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Today I was fact-checking a review of: A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Ecco. 432 pages. $28.

It was incredibly depressing. Excerpted in the New Yorker, you can pretty much get the gist. Woman meets man, they share their lives for 47 uninterrupted years (though not to the extent you’d maybe imagine), he unexpectedly dies, she completely, totally, irreversibly falls apart:

“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.”
These thoughts rush through my head and I make no effort to deflect them, still less to examine them. It is strange to be assailed by rushing thoughts when I am moving and speaking so slowly–like one who has been hit over the head with a sledgehammer.
Already the time on Ray’s watch is 1:24 A.M.

Of course, reading this (and there’re about 400 pages more where this comes from), I feel immense sympathy for this person who’s lost the warm-blooded anchor she’s held since 1961, when she was a 22 year-old first-year graduate student at the University of Wisconsin (and soon-to-be mega-famous novelist). I have yet had no experience to approximate this loss. When I think of my parents dying…well, I just don’t. Even to say it feels like a kind of infernal invitation. I can go no further.

And yet. Last year my dad was very sick. Closer to that unnameable than I like to admit. He had a portion of his intestine removed, and when the two parts were reattached, they didn’t take. A tactless douche of a surgeon went in and tried to clamp my father’s insides together with metallic fingers; it didn’t work. With my incontinent, semi-conscious father splayed out in front of me in a hospital “recovery room” antechamber, flanked by aunt and mother-ex-wife, this doctor-fucker mused in my mother’s general direction about my father’s potential anal-penetrative sexual predilections. Did he not see me, standing there hare-eyed and frozen in my bundles of winterwear and massless incomprehension? I had the strongest urge to laugh and vomit, simultaneously, like the painful sensation that precedes urinary release.

Later, when my father was settled and hazily conscious, mother, uncle and I went for a visit. I cannot describe the hospital pathos that entered my body and swam around my brain ’til dizzy. I have never more felt the primal urge for flight, like: this place is no good, full of beeping alarm mechanisms — see the pale, sickly versions of your origins: flee!

Instead, in front of an ash-faced father invaded by tubes and delusions, I felt water seep into my knees, stared woefully at my mother, communicating child-despair. My limbs trembled, I saw double. Sensing my helplessness through some as-yet-indefinable maternal magic, she brought me a chair and orange juice and somehow, miraculously, I managed not to faint.

Meanwhile, my father smacked his cotton-mouthy lips and presented a wholly foreign version of himself to me. (Have you ever seen someone defined by sobriety descend into druggy madness? No? Well, let’s just say it’s creepy.) Eventually he got better, but still I felt I’d seen something a bit too far, like a confession not meant for me. I saw into my own future — the future of illness and mortality and the loss of people who are not just others but sewn into my being in ways that don’t make sense even to me.

So. All of that to say that JCO’s memoir was moving and upsetting and absolutely compelling. I felt. Even just fact-check-skimming, it was crazy-depressing. I wanted to cry at points. Which would have been inappropriate.

But then there was also this other demonish feeling that crept along the sides of my consciousness as I was reading. This feeling of: you should be grateful, bitch. She met her life-partner at 22, and from that day on they never went a day without speaking. She had 47 years of this non-loneliness that is so incomprehensible to me I dare not even think of it as a possibility. So her husband died at 78? Long life. You had so many good years. Get over it.

But I can’t put my heart into it. The pain she describes — this “his skin is still warm but beginning to cool” — is so gut-wrenching as to be virulently empathogenic. I both envy and pity her. I want what she had, but not to lose it. Does that mean I’d take nothing, for the sake of preserving the fragile sense of emotional cohesion I maintain, mostly artificially? Are you kidding? Of course not. I’d take the 47-year deferral of death any time. Every time.


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