'Epilogue': Anne Roiphe On Becoming A Widow After 39 years together, Anne Roiphe lost her husband, Herman, to a heart attack. For her, time moves on, but she remains suspended — "like the fly [she] saw in an amber stone, waiting for release." Still, she takes steps to rebuild her life.
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'Epilogue': Anne Roiphe On Becoming A Widow

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'Epilogue': Anne Roiphe On Becoming A Widow

'Epilogue': Anne Roiphe On Becoming A Widow

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This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In her new memoir, Anne Roiphe writes, I once had a long-widowed friend who said that she loved her bed and her television and her kitchen and she felt well only inside her apartment. I thought this was sad. I thought she had retreated too soon. But now, I understand this better, she continues, it is becoming true for me, too. Anne Roiphe's husband, Herman, died of a heart attack, leaving her alone after 39 years of marriage. She described and, to some degree, alleviated the grief and dislocation, the shock, the insomnia and the loneliness by writing a book about her experiences.

If you'd like to speak with her about your experience as a widow or widower, our phone number is 800-989-8255; email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on Talk of the Nation. Later in the program, we follow up on our Christmas special show to talk with Dahlia Lithwick about non-Christians, Santa, Frosty, the Grinch and Jesus. But first, Anne Roiphe joins us from our bureau in New York. Her memoir is called "Epilogue." Anne, welcome to Talk of the Nation.

Ms. ANNE ROIPHE (Author, "Epilogue: A Memoir"): Thank you very much.

CONAN: And an epilogue, of course, comes after the main story has been concluded. Is that the right way to describe your situation?

Ms. ROIPHE: Well, of course. That would be true, simply by virtue of my age, anyway. But it's true that the marriage that I had with my husband, which lasted 39 years, was the substance and story of my life. There's more to come, there's more that will happen, but that, of course, is the heart of the book of my life.

CONAN: And it is the heart of this book because even as you try to accustom yourself to his absence, you find you cannot?

Ms. ROIPHE: It's not as easy as I would have hoped. It's not something that you can do just because you want to do it. It takes time, of course, but it also takes living through and enduring the sense of aching separation, of being ripped away from someone. And I had a lot of trouble feeling and being alone. It gets better, of course, as the years have passed - it'll be three years in another month or so. But it's going to be with me all my life, I imagine.

CONAN: I was moved by the part where you were trying to enumerate his flaws, and of course, everybody's got some. And you went through some of his and said, but in fact, the worst he ever did was to die.

Ms. ROIPHE: Well, that's true. And it's very hard not to be angry at your partner when your partner dies. It's not the way it's supposed to be. They shouldn't do that. That's the child inside me speaking. The adult knows that he couldn't help it.

CONAN: Part of your children's efforts to re-engage you in the world and maybe, well, alleviate some of that pain was to put you in a personals ad in the New York Review of Books.

Ms. ROIPHE: Yes, they did. And I did get letters and I did contact people. And in the book, I write about going out to meet people - to meet men who seemed like they would be reasonable and possibly right for me to be with and what happened. I have not given up the hope that I might one day meet the prince of my later years. But it is harder than you might think, certainly harder than when you're a young woman, because there's so much history and there's so much space between you and another person.

CONAN: And do you constantly compare them to your husband?

Ms. ROIPHE: I try not to. I don't think that's particularly helpful. But it's hard, in a feeling sense, not to compare the ease that you felt sitting next to your lifetime partner, the ease that you felt in bed with your lifetime partner. That doesn't come instantly, and it's hard to suddenly be even having coffee and dessert with a person who is a complete stranger.

CONAN: Yet, there was also - you wrote about the thrill, the excitement of going out on a date.

Ms. ROIPHE: Yes. Well, I think that it's just hard not to anticipate something unexpected, something pleasurable. I always liked going out when I was a young woman. I like going out now. I like listening to other people's stories. I like knowing who they are, what was wrong, what was right, what is the big drama of their lives. That - there's always some excitement in that.

CONAN: Are you still going out now?

Ms. ROIPHE: Yes, I am. I think that going out, meeting strangers, flirting a little, being with friends - all those are the good things in life.

CONAN: I have to ask you - there's relationship in the book that you write about that does not work out, partly because the man in question wasn't particularly interested in you. You've written 15 books, he had read exactly none of them, including the one you gave him. And you wrote that afterwards you realized that, well, you could write anything about him for - because he wouldn't read it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROIPHE: That's true. Were you going to ask me if I was going to write something more about him?

