For a Reason?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Let It Go

Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.

                           –Mary Oliver

Let it go. Not Philip – that isn’t possible, even if I wanted it so. Just let go the rage, the grief, the despair, the emotional flailing because my child has died. My child has died. The most shocking words I have ever said.

The way I better understand this is to say, “no resistance.” “Let it go” sounds like make it go away, make these things we think we owe our dead disappear. That’s not what it means. To not resist is to let it be. Let the grief be. I’ve reached a point where I can think about what that means. Grief isn’t going to go away, nor is anger. When I resist them, it’s like holding on to fiery coals and what happens to hands that cling to fire? They burn. And they burn. And then they burn some more. They won’t stop burning until the hands begin to loosen. The fire doesn’t go away. But the hands, while still hurt, begin to heal, even as they remain forever scarred.

The source of salvation in this world is letting go. To stop resisting what is. I’ve spent my life looking for an answer when it was there in front of me all the time. Salvation comes not from without, but within. It took Philip’s death to catapult me into this wisdom that I was dancing around with before he died.

Letting go is work. It’s not something done once, but once you really do it, there’s no turning back. You forever know the grace of letting go, you know what it feels like, you know it’s a decision in your power to make. When Philip died I said a cosmic fuck you. I didn’t want to know what was then my credo: Accept it, leave it, or change it. The only workable alternative was impossible. Accept it? In my hellish grief, I misunderstood what that meant. Accept it didn’t mean it was okay. It meant grieving but not fighting. It is possible to grieve without fighting. That doesn’t mean I don’t love Philip. And in letting go of the fight, I am free to live in his love.

The month before Philip died I was debating whether to take a Shakespeare class at the local adult school. While I love Shakespeare, it’s difficult to read on my own. It’s in class that the work comes alive. I was ambivalent, and as Philip told me, ambivalence is not nothing. For a month I carried the brochure around, longing but stopping. Until I finally decided to stop stopping and went online to register. The class was full, the fact of which knocked me off my feet and sent me spinning into some fantastical universe. The chattering in my head was unbearable until I finally listened to what that voice was saying:  You’re not good enough, you’re not smart enough, this is Montclair for God’s sake, filled with intellectuals, did you really think they’d let you into their club??

Notice that the voice was saying “you,” not “I.”  What, who, was this voice that drove me into such darkness, such hatred? It didn’t matter. All that mattered was I got it. The only reason I didn’t get into that class was because it took me a month to make a decision. It wasn’t personal. It wasn’t about me. The class was filled. Period.

I let it go –  I took a big, deep breath and let it go. The knot in my stomach didn’t go away, the ground didn’t immediately return to steady me, but there was space around all of I. I saw it was my thoughts that created my reality. I was excited. This was the work and I was doing it. So simple, so profound. And it didn’t mean I wouldn’t come up against something like this again, it just meant I could choose not to get caught in it.

So I looked at the brochure and took note of the date class started. Monday, February 27th. Let me see what I’ll be doing on that day, I thought. Maybe something better will come along.

I couldn’t know that what I’d be doing was giving my son’s eulogy.

Heaven and hell converged that night, and for a long time hell won. Philip’s words to me were never forgotten: Mom, you gotta go deeper. I knew he was right. I didn’t care. He was dead and that’s all that mattered. What I refused to realize was that the greatest teaching in this world would come from from his death. Of course I couldn’t realize – death consumes, strangles, destroys everything in its wake. But it is not for nothing that the phoenix rose from the ashes, its youth renewed, ready for another cycle.

I’m trying to teach you what death isn’t, Philip told me. It isn’t the end – there is no “end.” Not to what matters. Bodies are temporary. Death is change. Change is always uncomfortable because it’s the death of what was. I’m looking for the courage to jump into the void of change. I know what it feels like. I’ve done it. It’s what to do with Philip’s death. Holding my grief is not going to bring him back. Letting it go isn’t a betrayal. And yes, it leaves me vulnerable. To pain as well as to love. But still there’s that knot, past pain tangled up with Philip’s death and I am yet scared to really let go. To fully embrace my son exactly as he is. Still there’s something so terrible about him dying, and something that feels familiar about this sorrow.

