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)

Is it Better?

I miss my son.

I am still shocked, and part of me feels like a dying tree, oozing sap and rotting away. When work is over and no friends are around, it’s just me and my grief. How am I supposed to do this? Is there some sort of answer to that? I can’t look to the world for it – the world is insane. Grasping , needing and killing to get what it wants. And what it wants is Power. What’s done in the name of power is psychotic. It’s never enough, there’s always more power to want. More ways to be right, to prove that you exist. But there’s no real satisfaction in being right. It’s like an addiction – because being satisfied with being right just once is no more possible than an addict’s first snort being his last.

Except when it kills him.

In “True Detective,” Marty asks Rust if he’s Christian. “No,” he says. “Well what are ya?” Rust doesn’t want to have this conversation, but he answers, “I’m a Realist. But in philosophical terms, I’m a Pessimist.”

I’ve never heard of Pessimism as a philosophy. So I did a little research, read Thomas Ligotti’s, “The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.” And one of the things he wrote about was the question of why it’s assumed that it’s better to be here than to not. I imagine you can’t get much traction with that because most people take it for granted that it’s better to be. Of course it is, right? But why, exactly? Forget my suffering. What about those women – those girls – that were rounded up by some terrorist organization in Iraq to be given to men so they can marry them or rape them or subject them to any degradation they choose?  Or people whose families became collateral damage in a war they neither wanted nor started? Or all the hungry kids, the abused kids – all over the world there is suffering I cannot even imagine. So is it better – is it always better – to be? We can’t answer that since we don’t know what it is to “not be.” We don’t if it’s better. Or worse. Or just the same. We just know we’re terrified of it.

And Pessimism isn’t Hamlet’s, “To be or not to be.” Hamlet was contemplating suicide. Pessimism is about coming into being at all. I thought about it for a while, until I circled back to the fact that while I found Pessimism fascinating, it wasn’t some kind of answer. No matter how much I debate it, I’m here. Whether’s it’s better to be here or not is irrelevant. I’m here and Philip’s dead, so now what?

Living. I’m as hung up on what that means as I am about death. And I’m not feeling good about either of them. “Mom, you have to work it out where you are,” Philip said. Which sucked the juice out of the fantasy of wanting to die – whatever I’ve been angry, depressed and twisted about for most of my life is my life. When I’m sitting here writing, this is my life. When I get up to pee then that will be my life. Life is not some separate path or some thing Out There that I’ll get to one of these days. Out There is the fantasy of the future, which only ever comes as now. Life is what it is. Every breath is life lived and it is one of these same, ordinary breaths that are going to be our last.

When Natalie was a  freshman at Rutgers, she was miserable. It was more than being homesick. It was misery. I was trying to help her get through that first year, at the end of which she could transfer. Accept it, leave it or change it, I told her. So she stayed. She applied to other colleges. But it wasn’t enough. She was torn and I wanted to help. We talked a lot. She’d often go visit her boyfriend in New York on weekends, then come home to Montclair on Sunday evening so I could drive her back to Rutgers. I loved my Sunday nights in the car with her. For 45 minutes we’d talk and talk and once we talked so much I missed the exit.

Two weeks before Philip died, we were talking about death. “You know everything won’t be here one day. Everything. One day this car won’t be here. This highway – it won’t be here, either.” I hesitated before I added, “I won’t be here,” because I didn’t want to scare her. But I’m going to die like everyone else and not talking about it won’t change that.

I told her that I didn’t think death was the end. “I don’t know what happens, but something’s left. Whatever you want to call it. Call it soul, call it energy. But something is animating my body – and when my body dies, that something remains.” I also told her that I had no idea what happened with that soul, that energy. I wasn’t talking reincarnation, I wasn’t talking heaven. I believe there is more than we see, but what that is I can’t say.

“Of course,” I added, “If anything happened to you or Philip, all bets are off.”

And this was around the time Natalie said to her boyfriend, “I am afraid my brother’s going to die.”

Philip’s death forces me to think about what life and death are. And this is what he said to me a while ago: “Mom, I’m trying to teach you what death isn’t. But you have to look to Natalie for life. If you don’t, nothing I say will mean anything.”