CONAN: No, I was going to ask if - since the book has come out - if he's contacted you?

Ms. ROIPHE: No, of course not.

CONAN: You were right!

Ms. ROIPHE: Of course I was right. There are people who, first of all, don't really like to read books by anybody, and perhaps, he was one of those. And also he was very interested in what interested him, which was not between the pages of a book. That's all right. I should perhaps have been more patient with that. I felt at first that it was very important that someone know me completely. And the best way to know me, of course, is to read my books. But I've gotten more patient. I'm willing to reveal what happened in my life little by little if somebody doesn't want to read.

CONAN: We're talking with Anne Roiphe about her book "Epilogue: A Memoir." It's the story of trying to recover after the death of her husband of 39 years, Herman. You call him "H" in the book. How come?

Ms. ROIPHE: Well, it's partially a technique to keep him and my story at some distance from myself. If you use the initial - it's a kind of, you know, Kafka literary technique - but what it serves to do is to make everything a little more abstract, a little more symbolic as rather than real. And it was hard enough to write this book. And I found when I wrote his full name, it stopped me somehow. And when I just used the initial, I could go right on through to the end of the sentence.

CONAN: Your husband was a psychiatrist. They, too, often use initials to hide the identity of their subjects.

Ms. ROIPHE: Oh yes. Well, he was a psychoanalyst. And the case studies of the - psychoanalytic case studies always use Mr. A or Mrs. B, or just sometimes A or B or C, because they're protecting the identity of their patients. I wasn't really protecting his identity, since everyone could find out or knows, you know, that I was married to a man named Herman.

CONAN: Google knew, yeah.

Ms. ROIPHE: I mean somebody knew, you know. It wasn't a big secret, but it protected me from a certain level of disruption in my writing process somehow.

CONAN: Let's get some callers on the line, 800-989-8255; email us, talk@npr.org. We'll begin with Maria, Maria calling us from Berkeley in California.

MARIA (Caller): Hi. I didn't hear the very beginning of the program, so I don't know how long you've been a widow, but I'm wondering - because I am also a widow and I have been for a little over two years now - how this process of disruption that I'm experiencing, where I just don't know how many loaves of bread to buy at the market or how much coffee to make in the morning, works out. And how - if there's any encouragement or techniques that one can use to sort of move that along.

Ms. ROIPHE: I don't know any techniques to move it along. I recognize absolutely what you're talking about. My husband was a cook and he always made the coffee for me, so that the great shock was to make the coffee. He's been gone now for almost three years. I'm better at all of that.

Not only am I better at it, but what has receded is my anxiety of being alone. And as the anxiety recedes, competence, of certain sorts, returns. I mean, certain things that really aren't such a big problem become once again not such a big problem. At first, I had trouble opening the door because he always used his key to open the front door. I can open the door just fine, it just took a while. And I think that patience and resuming whatever is good in your life, that that will bring everything back into some kind of focus.

MARIA: I find it's very encouraging to hear that you're dating. I haven't had a date since the Reagan administration and it seems a little daunting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROIPHE: It is daunting, and, on the other hand, if you think of it as fun, it's fine. And if you think of it as an adventure, it's fine. And if you need to go online, go online. You know, it's just a question of exploring your environment in the way that is reasonable to people who are younger and to people who are older.

MARIA: That's so interesting that you encourage going online. It seems a little tawdry to do that, to me.

Ms. ROIPHE: It seemed tawdry to me until my children explained that everybody goes online. And not only that, also sorts of people I actually know have met mates, partners, good friends online. It's - we're in a new world. It's very different from when - I don't know how old you are, but I'm old enough so that a boy had to come to the door and shake my mother's hand before I could go out and he would return me to the door. That's not the way it is anymore. And I think we, at any age, should partake of whatever is out there and enjoy ourselves as best as possible.

CONAN: Maria?

MARIA: Well, thank you very much.

CONAN: Maria, have a great time.

MARIA. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. You said the best way to get through with it is to do things that - well, for you that was writing a book. What you are is a writer.

Ms. ROIPHE: For me, writing a book was mind-saving, because that's what I do. I think if I had been a gymnast, I would have gone back onto the bars. You know, writing does keep - does force you to face what you're really thinking and feeling as best as possible.