At the end of Philip’s eulogy I asked, “Can I love this child of mine without attachment?” In other words, can I love him and not cling to my wretched grief? Even then I knew letting go was the answer, much as it was impossible to do so. Now I do it in bits and pieces as I hold him close to my heart. Because holding onto him feels better than those fiery coals.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Something Bigger

Free will and fate. I believe in both. I also believe in karma. Some of this is contradictory, but I’m willing to hold that contradiction because there’s a mystery to life that I cannot know. It’s like I’m standing in front of a gorgeous painting five miles high and ten miles wide but all I can see is the little part in front of me. Out of context, it might not make sense. It doesn’t fully convey what the painter meant. But just because I can’t see the whole of it doesn’t mean it isn’t there, doesn’t mean there isn’t meaning that I can’t grasp.

We all make choices. But there are only a limited amount of choices we can make. It is not true that you can “be” anything you want to be. When I was a kid I desperately wanted to be a singer. I can’t sing. I cursed God for yet another thing He withheld from me. It’s not an option for me to be a rock star or to be president. It’s not an option for me to own a mansion or manage a baseball team. But within life, I have my own choices and those choices create the circumstances where I experience life.

Every moment is where I experience life.

I believe in fate. Philip died because he snorted heroin but that isn’t the whole of it. Looking back at the way death touched both our lives, from the two-year-old who told me his dead grandpa was “in the light” to the way I kept seeing him dead in the months leading up to his death…and looking at what his death has done to me, it’s hard not to see a sort of “supposed to” as part of this. It does not feel entirely wrong that he’s dead, no matter how much I don’t want to accept it.

But there’s something bigger, more pressing, more to the point, because my circumstances are not the point. The way I think about them is. Whatever it is, the question is, What purpose does this serve? Take my job. I’m an administrative assistant, I’m the office manager. But that’s not who I am. It’s not what I do that matters, it’s how I am. Every day’s interactions are a chance to be present or to go to sleep. And I work for someone who is challenges me in this. The difficulty I have in responding to him shows me my real work which is way more important than what I get paid to do.

Last week my boss, Jack, was out of the office and called because needed something from me quickly. His abruptness unnerved me, and here’s where the present dissolved into the past, which means I went to sleep. I became the kid with the forbidding parents who couldn’t do anything right. I panicked because I didn’t think I could find what he needed, and after I did, I told him, “I’m afraid of you.” A few minutes later he called me back. “Look,” he said. “I don’t want you to be afraid of me, I want you to help me.”

Is this someone to be afraid of? I think not. But it’s not about him. It’s about the way my being is affected by him and how I’m going to work through it. It is the working through the difficulties in life, the being-ness that’s there when I do, that matters. A lot of that requires letting go of what I’m resisting to move more fully into life. And it is that letting go that I need practice because one day there will be a final letting go, and if I can’t let go of my boss’ impatience what makes me think I’ll be able to let go for the big one?

Death has lessons to teach us, and not morbid ones. Every time we stop resisting the circumstances of our lives, it prepares us that much more for death. And why not practice for that inevitable moment? Anything you want to do well takes practice. So why not practice what matters? A life lived without contemplating death is a shallow life. It’s made of up desire and accumulation of not only objects, but of people. None of which are real or sustaining, but a way of avoiding. I don’t want to avoid the fact of death, but neither do I want to continually feel like I don’t know how to live. Whatever I’ve come to understand since Philip died, the tangible ways he lets me know he’s around, doesn’t change the fact that I feel I like I lost a limb. Like I’m searching for something but I don’t know what it is. That there are times this still feels like a horror – did he really die, this child of mine? Will I really grow old without him?

Have I not yet learned that life is not predictable and any breath can be my last?

