Depth and Breadth

“Not everyone will understand your journey. That’s fine. It’s not their journey to make sense of. It’s yours.”

I don’t know who wrote that  – it’s the way Dee over at MourningAmyMarie started her last post. I commented on it, and when I started going on and on I cut it short because I realized I wasn’t commenting, I was posting. So thank you, Dee, because while I’ve got several posts started, this is the one I didn’t know I needed to write.

One of the things Dee wrote about was “The chirpy, self promoting, thoughtless stuff that gets posted” on Facebook. Facebook is a phenomenon I don’t pretend to understand. I have a Facebook page, and I’ve come to see its value. People from my past have gotten in touch with me through it, and they’re people I’ve been happy to hear from. And ironically enough, in the middle of writing this, someone from my JHS found me and wrote, “so many people have been looking for you.” I am too stunned by the thought that anyone remembers me – much less is looking for me – to say anything more at the moment.

Since my blog is connected to Facebook, it’s a way of letting people know when I’ve posted. I don’t use it to stay in touch otherwise – I’d rather email. But the way I am about Facebook is a reflection of the way I am in life, as it is for all of us. There are people who update others with pictures of where they’ve been or what they’ve been doing, and their friends do the same. If they weren’t doing it on Facebook, they’d be doing it some other way. It’s a broad and ongoing conversation, and it’s no mystery to me what’s bothered me about it. It’s another something everyone’s involved in that I don’t  much want to be a part of. Yet sometimes it feels like a rejection rather than a choice.

Of course, there’s a nasty, voyeuristic side to Facebook. People say awful things about each other and to each other and are glad to have an audience to play to. People will follow up on others who’ve hurt them and become outraged to see them doing well – in effect, allowing those people to hurt them more. A Facebook picture might paint a thousand words, but we are the artist. We decide what kind of lives the people in those pictures are living based on what itch we need to scratch, and we scratch and scratch and wonder why the damn scab won’t go away.

As I wrote to Dee, Facebook exposes the ugly underbelly of our collective condition. It’s not that we’re any worse than we ever were, it’s that now it’s in full view. I’ve heard about things posted on Facebook and wondered what made someone – in such a traumatic moment – even think to snap a picture? One of the worst I’d heard about was someone taking a picture of her dead child and posting it…and I’m sure that that’s not only true, but that it’s been done more than once. Is there anything we can imagine that’s not been photographed and made public? So maybe we are worse, because now we have a platform for all of it and we’re in a hurry to be the one who gets there first.

Blogging is another sort of conversation; more depth than breadth, and one I’m more comfortable with. I’m not going to understand the need to post pictures and updates any more than others might understand my need to write a blog so intensely personal. We each have our way of wanting to be visible.

I write my blog because I’m still stunned and grasping for words to wrap around Philip’s death. It’s the only thing I know to do. There isn’t anything worse than losing a child. Take my arms, my legs, my sight, my life – not my child. But here I am. And whatever hurt before about “the world” only hurts more. I’ve said I can’t change the world, I can only change my mind about the world. I can think people cruel, stupid, vicious, angry, even evil – but what it comes down to is we’re unconscious. All of us – and either we’re trying to wake up or not. When we’re unconscious we’re driven by wanting and needing, without asking what it’s for. And it’s not either/or – waking up is a process. Jesus and Buddha were there. The rest of us have to do the work.

Which is what Philip’s asking me to do. It’s what his death is for – so I try to tune out “the world” and deal with what’s going on with me, in light of his death. I’ve talked many times about what I heard Philip say the moment I found out he was dead: “Mom, you gotta go deeper.”

When Philip first died, Phil said he wanted to carry his spirit into the world. What’s that even mean, I thought? That sounded like a plan. It was hard enough to breathe, never mind decide what my life was going to be. And I wanted no part of any plan because plans involved future, and I was determined there wouldn’t be one for me, not without Philip. But here I am, writing this blog. When I started it, I said part of the reason was to carry Philip’s spirit into the world. I don’t believe that. I don’t even like the phrase. When I wrote that I was trying to justify why I needed so badly to write all this. It was easier to say I wanted to carry Philip’s spirit into the world than to say I needed you to read what I’m writing.

