A Widow’s Story: A Memoir

  • By Joyce Carol Oates
  • Ecco
  • 432 pp.

A surviving spouse chronicles her journey through grief.

On February 11, 2008, his loyal wife Joyce Smith at his side, Ray Smith was admitted to Princeton Medical Center with an acute illness later diagnosed as pneumonia. Eight days later, much to the surprise of medical personnel, Ray Smith died, his wife unable to make it to the hospital in time. This heartbreaking story, no doubt repeated with variation across the land, does not as a rule occasion a 432-page account of death, grief, and survival.

But Joyce Smith is no ordinary widow. She is Joyce Carol Oates, author of close to 100 novels, short-story collections, and essays, and Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Princeton University. Her book, A Widow’s Story: A Memoir, is both wonderful and terrible. It is wonderful because of its brilliant prose. It is terrible because of its subject matter: an unsparing examination of the phenomenon of the pain of grief. Indeed, it might be impossible for readers to endure such unrelenting grief were it not for the language through which that grief is expressed.

Smith’s seven catastrophic days at the Princeton Medical Center provide a framework for Oates to weave together the story of their lives and her ultimate grief. And yet, the structure of the book is hard to define. In many ways it is like a scrapbook, divided into five sections of short chapters and an epilogue. Oates narrates the days of her vigil at the Medical Center and the months following her husband’s death. She flashes back to an earlier life filled with memories of happy times. She writes about her own family background, her meeting and marriage to Smith 46 years earlier, and their early days together of travel and work.

She records conversations with medical staff concerning Smith’s condition. She includes quotations she finds interesting and which have been useful to her in her struggle. She records details of the Smith home and their daily life together. Interspersed within chapters are e-mails she has sent to close friends. Occasionally she quotes a condolence letter she has found helpful. Amazingly, out of this hodgepodge, these disparate pieces, the memoir emerges as a trajectory of a person who grieves but is working to conquer the pain.

When Ray Smith died, the words of an old Scottish ballad began to run incessantly through Oates’ mind.

There once was a ship
And she sailed on the sea.
And the name of our ship was
The Golden Vanity.

With typical Oates honesty, she wonders whether there is “a perspective from which the widow’s grief is sheer vanity; narcissism; the pretense that one’s loss is so special, so very special, that there has never been a loss quite like it?” In her effort to be scrupulously honest, she spares no one, especially not herself. The behavior she reveals will not doubt shock some of Oates’ well-meaning friends.

One chapter describes what Oates terms the “sympathy-siege,” under which she is inundated with food-filled gift baskets, flowers, and potted plants. Her frantic attempts to get rid of what she sees as trash become darkly humorous. Many letters of condolence remain unread. Yet, ever contradictory, close friends give her great solace with their presence and assistance – from the comfort of a family meal, to legal help, to accompanying her on the many errands a death occasions.

Throughout the ordeal, Oates torments herself with self-doubt. She wonders whether she had done right in taking Ray to the Princeton Medical Center rather than a more sophisticated hospital in New York or Philadelphia. Of course, on the morning of Ray Smith’s illness, her first thought was to have him treated immediately, to allay his suffering. At that point, neither had any thought of serious illness.

Hindsight allowed Oates to learn that her husband’s pneumonia, a diagnosis which at first seemed a relief, was caused by the bacteria E. coli, an infection with a high morbidity rate. Yet this was not the infection that killed him; it was a secondary hospital infection, acquired at the Princeton Medical Center. Would this have been avoided in another hospital? Or was Smith’s death simply a confluence of circumstances? The crisis occurred in the middle of a Sunday night when no senior medical staff members were present. These questions and more torture Oates in the months to follow.

Just as reproving are the two Smith cats, Cherie, a young female, and Reynard, an elderly male. The latter is the favored pet, for Ray Smith had surprised Oates with him as a kitten adopted from a shelter. In Oates’ mind, the cats blame her for Ray’s absence. They avoid her, only occasionally giving her physical comfort. Reynard goes so far as to urinate on documents, including a death certificate that Oates had left on the floor. In what seems an ultimate betrayal, Reynard refuses to come into the house one rainy night. The next morning, Oates finds him dead.

Thoughts of suicide run throughout the book. In one sense, its possibility is a comfort. Oates has collected a variety of quotations on suicide, for and against, from favored authors. She has also collected a variety of drugs, though she has been told matter-of-factly that an overdose is an uncertain method of ending one’s life. The temptation of suicide becomes embodied in a creature, a type of basilisk that watches her with hypnotic eyes.

Yet she feels she must fight against that temptation, for to succumb is defeat. She seeks the comfort of sleep, yet is wracked with insomnia. With close friends in social settings she finds some relief. She also finds relief in teaching, to which she returned 10 days after Ray Smith’s death, reassuming the role of Joyce Carol Oates. Professor Oates is no longer Joyce Smith, nor is she the Widow. And yet, the first day back in class, she assigns Ernest Hemingway’s “Indian Camp,” a short story that involves a suicide.

Unraveling the many layers of this complex memoir seems at times almost as painful for the reader as for the writer, who married at age 23 and moved, as she says, from the protection of her father to the protection of her husband, her senior by eight years. A large part of Oates’ grief comes simply from Smith’s physical absence. Whom will she phone from a hotel room late at night after speaking on tour? Can she continue to work out at the local fitness center where she and Ray always went together? Who now will call her “Honey,” as she and Ray always called one another? In the end, Oates describes her memoir as a “pilgrimage,” a search for redemption of one kind or another.

The redemption Oates finds is expressed at the end of A Widow’s Story in an odd, one-line Widow’s Handbook. “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.”

Nancy MacKnight is professor emeritus of English at the University of Maine, Orono.

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