What’s Left

Pippin and Zoe, December 2014

Pippin and Zoe, December 2014

Death has a color, and for now it’s a washed-out gray blue – in fact, it’s exactly the color of the sky is as I write this, the 5:30 sky of a hot east coast almost-summer evening where it seems to be clear but if you look close, the blue’s shaded with a wispy, uneven layer of cloud. God, I hate this heat – the air’s thick with it, I’m sticky with it. I feel dirty in summer, my skin like flypaper that all things unseen cling to. I can’t get clean – whatever’s washed off in the shower is waiting for me when I get out. I don’t like summer, where I can taste the smell of rot and moving is slow and heavy. I feel fat in summer, feel like every fold of skin is filled with sweat, feel the food sit undigested in my belly, like it’s too hot to make its way elsewhere.

And the bugs – the huge mosquito in my hallway, the dining needle by the front door, the spider winding its web down from the ceiling, the creepy-crawlers crawling around as I sit on my front step trying to write this. It’s up to me not to let what I have no control over not bother me, but I’m not doing a very good job of it.

Maybe death took on this fading color because Pippin is fading and I have to decide whether to speed the process. When to speed the process.

I took what’s left of Pippin to the vet for his yearly checkup and shots. He can’t see or hear. He has chronic ear infections which makes him rub his head on the rug. Neither antibiotics nor the constant cleaning of his ears help. He’s on three medications for a collapsed trachea. He paces, he whimpers. My vet said it’s anxiety because he can’t see or hear. It’s like living in a tunnel. She prescribed anti-anxiety medicine and decided with all the meds he’s taking she didn’t want to vaccinate. He’s gained two pounds in three months – water weight from all the water he drinks? Enlarged heart? We can’t tell without further testing and he is not up to it. But his main problem is that his vision and hearing are gone – and there isn’t anything going fix it.

Go home, my vet said. Talk to Natalie. Write down everything that makes Pippin Pippin, see what’s left.

That’s the thing. He used to always have to lead when we walked. Now he won’t walk on leash because he doesn’t know where he is. He used to play with Zoe. He used to take a toy in his mouth and not let anyone take it away. He used to play tug of war. He used to like the dog park. He used to go up and down the stairs. He used to not bump into things. He used to not poop in the house. He used to wag his tail.

He used to greet us when we came home. Now he doesn’t even know we’re there. And when we go near to pet him – he jumps from fright. He doesn’t know what’s coming at him.

He becomes disoriented. I’ll bring him outside to pee, carry him down the stairs and to the lawn, where he’ll lie on the grass when I put him down. I try to stand him up and he sits. I’ll push him a little to get him walking, he’ll hunch down and refuse, sit right back down.

What an awe-ful decision to make. To be in charge of a death. I think of going to the vet and exaggerating his symptoms, so she’ll be the one who says it should be done. Am I then to live with that? If I think it’s time for him to die, then I have to take responsibility and decide. And I will hold him during the process; I will feel the life leave his body and that seems terrible and frightening.

It’s not uncommon to wish death for someone already sick and dying. It seems a relief for all concerned. Pippin is hard to take care of – thank God Natalie is taking care of him right along with me. So I think to myself, “Well, do I want his end so I’ll no longer be inconvenienced? But that wish is only part of the story. It’s tangled up with love for him and wondering how to prepare for what death takes and what death leaves.

And there is the voice in my head that Philip is asking me not to listen to. That voice focuses on one aspect of this and says I’m selfish and uncaring to even think of euthanasia. That I’m too lazy to care for him. My love for him, the fear I have of actually doing this – that’s lost in the stern, arms-crossed, head-shaking voice in my head that finds the worst and twists it into all that matters. It’s subtle, insidious and constant. I don’t notice it most times – it’s just the way I think. But when Philip says, “Let me be the voice in your head,” this is what he means. Why turn this into all-I-care-about-is-myself? Feeling that I want this over with is part of my humanity. As is the way I love him and the way I dread what I have to do. I mean, what would Philip say? Love him, care for him best as you can, look at what’s left and understand that the time has come.