And I’m not saying I’m not keeping Philip’s spirit alive, but it’s more of a by-product than a goal, which makes it no less valuable. I’m writing for me, and if you get a sense of who Philip is through what I say, it’s because he is my muse and he’s helping me get to the truth that I’m trying so hard to recognize.

I don’t consider this blog a legacy for Philip, or for me. Much as it hurts to know Philip will live on for no one else the way he lives on with me, that’s not going to matter to me when I die. It’s now that I need to make matter, because now is where my experience is. I’m not concerned about being remembered after my death, because the only thing that’s going to matter when I die is what’s essential. And I don’t know what that is, but I bet it’s not the boxes of photos in my attic or the binders full of my writing. I know Natalie will always remember me. People who love me will remember me the way people who love Philip will remember him. Then one day they won’t because we’ll have faded into time. That’s the truth of life going on. However long I am or am not remembered after I die changes nothing.

There was an evening last week where gray, saturated clouds crowded the sky and trees danced frantically in a whirring wind. I took my dogs for a walk because if a storm was coming, I wanted to be part of it. When I reached the corner, I stopped and looked up. Philip, where are you? I asked. I’m right here, mom, he answered, like he always does. Do the clouds have something to say to me? Just watch, he said. So I watched for a while, watched one tiny puff of white cloud holding its own among the gray, and there it was again – Light vs. Dark, the unending story. And he wanted me to think about that vast, unknowable space that we can’t live without. There would be nothing if there was no space because where could anything be? But what’s it mean, I asked him? What is this? Think about it mom, he said. Just keep thinking.

Next day I saw my neighbor, a woman I haven’t spoken to often, but who’s easy to approach and quick to ask how you are. Our dogs sniffed around while we talked about the garden apartments we live in, and I was surprised to hear her say she wanted to move, that there were things about the place that were troubling her. I’d like to move back to Montclair, I told her. But here I am for now, so I try to make my apartment what I want it to be, because that’s what matters most about this place. She looked at me a moment. “You know, I saw you the other day,” she said. “I was outside, and I was really cranky about all this. You were standing across the street, looking at the sky. You looked so peaceful, so full of serenity. I watched you a while, then I went inside. And I felt better.”

I’d say that’s one hell of a by-product.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Joie de Vivre?

I was questioning “who I am” and “what’s my nature” in my last. But look at the language – who’s the I that wants to know, and who is it she thinks she needs to know? Am I one, or am I two? More likely I’m four or eight or 73 because what what I think and what I feel seems to shift so often. So is THAT who I am, the sum of what I think and feel?

I don’t fucking know. When I’m focused, like when I’m writing, or when I’m at work, I don’t sit around pondering. I’m just doing what I’m doing. And when grief and sorrow grip me by the throat, I choke. When they loosen, I breathe easier. And the moments are as they are.

But then I’m home and gone’s the distraction between me Philip’s death, me and Natalie’s moving, me and what-all I think is wrong with me. I can’t figure out something I’m needing to know – how to live with all that’s wrong, because of course there’s something wrong. Living means suffering. Not every moment; there is nothing that’s every moment. Except if we back it up and look around at the wide world then yes, someone is suffering every moment, suffering in ways we couldn’t pretend to understand. If I take that, add to it the way life’s felt to me since I can long remember, then mix Philip’s death into it all, I find myself asking, what the fuck? Why the insistence that it’s better to be, or to have been? Sure, I can personalize it – better for me that Philip was, that Natalie is. But better for me to be? Why? And before anyone’s too appalled to keep reading, why is even asking the question enough to create revulsion and a surety that the asker is too far south of sane to be acknowledged as anything other than in deep need of help? Understand I’m not asking why it’s better to live than to commit suicide. Suicide’s not part of this equation. What I’m asking is why is it assumed that it’s better to have been than to have never been? And why, since we know we’re going to die (do we? really?) do we spend no time pondering what that means and instead equate success with how many more years medical advances give us to live? Staving off the inevitable doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.

And if we went so far as to end natural death – which seems to be the goal – what would we be left with? A planet that couldn’t sustain all of us, run by a powerful elite who’d do the choosing that life/god/nature used to do for us. If you think life’s not fair now, spend a few minutes contemplating that scenario.

