Joyce Carol Oates
A WIDOW'S STORY: A Memoir
From the book A WIDOW'S STORY: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates
Chapter 32 ~ The Nest
NOTHING IS SO wonderful in my posthumous life as retiring to my nest!
Even to die here—especially to die here—will be wonderful, I think.
This “nest”—in our bed—on my side of the bed—is a swirl of pillows, bedclothes, a rainbow-hued quilt crocheted by my mother—books, bound galleys, copyedited manuscripts and page proofs, drafts of things I am working on—whatever I am working on, or trying to work on, each night. And now, in the nest, I am reading—rereading—all that I can find of Ray’s published work.
When we were alive—when Ray was alive—I did not read in bed, ever. I did not have a “nest” in bed. I would have considered working in bed, especially, clumsy and messy and not very efficient—excusable if one were ill, or an invalid. Our evenings at home were spent in the living room, on our sofa, where at opposite ends of the sofa we read—or Ray copyedited manuscripts, or read page proofs—or I took notes on whatever it was I was writing at the time, or trying to write—the effort of “Joyce Carol Oates” to compose something of more than fleeting value out of our—(unknown to us at the time)—rapidly fleeting lives.
Now, I have to wonder if I’d spent too much time in that other world—the world of my/the imagination—and not enough time with my husband.
This nest, that draws me to it like water swirling down a drain, is my respite from the day, and from thoughts like this; my reward for having gotten through the day. It is a place where I am not “Joyce Carol Oates”—still less “Joyce Carol Smith”—whose primary worth has been to sign legal documents multiple times, a smile clamped in her face like a steel trap. In the nest, there is anonymity. There is peace, solitude, ease. There is not the likelihood of being asked How are you, Joyce?—still less the likelihood of being asked, as I am beginning to be asked Will you keep your house, or stay in it?—a question that makes me quiver with rage and indignation though it is a perfectly reasonable question to put to a widow; as one might reasonably ask of a terminally ill cancer patient Is your will in order? Have you made peace with your Maker?
In the vicinity of the nest no voice intrudes. In the vicinity of the nest, except for, sometimes, the TV—turned to one or the other of the classical music channels on cable TV—there is a reliable silence. The nest is a warm-lighted space amid darkness, for the rest of the house is darkened at night. In a belated effort to save on fuel—for I have been careless about leaving the furnace on too high, without Ray to monitor the thermostat—as I’ve been careless about leaving doors unlocked, even at times ajar—and worse—I make it a point now to turn down the furnace at night—I know that Ray would approve of this—and so much of the house is chilly, and forbidding.
I don’t undress, entirely. Partly because I am so very cold—sometimes my teeth chatter convulsively—unless I am feeling feverish, and my skin is sweaty-clammy—but mostly because I want to be prepared for leaving the bed quickly—running from the house if summoned. Never will I forget—I hear the voice often—as I see the lizard-creature with the beady dead gem-like eyes—Mrs. Smith? You’d better come to the hospital as soon as you can—your husband is still alive. Especially, I wear warm socks.
If you are likely to be summoned unexpectedly from bed, it is a very good idea not to go to bed barefoot.
Precious minutes are wasted pulling on socks! In a time of desperation, nothing is more awkward.
And so I have become, even in the nest-sanctuary, incapable of removing my clothes at night, and wearing what is called night-wear as I’d used to wear, in my former life.
In fact it has come to seem to me utterly brazen, reckless, and plain ignorant, that one would even consider undressing, and making oneself needlessly vulnerable, like a turtle slipping out of its shell.
Is he still alive? Is my husband still alive?
Yes. Your husband is still alive.
Though the nest is very comforting, and very welcoming—though the nest has become the (emotional, intellectual, spiritual) core of the widow’s life—yet it should be acknowledged that the nest is not an antidote for insomnia.
When I can’t sleep—which would be every night unless I take a sleeping pill—or a capsule of something called Lorazepam (“for anxiety”) which our family doctor has prescribed for me—the nest is my place of great solace and comfort and though I am awake, I am not the desperate person I am during the day. Here, to the extent to which I can concentrate, I am able to mimic my old self to a degree, by taking a sort of pleasure—“pleasure” might be an exaggeration, but let it stand—in going through page proofs for an upcoming review, or working on a draft of a short story abandoned at the start of Ray’s hospitalization; there are myriad scattered notes for a novel, which I will not be able to write, but there is a completed novel which I’d intended to revise, and may soon begin revising; this novel, about loss, grief, and mourning, in a mythical upstate New York river-city called Sparta, will come to be primary in my life, if not indeed a lifeline; but at the present time, I am not able to concentrate on even rereading it, let alone undertaking a revision.
