Do I start with the part where I am paralyzed, back pressed hard against the living room wall, shrinking into it but watching as if through a lens zooming in and out of the action, near then far, all of it taking place no more than five, six feet in front of me, firemen pushing the coffee table aside, books toppling, paramedics rolling my wife onto the floor, one tearing open her blouse and searching for a heartbeat, another pressing her chest up and down as a second team races in and a woman takes over, flips open a black bag and inserts a tube down my wife’s throat, everything happening in hyperspeed, while I stare at my wife’s face gone pale and the room going gray and grainy as an old photograph?

Or, do I start 10, 20 minutes earlier, impossible to track the time, when I come into the living room and even from 20 feet away I can see that something is terribly wrong, my wife, Joy, on the couch, beckoning to me, mouth open but unable to speak, her eyes large and terrified, and I rush to her side and she grips my arm and I pull her to me and frantically attempt to dial 911, trying to punch in three simple numbers but can’t get them right, as my wife gasps for breath and I say over and over, “Take it easy, honey. Breathe, hang on, you’ll be okay,” trying hard to sound comforting and rational, as a voice comes on the phone and I say, “My wife, she’s not breathing,” and the woman on the other end, speaking calmly (how is that possible?) asks my name and address and I am shouting now, “Hurry! Please!” and minutes later — I think it’s minutes, time is spiraling, collapsing — firemen and paramedics burst on the scene, push the coffee table aside, and roll my wife onto the floor and tear open her blouse, while I am backed up against the living room wall, watching the unwatchable: watching my wife die.


Joy went into the hospital on a Thursday morning in mid-August, a torn ligament or tendon of the knee, a torn meniscus to be specific. Outpatient surgery. No big deal, that’s what the doctor said. She had torn it walking up (or was it down?) a flight of stairs at the Museum of Modern Art and limped around for weeks until finally making the decision to have surgery.

The night before, we binge-watched Episodes, the Matt LeBlanc TV series. It had become a favorite, and we loved watching and rewatching it when either one of us was in a bad mood or feeling anxious, and Joy was anxious, though I kept reassuring her everything would be okay. Why wouldn’t it be?

When the surgery was finished, we met up in recovery. Joy looked fine. The rest of the day was normal other than the fact that Joy was mostly on the couch. She walked to and from the bathroom, from bedroom to living room, a good distance in the Flower Market loft we’d bought together more than 30 years ago, and she did this many times because she’d been told to walk. For a while, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.


It is late morning of the following day. Joy is on the living room couch and has been all morning, reading Wolf Hall or going over notes for Food City, the epic book on the history of New York food she is writing, when she complains of her leg feeling “odd and twitchy,” and I notice that her face is flushed. I put my hand against her cheek. She feels warm. I ask her if she thinks she has a fever, and she says she isn’t sure but doesn’t feel “quite right.” I suggest she call the doctor, and she does. She tells the nurse or receptionist her symptoms — flushed face, possible fever, odd twitchy feeling in her leg — and says that she is feeling “congested,” having some difficulty breathing. There is some conversation back and forth, no more than a couple minutes, if that. When she hangs up, she says she’s been told to wait until her follow-up appointment on Tuesday.

It is a Friday in mid-August.

“That’s a long time to wait,” I say, and ask again if she feels okay. She says not really, but the doctor’s office does not appear worried, so she isn’t either.

“No one wants to be bothered on a summer weekend,” I say.

I have a few errands to run—some food, computer paper, more ice for the machine. I tell Joy I will be back in an hour, and I am. Joy is still on the couch, reading. I refill the ice machine. Her leg, she says, is feeling “very twitchy.”

I suggest we take the ice pack off and have a look, but she doesn’t think it’s a good idea.

Do we talk about anything else? Dinner, I think. But I can’t remember. After more than 40 years of marriage, we communicate without a lot of talk.

When we were first together, we talked nonstop.

We’d met as undergrad art students at Boston University. I was a painting major; Joy, the more practical one, studying art education. A blind date neither one of us wanted — a friend of hers knew a friend of mine. I remember going to pick her up at her dorm, watching her come out of the elevator and walk toward me in her beige mini-jumper, dark tights that showed off her legs, waist-long auburn hair, adorable pug nose and freckles.


