The current New Yorker (December 13, 2010) includes an essay by Joyce Carol Oates, “A Widow’s Story,” subtitled “The last week of a long marriage,” about the unexpected swift decline and death of Oates’s husband of forty-seven years, the editor Raymond Smith, at age seventy-seven. “So much to say in a marriage, so much unsaid,” she writes simply of her regret. “You assume that there will be other times, other occasions. Years.”
Here’s an excerpt:
Ray read little of my fiction. He did read my essays and my reviews—he was an excellent editor, sharp-eyed and informed, as countless writers who were published in Ontario Review, the journal he edited, said. But he did not read most of my novels and short stories, and, in this sense, it might be argued that Ray didn’t know me entirely.
I regret, I think. Maybe I do.
For writing is a solitary occupation, and one of its hazards is loneliness. But an advantage of loneliness is privacy, autonomy, freedom.
In our marriage, it was our practice not to share anything that was upsetting, demoralizing, or tedious, unless it was unavoidable. Because so much in a writer’s life can be distressing—negative reviews; rejections; difficulties with editors, publishers, book designers; disappointment with one’s own work, on a daily or hourly basis—it seemed to me a good idea to shield Ray from this side of my life as much as I could. For what is the purpose of sharing your misery with another person, except to make that person miserable, too?
This passage shows, as well as any, what makes Oates’s essay remarkable: the plainspoken candor, the rhythmic variety of the flowing, balanced sentences, the hard-earned insights. Not that all her truths hit me comfortably: what she says about writing is compelling, but at first her comment about not sharing one’s daily “misery,” because its only purpose is to make one’s partner equally miserable, seemed rather sweeping.
But I believe Oates believes this subjective principle, that it helps her live with what she’s generalizing from: her husband wasn’t a reader of her life’s work! (Note to self: don’t feel guilty for not keeping up with Ms. Oates’s output.) While couples do commonly spare each other the details of more prosaic labor, writing, to a writer at least, seems different—so public a self performance. Maybe that explains her insight: spouses don’t love writers as writers, but as people. They love them apart from, or even despite, their vaunted work of words. As Oates says, she lived with Ray Smith as a wife, not as a writer, and she’s bereft as a widow, not as a writer.
Oates has distilled in her essay what others have, written entire books about—without necessarily saying more. The piece is illustrated by a full-page photograph, taken in 1972, eleven years into their marriage, when Smith was about forty-two and Oates about thirty-four. He’s slumped in the background on a couch, looking affable, and Oates, dressed in a thin cardigan and mini skirt, with pearl earrings dangling from her ears, perches on the edge. She gazes into the camera soulfully with dark, doe-like eyes, her pretty almond-shaped face unsmiling.
Oates’s years of writing practice show in “A Widow’s Story,” which grows in power and profundity because of its unwavering focus on a universal but mysterious human experience, how it feels to lose someone to death. Oates’s alchemy happens in the details, as always, which are carried here in prose that seems to flow directly to us from her “stunned, staring eyes,” as she describes her aspect when, having briefly left her husband’s beside to resume daily tasks, she encounters a harsh example of the world’s indifference. Inside the hospital, though she tries to avoid blundering into others’ sorrow, she cannot escape the “memory pools” in waiting rooms and intensive care units. She cannot escape, dwelling within a hospital’s “slow time,” the “melancholy that is the very center of memory.”
The essay’s ending, with Oates in the room with her dead husband, a week after she admitted him for treatment of pneumonia, hits you like a punch to the gut. You grasp not only her experience but also the unending nature of her loss.