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Survivor Guilt

There are times when naming things creates problems. We name something, then we think we know what it is. I mean, I’m looking at my barn-wood six-foot bench that I use as a coffee table. In this instance, I can’t even exactly name it – is it a bench, or is it a coffee table? But what is it? It’s made from painted wood. If I was a scientist I might know the molecular structure of that wood. But that still wouldn’t tell me what it is. Things have an is-ness that can’t be named. If we didn’t name everything and then assume we know all about it, we might get closer to what that is-ness is.

We name “conditions,” too – we get diagnoses and begin to treat the disorder. Conditions have symptoms attached to them, and it’s not uncommon for people to think they have a condition and manufacture the symptoms to match it. I bring this up because it was suggested to me that I have “Survivor Guilt”. My reaction was to recoil, like, oh, please, that’s something other people get. I’m way beyond that sort of thing. Because sometimes my sense of cool still gets offended. Because I have a habit of wanting to be different. Like I don’t want to do death like the rest of the world.

It makes no sense to me, this Survivor Guilt. For decades I swore I wanted to opt out of this life. Swore I hated it here, that I didn’t belong here. I felt too much pain in this world, with not much peace to offset it. So how I could I feel guilty being here when Philip was wherever it was I’d been wishing myself to be for so damn long?

But what explains the way I short circuit when I notice I’m happy? And what does it mean for me to be happy? I’ve had a problem with that word since way before Philip was even a thought. It seemed silly. “Happy?” Like jump up and down for joy, like everything is okay? My philosophy was something like if you’re happy you’re not paying attention. Unhappiness gave me an edge – I saw things the way they really were. Happy was cheap and weak. Surface living. Naive. And not cool – definitely not cool.

As for guilt – for what? Guilt requires having done something wrong by choice. I felt so wronged by life I swore it wasn’t possible to feel guilt. Life should feel guiIt because It was indifferent to my unhappiness. I didn’t consider that if I felt life was beating me up, I must’ve thought I deserved it – hence, guilt. As far as feeling guilty about Philip’s death – it had nothing to do with me. There was nothing I could have done and I don’t make believe that there was. I’m trying to live with the reality of this, not a fantasy.

I had an idea about happy the way I had an idea about guilt. Thoughts in my head about what those words meant. I didn’t allow myself to feel them, either. I pushed those feelings into the background and let unhappiness be the foreground. But that rid me of nothing. It just let me not pay attention.

A couple weekends ago Natalie and I went to a wedding in Manhattan. My cousin was getting married, and my family was spending the night in a hotel. The ceremony and reception were held in a restaurant, and while the food was delicious, the service impeccable, and the bride a thing of beauty, the place was bathed with an eerie blue light and the acoustics required conversation to be loud and strained. The “dance floor’ was a tiny square with a DJ that had  two five foot speakers and a rough, ridged rubbery floor that stopped your shoes from doing what they really wanted to do. No matter – there were too many of us crowded on to it to move very much anyway. Who cared? We were in each others’ company to celebrate. So we did.

There were people there – family – I hadn’t seen in a long time. I forgot how much loved them, how much they loved me back. How are you, they asked? And I wasn’t sure if they were asking me how I was like everyone asks of someone not seen in a while, or if it was code for how are you since Philip died. God knows I wished they would ask that of me, but they didn’t. And I acted like that was what they’re asking me by answering with a slow blink and a pointed nod and saying, “I am okay.” I was letting them off the hook and was glad to do so. I’d no interest in making anyone uncomfortable.

Except that later, returning to my seat from the dance floor, I sat alone and wished I could cry to just one of them. They were laughing and talking the way I was laughing and talking. So where was Philip in all this? Did they think I forgot him? Were any of them thinking of him? Why am I so hungry for a witness to what I suffer?

