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

Give My Life, Live My Life

What wildness there is in grief. What unpredictability. And exhaustion. I’m tired of this crazy ride, I’m tired of missing Philip. Crying won’t bring him back, but I do it anyway. When words won’t come, tears take their place. I cry because I want my son alive, because I am helpless, because I want somebody to hang on to for a while, two strong arms and a shoulder I can tuck myself into and make believe, even for a while, that someone’s love for me is greater than this loss I don’t want to live with. And so the ugliness of grief – it creates a terrible need and then makes it impossible to meet.

My son. Sometimes I call him Philip, sometimes I call him my son. I’ve been trying more often to write “Philip.” “Philip” is older, is more independent, more of a partner. He is tall and handsome. He goes to school and pays his rent. He comes to dinner with me and even when he’s 21, he comes and lies on my couch when he’s not feeling well.

When I say, “my son,” I’m on my knees with my eyes raised to the holy heavens, begging for him to please come home. When I say, “my son” I’m lamenting more than saying – and I join the collective of all who’ve lost a child. It doesn’t make it better, that anyone else should feel this. We suffer a loneliness that can’t be touched because each of us lost our child and our special relationship and no matter who is suffering this, it’s hard to believe anyone else really gets it. Because Philip is my son and I am the one who lost him most.

I’d have given my life for my son. I’d have stalked, roared, clawed, destroyed anyone who dare try to hurt him. Because that’s what mothers do. I think I’ve been calling him “Philip” more because it hurts just a little bit less. Because claws and all I couldn’t protect my son, and if I call him Philip I know that he’s responsible for his death, too.

I don’t mean that I’m responsible in that I could have done something so he wouldn’t have died. I’m responsible for his being born, for the ways I responded to his life and now his death. At some point, the madness of grief has to give way to at least some lucidity where I can make decisions about how I feel and what I’m going to think about. I resist this. I grieve – as we all do – in the context of my life. Since I was a kid I’ve found it hard to be here and I still don’t get what’s so great about life. The way people don’t understand what I’m talking about is the way I don’t understand their ready engagement with the world. I am so angry that when I’d finally broken it down into something I could manage, when I decided that what I had to remember was I have my kids and I could build my life from there, Philip died. The nameless darkness I’ve lived with can now be called Death – and I can’t tell the grieving from the blaming.

I’m staring down the question we all come to sooner or later – how do I live in the face of death? Lately I’ve been doing that by waiting. In between time with Natalie and time at work, when I’m alone, I wait for it all to pass. I tell myself it doesn’t matter if I write or sew or cook or just lie on the couch and watch TV because sooner or later it’s all going to be gone. So what if I don’t like where I’m living? So what if don’t do laundry for weeks or if I eat sandwiches every night? So what if staying home sounds better than anything I can think to go out and do? When my turn comes I don’t think it’s going to matter where I lived or how many pillows I’ve sewn. It’s all going to fall away anyway, so what’s it really matter?

There is something Zen-like in that. To “not mind what happens” is the way to peace. But that’s not what I’m doing. I’m perverting that into defeat and a surrender to despair instead of acceptance. I’m so tired of Philip being dead, so weary of what I now carry. I know death, I want to scream; I know death. And it is not the end, it is not anything like the end. In fact, it’s endless. And relentless. You can’t reason with it, you can’t stop it, and once it’s come you can’t make it go away. You can’t call your kid any more, can’t watch him graduate from college, can’t get to know his new girlfriend or wonder if he’ll ever have kids because even though you never much liked babies, you were wild about your own and “grandma” had stopped sounding old, it just sounded like having more to love.

I’ve gone through – and am probably not done with – feeing guilty about being a mother who couldn’t protect her kid. Philip, from the second I found out he died, has asked something else of me. And when I talk like this, when I give up, I feel I’m betraying him. What am I doing with all he communicates to me? There’s a deep disconnect between my ranting at his death and the wonder at the love and protection I feel from him, that he shows me every day in tangible ways. Little things, like when I signed up for an adult ed class, walked into the high school and said, “Philip, I want to be in room 201.” Ridiculous, I knew, because class was on the first floor and I’ve been in that school enough times to know the rooms on the first floor start with 1. So while it couldn’t have been room 201, it was the next best thing: 102.