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This has been hard to write. I’ve been working it for a couple weeks. How to end, I wondered? What do I say, how do I feel? Yesterday’s visit to the vet was decisive. Tomorrow, 3:00, Natalie and I will bring Pippin to be euthanized. I’m numb as I write this. Makes sense, I think. Pippin’s still here, it’s all unreal. Being no stranger to death won’t make this easy; it will make it different. And as I said to my friend Pete, I’m okay now, but when I’m not – you’ll hear about it.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Good Morning?

Ed has told me many times to go for the embarrassment. There is gold there, he says. And I am embarrassed about what I’m going to write, but I need to talk about it.

I work in a small office and all of us are around the same age. All of us have children around the same age. And for most of us, all those children are alive.

I can’t help but ache when I overhear my coworkers’ conversations about their sons. Of course I do. How grateful I am to have a daughter; I am that much less lonely. I love her deeply, and that love comforts. But one child cannot take the place of another. And when I hear talk of sons, my gut is like a magnet that pulls me in and away because I’m reminded it’s too sad of a world without Philip.

A couple weeks ago, Roger, Jack and Maggie’s son, came to work with us for a few weeks, until his summer internship started. Roger’s about 20 years old, tall and thin, just a touch of adolescence awkwardness left – a chest that still needs to fill out, calves that are thin and haven’t fully taken shape. Philip had just been past that stage, had come fully into his body. I remember his ascent into manhood, the shock of a hairy calf showing out from summer shorts that reminded me my child was no longer a child except in my heart.

I am an assistant. I do what I’m asked, and sometimes – rare times – there are personal things Jack and Maggie need done. I’ve been asked to do things for Roger. Cancel his gym reservation, try, and try, and then try again, to change his plane reservations during a time it was impossible to do so. And sometimes I have been resentful. I am doing things for this young man, this son, that I can never do for my own.

Watching Jack and Maggie tend to Roger when I can no longer do that for Philip – well, the loss of Philip’s physical presence overwhelmed in ways it hadn’t for a long time. I was reminded of the deep, deep bond that is family, the same bond that I know I still have with Philip – but to witness it in the flesh was devastating. I was back to crying in the bathroom, crying off the makeup I’d so carefully applied in the morning. It got so I had to heave myself out of bed from the psychic weight I was carrying.

And then this, because when I am in a state of loss, I know exactly how to turn the world against me:

Jack and Maggie are wealthy. They are also kind and unpretentious. But what I do in those dark and creepy places in my mind is equate all they have and all they give their children with their inherent goodness. Because I have less, I become less. That Philip died becomes a testimony to my inability to be a good mother and I feel shamed and cheapened.

Of course I know better. I’m at a point where I’ve never wanted less. I need to keep it simple. But this isn’t about mortgages and bank accounts. This is about having a dead son to whom I can give nothing. This is about me equating fiscal worth with spiritual worth which I thought I was long past, but apparently am not.

My co-worker Sandy works in the office next to mine. He’s there when I arrive, and every morning I stick my head in and say, “Good morning.” It took me a while to be able to do that – I’ve long wondered what was so good about morning when it’s the dark of night I crave. No matter. “Good morning” wasn’t about me. It was a gesture that felt good to make.

There are two desks in Sandy’s office, and Roger’s been sitting at one of them. The first few mornings I saw him there I walked past without a word. I could not speak because my stomach somehow made its way into my throat. I would’ve been ashamed except I was too busy feeling lost and invisible.

There’s not much of a happy ending here. But there was coming to reality. There was me finally able to speak to this young man, to make him into a person and not just a son. To “good morning” him every day because it felt better to do that than not. To create space to breathe where I was holding my breath. But how much grief in that space, how much sorrow.

I’m better, but still thrown. Grief’s like the ocean – the waves come in, the tide goes out. Sometimes it’s a gentle wave and I keep my sea legs, sometimes it’s tidal and knocks me out. And thank God sometimes the tide’s so far out I think I can bear this. These couple weeks were a knockout, for sure, and the psychic shift lingers. Could I have responded differently? Could I have said, oh, I am sad, I miss my son, I want him here because I need his hug and just let myself be? Where does that racket in my head come from, and how do I make it shut up?