Or did I just think I needed to suffer as a testament to my love for him? And if I think I am losing him in my moments of pleasure then what’s really going on is that I feel guilty that I could laugh while he’s dead. Survivor guilt isn’t what I thought – it didn’t mean feeling like I should have died instead of Philip. I’m not so arrogant to think I know who should be dead and who shouldn’t. What it is is the way I sometimes catch my breath when I realize I like what I’m doing or I’m enjoying the people around me and I stop it all to think, how could any of this matter when my son is dead?

The idea of Philip’s death is not the reality of it. The idea of it is that he’s gone and I cannot live in peace without him. The reality is he’s around me all the time. I have a relationship with him, the kind that matters – that of the heart. That doesn’t change, and what doesn’t change is what’s real. In other words, love. If we are not here to love, what can anything matter?

I have changed since Philip died. I have become more friendly. I smile more. I’m interested. In you. I think that happiness is a gift we give to others. My happiness is more about you than me, but if I can share it with you it’s because it is inside of me. I can somewhat handle happy in a more controlled environment. Like work. I’m all about helping, I’m cheerful, calm and steady. When I see a call coming in from someone I don’t want to talk to, I might sigh and roll my eyes but when I answer I am pleasant and helpful. And I’m okay with that until I hear my co-workers talking about their kids who are in college or have graduated from college and are flying off to new jobs and new marriages and I am reminded I will never dance at Philip’s wedding and that I can’t share with them the relationship I have with him now.

What do we owe the dead? Nothing, I would argue. They are past owing. To owe is to be obligated to – but if I believe I can’t be happy without Philip here, then I must think I owe him my grief. And my guilt. As if that’s anything he would want.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

When We Connect (Part 3)

Last year, holiday time, Max was on my mind, seemed to be all around me. I’m not even sure what I was thinking about him – just some sense of him, along with something vaguely disturbing. Driving home on a late Friday afternoon, I heard Philip say, “Call him.” In that heart-racing-stomach-clenching moment I knew that’s what I had to do. The rest of the way home I had time to think about it. I wasn’t sure what to say…I could wish him happy holidays, tell him I was thinking about him…I could tell him I wasn’t angry, ask him what he’s been up to…but most importantly, I had to understand that I could not expect a Kumbaya moment out of this. I’d love for us to bond over my love and good will, but I couldn’t call him for that reason. No expectations, I warned myself. I’m doing this because it need be done. Period.

Good thing I warned myself. When I called, Max was withdrawn, hesitant. He didn’t say much, not when I tried to chat about what he was doing, certainly not when I told him I wasn’t mad at him, that he was part of Philip’s life and that meant something. Not sure what to do with his awkwardness, I ended the phone call as gently as I could. But I was there for it. I was there for the discomfort of the call mixed with the lightening of a load I wasn’t aware I was carrying. And even though I’d failed at getting Max to open up, I was left with the quiet excitement of being in life.

I told Natalie about it, and she said I had no idea what effect I’d had on Max. Maybe nothing now, maybe something. And if nothing now, maybe one day years from now, a more mature Max would think of this and be relieved. He was, after all, the one who found Philip, the one who felt guilty for introducing him to heroin in the first place. But as I told him when he cried to me at the wake, he didn’t stick it up Philip’s nose and he can’t spend the rest of his life feeling guilty about it.

I offered Max absolution I don’t believe I have the power to give. I am not God. But I am Philip’s mother and as such have a power I don’t often understand. Forgiveness is a tricky thing. If I truly believe you did something wrong, how can I forgive? It feels so high-handed – I’ve decided you’ve sinned and now I will absolve you. But what word is there for what that was? I was freed from a resentment that I didn’t realize was background noise. I’ve no interest in Max suffering – if I knew his suffering it would only add to mine. So if forgive is the word for what I did, then the definition has to be “freed from resentment.”

And then there are those moments – time stops and all there is is what you know. It’s not intellectual – it’s the deep wisdom within, finally, elusively, surfacing. Shattering the monkey mind, however briefly. Why can’t I live in the light of that? Maybe it’s just too bright to be constant. Maybe if it was, I’d burn.

Or maybe I’m just too afraid.

