The First Time

I miss Philip. I miss talking to him. I miss his adoration, even though I feel his love. But I’m human and I miss the human things. Like taking care of him if he wasn’t feeling well. Or telling him secrets because I knew I could trust him and that he was paying attention. And calling him first when something exciting happened. Like the day I went on my first ride at Six Flags.

It was a hot summer day in July and I was at Six Flags in New Jersey, home of Kingda Ka, the tallest and fastest roller coaster in North America.  I came here every year with Natalie and her best friends, Rebecca and Eve. Every year I trailed behind them, carrying assorted bags, cell phones and iPods for them so they could go on the rides while I sat on the bench, waiting. I didn’t go on rides. They scared me. But that year was different. That was the year I’d turned fifty, the year I’d gotten a job after spending 17 years at home with Philip and Natalie. I needed a reason to get of bed that didn’t include driving them somewhere or making three dinners because Philip wanted meat and Natalie didn’t and Phil couldn’t eat black pepper without upsetting his stomach. My therapist said I needed a job for structure. She worried that I was being sucked too far into a hole and I was afraid that the hand she offered to help me out of it was slipping beyond my reach.

So I found a part-time job that quickly turned full-time, and something happened along the way. I replaced the khaki skirts and sensible shoes my husband suggested I buy with skinny jeans tucked into high-heeled ankle boots. I started asking my family to take out the garbage and empty the dishwasher and seethed in fury when they didn’t. I’d trained them well – for years I’d done everything so the fact of my job didn’t suggest to them anything at home needed to change. And much as I was finding less need to sleep away the hours that had felt too long and hard to be awake for, I was still depressed – I was dull, I didn’t have a career, didn’t have a degree, didn’t have a purpose.

But that day life was pulsing in the crowds, the colors, the lights, the blaring loudspeakers and the roaring roller coasters. Overweight people with super-sized drinks held tightly to children with sticky cotton-candy fingers. Giggling teenagers brushed past me, rushing to the next ride. Even here I was on the wrong side of excitement. There was something I wanted, something I needed to know, something in the crowds I normally disdain and the rides I was terrified to go on. I was pulled in their direction and resisting like hell. I thought I was different. I didn’t eat fast food, meat or dessert. I didn’t drink soda, I wasn’t afraid of the dark or of germs and I didn’t wash my hands after I went to the bathroom. I wasn’t afraid of cancer and I wasn’t afraid of death. Death sounded easy, like going to sleep and not having to wake up facing long, dull days when I went out only to buy groceries or pick up my kids from school.

I was restless and sticky as I prowled around the amusement park with the girls. We stopped in front of a purple behemoth of a ride that rose fourteen stories high with a track that twisted and corkscrewed around while riders screamed over its roar. That’s Medusa, Rebecca told me, and asked if I’d go on with them. They knew better than to ask me to ride anything more exotic than the gorgeously painted horses on the carousel, but all morning Rebecca’s been bugging me to at least try and I was secretly hoping she’d convince me.

“I can’t,” I said.

“C’mon,” Rebecca said, giving me a nudge. “Of course you can.”

“No. I can’t. Forget it.”

“You’ll be fine,” she insisted. “Just do it. We’ll be right there with you.”

“But…”

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” she cut in. She eyed me carefully, then shrugged. “If you really don’t want to…” She turned back to Natalie. My daughter hadn’t said a word, sure that her mother would never go on this ride and wondering why Rebecca would even bother to ask.

I followed them onto the line, where they turned to me.

“You coming?” Rebecca asked.

I don’t know what I’m doing. I think I’m cracking up here.  I’m tired of sitting on the bench, tired of waiting, tired of being afraid and I don’t have the nerve to do anything about it. If I stand here a while, maybe I’ll find it.

“No. But I’ll just stay with you for now.”

Staying meant walking with the girls up the staircase that ended at the platform where Medusa pulled in. I was filled with dread. I didn’t know if I was more afraid of getting on the ride or watching it leave without me. If I didn’t get on that damn ride I’d spend the rest of the day withering under the weight of yet another choice made by ambivalence. But that was the dismal habit of my life and I didn’t think I could break it.

I panicked as what I thought was a distant rumbling turned into a ground-shaking roar. Medusa pulled in and screeched to a stop in front of us. I watched people unbuckling seatbelts and unstrapping harnesses, looking for something in their faces that would tell me what to do. A lifetime of wanting someone to tell me how to live still hadn’t taught me that whatever answer I got wasn’t the one I wanted. I could have called the Almighty down and it still wouldn’t have helped. He’d already given me life; He just forgot to include the operating manual.

“Mom!”

“What?” I ask, startled out of my reverie.

“We’re going on. What are you doing?”