I could start by listening to Philip, which I forget to do when I’m that low, the time when I need to listen most. “Let me be the voice in your head,” he says. Let me be the voice in your head.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

There Must Be

“There must be another way.”

(NB – on 5/29 I updated the links to A Course in Miracles, as I’d mistakenly put the wrong ones.)

And so began the birth of A Course In Miracles, the origin of which is as fascinating as the course itself. I won’t go into it because out of context it can be an eye-roller. I read the story of how it came to be as I was reading the Course itself – and though skeptical, I decided it didn’t matter where it came from or how it got here. It spoke Truth to me and that’s what mattered. And I’m talking about the serious Course in Miracles, not the watered-down Marianne Williamson version. I think she’s helped bring the Course to the attention of many; but I also think to begin to understand what it’s saying, one needs to turn to the Foundation For Inner Peace for help.

The Course is combination of three books – the text, the workbook and a manual for teachers. The workbook has a lesson a day for a year – I did it, but it took me much longer. Some lessons I lingered on, some days I skipped. If the purpose of the Course can be summed up in one sentence, “There must be a better way” is it.

If the Course taught me nothing else – and it taught me much – I came to understand that it is the way I look at things that creates my feelings, my very life. When something happens, it’s a fact – I perceive that fact and make a story. Like this: I’m driving to work, I hit the curb, my tire goes flat. I’m furious. I’m going to be late for work, I have to call AAA, I have to wait for them for God knows how long. I want to blame someone but there’s no one to blame so I blame myself for being a shitty driver, I blame the town for making the street so narrow.

So is the truth of this is that it’s a calamity? If I look at it from AAA’s view, it’s not a problem – it’s their job. If I look at it from my boss’ view, he knows I’ll be a late for work and he’ll go back to what he’s doing. I can sit and fume, but for what?? If a flat tire is inherently a calamity, then it must be a calamity for all. So if there must be another way to see this, what can that be?

I have a flat tire. I am not helpless. If I have to wait I can read or listen to the radio or sit and pay attention to where I’m at. I have discovered that when I give my full attention to whatever it is, I become interested. When I make room to breathe, the anxiety dissipates. And it’s not theoretical – I know what it’s like to sit and wait for AAA and I have spent the time enjoying it.

So you start with the small things to see how it feels and you come to see that that is the way. Then your kid dies and it all goes out the window because all you can think is Really? See this differently? Are you FUCKING KIDDING ME??

A  miracle, simply put, is a shift in perception. A Course In Miracles recognizes no difference in the degree of difficulty of that shift. But it takes major practice and willingness to see that other way. I say I want to feel better – is that so? When I think of my son dead, I have to wonder how much “better” I really want to feel. I am not talking about anything like “moving on” (the mantra of the unconscious and uninitiated) or forgetting. I am talking about my ability – my willingness – to join with life in the face of this most torturous death.

To see Philip’s death differently is to separate my riven heart from my shrieking mind, the mind that takes haunted voices from a troubled past and lets them speak of that which they know nothing about. My heart needs to put words on what this is because my heart doesn’t lie. I just need some quiet and patience to listen. And I’m not doing this alone. When Philip said, “Let me be the voice in your head” he was asking me to let him help me see things differently because that is the answer to the question, what can I do?

For months after Philip died I relived the moment I found out – the phone call telling me Phil had come, the knowing without another word being said, screaming down the stairs, crawling on the floor; My son, my son, my son my son. Over and over I would think about how I flew down those stairs, making myself sick and dizzy until one day I heard Philip: Mom, you don’t have to do that. Of course I didn’t. All I was doing was jackhammering my already raw and bloodied heart. So there was one, clear thing I could do. When I found myself on those stairs, I brought myself back to where I was, gave my attention to my surroundings. I tried to stop telling that story because my stories take me from life, which is only ever happening in the present.

