by Joyce Carol Oates
The Globe and Mail
On February 11, 2008, a 77-year-old gentleman named Raymond Smith became ill suddenly, so his wife, Joyce Smith, took him to the hospital. Over the next several days, Mrs. Smith raced back and forth between home and hospital as his condition vacillated; Mr. Smith had heart palpitations and a brief period of being “mildly delusional;” Mrs. Smith collapsed to the floor in a dead faint during one phone call from the hospital, and spent most of one night vacuuming, and polishing furniture with lemon oil. By February 17th, Mr. Smith was recovering from an E-coli infection and pneumonia; they spent a companionable Sunday in his hospital room until Mrs. Smith went home for much needed sleep. At 12:38 the next morning she was awakened by a phone call: Your husband is still alive. But by the time she arrived at the hospital, twenty minutes later, he was not; overcome by a mysterious secondary staph infection, Mr. Smith was dead.
An ordinary Mrs. Smith would most likely be rendered catatonic by such events, or at least speechless. She’d not have the faintest idea what to do with a husband who was now a body; there’s the suggestion that the hospital staff were anxious to get his things out of the room to ready it for someone else, as in hotels. Over the next several months, an ordinary bereaved woman, happy wife of some 47 years, would suffer from insomnia and weight loss, would do stupid things like leaving her doors unlocked, and banging her head every time she got out of the car. She’d do irrational things, like throwing away half of her own clothes the day after her husband’s death but hoarding his beautifully laundered shirts. She’d talk to herself, scream to herself. Be gripped by inchoate rage towards doctors and hospitals, made to feel guilty because she didn’t realize that an autopsy was a good idea. She would leave her husband’s recorded message on the phone for months, and call home from her cell phone, just to hear the sound of his voice.
But this Mrs. Smith is also Joyce Carol Oates, American writer, whose published works, in all genres (novels, nonfiction, poetry, drama, books for young adults and children), under her own name and two pseudonyms, number almost 150; whose personal journal, by her own reckoning, by 2008 was more than 4000 single-spaced typewritten pages. Thus Joyce Carol Oates, in heartstopping detail, takes the experience of sudden widowhood and writes a memoir about her sweet, beloved husband, Raymond Smith who is suddenly, inexplicably, gone.
Oates’ carnivorous prose style is well-suited to grief; her long sentences, slashed with em-dashes and bolted with exclamation points, her heavy sprinkling of italics, which sit on almost every page like tearstains—A widow must smile…Widowhood is the punishment for having been a wife…Oh honey! How on earth did this happen!—make the experience of reading this book an immersion into the aimless days and interminable nights of unexpected widowhood so immediate and overwhelming that the reader, too, is left breathless, claustrophic. Here for example, from the “Sympathy Gift Basket” chapter:
As in a silent film accelerated for crudely comic purposes there appear in the courtyard of our house in the days following Ray’s death a disorganized army of deliver men bearing floral displays, crates of fruit, hefty “sympathy gift baskets: stuffed to bursting with gourmet foods—chocolate-covered truffles, Brazil nuts, honey-roasted cashews…[fifteen more items including “drunken” goat cheese]…and pâtés of the most lurid kinds. “Mrs. Smith? Sign here, please….”
Oates is great on the absurdities…the “quaintly titled” living will, suddenly becoming an “executrix” (with its S/M whiff), a death certificate that smells of cat pee, the etiquette for answering condolence-notes (she fails utterly). She is frank about the dangers to health, including blurred vision, weight loss (just 103 lbs at one point), shingles, and drugs—Lorazepan, Ambien, Lunesta, Cymbalta, offered without question, taken with trepidation and confusion, and finally discarded when addiction seems unavoidable.
The reader welcomes the more reflective moments in the book, when Oates threads together the story of her life with Raymond Smith. There are no letters to treasure, not one, because they were never apart for more than one or two nights, in 47 years. They only called each other “Honey,” never “Ray” and Joyce;” they were a household of two quietly companionable adults (and two cats), who made the conscious choice not to tell each other anything “upsetting, depressing, demoralizing…” unless absolutely necessary. They shared the enterprise of the Ontario Review, a small literary magazine and press begun during the decade they lived and worked in Windsor, Ontario, but this was mostly Ray’s life. Curiously, and we’re told this no more than eight pages into the book, Raymond Smith, by all accounts a superb editor, never read most of the fiction written by Joyce Carol Oates; she deliberately “walled off” everything to do with her life as a writer from him, except the finances.
Being “JCO” is both a blessing after his death—she relies on her commitments as a teacher/speaker/reviewer to maintain a semblance of normality—but also a sore point; she’s horrified at the suggestion that of course she’ll be writing about all this and just carrying on with novels. The irony is that she does; since Ray’s death in 2008, there have been at least seven new Oates titles, including this memoir (some would have been in the works long before). “So long as, with reasonable success, I can impersonate “Joyce Carol Oates,” it is not the case that I am dead and done for—yet.” But the nightmare of being “JCO” is that hundreds of manuscripts, unrelentingly, are sent to her requesting blurbs: “If the name “Joyce Carol Oates” affixed to her own books can’t sell these books, how can the name “Joyce Carol Oates” affixed to another’s book help to sell that book?”
There is also consolation in being “JCO” whose friends include Philip Roth, John Updike, Richard Ford, Edmund White, Gloria Vanderbilt, Gail Godwin, Elaine Showalter, and whose resources for dealing with grief include deep knowledge of the poems of Emily Dickinson. And there is the curious coincidence between her predeliction in fiction for closure at all cost (what a NYT reviewer of her 2007 book, A Gravekeeper’s Daughter, called “swings between grotesque sadness and sunny self-reinvention”) and her own narrative, hinted at in the final pages of this book: in August, 2008, Oates was introduced to Charles Gross, a Princeton neuroscientist whom she married in March, 2009. “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.”