Shortly after midnight on Feb. 18, 2008, one Mrs. Joyce Smith received an urgent call from the hospital where her husband was being treated for a seemingly straightforward illness. She needed to come to the hospital right away -- her husband was still alive but declining rapidly. When Smith arrived at the hospital it was too late: Her husband had gone into cardiac arrest and could not be resuscitated. He had died, and her life was forever changed.
Joyce Smith, who is more commonly known as Joyce Carol Oates, explores the intense pain and suffering of losing her husband of 48 years, Raymond Smith (editor and publisher of the well-respected literary journal Ontario Review), in her memoir "A Widow's Story," which is suffused with the same darkness that is seen in the majority of her fiction. Oates' raw emotion lifts the veil of the enormity of grief that most widows, and widowers, must feel at the loss of their partners in a way that will come as a shock to some and a relief to others.
Oates leaves no detail to the imagination; from the first hour of her widowhood, when she is asked to remove her husband's belongings, to the seemingly endless stream of sympathy baskets and the intricate paperwork dictated by death, Oates writes that "the widow inhabits a tale not of her own telling." Once the logistics are taken care of, Oates spirals into a deep depression, uneased by work, friends or medication. To her it is "something ignoble, selfish, in continuing to live as if nothing has been altered."
Oates juggles her various personalities -- the widow, the executrix, Joyce Smith, Joyce Carol Oates -- and while her professional community assumes that since she is "Joyce Carol Oates" she must be writing up a storm, she is in fact paralyzed by her newfound loneliness. Even the reader, who knows the end of the story, wonders how she will ever survive.
Reading "A Widow's Story" can be exhausting at times. To witness Oates' indomitable struggle to stave off suicidal thoughts while she is haunted at night by a mythological basilisk, the reader is left to determine where Oates draws the line between reality and delusion. However, while we might like to think otherwise in our neat and tidy society, death is a messy business and the emotions that surround the loss of the love of one's life can be too much for even the most stoic of us to bear.
Meganne Fabrega is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and is a regular reviewer for Publishers Weekly and other publications.