What I’ve never been able to reconcile about “living in the present” is that Philip lived and died in the past, so am I supposed to forget?? But I think I’m starting to understand. It’s the past that’s gone, not my son. The past is memories of moments in time, and every moment in time becomes but a memory. Every word I write was a thought in my head a moment ago. Every moment is new until it isn’t. The future comes only as the present. And while Philip’s death can make my my life seem too long, when time comes to die I’m going to feel like it all went really, really fast.

Turning to the present from the dream of past doesn’t mean I leave Philip. He is not here as I want him to be and he’s not going to give me the future I had in mind. Such is my sorrow. But he is my love, my heart, my guide, my muse. He is here and he makes himself known. There are times I rest in that knowing…and there are times when it just isn’t enough. And too often lately it really isn’t enough. Next time I’ll talk a bit about why.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Just Like That

SPOILER ALERT – If you’re considering watching “Six Feet Under” do not read on. This is mostly about the ending and you do not want to read this unless you already watched it or you didn’t and you don’t care. I’m warning you away from this post because the show is just that good.

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I just finished watching “Six Feet Under,” a show I probably couldn’t have watched any sooner since Philip died and which didn’t upset me for the reasons I thought it might, but did upset me for others.

Death is profoundly fascinating. It’s taken Philip away in body – but it’s also made us closer, changed our relationship. Which doesn’t mean I wouldn’t rather this whole fucking thing didn’t happen. It just means that it has and I can’t change it. And since I can’t change it, I’m damn grateful for what’s between Philip and me. Still, I wasn’t sure how smart it would be to watch a show that starts every episode with someone dying. From three-week-old babies to toddlers to teens to whole families. We’re all going to die and SFU doesn’t shy from it.

It wasn’t those deaths that got to me. It was the way the show ended. It was five seasons of getting to know these characters, watching their craziness. And wanting them to change, to come to some recognition of the way they participate in their own dramas. Mostly, it didn’t happen. As a viewer, it was clear to me what they were doing “wrong” and how they should change. Especially Ruth, the mom. She was controlling and reactive and her daughter wanted to get away from her which is so not like Natalie that I wanted to take Ruth and shake her awake. This is how you do it, I wanted tell her. You don’t yell, you don’t threaten, you don’t manipulate. You talk to your kids because they’re people and their job isn’t to behave in a certain way so that you feel better.

The setting of SFU is a family funeral home in California. The dad, Nathaniel, who ran the place, has died. Nate, David and Claire are the grown children. David is gay and Keith is his partner. They adopt two kids and wind up making it work. Claire is the youngest, still in high school, a high strung and talented photographer. Nate is the oldest and only involved in the funeral business because the family needed his help after their dad died. We watch him in one unhappy marriage where his wife wound up disappearing until she turned up dead, then in another unhappy marriage to Brenda, his pregnant wife who he cheated on, then died right after the deed was done. Nate had a condition called AVM. It has to do with blood vessels in the brain. He was operated on during the show, and if you’re tuned into illness, you might have kept that AVM in the back of your mind. Or if you’re like me, you assumed it showed up as part of the drama and when it was gone, it was gone. So when the AVM returned and Nate woke up after a second operation, I thought all was well. It wasn’t. He never left the hospital. He lived long enough to tell Brenda their marriage was over, so she got to live with the fact that he cheated on her and was leaving her and didn’t give her the chance to try to talk him out of it.

It pissed me off that Nate found yet another woman he thought was going to save him, that he died and left both her and his wife to clean up his mess. Still, I was shocked and unsettled when David, who was dozing off in the hospital room with him after the operation, woke to the sound of flatlining and just like that, Nate was gone.

Just. Like. That.

So the end. A fitting, disturbing, perfect ending. We got to see how, years later, each of the main characters died. Keith had a job as security guard for an armored truck. He was in the back, opened the door to get out and two guys shot him. Dead. Just like that. David lived to be an old man, until one day he keeled over. Ruth had been lying sick in the hospital when she died, her long red-now-white hair fanned around her like a dying bush. Brenda was an old woman, sitting at home, talking to her brother, when she fell back dead against the couch. And Claire, Claire who lived longer than any of them, who lived to 102, was lying on her death bed, looking scared, looking through rheumy eyes at the photos on the wall, a lifetime of photos, of memories, all past and gone, she on her way to joining all she’d lost.