Or the bigger things, the things he gives me to think about. Like last week, on my way home after work, when the drive went from annoying to unbearable. I’m obsessively crazy about getting home, watching the cars on the highway more than the road itself to see if there’s an opening to get ahead. I strategize, I maneuver. I’m aggressive and treat each car like its sole reason for being in proximity to me is to keep me from getting where I want to go. It doesn’t matter that I see how crazy I am, or that I’m rushing home to spend a night alone, a night where I’ll dive under the covers in despair about Philip. I just want to get where I’m going. And on that day while I was thinking that I can’t do this any more but I’m helpless to do otherwise, I heard Philip. “Swerve, mom,” he said. “Just swerve.”

That’s all he had to say and I could breathe again. Philip was asking me if I could go gently, gracefully, from one lane to another when there was room to do so. I felt the breath that would allow me to do that, breath that would create the room I was desperate for. It’s holding my breath that makes me feel trapped. And then I understood what Philip was really telling me. That there are things I will come up against all the time, things that will not move and that I can’t barrel my way through. I can’t control any of that. But I can breathe and go round them, because that is the part that’s up to me.

I still don’t know what death is. I just keep learning what it isn’t. It’s life that’s harder than any of it. And the hardest question of all is that I said I’d give my life for Philip – why, then, won’t I live it for him?

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Healthy?

I’ve said before that I don’t listen to the news because I can’t stand the fighting. It’s always the same argument, and it gets vicious. The form changes, but not the content. People kill each because they want to be right, from the guy who shoots his girlfriend in the head to the guy who decides it’s time to drop the bomb. And when it comes to politics, people will go out of their minds to prove they’re right because it’s all about power. When they get that power, they’ll say anything to keep it. And if they can’t have it themselves, they’ll attach themselves to others who do. That’s what name-dropping is about – I might not be enough, but if I know people that matter, then I’ll matter, too.

And is that really what matters? I won’t listen to what I can only call insanity. I will not take on any more hurt than I have to.

Natalie listens to a lot of podcasts. Driving her to work one day, she asked if she could put one on. “I don’t want to listen to politics,” I warned her. As I’ve turned away from the daily warfare we know as politics, Natalie has turned from the parental fiscal conservativeness she grew up with to all-things-NPR. I don’t care. She knows I won’t discuss it, and she assures me that all she wants me to listen to are the stories of “This American Life.

I love stories. I get lost in stories. That’s why in the last two-and-half years I’m making up for all the TV watching I never did. When my kids were growing up, the only TV I watched was an hour or two of news after dinner, before I started reading. Now I hunt down old series that I can sit and watch for hours. Those imagined lives; those attractive people who care about things and get involved in things because they want to do things with all those other people who want to do those things, too. And they’re all adults. There’s CJ, tall and gracious yet so down to earth as she handles POTUS’ press conferences. Or busty, no-nonsense Joan, running the office of that ad agency with a smartness that comes from knowing how to use her sex. Or Rust – oh, Rust. Serious, worn, rugged, handsome and way too smart to live in a world like this.

When I watch TV I am transported and I forget. For just a while, I forget.

I’m hooked on “This American Life.” Whenever I’m driving, I listen. Last week I heard a show called “Origins,” four stories about the way certain things had started. Story number two was about a restaurant called Chad’s Trading Post. The producer of “This American Life” and his girlfriend happened in on it one day. When they picked up the menu, they read the restaurant was dedicated to and operated proudly in the memory of Chad. When they looked around, they saw the waiters at the Trading Post wore blue t-shirts with white writing on the back that announced their relationship with Chad: ”Chad’s Father,” “Chad’s Brother” “Chad’s Best Friend” “Chad’s Cousin.” Chad’s Mom, it turned out, used to work there, but was now involved in other things. There were pictures of Chad everywhere, even one that was life-sized. And so being a radio show producer, he spoke to Chad’s father Glenn, and got the story.

March 11th, 1990, two days before Chad’s sixteenth birthday, he was in his room with a friend and a couple of guns. The guns were legal, belonged to Glenn, who had no idea they were in his son’s room and so has to live with what he now knows. Chad picked up a gun, aimed it at his friend and said, “Bang.” The friend picked up the other gun, aimed it at Chad and went “Bang.”

I don’t know if Chad died immediately or in the ambulance, but just like that he was gone. The family went into shock, grief, despair. Chad has two brothers, Scott and Cory. How are we to live, they asked? Scott and his dad had to make a deal not to kill themselves. They all got tattooed in memory of him. Even grandma got one on her chest. And after a few years of despondency, they decided to open a restaurant.