This is not the post I meant to write. I started to write about the way I judge myself by the amount of friends I don’t have and the lack of  traveling and other experiences which I should, by my age, have had. At 56, I should have a better life resume. It’s an old trope, one that’s gotten worse since I put myself on Match. Match is a compilation of people advertising themselves. I’ve spent some time reading through profiles, and it’s exhausting. Who’s sailed the world, climbed mountains, eaten exotic food, taught yoga in the Andes, completed multiple triathlons (all at the same time!), while running one of the largest corporations in the world – does anyone out there breathe? Are these the things that matter – who’s done the most and with who and how many ?

That’s when I start with, “What the hell do I have to offer anyone?” This is Match.com, for Chrissake. I’m supposed to “match” the joie de vivre of every other profile, of everyone who’s just lovin’ life and wantin’ more and wantin’ some special someone to do their wantin’ with. I am not that girl. Who’d want someone who hasn’t accumulated the totally awesome experiences that everyone else my age seems to have accumulated? Reading the profiles on Match, I’m sure there’s a big fucking party going  on somewhere that I most definitely have not been invited to.

Understand this is not a Match.com thing. Match only brought it to the surface. These are some of the things I’ve suffered about for years, these are things I can’t seem to figure out. Am I supposed to change, to be gregarious and extroverted? Like that’s better than what’s so? Is any of this my nature? Do I accept, do I resist? My life is what it is. Am I seriously going to decide what I’m worth based on how many times I’ve gotten on an airplane?

Here are the facts:

I don’t have a large group of friends. I have several close friends, none who know each other. The only group I have any connection with is my writing group – and while I know it’d be good for me to get back there, I’ve gone exactly twice since Philip died. I haven’t traveled a lot. I’ve been to Italy once, I’ve been to parts of the U.S. I don’t climb mountains or jump out of airplanes. I don’t play sports, I don’t exercise regularly. I do NOT follow politics. I’d rather read in my living room than on the beach, and I’d rather write more than anything. The rest of it is story, and since I’ve yet to meet a happy ending that felt real, you can bet your ass you won’t find one here, either.

How’s that sound for a profile??

Then there’s this. I know a couple – let’s call them X and Y – who have a lot of money and who are very socially active. And I love ‘em – they’re not pretentious, nor are they boring. They’re two really good people with lives utterly different from mine. More normal, I think – and I don’t mean because I’ve lost a child and they haven’t. They just seem mostly happy, have lots of friends, have careers, have combined and separate interests and they really like each other.

So this weekend, Fourth of July. They were going to the beach, they were having a houseful of people. I mean, it’s a holiday – isn’t that what people do? Me – I woke up Friday relieved to have a whole day of nothing to do so I could putter around my apartment. Yesterday I managed to get myself out for a couple hours in the morning to sit with some friends at a table in the local Farmer’s Market. Then I spent two and a half hours with my grief counselor. Today I was supposed to have dinner with Kirsten, who’s now sick. No worries. I’ve been in all day and now I’ll be in through the night. And I can’t figure out why I feel like something’s wrong with me because I’m not with a houseful of people when that’s the exact last thing I’d want to be doing anyway.

I’ve already mentioned this, but it bears repeating. Decades ago, when I was in my 20s, I’d gone to meet my friend Gerard on St. Mark’s Place, in the health food store where he worked. He introduced me to a friend of his, and we chatted for a few minutes while waiting for Gerard to close up. After we spoke – and we weren’t speaking in any particular depth – she told me this was going to be a life of spiritual awakening for me. I was thrilled. I imagined that meant some great path to peace was going to make itself known to me and when it did, well…finally, I’d be happy, I’d walk through this world in a different way.

So time has come, and yes – I do walk through the world in a different way. The big secret is it’s not about being happy. It’s about facing death. And far worse than facing my own, is facing Philip’s. This is what I lose sight of when I’m wondering about all the parties that I’m not invited to, or why I don’t want to hang out at the beach, or what’s the exact number of friends I have or what the word “friend” really means. Truth is I have the same distaste as Phillip Lopate for what he calls, “…the spectacle of joie de vivre, the knack of knowing how to live…the stylization of this private condition into a bullying social ritual.”

