I am going to kick his ass…

I am going to Kick. His. Ass.

At the end of Philip’s wake, a young woman came over to me. Look at this kid, I thought, she’s beautiful. In a China-doll way. Dark, straight, shiny hair and poreless, creamy skin (skin that even at her age I never had). The kind of girl Janis Ian was whining about when she was 17* (and sadly, she wasn’t so wrong). “Mrs. Smyth?” she said. “My name is Natalia. I’m Philip’s girlfriend.”

What the???

If Philip had a girlfriend, I thought I’d know about it. I didn’t expect to know every girl he crossed paths with, but if he called someone his girlfriend, he was serious about her. In fact, the only other girlfriend he’d had was Laura, Nadiya’s daughter (which is how I met Nadiya). They were together for a year, and remained deeply good friends afterward.

Turns out Philip and Natalia had been together about six weeks. Turns out they met because Philip was a referee for high school fencing and Natalia was a high school fencer. Turns out they wanted to wait until the end of the fencing season to go public (impropriety and all). Turns out the end of the fencing season was February 25th. That would be two days after Philip died, and one day before the first day of his wake.

Dazed as I was at the end of the wake, Natalia shocked me awake for a moment. I asked her if she wanted my phone number, and she jumped back like I’d spit fire at her. “NO,” she said, and then she was gone. I figured she was too upset to want to have anything to do with me.

Weeks later, Natalia was in touch with Phil on Facebook. It kinda bothered me that he got her attention when I couldn’t…but an active Facebook page seems the currently preferred method of communication, and other than having a page with my face on it, you weren’t going to find me there. She asked if she could have Philip’s army jacket. The one I’d picked up in Urban Outfitters and given him last Christmas. As in, his last Christmas. Phil probably took my “Um. Uh. Well. Oh. Okay. I guess” as an affirmative. Give something of Philip’s away? To a girl who’d been seeing him for six weeks, and would probably forget him in six more?

In the end, I told him to go ahead. She seemed to really want it, and besides, I had his black leather jacket, all warm and worn and broken in the way leather will, the way mere fabric never can.

Then a few weeks ago, I got an email that started “Dear Mrs. Smyth,” and at which I smiled. I’ve never gotten used to being addressed as “Mrs.” Who is she, “Mrs. Smyth?” Some older woman with a muffin top,** wearing Not My Daughter’s Jeans*** because they have so much stretch in them you can size down, their legs cut just a little too baggy and sitting just a little too long atop her sensible flats. Hair grayish and shortish because Women of a Certain Age cannot be bothered taking care of long hair. Brisk and business-like, her life in order, and having pretty much figured out all she’s going to figure out about life. Not young any more, but who cares? She has her husband, her kids (the ones who’ve flown off to separate colleges and isn’t it so great because it’s so good for them to go away), her friends, her work. She might not be in her prime, but at least her life is settled.

I wasn’t Mrs. Smyth. I was Philip and Natalie’s mom. Big difference. Huge, ginormous, world of difference. Skinny jeans, black leather boots, long streaked hair, still-don’t-know-what-the-hell-I’m-doing, God-please-help-me and all.

And did I mention I was really, really happy that my kids were a 45-minute-I’m-coming-home-to-do-laundry drive away?

The letter was from Natalia,**** and while I appreciated her respect, I wrote back and asked her to promise to call me Denise. We weren’t going to have a meaningful conversation with me being Mrs. Smyth.

Rather than go on about what she said, I’ll let her tell you herself. Here is what she told me about Philip:

Ever since Natalie posted that you had a blog dedicated to Phil, I have been quietly reading through every post, every day. It has been a very long time since I cried as hard as I did. Phil was one of the most amazing people I have ever known. The connection I had with him was one that I will never find ever again. Many people say that I am too young to know such things, but I believe that when you know when someone is perfect it doesn’t matter when you feel it, just that you do. He and I had a friendly acquaintance-like relationship the year or two prior. It wasn’t until the end of 2011 that we started to talk more. The click between us was instantaneous. It was like I knew him my whole life. He was constantly supportive… Even now, in my darkest of days, our old conversations are the only things that can make me smile. He had that sort of magic about him. He was a once-in-a-lifetime guy and I was lucky enough to even be able to be loved by him …Honestly, the way he treated a girl would make any mother proud, and it sure did make a huge impression on my mom…she loved him. There was something about him that just told her he was an amazing guy.