From the time he was 12, Chad talked about opening a restaurant with his brothers and his best friend Mike, after they graduated high school. They planned the menu and scouted locations. So a few desperate and desolate years after Chad died, that’s what the family did. In telling the story, the producer remarked that he’d done many interviews and was used to people who started to cry in the middle of their story. Glenn was the first person who cried before he even started. And when he finished telling his story, the producer asked if this wasn’t kind of creepy, if this “roadside memorial” was a healthy thing to be doing.

I bet that producer never lost someone he loved, the kind of someone he loved in ways he didn’t know he could love. What is creepy about a family struggling to live with their son’s death? According to the reporter, Chad’s Trading Post was a happy, homey restaurant. The family talked about the fun and joking that went on while they worked. It’s the way they spend time with Chad. So what’s creepy? Why isn’t it creepy when you walk into a restaurant that’s plastered their walls with pictures of Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball? They’re as dead as Chad. Or those places where the waiters and waitresses dress up to look like those dead actors? But then, that’s not personal. Death in the abstract is okay. The reality of it is not.

And healthy? WTF is healthy? Isn’t that what you’re aiming for when you stop eating crap, join the gym, give up alcohol, keep a yoga mat in your trunk? “Healthy” has become chic, marketable and expensive. It has its own language, with words like “organic” “balanced” “healing energy” and “holistic” (sometimes spelled with a “w” to drive the point.) When I hear healthy, I think vanity. I think of the obsessiveness of trying to get your body to look and function the way you think your body should look and function – and the incessant chattering about reps and presses and miles ran and tendons torn. You know what? Go for it. Eat well. Exercise. But spend at least as much time thinking about death as you do working out at the gym. Because when death comes to tell you it’s your turn, being the best-looking body in a coffin will give new meaning to the term “cold comfort.”

I’d like to ask that producer what his version of healthy would be. If Glenn turned away, looked stoically toward some Chad-less future, lived with what he knew but put it in its place and moved on – is that would it would look like? “Healthy” is exactly what we do to avoid death. And when your kid dies and death demands you pay attention, you do pay attention. What the reporter was really saying was, “You’ve made this a little too real for me. I’d prefer to avoid it. Can you please show me how?” He wasn’t asking about Glenn, he was asking about himself.

I wonder if there aren’t any new questions to ask those of us who are living on the other side. Because clearly, living with Philip’s death has put me on some other side. And on this side, the words “grief” and “healthy” haven’t a goddamn thing to do with each other. Things are different here; the same rules don’t apply. There are no rules here, except the ones we each make. Or don’t make. Over here, we don’t ask each other if what we do is “healthy.” We ask, “How did you survive today?” Because sometimes, surviving’s just the best we can do.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

It’s Over

“While you were lookin’ for your landslide
I was lookin’ out for you
I was lookin’ out for you
Someone’s lookin’ out for you”

Brandi Carlisle

That’s all it took to wreck me, because I’m like that with music again – I can’t listen to it because it touches deeply and anything that touches deeply hurts and twists into something to do with Philip. And I hear these words as an accusation. She knew what she was doing, but where was I? Was I looking out for Philip? Was does that even mean? Something was going on and I wasn’t paying attention. And maybe I never paid the right kind of attention. Sure I love, I adore, my children. But maybe love is not enough – sometimes saying “no” is required and I am not good at that. I was afraid to be in conflict with Philip because I might lose him. I have never understood that anger isn’t the end.

I thought that I never asked myself if I could have done something that would have kept Philip alive. I mean, I don’t go back to the days and weeks and months leading up to his death and wonder what I could have done differently. I don’t wonder why I didn’t take seriously all the times I saw Philip dead, that I never thought I was having a premonition. Even if I thought that, what could I have done? I can just see myself trying to convince Philip that he was going to die so he should…what? Be careful? Not go out for a while? Come live with me until the coast was clear? How bizarre would that have been? I used to wish I was psychic. But being psychic doesn’t mean you can preclude things. It doesn’t make you God, doesn’t mean you get to orchestrate your portion as if it’s separate from the whole. It’s a responsibility – maybe you can know or sense what’s coming, but I would not wish to know the crisis that was heading my way. If I’m grateful for anything, it’s that the way Philip, Death and I had a relationship since he was little is something I can piece together as I look back, not something I saw as foreboding when it was happening.

