One Heavy February – “A Widow’s Story” by Joyce Carol Oates
In February 2008, Joyce Carol Oates’ husband Ray died after complications stemming from pneumonia. They’d been married forty-eight years. “A Widow’s Story” is Oates’ heartbreakingly unflinching memoir of what came next, and how she learned to live in a world without the one person she’d been part of a team with for nearly five decades.
In addition to struggling with her own all-consuming grief, Ray had always handled the household, and Joyce now to learn to deal with things like getting recycling bins at the same time she’s realizing things like the fact that he will never read the New York Times again so their subscription should be canceled. Ray had been the editor of a small-press magazine, and now that he’s gone the magazine will need to cease operations. She will also need to answer all the letters of sympathy she receives. The two house cats seem to blame her for Ray’s departure, and are stand-offish all of a sudden. Her world is crumbling around her.
All of these thoughts and details lead to her having severe trouble sleeping, trouble which causes doctors to prescribe her all sorts of medications – especially once she develops shingles from extreme stress. Also, she sincerely contemplates suicide.
Yeah, it’s a sad book.
Ms. Oates is glorious in her honesty, even at moments when she admits to feeling the stupidest. “A Widow’s Story” is also incredibly enlightening as to the things that happen after your spouse dies. Not only are there funeral arrangements to make (and really, who knows off the top of their head how you go about that?) but there are also bank accounts to deal with and apparently a great deal of paperwork necessary to prove to bank, insurance, and other official-type people that a) the person who has died has really died, and b) that you were really married to them.
There are a few chuckles to be found, here and there. There’s a particularly glorious passage about the crazy amounts of flowers and gourmet foods you receive after a death in the family. (Pepperoni sausage, really?)
On a personal level, I read this book with tears brimming at my eyes practically on every page. I’ve been married less than a year, and don’t even like thinking about the concept of my husband’s mortality.
It’s a beautifully written book, and I for one thank Ms. Oates for having the courage to put pen to paper and share such a personal time with her audience of readers. Oates gets through mostly based on her determination to live, but also thanks to the friends around her, her work, and little tiny moments of light in the middle of a whole lot of darkness. Though Ray is gone, the tulips he planted in the garden still bloom that spring – which is a beautiful visual.
Part of the marketing campaign for this book involves grief counseling centers and television appearances, and I feel it’s a book that can help lots of people, even if it’s just by saying what might be the most comforting words ever – “You are not alone.”