The Smiths had been married for 48 years, rarely apart for more than one night, before Smith went to the hospital. “From the first evening we’d met – Sunday, October 23, 1960 ... we’d seen each other every day,” Oates writes. They walked holding hands decades after getting married, and neither wanted to inflict bad news on the other. Smith, a PhD and the editor of the Ontario Review literary journal they cofounded, as far as Oates knows, never read her fiction.
Even though the outcome is known from the title, the first section is suspenseful and emotionally draining to read, let alone to write. The hospital staff do not come off well: There’s the chirpy nurse who is outraged that the Smiths don’t want her to watch her talk shows while they try to spend time together, and the desk clerk who suggests, as Oates clutches Smith’s belongings the night he died, she look in the Yellow Pages for a funeral home to come and pick “it” up in the morning. (“It” being the body of her beloved husband, who has died as a result of his hospital stay.)
In the days following his death, Oates is exhausted, dazed, and furious – at the hospital, at herself for insisting he go, and for stopping for a red light the night he died, and with Smith for dying. “I am very angry with him. With my poor dead defenseless husband, I am furious as I was rarely – perhaps never – furious with him, in life. How can I forgive you, you’ve ruined both our lives.”
In “A Widow’s Story,” she describes what she calls her “posthumous life.” She avoids entire rooms in their house in New Jersey, takes refuge under her mom’s quilt, and is convinced the cats blame her for Smith’s absence. She learns to recognize a certain smile from well-wishers as one certain to mean pain for her. “I am thinking of having a T-shirt printed:
YES MY HUSBAND DIED.
YES I AM VERY SAD.
YES YOU ARE KIND TO OFFER CONDOLENCES.
NOW CAN WE CHANGE THE SUBJECT?”