an open letter to Joyce Carol Oates

An open letter to Joyce Carol Oates, whose first person account of her husband’s death, at midnight, at Princeton Medical Center was published in the New Yorker in the December 13 issue. The full version will be published by Ecco Press/Harper Collins in February. An article in the Wall Street Journal tells how Oates was unable to write fiction during the months after her husband’s death, but kept a journal, from which this memoir was drawn. It also offers an account of her second marriage, to Princeton neuroscientist Charles Gross.

Thank you for putting into words the depths of despair that you felt — alone in the hospital — having lost your spouse — in the middle of the night in February, 2008.

You rushed to your husband’s bedside and you might have reached him before he died if only the security guard had been notified to expect you. Instead, he was required to make a phone call, taking precious minutes. “At the far end of the corridor, outside my husband’s room, I see something that terrifies me — five or six figures, medical workers, standing quietly outside the open door….Silently she points into the room and, in that instant, I know — I know that, for all my frantic rush, I have come too late….In a trance I enter the room — the room I left only a few hours before in utter naivete, kissing my husband good night…”

That feeling has haunted me for the four years since my mother died, just after I had left the nursing home (leaving at 9 pm, returning at midnight) and of course at night and in the early morning hours I replay every medical and personal detail for that night and the three days previous.

As you wrote, you are still recovering from the regret for feelings assumed, things not done or said. My husband and I have been fortunate in that he has had several almost terminal diseases (cardiac and cancer) which served as dress rehearsals for our losing each other. When he was resuscitated in Princeton ‘s ER some 15 years ago, we DID learn to start appreciating the time we have and although we are Christian we now have a strong sense of Carpe Diem.

Because you bravely wrote about this, I believe you will influence others to take stock, to make changes in time to enjoy their loved ones now.

I also hope it will influence the way the medical staff treats death on the ward.
At least you were given time (I wasn’t, in nursing homes, if a patient dies at night they want the body rolled out before the others wake up) but you certainly were not given the support you could have used. Perhaps your words about being alone will prepare families for what to expect and jumpstart a change in how healthcare providers provide for the family members.

“In this very early stage of widowhood — you might almost call it ‘pre-widowhood,’ for the widow hasn’t yet ‘got it,’ what it will be like to inhabit this free-fall world from which the meaning has been drained — the widow takes comfort in such small tasks, the rituals of the death protocol, through which more experienced others will guide her, as one might guide a doomed animal out of a pen and into a chute by the use of a ten-foot pole….It is not a correct answer to reply, ‘But I don’t want to call anyone. I want to go home, now, and die.'”

Although the memory of a parent or spouse or a child dying lasts and lasts and lasts, people stuff it down. They don’t like to talk about death or read about death. I sometimes try to de-haunt public perceptions of it because my father taught anatomy, and I spent a good bit of time in dissecting rooms, and I believe it’s healthy to look at a body as a body, not the real person. That’s all well and good until the body belongs to someone you love.

The truly haunting part of death is the memories you have, and the lost chance to create more memories. You are so gifted at evoking memories that your own true story will truly help many many people, both now and in the future.

I also suspect that you ‘had” to write this, as difficult as it was, and I hope that it helped you. I know that after reading it I ‘had’ to put down these words, and it has indeed helped. Thank you for bringing the subject up.

Note on February 10, 2011: Here is an excellent review of the book in the online magazine Obit.

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