I looked over at the ride in desperation. That’s when I saw him. The chubby little boy who couldn’t have been more than eight, being helped off the ride by his father. He jumped out of his seat as soon as he was able, happily slipped his hand into his father’s and vanished down the staircase on his way, I was sure, to his next thrill. He was living life. He was awake.

I turned back to the girls.

“I’m coming.”

Yes!” screeched Rebecca.

“Are you sure?” asked Natalie anxiously. And with a twist that was only the beginning of what would become an increasingly tense dynamic between us, she became the worrying mother, trying to protect me from making choices she didn’t understand to do things she’d never seen me do.

Once we were seated and strapped in, Medusa came alive with a clang as the metal floor dropped out from beneath us. I tensed as I looked down to where the ground used to be and saw nothing but narrow track. Then with a jerk, we lurched forward. My stomach lept up to my throat.  Medusa’s padded torso brace held my upper body firmly, while my legs dangled loose and dangerously free. We swung around the first curve and headed up the incline. The world was turning white hot as we inched up the slope until the sickening moment when we paused at the apex. Terrified, I did the only thing I could: I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and let Medusa take me where she would.

We were off. Straight down we plummeted, wind batting back my hair, my breasts pressed firmly against the brace. The momentum forced my legs apart with a freedom I’d yet to experience anywhere else. Up we went to loop around, then around again, my back arching to resist the plunge, then slamming against the seat when we raced back up, breathless as we spun upside down, elated as we rose once again. Inside the roaring, I was weightless, flying, careening side to side, tossed upside down, thrust forward yet again, until way too soon we jerked to a stop, then cautiously slid forward to the platform, where we exited on one side so those waiting on line could enter from the other.

Back on the ground, the air was pungent with barbecue and buttered popcorn. In the midst of the crowd I looked up. Kingda Ka rose forty-five stories into the dazzling blue sky before me. Natalie followed my gaze

.“Mom, no. No.

I didn’t argue. She’d gone on that ride before, but she was frightened; I saw it in the intensity of her big green eyes, heard it in the urgency of her voice. She wasn’t quite sure what happened but she had enough for one day. For the moment, I agreed.

© 2016 Denise Smyth

01/20/91 – #4

Today is Philip’s birthday. He would have been 25. Time has ceased for him in that way, and it has changed for me, too. I’m much more conscious that the only time it ever is, is now. That’s become a kind of meditation for me, this focusing on the present. Trying to stay focused on now does not leave Philip behind. He died nearly four years ago. I don’t think a lot about that time. He is here, now, and that has to be enough, like it or not.

But last night I was full of the night I gave birth to him. He was born at home on a cold January night. At one point – probably after I bit her shoulder – my midwife took me outside, arm around me, holding me up when I’d get a contraction. The frosty air, the dark, the quiet – she knew I needed a change from my bright apartment with its hospital pads spread on my bed and placenta bowl empty and waiting.

I thought my good attitude and fearlessness about giving birth would ease the pain. It did not. I yelled. I wailed. Part of me then rose up somewhere, was watching this, and I knew it was going to be okay. But I gave myself permission to scream. Those contractions were long and dark and hard and brought me unwillingly to a place I call terror. At the height of one of them I heard the words that would eventually bring Philip and me full circle – “There’s no way out but through.”

Those are not words of comfort. Reality rarely is. I was being asked – no, told – to bear a pain I thought impossible to bear. I was at its mercy, and merciful it was not. But after it was over I had Philip, sweet baby boy, this child I loved when he was just a thought. How graced was I?

Those words came to me after he died, too. And if there was no other reason to have experienced his birth for exactly what it was, hearing those words would have been enough. They brought me full circle. I think of them often. I am more willing to get through. I have to – I’m still in relationship with Philip, and like any relationship, it needs to be tended to. Like any relationship, the more I am present to it the more I see it for what it is. A couple years ago Philip asked me if I knew what responsibility was. I didn’t want to know what he was getting at. I was a wreck then, and if he expected me to take responsibility for our relationship, I couldn’t. I did what I could, and if I could sum it up in one word, it would be “cried.” I didn’t know how many tears I had. In my mind I was hanging on to him for dear life. His presence was palpable, but I was too caught up in grief and terror to even utter the word “responsibility.”

“You know, you are his mother,” Ed reminded me once. That was too much. I was his mother, but I couldn’t act like one. Of course I couldn’t. I wasn’t ready, didn’t think I ever would be.

My sense of Philip has shifted. I am learning how to breathe with him. He’s come into play in the choices I make. I want him to see me do well. It’s my gift to him. And this can only happen because his death did not stop our relationship. When he first died, I took a drive, trying to figure out how to kill myself. Then I heard him: “Mom, it doesn’t work that way. You have to find the joy.”

