01/20/91 – #3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2015 Denise Smyth


I’m still unsure about the world I live in, still rather stay home than do much of anything. I don’t much resist, for sure. I haven’t the strength. Or the will. Resisting life takes an energy I don’t have. I’m tumbling along and if life’s too fast for me, it simply passes right through. There is love, laughter, lightness. There is terror, grief, despair. There’s the bloody churning in my gut, always. I said, in my last, I was kind of numb. Not so now. Philip’s birthday is in a week, and next month will be three years since he died. And I don’t feel like wailing as much as I feel like I’m choking on it all.

But if I could – I would like to throw my head back and howl at the stars until I emptied out all these things I feel that I don’t want to feel, until I collapsed under that blue black sky, safe in all that darkness. Then there’d be stillness and oh, what relief. But who can remain some empty vessel? We are not made for that. Like the night turns into dawn, in that stillness, back grows my grief. Would I want it gone? I think not. It’s what I have to live with, it’s sacred space when I don’t muddy it up with things that don’t belong there. Like if I make some disappointment turn into brooding over Philip when it has nothing to do with him. Or when it seems safer to despair because that’s what I was used to way before Philip was born. So maybe that’s what I want. To clean myself out, start all over again, figure out how to grieve honestly.

But his birthday. Then his death day. And call it what you like, the hard truth is that it is his death day. It is birth and death that are opposites. Life simply is. Always, it is. Philip shows me that every day. He’s blurred the line I’ve constructed between life and death, and that forces me to contemplate what I think my body really is. It is an instrument, is all; it is a way life expresses itself through me, it is a useful tool for communication. But it is also what is so easy for my five senses to perceive – and to that end, I miss my son. That he is here is not a question. It’s his body, his hard and warm body, that’s gone. Like everyone’s body will be gone. His is gone too soon for me…but he is here and I cannot figure out what terrifies me, what this longing is, why I feel defeated. It’s an acceptance, I guess, this “defeat.” What I mean is I know in some new and strange way that Philip’s not coming home. He simply isn’t. And I am living on two levels and maybe for that I should be grateful. Maybe I can’t ever bridge the gap between them, not truly, not while I see myself as mostly a body even though I know I am more. Else how to explain the extraordinary way my son – my son – communicates with me. He is offering me, in his death, a way into life.

These months, in all their colors, fly by, and all of them lead back to Philip’s birth, Philip’s death. March icy blue and April tinged with white – months I’d rather avoid, months that reek of life anew. March is spring, April I was born. I do not like the awakening when I want to stay away and hidden. I am too vulnerable for new life.

Then May’s soft pink, June back to white, July hot yellow, August gold and red. September is golden, October glorious orange, November gray, December red. Then comes January – the time to rest, the time where it’s still safe but we’re heading toward spring and I can’t stop it. January is white and black, February dark green. Hard as these two months are, I want to stay with them, stay close to Philip’s extraordinary birth, to the tragic shock of his death. 24 years ago this black and white month I was waiting for Philip to be born and what that meant to me then stays with me now.

Sometimes I try to remember what I felt like to be pregnant, when I carried Philip, when I was first deeply in love with him. He is, of course, always with me. So let me remember the fullness of it, let me know that I loved him from the moment I knew I was pregnant and even though he wasn’t here, it was enough. And he is still here, and that has to be…enough.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Who I Am Not (Part 2 – The Reunion)

I thought about continuing Part Two from my last post without mentioning Christmas. Something seemed wrong with that…but I didn’t – still don’t – know what to say. This has been the oddest Christmas since Philip died. Including the fact that I don’t know what to say, because when it comes to how I feel about Philip, I am never at a loss as to what to say.

I love Christmas. I love it because the focus is on family and loved ones, because I get to give gifts, because the streets are lit up and people say “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays.” There was a time I would’ve snarled because how the fuck am I supposed to have a Merry or a Happy with Philip dead? But now I see it’s not personal – those are expressions of love and good will, and I will take all the tenderness that’s given me.