And for me, that was - it was my saving moment. It distracted me from the greatest grief. It kept me - gave me a purpose, a thing to do when I got up, when otherwise I might not have had anything to do or wanted to get up at all.

But I'm sure there are many other occupations and things that people do. I have friends who garden. I have friends who go back to a musical instrument that they had played as young women. I have friends who joined political groups or classes. The issue is you have to keep moving.

CONAN: We're talking with Anne Roiphe, more with her in just a moment. Her memoir again is titled "Epilogue." If you'd like to speak with her about your experience as a widow or widower, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neil Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of Talk of the Nation theme)

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In her new memoir "Epilogue: A Memoir," Anne Roiphe writes about the lack of enjoyment she felt upon visiting the beach house that she shared with her husband, Herman, who died after 39 years of marriage.

I do not want to be alone on the beach, not even when the fog comes in and the terns scurry on their pin-legs, in and out of the tidal froth. It's too much for me, this ocean. Ridiculous. Perhaps I act this way because the house is going to be sold. Widow that I am, its upkeep will undo me. Widow that I am, I have no desire to travel the highways to reach the house. Widow that I am, I do not want to put my hands in the rocky dirt of my garden. I don't want to replace a burned-out light bulb. I don't like this house without H.

If you'd like to join our conversation, it's 800-989-8255; email us, talk@npr.org. There's also a conversation underway at our Web site. Go to npr.org. Just click on Talk of the Nation. Our next caller is Jim, Jim with us from Sterling Heights in Michigan.

JIM (Caller): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi, Jim.

JIM: I had a very similar experience with my wife. I was married for 20 years. And she contracted a very serious complaint while on vacation - I was actually still here in Michigan - and she actually died within 24 hours.

CONAN: Oh, my gosh.

JIM: (unintelligible) And it's almost like trying to cope with somebody that's passed away in - or has been killed in a road accident. But the biggest thing which I had to deal with was the fact that your whole life is mapped out in front of you, of what you're going to do for the last sort of, like, 20 years of your life. And then instantly, your life is changed a thousand percent and all the planning which you've had has completely disappeared.

And I can sympathize with people that do not want to do anything. It took me a long time to actually come to terms with that. And at Christmastime, it's even worse - that when you go home, there's nobody there and there's not the smells - the woman that you loved is no longer there.

And it does take an enormous effort to actually progress from that period of grieving and to say to yourself, I have to get my life back in order and make the next step to continue life - your life and go and meet people.

Ms. ROIPHE: I'm so sorry for your loss and for the loss of anyone who's listening who has experienced such a loss. I also have a hard time at the holidays. I have great memories that do help.

I do know that - my husband told me that it was a sign of love when one partner was able to go on after losing another, that it meant that the relationship was really good and that you needed someone else in your life because you had had something good. And he had said that to me when he wasn't sick and nobody was thinking about dying. And I rather believe that's true, that it's a compliment to your spouse when you are able to remake your life. I know that my husband felt that way as a psychoanalyst, as a husband. I believe it, too.

JIM: Yeah, the - at Christmastimes and major holidays, it is extremely difficult when you know that people are inviting you to go to places and there's a little bit at the back of your mind that the invite is a sympathy invite. And you feel really uncomfortable because people do not know how to speak to you about the loss. There's lots of people who say to you that you that they know exactly what you're going through. But nobody who has ever been through that experience actually knows.

Ms. ROIPHE: That's true. I have found that when I mention Herman or Herman's name in company, it relaxes everybody. And they respond better to me. I say, Herman would have loved this beef stew you made. They suddenly are able to say something about Herman and they feel better. You can feel the tension ease out of the room. It's the - if we can't talk about it, then it becomes much more of a problem.

CONAN: Yet - I don't mean to interrupt - but there was a point in which one of your friends said, boy, I'm glad I'm not in your shoes.

Ms. ROIPHE: Yes. Yes, she did. And I did not take that kindly. I thought that was an awkward expression. And it made me, you know, a little bit angry, angry enough to go home and write it down. On the other hand, realistically speaking, there's no reason why she shouldn't be glad that she's not in my shoes. And I just have to accept it.

JIM: Yeah. Hey Neal, thank you very much for taking my call.

CONAN: Jim, thanks and good luck.