And when I asked her how she found out that he died, she wrote:

I found out that he had passed because I contacted Natalie after spending a few days without hearing from him and by that point I was freaking out. Something told me Wednesday that something had gone horribly wrong. The last thing he said Tuesday night was that he would talk to me in the morning and when he hadn’t (something which was completely out of the ordinary) I began to worry. My slight worry turned to full blown I-can’t-concentrate-on-anything-else freaking out by Friday. I had gone home for lunch (something I never did) and saw I had a message from her. That message came with the news…then I was on the ground, attempting to even slightly make sense of things and maybe even wake myself up from this bad dream…

And that is why I am going to kick his ass. Because I blame him? Of course not. But he is dead and I am pissed off. Much as Natalia and I are in touch, I will never know the two of them as a couple.  And here I go again. I don’t want to open my heart to this girl; I am trying to keep my heart still – like I would any other part of me that was broken. You don’t move a broken arm or a broken leg. You let it rest, give it a chance to heal. But a broken heart doesn’t just “heal.” It can’t get put back together because it doesn’t know its shape any more. And now I feel myself loving this girl, this smart and beautiful and lovely child that I already know I could have loved as one of my own if Philip had just stayed around and let me.

                 ************************************************************************

*If you actually had to refer to this asterisk, all I can say is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k39P2MK6WPo

**A muffin top is when your belly hangs over the top of your jeans.

*** That is actually a brand of jeans, made for us “mature” women with our “mature” figures.

**** I asked Natalia for some pictures. She hasn’t any of the two of them together, but she sent me some of herself. I’ve put them on my photo page. Take a look for yourself; you’ll see what I’m talking about. I mean, how do you not love a girl who rides a horse? And remember – that guy in the picture really is just her friend. Really.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

What I Do

Years and years ago, suffering the rage, hurt and frustration of the inexplicable dissolution of what I saw as a promising relationship (in other words, the jerk dumped me), I called my friend Gerard, who told me to get into bed, get under the covers and tuck myself into a fetal position.

Next morning, I called him to say that it didn’t help, didn’t change anything, didn’t make me feel better.

“It wasn’t supposed to make you feel better,” he answered. “It was supposed to make you feel safe while you suffered.”

And so dawned an ugly truth – I couldn’t make myself stop hurting; the best I could do was make myself comfortable while it lasted. Something to this day I haven’t learned. The making-myself-comfortable part, that is. As if life isn’t difficult enough in what it asks of us – and I mean, think about it. We’re the only creatures on the planet who walk around knowing we’re going to die. No wonder all animals are Buddhists. It’s pretty easy to live in the moment when you can’t conceive that it might be your last.

Or your kid’s.

I have a particular penchant for exacerbating whatever life throws at me by treating it as a deliberate and deserved punishment for my personal version of Original Sin. It takes a certain amount of hubris to believe I’m singled out among others for life’s Divine Retribution. Not that I’ve seen it that way. I’ve called it Humility.

My reaction to Philip’s death was no different, except in magnitude. He and Natalie were what I’d done right in life. I was separated, man-less, unable to live on my own except for Nadiya’s generosity, 53 and still with a job and not a career. Living the cliché of not-knowing- what-I-wanted-to-be-when-I grew-up. I wasn’t particularly focused or directed when it came to work. I didn’t have a degree, didn’t like what I did, couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do, yet I considered work one of the things that most mattered. It’s what you do when you get up in the morning. Sure, I thought I wanted to write a book. But I live in Montclair. Throw a rock and you’ll hit someone who wants to write a book.

My kids, though. They were right. They were great, in fact. Not because they were brilliant and popular and extraordinarily talented. Around here, I seem to be one of the few moms without a singularly gifted, award-winning child. But oh, my kids; my own personal joy-toys. Two human beings who couldn’t help but make the rest of us better for having known them.  I was proud of them for being, not for doing.

I twisted Philip’s death into something I had coming to me. I’d reached a point where I’d finally stopped looking over my shoulder to see what might be coming at me, and BAM!! Life got to sneak up and whack me. The obvious question is, why did life have it in for me? I had no answer other than That’s The Way It Is. The other obvious question is, what about Phil? Philip was his kid, too. What did he do wrong?

Looking at it from that view, the question was absurd. I knew better than that. Life wasn’t out to “get” me. It is unnatural and catastrophic that my child died; but Death is not a punishment – it’s a fact. So what do I do with this? What do I do with the life that’s given me?

