Monday, December 06, 2010

"The dread of the phone ringing at the wrong time. We all know this dread" (Joyce Carol Oates)


Raymond Smith and Joyce Carol Oates in Madison, Wisconsin
(where they met), in 1961, the year they were married

The call comes at 12:38 A.M. Waking me from sleep -- a phone ringing at the wrong time.

When my parents were alive and elderly, their health crises escalating, there was, for years, the dread of the phone ringing late -- at the wrong time. We all know this dread. There is no escape from it.

But tonight, finally, I was able to sleep. And now this feels like punishment -- my punishment for being complacent, unguarded, for leaving the hospital early.

-- Joyce Carol Oates, in "A Widow's Story,"
in the Dec. 13 New Yorker

by Ken

Since the piece is after all called "A Widow's Story" and has the explanatory deck "The last week of a long marriage" (unfortunately available only to subscribers via the digital edition), I don't think I'm giving away precious secrets in revealing that the outcome of this phone call was not good. It came 38 minutes into Feb. 18, 2008, a week after Joyce Carol Oates overruled the objections of her husband, Raymond Smith, and took him to the emergency room of Princeton Medical Center, with what was in time diagnosed as a bacterial pneumonia subsequently complicated by a secondary infection (E. coli) in his previously uninfected lung, which is what within a week killed him.

Ray Smith was a month short of his 78th birthday but in excellent physical condition according to the author. (She's eight years younger.) On February 17 she had returned home in the best spirits she had experienced since the onset of her husband's illness. They had spent the day together in his hospital room, and he seemed well on the way to recovery. They were talking about his discharge from the hospital. Which is why she wasn't prepared for the midnight phone call.

I can't claim any intimacy with Oates's prodigious literary output, which I've dipped into over the years, and of course admired, but without feeling a great desire to explore more. This must be why God gave us so many writers: so that all of us could find some we feel closer to. That said, I was riveted by "A Widow's Story," subtitled "The last week of a long marriage," which I pounced on in the online digital edition of the new issue (Dec. 13) of The New Yorker.

It was hard not to think of Joan Didion's mesmerizing account of the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, of a massive coronary in December 2003, and the almost unbearable journey to acceptance of the reality she documented in The Year of Magical Thinking. Actually, I read only the earlier magazine version of the book, but I devoured that, in part because of the strong relationship I felt I had developed -- solely through their writings, of course -- with both Didion and Dunne. (I'm sure I missed a good deal of material that was only in the book. I can only venture that I just wasn't up to making that journey again.)

Here again we have a highly successful literary couple with a deep long-term attachment. Oates clues us in to one striking difference. Where Didion and Dunne were closely involved in each other's literary work, Ray, who was not just her husband but by her account a top-notch editor, "read little of my fiction."
[W]e'd consistently felt, through our long marriage [more than 47 years as of Ray's death in February 2008], as if we'd only just met, as if we were somehow new to each other, still becoming acquainted. Often we were shy with each other, reluctant to share certain things, to risk offending or surprising.

Ray read little of my fiction. He did read my essays and my reviews -- he was an excellent editor, sharp-eyed and informed, as countless writers who were published in Ontario Review, the journal he edited, said. But he did not read most of my novels and short stories, and, in this sense, it might be argued that Ray didn't know me entirely.

Why was this? There are numerous reasons.

I regret it, I think. Maybe I do.

For writing is a solitary occupation, and one of its hazards is loneliness. But an advantage of loneliness is privacy, autonomy, freedom.

In our marriage, it was our practice not to share anything that was upsetting, demoralizing, or tedious, unless it was unavoidable. Because so much in a writer's life can be distressing -- negative reviews; rejections, difficulties with editors, publishers, book designers; disappointment with one's own work, on a daily or hourly basis -- it seemed to me a good idea to shield Ray from this side of my life as much as I could. For what is the purpose of sharing your misery with another person, except to make that person miserable, too?

Again, since I've read so little of Oates's work, I don't know how much she's written before about her husband, but I didn't know anything about him. Here for obvious reasons he's at the center of the story, and she's generous in sharing the outline and a quantity of personal detail -- nothing sensational, but enough to give us some feeling for the texture of their relationship and life together.

For example, in the immediate aftermath of Ray's death, the newly minted widow has difficulty standing and, having dressed hurriedly after the phone call for the trip to the hospital, isn't even sure what shoes she's wearing.
Could be I have on two left shoes -- or have switched my right and left. I recall that, in the history of civilization, the designation of right and left shoes is relatively recent. Not so very long ago, people counted themselves fortunate just to have shoes to wear. This is the sort of random and yet intriguing information that Ray used to tell me or read out to me from a magazine. Did you know this? Not so very long ago . . .