JIM: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go now to - this is Bob, Bob with us from Fort Bragg in - Fort Bragg. It says California. Is it North Carolina?

BOB (Caller): No, it's California.

CONAN: OK, go ahead.

BOB: Well, thank you, Neal and Ms. Roiphe. I'm happy to be able to contribute to this. I was married for 41 years, six months and 26 days. The sense of loss is just unbelievable. We were developing our relationship all during that 41 and a half years, it was getting better as we were getting older. And suddenly, she was gone.

So, I understand what you were talking about and your previous caller expressed it very well - no one who hadn't gone through that same situation cannot really appreciate what you're actually feeling like. And as far as dating is concerned, that took almost two years before I felt comfortable to be able to relate to someone else. There's someone now that I'm developing something with. We're quite not sure what it is, but looks promising.

Ms. ROIPHE: Well, I'm glad for you that that's in your life and I hope it goes well. Some people will meet someone else and some won't. I'm not sure, you know, where I belong at the moment. It's probably a little bit more difficult for women, for a variety of reasons. But many women do meet a new partner. A new partner doesn't mean a replacement of the old partner, as I'm sure you know. It just means an extension of life into something new.

BOB: Well, that's - I consider it my second life.

Ms. ROIPHE: Good for you.

CONAN: Good luck, Bob.

BOB: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: So long.

BOB: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Do you find it unusual - I know you wrote this book for a lot of different reasons, but one of the byproducts is you've become something of a poster child for widows.

Ms. ROIPHE: Well, I'm afraid that's true. But that's not why or what I thought of when I was writing the book. If my experiences do resonate with someone else, that's good. A writer of anything wants that to be true of their book. I've always wanted to speak through my self and my experience to other people and their experiences. And, you know, when I was younger, I was writing about children and playgrounds and all kinds of things that were right for that age. This is what's right for now.

CONAN: Here's - let's go to Cindy, Cindy with us from Charlotte.

CINDY (Caller): Yes, hello. Four years ago, I was very unexpectedly widowed at the age of 46. That first year, I was a complete zombie - just barely functioned. And during that time, my friends and family rallied around me. They got me through it. But about a year after that, I started to recover and I actually met someone about a year later. And then last year, we got married.

My problem has been my friends and family have really been - they were actually resistant to me recovering. It was just - it was like they liked being needed by the long-suffering widow. And when I started to get my confidence and my self back, I was - I really encountered a lot of resistance from the people closest to me. My children were teenagers at the time, and they have absolutely, you know, just fought this every step of the way. And, you know, I just - I really was shocked by how everyone - it felt like they did not want me to recover. Have you experienced anything like that?

Ms. ROIPHE: Well, I'm considerably older than you are and at a different stage in life, so that I would not exactly have the same experience. But I do have to say that teenagers - when my children were teenagers, they would've resisted almost anything. Anything I did at all, including what I was deciding to wear that morning - so that, you know, I think there's some just teenager-ness in their response…

CINDY: Well, actually…

Ms. ROIPHE: …which will go, which will change. They suddenly will become very…

CINDY: It was my friends. I mean, they just, you know - they threw out rules. I didn't know there were rules. And where the rules came from, I don't know - rules about when you do this and rules about how soon you do this. And I want to know where the rule book is.

Ms. ROIPHE: There is no rule book and you should be living your life just the way you are. I think that, rather than slow yourself down and go back into your home and shut the door, I would change my friends. And if my family wasn't so supportive at this point, I would just sort of avoid them till they're ready to be more supportive. Because what you're doing is what people should do, they should move on with their lives. You're a young woman. You should have a whole long second chapter here.

CINDY: Well, my marriage to my late husband was so wonderful. He gave me a roadmap for happiness.


CINDY: And you know, like you said earlier to the other caller, if you're in a happy marriage, you want to feel that again. I think it's those who've maybe had disturbed or troubled marriages - just in my experience with grief groups and my reading - those are the ones that are more reluctant to go into a second relationship.

Ms. ROIPHE: That's true, because they haven't had a good experience that they want to recreate.

CINDY: Exactly. Well, thank you so much for taking my call. Thank you for your comments. And I'll have to get your book.

CONAN: OK, Cindy, thanks very much for the call. Good luck.

CINDY: Thank you. Bye.