What does anyone do about trauma? I’ve talked to enough bereaved parents, enough people who’ve suffered other tragedies. I’ve listened to their stories and asked for the details. Yet I’ve never asked, “What do you do when you feel like this? What do you do when trauma hits? Do you try to take care of yourself? How the hell did you do that?”

I mean, literally; what do you do??

I know what I do. I get mean. Real mean. To myself, that is. I hate. I hate Life, this uncontrollable force with a will of its own. I hate dawn, that first loosening of night’s hold on the sky, the moment I’m reminded of the sun’s relentless presence. And I hate me most of all. I wish myself dead because what I mean is I want to stop feeling. I tell myself I am helpless, worthless. And when I’m told not to be so hard on myself, I actually respond, “What do you mean?” because talking to myself that way is a habit so old it’s more like instinct. I don’t know what taking care of myself means. Take a bath? I always take baths. They’re warm and soothing and I crave them. So, take a bath. Hug myself, do a mental backrub. Sink into the warmth and let my body relax.

I think not.

I couldn’t bear to think those thoughts, never mind to actually do any of that. I couldn’t do anything that might make my body relax. That’s the physicality of grief. Emotion is the body’s response to what the mind is thinking; and thinking, knowing, that Philip was dead caused such violent emotional plummeting that all I could do was tuck myself into the corner of my couch and make myself into a taut little ball. Hold on for the goddamn bloody ride. Pull myself further and further in, like if I made myself small enough there’d be less of me to feel.

Living without Philip is now my work. Not figuring out my job or “career” or being man-less or how much money I make.  Those are the details. There isn’t one answer to how I’m supposed to integrate the loss of my son into my life. It’s not the kind of work that ever gets finished. One year and two months later, I still don’t know what it looks like, and I am still as scared as all fucking hell.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

Photos

I was playing around with some photos, and without realizing it, I published the page. I had a little more to say about them, but since they’re up, here they are, for now; there aren’t many, but the first is a portrait of Philip taken six months before he died. He is my angel…is it that one, or the last, when he was so little, that breaks my heart more?  There is no “more,” I guess. It’s all of a piece.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

Day 2, Part 4

Somehow, I managed not to pull my hair out of my head.

If you’re thinking that must’ve been the longest night of my life, it wasn’t. People say stuff like that when something awful has happened and they’re waiting, waiting, waiting for the answer. The dog has died, the patient recovered, the tumor’s malignant, the tumor’s benign.  To say it was the longest implies I was waiting for it to end. The last thing I wanted was that night to end. I didn’t want the movement that comes with time. Every second that passed took me further away from Philip. Every second was that much longer that he was dead. Dead, dead, dead; my head was pounding with it.  Dead, dead, dead; the excruciating echo of my why-is-it-still-beating heart.

I remember the house being noisy and busy, which it wasn’t. It was me that was making the commotion; sobbing and heaving and not knowing where to put myself. Clinging to Natalie, clinging to nobody. Walking, hunched, arms crossed and holding my elbows. Wanting to vomit the greasy black bile in my belly. At some point Robert came over, and we talked about telling my parents. No, they talked about telling my parents. I was too stupefied to participate.

But my God; how to tell my mother and father? My mother always worried about Philip, in a way she didn’t about her other five grandkids. “Is he okay, Denise? I worry about this kid,” she’d say. “He’s fine,” I’d answer, irritated from what I considered her senseless worrying. Was she going to blame me because I didn’t listen? And what the hell would I have done, anyway? Philip seemed the most fine of all of us.  A roll-with-the-punches kind of kid. Kind. And if I keep harping on “kind” it’s because years ago I realized that kind is a power. Kind is not “nice,” which is one of the laziest words in the English language, the go-to word when you just don’t feel like making an effort to say something that matters.

My son was kind. Undeniably, unforgettably, kind. How the fuck is he dead?

It was sometime around 2:00 am when Robert and Maria left. They decided they’d go home – Robert to Staten Island, Maria to Midland Park – get a little rest, then meet in the morning to go Brooklyn to tell my parents. Phil agreed to stay in the guest bedroom, but my ceaseless sobbing would drive him from the house early next morning.

Philip might have been dead, but I was the one moving through the underworld, looking for the river Lethe that I might forget and end this nightmare. Like four ghostly creatures in an unearthly silence, Phil, Natalie, Nadiya and I went our separate ways to our separate rooms. Each bedroom door that closed unhinged me more than I already was.