And all along I thought what he meant was all the signs, the messages, and the guidance were proof that death isn’t the end, that he’s around and always will be. But that’s only part of it. He’s also trying to get it through my head that death isn’t an answer to the way I feel. Because in spite of what I know and what I’ve experienced, when I’m grieved and terrified I think that death has got to be the answer. I am back to crying every day for Philip. I’m trapped because there are too many moments when I think that I just can’t do this – but I’m here and I have to and that’s when I get to thinking death must be a way out. And I’m reminded of when I was in labor, when I had that same terror because the pain was too much and there was nothing I could do – and a voice in my head said, “There’s no way out but through.”

People thought I was crazy for having my babies at home when I could go to the hospital and have the pain of it all relieved in some  chemical way. Had I done that, I would have missed that voice. And that’s the voice that’s brought me full circle and made every scream and exhausting push worth all of it.

So to all of you who have lost a child, to you who’ve lost a deeply loved one, what is life for you? And for you who have other children to look to, what do you see? What I see when I look at Natalie is complicated. She is not the girl who came home from Rutgers. Two-and-a-half years later she is a light and a joy. Her life is full of what she wants. She vibrates – when Natalie is in a room, you know it. I have loved watching her come alive. But watching her also puts distance between us. She is happy, I am not. She is full of life, I am dispirited. It seems so easy for her, this thing called life. I think I’m angry, I think I’m envious. I think I’m dejected because I tamp my anger down so hard it’s exhausting. I can’t deal with it; I’m angry that Philip’s dead, that Natalie’s moving out, that people think it’s okay to be here and I don’t.

And I’m angry that I don’t even know if that’s true.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

I Think of You

  • “I close my eyes I think of you
    I take a step, I think of you
    I catch my breath, I think of you
    I cannot rest, I think of you”
    “Looking Out” by Brandi Carlisle

She is, of course singing of a romantic relationship. I wrote once about that, about how people are always singing about romantic love – no one wants to touch the real grief that’s the other side of deep love. No one wants to sing about that kind of loss. So while Romantic Love’s what these lyrics are about, ask any parent who’s lost a child if they don’t resonate.

Tonight I feel Rutgers, New Brunswick. I’m there with Natalie, buying books for her next term. Philip knows we’re in the bookstore, comes to say hello. I am so happy to see him – Do you need anything, I ask? No, I’m good he answers. We chat a while, then he leaves. It was always okay when he left because we were okay. No thought of never seeing him again.

I’m selfish. I’m so wrapped up in Philip’s loss and Philip’s words that I forget things. I forgot to say something to Dale, about Brandon’s birthday. And today is one year since Amy Marie died and I know that Dee is suffering. And to all of you, who I’ve forgotten to say things to – know that I’m full of words. I’m not managing myself well.

So this is just to say I’m sorry for all of us who are suffering the loss of our precious children. I’m sorry if I’ve missed anything about Lucia, Dale, Tersia, Dave, Susan, Susan B., Mira, Daphne, Ed, Joyce, Afichereader, Deanna, Dakota, Anna, Joyce, Melissa, Toni, Elizabeth’s Mom, Graham’s Mom – and you who I haven’t mentioned, you who just care and let me know.  This is a pause to take a breath and bow our heads. They were here with us. Can we figure out how to make something of that?

© 2014 Denise Smyth

What Matters?

Brookdale Park July 2014

Brookdale Park

“Nothing worth knowing can be understood with the mind. Everything valuable has to enter you through a different opening.”
Woody Allen in “Manhattan”

Friday night I went to the dog park in Brookdale Park, a couple minutes drive from my apartment. Since it’s a couple minutes I could walk it, except the last time I did, I thought Zoe was going to burst a valve with the way she was panting. Both she and Pippin are shih-tzus – with their pushed-in faces, they don’t breathe so well when it’s warm. But I happened to meet someone I knew who gave us a ride home, which is, in itself, an entirely different post.