When Philip died I felt responsible – not for some particular thing I did or didn’t do, but because I am his mother and I didn’t protect him. It matters not how he died – this is what a parent feels. And when Phil showed Philip’s autopsy to a doctor and was told that it’s not likely that Philip died from the amount of drugs in his system, that he probably had something like an undetected  heart condition, well, that made me feel worse. He came from my body – could I not make a child that was whole and healthy?  I did everything right when I was pregnant – I ate well, exercised, gained the right amount of weight. I had home birth because I would not deliver myself into the hands of a hospital staff I didn’t know or trust and who might interfere with a process they were taught to see as a health hazard. I nursed Philip for a year and a half, made his food when he started eating. I didn’t feed him meat because I see it as cruel and unnecessary, never gave him milk because it’s a myth that that’s something children need. They’re not calves, for God’s sake. What did I do any of that for? So he would grow strong and healthy. So he wouldn’t die. Isn’t that why we do the things we do for our children – so they won’t die? And if, after all that, his body was inadequate, how could it not be my fault?

I really like to say I don’t bother myself about what I did or didn’t do for Philip, because it makes no sense to do that. I know what I’m supposed to do. I’m supposed to figure out how to live with his death because to argue about it is crazy. It’s a terrible struggle enough without torturing myself about the past. Except that’s where grief’s led me. Back to the bitter, hopeless tears, to the helpless horror, to the inability (real or imagined) to say what this is and the goddamn rage and loneliness that comes from that. If I can’t say it, then what is left?

I think I skipped a step. Yes, the work is living with Philip’s death. But I haven’t finished with the part about if I’d done something different. And not in any particular moment, but in the way that I was Philip’s mother. I’m full of self-loathing because of the ways I stood back, the ways I didn’t say no, the ways I wasn’t strict either because it’s not in my nature or because the older Philip got, the less right I felt I had to tell him what he couldn’t do. But did I give that right up too easily?

People die for all kinds of reasons. There isn’t one story for each “kind” of death. Getting shot doesn’t mean you’re a criminal, getting cancer doesn’t mean you didn’t take care of yourself, snorting too much heroin doesn’t mean your mother wasn’t good enough. But that’s my mythology: the mother who meant well but let it slip away because she felt helpless. And my touchstone was the family across the street from us with the mother who was strict, had rules, and was not going to let her children get away from her. Her son and daughter were smart, polite, respectful and always – even in their jeans – carefully dressed. No weird and menacing black t-shirts, no Converse so worn their soles were split. I am so sure that these children grew into responsible young adults with serious interests and quiet, envious careers. Because that’s what their mother insisted.

All this, about a woman I never even met. But she haunts me, this fairy-tale Mother. She lurks around the dark and slimy mess I think my life’s become. Which is crazy and irrational because my daughter adores me, there are people who love me, my job is a dream and I am finally writing and taking the risk of pushing the “publish” button when Im done.

It’s over. Philip’s childhood is over, and I had all of it. Whatever kind of “mom” I was, he died loving me and he is right here protecting me. That’s the reality of now, not the story I tell of the kind of mother I was. It’s time to end that one, for sure. I am a writer; why can’t I do this? Because endings are hard. It’s why this post has taken weeks to write. I don’t know how to end it any more than I know how to end that story.

Why can’t I just say, It’s over?

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Year Three

Year three. I laugh. I’m happy at work. I eat more. I’m kinder, I smile at strangers. I take pleasure in being helpful. I go out more than I used to. I don’t always notice the perpetual knot in my stomach. I’m sewing again. I signed up for a class on Macbeth and another at a local craft store. I don’t wake up every morning and wish I hadn’t.

But I still wake up lots of mornings and think, “Again.” I might go out more, but not a lot. I feel odd and different. I’m alone in a way I didn’t know possible, and I know too many people know what I mean. I often feel like I can’t do this, but I don’t know what that means because I do, in fact, do this. I buy too many clothes because every time there’s a box at my door with my name on it, I think it’ll save me.

And I still cry in the grocery store, like when a song I wouldn’t normally pay too much attention to comes over the sound system and the singer is so earnest when she sings, “Because of you…” but I don’t hear the rest of it because whatever she’s singing couldn’t possibly mirror what I think/feel when I hear those three little words. And I still won’t let it comfort me that when I got out of that grocery store, the car parked across from mine had Philip’s initials and the year he was born on its license plate and was next to another car with his initials and the day he died.

Year three, and I still spend a lot of time alone. Grief’s my companion and I can’t get to know it if I don’t spend time with it. How shall I mourn? What is it to live with this shocking truth I’ve come to know? And what of my secret? That I know the yin-yang of grief means there is joy and beauty that’s as terrible as this anguish. To even think such a thing feels like a betrayal. And I don’t have to be told that it’s not – I’m not talking rational here. Philip does not want me unhappy. “Mom, you don’t have to choose,” he said. But that remains a thought, not an experience. When I go too long without thinking of him, I panic. When Philip was alive, I learned I wasn’t going to lose him. That the more I let go, the longer our bond. That hasn’t changed – I haven’t lost him, except for the way that I want him.

