A Widow’s Story illuminates one woman’s struggle to comprehend a life without the partnership that had sustained and defined her for nearly half a century. As never before, Joyce Carol Oates shares the derangement of denial, the anguish of loss, the disorientation of the survivor amid a nightmare of “death-duties,” and the solace of friendship.
By Joyce Carol Oates
On a February morning in 2008, Joyce Carol Oates drove her ailing husband, Raymond Smith, to the emergency room of the Princeton Medical Center where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. Both Joyce and Ray expected him to be released in a day or two. But in less than a week, even as Joyce was preparing for his discharge, Ray died from a virulent hospital-acquired infection, and Joyce was suddenly faced—totally unprepared—with the stunning reality of widowhood.
A Widow’s Story illuminates one woman’s struggle to comprehend a life without the partnership that had sustained and defined her for nearly half a century. As never before, Joyce Carol Oates shares the derangement of denial, the anguish of loss, the disorientation of the survivor amid a nightmare of “death-duties,” and the solace of friendship. She writes unflinchingly of the experience of grief—the almost unbearable suspense of the hospital vigil, the treacherous “pools” of memory that surround us, the vocabulary of illness, the absurdities of commercialized forms of mourning. Here is a frank acknowledgment of the widow’s desperation—only gradually yielding to the recognition that “this is my life now.”
Enlivened by the piercing vision, acute perception, and mordant humor that are the hallmarks of the work of Joyce Carol Oates, this moving tale of life and death, love and grief, offers a candid, never-before-glimpsed view of the acclaimed author and fiercely private woman.
“You Looked So Happy”
My job at the university is to impersonate “Joyce Carol Oates.”
Strictly speaking, I am not impersonating this individual, since “Joyce Carol Oates” doesn’t exist, except as an author-identification. On the spines of books shelved in certain libraries and bookstores you will see OATES but this is a descriptive term, this is not a noun.
This is not a person. This is not a life.
A writing-life is not a life.
It is not invariably the case that a teacher is also a writer, and that, as a teacher, she has been hired to impersonate the writer. But it is the case with me here in Princeton, as it had not been, for instance, in Detroit, where my identification was “Joyce Smith”—“Mrs. Smith.”
In the lives of teachers there are teaching-days, teaching-hours like islands, or oases, amid turbulent seas.
In the immediate days following Ray’s death, I did not teach. Colleagues urged that I take more time off, even the entire semester, but I was eager to return to my fiction workshops the following week, on February 27, in time to attend a joint reading that evening by Honor Moore and Mary Karr in our creative-writing reading series.
This “Oates”—this quasi-public self—is scarcely visible to me, as a mirror-reflection, seen up close, is scarcely visible to the viewer. “Oates” is an island, an oasis, to which on this agitated morning I can row, as in an uncertain little skiff, with an unwieldy paddle—the way is arduous not because the water is deep but because the water is shallow and weedy and the bottom of the skiff is endangered by rocks beneath. And yet—once I have rowed to this island, this oasis, this core of calm amid the chaos of my life—once I arrive at the university, check my mail, and ascend to the second floor of 185 Nassau where I’ve had an office since fall 1978—once I am “Joyce Carol Oates” in the eyes of my colleagues and my students—a shivery sort of elation enters my veins. I feel not just confidence but certainty—that I am in the right place, and this is the right time. The anxiety, the despair, the anger I’ve been feeling—that has so transformed my life—immediately fades, as shadows on a wall are dispelled in sunshine.
Always I have felt this way about teaching but more strongly, because more desperately, after Ray’s death.
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.
Now for the first time in what I’ve grown to think of as my “posthumous life”—my life after Ray—I am feeling almost hopeful, happy. Thinking Maybe life is navigable. Maybe this will work.
Then I recall: hope was the predominant emotion I had felt—we had both felt—during the long week of Ray’s hospitalization. Hope, in retrospect, is so often a cruel joke.
“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” Emily Dickinson so boldly said. The thing that is ungainly, vulnerable, embarrassing. But there it is.
For some of us, what can hope mean? The worst has happened, the spouse has died, the story is ended. And yet—the story is not ended, clearly.
Hope can be outlived. Hope can become tarnished.
Yet, I am hopeful about teaching. Each semester I am hopeful and each semester I become deeply involved with my writing students and each semester has turned out well—in fact, very well—since I first began teaching at Princeton. But now, I am thinking that I will focus even more intensely on my students. I have just 22 students this semester—two workshops and two seniors whom I am directing in “creative” theses.
Devote myself to my students, my teaching. This is something that I can do, that is of value.
For writing—being a writer—always seems to the writer to be of dubious value.
Being a writer is like being one of those riskily overbred pedigreed dogs—a French bulldog, for instance—poorly suited for survival despite their very special attributes.
Being a writer is in defiance of Darwin’s observation that the more highly specialized a species, the more likely its extinction.
