A Pause (during which, Life Goes On)

I am going to pause for a second; that was a tough one.

As I wrote elsewhere, I’d like to say that I’ve given a solemn affirmative to the universe and have agreed to soldier on. Maybe I have, maybe I am; maybe I just expect that if that’s true, I should feel differently than I do. Better, more peaceful. It’s a process, I’m told; it’s a progression. God save us from our “processes” and “progressions.”

But it’s like this. Like today. Walking around the early Sunday quiet of Whole Foods, with its gorgeously arranged produce. It’s the peppers that take my breath away – the God-given reds and yellows and oranges. Not so much the greens – I find their waxy dullness unappetizing. Clenched against despair amidst all that abundance, I ask, what for? I mean, what the fuck? I see Philip, standing, looking at me, in the black leather jacket I’d given him, the one I’m now wearing, the one that makes me look like biker-chick. I see him, beautiful boy, in his navy blue suit, laid out in a coffin.

My son, in a coffin. In what universe does life make sense?

Or like yesterday, at The Boathouse in Central Park, overlooking the water. The simple joy and relief of spring written on faces, underlying conversations. Everyone, I think, feels it. Everyone but me. But what do I know? I’m in a city of millions. How many of us are being looked at as if we’re the lucky ones? I’m sitting down with three friends to a brunch that will cost $140, one that I won’t even have to pay for. But I don’t celebrate spring. It scares me. I see no hope in the cycle of life, where everything dies and everything is born. It’s all moving too quickly, moving without Philip. Wait, stop, I want to cry out; give me a moment to breathe; just a moment, please.

Is the phrase, “Life goes on” supposed to comfort? Because it doesn’t.

On the way home from the city, a song I like very much is on the radio. He loves her. He wants her. She is the “resolution,” he sings, “of all the fruitless searches.” All he has to do is look in her eyes and he’s complete. I used to believe that could happen. And I think I’m so loving to hear this song until my throat starts to close and my chest starts filling up with air that’s going in but not out until I can’t contain it any more and it blasts out a bunch of tears and I’m bent over, hands covering my face, shaking, shaking because if I can’t contain my weeping I can at least contain the pitiful sounds that accompany it. Cindy, my angel of a friend, is driving. I don’t want to make her feel any more helpless than she already does at my unexpected meltdown.

I think I’m crying because I see Philip’s face, and I imagine a woman looking into his eyes and feeling like that about him. He deserves that kind of love; he will never know it. But I’m probably crying for myself more than for him; crying because I believe the singer has truly, deeply found his happily ever after, and I am doomed to live with clawed fingers continually digging at my sore and bloodied heart.

Truth is, pop culture songs about love are mostly about infatuation. What does real love have to do with 90% of the stuff that goes on between couples? And why is it that people are always singing about the pain of romantic love? Ask anyone who’s lost a child about the kind of pain that’s the other side of deep love. It isn’t any wonder, not really, that no one wants to sing about that kind of pain. We don’t even want to talk about it, much less raise our voices in harmony about it.

And I’ve also paused to talk about the drug thing, because while it changes nothing about the way I think about Philip…well, that’s not entirely true. I think him vulnerable in a way I hadn’t before, and myself helpless in ways I hadn’t considered. But if you don’t know Philip, and you hear he died from an overdose, you might get a picture of him that is wrong, or at least superficial and one-dimensional. And while it’s none of my business what you think about him or me or anyone else, I am talking about my child and I do care.

Before Philip died, I probably would’ve thought that a kid that died from an overdose was a kid that was already going down the tubes. That drugs had taken over, that drugs were what this kid’s life had been reduced to. And I say this with so much empathy, because I have suffered addiction and I know its heartache and destruction.