How frail a vessel, prose fiction! How fleeting and insubstantial, the “life of the mind”! I must fight against the terrible lethargy, despair and self-contempt so many of us felt after the catastrophe of 9/11 when the very act of writing seemed of so little consequence as to be a kind of joke.
Words seem futile. In the face of such catastrophe . . .
Yet, working on short things—reviews, essays, stories—is a solace of a kind. Almost, immersed in work, I can forget the circumstances of my life—almost!—and if I become restless in bed I leave the nest to prowl about in Ray’s study, which is the next room; or, I drift into my study, which is on the other side of Ray’s, to answer e-mails, which has already come to mean a great deal to me, far more than it had ever meant when Ray was alive; but always my late-night excursions are predicated by the fact that I will return to the nest in a few minutes.
The possibility of remaining awake through the night, outside the nest, is frankly terrifying.
And if I am very lucky our tiger cat Reynard will appear suddenly in the bedroom—with a leap, onto our bed—he will curl up to sleep with me not exactly beside me but at the foot of the bed, on Ray’s side, where as if inadvertently—in the feline imagination, such nuances are not accidental—he may press against my leg; but if I speak to him cajolingly—Nice Reynard! Nice kitty!—or reach down to stroke his somewhat coarse fur, he may take offense at such a liberty, leap down from the bed and hurry away into another part of the darkened house.
I can’t bring myself to recall the summer day ten or eleven years ago when Ray brought Reynard home from a local animal shelter, to surprise me. We’d lost a much-loved older cat—I hadn’t thought that I was ready for another so soon—but when Ray brought the tiny tiger kitten home, mewing piteously for his mother, or for food and affection, my heart was completely won.
And how I loved Ray, for these impulsive, seemingly imprudent unilateral gestures that turned out so well.
The other, younger cat Cherie, though the friendlier of the two, and the less anxious, has steadfastly refused to enter this bedroom since Ray’s departure and will not enter it no matter how I cajole her. Cherie will not sleep with me, or near me, in this nocturnal nest-life, nor will she enter Ray’s study when I am in it, though she might sleep in his desk chair at other times; she refuses to enter my study, where I sit working, or trying to work, at my desk. Only if I sit on the living room sofa—which I must now force myself to do—as I’d done when Ray and I read together in the evening, Cherie will hurry eagerly to me and leap into my lap and remain for a few restless minutes—until she sees that the other individual who shared this sofa with us isn’t here, isn’t coming, and so Cherie leaps down and departs without a backward glance.
The cats blame me, I know. Animal reproach is not less palpable for being voiceless, illogical.
The nest is my solace for such cruel—such ridiculous—cat-rejections that in the radically diminished household in which I now find myself, a hapless cartoon character marooned on a shrinking island, actually loom large, and have the power to wound.
Absurd, to be hurt by an animal’s capricious behavior. Yet more absurd, to be so reduced in scale, so less-than-human, to care about an animal’s behavior.
A fact of the widow-life: all things are equally profound as all things are equally trivial, futile, pointless.
As all acts—actions—“activities”—are to the widow alternatives to suicide, thus of more or less equal significance.
Except—the widow must not say such things of course. Far better to be reticent in grief, mute and stoic. Far better to hide away in her nest than to venture into the bright peopled world outside her door.
During the week of the hospital vigil, often late at night huddled in the nest I would stare at the television screen a few yards away, entranced—it seemed too much effort for me to concentrate on reading, or on my own work—restlessly I would scroll through the channels—for insomnia makes of us explorers of the most bizarre landscapes: I was fascinated and appalled in equal measure by a rerun of the X-Files—a popular television series Ray and I had never seen during its run—in which the intrepid FBI agents pursue a man whose kiss turns women into rotting phosphorescent corpses—the female victims are so physically repulsive, even the FBI agents are stunned, revolted—here is an allegory of sexual contamination worthy of Nathaniel Hawthorne, though somewhat crudely portrayed, and self-consciously sensational. Watching late-night TV, I came quickly to discover, is like trolling through the uncharted deeps of the ocean—a roiling Sargasso Sea of high-decibel melodrama, gunfire, car chases, helicopter pursuits, CNN and FOX News repeats—the collective underside of our culture—the banality of our fetishes. What a lovely silence, switching off the TV to hear wind, rain pelting against a window.
And there was a time, later, shortly after Ray died, when weirdly at 4 a.m. there appeared on the TV screen a replay of the historic What’s My Line?—the animated ghost-figures of Steve Allen, Dorothy Kilgallen, Arlene Francis, Bennett Cerf, and John Daly of a long-ago decade preceding color TV—suddenly so vivid, so real, familiar to me as long-lost relatives. This low-tech show, allegedly the most popular game show in the history of network television, on the air from 1950 to 1967, was one I’d watched for years with my younger brother Fred and my mother, on our small black-and-white television set, upstairs in our half of the old farmhouse in which we’d lived with my mother’s Hungarian stepparents in rural Millersport, New York. How impressed we’d been by the witty repartee of the panelists and their coolly affable moderator John Daly! Yet I don’t recall a word we’d said to one another.
