Joyce Carol Oates

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His Last Week Of Life

The author, Joyce Carol Oates, writes about her husband's death from a sudden illness

For a good reminder about the fragility of life (and the limits of marriage) read Joyce Carol Oates’ devastating piece in the current New Yorker about her husband, Ray Smith’s final week alive.

In January, 2007, after a serious car accident near their home in Princeton, N.J., Ms. Oates and Mr. Smith (married 47 years) walk away from the crash, bruised and roughed up, but thinking: Thank God We’re Alive.

Flash forward to February 11, 2008: Mr. Smith wakes up early, sweating, and complaining of shortness of breath and general malaise. She drives him to the ER at the local hospital where he is diagnosed with pneumonia, and later, a secondary lung infection. He never comes home, and dies among strangers during the hospital’s night shift, with senior staff nowhere in sight. “Not one of these medical workers,” Oates writes. “including the doctor, is more than 30-years-old.”

The story is filled with “There-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I” moments, but there are two familiar phenomena she captures most skillfully. First, the strange mix of aesthetic banality and emotional charge that permeates the rooms and the hallways, the gift shop and the elevator of the hospital, “where memory pools accumulate…as treacherous as acid.”

The other familiar dread she portrays with terrifying accuracy is The Phone Call — we all fear it — the one that comes in the middle of the night, and triggers a deep, nausea-tinged anxiety as you imagine the catastrophe about to reveal itself on the other end of the line.

“The call comes at 12:38 A.M. waking me from sleep–a phone ringing at the wrong time…When I pick it up, it’s to hear the words I’ve been dreading since the nightmare began: “Your husband, Raymond Smith, is in critical condition. His blood pressure has plummeted. His heartbeat has accelerated.” The voice is asking me if I want “extraordinary measures” to be taken, in the event that my husband’s heart stops. I am crying, “Yes! I’ve told you! I’ve said yes! Save him! Do anything you can!”

The voice instructs me to come quickly to the hospital.”

In the end, even with so many years spent together, Oates is shaken to feel all that is left unfinished. “So much to say in a marriage, so much unsaid,” she writes. “You assume there will be other times, other occasions. Years.”

Oates remarried in 2009.