But that wasn’t Philip. He didn’t grow up a troubled kid. Phil and I didn’t have the normal adolescent problems with him that we expected we’d have, that any parent expects to have. Philip was just easy. My dear friend Ed (and Ed is my dearest, closest friend – my mentor, my teacher, my advisor. Let me say this now so I don’t have to keep repeating myself every time I mention him) once told me that I didn’t have to mother Philip, I just had to love him. When I said Philip was a light, I meant it. He was kind, loving and responsible. Generous. People were drawn to him. I was stunned at how many showed up at his wake. And friend after friend after friend came over to me and to Phil to say the same thing: “He took care of me.”

When Philip died, he’d been seeing a young woman for about a month and a half. She was a senior in high school, he was a junior in college. I assume it was their age difference that made him go to her father and ask permission to date her. I mean, who does that??

Philip does. That’s who.

I’ll talk more about him in the days and weeks to come. I wanted to say this much because I am his mother and I am feeling very protective right now. And there’s something else.

Weeks after Philip died, when the autopsy came, Phil took it to a friend of his, a doctor, to look at. After he went over it, he said to Phil that given Philip’s age, weight, physical condition (he was a fencer) and the amount of drugs in his system, it was unlikely that this was an overdose. Something else had to be wrong – probably his heart, probably an undetectable condition. And he said that it’s easier for a medical examiner to say “overdose” when drugs are involved than to dig any deeper.

Phil found comfort in this – and I don’t blame him. Who the hell wants to think their kid died from something that could’ve been prevented? Much less from drugs – heroin, which still makes me shudder – which no matter how you cut it, casts an ugly pall over so short a life, and can make you wonder how well you knew the child who first taught you what it truly meant to love.

I’ll never know if there’s any truth to this. Whether there is or isn’t, drugs are a part of this. If not the cause, then a contributing factor. If Philip had a heart defect, his drug use shortened what might have already been a compromised life span. And at some level, this is all a distraction from the essential fact of his death how helpless I am to change it.

© 2013 Denise Smyth


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Rebecca Carney - One Woman's Perspective
    Apr 07, 2013 @ 16:08:14

    No…there is no comfort in the phrase “life goes on.” My life was altered tremendously when our son died…and it felt as though the life I had been living ended and I have had to find a new one to live.

    I have been reading your blog…my heart goes out to you…


  2. tersiaburger
    Apr 12, 2013 @ 12:32:56

    A mother’s love is unconditional. Hugs.


  3. Becki Duckworth
    Dec 16, 2013 @ 20:34:08

    I agree about the stigma attached to an overdose. My husbands brother died in Hawaii (where he lived) of a cocaine overdose. He was an athlete, in fact a 2 time Rose Bowl Champion , ring and all. He graduated from USC and went on to play professional football and had a 6 year career in the NFL. In November of 2003, 2 weeks before we were visiting him in Hawaii for Thanksgiving he died at an AA table of a cocaine induced heart attack. We knew he had been drinking heavy for about a year but he sobered up and was attending AA every day of the week. He got with some buddies on the beach before the AA meeting and snorted some cocaine and dropped dead at the AA table. We were shocked, never had we known Art to use a drug. Well alcohol is but, never an illegal drug. It was shocking, the kind of death a homeless person has not an allstar athlete and an NFL player. So our vacation to Hawaii was bringing Arts remains back with us, consoling his wife and child and an autopsy that confirmed a heart defect. That line of cocaine and a heart defect killed my brother-in-law at 48 years old.


  4. mssharonmullins
    Jan 25, 2015 @ 17:37:15

    I totally get what the doctor said that it is easier to look for a simple reason than delve any deeper into what might possibly be the real reason your son passed, either way you have suffered a great loss, a loss I too understand. Xx


    • Denise
      Jan 25, 2015 @ 18:13:40

      You’re right – it doesn’t matter. However you look at it, heroin was a part of it. I miss him so…I know you know what I mean, and I’m sorry you do. I’m sorry for all of us; I don’t know if it helps to say you’re not alone, but you’re not. It took me a long time to feel that that mattered. I wish some peace for you – and I’m around if you want to write.


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