Sunday, February 8, 2015

Death duties

In her JOURNAL 1973-1982 (2007), Joyce Carol Oates painted an idyllic portrait of her long marriage to her husband Raymond Smith. They were very happily married for 47 years.
In her vivid, painful memoir A WIDOW'S STORY (2011), Oates tells how she lost her husband.
Ray contracts pneumonia, and Oates rushes him to the emergency room. He spends a week in the hospital, seems to be recovering -- and then a hospital-borne infection invades one of his lungs and he's gone within 24 hours.
Oates feels like she's been slammed in the head with a hammer, and she sleepwalks through the next six months, performing a seemingly endless series of "death duties" she'd never imagined could be so empty and meaningless.
The grief eats her up. She can't sleep, she can't write, she has trouble functioning in public. About the only place where she gets a break is at the oasis of her teaching job at Princeton University.
In this long, dark, soul-searching memoir, some of the best moments are actually FUNNY. Oates' neurotic cats shun her, because they think she's taken Ray away from them. Oates gets practically buried in sympathy gift baskets, and almost begs the mail and UPS to stop delivering items to her home.
Her friends help get her through it, even if she can't answer the phone when they call. Dozens of cards and letters pour in too, some of which it takes her months to read. Her main method of communication after Ray's death is e-mail.
This book doesn't make hospitals look good. Oates can't sue the hospital because she had her husband cremated -- she couldn't stand the idea of anyone cutting into him during an autopsy. You won't trust doctors and hospitals much, either -- every doctor in this book is worthless. They say the wrong things, do the wrong things, take the wrong actions, misdiagnose diseases.
Later in the book, when Oates develops shingles, her own doc misses it and she suffers in pain for another two days until the doc sees his mistake -- and by then the medication she's given doesn't have half the effectiveness it would have if the doc hadn't messed up.
The docs keep prescribing sleeping pills and anti-depressants -- Oates has more than enough pills to kill herself if she wants, but she's scared of becoming addicted to sleeping pills.
There are lighter spots. Oates also shows more about what her marriage was like. There are flashbacks to her and Ray's married days including a horrifying year in Beaumont, Texas; in Detroit, and in Canada. Going through Ray's papers, Oates finds a draft of a novel Ray tried to write before he met her. She includes parts of it in the memoir, and briefly considers completing it. The book sounds good to me -- but Oates points out she doesn't know where Ray was headed, or what he intended to fill the gaps.
This may not sound like light reading, but read with her earlier JOURNAL, WIDOW'S STORY makes for a warm, loving portrait of a long marriage, and a harrowing recap of the steps Oates had to take before she could say without fear "This is what my life is now."

My book about my old writer buddy Don Vincent is just about done. I have a few dozen "Strange Music" song-titles I want to plug-in as chapter titles, but the rest of it's finished.
This is probably another book that almost no one will be interested in. But I had to write it.

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