was due to be discharged.
What an astounding loss! And in A Widow’s Story: A Memoir, we follow the author, known for her prolific literary fiction and who reveals little of her personal life or feelings in those tomes, into a part of her world that is now open to us. Showing us her interior life, from the struggling first moments afterwards, when she must take her husband’s “personal belongings” home to the “death-duties” that overwhelm her in the early days, weeks, and months. Back to a world (her home) full of empty spaces that now seemingly define her life.
And then there are the numerous deliveries and phone calls; bags and bags of letters; intrusions from well-meaning friends and acquaintances. And next come the first tentative efforts to rejoin the world and discovering the vast number of emotional “sinkholes” that seek to pull her into a hell of loss and hopelessness. Insomnia and depression accompany her on her journey, even as she reflects about the life that “was.”
Throughout her story, the author shares moments from the past, revealing bits and pieces of the partnership that was “Raymond and Joyce Smith,” and what it was like to be conjoined with such a supportive person for nearly half a century. Reading this story created an ache within, as I could only imagine such a loss, never having lived in the Land of Widowhood. It does seem to be a universe all on its own, and the people who were most helpful to the author during that first year were those who had been in that very Land.
I very much enjoyed reading about friends of the author’s whose work I’ve also admired, like Gail Godwin, Philip Roth, Margaret Drabble…and more. In such a charmed literary circle, there should be some kind of sheen that surrounds these folks and protects them. But we learn that nobody is immune to this kind of pain.
The writing reveals the depth of the love between these two individuals: Ray and Joyce Smith. We see it in the pain of loss and in how the treasured moments between them are lovingly revealed. And in the end, the widow can proudly say: “I kept myself alive.” Five stars.