But this year was disjointed, pieces here and there, without a narrative. I have been reluctant. And removed. I look at Philip and I don’t know what I feel. There’s something I won’t touch here. I’m detached, but not because I chose to be. Detaching with love works. This is not that. This is the relentless march of life and at times there are things it requires of me – for Christmas, it required buying, wrapping, cookies, cake, chocolate mousse. It required spending time with Cindy, it required Christmas Eve at my brother’s. It required my tree, small and sparkly and which I kept lit – mostly -24/7.

I liked being at my brother’s and I liked being at Cindy’s and I loved giving my gifts. But getting there with all that doing – I hadn’t the heart. So what so what so what, I said? That did not help. Philip is not coming home for Christmas. Or anything else. I am not done being afraid. But I was numb. I was unable to feel what it felt like not to have Philip with me on Christmas. Who can I tell? I’m not ready to talk about it.

Peace, then, to all of you. If you’re suffering and that seems impossible, I wish it for you anyway. May it help you to believe that I believe.


But this post is part two, The Reunion. For the last ten years, my classmates from  Junior High have been getting together annually, along with our homeroom teacher, Mr. M. This I discovered when one of them, Jo Ann, found me on Facebook. Everyone’s been looking for you, she said. Who is everyone, and why were they looking for me? I have a hard time thinking anyone would remember me, much less care to see me. I remember that time as the start of my rebel years. I was already drinking, smoking and taking drugs. I had a boyfriend and I had sex. I was too cool for the smart kids in my class, but not cool enough for the badasses I wanted to hang around with. I had it coming at me both ways. I belonged nowhere.

I decided to go, which for me was a walk on the wild side. My first reaction to any invitation is no thank you. Especially an invitation I considered dangerous: facing an unhappy past with people I couldn’t possibly know any longer, who I hardly remember knowing when I was actually in class with them. What if they thought about me the way I thought about me? Unhappy, distant, angry. By all accounts, I’m aging well, so the way I look was one less thing to worry about. And at that point, it was the one thing I brought to the table. I mean, if they didn’t like me, at least they wouldn’t say what the hell happened to her?? when they saw me.

But the fun of going was that no one, other than Jo Ann and Mr. M., knew I was going to be there. I arrived before most, and as people walked in, they tried to guess who I was. What shock and joy on their faces when they realized it was me. And I wondered why, all those years ago, I held myself back from them. Because it was more important to stand alone than be part of. I thought that was power. All it really was was lonely.

Reunions are perception shifters. You not only see your classmates differently, what you think you are is also shaken up. The biggest shock to me was that people liked me. They didn’t see the addict, the miserable girl, the condescending bitch I thought I was. “You were nice,” someone said to me, and while I once said “nice” is the laziest word in the English language because it tells you nothing, I was grateful that I was remembered as other than bitch.

The evening was a mix of past confusing present, and never more so than when Mr. M. reminded people that I had been Arista Leader. Artista was an honor society, and every year the boy and girl with the highest academic achievements were chosen as leaders. I’d forgotten, like I’d forgotten so much of what I achieved before I got to high school and determined to be mediocre. In sixth grade, I was Valedictorian. There was year I scored the highest in the district in the City-Wides in math, and the year when I scored so high in reading, my teacher refused to tell me my grade until she could figure out a grand way of announcing it.

But being reminded of Arista didn’t make me feel proud. I felt ashamed. We were all in the SP (Special Progress) class, reserved for the smartest of the smart. And my classmates were now doctors, lawyers, nurses, production assistants – and me, an administrative assistant. What had I done? Sure, I had kids – but anybody can have kids. And I couldn’t even keep one of them alive. How’s THAT for an achievement?

So much for not questioning “who I am.” Because that questioning was the conversation going on in my head. Until it got too painful and I started to talk. Turning to the half of the table where Mr. M. sat. I told them how troubled I’d been in Junior High, how I’d already started drinking and taking drugs. No one knew. I told them that life felt difficult for a long time. I talked about Philip, about some of what it felt like living with his death. I did not cry. I was telling my story. I was trying to connect.

Talking tamed the beast, at least for a bit. But not enough to get me to talk to the handsome man at the head of the table, the boy who’d been Arista leader with me. “Don’t you know all the guys were crazy about you?” I’d been asked earlier. No I did not. In Junior High I tensed when someone attracted me and only looked at them when I was sure they weren’t looking at me. They were looking at the pretty girls, the ones who nailed their outfits daily, whose boobs could fill out more than a training bra and whose butts were bumps, not bulges. When it comes to men, that’s the shame I cannot tame.