I could not go to my room. I would not. I would not get into my big feather bed with its six downy pillows, its luxury comforter, its pink popcorn chenille, its ruffled skirt; I am a vintage girl. I love being a girl; I love my cabbage roses and floral curtains and quilts and candles and bows and pinks and creams; I love my bedroom, my books, my pens, my journals; I love the cozy I’ve made of my room.

But I would‘ve rather sank into a bed of nails than into that bed of feathers. Me, in that bed, with my son’s dead, cold body on some slab in a morgue? With no one there to love him? And please; no one had to tell me that wasn’t “him,” it was just his body, he wasn’t in pain, he was in a better place, blah blah blah. I knew those words; I’ve used those words. Try living them. Go ahead. Try comforting yourself about your kid not being his body and being in a better place. Try telling yourself that your kid is in your heart, you’ll never lose his love, he’s part of you. Part of me? That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. He IS part of me, he is the better part of me, he is my heart and he’s gone and tell me – TELL ME – how do I live without my heart?

Tell me that I will ever be all right again.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

From Her View

Philip’s story isn’t one story. I have my version; Phil, his; Natalie, hers. I asked my daughter if she’d take a few minutes and write a little about what it’s been like for her.  She’s a tough kid, and she’s handled Philip’s death by coming more into life. And in this she inspires me; on my own, I would have been happy to wither away, have the wind blow me somewhere that might feel like home. But she suffers Philip’s death too, and sometimes neither of us know what to do.

“How can I live without him?” I ask her. “I was supposed to go first.”

“How can I live without him?” she asks me. “He was supposed to be here when you did.”

From Natalie:

My time spent at Rutgers was a rough patch in my life. My first semester I was unhappy there, but it didn’t compare to the tragedy that occurred on February 22nd, 2012.

A big comfort to me at school was the support of my family and close friends. I was lucky my parents were 45 minutes north, and that my boyfriend and closest friends were in New York City and Philadelphia. It was easy to see either of them on a weekend, even make just a day trip if it felt necessary. But best of all, my brother Philip lived five minutes from me. I could go to him anytime. Sometimes I would see his car when I was walking to class and it would make me smile. We ate lunch together, and I’d go to his house on the weekends. He was loving, sweet and caring. I have never known anyone like him.

When he first died, I didn’t feel it. Not really. When the police came into my dorm and said, “Is this your brother?” I knew he was gone before I looked at the picture they were handing me. When the policeman said, “He’s dead,” I started hyperventilating, shaking and crying. When I finally stopped, I felt close to nothing. I was numb. Numb throughout the wake and the funeral. Numb throughout the days afterward.

A week after he died, I went back to school. My mom came with me and helped me unpack the few things I’d taken home with me. Then she drove me to class and went home. I watched her drive away, and had a growing pain in my stomach. I had to suppress the urge to run after her. I watched her car until she was out of site, turned around and walked to class.

“It’s okay,” I thought, “I’m fine.” And I was, for like, a minute.

In class, I sat down and tried to pay attention to my food and health teacher. For the first few minutes I listened, I took notes. But after a while, I started feeling uncomfortable. What was the point? I didn’t even like this class. My brother was gone and I was sitting in the lecture hall listening to a woman talk about things I didn’t care about.

“It’s not like anyone would even notice if I wasn’t here.”

But I stayed. Until it got hot. Until I couldn’t sit still. My legs trembled. My eyes watered. There was this pressure; like the air suddenly weighed 500 pounds, pressing on my body.

What was happening?

Enough. I snapped out of it. I stood up. I left the lecture hall, walked into some empty computer lab, sat down on a chair and focused on my breathing. After about fifteen minutes, I got up and went back to class. But I couldn’t shake the feeling, not really. I managed to go to my next class, but around 5:30, something changed.

Back at my dorm, I unlocked the door and went inside.

No.

The smell was putrid. I hated this room, where my life got turned upside down. I hated the bed I was sitting on when I found out I would never see my brother again. I hated the computer I was using and the books I was studying when the police came into my room.

Why was it all the same?

And everything that I’d been feeling all day just rose to a peak and I knew. Without thinking, I was running. Out of that room. Down the stairs. Out the door. Running. Until I reached the train station.