Oates writes about a car wreck a year before Ray's sudden illness, in which one or both of them could well have been killed.
The next morning our lives were returned to us, but subtly altered. Then would have been the time to say, Look -- we might have been killed last night! I love you. I'm so grateful that I am married to you. But the words didn't quite come.

The night, or morning, of the fateful phone call, having extracted from the woman at the medical center who called her that her husband is still alive, she sets out on a drive that seems interminable ("I force myself to drive at the speed limit, for it would be ironic, it would be disastrous, if I had an accident at such a time, when Ra is waiting for me") -- first to get to Princeton, then within the borough negotiating the short distance to the medical center.
I am not able to acknowledge the terror I feel, or the helplessness -- such frustration as I enter Princeton Borough and the speed limit drops to twenty-five miles an  hour. Here, I must wait for a very long time -- how long, how long! a nightmare of lost time! -- for the light to change at the intersection of Hodge Road and Route 206. At last the light changes and I drive the several blocks to the hospital, past darkened houses. I run to the front door of the hospital, which, of course, is locked, the interior semi-darkened. I run to the E.R. entrance, around the corner, I plead with a security guard to let me in. I identify myself as the wife of a man "in critical condition" in the Telemetry Unit. The guard listens to me politely but can't let me inside before making a call. This takes some time -- precious seconds, minutes. Like butterflies with frayed wings, thoughts fly at me in random and rapid succession. He is still alive. It's all right. He is waiting for me. I will see him. He is still alive.

Later she explains that, while she doesn't actually recall it, someone must have asked her please to "gather and take away your husband's belonging before you leave." ("I would not have thought of it myself. The word 'belongings' is not my word. It is a curious word that sticks to me like a burr.") Nevertheless, somehow she has become aware: "It is my task -- my first task as a widow -- to clear the hospital room of my husband's things." She recalls this exchange:
"Mrs. Smith? Do you have someone to call?"


"Would you like any assistance in calling?"


These seem to be correct answers. It is not a correct answer to reply, "But I don't want to call anyone. I want to go home now, and die."

When the possessions are gathered, Oates is relieved to find that she's alone in the room with Ray. The skeletal night staff, including the people who presumably tried to save his life at the end, all young people whom she doesn't recognize from all the time she has spent at the hospital during his illness, has dispersed.
I shouldn't disturb Ray, of course. Yet I have to tell him that I'm sorry. I can't leave this room without trying to explain why I came too late. Though there is no explanation.

"Honey, I'm so sorry. I was just -- at home. I could have been with you. I -- I don't know why. I was asleep. it was a mistake. I don't understand how - it happened."

How faltering my words are, how banal and inane. As I've become physically clumsy this past week, so, too, I can't seem to speak without faltering, or losing the thread of my thought. With Ray, I've talked about his work, his mail, household matters of the most ordinary sort. Nothing that I've said to him has expressed what I wanted to express. And now I can barely remember, though it was only a few hours ago, why I went to be hours earlier than usual, why I imagined that tongiht was a "safe" time to sleep.

That I was sleeping at a time when my husband was dying is so hrorible a thought that I can't confront it.

The murderer who swears that he doesn't remember what he did, that he blacked out, that he had no reason, no motive -- such behavior makes sense to me now. What is becoming rapidly mysterious is orderly life, coherence. Knowing what must be done, and doing it.

Still unable to leave the room, and noticing the extreme cold of the hospital, which had been a trial for Ray during his stay --
My instinct now is to find a blanket, to pull a blanket up to Ray's chin. He has only the thin white cotton sheet.

I know -- I know! -- my husband doesn't require a blanket, or even a sheet. I know this and yet -- I am not able to understand that he is dead.

Which is why I seem to be waiting for some sign from him, some private signal, for we've always been so close that a single thought can pass between us, like a glance. I am waiting for Ray to forgive me.

Two images stuck with me from that account of the dreaded phone call which I quoted at the top. There is, first, the dread that "we all know": "the dread of the phone ringing late -- at the wrong time." But then, there's that feeling of self-blame: that for allowing herself to relax her guard in her vigil over her seriously ill husband, the author is being punished. It has taken the author almost three years to share all of this with us, and I hope doing so has helped her get through it. She's given us something to be grateful for.

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