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A Widow’s Story

After 48 years of happy marriage, Joyce Carol Oates experiences widowhood.

By Yvonne Zipp / February 16, 2011

A Widow’s Story By Joyce Carol Oates Ecco 432 pp.

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Never send a bereaved widow with no children a giant sympathy basket stuffed with gourmet olives, chocolate, popcorn, and mustard. Fifty-pound potted plants are also really bad ideas, since the intended recipient will be in no shape to lug heavy objects. If you take nothing else from A Widow’s Story, National Book Award-winning writer Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir of the months after her husband, editor Raymond Smith, died suddenly from a “secondary infection” acquired at a hospital, remember this.

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“Of all deliveries I have come to most dread those from Harry & David those ubiquitous entrepreneurs of fateful occasions – Sympathy Gift Boxes adorned with Sympathy Ribbons hurtled in all directions across the continent. 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?” she writes of trying to deal with the mounds of trash and party food generated by the well-meaning.

But there are genuine kindnesses, as well. Another friend, knowing Oates won’t be able to eat, gives her a dozen Odwalla blended juices, so she has something in the house she can get down. Others bring over homemade meals or cook for her at their own homes, and another drives her on errands.

The Smiths had been married for 48 years, rarely apart for more than one night, before Smith went to the hospital. “From the first evening we’d met – Sunday, October 23, 1960 ... we’d seen each other every day,” Oates writes. They walked holding hands decades after getting married, and neither wanted to inflict bad news on the other. Smith, a PhD and the editor of the Ontario Review literary journal they cofounded, as far as Oates knows, never read her fiction.

Even though the outcome is known from the title, the first section is suspenseful and emotionally draining to read, let alone to write. The hospital staff do not come off well: There’s the chirpy nurse who is outraged that the Smiths don’t want her to watch her talk shows while they try to spend time together, and the desk clerk who suggests, as Oates clutches Smith’s belongings the night he died, she look in the Yellow Pages for a funeral home to come and pick “it” up in the morning. (“It” being the body of her beloved husband, who has died as a result of his hospital stay.)

In the days following his death, Oates is exhausted, dazed, and furious – at the hospital, at herself for insisting he go, and for stopping for a red light the night he died, and with Smith for dying. “I am very angry with him. With my poor dead defenseless husband, I am furious as I was rarely – perhaps never – furious with him, in life. How can I forgive you, you’ve ruined both our lives.

In “A Widow’s Story,” she describes what she calls her “posthumous life.” She avoids entire rooms in their house in New Jersey, takes refuge under her mom’s quilt, and is convinced the cats blame her for Smith’s absence. She learns to recognize a certain smile from well-wishers as one certain to mean pain for her. “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?”

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