I’m getting damn sick of my own song. Maybe instead of questioning my worth based on my age and the amount of things I’ve not done, I’ll question what I could possibly want from someone at any age who still thinks those are things that matter.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

To Sit Quietly

Natalie's Birthday

Natalie’s 21st Birthday

 

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
Blaise Pascal

In “True Detective” there’s a scene where Marty, angry with Rust’s take on things, tells him to “stop sayin’ shit like that.” Rust answers, “Given how long it’s taken for me to reconcile my nature, I can’t figure I’d forego it on your account.”

It’s things like that that fascinate me. Rust is cynical, aloof. He’s a self-proclaimed pessimist. He has no friends, and the only relatives we hear about are a mother who might or might not be alive, a father he didn’t get along with when he was alive, a daughter who died when she was two and a wife he’s divorced from because of it. He thinks existence is a mistake and the best thing we could do is stop reproducing, and so “opt out of a raw deal.”

Awful as any of that sounds, he says he’s reconciled his nature. “I know who I am,” he says. And what fascinates me is the idea of  knowing who I am and then allowing myself to be, even if I don’t look the way the world says I’m supposed to. But is that “self” knowable? Is “who I am” something other than fluid? Is “who I am” anything more than some self I’ve invented, and then judged?

Sunday we had a party for Natalie’s 21st birthday. Her birthday is actually July 4th, but she’ll be away in France so we had her party early. I made dessert, like I always do; pie, cookies and a sheet cake decorated to look like a flag. And like every day – which is something that I’d been starting to grasp right before Philip died – it wasn’t a good day or a bad day; it was a day of moments and some felt better than others.

Natalie is now (or at least, in 9 days will be) as old as Philip was when he died. Last year, when she turned 20, I spent some time feeling sick and scared because it hit me she was no longer a teenager, that she was “catching up” to him, which seemed to make him more dead. How will I feel when she turns 21, I wondered? On Sunday, I felt nothing in particular that I could connect to her birthday. Since then, whatever mood I’ve been in, whatever dark places I’ve been banging around in, I can’t connect them to Natalie’s turning 21. And I know that no matter what, Philip will always be her older brother.

At the party, I spoke to my sister-in-law J. for a while. She told me that when she was looking at cards for Natalie, she saw one with a big 21 on the cover. “I couldn’t buy it,” she said. “It didn’t feel right.” I’m sorry I didn’t tell her what it felt like not only to know she was still thinking about Philip, but that she told me about it. I told her that I just felt done; that I’m always feeling that I’d rather be where Philip is than be here, even though here is where Natalie is. I feel bad saying that, I told her. But my grief feels so much bigger than wanting to live ever could.

But is it true that I “always” feel like that? I don’t “always” feel like anything. Last week, I was asked to find a plumber for a job we’ll soon be starting (reminder: I work for a design and construction company). The job’s in an area we’ve never worked in, so we need to find subcontractors. So I googled “plumbing contractors” and that’s where I found Doodyman. In fact, what came up was not just Doodyman – it was “Doodyman to the rescue.” I was thinking, gee, poor guy, how hard to grow up with a last name like Doody, how fortunate he became a plumber – until I went to his site where there’s a Superman figure with a toilet bowl on his chest instead of an “S” and he’s talking about unclogging this and unclogging that and how he’ll make you “doody-free” and there’s even link to “The Adventures of Doodyman” and I realized, well, duh, it’s a schtick, not a last name.

I found this hilarious. I mean bent-over-belly-clutching-wiping-tears-from-my-eyes uncontrollably hilarious. I haven’t laughed like that since Philip died. And every time I told someone else I lost it again and I don’t think anyone was laughing at old Doodyman as much as they were laughing because I was.

So what was it I lost? The voice in my head. The voice that creates my-self so exquisitely that I can’t tell which came first, this terrible self that deserves what it’s being told or the secret, brutal voice that assures me my daughter can love me, my friends can care about me and I can do as well at work as I want, but when I come home and sit alone with myself there’s an ugly truth to being alive that’s always been and always will be, and if I want proof of what that is, it’s that Philip’s dead. And his death becomes real personal, the antithesis of what I wrote here.