I believe him. Death is not the answer. And as for joy, maybe it will come, but for now, it’s peace that I’m after. I want Philip to know that. I want him to know that I am doing well exactly the way I want Natalie to know I’m doing well. That’s what my children need – a mother who is present. Philip will get no less from me because he’s died. And I know not what death is except for the fact that it means a particular body will no longer be present. I don’t believe that just because you die you get to go to a better place. Or if you’re a “bad” person, a worse place. I just have this idea that whatever you’re working out you will keep on working out.

Early on I talked about being in a grief group, and being asked to write a letter from our loved to us. I sat and listened to Philip, and he ended the letter with a most lovely line: “Mom, I love you. I’m in the place of no good-byes so we can talk whenever we want.”

The place of no good-byes – if I have to think of him in a place, then let that be the one.

© 2016 Denise Smyth

On Love and Death

Cindy and I spent New Year’s Eve at her house, watching almost all of season two of “Transparent.” At 11:53 she put the TV on one of the channels that was broadcasting the ball dropping from Times Square. We were treated to the sight of – hundreds? thousands? – of people crushed together in the closed-to-traffic streets, some of whom had gotten there at 8am that morning. On top of one of the buildings in the area, the host of a news show was bleating excitedly about the ringing in of the new year. He was accompanied by several people I assume were in the entertainment industry, none of whom I recognized. Once the ball dropped, the host asked them about their take on things. Some of the responses were, “Uh, I don’t know what to say,” “It’s surreal,” “Um, I don’t know what to say,” “Unbelievable,” and “I really don’t know what to say.” The most thoughtful of them added, “It’s a chance to wipe the slate clean!”

I will never understand what drives people to stand outside in the cold for hours and hours to watch 30 seconds of a ball dropping. I will never understand why anyone would solicit opinions from a bunch of entertainers who can’t speak unless they’re scripted, and why anyone else would care what they have to say. I don’t even understand the big deal about one year passing into another, although it seems to make a great excuse for excessive drinking.

This was a bad year, a coworker said. I hope the new one will be better.

Philip died in 2012. But I do not consider that a “bad year.” The second worst thing that could happen, happened (because I have a daughter, and losing both my children is the first worst). I do count time in that way – Philip will be dead four years next month. But I can’t label swatches of time. That’s a way of holding on to pain. Even when reminiscing about “good times,” the implication is that the current time is worse and so that is also holding on to pain.

There is a freedom in not reminiscing. In not projecting. In not thinking and dwelling about a past that can’t be changed or a future that never comes. I remember Thanksgiving at Cindy’s – I had fun. I didn’t think of Philip during dinner, dessert or the endless rounds of Catchphrase played afterward. Later that night, I did. There was a flicker of guilt until I also remembered that’s what Philip wants. I know that because in life he wanted me happy and his death doesn’t change that.

When Philip first died, Phil said to me Philip would want me to be happy. “How do you know what he wants?” I snapped. “Maybe he’s lonely – maybe he’d rather me be with him.” I understand things differently now. To” be with him” has nothing to do with my body or his body. He’s with me always, teaching me love and peace even as at times his death renders me breathless. It’s the way I love him that doesn’t allow me to experience his death the way I first did – as terrifying nothingness, as proof of random viciousness and meaninglessness. Not so – death is not a punishment nor an attack. It is a fact and I cannot interpret it only as grievous without also making my love for him and joy in him meaningless. Because his death takes away neither of those things. What then is death, and what is love?

I can’t pretend to answer either of those questions but I spend a lot of time thinking about them. “I’m trying to teach you what death isn’t,” Philip told me. Because to do otherwise is to give it a reality it doesn’t have. The shock of it when we lose a loved one can’t be denied. But the love that remains long after the body has disappeared also can’t be denied and is as real and palpable as ever. Philip continues to reach out to me through both sight and vision – the difference being sight is what my eyes see, and vision what my heart knows.

As far as love – I’m starting to think that love in this world is impossible without ambivalence, and so, then, is it really love? is what we call love merely believing that the desired other is someone who can meet our needs? How else to explain the deep and unending difficulties we have in maintaining relationships? To explain how we meet that other, pledge to spend our lives with that other, only to be disappointed and disenchanted as the years roll by? How, exactly, does that “love” we feel for that other turn into hatred, as it so often does? Was it, then, really love?

