Those Next Days…

If you tell me that I have to move on from grief, that I have a life to live, that I can choose to stop feeling this as if grief has no value unless I kick its ass, I’ll stop listening because all you’re telling me is you don’t get it. You’re telling me you don’t know what else to say and if you say it nicely, I appreciate the gesture; if you say it impatiently I think that maybe you’re the one who can’t deal with it.  What’s it mean to think you can’t both grieve and live? No one moves on from grief. It’s part of you, like an arm or a leg. You don’t get cured, you get different. You’re forced to live more deeply – it’s either that, or go nutty. But as life is in constant motion and change, so is grief.

There was a time grief was loud and screeching; it chewed me up, then spit me out so it could chew me up all over again. Prometheus, bound. It made the world spin too fast for me to get my footing. So I sat on my couch, month after month, and let it do what it would. But sometime between then and now I stopped resisting it. That didn’t make it go away, but it did allow me to get to know it. Pain is terribly enhanced when we resist it – we might think we’re pushing it away, but since it’s immovable all we’re doing is letting it drain our attention and energy. I didn’t know that, then. Why talk of “not resisting?” I was that grief. Until time came when I felt more. Like love for Philip and love for Natalie. Take that love and add a bit of time, and what came to be was a grief that was more a partner than a bloodsucker.

I don’t learn the things I need to learn the easy way. That’s not how it works. I no longer hold on to grief, I commune with it. It’s hard. It hurts. It still grabs me when I’m not paying attention, still brings me to tears of a sudden. It still makes my gut raw and throbbing – and it keeps me vulnerable enough not only to hurt, but to feel the deep love in my life. For that, I am grateful. So I don’t run from it or pretend I can turn it off because I will cut off no part of myself that feels. Whatever it is.

**************************************************************

Philip died snorting heroin. And what I found out later was he wasn’t alone. He was in his room with G, the kid who lived in the bedroom upstairs, the kid who left him there. I don’t know at what point, dead or alive. What I do know is that one year later G. himself died from an overdose.

Those days afterward – how did I survive them? How was I able to move around, to take care of things, to fall asleep? A couple days after the wake, Phil, Natalie and I had to go to Philip’s room to get his things. He lived in a house in New Brunswick near Rutgers with Max  and some other kids. And he spent a lot of time at his friend Austin’s house. Austin was urging Philip away from drugs and the tweakers he was hanging out with. And Philip was listening – he’d signed a lease and was supposed to move out at the end of the month. At the wake, Austin asked me if I wanted him to go straighten out Philip’s room. I knew the kind of mess Philip lived in. “Please,” I answered, “just don’t throw anything out.” I needed to get in and out of that bedroom quick as I could. No tears, no lingering – that was the room where he died. If I wanted to curl up with him around me I’d go to the bedroom he grew up in. The one with the rocket ship and stars that I painted on his closet door, with the plaid curtains and lampshade I made for him. The furniture I found at an estate sale, and the perfect hooked rug that was a steal at Marshall’s. I could crawl under his red denim comforter, stained with blood from the uncontrollable nose bleeds he had when he was growing up. And I’d hug his little dinosaur blanket, the one I made for him for his kindergarten nap time.

The night before I was supposed to go to Philip’s, I got a call from a furious Austin. “They robbed him. They actually went in his room and they robbed him. They took his stuff – his phone, his laptop, his Xbox. Everything was all over the place. I can’t believe they robbed him.”

A sponge can get so saturated that it can’t hold any more. The water washes right through while the sponge sits there, heavy and laden. I heard what Austin said. I understood what he meant. I knew I should be outraged. Instead I was numb, speechless. I told Austin we would be there next day and asked if he’d come meet us.

I didn’t know the kids Philip lived with. I knew Max, I knew of J., eventually came to know of G. I knew that right after Philip died, they cleared out of the house. At least for a while. J. had gone back to get something, saw a window had been broken, went into the house and saw Philip’s room had been robbed. No one else’s, just Philip’s. I spoke to J about it. “We all keep our rooms locked,” he said. “Philip’s was the only one that was open.”