Why is so much lost? So much of our spoken language? It’s said that distant memories are stored in the brain—far more securely in the brain than recent memories—but so little is accessible to consciousness, of what value is this storage? Our aural memories are weak, unreliable. We have all heard friends repeating fragments of conversations inaccurately—yet emphatically; not only language is lost but the tone, the emphasis, the meaning.
My loss is compounded by the unusual fact that Ray and I had no correspondence—not ever. Not once had we written to each other, for we’d rarely been apart more than a night at a time and, for the first fifteen or so years of our marriage, very rarely even one night.
We had had no “courtship”—no interlude of being apart, that would have warranted letter writing. From the first evening we’d met—Sunday, October 23, 1960—at a graduate student gathering in the massive student union at the University of Wisconsin, overlooking Lake Mendota—we’d seen each other every day.
We were engaged on November 23 of that year and, to maintain some small constancy, we were married on January 23, 1961.
It wasn’t until years later that as “JCO” I began to be invited to visit colleges and universities, usually just overnight. At first Ray came with me but then, as the invitations increased, I began more often to travel alone, and so we were apart more frequently in recent years.
And so I’d gone to U.C. Riverside. On the eve of Ray’s illness.
Of course I think that possibly he might not have become ill, if I’d stayed home. He’d caught a cold—what could be more harmless! Whatever he’d done that he might not have done if I’d been home, I don’t know. You are being ridiculous. This is reasoning too finely! Difficult not to feel sick with guilt, that a husband has died, and you would seem to have been helpless to prevent it.
And then, Ray hadn’t wanted to go to the ER. You’d insisted. Maybe he would have done better at home, untreated.
Always when I was away, I called Ray in the late evening. After my reading, after a dinner in my “honor”—my hosts are invariably very nice, very interesting and engaging individuals—most of them academics, like us—and so I would tell Ray about my reading, about the dinner; and Ray would tell me what was far more interesting to me, about what he’d done that day—what had happened in our life, while I was away.
All this, you have lost. The happiness of domestic life, without which the small—even the colossal— triumphs of a “career” are shallow, mocking.
But this is wrong! In the nest, huddled beneath my mother’s quilt, listening to a Chopin prelude on the classical TV channel, I am supposed to be shielded from such thoughts.
It is the night of February 26—or, rather, the early morning of February 27—2:40 a.m.—a full week after Ray’s death. Earlier this evening I had dinner with friends—it isn’t possible for me to “have dinner” alone in this house, or anywhere—but with friends, a meal is not only possible but wonderful—except that Ray is missing . . . In the nest I have spread out some of Ray’s published work, and have been reading an essay on Coleridge’s famous poem “Christabel”—an “enigmatic fragment,” Ray calls it—titled “Christabel and Geraldine: The Marriage of Life and Death,” which appeared in the Bucknell Review in 1968. Astonishing to discover so much in Ray’s essay that relates to our shared interests—in the English and Scottish popular ballads, for instance—and there is the striking stanza from a poem of Richard Crashaw which Ray quotes:
She never undertook to know
What death with love should have to doe;
Nor has she e’er yet understood
Why to show love, she should shed blood
How powerful these lines are, how vividly they come back to me, like a half-recalled dream! The Crashaw poem had made such an impression on me, I’d appropriated the second line for the title of a short story—“What Death with Love Should Have to Do”—a mordant love story of sorts, of 1966.
(I should reread this old story of mine, that was reprinted in my second collection of short stories, Upon the Sweeping Flood. I know, I should reread it to recapture that time, those emotions. But I can’t. In the nest I feel enervated, paralyzed. I just can’t.)
As I read Ray’s critical essays of this long-ago time, I realize how close we’d been . . . We had shared every detail of our teaching jobs—our classes, our colleagues, the high points and low points and surprises of our lives—we’d discussed the Coleridge poem together and I’d read drafts of Ray’s essay—our lives were entwined like the conflicting emotions of love/hate—beauty/a snaky sort of ugliness—in the haunting Coleridge poem.
I am made to think, not for the first time, that in my writing I have plunged ahead—head-on, heedlessly one might say—or “fearlessly”—into my own future: this time of utter raw anguished loss. Though I may have had, since adolescence, a kind of intellectual/literary precocity, I had not experienced much; nor would I experience much until I was well into middle-age—the illnesses and deaths of my parents, this unexpected death of my husband. We play at paste till qualified for pearl says Emily Dickinson. Playing at paste is much of our early lives. And then, with the violence of a door slammed shut by wind rushing through a house, life catches up with us.
