After the death of a loved one, writers beset by grief and loss discover that, in the end, all there is left are words
Three years ago I saw a billboard for the movie “Marley & Me’’ and I suddenly understood everything about the American attitude toward death. You’d recognize the poster: a happy Owen Wilson hugging a happy Jennifer Aniston, the couple bound together by the leash of their adorably naughty puppy, Marley. Except the billboard I drove by that day had been vandalized by someone with a can of blood-red spray paint. There, slapped across the faces of all three carefree blonds were three cold words: “THE DOG DIES.’’
Shocking! Of course, the vandal had merely stated the obvious, as anyone who has ever paid money to see a tear-jerking film about man’s best friend knows. The dog always dies. And, after all, there’s only a single true ending to any story about a man (or a dog), assuming it goes on long enough, and “THE DOG DIES’’ is just a particularly harsh way of putting it. At the end of life is death. Nevertheless, seeing the fate of Marley up there in red scrawl was a shock. We Americans — myself included — don’t want to find out what happens at the end. Acknowledging the end would just . . . spoil it.
“Death is the most obvious — common — banal fact of life and yet,’’ as Joyce Carol Oates writes in her new memoir, “A Widow’s Story’’: “[H]ow to speak of it?’’ Oates’s book begins with death and doesn’t budge for the next 400 pages. A harsh, often excruciating tale of loss, regret, fury, and love, “A Widow’s Story’’ is aptly titled. Oates wrote this book not as a memorial to her husband, the editor Raymond Smith, but as a testament to the suffering of widows and of anyone left behind when a loved one dies. Hers is the latest in a string of wives’ memoirs of their husbands’ deaths over the past several years. Antonia Fraser’s “Must You Go?: My Life with Harold Pinter’’ and Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking’’ provide illuminating counterpoint to the question Oates — and everyone who has faced such a loss — must ask: “I can’t do this alone. And yet — what is the option? The Widow is one who has discovered that there is no option.’’ The only thing to do is to contemplate it. And for a writer, that means exploring death through words.
One challenge faces anyone writing about death. “Of death, mortals are absolutely ignorant,’’ Lynne Tillman offers this reminder in a new essay collection, “The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death,’’ edited by David Shields and Bradford Morrow. “The dead, fortunately, are beyond caring.’’ One contributor to “The Inevitable’’ does claim an unusual perspective on the matter at hand: horror novelist Peter Straub, who had a near-death experience when struck by a car as a 7-year-old. Reliving this memory as an adult, though, offers little of use to the living. “One of the few things I did understand [about the near-death experience] was that I was not supposed to be able to imagine or describe it.’’ So much for a report from the front lines. When it comes to death, describing what it feels like, what it means, to lose someone we love is the only privilege the living are granted.
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it,’’ writes Didion, “ . . . the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.’’ Oates concurs: “Do not think that grief is pure, solemn, austere and ‘elevated.’ . . . Think of crude coarse gravel that hurts to walk on. . . . Think of towel dispensers when they have broken and there is nothing to wipe your hands on except already-used badly soiled towels.’’ If Oates’s metaphors seem out of place or extreme, perhaps you (like me) have never experienced the loss she has. Didion recalls “despising’’ the “whining’’ memoir of widowhood written by Dylan Thomas’s wife, Caitlin, when she read it at age 22. Now, nearly 50 years later and a widow herself, Didion reconsiders: “Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be.’’ As Oates writes: “[T]his is not Mozart’s Requiem Mass. Think instead Spike Jones, those unfunny ‘classical’ music jokes involving tubas.’’
These books bluntly point to the obvious. Not only are we all going to die, they advise us, but those we love will die, too, possibly right in front of us. Or maybe when we’re not looking. Either way it’s going to hurt. A strong theme across these books is the appalling lack of effective ritual we 21st-century moderns have devised to cope with death. “Our culture is skittish of mourning, impatient and awkward with bereavement’s uneven process,’’ writes Melissa Pritchard in “The Inevitable.’’ “[T]he overall message I had gotten from society . . . was make haste.’’ Didion finds comfort in the straightforward advice of Emily Post, circa 1922, whose instructions regarding where to sit at a funeral, how to feed a widow, and what to expect from the bereaved speak from “a world in which mourning was still recognized, allowed, not hidden from view.’’ Cultures with extravagant outward-facing rituals of mourning, whether in contemporary India or Victorian England, may strike today’s American readers as embarrassing, but give them this: They seem to work. So many mourners in these pages suffer from the absence of ritual. After her husband’s death Oates is showered with phone calls, e-mails, and letters from friends. These she can appreciate. But the “Sympathy Gift Baskets’’ she could do without. “Why are people sending me these things?’’ Oates wonders. “Do they imagine that grief will be assuaged by chocolate-covered truffles, pâté de foie gras, pepperoni sausages?’’ The kind intentions of the senders are evident to her, of course, but the uselessness, the waste of such an outpouring ultimately disgusts her. Surely as a culture we can collectively come up with something better than silently sending goody bags, or as Oates coins the custom, engaging in “the siege of trash?’’
Perhaps those with a faith in religion have it easier (and perhaps not) but none of the writers in these books professes to believe in an afterlife, though Didion’s yearlong period of “magical thinking’’ did allow her a brief fantasy that her late husband could enjoy a heavenly meal somewhere with the recently-deceased Julia Child. For these secular folk, “afterlife’’ denotes the life that one must go on leading after losing a loved one, a “ ‘posthumous life’ — my life after Ray,’’ as Oates puts it. Fraser’s memoir is a book about life, not death — it ends when Harold Pinter dies. Yet it is bookended by two love poems about death that Pinter wrote for his wife. The last, written in 2007, read: “I shall miss you so much when I’m dead/ The loveliest of smiles/ The softness of your body in our bed/ My everlasting bride/ Remember that when I am dead/ You are forever alive in my heart and in my head.’’
Considering that he was an outspoken atheist, it’s surprising to find Pinter indulging in a fantasy of an emotional afterlife. Pinter was dying of cancer when he wrote it, so perhaps he was motivated by the hope of lessening his wife’s pain. Perhaps. “In the graveyard, we all lie down together,’’ Robin Hemley reminds us in “The Inevitable,’’ offering the solace, if you can call it that, of all humanity’s ultimate earthbound reunion. Surprisingly, at the end of her dark memoir Oates finds a thread of light, acknowledging the “small treasured things’’ that make life as a widow bearable. “This is my life now. Absurd but unpredictable. Not absurd because unpredictable but unpredictable because absurd.’’ Life may be unpredictable, but death is not.
Buzzy Jackson is the author of “Shaking the Family Tree: Blue Bloods, Black Sheep, and Other Obsessions of an Accidental Genealogist.’’ E-mail her at AskBuzzy@gmail.com.