I could not stay at that school. The problem wasn’t the smell of my dorm or the bed or the computer or the books. The problem wasn’t Rutgers, but that Phil was no longer there. I needed to get away from there, I needed time to heal, I needed to be with my parents, I needed the comfort of home.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

Happy Birthday?? (#2)

Yesterday was my birthday. Woke up cranky, shook-up in a way I hadn’t expected. What I’d noticed on Philip’s birthday in January and the anniversary (can we please find a different word??) of his death in February was that it wasn’t what I thought it’d be. I knew what these days were, more than I experienced them. It was during the days afterward when grief yet again unmoored me from the world.

Didn’t think much about my birthday, didn’t consider any sort of “celebration.” The quiet keeps me steady, focused on the daily work of living with Philip’s loss. And no sense rushing it; I’m going to be doing it for the rest of my life. Natalie spent the day with me, which was all that I wanted. I’ve recently finished hospice training, and she and I volunteered for a hospice fundraiser in the morning. Then lunch at Toast, then to a deaf event at Union College that Natalie had to attend for her ASL class. Home to watch “Ondine” (thank you, Cindy), dinner at Redeye Café. Then home for the night, while Natalie went to spend some time with a friend.

I think what describes it best is a short letter I wrote to X, whose daughter recently died. She’d said she cannot make sense of this, to which I replied:

“I think you have to start by making meaning in your life before any of it makes sense. And I will tell you something – one year and two months later I have made at least some sense of this. It’s not pretty. But Philip is still dead. I can philosophize and spiritualize and analyze all I want. I’m tired of it now, today. Today is my birthday and I don’t want to be bothered. This was a hard day, more than I expected. I wanted to stamp my feet and scream, “Enough of this; I’m tired, don’t you see? I’ve been working really, really hard and now I think it’s time you please please send him home.”

I miss him. It’s fresh again. But this is what my son did: tonight, I was on my laptop, doing what I was doing, and his headshot popped up. I almost threw the computer. There he was, his face innocent, like an angel. I did not touch anything; the picture hadn’t been open. It just popped up. That was his happy birthday to me.”

They do reach out to us, those we love. Which isn’t even unusual, mysterious as it may be. It’s a matter of paying attention, it’s a matter of what you want. And I’ll take Philip any way I can have him – any way.

Okay. Back to the narrative.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

 

Happy Birthday?

Tuesday was my mom’s birthday. Natalie and I went out to dinner with her and my dad, my brother Robert and his wife, Maria (if you’ve been reading along and are confused about “Maria,” one is my cousin and one is my sister-in-law. It’s an Italian thing.), my nephew and two nieces. My other niece is away at college in Boston. Yes, that Boston. She was in the area an hour or so before the bombs went off.

Last year, Philip hadn’t even been dead two months when my mom turned 80. That was the end of the surprise party. Birthdays are way too ironic in the face of death. We weren’t about to celebrate life after it had turned on us, and in such a vicious, impossible way.

This year, my dad kept it simple. I don’t think my mom wanted a bigger celebration. Last year we were in our separate orbits around Philip. This year, not so much. This year, I remembered that everyone had lost him. Philip was a brother, a nephew, a cousin. He was a grandchild, the second one who had died. See, I have been greedy in my grief, wanting it all, allowing no portion to anyone else. It bound me to my son, and I believed it was all that was left between us. I was not about to share. It was Natalie who had to remind me that yes, I lost my son, but she lost her brother, and that very much mattered, too.

Tuesday I didn’t need to be reminded. Tuesday I looked around the table and had a collapsible moment where I realized that these people are my family and I love them. Don’t “of course you do” me. I do not love so easily. In that moment I knew why. Because it hurts too much. It hurts. I am helplessly in love with my children; thank god for that. But Philip’s death left my heart roadkill, and when love reaches in and touches, it does not soothe.  It reminds me of its cost. I see the terrible beauty of grief, the cost of a life deeply lived. I have spent my life wanting to live deeply; did I understand what I was asking for?

I have to take it in bits and pieces.

Full disclosure #1: I’d considered writing about my mom’s birthday, but decided not to – time to get back to the narrative. But Natalie had been taking pictures that night, and she posted some on her blog. Just a few; my mom and dad, Robert, me, Natalie. It’s a happy blog; she’s a happy girl. So if you want to see what some of us look like – and give her a little more traffic while you’re at it – you can find her at www.flockingowls.blogspot.com .

Full disclosure #2: Natalie told me that the reason my gravatar is my picture is because it’s my Facebook picture and it’s somehow linked to everything else I do online. So in case you think you know what I look like, that is my face dressed up for a gala that was five years ago.

Just sayin’

© 2013 Denise Smyth

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