Shame is exhausting. And sad – so very sad. How much of my life has been lost in shame? How much care and comfort have I rejected because I was so ashamed to need? I thought if I let myself feel how much I needed I’d be swept away screaming, and who would want to come near me then?

I still weep for what I carry, wishing someone would appear and ask if I’m okay. No, I would say. I am not. And the best thing is that when I came from a day where I’ve had to listen to how John’s kid was a varsity golfer, Mary’s kid was accepted into Columbia, and Bob’s kid was auditioning for a Broadway play while my kid’s a bunch of ashes is in various jars around my house , I can say, “Today was hard,” and two strong arms would pull me close. No one can take this grief from me – I don’t want anyone to take it from me. I just want to come home to someone who cares.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Who I Am Not (Part 1- The Question)

I was listening to a podcast of “Snap Judgment” called “Identity Theft” when the host said there would be stories about people answering the question we all ask: “Who am I?” And I thought about that, how I no longer ask myself that, how angry I feel about that question. About how the first thing I think about the question is, who, exactly, is doing the asking?  Are the asker and the “I” two different beings? If someone asked me if I ever wondered who I was, I’d answer that I was the one doing the wondering.

It’s a relief that question doesn’t bother me. I used to torture myself with it. Who am I? Nothing, nobody, unlovable, average-everything and so seriously troubled that I didn’t finish college and didn’t have a career so I couldn’t even say I was something. And most devastating was I couldn’t say I was a writer. I wasn’t published, I hadn’t the legitimacy. So if I’m angry when I hear that question, it’s because it implies there’s an answer that can be found – at least in part – through naming what it is I do.

Of course, for the last 24 years I could call myself a mother. But that wasn’t ever enough. I told myself I stayed home with my kids not so much out of choice but because I hated my job and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. That was true – and what I wanted to “do” was – at that point – unknowable. I believed that was why I suffered depression – I was here, but what the fuck was I supposed to do with myself? Everyone (everyone!) had a life. Work, friends, vacations, interests. Whatever I was interested in I quickly tired of. And I spent much of my time alone.

Things have changed since Philip died and what matters or doesn’t has gotten a whole hell of a lot clearer. I don’t think about “who I am.” I just am. And I won’t be for long, either. I am as temporary as everyone and thing else. I get up every day with a heart that’s cracked open which means I hurt as much as I love. Then I tend to the day. If it’s a weekday I go to work. When I get there I do what needs to be done. I am an assistant – never have I cared less what title is given to what I do. I love my job, I love the busy-ness and diversity. The people are funny and demanding and we work as a team. I love all the ways I am helpful, and that no matter how much I do in a day there are things left unfinished, which means there’s always something waiting for me next morning.

So call me an assistant, call me a mother, a writer, call me whatever you think I am because as you read what I write you are forming a picture of me. That’s what we do. We label people, and since those labels have meaning, we assign that meaning to the person we’re labeling.  To label someone implies you know something meaningful about them. But really, all you know is what they mean to you.

Like this. I dress in what I’ll call Free People du jour. I live in a very liberal town. And when I used to care about politics (which is to say I loved the argument)  I called myself a Republican. One morning I called into the Brian Lehrer show to offer the lone Republican voice on something or other. The next day I met a woman I knew outside the school our kids attended. She hurried over to me. “I heard you on the Brian Lehrer show this morning. I didn’t know you were a Republican…I mean, you don’t dress like a Republican,” she said sadly.

So she saw my clothes and made me into someone, then heard I was Republican and made me into someone else. Those words have nothing to do with me because she’s the one who gave them their meaning – as well as my meaning, by extension.

So “who I am” came to seem a pointless question. The words I longed to use to tell people who I was – a writer, a quilter, a chef, a therapist – were words that conjured up a meaning to me, words that would give me an identity and show people the me I wanted them to see. An acceptable me. No. If I want to do those things, fine. Whatever troubled me wasn’t going to get solved by calling it what it wasn’t.