I question whether I have ever truly loved anyone. The closest I have come is what I feel for my children, particularly Philip. And I do not mean that I “love” Philip more than Natalie. It’s not only about what I feel for, but what I feel from, and in feeling Philip’s love I’m learning about my own ability to love. Philip’s loss of body is also loss of ego. I define ego as that part of us which is grasping, clinging, angry, greedy, fearful – that which interferes with the peace that lies deep and often buried, interferes with our ability to love. Philip’s is a voice of patience and kindness. Mine is not, at least not as much as I’d like it to be. My experience of Philip shows me how I fall short with Natalie. Egos colliding is not a pretty sight. It is only when I can let Natalie be, when I’m not pissed because she left a dish in the sink or shut herself in her room for too long, that I experience something akin to the peace of love.

Relationships are not here to make us happy. They are here to teach. And if we learn our lessons well, happiness is certainly possible. I am not happy that Philip’s died, but I recognize our relationship is about something beyond what I thought it was when he was alive. I have chosen to try to learn what he’s teaching me instead of making my life a bloody hell because of his death. Which isn’t to say I don’t wish he was here – I miss his touch, his voice, his laugh. But I do not miss his comfort because I still have it.  “Mom, you have to find the joy,” he said. He’s trying so hard to help me – I owe it to him to try as hard as well.

© 2016 Denise Smyth

Things of the Spirit

You’d think that Philip’s death would make the holidays miserable for me – a reminder that my family is no longer intact, is not the way I ever thought it would be. That the unthinkable has happened. But the light of Christmas is as much a part of me as grief is. So I go back and forth between the warmth I feel this time of year and the chill I get when it hits me again that Philip has died. It strangles me sometimes – looking at his picture, knowing he was here, knowing he isn’t coming home. Knowing I can’t do anything about it, that talking about it can make me feel even more helpless because it changes nothing. Things of the spirit need come first, I remind myself. But why is the path to peace so hard?

When I was a kid we had big Christmas celebrations. Christmas Eve was the best. We gathered at my grandmother’s house, my mother’s mother. My mom had six brothers, and some-but-not-all had kids. Plus my uncles had lots of friends who’d stop by. There was an uncle who’d dress up as Santa, me always guessing which uncle it was, proud of myself for recognizing he wasn’t the real Santa. The real Santa was too busy running around in his sleigh to stop and visit grandma’s.

I love giving gifts. I’ve baked dozens of cookies, an apple cake, a caramel cake and chocolate mousse. Christmas Eve I went to my brother’s house with Natalie. Christmas Day Natalie will be with her dad, and I’ll be at Cindy’s where we’ll eat leftovers and watch movies. I don’t have a lot of friends, but I am blessed with the ones I do have.

I prefer fall and winter, even though I get cold easily. At work, where my co-workers think it’s too warm inside and so open windows, I wait for them to go to the bathroom and quickly close them. I have coats for varying temperatures and have finally figured out that scarves and hats actually work. Still, I adore winter, though I balk when it gets here because that means it’s leaving. Its coming means the days begin to get longer. Dusk at 4:30 is still too late for me. I want the short days, I want an excuse to stay inside. Winter is cozy and comforting. As are evening and night.

Philip was born in the winter, and he died in the winter – still, that’s when I feel safe. His birthday brings me close to him, and the day he died, closer still. Closer because his death was an explosion, making him larger than life. It took him away, yet I feel him near. How to explain that? The only thing to say is love. Because no matter what’s gone, our love remains. My time with him can’t be taken away and even though he’s died, he hasn’t become what I feared – only a memory. Memories are static, and what I have with Philip feels much too alive. For that I am grateful. I have suffered grievously for having lost him. Now I am grateful for having had him, for what I still have with him.

And for knowing that whatever I suffer I do not suffer alone. Who is simply “happy” to be alive? Who doesn’t feel the terrible sadness conjured up by a supposed season of peace? A sadness more profound because, as a child, in my innocence, I believed there was a special kind of magic around Christmas. The Santa Claus dreams of then can form a cruel contrast  to the reality of now. Those childhood years may have been short, but the impression they left is endless.

Where is hope, then? Not in things of this world, for sure. For this is a world we come to in order to die. Hope lies not in imagining the world as I think it ought to be. It lies in my ability to see it differently, an ability that Philip’s death has honed. That everything dies is no longer an abstraction but a hard truth. I can hold my breath and curse God if I choose. Or not. I choose not. What has God to do with this world? If I believed in the vengeful God of my childhood, I’d say everything. But even as a kid that God made no sense to me. I never understood being told that “God loved us so much he sacrificed his only son for us.” What does that even mean? How do I benefit from God’s dead son? And how could I love a father who had one special son who he then killed for my sake? Why did one son get to be special, and not another? And if He killed his special son, when was He coming for me?

The first time I heard, “Man made God in his own image” I knew I’d learned something profound. And freeing. The vengeful, tyrannical God of the Old Testament was a choice. Which didn’t mean I invented a kinder one or that I chose to be an atheist. I’d mixed up God with my parents too deeply to switch to a godhead more friendly, and I wasn’t arrogant enough to be certain there was nothing beyond what my senses showed me. There was too much mystery to life for me to presume I had an answer.