Uh-huh. Like someone didn’t know Philip died, like someone didn’t use this as an opportunity. This sounds like I should be furious. I am not. At first I mourned the loss of his laptop. He’d been writing poetry and I wanted to read it. Philip was gone and they took another piece of him. Thing is, what kind of person does that? What kind of way is that to live? I hadn’t the capacity for anger, and so saw it differently than I might have. Nothing they took meant anything. So I didn’t have the poems – I still had my son. Who am I to condemn them? To live a life of preying on people is its own hell. You can’t get away with anything because life doesn’t work that way. Some people don’t get that until it’s too late. If I’m angry at these kids, I turn the situation into a drama and get sidetracked from what’s real about life  They are dreams, these dramas. And either I wake up now or death’ll come and do it for me.

Austin had straightened up Philip’s room again, but what I saw when I got there was a blur. I just wanted to hurry up and get rid of stuff before I started crazy screaming. I left his old bureau, got rid of a lot of his clothes (he had plenty more at home), grabbed any notebook he’d written in, took the Kindle Fire the thieves had missed. Took his sword and fencing helmets. His leather jacket and the parka I’d bought him for Christmas. But not his boots, his old, beat-up square-toed and very cool boots that were molded into the shape of his feet. Austin had been with him when he bought them, and he asked if he could have them. With love and gratitude I handed them over.

Funny how the thing that bothers me most is that I didn’t take his plaid flannel boxers. I could’ve worn them for pajamas, hung out at home in them. I could’ve cut them up and worked them into a quilt. The woman who taught me quilting had made a beautiful quilt from her boyfriend’s boxers. The odd and beautiful things that people make when inspired by love. I suppose you can make an an odd and beautiful life that way, too. Something to think about, for sure.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

The Voice in my Head

The man in the podcast I listened to today told the story of the day he got a letter from the police department. When he opened it, he saw a grainy picture of himself in his car, hands on the steering wheel, along with a $45 ticket for speeding. This was 1991, when traffic cameras weren’t as prevalent as they are now. Shocked and angry at the intrusion, along with the fact that there was no human being involved, he decided to fight back. He Xeroxed $45 and sent it in along with the ticket. A couple weeks went by, and he got another letter. In it was a Xeroxed copy of a pair of handcuffs and he laughed. There it was – human interaction. Playfulness, even. A sense of humor. So he paid the ticket and that was that.

Then the chief of police who was in charge of traffic cams at that time came on the podcast. He insisted that in spite of all the angry hate mail he received about the cameras, he did the right thing. Less people died, he said. Less people died.

Since when did the Chief of Police become God? Did he really know when it was the right time for anyone to die? Do I mean people should drive recklessly, plowing down anyone in their way? Of course I don’t. There are ways to figure out how to reduce speeding without violating people’s space. We are being watched in ways we don’t even know and those who are watching feel their power enhanced. Because they’re in on the secret, and we’re not. And they get to decide what it is they want to do with what they think they’re seeing. All in the name, of course, of saving lives. Because that’s what most of us spend our lives doing – avoiding death, as if we could. And at what cost?

See, death doesn’t give a shit about traffic cams or medical breakthroughs or gym memberships that in the end make for really good-looking corpses. Maybe. Of course you do what you can to keep your body healthy – you take care of it the way you take care of anyone or anything you care about. But you also understand that this body is a temporary means of communication and if you think only of how much you can bench press without also preparing for the inevitable, you will never have enough. Your body will never be tone enough, your clothes won’t keep you happy, your house will never be the way you think it should. There is always something more to want until death stops you in your tracks, which it will. Whether it’s yours or – worse, if you ask me – that of someone you love.

Death teaches us about life. Death adds dimension to life. You can’t take death seriously without also wondering what it is you’re here for. And that is what drives you to make meaning, to ask what it is to live fully, to go beyond the world’s definition of what you should be doing and what is important. And the question is not, why am I here if I’m going to die? That is a great and terrible distraction. The real question is, what do I do with this life that I’m given, because no matter what the why of it, the fact is I am here. Asking “why?” is living in some unknown past that prevents me from living, which is the the thing I claim I’m trying to figure out how to do.

What the hell would life be without death? Unimpeded growth is destructive. All you have to do is look at cancer to see that truth. We each die that others may live. By being born we agree to die. Listening to that police chief made me think how selfish I am, how selfish we all are – I mean the hubris, deciding I shouldn’t die and my son shouldn’t die when all of us are going to die so who are we to say when? If it was up to us we would never say “now” and we would become a malignant cancer on the planet.

These are hard, hard truths. But experiencing them – not talking about them, experiencing them, makes it easier to live with Philip’s death. I wrote about Krishnamurti saying, “I don’t mind what happens.” Five words that tell you how to live. But right there is the struggle – how does one “not mind what happens” when your child dies?