But how blessed am I? Philip is all around me. He talks to me, guides me, makes his presence known in ways that still make me twitch and blurt “fuck” because that’s how amazing he is. But Year Three, and I still ask myself, what I do with all that? His presence is a given. I don’t “look” for him – he is the one who makes himself known. But what do I do with that? I see sign after sign after sign and then I disconnect, go home and have a good cry. Because grief trumps all.

Year three and I’m still struggling with language. I’m struggling to write about truths without sounding trite and cliched because they sound like those things people say without really thinking about what they’re saying. Anything said over and over loses its power to move us, to tell us something we don’t already know. To say things like “you don’t get more than you can handle” or “everything’s a lesson” is infuriating when things start to get real, like they do when someone you love dies. Especially when that someone is your child.

But the saying is necessary. That’s why writers write. Good writers will make you pause and consider, rethink what you thought you already figured out. I want to be that writer because how the hell else am I going to figure this out?

Year three and there’s still that one thing that’s always been easy. It’s easy for me not to ask why – it doesn’t matter and it doesn’t help. It’s never the why, it’s the what-I-do-with-what’s-so. “Why” might have a time and a place, but Philip’s death isn’t it. “Why” keeps me rooted in an ugly world where I judge and condemn and assume that I know what should and shouldn’t be – it keeps Philip’s death real personal, as if it was something done to me and if it was done to me, then something’s done it and might do it again. But there is no “something,” not in that way. Of course more crises can come. That’s life. But it’s not personal, there’s nothing out there doing stuff to me. We each have our share. So what do I do with mine?

To be in the world, but not of the world – that’s what Philip’s trying to teach me. And I see the simplicity of it. If I take seriously all the signals he sends every day in the most startling ways, then I am beginning to see things a little differently. If I pay attention to what he is now and stop looking back and forth to what we were and what I thought we’d be, then I can breathe a little. If I stop trying to make sense of a world that is essentially senseless and look to my experiences to teach me what’s so, then I am taking real responsibility for creating my own world – something I’ve never done. I’ve watched most of my life, like it’s a movie. I’ve waited for life to give me something it can’t. I’ve let it happen and taken my sorrows as defeat. My choice – I have a choice. And when I finally had the nerve to choose differently, Philip died and I thought the world was making some hideous cosmic joke. “Mom, you gotta to go deeper,” Philip said. But this grief, this grief; it’s this dark where I go deeper, and I know that’s not what he meant.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Nikki

It’s taken two weeks of writing for me to realize what I want to say – and this isn’t it. But I’m posting this first because it’s been too long, and next because I want to show you.

I have an open heart toward animals, which is why I don’t eat them. But when I decided I wanted a dog, it wasn’t just any dog. It had to be a shih-tzu, and now I have two. There’s something I can’t figure out about this – since there are so many dogs that need homes for free, why buy one? We’re talking about sentient creatures, not the right pair of Converse. If I wanted a dog, why did it have to be a shih-tzu? Why did it have to look a certain way? Sure, even in a shelter you have to pick, but you’re picking among dogs that need homes. I bought a dog that had a waiting list of people wanting to take it home.

It’s not breeders that are the problem – if the only people selling animals were breeders, that would take care of the homeless-animal problem. But that’s a fantasy – reality is, as usual, hard and ugly. And I can’t help but look at myself more closely since Philip died, wonder why I do what I do. And given the way I feel about animals, this is a conundrum – but the short answer is I am intensely attracted to long hair, big eyes and a puggy face. And what I wanted in my heart overruled what I thought in my head. It’s not bad, it’s not good, it just is. And I’d say in general, the heart is the one to trust.

This time it was beautiful, long-haired, blue-eyed cat that I wanted, and here she is:

Nikki 8-24-14

Nikki at two months

Nikki is a Himalayan, and I pick her up on Friday. She’s named after my dad – Nicky – and my niece Nicole, who died when she was four, which I wrote a little about here. Right now Nikki’s a teeny two pounds or so. I just want to pick her up and hold her close – it’s that ache again, that wanting that is not going to go away, but maybe can be eased a little. So I’ve another baby to love, and that has got to be a good thing.

(If you’re wondering what’s up with the background in the picture, Nikki’s owner has a cat ledge in her house that’s in front of a painting of a beach. Everybody knows cat-people are crazy…need I say more? ;o)

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