The first year after Philip’s death I was still living with Nadiya. One Sunday night I was in the first floor bathroom, Natalie was up on the third floor, the floor where we lived. Looking in the mirror, I felt a pain in my chest – it was toward the left side and for a moment, I shivered. What if I was having a heart attack? I didn’t believe I was – more likely gas. But I took the opportunity to act it out. I’d been saying how much I wanted to die…what if this really was a heart attack? I bent over and let the pain take over, let myself believe my heart was giving out. Then the shock of reality – Natalie needed me. She needed me. She was not ready for me to die. Her world would be shattered and I could not do that to her. She mattered – she was all that mattered. I stood up to a world that had shifted. Could I? Could I not? Clarity is a shock that humbles. I can’t say I never thought that I wanted to die since then – but I can say I never thought it without seeing Natalie along with it.

Then this. I’ve been watching “House.” If you’re not familiar with the show, House is a doctor in a hospital whose team diagnoses patients with puzzling illnesses. And I can’t watch a show about a hospital without envying the patients. This is an old, old habit. In my fantasy, there is relief in not having to do anything but let the staff take care of me. In fact, when I was a teenager and my friends talked of their fear of giving birth, I’d tell them, I’ll have the babies, you’ll raise them. Because that fantasy also involved a hospital – there I’d be, resting in bed, surrounded by flowers, for just a short bit of time being relieved of the burden of living.

Except that’s not where relief lies. Relief lies in realizing truths. Watching House one day, the shock of what being ill really means hit me. These people were sick. Their lives were on hold, their bodies were out of control. They were frightened. They could become disabled. They could die. And so another fantasy turned inside out, another opportunity to live in truth.

Apparently that particular truth took some kind of hold. Because the next day, outside walking, there rose a thought that was odd and strange and alien to all the things I’ve been thinking since Philip died. I say “rose” because it came from my gut, not from my head. And the thought was this: I am not ready to join him.

For a moment I had faith. Until the murmuring mind began. Are you sure? What if you have 20 years ahead of you? Can you live that long without him? Can you really make that commitment? Do you know what you’re getting into? And Philip chiming in to remind me, Mom, I am right here.

I could go on about the way I struggle with the past in the present, I could say that that’s the voice that always takes over…and maybe it is, but its motivation is something I haven’t explored, something I hadn’t even considered because I didn’t understand what it really was: Survivor Guilt.

And next time I’ll be reckoning with it.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

When We Connect (Part 2)

Grief is a spiral, not a line that goes from here to there. There is no “there,” only here. I still bristle when I hear people talk of “moving on,” though I know it’s said out of a naiveté about death. I am not nostalgic for that time in my life, when death was a concept, not an experience. I have no wish to be innocent. That’s what I love about a wide-eyed child, a nursing baby, a puppy, a kitten – their purity and innocence. Maybe why I ache for them is because it won’t last. Life will make sure of that. Whatever I’ve gone through has been inevitable, and none of it is anything I want to go through again.


What is it that happens when we feel the relief of connection with others? I talked about that in my last. I think what happens when we feel that close to someone is that we recognize something within ourselves. We feel our worth, our value; we feel love. To feel that love is to understand that is what we’re here for. If we can feel that through another, then we know it exists within – and so we feel connected to ourselves. But how strange is that – when I feel love, I feel connected to my-self. So who is the I, and who is the self? Am I two, or am I one? I think of the “I” as the watcher, the constant presence. It’s different from my personality, from my reactions. It is the presence that observes what I do and what I feel. Think about it. Think about the past. When you do, you’re remembering moments that occurred in time. But the “I” that is remembering is outside of time – it is always there and has always been.

As a human being I am subject to rules and conventions. As a spiritual being I have an aspect that’s timeless and changeless, where the laws of this world do not apply. It’s up to me how to integrate these two. It’s up to me to take that spiritual dimension as seriously as I take my humanity.