I think you don’t go directly there. I think you practice – I think you make it your life’s work. You start with the small things. Every day annoyances. What if you didn’t get pissed off about having to wash those damn dishes that keep getting dirty? What if you waited on the grocery store line without resentment? Or sat calmly in a traffic jam? To be angry at what is so is insane. It doesn’t change the situation, it just makes you miserable. You lose your humanity. If I’m waiting on line and I’m pissed, I’m forgetting that I am one of all these people who are creating that line. I’m forgetting that all these people are just like me. And I’m forgetting how to breathe.

I have been holding my breath about Philip’s death. I know that now because I breathe more. I resist less. Dedicating my life to grief is a false position. Grief is and will always be part of my life. I am grateful for what it’s taught me. Philip will always be part of my life – he is my guide, my muse, my love. And right now, this moment, I am able to breathe. I write this blog because it gives me room to breathe.

I used to pick at myself all the time – pimples, scabs, the suntan peeling off my body.  The more I picked, the longer the wound took to heal. So it makes sense that I would pick at my grief like festering scab. What else to do with this wild and gnarly feeling? But all the picking and hair pulling and determination to not ever be okay has changed into something else. Now I nurse my wound. And to do that, I spend a lot of time alone. I am hurt and tender but I want to take care instead of make worse.

I can’t say how I got here. I think it has to with do having lived through and with Philip’s death my way. I felt a wild thing for a long time, loose and crazy and holding it together only because of Natalie. To even consider letting go of the way I felt was inconceivable -I was what I felt, and I thought my own death was the only solution. Besides, it was a betrayal. And all through this, I was listening to Philip urging me to life but shaking my head a huge NO. But because I let myself be as I needed to be, what is so began to change. Not the fact of Philip’s death, but the way I perceive his death. And the way I was true to my grief is the way I need be true what’s been changing about it. If you asked me three years ago, two years ago – hell, one year ago if these words would ever come out of my mouth I would have been deeply offended. It is an act of faith to not resist change. I thought I would lose Philip if I got up off my knees. But now I feel closer to him than ever. I am graced to have the contact I do with him. His death is an opening to light much as it’s driven me to the deepest dark I’ve ever known. This doesn’t mean I still don’t get scared, that I don’t despair when I stop and think of the years to come without him here the way I want him to be. But I am so tired of hurting that I can’t spend time thinking thoughts that make me miserable. “Let me be the voice in your head,” says Philip.

“Let me be the voice in your head.”

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Always Been So

So I crashed. Friday. Cried my makeup off on the way home from work. Felt something more than the dull edge of anger. Alone and overwhelmed, I took two-instead-of-one of what the doctor’d given me for when I can’t sleep. And so Friday night passed, and here I am.

Yesterday I woke up to a cold, sunny Saturday morning and I gave up. That is another thing I can do nothing about. I want clouds, and much as I know what trouble it is to let external factors make my mood, weather is a tough one. I was glad to find there’s a word to describe something about me: Pluviophile. Lover of rain. It’s not an “idea.” I have a physical, emotional reaction to sun, especially at certain times. Like Saturday mornings. That’s got to be something learned, since what matter Saturday or Tuesday? I think it’s the fact of having a whole day to do as I wish, and wishing I could do whatever that is in the comfort of if not a full-blown storm, at least a good amount of cloud cover.

But then today – it’s snowing and I am at peace.

So I crashed. Friday. Like I could see the outline of Philip’s body with the deep, dark space behind it. I think it matters that I see that void – that suggests there’s something there, something more than I am aware of, and in that deep dark lies possibility. I find comfort in that.

But it’s more complicated than Philip’s death, than that most terrible loss which magnifies all other losses. Along the way to February 23rd there was something else going on, something about a man, and even though most of it was in my head, it was the reason for the particular flavor these last few days have had.

I’d like to get the idea of needing or not needing a man out of the way before I go on. Ideas become part of the culture and begin to get mindlessly repeated because it’s easier to be mindless than thoughtful. And the idea that a woman shouldn’t need a man is another one of those things. By that standard, each of us shouldn’t need any of us. But we do need each other, even if it’s not for the reasons we think. Relationships are not here to make us happy – they are created to teach us. If we’re happy with them, so much the better. But happiness is not the endgame here.

