Please dear god; please (Day 2, Part 3)

I don’t think I sat very long on that landing. I was vibrating, like a big old church bell someone whacked with a gong. I had to move. Something had to be done, even if I didn’t know what. I walked down the stairs, one slow, bare foot at a time; eyes wide and stunned, biting hard on my lower lip, hands dug in and pulling my hair tight up to heaven. Maybe if I pulled hard enough, that pain would become the real pain. That pain I could recognize; that pain I could manage. Please God, please; help me, hurt me, do you what you want, anything, anything but this; because if this is true, if my son is dead, then please dear God, please, you have to take me with him.

At the bottom of the stairs, in the foyer, the policemen who’d picked up Phil were waiting near the door. What for? Maybe they knew something; maybe they could tell me something. Maybe some word came over the radio that would change things. They are officials. They have authority. They have power. Maybe if I begged them…

“What happened?” I asked, in a high and breathy imitation of the voice I was used to. But the cop I’d turned to only knew what he was told…which was what? Is there a script for this? Was Philip just another dead kid to him, one more kid who bit the drug pile? This was my son, this wasn’t supposed to happen, it was all a mistake; kids like him are not the ones who die. He was young, this cop; all he said was, “I don’t know, ma’am” and I could see he was sorry for it. He was helpless to help me, as if any answer would have “helped” me. All it would have done was put a picture in my head that I did not want to see.

I walked to the kitchen, still pulling hard at my hair. Everything was spinning. It was like walking through one of those tunnel-things at the amusement park that’s going round and round while you desperately tried to stay balanced. I walked around the table, staring, focused on something I couldn’t see, unable to recognize the shape and contour of the trembling mass I used to know as my body.

Then came the panic.

Things had to be done. I had to call someone; I had to tell the people who would protect me. My cousin Maria, first. I knew she’d be in her car before I finished what I had to say. With that call, everything started moving with a terrible momentum, flying around in bits and pieces. The tornado hit, the house was in the air, Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.

What I remember next, in no particular order:

I remember I cried.

I remember I told Phil we had to get Natalie; he said the police were already driving her here. Frightened to think of her sitting with this alone in the backseat of a police car, I was also relieved at not having to drive 45 minutes to Rutgers and another 45 minutes home. I didn’t think there was a car big enough to hold the wild, ravaged thing I’d become, who might need to scream or to scratch or to beat her hands on the floor or bang her head somewhere so it would shut itself up. There wasn’t enough room on the Jersey Turnpike to contain me.

I remember sitting on the floor in the foyer and crying, Nadiya hugging me and crying right back. What can I do? she asked. Don’t leave me, I answered. Exactly what I told my midwife during Philip’s birth.

I remember going upstairs to call Ed, who sounded confused no matter how many times I said, “Philip died; my son is dead.” After we hung up, he called me back and asked, “Did you just call me?”

I remember that downstairs, I went into the den to call my therapist. I was embarrassed to bother her because if I’m talking to her, I think I should be paying her, but guess what? She’s human and she’s a mom and when I told her, for a moment we cried together.

I remember Maria showing up in her big, brown fur coat, and I – who would not eat an animal, much less wear one – sat on the floor and folded myself into her like she was a great big Mama Bear and I was just a little Baby One.

And I remember that somewhere in the middle of all this, my brother Robert called. When I saw his name on my phone, I knew that he’d found out. But how? I answered my phone wailing and he said, “What happened?” and I kept wailing, “You know what happened” and he kept saying he didn’t know, until finally, panicked, he yelled, “Denise. I don’t know what happened. Maria called and told me to call you.” His disbelief at what I told him was outdone by my sister-in-law screaming in the background and when she got on the phone I said to her, “No one knows this like you do,” and she said, “But Denise, Nicole was young and she was sick and we knew she was going to die.”

That’s right. My brother and his wife lost their daughter, their oldest, Nicole, when she was four. In November, 1994. In January she’d been diagnosed with a rare brain cancer. Ten months later she was dead. But he and Maria, my sister-in-law, were just beginning their family; and while one child cannot replace another, children are the love we grow and the more we grow, the more love we have.

In my loss, that is exactly what I reduced life to. The number of kids you had. I saw with perfect clarity the dank, gray life I lived while my brother had warmth, and the light of Christmas. His four children were proof he was loved; my dead one was proof I was not. I was exposed for what I was, ashamed that everyone could see. Now I only had Natalie.

As if she is an “only.” As if “have” isn’t temporal, brittle.

That was the craziness battering around in my brain. And all I can tell you is that trauma will hurl you back into the hot mess of All The Things You Thought You Worked Out, and send a well-versed chorus along to remind you what a shit you are in case you’d forgotten. And what I heard were those oldies-but-goodies like, “There Is Something Inherently Wrong With Me” (else how could my child die??), “I Am the Center of the Universe” (because this happened to me more than to Philip or his father or sister) and “Of Course; What Did You Expect?” (variation of hit #1).

I am not saying I could have thought or said or felt anything other than what I did. And if I sound like I’m being hard on myself, I’m not; I am looking back one year, one month and 23 days to see where I was then and where I am now, and to ask, what does any of it mean? For months and months I believed that Philip’s death was proof of the cold indifference of the universe, which was especially intolerant of me. I knew with certainty there was a god; this much cruelty could not possibly be random.

And that was about all I thought this could mean.

© 2013 Denise Smyth


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Harriet Halpern
    Apr 15, 2013 @ 23:20:21

    Denise, I’ve been following your blog from the very beginning and I am blown away by your staggering ability to re-create the horror and the pain of it all. This will surely help others and, I hope, yourself and Natalie and Phil and all whom Philip touched. I feel, through you, he has touched me as well. I am so proud of our friendship. Let’s have dinner again soon. I’m ready whenever you are. xoxo H



  2. tersiaburger
    Apr 18, 2013 @ 05:13:10

    Denise this is harrowing and raw. IToday it is exactly 3 months since my only child died. I still remember the horror of realizing that her journey was finally over. I still feel as if I am drowning. The void is indescribable. The difference is I expected my precious child to die, I prayed for her to die…Your son was gifted, healthy, young….I don’t know what is worse. To watch a child suffer and die or that sudden loss….I mourn with you. Hugs.


    • Denise
      Apr 18, 2013 @ 10:31:19

      There is no better or worse, just hurt and twisted hearts. I have no painful memories of Philip; he wasn’t sick, and we were very close. You have different kind of memories to deal with…


  3. onechicklette
    Sep 12, 2013 @ 21:38:20

    How brave you are to revisit this. How painful. I’m so sorry for your loss of Philip.


  4. Becki Duckworth
    Dec 16, 2013 @ 19:42:40

    I can relate to the trauma and feeling all is going to be ok. Then another significant emotional event comes and sweeps you up into the eye of the tornado once again.


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