In 1966, I was twenty-eight years old. I had suffered no losses of any magnitude—not one! I had no actual knowledge—scarcely a glimmering of knowledge—of what Crashaw might have meant by “What death with love should have to doe”—“Why to show love, she should shed blood.”
When we’d first met, at a time in my life when I was both very lonely and very excited about the future—my future—as a graduate student in a distinguished English department—Ray entered my life as an “older man”—older by eight years—in his final year at Madison, completing an ambitious Ph.D. dissertation on Jonathan Swift, and undertaking to look for his first academic job. To use the jargon of academic English studies Ray was an “eighteenth-century man”—he seemed to me wonderfully poised, informed, astonishingly well read in the areas in which I’d just begun to read—Old English, Chaucer, pre-Renaissance drama and Renaissance drama excluding Shakespeare—though he was very kind to me, and patient with my naivete in most matters, his humor was markedly sly, sardonic and satiric—his literary idols were Swift, the great master of “savage indignation”; the brilliant satiric/comic poet Alexander Pope, whose masterpiece “The Rape of the Lock” Ray could recite at length; the legendary Samuel Johnson, less in Johnson’s own somewhat didactic work than in the great Boswell biography; and the very witty playwrights William Congreve (The Way of the World) and Richard Sheridan (The School for Scandal). Ray’s single book-length critical study is Charles Churchill (1977) which he began with initial enthusiasm—Churchill is no Swift, but he is a devastating satirist, at least intermittently—that quickly faded as Ray’s interests shifted from academic studies to establishing our literary magazine Ontario Review, begun in 1974. By the time Ray finished his book on Churchill he’d come to dislike his subject thoroughly, like so many who undertake indepth book-length studies of literary figures entwined with biographical material; making of the sardonic political satirist a figure of some depth and intellectual interest was a challenge Ray felt hadn’t been worth the effort. By degrees Ray’s interests shifted from the eighteenth century to twentieth-century poetry; he would write a series of sharp, insightful, appreciative essays and reviews dealing with H.D., Pablo Neruda, Richard Eberhart, Howard Nemerov, Ted Hughes, James Dickey, William Heyen (whom Ray would later publish in Ontario Review).
We’d particularly shared a love of Nemerov’s poetry. It’s thrilling to come across these lines of Nemerov’s at the conclusion of Ray’s essay on the poet which appeared in the Southern Review in 1974—lines indelibly imprinted in my memory:
O swallows, swallows, poems are not
The point. Finding again the world,
That is the point, where loveliness
Adorns intelligible things
Because the mind’s eye lit the sun.
—“The Blue Swallows”
Though now—in this posthumous state—finding again the world doesn’t seem to me very likely.
In the nest, reading—(re)reading—this material, I am beginning to shiver violently, though I don’t think—I am sure—that I’m unhappy. I can’t seem to stop trembling, I must go into my bathroom to run hot water on my hands, that have grown icy. How strange this is! I’ve been thoroughly engrossed in my husband’s literary criticism—I’d totally forgotten that he had once reviewed for the journal Literature and Psychology, and that he’d ranged far afield to publish a brief piece on Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment—a novel we’d both taught in the 1970s—yet now this fit of shivering has come over me, even my teeth are chattering.
On my bedside table is Ray’s novel manuscript, on which he’d worked for years in the 1960s, but which he’d never completed. I can’t recall if I saw the most recent draft, or if for some reason Ray hadn’t shown it to me; I think that he’d intended to revise it, but set it aside. I am eager to read this novel which I found in Ray’s closet, which has been untouched for years, but I am beginning to feel some apprehension, too. I wonder if Ray would want me to be reading this manuscript, still far from completion; I don’t think that, since moving to Princeton in 1978, he’d so much as glanced at it, and had long since ceased alluding to it. I look at the first page—the title is Black Mass—the manuscript looks old, worn—very like a manuscript that has been hidden away at the back of a closet, forgotten for decades—and I feel very sad suddenly.
This is a mistake.
You don’t want to read it.
What you don’t know about your husband has been hidden from you for a purpose.
And in any case your husband is gone, and is not coming back.
You can resolve to be “brave”—“resourceful”—you can cheer yourself up by (re)reading his writing, or trying to—but he is not coming back, he is gone and he is not coming back.
A strange fact of Widowhood: such epiphanies come rushing at odd, unpredictable moments and yet—are forgotten almost at once. For, in the Widow’s posthumous world, there is the most primitive sort of time: what has happened, irremediably, has somehow not-yet-happened; if the Widow can but turn back time, the most devastating of epiphanies can be erased.
From the book A WIDOW'S STORY: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates © 2011 by The Ontario Review. Reprinted by arrangement with Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.