When Raymond Smith, Joyce Carol Oates' husband of 46 years, was diagnosed with pneumonia, there was no reason for either of them — having recently survived a harrowing car crash together — to think he'd suffer anything more serious than a two-night hospital stay. But less than a week later, he was dead from a secondary infection. The National Book Award-winner was left to redefine herself as a widow, and to parse what, exactly, that meant.
In an early passage in A Widow's Story, Oates' searing account of that aftermath, she recounts a realization of how, as her "then-young husband was determined to keep the bedraggled nasturtiums alive, so we are determined to keep alive those whom we love, we yearn to protect them, shield them from harm. To be mortal is to know that you can't do this, but you must try." Via e-mail, Oates continues, "I think that my awareness of such matters was more intellectual than emotional — but there is a very different sensibility that follows an actual trauma."
That sensibility began to show its shape in Oates' journal. Smith died in February 2008, and the author began to assemble the entries during the summer of 2009. "I was so haunted by memories and images from the hospital vigil and afterward that it was impossible for me to imagine a work of fiction; so I went to the journal and reread it, and saw that it contained something like a beating, pulsing heart," she said. She did not edit very heavily the journal entries themselves, in order "to preserve the air of breathlessness and anticipation. The person who is writing the journal entries doesn't know what lies ahead." The book does, indeed, gallop along in a whoosh of fearful anticipation — the reader already knows what will happen, but is carried along with the author in a spiral of raw emotion, unflinchingly articulated in Oates' specific, honest tones.
Widowhood "seemed to me the only experience in my life that was 'universal' — that could be shared meaningfully with others," said Oates, who will read from her memoir at Mrs. Dalloway's (2904 College Ave., Berkeley) on Friday, April 15. "I've received so many e-mails, letters, and personal remarks from women who have lost their husbands, and from a lesser number of men who've lost their wives, suggesting that readers have identified with my experience."
Throughout her ordeal, Oates found consolation in a caring circle of friends; many of her e-mails to them are included in the book, further explicating the depth of the writer's pain. Some of the recipients' names ring out with familiarity, like that of Gloria Vanderbilt and the theatrical director and playwright Emily Mann. Yet in the end, more comfort came from an unexpected place. Smith, an editor by trade and inclination, brought the same editorial care to flora, while his wife was content to love her husband's garden "as an observer and not as a connoisseur of growing things." But in the spring of 2008, she stepped into her late husband's garden, slipped on his gardening gloves, and turned her attention to Russian sage, black-eyed susans, hollyhocks, and salvia.
"I am looking forward to the spring," she says now. "The solace of working in a garden is considerable, though I would not have believed it a few years ago." 7:30 p.m., free. 510-704-8222 or MrsDalloways.com