Please use this blog to help us remember Joshua Lee Anderson, who made the tragic and fatal decision to take his life on Wednesday, March 18, 2009. Please post any memories or thoughts you may have in the comments.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Thoughts from "A Widow's Story" by Joyce Carol Oats

I read this moving memoir in May and wrote a post soon afterwards with the intent of writing more.  I journaled extensively while reading so have my "notes" from which to write a post - which I've attempted numerous times.  Why so hard to get started?  As I sit and ponder this question, no answer comes to mind, only possibilities.

Maybe it is because I only have a set amount of emotional energy and since reading the book, I have taken a job at another company and have been supporting my parents through my dad's recent health issue (two surgeries to address a leg aneurism).  And while I like my new job and my dad's recovery is going well, both situations have been prolonged and stressful.

Or maybe this task, for some unexplicable reason was one that I could not do at the time I tried. When this happens, I've learned the important lesson of being "kind to myself".  The last thing this grieving mother needs is additional undue pressure.

Another example where I've not pushed myself is with regard to Josh's room, more specifically his desk and closet.  My self-prescribed task is to go through his things meticulously, with a fine-toothed comb, looking for clues.  You'd think this would be one of the "must do" tasks, completed well within the first year of death.  Maybe for another mother, but not for me.  And I cannot explain why, only that I can't.  It is not time, even though almost 28 months has passed.  I am not ready.  For what? For the possibility of finding out why our funny, intelligent, athletic, well-liked son took his own life?  For fear of the anticipated flood of emotions as I look through his personal items?  I don't know.

Now to the book.   There is so much that I could relate to which tells me that when it comes to the sudden and tragic loss of a loved one, be it Oates' spouse of 47 years who succumbed to a hospital contracted staph infection, or a seventeen year son who died by suicide, the feelings are similar.

Much of Oates' writing is via stream of consciousness, which allows her thoughts to flow uncensored to the page (or so it seems).  On the night her husband died, she was sleeping peacefully at home, anticipating Ray's release in a couple of days.  Then the phone rang. She left for the hospital in the middle of the night, obeying the speed limit and traffic lights (why?) and did not make it before he died, which was on February 18, 2008....exactly 13 months before Josh.  Now, dates are always relative to March 18, 2009 - always.
That I was sleepting at the time when my husband was dying is so horrible a thought; I can't confront it....And so I'd been eating when my husband had succombed to that terrible fever that precipitated his death - the thought is repulsive to me, obscene....It was the most horrific thought - my husband died among strangers.  I was not with him, to comfort him, to touch him or hold him - I was asleep, miles away.  Asleep!  The enormity of this fact is too much to comprehend, I feel that I will spend the remainder of my life trying to grasp it.
I, too, slept, woke up and showered, and was working in my office while Josh as dead in his room.  By suicide!  My baby!  The beautiful, happy boy that is in all the pictures on my fridge, all over my house.  How could this be??  Over 2 years later - that question is as fresh as the week after it happened.  Like her, I will spend the rest of my life trying to grasp it - make sense of it, comprehend and understand it which will probably never happen.

On the death certificate:
I will discover on the death certificate noting that Raymond J. Smith died of cardiopulmonary arrest, complications following pneumonia.  12:50 am.  February 18, 2008.
I have not seen Josh's death certificate....Tim has.  He told me, "No need to look."

On getting perspective with what really matters:
The minutiae of our lives: telephone calls, errands, appointments.  None of these is the slightest significance to others and but fleetingly to us yet they constitute such a portion of our lives, it might be argued that our lives are a concatenation of minutiae interrupted at unpredicatble times by significant events. 
This rings true.  I was attending to such minutiae (which escapes recollection), on that fateful morning when life was turned upside down, when a part of my soul died, when a hole was formed in my heart that only Josh can fill.  Such tasks now, compared to the overwhelming loss of a beloved child, are nothing....just necessary nuisances.

Oates' thoughts on the hospital vigil which I can relate to because of my dad's recent hospitalizations:
There are two categories of hospital vigils.  The vigil with the happy ending, and the other.  Embarked upon the hospital vigil as in a small canoe on a churning white-water river you can have no clear idea which vigil you are embarked upon - the vigil with the happy ending, or the other - until it has come to an end.  Until the patient has been discharged from the hospital and brought safely home.  Or not discharged, and never brought home.
Her husband wanted to be cremated.  While Joyce was at the funeral home making arrangements, with no advanced warning whatsoever, she was asked to identify Ray's body.  Completely unprepared, she elected not to do so.
I will regret this moment.  I will regret this decision.  I will never understand why at this crucial moment I behave in such a childish way, as if my husband whom I love has become physically repulsive to me.  How ashamed I will be, at this decision: like a child shrinking away, hiding her eyes.
Those in our immediate family were able to say "good-bye" to Josh on Friday night, before the funeral service the next day.  I remember walking across the parking lot of the funeral home with a pit in my stomach thinking over and over, "I don't want to be here....I don't want to be here."  It was inexplicably hard, requiring tremendous courage, but so very necessary - to provide a sense of closure.

Oates's grief analogies which I found interesting but did not quite understand:
Advice to the widow: Do not think that grief is pure, solomn, austere, and "elevated," this is not Mozart.  Think of crude coarse gravel that hurts to walk on.  Think of splotched mirrors in public lavatories.  Think of towel dispensers when they have broken and there is nothing to wipe your hands on except already-used badly soiled towels.
What I wrote in my journal:
Think of emotional pain so deep that it hurst physically.  Think of more tears than what you thought possible for a body to produce.  Think of waves - relentless, constant, pounding with no relief in sight.  Think of being inside a pressure cooker - to the point of explosion.  Think of driving on a straight, narrow road with nothing but dead, brown grass on either side and a completely grey sky.  There is no end in sight as the road goes to infinity.
Think of a powerful, swirling vortex or whirlpool where you are caught helpless, swirling around and around, eventually swallowed up.  Or think of a piece of debris whirling around and around in a never-ending, violently strong tornado.  Or think of a roller coaster that shakes you so hard that you are scared, sick and end up with a terrible migraine.
I will end this post with quotes from two of her friends:
Grief is exhausting and requires the strength of an Olympic athlete.

Suffer, Joyce.  Ray was worth it.

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