As to whether or not I need a man – fact is, I would feel better with the right man. I know this not because I sit around wishing I had a partner. I do not. It’s been a long time since I’ve been involved with a man. And never have I more understood how fleeting “happy” is since Philip died. Not because I was so fucking happy while he was alive. I wasn’t. I wasn’t aiming for it, either. I was asking myself how I could be at peace with being alive since I’d spent most of my life at war. “Happy” is an emotion that comes and goes like any other. Peace is something else, something deeper, something that isn’t given or taken away. It’s something you realize is there once you allow all the grasping to fall away.

Relationships provoke feelings that are already part of us. If I find joy in being with a man, then that joy is part of me, man or no man. But that’s an idea that means nothing if it’s not experienced. I met a man recently. I was deeply attracted to him, and it has been years since I’ve been deeply attracted to anyone. We talked, we texted. Something, I thought, is going on here. He is kind, thoughtful and attentive. I took what I thought was happening between us and made him into something he wasn’t. But during that time, there was light. There was possibility. Excitement. There was, I thought, comfort.

Of course, there was also reality.

He wasn’t seeing what I was. So out went another light as I headed into the anniversary of the worst day of my life. It’s no wonder I found myself either numb or cursing. Loss – even of something imaginary – overwhelms. After suffering Philip’s death I thought nothing could ever bother me again – turns out I’m so vulnerable that things can bother me more. But it’s that vulnerability that makes me transparent enough that it all passes through. I can’t hold pain – and now I know I don’t want to. Feeling it and holding it are two different things. It’s what the Buddha meant when he said pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.

I am okay. No matter what, I am going to be okay. Philip knows that, and from that knowingness comes my own. There is no real separation from him. I was trying to say that in my last, when I wrote that it isn’t true that if I’m not at peace then neither is Philip. It’s his peace that grants me my own. Separation is created by the body, this wonderful, heartbreaking, temporary way we experience each other. But the true connection is always so. And it’s not caused by doing; it’s the not-doing that allows what isn’t essential to fall away and reveal what’s always been so. Philip and I have always been so. Ask any parent if they can imagine a life without their child. They can’t, because once you have a child, the relationship has always been so.

And if that sounds inexplicable, it is. It’s part of the mystery. And I don’t need it explained, all I need is to know.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Three Years

Today is three years since Philip died. Since we found out he died, because he really died on 2/22 but since they found him on 2/23, that’s the day that’s on the birth certificate, the day it became real and true and official. These things matter, like I have to get it clear in my mind, I have to understand, and somehow I think these details will help me. Like I have to explain this to everyone because if I’m honest about all of it – the way it happened, the way I feel about it – then I have something to hold on to. All these thousands of words I write, these deeply personal words I publish, both bind me to my son and keep me grounded.

Three years, and I think I should have something wise and profound to say, something special to honor my son. But I’ve somewhat disconnected – I think a psyche can only take so much at a time. Grief, for now, is no fierce burning. It’s turned me into something aloof, distant. Lately, what I feel most, when I feel anything I can clarify, is anger. I noticed it because I’ve found myself saying ugly things at every day annoyances, and I am too easily annoyed. The dirty dishes, the unmade bed, the sick dog who needs his medicine and has to be carried up and down the stairs. It was the vulgarity I spewed that shook me up – it wasn’t anything I’m used to saying. Oh, I thought; I’m angry. And if there’s one thing I can’t take feeling, it’s anger. Because what do you do with such fury? How do you contain it? If I let my anger bleed out even a little I fear where it will take me. Philip isn’t coming home. I want him here. I can’t do anything about it and after three years I do know this is so. It seems more so than ever. I’m helpless to do anything about it. I am so angry that if I feel it I’m afraid it will suck me back to three years ago, to what it felt like to hear those three little words that chewed me up and spit out into some void that sometimes I think I’m still falling down into: “They found him.”

They found him. How the fuck am I supposed to live with that?

Well, I do live with that. I can live with that. Because in certain ways time has collapsed. What is time, anyway? It’s pain, for sure, because if there’s one thing pain needs, it’s time. If I think back to what happened or forward to a life where I grow old and Philip doesn’t, I will go crazy. But right now I can live with this. I don’t want to have to, but it is my reality. What does it mean to say three years? We’ve made up these things we call days and months and years. We give them names and think that gives us some control. We number hours and decide what should happen within those hours. We group them for convenience, we dole them out, we covet them. They feel longer when we’re anxious and shorter with our pleasures. So when I say time has collapsed what I mean is that in many ways I’m just paying attention. To Natalie, to work, to writing and knitting. To closely following whatever creative urge I have because creating lies outside of time.