Teaching—even the teaching of writing—is altogether different. Teaching is an act of communication, sympathy—a reaching-out—a wish to share knowledge, skills; a rapport with others, who are students; a way of allowing others into the solitariness of one’s soul.
“Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche”—so Chaucer says of his young scholar in The Canterbury Tales. When teachers feel good about teaching, this is how we feel.
And so, in this afternoon’s “advanced fiction” workshop, in an upstairs, lounge-like room in 185 Nassau, the university’s arts building, I am greatly relieved to be teaching! To be back in the presence of undergraduates who know nothing of my private life. For two lively and absorbing hours I am able to forget the radically altered circumstances of this life—none of my students could guess, I am certain, that “Professor Oates” is a sort of raw bleeding stump whose brain, outside the perimeter of the workshop, is in thrall to chaos.
Along with prose pieces by several students, we discuss in detail, rending our way through the story line by line as if it were poetry, that early masterpiece of Ernest Hemingway—“Indian Camp.” Four pages long, written when the author was only a few years older than these Princeton undergraduates, the stark and seemingly autobiographical “Indian Camp” never fails to make a strong impression on them.
How strange it is, how strangely comforting, to read great works of literature throughout our lives, at greatly different phases of our lives—my first reading of “Indian Camp” was in high school, when I was 15, and younger than the author; each subsequent reading has been revelatory in different ways; now this afternoon, in this new phase of my life, when it seems to me self-evident that my life is over, I am struck anew by the precision of Hemingway’s prose, exquisite as the workings of a clock. I am thinking how, of all classic American writers, Hemingway is the one who writes exclusively of death, in its manifold forms; “The perfect man of action is the suicide,” William Carlos Williams once observed, and surely this was true of Hemingway. In a typical Hemingway story foregrounds as well as backgrounds are purposefully blurred, like the contours of his characters’ faces and their pasts, as in those dreams of terrible simplicity in which stark revelation is the point, and the time for digressing is gone.
At an Indian camp in Northern Michigan to which Nick Adams’s father, a doctor, has been summoned to help with a difficult childbirth, an Indian commits suicide by slashing his throat while lying in the upper bunk of a bunk bed, even as his wife gives birth to their child in the lower bunk. Hemingway’s young Nick Adams is a witness to the horror—before his father can usher him from the scene, Nick sees him examining the Indian’s wound by “tipping” the Indian’s head back.
Later, walking back to the boats to return home from the Indian camp, Nick asks his father why the Indian killed himself, and his father says, “I don’t know, Nick. He couldn’t stand things, I guess.”
No theory of suicide, no philosophical discourses on the subject are quite so revelatory as these words. Couldn’t stand things, I guess.
How poignant it is to consider that Hemingway would kill himself several decades later, with a shotgun, at the age of 62.
Suicide, a taboo subject. In 1925, when “Indian Camp” was first published, in Hemingway’s first book, In Our Time, how much more of a taboo subject than now.
Suicide is an issue that fascinates undergraduates. Suicide is the subject of a good number of their stories. Sometimes, the suicidal element so saturates the story, it’s difficult to discuss the story as a text without considering frankly the subject, and its meaning to the writer.
Not that most of these young writers would “consider” suicide—I’m sure—but all of them have known someone who has killed himself.
Sometimes, these suicides have been friends of theirs, contemporaries from high school or college.
These personal issues, I am not likely to bring into workshop discussions, as I never discuss anything personal about myself, or even my writing. Though I came of age in the 1960s when the borderline between “teacher” and “student” became perilously porous, I am not that kind of teacher.
My intention as a teacher is to refine my own personality out of existence, or nearly—my own “self” is never a factor in my teaching, still less my career; I like to think that most of my students haven’t read my writing.
(Visiting writers/instructors at Princeton—I’m thinking of Peter Carey, for instance, and seeing the look of quizzical hurt on Peter’s face—are invariably astonished/crestfallen to discover that their students are not exactly familiar with their oeuvre; but I’m more likely to feel relief.)
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that, this semester of Ray’s death, my students will be my lifeline. Teaching will be my lifeline.
Along with my friends, a small circle of friends—this will “keep me going.” I am sure that my students have no idea of the circumstances of my life, and that they are not curious about it; nor will I ever hint to them what I am feeling, at any time; how I dread the conclusion of the teaching-day, and the return to my diminished life.
It’s a matter of pride—or, almost!—that, this afternoon in the workshop, I behaved no differently, or seemed no different, than ever in the past. In my exchanges with my students, I have given them no reason to suspect that anything is amiss in my life.
In the doorway of my office stand two of my writing students from last semester. One of them, who’d been a soldier in the Israeli army, slightly older than most Princeton undergraduates, says awkwardly, “Professor Oates? We heard about your husband and want to say how sorry we are… If there’s anything we can do…”
I am utterly surprised—I had not expected this. Quickly I tell the young men that I’m fine, this is very kind of them but I am fine…
When they leave, I shut my office door. I am shaking, I am so deeply moved. But mostly shocked. Thinking They must have known all along today. They must all know.
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