Brookdale Park is large and lovely, with fields and winding paths lined with trees. There’s an order to it, which my mind finds soothing – but there’s something else in me that’s restless for the mystery and terror of a wild, tangled forest. It’s hard to find a place in the park that isn’t there by design. But I found an elvish clearing with trees that stood apart from each other, their graceful tops meeting to form a lacy canopy. Watching from the path, in light that had just faded from late afternoon to early evening, I saw a fairy circle in the middle of the clearing. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a sprite flit by.

During summer, the park sometimes has Friday evening concerts. They’re held on the field where Philip used to play soccer. The field’s lost its power to overwhelm. Sometimes I visit a place full of Philip until I wring out every last drop of him. I’m grieved enough without physical reminders whacking me back to a time that can’t be. So it wasn’t the fact of the field that pissed me off about the concert that was being held there – it was the intrusion of crowds and happy music. Collective pleasure’s always been hard to abide, and never more since Philip died. But Friday night was irresistible Motown Night, so I wandered over in spite of myself and sat on the rough and itchy grass to listen.

People come to these shows to enjoy themselves. When Philip and Natalie were little, I sometimes did the same. A couple of chairs and a blanket, a warm night, my kids wandering around with everyone else’s kids. And me wondering why the hell I didn’t feel like I belonged, what it was I needed to feel the carefree ease I believed everyone else was feeling. They sat with their friends and kids and food and coolers full of whatever (supposedly non-alcoholic) thing they were drinking. That was the club I was supposed to join when we moved to Montclair, when I left the sprawling, intellectually vacuous part of Brooklyn I lived in. Montclair was supposed to be the place. The one where I’d raise my kids and meet the friends I’d have for life. But wherever I went, there I was – and it wasn’t the place that isolated me, it was the way I thought about it.

You’d think I would have felt worse on Friday, me being alone with my dogs, no one I knew in sight, sitting with memories of past summers and soccer games – but it wasn’t like that. Sure I felt separate, alone in ways I couldn’t have known before Philip died. What felt different had to do with judgment. We are all, each of us, judging everything, all the time. It’s what we do – and maybe one of the kindest things we can do for ourselves and each other is step back from those judgments and understand they are intensely personal, and therefore, not entirely true. I can’t say I wasn’t “judging” as much as I wasn’t minding whatever I was seeing. Particularly about myself – I might’ve been alone, but at least I didn’t feel freakish.

It’s not like I’ve come to some great acceptance. I’m just talking about Friday night. I’m talking about the glitter on the performers’ lapels, the dancing, the lone food tent with zeppoles and sausage-and-pepper heroes, the people who stopped to talk to me about my dogs, my gladiator sandals that drew surreptitious glances, the woman next to me who looked really neat with her flares and flannel shirt and her blanket stitched with moons and stars. It was clear her oh-so-casual “look” was deliberately chosen, like the careful way I choose whatever I’m wearing, even if it’s jeans and tees. And that’s very different from the way other people’s clothes seemed to have carelessly chosen them. But what’s it matter? What’s it matter what any of us wore or what our hair looked like or how old we were? I’d like to say I thought it didn’t matter because I realized it’s our relationships that matter, and that sounds like a deep and lofty thing to think. But what did I know of the relationships between the hundreds of people in their separate groups around their separate blankets with their separate dramas? In the end, is that the thing that really matters?

Friday night I was super-aware that we were all going to die and in the face of that, I wanted to understand what was real in the moment-to-moment shifting of my perception. If my heart seized and I realized death had me by the hand, whatever it was that mattered wasn’t going to have a damn thing to do with gladiator sandals or moon blankets. What was it, then? I watched and listened and sang and smiled, but I could not see what mattered. Maybe I couldn’t see it because was right in front of me, the way my nose was right in front of me and I couldn’t see that, either. But there was a bitty opening and some sort of knowing tried to make its way in. Stay with it Mom, Philip said; don’t make it into something. But I tried to grasp it with words and it slipped away.

There are things I can’t yet put words on. I might never have the deep attention and humility it would take to do so. And there are things I cannot put words on because if I do, I’ll move from possibility to ideas. Ideas return me to my mind, where I’m not going to find what I’m looking for – because when it comes to ideas, there isn’t a single one I’m going to take with me when I die.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

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