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January 9, 2011

"For never in our lives has anything so extraordinary happened…"

My friend Julia sent me a copy of Joyce Carol Oates’ essay “A Widow’s Story”, because the prose was “stunning”, and she admired Oates’ transition between past and present, and how “though the present is horrid (he’s dying), [Oates] knows, in retrospect, that it’s so much better than the future.”

I am so glad Julia sent it, because it’s a wonderful, devastating essay, but also, though it’s perverse to admit, because I have a thing for examinations of widowhood– also The Year of Magical Thinking, and Calvin Trillin’s About Alice (which was also a New Yorker essay before it was a book). Mostly because these are also fascinating examinations of long and enduring marriages, but, yes, because I can’t help it too– worst nightmares vicariously are the safest kind, a bit like staring at a car wreck, and also because I have this ridiculous notion that if just I read enough books, I could come to the moment prepared.

This final point bringing me to motherhood, which is where a similar plan has already failed me– I read enough books, but I read them all wrong. But, nevertheless, upon reading Oates’ essay, I had an ephiphany about the way that we talk about motherhood, or rather about how often we end up talking about motherhood. That these conversations about motherhood and widowhood are so often similar in approach and in tone. This I realized in particular when I read a line from just after her husband has died, ab0ut her amazement at the impossibility of such a thing occuring: “For never in our lives has anything so extraordinary happened between us…”.

For so many of us who are so fortunate, life doesn’t tend to happen to us. We live in a blissful, lucky, unaware state– what Oates’ describes as “the vanity of believing that somehow we [own] our lives.” Perhaps the most startling upset of new motherhood is the sudden awareness that we don’t, exactly. That another life owns ours and all at once, the world no longer bends to our wishes. That whole cliche about hearts outside our bodies as well, and though none of this has the same permanant rent as widowhood, there are parallels. The adjustment seems impossible.

Similarly, we are otherwise so insulated from the stuff of life, from birth and from death, which usually are enacted in the same place and restricted from public view, that these perfectly ordinary events do become extraordinary. Foreign, unimaginable, except for remnants we’ve gathered from movies and TV and the gulf between these scenes and reality makes the experience all the more difficult to actually process. The disconnect results in the fixation, the never-ending conversation– we’re putting the pieces together over and over again, hoping for something we’ll eventually recognize.

2 thoughts on “"For never in our lives has anything so extraordinary happened…"”

  1. melissa says:

    This post struck a chord with me. It’s easy to forget that motherhood and widowhood are often part of the same circle of life.

    Thanks for posting it.

  2. Kristin says:

    YES! That is exactly right about motherhood (and I assume about widowhood). You are forced to experience emotions and loss of control and growing and changing and it’s just a huge rollercoaster. The highest highs and the lowest lows.

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