March 29, 2019
Berkeley/Summit Hospital (Oakland)
It is not true that for all persons the essential question is: Shall I commit suicide? But it is true for the widow.
The placating fantasy, that makes possible those countless hours of bedside vigil. The beloved husband is asleep, or, if awake, not so very aware of you as you would wish. You are forced to see, as in an ingenious torture, how, moment by moment, diminishing second by second, you are being erased from the beloved’s consciousness.
When he looks at you without looking at you.
For the widow there is one looming question: Should you outlive your husband?
For Widows Who Have Considered Suicide When Surviving is Not Enough
Like a thread through the eye of a needle, swiftly in and swiftly out.
At once the landscape alters.
It is my hope: I will make of our hospice a honeymoon.
My vow is to make my husband as comfortable as he can be. to make him happy. to fulfill whatever wishes we can for him, that are within the range of possibility.
It is another possibility, that I might die with my husband. Or rather, short after my husband. In principle I would like to do this but in reality, surely I will not.
The yearning to die with the husband is very strong. Perhaps it is more a yearning not to outlive the husband.
Sitting beside him in his hospital bed. He has had a dosage of Dilaudid to control pain. He is partially asleep, partially awake. He speaks to me, with an air of urgency though his voice is soft. He asks me to locate a book. He asks me to order a book. On his lap is the morning’s New York Times.
Through his adult life, he has read the New York Times each morning. Thoroughly. He’d begun reading the New York Times as an undergraduate at Harvard in the fifties when he’d told himself that, after he graduated, he would reads the Times the first thing in the morning, not later, as he’d had to do as a student.
Now, he doesn’t do much more than glance at the Times. But he likes to feel the weight of the paper on his lap. He likes the proximity of the paper. It is one of the constants of his life.
Many times in Jan & Feb I encouraged him to call his doctor. Each time he would reply that he had an appointment with Dr. B on and that would be soon enough to see him.
No, I told him. Please, no. is a week away. I think you are very sick right now.
he ignores me. Laughs at me. The wife is the repository of weakness, and of emotion. The wife expresses fears that are groundless. Or, perhaps it’s the case that, since the wife expresses such fears, they must be groundless.
Still I encourage him to call his doctor. He refuses. Days pass, I am anxious, hearing him breathing painfully, audibly, knowing that he is in pain.
“I may be entering my Final Days.”
Gravely, matter-of-factly he begins to speak in this way.
He begins to speak of “my final days.”
Final Days. The words strike terror into my heart. In a way I cannot believe that I am hearing such words. Matter-of-fact words. No.
Yet there is something dignified, noble about such words. “I may be entering my Final Days.”
Does he say these words in the hope that one of us will refute them?
PRESENT: blood drawn. (but why?) (to what purpose, bruising the already—bruised arm another time?)
“Do you know what our plans are?” we ask him.
“To do vigorous exercises then … have lunch, … ”
“a backup, swimming at the Y. instead of doing both.”
“take me home. Where’s the car? Give me the keys to the car.”
He speaks urgently, worriedly. His manner is not apparently delusional or “delirious”—he is speaking as one might, with concern, mild anxiety, but not unreasonably.
It’s only that there is no car, there is no key, the “home” he is referring to is 3,000 miles away in Princeton.
Suddenly I am fearful that he hasn’t really agreed to a hospice. Or, if he has agreed, he has forgotten. I say: “Do you know what a ‘hospice’ is?”
“Yes of course.”
“You have agreed to a hospice, to suspend treatment at the hospital.”
But does he really mean yes? He is likely to agree to anything. It is not always clear that he hears what I am asking him.
My voice is breaking. The wife’s voice breaks, it is difficult for her to comprehend these words she is speaking. As if someone else is writing these lines. Preposterous, that I am speaking.
Joyce Carol Oates, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, is the author of a number of novels, story collections, and books of poetry. Her most recent book is Extenuating Circumstances: Stories.