I Am Sorry to Inform You

In 2008 Joyce Carol Oates lost the husband—Raymond Smith—to whom she’d been married for 48 years. Her recollections of those harrowing early days of widowhood provide a glimpse of Oates as a teacher of writers and as caretaker of the literary magazine she and her husband kept in print for so long.

Many times Ray and I had visited Gail and her longtime companion, the distinguished composer Robert Starer, in their Woodstock house. Robert’s unexpected death in the spring of 2001 had the sorrowful feel of the end of an era, though I had not dared to think that my husband would be next.

How similar our experiences have been, Gail’s and mine! It is uncanny…

Like Ray, Robert had been hospitalized as if “temporarily.” He’d had a heart attack from which he seemed to be recovering; his condition was “stable”; then, early one morning as Gail was preparing to drive to the hospital in Kingston to see him, she received a call from a doctor whom she didn’t know—who happened to be on duty at the time: “I’m afraid Robert didn’t make it.”

Didn’t make it! But he had been recovering… hadn’t he?

So we protest, in disbelief. Clinging to what has seemingly been promised to us, like children. But, but—! But he was recovering! You’d said—he was still alive.

Gail too had driven to the hospital in a trance. Gail too had not believed that her husband wouldn’t be waiting for her in his hospital room. Driving in the early morning along a darkened highway each of us thinking incredulously Is my husband dying? Is he dying? He can’t be—dying! The doctor has said—he is alive…

Long after hope has vanished, these phantom-words remain.

Alive, he is still… alive. He is recovering.

He will be discharged next Tuesday.

Gail has offered me sympathy, counsel. I am so very broken, I have trouble speaking. Rarely do I speak to anyone on the telephone but I am able to speak with Gail and to tell Gail that I wish we lived closer together. We might commiserate together, but neither of us is likely to move. Who but Gail Godwin would tell me: “Suffer, Joyce. Ray was worth it.”

This is so. This is true. But the test is: Am I strong enough to suffer? And for how long?

Is this grief?—such exhaustion, melancholy? A feeling of dazed dizzy not-rightness, like the sensation you feel before acute nausea? A sensation of being off-balance—both spiritually and physically—as if something has worked its way loose inside my head?

Grief is a kind of physical disability, like losing a limb, or chronic flu. But also an indifference to illness, or a sense that, being a widow, having outlived your husband, you deserve ill health, you deserve to be punished.

Ray would reject this as ridiculous. Ray would put his arms around me and say Now you don’t mean that, honey. You don’t really mean that.

And in that instant I would think Of course! I don’t really mean it.

But Ray would also, could he return from the dead, be concerned about the May issue of the magazine. The first thing he would say, in an urgent voice, is Did you send the rest of the copy to Doug? What about the cover art which I didn’t finish—can you prepare it and send it to him by overnight delivery?

(Doug Hagley is Ray’s excellent typesetter, in Marquette, Michigan.)

I may as well admit it—if Ray could miraculously return from the dead, within a day or two—within a few hours—he would be working again on Ontario Review.

He was working in his hospital bed, on the very last day of his life. He’d be terribly concerned now, that the publication date of the May issue will be delayed…

I am trying. Honey, I am trying!

Like a desperate individual in a sailboat, a small sailboat foundering in a raging sea, after the sailor has died, swept overboard and drowned, and the left-behind companion must try to keep the sailboat from sinking … It’s ridiculous to think of completing the voyage when the most you can hope for is to stay afloat.

And so, I am trying. I will do what Ray would want me to do—if I can.

At the moment, opening mail. The Sisyphus-task of clipping these little blue rejection slips to manuscripts. Sometimes I fall into an open-eyed trance reading lines of a poem, a short story, until my eyes lose focus.

In the hospital, we had read submissions together, and discussed them. I’d brought two short stories for Ray to read that I was recommending for publication—two stories about which I felt very enthusiastic—but now suddenly, all that has ended. I am distressed to think that possibly the manuscripts have been lost, were never brought back from the hospital.

Terrible to think, things are being lost! I had tried so hard, yet Ray’s glasses are gone.

As the days—weeks—months pass, the effort of responding to OR submissions will become increasingly vexing. I’d thought that word should have spread in the literary community—through our Ontario Review Web site, and obituaries—that Ray Smith has passed away, that the magazine is discontinued. Yet, with clockwork predictability, the submissions keep coming. Of course, most of these are multiply submitted, as if by robot-writers who begin their form letters Dear Editor and seem to have no idea what Ontario Review is. (More than a year later, robot-submissions will continue to arrive in the mailbox, some of them addressed to Raymond Smith, Editor, though this beleaguered “associate editor” has ceased returning them, figuring that by now a statute of limitations has been evoked. Enough!)

Yet, in March 2008, I am diligent—if that’s the word—about opening mail. Occasionally, I find even book-length manuscripts, unsolicited—which I return to the sender with a little blue slip Thank you for your submission. Sometimes I add a few words, and sign my initials. Even in my numbed state I feel an impulse to encourage writers, or anyway a wish not to discourage them. Thinking It would have meant something to me, years ago.

Though nothing means much to me, now. The possibility of being “encouraged” has become abstract and theoretical to me—“encouraged” for what purpose?

Your writing will not save you. Managing to be published—by Ontario Review Press!—will not save you. Don’t be deluded.

As with the trash, I dare not allow this mail to accumulate; you might (almost) say, the mail is the trash. Most dreaded, beyond even the Harry & David sympathy baskets, is that particularly nasty sub-species of ridged cardboard book-package in which a few publishers persist in sending books, bound with metal staples thick as spikes. To try to open one of these monstrosities is an exercise in masochism—hurriedly I discard them with the dispatch with which one would thrust away a venomous snake.

Pleading No! No more of this! Please have mercy.

Each week the trash cans are so filled that their plastic covers fall off, and clatter to the pavement as I wheel the cans to the road.

Why would Sisyphus push a boulder up a hill?—much more likely the poor accursed man was hauling trash cans up the hill, day following day, in perpetuity.

Amid all this, what a joke—a cruel joke—that publishers continue to send me galleys and manuscripts requesting blurbs. Yet more mail, packages to be torn open and recycled. In my state of absolute lucidity—which might be mistaken for commonplace depression—nothing seems to be so pathetic as these requests. Nothing so sad, so futile, so ridiculous—a blurb from me.

If the name “Joyce Carol Oates” affixed to her own books can’t sell these books, how can the name “Joyce Carol Oates” affixed to another’s book help to sell that book? This is a joke!

My heart beats hard with resentment, despair. Though my effort seems so futile, like cleaning all the rooms of the house in preparation for my husband’s return from the hospital, turning on all the lights—or, turning them off—yet I can’t seem to stop, and the thought of hiring someone to help me, or even bringing anyone into the house for this purpose, is not possible. All I know is—I can’t let Ray down. This is my responsibility as his wife.

I mean, his widow.

Presented by

Joyce Carol Oates is on the faculty at Princeton University and is the 2010 recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature. The Siege: A Widow’s Story will be published in February 2011.

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