Philip’s death has left me a wide open space. To be his mother is not just to be the one who gave birth to him, nursed him, took him to school, tended to his needs. Because as he grew so did what was between us. Whatever I was to him when he was five or nine or 12 or 21 changed. The lines blurred, the power shifted. If he had a need I would rise up to meet it in a way that I would only do for my child. But the rest of the time it was a dance, a lovely, lively, lilting play between us. Sometimes I led, sometimes he did. Mostly we were in step with each other, always we did love each other.

To be an assistant is to help in a way I find joyful. To be a mother is to know love. To be a writer is to sit here and work to put words on what it feels like to be alive, what it feels like to live with the death of my son. But whatever it is I am doing, it is not who I am. It’s just what I do. Who I am is part of the mystery. My work is to respond to the moment, not ask myself questions that have no answer. Who am I, why am I here – impossible distractions from reality. Because no matter who, how or why – I am. And “now what?” is up to me.

But life will out, and what I need to live more deeply will be given me. And I am not talking about a walk in nature where the play of sun among the awesomeness of the now-naked trees reveals the meaning of God. How I long for my epiphany. I’m talking about the harder stuff, like going to my junior high reunion for the first time ever, which meant the past mixed in with the present. As did the shame and the joy.

Next: The Reunion

© 2014 Denise Smyth

The Argument (for Lucia)

(This post is dedicated to Lucia, mother of amazing Elizabeth Blue. I love you both.)

“When you’re unhappy you are at war with the truth.”
                                                My Son

I used the possessive there because the things Philip tells me are both simple and profound and I am humbled and grateful to be his mother. It’s because I want some acknowledgment that I brought this child into the world. It’s pride, and I do not say I’m proud of my children. It sounds arrogant and self-serving, as if they need to do something for me to be proud of them, as if their being wasn’t enough. Of course I praised them. Of course I’ve taken deep pleasure at their achievements, at the the things that were important to them. But to tell them I’m proud of them seemed a set-up where they had to do something to get something from me, and if they didn’t do it were they disappointing me -  but it wasn’t about me. Philip and Natalie didn’t have to do anything for me to be proud of them. Their presence was enough.

I wrote before of the way it used to feel to have Philip beside me, to be able to say, this is my son. I can’t do that in the way I want, but I can do it here, with his words. What he says is so right and so true and yet so so so damn hard.

I am not unhappy all the time. One of the reasons is my blog. Here is where I slow down, where I get to spend time with my grief and with my son. And I do need time with both. Another reason is work – I spend over 40 hours a week in a place where my spirits are lifted and laughing is easy. If I did such a thing as make a gratitude list, my job would be up top there with Natalie, Philip and all the people I care for. It’s a blessing, for sure.

But then there’s the quiet. That’s when I think about Philip and the shock of it all. I do better when I’m talking to him instead of thinking about him, because he does comfort. As the edges of my life grow sharper, clearer, I see a way to live with what I know, with what I’m being taught. What if I stopped arguing about the fact that Philip died? What would that look like? It doesn’t mean I’d be carefree about his death. But arguing creates more unhappiness in a situation already fraught with anguish and despair. Arguing is polarizing. It makes it impossible to experience the deeper emotions of what I call grief. “Grief” isn’t one thing. It would be nice to make this all neat and tidy by calling it grief and expecting something of it. Like it will get better every day, that there’s some end to it. There isn’t. But the rage around Philip’s death – that is what keeps me wracked with pain. When I stop the argument – which is what I do when I’m talking to Philip – then a deeper mourning is revealed. Then I hear things like, “When you’re unhappy you are at war with the truth.” Then I have a chance to make meaning. Because meaning isn’t found, it’s made. It’s not a secret that’s revealed, it’s not something anyone can give to you. It’s what you make of what is so, what’s uncovered when you pay attention.

So when I’m not arguing about Philip’s death I can experience what it is. And not just once – there’s not one meaning that wraps it all up. I will live with this sorrow until I die. And life goes on because life is not my life span or Philip’s life span – life is, and it is the fact of death that gives each of us life’s meaning. When we don’t think about death, we’re avoiding it. All the money that’s made and things that are bought and successes we strive for are all to avoid the inevitable. Then when it comes and we are unprepared we ask, what is the meaning, what was it all for? When all the meaning we needed was right in front of us. We just kept looking the other way.