I’m told life is in the living. I’m here, Philip isn’t, but I have to go on, make a life for myself. Philip wants me to be happy. I’m told I should be happy that Natalie’s going to France, I should be proud that I’ve raised a kid who’s moving out into the world. She’s also found an apartment, and chances are she’ll be moving out when she gets back. I’m not losing her, I’m told. She’s still here, she’s in my heart. Like Philip’s in my heart. Like that’s a comfort – and maybe it should be, but right now, it’s not.

I can’t be logical about Philip’s death. I do go on. I love my daughter; when I see how happy, scared and excited she is to go away, of course I can join her in that. But be proud that she’s leaving? That’s what kids do. I could be a shitty mom, I could be mom-of-the-year; kids leave. What’s to be proud of? She should be proud, for all she’s accomplished, particularly these last few years. I didn’t need her to do any of that to be “proud” of her. I love her; that she is, is enough.

Philip’s dead, Natalie’s leaving. Ed’s moved. I feel diminished and that makes being alone a tortured and terrible place to be. Alone’s where I read, where I write; where I sew, and where I cook. I can’t do what I love without alone-time. Except alone is like being with three people – the one who’s vicious and abusing, the one who feels deserving of abuse, and the one who’s sitting here writing about it. How the fuck am I supposed to sit quietly in a room with that??

The Wanting

I don’t know the world since Philip died. Sometimes I think I’m just dreaming it away. But I try to pay attention to the light, what I hear it saying when I see the way it hits the trees. I’m cautious with morning light – it’s full of promises it can’t keep, has a brightness I don’t understand. What’s it so happy about, what’s it looking forward to? Morning light means adjusting – again – to time without Philip. I’m pissed at the afternoon light. That’s the light that’s turned against me – the trees catch fire and motion stops. The world’s suspended for hours in its harshness. But then there’s the evening light -  the softening of the day, and the lovely word for its waning: the gloaming.  Evening light is warm and rich and I’d like to slide right under it and stay there. Let it close in on me, let it wrap me in its luscious velvet and then maybe I can stop thinking.

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

Match.com, story number two. Michael. Nice guy, interesting, handsome. Stud in his ear, which I find sexy. Suggested meeting at a yoga class. Skin-tight yoga clothes on a first date is a risk. I took it. And I liked it. After, we went to a cafe, talked over sandwiches full of whole-grain goodness. The bill came and Michael shook his head when I reached for my wallet. It’s the kind of gesture I want a man to make. Then he walked me back to my car. That’s the crucial moment – it’s either “let’s do this again” (said casually so you don’t sound too eager) or “I’ll be in touch,” (which means s/he won’t.) I let him decide because I was ambivalent. “I’d like to read your blog,” he said. I gave him the address. Then he handed me his business card and said to email him.

Sounded like a “let’s do it again” to me.

“Ambivalence is not nothing,” Philip tells me. I try to work with that. I’m often ambivalent because I don’t know what I want, I don’t know what’s driving me. Or stopping me. So while I didn’t particularly care whether or not I saw Michael again, I decided any decision was better than no decision. Next night I wrote him a short email, ending with, “So now that the first awkward date is over, if you’d like to get together for a second semi-awkard date, let me know ;o)”

I never heard from him. And other than being a wee bit stung by his rejection, I didn’t care. Since Philip died, I’ve never more known that the way people treat me has nothing to do with me. Even on a date, that intensely personal time with its concomitant judging. Someone not wanting to see me again isn’t personal.  What’s it change about me, if someone doesn’t think I’m second date material? It just means he realized we weren’t right together before I did.

I was listening to a podcast with Natalie about a man who, because of some temporary condition, lived with no testosterone for a few months. I had no desire, he said; none. He’d sit and stare at a wall for hours at a time. He didn’t want to read, or watch TV. He didn’t care what he ate. Yet he could see things were beautiful – in fact, he thought everything beautiful – but he didn’t want. Did I feel like that when Philip died, drained of anything I ever thought mattered? No – what I felt was way too wrecked and crazed to have lost all my wanting. I had no desire to bathe, wash my hair, go out, dress in anything but pajamas; and makeup – you’re kidding, right? But I had piercing desire, wanting either Philip to come home to me, or me to go to him. I was beyond reason.

