Just Like That

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just. Like. That.

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Sometimes

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2015 Denise Smyth

What He’s Asking

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

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

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

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

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

Like this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Those Next Days…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2015 Denise Smyth

The Voice in my Head

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let me be the voice in your head.”

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Always Been So

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, there was also reality.

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

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

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

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Three Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So mourn him I will – argue, I won’t.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

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