The end of the last episode was a race through time. And connecting the lives of these characters to their deaths was frightening and unsettling. So much drama, so much anger and tears and dysfunction and then they’re all dead. What was it for? What is life for when one day, just like that, you’re dead?  How disturbing to watch all that Keith and David went through to make a family, to pull it together, then BAM – Keith’s murdered and David and the kids have to live with it. For always. And the rest of them – after all that craziness, just like that, they’re gone. For days this left me disturbed. Because the only answer to “What is it for if we’re going to die” is to live well. And I don’t know how to do that.

The thing that makes it easier for me to accept Philip’s death, the thing that makes it so easy to communicate with him now, is the clarity that was between us while he was here. I said everything I had to say to him when I could. No regrets, no wishing I said or did something different. To have that clarity is to live well.

But I don’t know how to translate that into the bigger picture. Living well is not about the doing. It’s about the being. Philip and I did not do great things together. It’s the way we were together that lives on. Doing is pointless if it doesn’t come from being. Sounds like it should be the most natural thing in the world, but it isn’t. It’s the cause of so much unhappiness, this doing for the sake of doing, for the sake of winning, for the quest to be right, for wanting have the best and the most. Which we never will because wanting is a habit that having cannot satisfy.

I watched that last episode a second time before I wrote this. And what knocked me over was the scene that took place around the dinner table, where everyone was reminiscing about Nate and laughing at things he’d done when he was alive and that’s just it, when he was alive because his absence was the biggest presence in the room. Remembering him made him more gone. But forgetting was not only impossible, it wasn’t a consideration.

“Motherhood is the loneliest thing in the world,” Ruth said after her son died. Because the shock of a child dying leaves you in a place where you’re untouchable at a time when touch has never been needed more. You’re tumbling in your grief, hair flying and arms flailing and screaming screaming screaming but no one can hear. They were here, these precious children – how the fuck could they be gone, just like that?

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Sometimes

Sometimes. The word sings in my mind, so heartbreaking, so poignant. It reminds me of the good that doesn’t last, of the grief that comes and goes, of the way I miss Philip more at certain times. Living is odd and hard. But sometimes it isn’t, and if something comes along and I can enjoy it, I do. I absolutely do. Like the wedding I went to a couple weekends ago, in my red Indian-styled gown with its splashes of black, golden sparkles, crisscrossed back and sheer flowing bottom. Natalie came with me, my “plus-one” as people say, wearing my crimson Free People “French Courtship Slip” with its see-through top and layers-of-lace bottom. We danced all afternoon, danced until I was tired and breathless and then we danced some more. How joyful to let myself shimmy and spin, like I’d not a care in the world. And when I danced, I didn’t. I was with Natalie – what more, in those moments, did I need?

Sometimes I think things will bother me, but they don’t. The wedding was for my friend Pete’s son. We know each other from work, and he’s become like a brother. I wondered what it would be like, watching his son get married while mine has turned to ash. Watching Pete host this celebration was seeing another side of him, was seeing his kindness in action. To be part of this wedding that meant so much to him and his family was an honor. It wasn’t about me, and for that, I am grateful.

Sometimes I have a hard time with Pippin, my sweet and aging shih-tzu. I feel guilty about my impatience. I try to think how the world is for him – his sight and his hearing is almost gone. It must be like living in a tunnel – or not, because dogs sense differently and I’m looking at this from a human perspective. He’s on three medications for his collapsed trachea, won’t walk up or down stairs, and has taken to arguing with me when I take him out for a walk. It’s not that he can’t walk, it’s that he likes to pause and then go in his own direction which, of course is different than mine. He wears a harness now, and sometimes I have to drag him where I want him to go while he digs his paws down and does his best to refuse. So I’ve been practicing breathing around this. It’s just more change. If anyone’s arguing, it’s me. Why, for God’s sake? I’m trying to call a truce here, trying to walk slower, let him wander the snaking path he chooses instead of the straight line that I’m so fond of. See, he – like all – will die, and I don’t want my last memories to be of my impatience.