Grief isn’t heartless. Grief is a teacher. Grief is the way into my heart. For that I am grateful. I am not someone who has loved life. I am not someone who has understood why anyone would want to be here. But never have I felt more alive than I do now. That’s Philip’s gift to me. What is the point of his death if I die, too? And how hard is this to grasp because if I choose to live I still don’t understand I’m not betraying him and I’m not losing him. But the pull to life is strong. The only betrayal would be to resist it, to make the fact that I’m grieving become a role. If I’m playing a role than I’m bound by fantasy. I don’t mean to say I’m not grieving – I’m saying that grieving is as fluid as everything else in life. I can’t say I experience his death the way I did three years ago, as if the intensity of it has to remain or I don’t truly love him. When someone asks how I am, part of me wants to say I’m broken because then they will care, then they won’t forget Philip. But those aren’t the right words. There is no brief conversation that’s going to let anyone know how I “am.” So I say, “I’m okay” and am content to leave it at that. Because after three years, the need to say how truly terrible this is is ebbing. When I need to talk about it, I come here and write it.

Three years, and still Philip is close. I’ve been told more than once that he can’t rest in peace until I, too, am at peace. That he can’t be free until he knows I’m okay. I disagree. He knows I’m okay – I’m the one who has to get it.  And I don’t think this is about “resting.” I think it’s about living, which is beyond the impermanence of a body. When it comes to these things, I’m willing to trust my own experience more than someone else’s, which is a triumph not only for me, but for Philip as well. I can’t make sweeping generalizations about the dead. I can only say what I know about Philip. That he’s kind and he’s patient, and he’s not worried that what he’s trying to show me is still, in many ways, eluding me. It’s his faith I rely on when I can’t find my own.

Many years ago I was told that this was going to be a very spiritual life for me. Wow, I thought; how cool is this? Visions of softly winding roads lit with a sun I’d finally enjoy passed before me. Who knew instead of a blessing it would feel like a curse? Still – it’s my life and my path and if it meant Philip would only be here for 21 years I’d still rather that, than not to have known him at all.

So mourn him I will – argue, I won’t.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

The Lasts

It’s February again, the month of lasts. Last time I saw Philip, last time I spoke to him, hugged him, texted him, left him a voicemail. Last time I told him I loved him and listened as he said it back. The deeper I move into February, the more I withdraw. I am alone in ways that only death can teach. There is something about life and death that no one can give to me. It can only be realized because it was always there. Thing is, I can’t reach it. I can’t define it. I hurt terribly about it because something is missing. Something more than just Philip. The hole he left only grows larger because that is where life is. And like it or not, I am being sucked swirling down into that deep. There is no way to resist. Except to keep my eyes closed and refuse what he wants me to see.

February. It’s different, as everything is always different. I know, every day I know, it’s February. I am walking apart, taking one careful step after another. I can’t see where I’m going, I only know I walk with death. This is not a bad thing; it’s not a good thing. It’s just what’s so and I would like to get to know death. It is, after all, my constant companion. I want to keep it close. Anything that has to do with Philip I want to keep close. I need solitude. Natalie’s moved back – she is all the company I need right now because I love her so. I keep to myself much as I can, spend whole weekends in my apartment. I consider it a victory If I park my car on Friday and don’t move it until Monday.

And why, I wonder, is that so hard to understand? This is my life and I’ve lived it enough to know what I need. I created Philip’s birth and now I’ll create the way to live in his death. Three years is nothing. It’s as though he just died, yet it’s like I’ve not seen him in forever. What is time? It’s perception, is all. My 24 hours are not the same as yours. I’m not talking about clock time. I’m talking about psychological time – past, present, future. All that’s real about time is that it’s always now. So can I, for now, live with Philip’s death? Yes. I can and I do. I show up for work, I show up for my daughter. And in my alone time I write, I knit, I sew. Creativity is a call to life. I am not sitting and crying, I’m sitting and knitting. If I did sit and cry, then that would be what I needed to do. I bristle when I’m told I shouldn’t be alone. And I think anyone who tells me I should be doing anything other than what I am is afraid of getting burned by the fire of this mad grief. Because death is exactly what we try to avoid every day, and who wants to see it in the eyes of a mourning mother.