I don’t want to have the surgery.

Why not?

Because I think I’m going to die.

Don’t be silly.

A conversation from a few days earlier. A premonition?

I do not believe in such things. And neither did Joy, though she said it not only to me but to our daughter, who also dismissed the idea.

Something we both regret.


Little pieces of our life race through my mind: how I often say with a touch of irony, Joy is a food historian who loves to eat but not cook, or, How did I manage to find the only food historian who doesn’t like to cook? And then I’m thinking about her book, her life’s work, and the phrase “life’s work” triggers a sick sinking feeling that starts to uncoil inside me, and I grasp at anything concrete — do I need to get Joy a change of clothes; did I take my house keys, which I can’t find in any of my pockets — anything at all to forget that I am a helpless husband in a hospital emergency room waiting to hear if my wife will live or die.


The doctor’s face is sober, his eyes dark, and I know before he speaks, before he says, “We did all we could,” and my daughter, Dorie, screams “NO!” so loud it cuts through me, the worst sound I have ever heard, and she is already crying so hard and I hold her against my chest and she sobs into me while the doctor, who has a soft, kind way about him, tells me that they tried everything to revive my wife but failed, and that it is probably for the best because her brain had been deprived of oxygen for too long, and I force myself to listen, to make sense of what he is saying, nodding, consciously trying to act normal, thinking, This isn’t happening, my arm around my daughter, whose cries vibrate through me like electric shocks and bring tears to my eyes, though I have gone numb. I thank the doctor — the man who just told me that my wife has died — because it’s what I have been brought up to do no matter what I am feeling, though I have no idea what I am feeling other than the excruciating pain of my daughter, who is shuddering against me with deep convulsive sobs.

Then I am in the hallway, feeling as if I’ve been shot through with Novocain, standing with the doctor, asking what happened. He says he’s not sure, and adds: We may never know.

My brain is shrieking: What do you mean we may never know? But I say nothing. I can barely feel anything, let alone understand what he is saying. It is the beginning of a medical mystery, but I don’t know that yet.


I don’t remember what I said when I called my wife’s older sister. What I remember is going out to meet her and seeing her with her husband as they came rushing into the hospital, and I will never forget her face, red and ruined by tears, the two of us falling into each other and her crying, “Oh my God! What happened?”

She wants to see Joy’s body, something I have already refused, but I go with her out of obligation or guilt — if Kathy can take it, so can I — a mistake I will forever regret, seeing my wife like that, bruised and inert as I stand there watching the brave big sister lovingly stroke her little sister’s face and saying goodbye, tears streaming down her face, and me, one more time, pinned against a wall trying not to see it.


I don’t remember leaving the hospital, or getting the bags — one with Joy’s watch and jewelry and one with her shoes — but they are in my hands.

I don’t remember the cab ride home.

I come into the living room and see it in disarray, dining room table askew, coffee table at an angle far away from the couch, books on the floor along with medical wrappers and papers left behind by the paramedics, everything in glaring specificity. I crab-walk across the floor, scooping up papers and wrappers, trying hard not to look at them. I push furniture back into place.

Did Dorie come home with me? I can’t say, but she is with me now, along with her husband, Drew.

Did my sister-in-law, Kathy, and brother-in-law, Charlie, follow in their car? I have no idea, but they are here as well.

I am bleeding through time and space.

For a while I sit with Kathy and Charlie and Dorie and Drew and we talk, but about what I can’t tell you.

I keep glancing at Kathy, then away. She looks so much like Joy with her red hair and freckles, it is both reassuring and painful. I have known Kathy almost as long as Joy, and I love her. She is smart and kind, with an easy smile, though she is not smiling now. I can’t help but think of the two sisters, together since Joy’s birth, suddenly separated, but I don’t believe it. I keep waiting for Joy to make an entrance, for someone to wake me from this nightmare, the first of several clichés that will become reality.

Dorie and Drew sit close together. Drew’s arm is around Dorie’s shoulder, and I wonder if it is awkward for them — they have been separated for months, a beautiful young couple who have uncoupled in a year’s time.

Here’s what I know:

At some point, Kathy and Charlie leave. Dorie and Drew go to sleep in the guest room. I take a sleeping pill but lie in bed, awake.