Sometimes I wonder why spring seems so troubling, why I keep the blinds down, why I don’t understand the joy people have when the weather is warm and sunny. Sometimes I wonder about this need to be alone, this resistance to leaving the house. Sometimes I have my groceries delivered so I don’t have to go out.  Grief needs room and I find that room in my solitude. Don’t pity me. I have my season – while others are cranky about winter, that is when I take comfort. I spend time alone because I choose to. And I’m not really alone just because no one else is here. I am the best of company, and Philip is right by my side.

Sometimes I hear people talk about the college their son is about to start or to graduate from, or the varsity sport that they play or the way they save/spend money or whatever things sons do around their families and I stop, I make myself small, I look down and away and I hear Philip say, “Mom, I’m here.” And I think that I, too, have a relationship with my son. It’s just not one most people understand so it isn’t something I often talk about. Which is the hard part. We all have a need to be visible. To be connected. You tell me a story about your son, I tell you one about mine. Somehow I don’t think injecting stories about receipts with numbers and clouds that turn into diamonds will go over too well. But that’s what makes my relationship with Philip so precious. It’s intensely personal – it’s my story and my dead son and no one can touch it. Sometimes I’m sad because I’m silent – but sometimes, most times now, I’m grateful for what I have and my secret is not a burden but a joy.

Sometimes I notice that Natalie is so little part of this blog. She is the one who teaches me about living while Philip teaches me about death. They are not separate. “Mom,” Philip said, “You have to look to Natalie for life – else all that I say will mean nothing.” But life in the wake of his death is tattered and confusing. Yet sometimes I think if I approached it with the intensity I approach death, what a wonderful world it could be.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

What He’s Asking

Three years. It’s like some subway stop I got off at where everyone on the platform knows where they’re going and they’re rushing around to get there. Not me. What way do I go? Do you know what I suffer, I want to ask these busy people. Do. You. Know?? But what for? It doesn’t matter if anyone knows – it changes nothing. Philip’s faded from the world. Not my world – but the contrast between the way he’s alive to me but visible to no one is frightening. This is so fucking hard to learn, these truths. Like the fact that he’s dead to the world but that doesn’t make him not in life. That Iife isn’t what I thought and death is a bigger part of it than I understood. That there’s meaning in death, beyond some black void we and our loved ones disappear in. That people die, relationships don’t.

Thinking of these three years makes me want to tell stories, stories about the past and Philip but I can’t write to an idea of what I want to say. I have to write what’s pressing. And what’s pressing is the unseen part of my reality which maybe makes me sound crazy. Or worse, hokey. Like I’m a beaming sprite with flowers in my hair, a flowing white gown, eyes glued to heaven with a brilliant smile. I’ve heard too much New Age treacle where people find some “spiritual” solution which (a) makes everything okay and (b) is what you should be doing and if you pay enough money, someone’ll show you how.

I am grateful for all the ways Philip is around me. That doesn’t make it okay that he’s dead. And no one’s going to give me any solutions. A true spiritual path is deeply personal in its form, but universal in its content. That’s why people don’t have to experience exactly what you do in order to get what you’re saying.

And because I want so much to get it right, the invisible audience I’m writing to’s become hostile. That’s the thing about writing. If you write, you want to be read. But if you write from need, then what you need is yourself on the page. What you cultivate is your voice. I listen for myself here – but lately, too often, my voice gets lost to what feels like a Greek chorus looking down their noses with crossed arms, droning on about what I say and the way I say it because really, it isn’t ever good enough.