In spite of the fact that Philip died, the world continued on its way. Eventually I had bouts of no-desire, lying on the couch in a state of One Huge Shrug. It wasn’t Zen-like, the way the guy on the radio described it (not that this guy ever wanted that to happen again). It was depression. For the most part, it’s not like that now. I want to write, to read, to watch TV; I want to knit and sew. I want to buy clothes. Partly because I’m not done being vain, partly because the way I dress draws attention, and if you can’t see I’m different and branded because my son died, I’ll wear my difference so you’ll notice something. “Hey – what a cool top – where’d you get it?” “Free People, do you know my son died?” “I didn’t know bell bottoms were back in style.” “Then you’re not paying attention, do you know my son died?”

As far as desire for a man…I must’ve wanted something beyond stories when I put myself on Match.com. But whenever it comes time comes for a date, I shrink. When I’m home with my writing, my books, my computer, my TV, on my couch that needs to be replaced in a living room that still has no curtains, I see no reason to invite a man into my life. I’m still nursing my grief. Working full-time and seeing friends just a little bit more than I used to gives me less time to do that. Something tells me if I let a man love me, it would be good for me; something also tells me I’m not emotionally up for what it takes to get there. I’m drained and vulnerable from living with Philip dead, and I’m not so sure about putting myself in the path of desire. Because really – it’s the wanting that undoes me.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

It’s My Heart

I haven’t felt as blocked and listless about writing – which is to say, about living – since I started this blog. I’ve been writing a post for a week, and I’ve got the bones of it. That’s usually when it starts clicking, when the writing starts writing itself. But the writing can’t “write itself” if I don’t show up for it. And I can’t seem to do that.

Ed moved. For the twenty year’s I’ve know him, Ed’s lived in Bloomfield, and ironically enough, when I moved last August, I moved close to him, close like a good, long walk away. But he and his wife had enough of working their house. They left it a buyer’s dream. I’m happy for them, that it sold quickly; but that house had been my sanctuary when Philip died. I spent days and nights with Ed and his wife, waking up early to go home and walk the dogs, returning a couple hours later to the only place I felt safe. Now they’ve moved to Florida, where they’ll stay for a year before coming back to buy a second home in New Jersey – something smaller than their last, something farther west, something that at least will be driving distance away.

So it’s not that “bad,” if you will. I can fly to Florida to visit, then they’ll be back before I know it. And If I’ve learned nothing else from Philip, it’s that when someone’s in your heart they’re with you always – you just have to accept it the way it is, not the way you want it to be. I keep saying that every change is practice for death. The practice is the leap into the unknown, the risk of not resisting what’s so. If I can’t handle the changes in my life now, how am I going to handle that last big change, that final slipping into the unknown? I’m kidding myself if I think I can stay miserable about my losses, yet go gracefully into that Good Night.

I’m mourning. I’m withdrawn. I’ve been depressed, which is different from sad. Depression seeps – it’s a whole, big, generalized “what-for-what’s-it-matter?” Growing up, I felt alone and tormented. I looked to death as a way out – at least, to my idea of death, which I imagined as a release from pain. But Philip’s told me that thinking death is some kind of answer is the same thing as thinking hitting lotto will make everything better. It’s the same in that it’s thinking some event in time, some situation other than the one that is, will be a cure. It doesn’t work that way. And I watch the way I’m responding to life, knowing so much of this heartache is about Ed, but unable feel it that way. I’m disconnected from the source.

When Philip was alive, he’d become my center. A cure for my unsteady. The older he got, the more I let go and the closer we became. But no matter what was between us, while he was alive I wouldn’t have had access to his wisdom the way I do now. And that’s because when we’re alive, there’s a lot of ego-noise that interrupts the flow of what we’d otherwise know to be true. Things like greed, power and desire, which have to do with the body. Philip’s gone from his, yet I experience him clearly and continually. Which doesn’t mean I don’t grieve for him incessantly.

A couple weeks ago, I joined Match.com. Last week, some guy named Steve sent me an email. Good looking guy, says he’s a trial lawyer, says he does stand-up comedy in NYC, when he can. His letters were funny enough that I believed him. He started his email by stuttering about how  b-b-beautiful  h-h-he  t-t-t-thought I w-was, then launched into funny bit about about where he lived, how he liked my profile, how he’d like to hear from me.

I was smitten. ONE email, and I was smitten.