In the middle of the night, I turn on the television but have no idea what I watch.

I go to the bathroom.

I go into the kitchen and get something to drink. I sit in the living room, in the dark.

I try to be quiet so I will not wake Dorie and Drew. I am happy knowing they are here, to have their company, to not be alone, though I feel completely alone.

I have lived in this loft for 30 years, but it feels alien. I stare into the dark.

For a moment, I am back in the hospital waiting room, but when I shake my head to dislodge the picture, it is as if I have simply rearranged the pixels, because now it is another hospital’s waiting room, part of an earlier rush of memory — our first date — Joy and I arriving at a party just as my roommate, John, has gotten into a fistfight with uninvited townies, beaten up while people yell and scream over blasting music, the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” a few of us trying to break it up, the townies shouting, “He started it!” and I’m sure they’re right—John can be a nasty drunk.

Then we are in a Boston hospital. John’s girlfriend, Claudia, the one who has arranged this careering-toward-disaster blind date, and Joy, who has offered to come along over my protests and apologies, all of us huddled around John in an emergency room cubicle, John sitting up now, making jokes.

I should have learned from this — that I needed comfort though said I did not. It was to become a motif.

I watch Joy out of the corner of my eye, take in the curves of her body under the tight beige jumper, so unlike the girls I have dated or been with in the past, not my usual “type,” which is dark-haired and overtly sexy. Joy is fair and freckled, quiet and sweet, patting John’s arm and chatting with Claudia to put them at ease, already the sensible girl I will get to know later. “Some date,” I whisper, and she offers an ironic smile. Later, when I take her home and say it again, she says, “I’ve had worse,” laughs and kisses my cheek and tells me to take care of John, and I watch her disappear into her dormitory, her long red hair swaying back and forth like some TV ad for shampoo, romantic and soft-focus.

I am startled back into the moment by a shrieking siren and red lights going off like firecrackers in the large dark windows of my living room, and the events of the day start to play as if someone has thrown a switch.

I go back to bed but cannot close my eyes. When I do, variations of the same images tear across my brain — the look of terror on Joy’s face, the paramedics trying to revive her, big sister stroking little sister’s cheek — all of it accompanied by a hollow, echoing silence, as though I am in the eye of a hurricane or adrift in outer space.

I stare at the ceiling, and the thought I have been trying to remember while I rode with the fire chief and sat in the emergency waiting room starts to uncoil and I can almost see it — something that happened just before or after the paramedics arrived — but when I try to hold on, it disappears.

Then it’s morning and I am writing Joy’s obituary. Kathy is there. So are Dorie and Drew.

A part of me is functioning — walking, talking, doing what’s necessary — my brain simply remembering what its former functions were, but no longer connected.

I call my friend Judd and tell him what’s happened. He says, “I’m coming over.” I tell him no, that I’m okay, but 10 minutes later he’s there and we sit in my studio for hours, just the two of us, and though I can’t remember what we talk about, it is incredibly comforting to have him there.

I should have learned from this — that I needed comfort though I said I did not. It was to become a motif, a stance I maintained for months, the strong man who needs no one.

Do women do this, push people away? Or is it easier for them to ask for help? Is it similar to the way men don’t ask for directions, as if we should always know where we are going or simply never get lost? In a way it’s funny, though at this particular moment in my life it was not, because I was so lost and needed help but could not ask for it.

Friends like Judd didn’t listen to my proclamations of well-being. He knew better and was there for me. My friend and neighbor Ben, an artist almost half my age, surprised me with his wise-beyond-years kindness, coming upstairs at midnight or two in the morning to keep me company, a bottle of whiskey tucked under his arm. Two examples of “sensitive” men, though we didn’t talk about feelings — they were simply there.

Other friends were there too. Others stayed away. Still others offered outrageous balms and provocative alternatives to grief. Some of these are well worth relating for their entertainment or shock value, and I will.

But not yet, because it is the morning after my wife has died and I am a sleepwalker, hung over from meds and searching for something, which I can’t find but I know has to be here, somewhere.


From THE WIDOWER’S NOTEBOOK by Jonathan Santlofer, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Jonathan Santlofer.