Oates, Joyce Carol "A Widow's Story. A Memoir" - 2011
Even though Joyce Carol Oates has been very high on my list of favourite writers ever since I read her for the first time ("We Were The Mulvaneys"), she is moving up higher and higher with every book I read. This one was the best one ever.
This book has touched me more than any book has for a long time. It spoke to me.
I learned a lot about JCO, a lot that I have in common with her. For example, she loves gardens but not gardening. But that is not the main fact.
What does a woman do when her husband dies unexpectedly, when she says to him "Good-bye, see you tomorrow", only there is no tomorrow. At least not for him and it feels the same for her. Is a tomorrow without the loved on with whom you've shared most of your life worth living? Even if, in this case, you are a very independent person, have your own life and job and everything? They were married for 47 years. That is a long time, not easy to get over the loss of someone so close.
Joyce Carol Oates tries to move on but finds it very hard. She gives us the opportunity to follow her on her voyage back into life, one day at the time.
Joyce Carol Oates ponders over so many questions related to this topic, death, widowhood, old age. She goes deep down.
Why is there life? (JCO: "I am utterly mystified why there is life and not rather the cessation of life.")
What does life mean? ("I am not suggesting that life is not rich, wonderful, beautiful, various and ever-surprising, and precious - only that, for me, there is no access to this life any longer. I am not suggesting that the world isn't beautiful - some of the world, that is. Only that, for me, this world has become remote & inaccessible.")
How do you change your perspective to life, to suicide ("Do not think - if you are healthy-minded, and the thought of suicide is abhorrent to you ... - that suicide is, for others, a 'negative' thought - not at all. Suicide is in fact a consoling thought. Suicide is the secret door by which you can exit the world at any time - it's wholly up to you.")
She talks about depression and its effects on life ("Perhaps it's a withdrawal symptom - being unable to get out of bed in the morning. [The very concept of 'morning' is open to revision when one is depressed - 'morning' becomes an elastic term, like 'middle-age'.] Feeling arms, legs, head heavy as concrete. An effort to breathe - and what a futile effort! Never mind rolling a boulder up a hill like Camus's Sisyphus, what of the futility of breathing."),
how it changes your perspective ("I am not strong enough to continue a life to no purpose except getting through the day followed by getting through the night. I am not strong enough to believe that so minimal a life is worth the effort to protract it.")
as well as about illness ("Then, when you are finally sick, and must retreat to bed, really sick, with flu, let's say, you are so terribly week, so unambiguously sick, it is all you can do to hold up your head, or even to rest your head against a pillow. Reading, so long imagined as a much-deserved reward, is suddenly out of the question, like jumping out of bed and dancing - running - to the far end of the house.") in a way hardly anybody has talked before.
She gives us the deep thoughts by a widow or probably anybody who has lost the touch with life for any reason whatsoever ("To be human is to live with meaning. To live without meaning is to live sub-humanly. Like one who has suffered damage to a part of the brain in which language, emotions, and memory reside.")
She also talks about the onset of shingles and how she feels that all of sudden, people seem to acknowledge that she is sick. As a chronic migraine sufferer I can so relate to this. ("My pain-free life of only a few days ago seems idyllic to me now but it's a measure of my delusion that I am almost cheerful about this, for shingles is something real - 'visible' - and not of the ontological status of the ugly lizard-thing urging me to swallow all the pills in the medicine cabinet, curl up and die.") as well as this quote ("Physical pain, emotional and psychological pain - is there any purpose to it?")
You might think I have quoted half the book and that it is not worth reading it anymore. Believe me, it is. If these thoughts do not get you to read this memoir, I don't know what will.
She is so honest, leaves no stone unturned, no thought unmentioned. We can actually feel her grief, her sorrow, her pain.
A friend recommended I read "The Year of Magical Thinking" by Joan Didion who suffered a similar loss, as well. Maybe I will.
At the end of this book, there is just one open question. Why did Joyce Carol Oates not receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, yet?
From the back cover:
"On a February morning in 2008, Joyce Carol Oates drove her ailing husband, Raymond Smith, to the Princeton Medical Center where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. In less than a week, Ray was dead and Joyce was faced - totally unprepared - with the reality of widowhood.
In this beautiful and heart-breaking account, Joyce takes us through what it is to become a widow: the derangement of denial, the anguish of loss, the disorientation of the survivor and the solace of friendship. Acutely perceptive and intensely moving, 'A Widow's Story' is at once a truly personal account and an extraordinary and universal story of life and death, love and grief."
Find links to all my other Joyce Carol Oates reviews here.