When Philip and Natalie were little, I’d bought a book on numerology. I’ve always been fascinated by the unseen, by wanting to commune with something I knew was there but couldn’t quite grasp. So I read maybe half – because really, there wasn’t a book that could give me what I was looking for – and put it down after I went through the exercises that would tell me what my own personal number was. The result was that 2 was going to be an important number for me. 2? What’s with 2? Give me complicated 3 or sexy 9, but 2? 2 had no personality, meant nothing to me. Besides, it was an even number. How much more boring can you get?

Philip was found lying on the floor of his room on 2/23, which is the official day of his death. But we know that he really died on 2/22. I’d say 2 got real important. It took his death to connect me to the unseen. His death is both a blessing and a curse. I am closer to Philip now than I ever was. It is not his body I need, much as it’s what I want. Why do we cling so hard to these bodies that are only temporary? I wonder that I don’t let myself be more comforted by Philip’s presence, by the way he nudges me, helps me, all the time. It’s merely his body that’s gone, and if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t know the things I now do. I live on two planes. The one where my bare feet feel the cold floor, where I pick up dog shit, shop for distraction, spend too much time fretting over what to wear. Then there’s the plane where I feel loved and tended to, where I know what matters, where I see how fleeting this all is and that’s okay because it’s what is so and to argue about it is pointless. To be in touch with what’s beyond what I can see is to be graced.

February. I don’t want it to end. I know it’s a construct, but I feel safe here. I feel close to my son because this is the month he  died and so offered me an opening to the Divine. This is the month I excuse myself from obligations I don’t much tend to anyway. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s that I haven’t the energy. Going to work is about all the going-out, all the interruption from my real work, that I can take. I need the calm and quiet of my home. This must be what seedlings go through before they sprout. They live in the deep dark until the day they poke their tiny heads out – then they are fragile things, growing roots underneath as they reach for the sun. Some of them make it, some of them don’t. Me? Resist though I do, I know something that is difficult to say. I think I’m going to make it – and Philip wouldn’t have it any other way.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

How I Practice

I’ve been getting rid of stuff. Because when there’s too much of what you have, it becomes stuff instead of what it really is. It’s not clothes, books, shoes, jewelry, fabric; it’s stuff. And when there’s too much around there’s that much more of a psychic load to carry.

But it’s a mistake to get rid of things for the sake of getting rid of them. Things have value. I don’t want to worship what I have – I just want to understand what it all means. I want to remember everything has a life cycle. If I buy something, I’m responsible for seeing it through to the end. Whether it’s become garbage because it’s useless, or it’s something I donate it because I’m overwhelmed at the thought of dragging it to consignment, I am responsible.

I this started back in November – I took every piece of clothing and every pair of shoes I owned and put them on the living room floor. Panties included. Then I picked up each piece and asked myself if I loved it – I did not ask when the last time was that I wore it. And if I didn’t love it but didn’t want to give it away, I asked myself why? Like the dark green sweater that found its way back into my drawer. It depresses me when I wear it – it feels dark and sad and I’ve enough of that inside without wearing it outside. I kept it because it was expensive, because I bought it only last year, because Natalie really liked it and part of why I bought was so she could wear it. We often share clothing (which means she borrows my stuff) and I find myself greedy to be the one who can claim ownership. But she’s the one that likes the sweater and now she’s the one who owns it.

If I can’t let go of a sweater, what am I going to do about the last letting go, the biggest one of all?

During this purging, Laura, Philip’s first serious girlfriend, came to visit with her friend, Ella. Natalie and I lived with Laura and Nadiya, her mom, for a few years before I got my own apartment. Laura wanted to come over to see my apartment, to meet Nikki, to rummage through my clothes before I gave them away. While she and Ella were here, I told them the story of the day I was packing to move, and decided not to drag along the 3,000 or so pages of emails that I’d stored under my bed (which is a story for another time). Downstairs I went with boxes full of paper, sat on the bottom of the staircase and started tearing. Two good long rips later I balked. Was I doing the right thing, was I going to need these one day, what if  I needed them to write the book I thought I was going to write before Philip died, the book about something that seemed so important and came to matter little after I discovered just what life could do to me.  That’s when I noticed a something on the on the floor. I picked it up to find it was a clothing tag from the store called Forever 21.

I saved that tag, and as I told my story, I pulled it out for dramatic effect. And since I have a habit of putting things down and forgetting where I put them, that is exactly what I did. A couple days went by, and it hit me that I remembered picking up the tag, but I didn’t remember putting down the tag. I went to the cubby in my desk where I kept it, but it wasn’t there. I tore my desk apart, looked under the couch and the bureau, picked the edges of the rug. It wasn’t anywhere. That tag was proof that Philip was around I needed it. But a few panicked minutes later I stopped – I cannot stay upset for things I can do nothing about. And if I’m practicing letting go, then what did it matter? What mattered was that it happened, and what it means to me. I still have my story to tell. Maybe without the dramatic flourish at the end, but it’s still my story.