I saw the absence of God in the world as proof that He didn’t exist. The problem right there presents itself as one of language – “He” didn’t exist, as if God had a sex, a gender, a form, was a being the way I was a being, only mightier. Then one day I read, “We say, ‘God is’ and we cease to speak,” and I thought that was as close to an answer as I’d ever get. Because when it comes to things of the spirit, it’s the open-ended answers that come closest to the truth.

It might sound odd for me to be loving Christmas given all I’ve just said. I don’t see it that way. I see Jesus the way I see Bhudda – a being more enlightened than the rest of us who walked this world for a while. It’s the religion man made around him that I object to. The seed of Christmas is love and now’s when I have a chance to express it in ways that I don’t during the rest of the year. It cuts both ways, this love, filling me up for what I have while making me keenly aware of what I’ve lost. When I say, “Merry Christmas” what I mean is much love to you and yours. And that’s what I wish for all of you – love, and whatever peace you can find.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Was I?

No one trains to be a parent. And I didn’t read any books about someone’s version of how to do it, their methods, their advice. I’d figure it out on my own. Like when Natalie was a baby and cried and cried and cried; I’d heard of the “Ferber Method,” where Dr. Ferber thought babies needed to be trained to fall asleep, so let ‘em cry.  As opposed to assuming they’re crying because they need something and maybe if you hold them, they’ll feel safe enough to sleep.

However.

Natalie would wake up at all hours of the night to nurse. By the time she was five months old, I was exhausted. One night when she woke up at midnight, I decided that’s it. I’d let her cry. Screw it. I needed to sleep. Like I could sleep during the three hours she screamed bloody hell. Three hours before I ran to pick her up and nurse her. She latched on between the shaking and muffled sobbing; she sucked my breast like it was the breath she was breathing. By that point my milk was irrelevant. She was hungry for me. For what, I asked myself, for what? For what did I do that? I don’t think babies (or children, or adults) should be left to cry – it’s not natural. If they’re crying, they need something. Natalie’s needs were my needs. By the time I picked her up,  I craved her as much as she craved me. Bottom line – I wanted babies, and babies need attention. I wanted to nurse them, and that meant extra attention. And when I gave my kids what I knew they needed, we all felt better.

But when my kids got older, my instincts got confused. There were things I wasn’t clear about, things I wasn’t sure how to handle. My mind was telling me to interfere with this or try to stop that, but my heart didn’t agree and it’s like I was a trio – mind, heart and the one who had to decide between. Most of the time I went with my heart because it felt right, but maybe I was too scared to choose any other way, scared that Philip would be mad at me. So was I, then, looking out for him?

When Philip was 16, he wanted to go to an all day concert some hours away. Phil and I weren’t crazy about some of the kids he was hanging out with at the time. He’d gone the year before, but it was with a kid we trusted and his dad, who’d agreed to take them and spend the day. Not so this year. Someone was driving there, someone driving back. The details were vague, and Phil and I knew there’d be drinking and drugs at this thing. Phil refused to let him go, and Philip was furious. I’d never seen him so angry – and I knew that if it was me alone, I would have let him go. I stood there wide-eyed and twisted while Phil and Philip fought it out. I don’t know how Phil did it – I do not know how he was able to hold his ground. He was protecting his son. All I was was terrified, and that is what I’m talking about – was I looking out for him, or protecting myself from his anger?

Phil and I found out Philip had been smoking pot when he was sixteen. We took him straight to a drug counselor, which might sound dramatic except that I’m an addict and thought I could fix him before he turned into one. She sat with the three of us, then with Philip alone. Afterward she said, “This isn’t a kid with a problem.”  And at that point, he wasn’t. We bought a couple of drug tests, tested him a few months later, he was clean.

Philip was a kid with his feet in two worlds and he died with his foot in the wrong one. This is something I’ve been deeply ashamed about. Phil and I are decent people. We lived in good neighborhood, were surrounded by families whose kids were smart and active. Philip was intelligent, kind and sensitive. He got into one fight in his entire school career, and that was because he was picked on. In high school, he joined the fencing team and began to hang around with good kids, kids interested in school and their future. So how did he also wind up hanging around with kids who were more interested in drugs than in school? And while he wasn’t acting badly, he wasn’t working as hard as he could in school, only wore t-shirts that were black, and refused any shoes except his black high-top Converse.

Was there something I was supposed to do about that? Was I – really – looking out for him?