So I answered him and he answered me and I answered him and it’s all funny and I’m feeling warm and fuzzy. And while I was feeling that warm-fuzzy, I thought of Philip, saw him in lying in the coffin. That’s when I heard him: “Mom,” he said, “You don’t have to choose.” Because that’s what I do. I can’t figure out how I’m supposed to live without him and feeling a certain kind of pleasure just seems wrong. He’s trying to tell me it isn’t.

As for Steve, he was the fantasy guy. The one that makes it seem like it’s so easy because that’s what he does. It was like shooting up pleasure. I mean, it was all about me – he saw how lovely and beautiful and special I was. Hell, he “snuck out of court” to write me!  He made it easy to slip past the goddamn anxiety of real-world dating. But like any fantasy, eventually you wake up. And I don’t mean like Sleeping Beauty, when you find The Prince has been waiting for you. I mean like when your second email doesn’t get answered and the guy hides his profile so he’s inaccessible and it hits you that maybe Prince Charming has a heavy hand when it comes to Cut and Paste.

Two emails was all it took for me to plunge into the netherworld of disappointment. I spent all that Saturday lying on the couch watching “True Detective” for the seventh time. I stopped for half an hour to take a quick drive to Ed’s for a final good-bye. Watching him direct the movers was too much. “I have to go,” I said. “I’ve had enough.” “I know,” he said. “I love you.”

So who the hell was I mourning for, really? For two-email Steve? I think not. I think it ironic that the weekend Ed was leaving was the weekend I let myself be seduced. I used to think that with Philip dead, what the hell could ever bother me again? Now I think that because Philip’s dead, many things bother me more. Prometheus was tied to a rock. Every day an eagle came to peck out his liver, every day it regenerated so the eagle could come back and do it again. It’s like that, except it’s not my liver. It’s my heart.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Getting It Right

I’m steeped in a past where the details get blurry. I’ve been trying to write a post about the few days after Philip died, but I couldn’t remember how it went down. I called Austin, Philip’s friend, who I haven’t spoken to since Philip died. He was there in the aftermath. So now I have it clear. Except for one thing. I forgot to ask – was it Tuesday and Wednesday, or Wednesday and Thursday, or Tuesday and Thursday? I am not kidding. The “scene” involves one of these pair of days so how can I write it if I’m not sure? Call Austin again? He’ll think I’m crazy. Why should I care? It’s not like it isn’t true.

As a non-fiction writer, my responsibility is to tell the truth. As a narrator, I want to be reliable. As a human being, my memory is what it is. As a mom, I need to make Philip visible. I’ve a hard time accepting that maybe something didn’t happen exactly as I remember it. I work hard to get it right, to get you to see what happened. I don’t believe “creative nonfiction” means making up things that didn’t happen to fit the narrative of what did. Creative nonfiction is story-telling, with the obligation of telling it true.

Of course, who’s to say what’s true? We all know the phenomenon of, say, five people witnessing an accident and getting five different accounts of what happened. But that’s not a mystery. Our minds are a locked box. No one gets in there but us. What we see has to do with what we’re looking for. So if I look for death, when I see an accident I’ll go for the gore. If you look for life, when you look at that accident, you’ll look for who’s left standing. Of course, it’s all way more subtle than that – and it’s in those subtle ways we create our reality.

I’m writing the story of living with Philip’s death. What happened, what’s happening, how it all feels. I am trying to get at something, something that’s eluding me. Writing’s the way there. Writing stops me, forces me to breathe, to put form on the formless. But when I can’t remember something, anxiety forces me from the keyboard and to the internet where maybe I’ll shop for things I won’t buy or bookmark recipes I won’t cook. I think writing’s a way to get control over some aspect of what I really haven’t any control over. If I can’t get it right, I panic. If I can’t get it right, I lose a piece of Philip.

I think the holy act of writing is going to absolve me of something. Getting it right is Philip’s resurrection as well as my redemption. If get it right, Philip will still be dead, but at least I’ll have been a good mother. And there’s my karmic circle. “Getting it right” is another something outside myself that’s going to rescue me and pushing the “publish” button 83 times hasn’t cured me of that. It’s an impossible end, this Getting it Right. Because there isn’t any end. No matter what it is, there isn’t any end. Death included. Philip “died,” but he isn’t gone. And I’m not talking about his constant signals. That’s part of it, but there’s the fact of all the people he’s touched and continues to touch, the way we love him, remember him, live with his spirit. There’s me, writing about him, sharing him with those he’s never met. Dead has to do with body, not with what really matters.