But those voices don’t come from “outside.” They’re in my head. “A mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master” someone said. And it’s especially masterful when I speak of that which I cannot see but I know is there. I needn’t argue with the skeptics – I’m way cynical myself. I know the way I feel when certain others talk about their version of the unseen. There’s a culture to this that I am not part of. I share what’s been my direct experience and if I’ve learned anything, spirituality isn’t linear. It’s a deepening. It’s not about “getting” somewhere. It’s about releasing what’s false to get closer to the truth. That’s something we do on our own. My way involves my son. I cannot ignore what happens – it’s these extraordinary experiences that’ve helped me put one foot in front of the other.

Like this.

Driving the 40 minutes home from work a couple weeks ago, I was headed first to Grove Pharmacy to pick up prescriptions for Pippin, my thirteen-year-old shih-tzu with the collapsed trachea who has to take three medications to deal with it. Philip’s been heavy on my mind lately. It’s no wonder – the fact of three years is sinking in, and the time-and-weather change does not help. Spring means warmth and growth and people voicing joy over it. There’s pressure to go out. I prefer the ice and snow, the dark that makes it comfortable to stay inside.

So I was driving and thinking about how old Philip would be if he was alive and I didn’t know. For a couple minutes I was blank, clinging to the steering wheel because I had to drive but stunned and shrinking from the despair of being disconnected. Was I forgetting him? Was he becoming a blur, just some part of my life that was gone while I kept going? Okay, I told myself. Think. Philip has been dead for three years. He died when he was 21 so that means he’s 24 and of course I couldn’t remember he was 24 because that number has no meaning to me. I have a sense about certain numbers. Like 21 – it’s a beginning, a social milestone, a time of youthful man/womanhood. 22 is the next step; it’s graduating from college, a time when you have many choices. 23 is wonderfully odd. 24 draws a blank, as if nothing interesting could possibly happen. Given the Chinese curse, “May you lead an interesting life,” maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

When my senses returned and the car felt steady on the road, I said, “Okay, Philip. I’d like to see 24 before I get home.” And not because I was looking for it – it doesn’t work that way. He had to show me in a way that meant something. Like the time I asked him for a sign and a few minutes later a car cut me off and I saw his initials on its license plate. Something like that. And I was thinking that I’d get a receipt with the medication I was about to pick up and receipts have numbers and it would be nice if 24 would be one of them.

I forgot about it for the rest of the drive – I was too busy listening to stories on NPR because I love stories and if I’m not telling them I want to listen to them. Once I got to the pharmacy, I stepped out of my car and a van whooshed by that had 42 on it. I looked up at the sky like Philip is any and everywhere and said, “That doesn’t count.” But by the time I got inside, asked for the medicine, chatted with the grey-haired, pony-tailed man behind the counter about how Pippin is my dog, not my child, how his name came from Lord of the Rings and finally paid for the meds, I forgot to look at what they cost.

Grove Pharmacy is not just a pharmacy, but not like the way CVS isn’t just a pharmacy. CVS is large and impersonal, and its only surprise is whatever cheap items pop up in the seasonal aisle. Grove Pharmacy is smaller, but you never know what you’ll find there. It has a candy counter where you can buy by the piece or the pound. There are Halloween costumes, lovely and unusual greeting cards, gifts for christenings and communions. There’s a small selection of interesting and well made jewelry behind glass counters, and they can pierce your ears if you like. And they play real music, like “In Your Eyes,” which I’d written about here and so hearing it reminded me of Philip and that I’d forgotten to see how much I paid for the medicine.

The pharmacist had shoved the receipt into the bag with the meds so I hurried to the car to see. And I will be damned if that medicine didn’t cost $42.24.

What I make of this is faith. Not happiness, faith. Sure, I get happy when these things happen, but happy fades like all emotions do. This is more than happy. Different than happy. And it’s profoundly challenging. “Have you asked yourself why you keep asking for signs?” Philip said. “Have you asked yourself what you do with them?”

It should be a back-and-forth, I think. He gives to me – what do I give to him? It’s pretty simple – love and faith. I’ve got the love part down. It’s the faith where I’m shaky. Faith is a leap into the void. It’s having the will to not resist what is so. Including his death. He’s asking me not to treat my life like a tragedy. I’m not done asking him to tell me how.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

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

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