CONAN: So long. Here's an email from Christine in Farmington Hills in Michigan. I lost my husband of 36 years two years ago and then had to close our 35-year-old business this year. I feel guilty that I could not keep it going, as it meant so much to him, but here in Michigan it was the only option open. It feels like I lost him twice and failed him, too. And, boy, that's not a situation you had to deal with, but it is somewhat analogous to being forced to sell that beach house, I think.

Ms. ROIPHE: Well, not even quite. It's much worse, because it was a business that they'd built together, I presume, and it's a business that, you know, was so much a part of her husband's life. However, all that we can say here is that, while only some of us have been widowed, many, many people are losing businesses. Any failure in this economy and at this moment in time can hardly be personal. It's not your fault. It's nobody's fault, unless it's Bernie Madoff's fault. It's somebody's fault but not us who are struggling here and working very hard. I'm sure that your husband would've been very proud of whatever you are able to do.

CONAN: Our guest is Anne Roiphe - her book, "Epilogue: A Memoir." If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255; email us, talk@npr.org. And stay with us. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And I was just doing the math in my head. Three years ago, just about, your husband died. You write of him as a devoted fan of the New York Giants. So, he missed the Supberbowl?

Ms. ROIPHE: He missed the Superbowl and it was the greatest game. And he's missing this season, when they're doing really well. And I have taken to watching them for him. I feel his presence in the room and I wish each time a long pass is caught that he was there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Each time a long pass is dropped, however, just as well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROIPHE: That's true. He had a habit of leaving the room when the Giants were losing and saying to me, tell me what's happening, tell me what's happening.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I have the same problem. I can't - well, anyway, - anyway, let's get Pete on the line. Pete's with us from Roanoke in Virginia.

PETE (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

PETE: I was wondering how the author has felt that the process of writing in her writer's voice - the finished product - has changed since her husband's death and I'll hang up and listen to the response.

CONAN: OK, Pete, thanks.

Ms. ROIPHE: I believe the question is, has my voice changed since I wrote the book or is my writer's voice different from my personal voice? And the answer is probably yes to both of those questions because a writer's voice is somewhat like a river or a stream. It moves on and you catch it where you catch it.

There's not a lot of thought going into it. It just is what it is at the moment that you take - dip your glass into this river and you pull up the water. So, I'm sure that my voice has changed and some of my feelings have changed. When I read the book now or I look at a passage, if somebody asks me to read a passage out loud, I'm concentrating on small matters, like I should have cut that word out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROIPHE: I used that word a paragraph before. How did I miss that? I'm noticing that I could've cut something here or there. So, I don't have - I can't read this book objectively now, though I think it still reflects what I felt, reflects what I still feel and is a true account of the experience as that river was running at the time that I was writing it.

CONAN: Upon rewriting - and that's a process every writer goes through - did you find yourself looking at yourself - this person you're writing about - essentially as a character?

Ms. ROIPHE: Yes, of course, because you have to have some distance. For instance, you quoted before the fact that I listed my husband's faults. At a certain moment I thought, I better be careful. I'm idealizing him. That's not right. I know better than that. I better look at what was wrong. And you know, I was catching flaws that might've happened - I'm sure I didn't catch all of them, but I caught what I could by second guessing and reading again and looking at things that I should've said that I probably didn't say.

CONAN: Here's an email from Sharon in Wichita, Kansas. This coming March, it'll be five years since my husband died of ALS - Lou Gherig's disease. That first year after his death - his birthday, holidays - I would find myself angry and out of sorts. Some good friends said this was to be expected and that I was on schedule to realize this, too, would pass. I even was able to realize what was going on, and that was a comfort. It took me four and a half years to quit sitting and staring and starting to volunteer. And I find that so important to me. The best to you always. And I say this in knowledge, that you have a birthday coming up in a couple of days.

Ms. ROIPHE: Yes, I do. I'm going to be 73. I can hardly believe it. It's almost three quarters of a century. And it's going to be hard to have that birthday without Herman, but I also have grandchildren and friends and plans for the next year. And I intend to go on living as long as possible, as long as I can enjoy it.

CONAN: Happy birthday.

Ms. ROIPHE: Thank you.

CONAN: Anne Roiphe with us from our bureau in New York. Her book is called "Epilogue: A Memoir." Coming up, your letters and surviving all the television Christmas specials if you don't celebrate Christmas. Dahlia Lithwick is with us to be our guide to the Jewish kid's guide to television specials. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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