Then came Thanksgiving at my brother’s. Late in the evening, when I got home,  I got out of my car and said, “Philip, I want something.” I opened the door to my building, and in the entry was a box of recycling with a glossy flier on top with a store announcing a 21%  off sale. 21% off?? Who has a sale for 21% off?? So I lost a tag but have a flier. For now.

The phenomena of the tag and the flier are not isolated incidents. Philip communicates with me every day, in startling ways. I have stories and stories. I am graced, for sure. I’ve no doubt he’s here, and he won’t let me forget. Still – he’s dead and it terrifies me. But…he’s here. Not his body, but his presence is clear. So I find myself choosing my words more carefully. I can’t say Philip’s gone because that’s not the truth. But he’s dead and I’m still trying to figure out what that means because it’s the end of our lives as we knew them, but it’s not the end of the story.

So why this raging grief, and what am I terrified of? Am I afraid to die? There’s a correlation between my fear of letting go and my fear of death. The less I’m attached to what or who is part of my life, the easier it will be to die. This life needs to be let go of and I can practice doing that every day. That’s not to be confused with, “Who gives a shit? I’m going to die anyway.” Because what I’m talking about takes courage. It is a conscious, meaningful decision to stop resisting what is. And the more I stop, the more I know love. Because love cannot be grasping and clinging. Which makes me question if I’ve ever truly loved, and what I really meant when I said, “I love you” to someone. Was it them I was really loving, or was it my need for them to love me?

The one true love I know is that for my children. That’s why I knew how to let them go. Let them be. And that’s why I’m in such deep communion with Philip now. What was between us in life doesn’t change with his death.

It was three years ago today – 2/01 – that I last saw my son. This is the season of his birth and his death. I find myself doing exactly what I did when he first died. Sitting on the couch, knitting and watching TV. If I have any advice for people who lose loved ones, it’s what someone told me when Philip first died: Follow whatever creative urge you have. So I knit, I write, I sew, I cook. I’m alone and quiet in my mourning because it’s time to tend to it.  Whatever letting go needs to be done around Philip’s death, I cannot yet do. When I say, “letting go” what I mean is to stop resisting what I feel. That doesn’t mean I won’t grieve any more, it does not mean it’s okay that Philip died. It just means I allow what I’m feeling to be as it is, knowing that – whether I like it or not – it will pass into something else.

It is in not resisting that I will mine the riches of Philip’s death. I am coming to understand that is the way to honor him, that is the way I can see his death was not for naught. His death means what I make it to be – and he’s asking me to make it my way into life.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

01/20/91 – #3

My water broke about 1:00 in the morning, running wet and warm down my legs and pooling on the wooden floor in my bedroom. I’d gotten up because I thought I had to pee – maybe I did pee, maybe that was part of what was gushing out of me because what I didn’t know then, but is so clear now, is that this thing that was about to happen was not in my control. All I could do was go along for the shockingly painful ride. Shocking because I thought my good attitude meant it wouldn’t hurt so much.

My children were born at home which seemed to me the most reasonable way to go about it. Hospitals, doctors, nurses, fetal monitors worrying my baby’s every heartbeat – to have anyone try to manage my labor was intrusive. I was having a baby, not an operation. So when my water broke it was my midwife, Barbara, that I didn’t call. Didn’t call because I wasn’t yet in labor and saw no reason to wake her. What she said when I called her at 8 in the morning was, “I told you that if your water broke, you should call me right away. You have to come see me now.” I could go into labor any moment. She was an hour’s ride away – that meant an hour there and an hour back plus whatever time I spent with her and while I wasn’t worried that I’d be giving birth in the car, I did think my husband and I should get on the road so I could get back and make myself comfortable. “It’s time to go,” I told Phil, who was sitting at the table reading his New York Times. “When I finish my tea,” he answered, with a shake of the paper.

Being pregnant and giving birth didn’t make me nervous. It was Phil who worried that if something went wrong during birth we’d be blamed because we were having our baby at home. “When time comes, I’ll be at the hospital, pacing,” he used to joke. But it was time to go and I knew he was anxious. His way of tamping down anxiety was to try to slow down the situation. But no matter how much tea he thought he was going to drink, this baby was going to get born.