“If you want to die fully, you have to live fully.” That, too, is from my son. Is that not something to think about? Because really, who wants to “die fully?” What does that mean? You and I going to die. So why not do it fully – the way anything you care about doing feels better when you do it fully. But you don’t care to die. The thought makes you unhappy. Because there you are, at war with the truth. If the truth of life is that we’re going to die, how do we live with that? How will we die with that? And how do we live with that most grievous death of all, that of our children? Our children, for God’s sake.

I can’t work with these questions when I’m arguing. Because I’m not listening, and if I don’t listen I can’t learn. Or accept. Or stop resisting. Or whatever words describe what I think I need to do to live with Philip’s death. It is when I relax back into his love that I can talk to him, that I hear what he has to say. Whether I’m asking him which socks go best with my boots or how the fuck am I supposed to live with his death, he answers. Then there’s room for something else besides this raging grief. There’s sadness and mourning that have room to turn into something else. When I’m not arguing I’m transparent, allowing what I feel to shift and move. Understand I’m not talking about happiness. Happiness comes and goes like every other emotion. I’m talking about allowing these feelings to become something different. I’m talking about discovery, I’m talking about the mystery. So sometimes it’s worse, sometimes not. It’s part of the mystery that I miss when I’m insisting things should be other than they are because this is the way I say it should be.

My son. My beautiful, kind, loving child. Look at what he’s done for me in his death – he has blessed me with a better life and he’s asking me over and over to go live it.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

What I Carry

I’m in a river that’s broken through a dam, a river full of furious energy, mindless and untamed. Moving in one direction, but going too fast. I’m not fighting, I’m not even trying to get a grip. I wouldn’t know what to grab on to. I can’t think about it. At this speed, I don’t think, I just navigate past the danger. But I don’t breathe, either.

I smashed my car (no one got hurt and it didn’t get totaled). I spilled water on my computer, dropped my cellphone in the toilet. On a whim I looked online for an apartment and found one. But there’s the matter of the lease I signed for the place where I’m living, which means (so I’m told) I’m responsible for the remaining 8 months’ rent (read: $12,000). But there’s also the horrid brown water coming out my faucets and the refusal of the people responsible to respond to it. To me. That, along with several other issues, might help to break my lease, especially since my friend Cindy put her formidable lawyer shoes on and contacted the Property Manager.

And for whatever reason, I am beginning to understand what it means to “carry Philip’s spirit” into the world. I hate the phrase – it reeks of desperation and I’ve never understood what it meant. How could I? I am grieved and mourning and when I’m alone I can’t help but to just be. Whatever that is. I’ve not hidden how I felt since Philip died. Early on, I’d tell anyone and everyone. Salespeople, cashiers, the gas attendant; someone help me, please help me. I needed kindness. I needed to feel contact, which was impossible. I couldn’t make some effort to carry Philip’s spirit into the world. What I was carrying was crushing me as it was.

Two years and nine months later there’s been a shift. What I carry now, along with my sorrow, is Philip. Like when I was pregnant. For the first three months the only people that knew I was pregnant were my brother-and-sister-in-law and my parents. I said, as many do, that there was most chance of miscarriage during the first three months. I didn’t want to share the joy of pregnancy with anyone who I wouldn’t also want to share the anguish of a miscarriage with. But that wasn’t the all of it. It wasn’t even most of it. What I wanted was quiet time with my son. It would be a rare and short time that I didn’t have to share him with the world. He would always be part of me psychically, mentally, emotionally – but this was the only time he’d be part of me physically. He was my secret joy, he was love in a way I hadn’t known it. Once everyone knew it would be both a celebration and an intrusion.

And so it is now, in reverse. When Philip first died, I couldn’t stop telling people. Now I’m mostly quiet. It hurts. Not always, but often. It was after Philip came into the world that I wanted to share him. This is my son, I would say. Now I can’t, not in the same way. The other night someone asked how many children I had. I have two, I said; but my son died. “I shouldn’t have asked,” the woman said. “Of course you should have,” I answered. “It’s just that death is hard to talk about.” An invitation, for sure – but not one that was answered.