When my kids were growing up, there was a family who lived across the street from us for a while. The dad was a doctor, and I’m not sure what the mom was, but she worked full time. They had two kids – Ethan, who was a year older than Philip, and Julie, who was a few years older than him. Ethan was polite. He was allowed to play with Philip, but he wasn’t allowed to come into our house. It wasn’t personal – it was just a rule, and I figured that the parents wanted to be able to see exactly what he was doing. So he’d ring the bell and wait outside for Philip to come and play. Once I asked the mom if Julie could baby-sit for my kids. No, she said; she’s not allowed to work, she has to pay attention to her homework.

I was impressed. It seemed to me that these people knew exactly who they were and what they expected from their children. It also seemed to me that they were going to get it. I took clarity for certitude. Because I was so often unclear – how was I supposed to force Philip to use the brains he had when he slacked off? How was I supposed to force him to hang around  with kids I thought would be better for him? I couldn’t lock him in his room, I couldn’t forbid him to stay away from people. I blamed myself for the choices he made that were poor. Of course, I took no credit for all the good in him.

This is part of the ongoing conversation I have with myself about Philip’s death. Fortunately, it’s a small part. Regret and guilt are inevitable, but they are as much a part of the story as I make them be. And I do not much make them be. Philip has died but I have not. Nor has Natalie. And “died” doesn’t mean gone. It means change, change I don’t want but change that is so. I can ask myself if I was looking out for Philip, and the way I answer that is the way I feel about it all. If I want to wallow, I will answer no. If I want to find peace, I will say of course I was. He is my son and my love and so yes – of course I was.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Lonely?

Natale and Me, October 2015

Natalie and Me, October 2015

Natalie and I just had portraits taken. This is my favorite. I have a portrait of Philip and me, I wanted one of me and Natalie. How happy I look – it makes me smile when I see it. And it’s genuine – I love my daughter and I am able to enjoy her. “Enjoy” is a word I thought I would never use once Philip died. But the deep and grievous wound of his death has made me vulnerable to love as well as to pain. Never have I realized how deeply I love my daughter. Or that the fact of my love for my son is what sustains me through his death, even as it brings me to my knees in grief.

Sometimes when I’m driving, I say Philip’s name. I call out to him. And I realize how little his name is actually said. And how saying it doesn’t mean he’ll answer the phone or sit across from me and chat at dinner. It reminds me that something’s gotten smaller and more lonely. His name is lost in space. I can say it, it can go out there, but I will never speak it out loud to my son again.

I used to scream Philip’s name in my car when he first died. Now when I say it it hangs thin in the air, like an empty clothesline. A reminder that there used to be a person at the other end of that name, there used to be hair and flesh and hands that had two differently shaped thumbs. I’m the only one, besides him, who noticed. He was over 6’, tall enough to for me to lay my head on his chest when I needed a moment of love and protection. Reassurance, because what could be wrong if he was all right? That’s why I didn’t worry about him. Because he was all right until he wasn’t, and worrying wouldn’t have changed anything.

I’ve been wondering if I’m lonely. Another one of those feelings I thought would feel one way when in fact it feels another. I imagined lonely as sitting with my head hanging and wishing desperately for company. I imagined it small, sad and helpless in the kind of silence no sound can disturb. But that’s not what it is. It’s quiet, for sure. It’s a longing for I-don’t-what. It’s a restlessness. It’s me hurrying home because that’s where I’ll find what I love. My daughter. My dog and my cat. And it’s where I go to do what I love – to write, to quilt, to knit. When I’m creating I feel alive.

But I have to follow the flow of my energy because there’s only so much of it. I know when I want to write or knit or sew. I also know when I’m done with it for the day, and that often leaves a space that I fill with TV. The only television I used to watch was news. Now I can’t watch the insanity we call “the world.” The grief I hold for Philip is all I can manage. So I look for series, the longer the better. I started that when Philip died. It didn’t take away the sick knot in my stomach, or that I felt raw, bloodied and beaten up, but it quieted my mind. And if I needed anything, it was relief from the damn screaming in my head.

Now there’s no more screaming, just the chattering of the monkey mind. And confusion about what it is I’m yearning for but can’t find. Whatever it is, it’s not “out there.” It’s a reckoning from within. The past informs my present too much. Growing up I felt I was in the wrong world doing the wrong things. I was drunk and directionless. I went to college, then dropped out because I wasn’t interested. I got a job in the last place I thought I’d wind up, Wall Street. For years I worked there in misery. I knew I was in trouble the day I got a $12,000 bonus and looked at it with a shrug.

It is not enough to say, “it’s a job, you’re not supposed to like it.” If that’s what you make of it, then that’s how you’ll live. It was work I was after, not some job, but I didn’t know how to find it because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was asleep. What I wanted to do, what I always wanted to do, was write – but at 18 I was incapable of making decisions that didn’t involve alcohol. I wandered into FIT (Fashion Institute) in NY because my friend went there. As if I gave  a shit about fashion. When that didn’t work out I wandered into a job on Wall Street because a friend got me an interview. I spent my free time drinking and when I decided to stop, I spent my free time in AA.