I’d had a few mild contractions during the morning, but it was on the way home from Barbara that they really started. What I thought they were going to feel like was some gentle vibration from the top of my belly to the bottom, like waves that would carry Philip down and out. Instead they were like a steel band squeezing under my belly and around my back while a mac truck was trying to ram me open. I’d fooled myself into thinking I had this together. I didn’t know that once I was in labor, my body wasn’t my own. She was doing the only job she had to: getting my baby born.

Pregnant bodies have their own intelligence. Birthing starts with hours and hours of contractions to force an opening wide enough for a baby-body to pass through, then hours of pushing to actually get it out. After the baby’s born, the placenta follows. Meanwhile, the mother’s breasts will have filled will colostrum, which the baby will eat for the first few days. It helps their immune system. Milk follows after, and will keep filling the mother’s breasts for as long as baby keeps emptying them. If I think about that, if I think about the intricacies of my pregnancy, intricacies caused by the merging of two microscopic cells, I know I was part of a miracle.

Labor was intense and painful. And the more it hurt the more scared I got until I didn’t have the pain but I was the pain and I couldn’t yell myself out of it. Even when I bit Barbara’s shoulder it didn’t help. Yet there were times I felt I was in some parallel universe, some place where I was watching what was happening to myself, checking in to remind me I was okay, to ask if I really had to yell so much. And during one particular moment of hot pain I heard the words, “There is no way out but through,”  which I wrote a bit about here.

Then it was time to push. It was not a choice. Pushing was an urge, a physical sensation impossible to ignore, an insistence I bear down with everything I’ve got. Which, at that point, wasn’t much. After some hours I thought myself physically unable to do it any more. My body said otherwise. I am not going to make it, I thought. I cannot do this. And when Philip’s head finally popped out, I gave up, too exhausted to care any more. “Push,” Barbara ordered. “I can’t,” I answered. I’d had enough. Let her pull him out. “Push,” she commanded. “Can’t,” I answered, eyes closed and resting. Truth was I wasn’t having contractions and I hadn’t any strength to push without them. Until Barbara stuck her finger up the only other available hole down there, and with one indignant push, out slid my son, a bit blue in the face, but strong and healthy and ready to nurse. He was born around 1:00 on Sunday morning, January 20th, 1991.  I do not remember the exact time. He was a true Sunday’s child, fair and wise and good and gay.

I often say I don’t know the world, but it’s not the world, it’s me that’s different. Am I anything but what I see myself to be? I had a flashback recently of November, 1990, the month I stopped working because of my pregnancy. I wanted to spend the last couple months alone with my baby. I see me in my forest green jacket and black stretch pants, walking in the chill and with a peace like I’d never known. Who was that woman? She was married and about to have her first baby, still living in Brooklyn, so damn innocent of what was to come. Not having any plans other than to be with this baby. Knowing, all the time knowing, that childhood is a small part of life and much as there were times when it was so difficult to be alone with Philip I knew it wouldn’t last. Patience, was all. I saw myself as earth mother, with my nursing, the cloth diapers I washed myself, the beans I soaked, the bread I baked. The baby food I cooked. I was going to do it right and because I was working so hard at right, things would turn out okay.

I didn’t see life for what it was. I saw it the way I wanted it to be. I was no earth mother, beans and bread or not. I was not someone who could stay in my marriage til death did we part. I was not someone who could live in the shadow I thought I was in. I was not someone who could stay as disconnected as I felt I was.

And I was not someone whose son would live longer than she did.

If there is anything that will get me to make peace with Philip’s death, it’s if I’m afraid of mine. Every change I go through is a little death, and gives me a chance to practice for my own. I do not want to wail and mourn for myself, to be this wracked and grieved when death reaches out for me. Philip has said I might think I’m not afraid to die but what is true for me in life will be true in death. And that whatever keeps me from loving life fully keeps me from loving him fully. These are hard truths and no twisting of my mind can help me escape them.

Philip, honey – Happy Birthday. It will always be Happy-Birthday, this day. And even though it’s your day, you are the one who gives the gifts. I love you, sweetie, I miss you being here, I miss the sound of your voice, your laugh, your midnight phone calls to tell me you love me. But I’m grateful for your constant presence, for the life you’ve given me to live. You know I’m still on the fence – patience, please, until I get off it.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Previous Older Entries

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,891 other followers