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.
“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?”
As Mrs. Smith, she tries to be quiet and no trouble to others and to supply all the right answers. “The Widow has entered the stage of primitive thinking in which she imagines that some small, trivial gesture of hers might have meaning in relationship to her husband’s death. As if being ‘good’ – ‘responsible’ – she might undo her personal catastrophe,” she writes in one of the narrative paragraphs that end many of the chapters. She also offers practical hints: “Advice to the widow: MAKE DUPLICATE COPIES OF THE DEATH CERTIFICATE. MANY!”
Her professional self she dubs “JCO,” a construct whom she is determined to impersonate “as flawlessly” as a replicant from “Blade Runner.” Despite her grief and insomnia, “JCO” will carry on with her tasks as a writer and professor at Princeton University without her students and readers seeing her pain. In her memoir, she lets herself howl. As for the novels everyone still expects her to whip out every three months like clockwork, she writes she could no more start a new one than she could hike across Antarctica.
She also fights a fascination with suicide, which she describes as a basilisk “with beady dead gem-like eyes.”
Oates includes her own e-mails and excerpts from the letters sent her at this time, and details the many kindnesses from her friends. (These include writers such as Richard Ford; Edmund White; and Gail Godwin, another widow who advised her, “Suffer, Joyce. Ray was worth it.”) And she includes glimpses of her and Smith’s life together in Wisconsin, Michigan, and, briefly, Texas. (“At least we’re not in Beaumont,” was the family catchphrase for decades after one school year there.)
Eventually, she brings herself to plant flowers in Smith’s garden, choosing perennials “guaranteed to survive,” and to read Smith’s unfinished novel, “Black Mass.” In it, she learned the reason for her husband’s schism from his father and the Roman Catholic church, which he had kept from her their entire life together.
“A Widow’s Story” ends on a hopeful note. While cleaning up the trash bins raccoons have strewn across her driveway, Oates finds a pair of missing earrings. “If I have lost the meaning of my life, and the love of my life, I might still find small treasured things amid the spilled and pilfered trash.”
And her last chapter, “The Widow’s Handbook,” hints that she may have slain her basilisk. “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.”
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews books for the Monitor.