I didn’t understand what I know now. Back then, the world was the problem, as if I had nothing to do with anything. As if I was at the mercy of an implacable universe. I used to say there must be a God because this much pain can’t be random

I can’t say how I think my life should be or should have been. The doing is only the reflection of the being. If I had the presence of mind when I was a kid, I would have gone to college to study the things that called me – writing and literature. That would have led to a different life. Not necessarily better, just different. But that’s not what happened. I am where I am because of choices I made and things that have happened that I have no control over. The classroom I learn from is wherever I am.

There is a way to live that feels right. You have to pay attention to where your spirit leads, not to what the world says. The world is crazy – why on earth would you want to listen to it? I’ve listened too long and too hard and much as I begin to disengage from the false, the truth is not so easily revealed. Or maybe it is and I still can’t see it. I’ve an inner struggle that manifests in the material. Today, talking with Kirsten, I realized that much as I don’t particularly think about the future, I have a sense that this is all there is, this is where I stop, this is where I’ll be when I die, restless and lonely, wondering what it was I was asked to do but too scared to hear the question.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

For a Reason?

“Acceptance of the unacceptable is the greatest source of grace in this world.”
                        Eckhart Tolle

When Philip died, it didn’t occur to me to follow anyone’s prescription about how to grieve. The same when I was pregnant – I admit to buying “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” but I only read a couple chapters. I had already done some serious research on giving birth, including interviewing midwives and doctors. WTEWYE seemed to skim the surface. I wanted to understand the process of giving birth because I’d decided to have my babies at home. Death and birth need be aided by others, but the hospital doesn’t seem the place for either. I am grateful for the medical community, but it often interferes when it should simply facilitate. Death and birth are as intensely personal as they are widely universal. The question before me was, How do I want to do this?

Back then, I couldn’t exactly say why I wanted to home birth, except it felt right and authentic. Through giving birth I was learning to trust the body that I’d been waging war with for years. I was sad and moody even as a kid and I took it out on my body. As if my body was the problem. Bodies are not the problem. Bodies are tools – while we are in them, they are expressions of life. They are the receptors through which we feel and experience. But to blame my body for what I was feeling was akin to blaming my pen for my inability to write when it ran out of ink.

I grew up in rage and depression at what I couldn’t articulate but now understand was a lack of love and compassion. And what can a child do with rage and depression? Certainly not reason about it. My particular way was to drink. Which I started to do when I was 11. Pot and pills followed soon after, then bulimia in my early 20s. All in a rage against my body because it was making me feel. And when getting high didn’t work, I tried a serious but flawed attempt to kill myself. That I didn’t succeed was not a moment of revelation. It was a defeat because I knew I wouldn’t try it again – I wasn’t about to become a joke, someone whose version of a cry for help was inventing new and futile ways to kill herself. I failed. I was embarrassed and beaten.

So I went to therapy, stopped drinking. Eventually tried to deal with the bulimia, something that proved a far harder challenge than drugs and alcohol. I could grasp the concept of not taking the first drink. What was the formula for an eating disorder? Don’t take the first compulsive bite? Exactly which one was that? Sometimes, in my confusion, I’d opt for eliminating all all bites and I’d go days without eating.

But the body, restored to its rightful place, is a point of power. It’s where we access the richness of our inner life. It’s where we learn what true connection means and how it goes beyond the point of physical. Philip did not start as a body – he started as a longing. I wanted a child and so was graced with him. His birth was a continuation of the relationship I’d begun to form with him when I recognized that I wanted him. And grievous as his death is, we are still in relationship. It is hampered only by my inability to get my body out of my way.

To go to a hospital to give birth would be to give away the inherent power of my body. Women have been taught that we can’t trust our bodies, that our bodies cannot function as they are meant to. That somehow our prodding, probing and technology know better than we, ourselves, can know. That the pain of childbirth has no value and that we are unable to bear what women have borne always. We have been separated from our natural functions.

Like menstruating. There came a point as a young woman where I began to wonder where women’s disgust of their periods came from. Fertility is a power. Much as I wasn’t sure I wanted to have children, the idea that I had the power to do so made me feel sorry for men and what they would never know. My body could give life. I was part of the mystery. And much as I spent decades wishing I was dead, which really meant I wished I could stop feeling the terrible things I felt, some part of me recognized the sanctity of being able to give birth.