But then, isn’t getting it right what drives art? That need to create so we can share our vision, to have others see as we do? It’s that need that keeps me writing, it’s that very getting-it-right that slows me down enough to get familiar with what still feels like the hole where Philip used to be. And that hole doesn’t get filled. It gets lived with.

And so I fret. Was it Tuesday and Wednesday…Wednesday and Thursday…Tuesday and Thursday…

© 2014 Denise Smyth

It’s Simple. Ask.

Sunday morning I woke up in a motel room with Natalie in Wildwood, NJ. Phil was in the room next door. We were there to watch Natalie compete in the annual NJ State Competition for gymnastics. Natalie’s been a gymnast since she was five, been competing since she was ten. This was the first year Phil came to States. It was the first time my in-laws came, too; Phil’s brother with his wife and two kids; his sister and her husband.

They all showed up because this was Natalie’s last meet. She’s outgrown her time at the gym. The last of the kids she’s close to is graduating, leaving for college. For Natalie, the sport includes the friendships that come with it, friendships that will hopefully last a lifetime. But it’s time to move on. We left Sunday knowing we wouldn’t be coming back. And I was feeling the loss particularly because it was Mother’s Day, and not because she’s never coming back to me,  but because another phase in her life  – in our life – is over.  “I’m trying to think – did I ever miss a meet?” I asked her; “There must’ve been one I didn’t come to.” She shook her head. “None,” she said. “You always came.”

She’ll practice, for fun, for the next month. Then July 1st she’s off to France for five weeks. The longest time she’s ever been away from me, a tiny taste of what’s to come. And I suppose I shouldn’t be upset because losing her to a life she loves living is far better than losing her to the alternative.

Yes, I know. I’m not “losing” her. But fuck all if that isn’t what it feels like. Today I’m angry, I’m mournful – I’m hungover from the crazy that was Mother’s Day. What’s any of it for? Life is loss and in my better moments I know there’s also what’s between the loss. Thing is the loss hurts more than the joy that having brings. Philip’s death has marked me. I’m branded and apart and I want something for it. What? Some recognition? Acknowledgment of how hard it is, as if I don’t get that anyway?

It was hard being around my in-laws. Leaving a marriage breaks up a family, each in its own way. I’m not sorry for my choices but that doesn’t make it easy. Sitting there Sunday, hearing bits and pieces of conversations that no longer have anything to do with me, added to a lonely I love to get lost in. And I was angry that none of them mentioned Philip, no one acknowledged I have two children, that the child who first made me a Mother died; that all anyone said was, “Happy Mother’s Day!” like it didn’t mean something it wasn’t ever supposed to mean.

But what do I know what anyone was thinking? It’s hard for people; no one’s sure what to do, what to say. It’s easier to say nothing. Grief throws people – certainly no one more than the person who’s suffering it, but also those on the edges of it. Would I have known what to do with someone’s grief before Philip died? And it’s not that I “know” what to do as much as I’m not afraid to ask. I understand the need to be asked. What more caring thing could someone say to me than, “How are you? How has it been for you?” And why is something as simple as that so hard to say?

Sunday night, after Natalie and I got home, I went out with the dogs, found a bench in a field and sat and cried for a good long time, cried like I haven’t in a while. I wanted some stranger to come by, ask me what was wrong. I might’ve had more luck with that on the busy corner of Broad and Watchung than in a dark and deserted field. But I think I was digging myself in deeper, drunk on grief and pity. And I paid for it these last few, terrified of losing Natalie’s love because how could she care for a thing as low and pitiful as me?

Last year, on Mother’s Day, I wrote a post called, “Still the best day…” Who is that, I thought; who is that calm and thoughtful woman because I feel too crazy to think it could have been me. But it was me. Grief is not linear. It’s not a march forward – it’s not even a “one step forward, two steps back” thing. Its nature is cyclical, but truth is it’s a spiral, deepening even as it goes round and round. Crazy’s part of it, is all. How could it not be?

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Previous Older Entries

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,644 other followers