My relationship with Philip is constant and private. He’s too much a part of me to ever be gone. I know this – at least when grief doesn’t overwhelm. And as far as his spirit – I am kinder, more friendly. I am curious about people. I’m not so afraid of them any more. That is Philip, with his grace and ease. “Mom, I like my life” he once said, with a sincerity that stung because I could not say the same. To live with him guiding me is to live gently, is to let life be. And then things happen, then I meet the right people, without even trying.

Like this.

When I’d decided to look online for apartments, I sent emails to different realtors, who emailed back wanting to make appointments. I chose M. M. showed me two apartments that I really liked, one of which I wanted to live in. When I realized I couldn’t just break my lease, I started to flip. Not as bad as last year, which I wrote about here. And M. is one of the reasons for that. Besides her calm and her humor, she’s smart. When I realized I was most likely going to lose the apartment, I started babbling to her about last year and how hard it was and everything was too expensive and no one would take my dogs and she interrupted with, “Okay. But it’s not last year. It’s now.” When I cried because I had to turn that apartment down, she sent me a link to the Rolling Stones, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” When I called her up to tell her the various scenarios that could take place if I could break my lease in two months or four months or not at all, she said, “But we can only deal with reality. Reality is now. And now you have a lease and you’re starting the process to see if you can get out of it early. That’s what we have to work with.”

And really, it’s no surprise. It’s no surprise I chose the Realtor who’d say the things to me that I should be saying to myself. It’s no surprise that as I was driving and thinking Philip is the face of love is the face of love I passed police van #201, then got cut off by a car whose license plate had Philip’s initials. Yet much as I can rattle off the hundreds of times he’s let me know he’s around, I still spend so much of my down-time under the covers, waiting. Just waiting. Philip is asking me to live differently. He is offering me things to think about. He is suggesting that maybe I can try – just a little – to walk in the world the way it is, instead of being seduced by the misery of the underworld. He is asking me to have some faith.

I am grateful for what I have with Philip. That the bond we had in life is even clearer in his death. That he’s teaching me life isn’t what I thought it was, and neither is death. But my God -  I miss him, I miss him, I miss him and there is something too terrible about his death to bear.

But let me share some joy. Here is Nikki, five months old:

Nikki, five months old

© 2014 Denise Smyth

20 Years

Philip and Nicole - 1994?

Philip and Nicole – 1994?

Sometimes, when I especially want to torture myself, I think of life as a long, long road made up of days that turn into weeks that turn into months that turn into years. And “20” is the number that keeps coming up. I’m 56. It’s conceivable I’ll live another 20 years. And I say, “No. I cannot. I cannot live 20 years without my son. I cannot become an old woman who’s lost her son so many years ago, who’s gotten older while he’s stayed the same.” It’s as if in 20 years he’ll be more dead, as if “more dead” makes any kind of sense.

So here are my two angels, Philip and Nicole. Nicole died 20 years ago today. Which means my brother and sister-in-law have lived that long without her. They were at the beginning of starting their family when she died. She was four, and her sister Christina was 18 months, the same age as Natalie. They went on to have three more children. That’s a whole hell of a lotta love.

Philip and Nicole are ten months apart – she is the older one. By the time Philip was a year and a half, he and Nicole were the same size and had the same curly hair. People often thought they were twins. I have many pictures of them together, and in some of them – like the one above – there is something very adult about the two of them. One of my favorites – one I can’t find – is where they’re leaning on a low stone wall, Philip with his navy cardigan and baggy plaid pants, holding a sippy-cup and looking to the side; Nicole in her flowered dress leaning on him with one arm around his neck. In another world, he’d be the tough guy with the drink in hand, she’d be the doll by his side.

What to say? I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to figure that out. I miss these children terribly. They’ve shown me how bloody harsh life is; they’ve also shown me just how madly I can love. My heart is breaking all over again. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Here’s one more photo. October, 1994. Nicole has only weeks left to live. She looks well, her hair’s growing back after the chemo. So were the cancer cells that raged in her head. But I believe these two are at peace, and for that I am grateful.

Philip and Nicole, October 1994

Philip and Nicole, October 1994

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