In the spirit of beginning to respect what my body could do, I stopped using “sanitary” napkins  – was my blood dirty? I bought cloth menstrual pads which I washed myself, watching the blood run over my hands as I rinsed my cloths before putting them in my “moon bowl,” where they sat until I washed them. I loved having my period. It was the mark of my fertility, and it is through that fertility that I came to know the two who I love best in this world.

And birth control. In my early twenties, I briefly went on the pill. Like everyone else I knew, I wanted the freedom to fuck. But something felt wrong about manipulating my cycle so I went off it.  Any method of birth control that I could use involved pills, diaphragms, iuds – all too invasive. I didn’t trust my understanding of my cycle enough to risk what was then called “the rhythm method” – so it was up to my partner and a condom.

When Philip died I ran to no manual about grief. By that point I’d stopped looking for something outside myself to tell me how to feel, to tell me what I was supposed to “do” to be happy. I was not in control of my feelings, but I could figure out how to handle them, and what I’d figured out and written about here countless times is that my credo became, Accept it, leave it, or change it. What else could ever be done, in any situation? The simple answer was also the most profound. Thing is, leaving or changing a situation might be difficult but felt doable. But “accept?” Years of hearing AA’s platitudes about acceptance made me bristle to even hear the word. I thought it mean lying in the road and letting a mac truck roll over me. And since all anything can ever mean is the meaning I give it, I couldn’t “accept” because I couldn’t understand.

What brought this all to mind is something I read on the internet, something, as one blogger wrote, “is making the rounds.” It had to do with the notion that everything happens for a reason, and the grieving author’s anger at people who spout that platitude. And I do understand that anger – what is such a trite expression in the face of losing a child? Is that supposed to comfort? What reason could anyone possibly come up with that would make this okay?

But then I got the idea that here we are again – angry, and doing with grief what the world does with everything: it’s us against them. The victims that have been forced to grief and the enemies who want to look away. It’s exhausting. This anger perpetuates grief, even as it feels good to have somewhere to direct our anger besides the seeming randomness of the universe.

We are all going to die. The timing is not up to us. Since death is as birth is, how do we live with it?

People are frightened. People spend lifetimes avoiding death even though they are always creeping toward it. People don’t know what to say when it comes anywhere near them. If someone says, “Everything happens for a reason” it simply means they don’t understand. It’s not you they’re trying to reason with, it’s themselves. So why would I insist people have to be what I want them to be, say what I want them to say? Yet how that stings when we feel we are being strangled by our grief, how that cuts us off when what we need is love and connection. There is no loneliness like the loneliness that comes from losing someone beloved.

Maybe it’s easy for me to look at this because I haven’t anyone who’s said anything like that to me. I’ve been told to “move on” which of course isn’t possible – but it was said in the spirit of kindness and that is what matters. The worst thing anyone said to me that first year was, “Uh, here we go” when I brought up Philip’s death in what I thought was the right context. I was both incredulous and angry for a long time after. Now, what matter? What people say tells you much about them, but nothing about you. People speak from fear, from anger, from ignorance –  we all do it and we don’t realize it. And when people continue to say hurtful things it is good and right to absent them from our lives. Sometimes we can’t, and so we have to draw a line in their condition. But sometimes we don’t, because sometimes we just want someone to target.

Last week I was alone in my office. In walked a client to pick up some paperwork. Noticing the picture of Philip on my desk, he asked with a smile, “Is that your son?” It is, said. And then I told him he died. “I am so sorry,” he answered; and he stayed and talked with me for a while. He listened to what I had to say. He has children of his own, and at one point his eyes teared up. That’s what we want, isn’t it? People to let us speak of the unspeakable, to be unafraid to hear what we’re saying.

Whether or not you think everything happens for a reason – the point is everything that happens, happens. It’s not about reason, but about meaning. Searching for a reason perpetuates grief because there is no satisfactory reason. The only meaning can come from what we make it to be. Loss is. To live in a body is to experience loss, in all its forms. No one escapes grief, no one escapes death. It’s not personal and it’s not done “to” us. It happens. And when it does, it changes us forever. We live with it every day, and we have choice how to do so. Not at first – depending on who we are, not for a long time. I lived underwater so long after Philip died, I don’t know how I didn’t suffocate. Searching for reasons would not have helped – the opposite, in fact, because asking why is an impossible question, designed to distract and thus prolong the worst aspects of our grief. There is never an acceptable answer. Death is its own reason.

Rather than looking for reasons, I ask myself how I can live with what is to me both a tragedy and a blessing. Philip is dead. I will one day join him, and when I do it will seem like life went by quickly. But since I’m here, how is it I want to be in the world? How do I walk with an open heart as I long to do? How do I stop hiding myself away because there’s something nagging at me that I won’t face – it’s an ancient darkness I carry and it’s going to take some strength to lay it down.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Previous Older Entries

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,911 other followers