I’ve had moments that are breaks with the world as I see it. A truth is realized, there’s a shift in perception. And a shift in perception of the world is a relief. Those moments connect me to life and do not necessarily require the presence of another. The question, then, is do I trust enough to take the risk of belief? My ego is not so keen on truth.

I have a niece who died from brain cancer. I wrote a bit about it here. Nicole was only four years old. She’d developed a rare cancer that at the time had only been seen in 60 children in the country, all of whom died. The doctors tried an experimental protocol with her – remove the tumor, then four months of chemo followed by a bone marrow transplant. Three months later the cancer was back. In another three months she was dead.

After that, trying to find some perspective about death, I started to read “Who Dies” by Stephen Levine. I did not consider that one day I would be in the same position as my brother – I was simply trying to understand. At the time, I lived in a large five-room apartment in Brooklyn. This particular day I was in the back of the apartment, in my bedroom, reading Levine. Outside my bedroom was the hall that led to the kitchen, where my mom, who had come to visit, was cooking. Philip, then four, and Natalie, about one-and-a-half, were in the living room watching TV.

It was a winter evening; such a lovely word for the transition between day and night. There’s a mental winding down, a break from the day’s madness. Lying on my bed reading, I could hear the vegetables being chopped, the furious boiling of the water as it waited impatiently for the pasta. The sounds of being taken care of – for just a while I could be the child, waiting for my mother to have dinner ready.

In his book, Levine has a Tibetan meditation on the process of dying. You imagine yourself dying, imagine your body dissolving. So I laid on my back, closed my eyes and relaxed, let go of my body until it no longer felt like pretending. That’s when I started to panic. I was too deep in the darkness to come out of it. All I could think of was my kids. Who was going to raise my kids? My husband would work it out, but no one would love and tend to them like me. Wait, stop – I can’t die yet. They’re going to grow up – I’m not going to see them grow up. This can’t be happening. Except it seemed to yes, really be happening and I could not control it. They were slipping away too quickly and my arms were not long enough to reach them.

Yet in an instant there was a shift. I took a breath and let go. What was happening to me was happening. No point arguing. My children would be fine. My time had come and they were no longer my responsibility. My work was to take the risk of letting all that I knew go, because there was no other way. And I did and I knew peace – the peace of being with what is so. The great and willing leap into the darkness. Swiftly it came, and swiftly it went.

When I have to die, that is the way I want to go. The practice is here, now. The non-resistance of the circumstances of my life. Accept it, leave it, or change it. I recognized that moment of peace, and I have had many since. But swiftly they come and swiftly they go. That great peace of just being. Of breathing. And that is the way to deal with Philip’s death…but that is a darkness I’m still arguing with.

Next, Part 3.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

When We Connect (Part 1)

“There are no rules for friendship. It must be left to itself. We cannot force it any more than love.”
William Hazlitt (1778-1830) British essayist.

A song I’ve recently listened to ends with the line, “There’s nothing in this world that’s holier than friendship.” I disagree. Try to define friendship. There’s a certain general meaning to it, but we each experience it differently. Some people are comfortable calling even casual acquaintances “friends.” What’s holy about that? Some people accumulate friends to fill a hole that only grows larger as they try to stuff it. Many try to be friends with the rich and powerful because it feels good to say you know someone who most of us have only heard of. And there are people like me, who are touchy and careful and scared to use that word. What if I call someone my friend and they don’t like me? I can only call you my friend if I am sure.

I’m going to use the word “soul” here, even though using that word other than in the context of, say, “food,” gives me the creepy crawlies. But it expresses a concept that I have no other word for. So when I say “soul” I’m referring to that holy, sacred, untouchable and often inaccessible place we experience inside ourselves. Simply put, it’s our better nature revealed.

Monday night I went to my writing group at Nancy’s house. We usually start with her reading something that’s caught her attention, a thing of the spirit. That night she read us someone’s take on what he called, “soul friends.” I had a conversation with Philip about something akin to this. Mom, he said, I know you don’t like the term “soul mate” but I have to use it. He told me that people have the mistaken idea that soul mates are romantic relationships, that they last forever. That can be so, but not always. A soul mate is someone who moves you deeply, challenges you, changes you in ways unexpected. And it’s not only through kindness and wisdom. You can have that connection with someone who moves you deeply, then hurts you terribly. It is the quality of the connection that determines the soul of it.

These relationships aren’t made. They are recognized. And that recognition reveals truths. The person in this world I am closest to, who knows me best, is Ed. I met Ed when I was about 40 and had gone back to college. He was my English professor for a Shakespeare class. He started the class sternly. He told the young men to remove their baseball caps. He went over the syllabus, laid out the rules. He talked about missing classes and missing assignments. Shit, I thought, this guy is serious. The he picked up Romeo and Juliet, walked out from behind his desk, gave a small, knowing smile and said, “Now. Let’s read some Shakespeare.”

That was my moment of recognition. I knew he was the teacher I’d been waiting for. Understand this had nothing to do with sex – it could sound like the older-professor-young-adoring-student thing, but that is a caricature of what I have with Ed. What I was after was his mind, his wisdom. I worked hard in that class, and continued to take classes with him. Our relationship developed over the years. It was simple and intimate. Ed knew who he was, and somehow, he knew who I was, too. He lived in Bloomfield, and when I moved from New York to Montclair I was a ten minute drive away. We began to spend more time together. I was restless and unhappy, but when I spent time with him my pieces all fit together. I used to joke that I wanted to move in with him. And I practically did, when Philip died. I’d spend long days with Ed and his wife, Franny. I’d sleep there, get up early to go home and walk my dogs, then go right back to his house. He was my home.

Then there was M. A writer, a poet. Someone I got to know through email, which is a story for another time. We had so much to say to each other, we were so easy together. He, too, felt like home and I fell deeply in love with him. At the time, he was my heart. That was my breakout relationship – because of him, I was catapulted out of whatever it was that bound me. I became a sexual being, I started to like myself because I saw myself through his eyes. When he left I was wrenched, but the gifts I’d discovered remained.

And, of course, my son. It is comforting to say that: my son. It reminds me how much a part of me he is – my son. He is unquestionably my soul mate. When I put my life together, look at it more as a whole, I see the unexplainable experiences I’ve had with Philip. Starting with the time I woke up in the middle of the night to hear the words, “You’re pregnant.” Next day I found out I was. And these things I’m talking about are too real for me to doubt my connection to him. When he was here, I felt how much he loved me and I do not easily feel love from the way I feel love for. He watched me, he paid attention. Such comfort I took from him. I didn’t have to call him or see him, I just had to think of him to feel the way he protected me. Kinda like the way it is now.

Philip is teaching me about death – and no one person has wrenched my soul as he did when he died. I saw Truth in all it harsh and terrible glory. But this theme of death was there from an early age. In the month Philip was to turn two, his grandfather died. I decided to take him to the wake. He has to know death, I thought. He shouldn’t be afraid of it. Getting ready for the wake, in my kitchen at our apartment in Brooklyn, I got down on my knees, took Philip by the shoulders, and said, “Philip, we’re going to see Grandpa Bill. He’s going to be lying down and he’s not going to get up. Is that okay with you?” I wasn’t sure how much he understood. But a little bit later, after I dressed him, then stood him on the kitchen table to fuss with his outfit, I said, “Philip, do you know where Grandpa Bill is?” With no thought or hesitation, he raised his arm, pointed to the ceiling, and said, “In the light.”

After Philip died, I went to the bedroom in the house he lived in to clean it out. I grabbed some of his notebooks to take home. Months later, when I felt ready to look at them, I found an essay he had started. His assignment must have been to write about childhood memories. He wrote a paragraph describing the apartment we lived in, then he wrote this: “When I was four, my parents took me to my grandpa’s funeral. At first I was scared, but then I saw everybody laughing and I felt better.”

He was not four. He was not yet two. But he remembered.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

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