His Eulogy

I’ve added a page with Philip’s eulogy. It was my last gift to him. As I wrote in the introduction, I’m posting it so you can know him a little better. I’ve just re-read it, and I remember reading it out loud, with Phil and Natalie beside me. I remember that I’d spent the last two hours in my chair at the wake, non-stop sobbing. I remember my cousin Maria leaning over and saying, “If you don’t stop crying you won’t be able to read.” I remember my voice clear and strong. And when I was done, I remember being told, “I feel better because I know you’re going to be all right.”

Me and “all right” didn’t belong in the same sentence. But there it was. And here it is; I hope you’ll take a look.

© 2013 Denise Smyth


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

Next Time

I don’t exactly know what happened next. I remember bits and pieces.  Maybe I can talk to Phil about it one day.  Maybe he can fill in the gaps, give me his version. When he’s ready. It seems important, much as it can’t really matter. I mean, what of it? If we disagree, we get a do-over? I get to figure out how I could’ve stopped this, changed this, given us the happily-ever-after that required nothing other than our two children living longer than we would?

But I want details. All I have of my son is my story; sorrowful as it might be, I want it all. I want to know what time Phil came over, how long we sat on the landing, if I started to cry right away. I want to know how he knew the New Brunswick police were driving Natalie home, if he spoke to her before he came to me.  I want to know exactly what the police said when he answered the door, what he said back, how he felt. Shock, disbelief, grief – of course I know this. But I want to know where he felt it in his body, how he experienced it. Because if he tells me how he felt, maybe I won’t be so alone. Maybe he can help me find the words I need to find my way home. I don’t know any other way; I have faith in words. I believe that if I can say it the way I need to, I will be well. I believe that what haunts me are the stories I don’t yet know how to tell.

The loss of a child is not so easily shared. Phil and I went to a parents’ bereavement group a few months after Philip died. I am not unused to support groups – years of AA taught me that when a problem seems bigger than you are, finding people who’ve dealt with it can help. Not so this. At least with alcoholism, the path to healing has some sort of shape – if you’re a drunk and you want to start living, you have to stop drinking.

But how am I to find my way on this path? In AA we talked about drinking vodka and drinking wine and the stupid things we did and the dangerous things we did and how we almost died from embarrassment and how we almost died. We talked about what we felt like. We identified. And in our sameness lay our hope and our help.

What was I supposed to identify with here? Maybe I am a mother and you are a mother and I lost a son and you lost a son, but you didn’t lose Philip; you didn’t lose my son. Your “identification” was not what I wanted. It changed nothing. Besides, you couldn’t possibly understand. For you to understand, I’d have to be able to explain what I felt like and I couldn’t. I could not say it to anyone because I didn’t have the words. I could say “grief” and “despair” and “desperation” but that wasn’t what I really meant. Those were ordinary words, words I’d used before. Losing Philip was nothing like anything before. I’d have to invent a language to tell you. And this loss of language unmoored me; I was slipping, slipping away, gone to a place where I could see you and hear you, but you didn’t make any sense.

Ground Control, there’s something wrong. Something terribly fucking wrong.

I started this post intending to continue my narrative. Next time. I’m still skittish from the last piece of it; I’m touchy and sore and I’ve spent the last few days wondering if I’m crazy for doing this. If you’ve found your way here through Facebook, you know I wrote that I’m in a new version of surreal. I’ve stopped telling everyone, including the cashiers where I shop and the telemarketers who somehow breach the do-not-call barrier, what happened. I shower regularly, change my clothes daily. I even put makeup on again. But my heart is broken, a chunk of me is gone, I wake up every day wondering, what now? and I feel kind of crazy to be functioning like a normal person when I’m anything but. I’m small and too scared and I want my son. Sometimes I wonder who is the parent and who is the child, because I cry to Philip, help me, please help me; please come home, please don’t be gone, I miss you and love you and what am I going to do without you, Philip? What am I going to do?

© 2013 Denise Smyth

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

They found him… (Day 2, Part 2)

I don’t know too much detail about Phil’s story. I don’t want to ask him; he doesn’t need to re-live it. I don’t think he trusts reliving it. What for, I think he’d say? He works to find his peace, building his world, brick by brick. I think that’s what men do. Me – I spent a year sitting in the rubble, ashes in my hair, moaning when I wasn’t wailing. Phil tries not to go to the dark place. I am there enough for the both of us.

What I do know is that he’d taken a walk that night; that he remembers exactly where he was when he thought of how earlier that day, I’d jokingly said, “Hey. Where’s your son? I’ve been calling him, he hasn’t called me back.” That after he got home, there was a knock on the door (I don’t know if the bell rang) and he’d thought, good, it’s probably Philip. That instead, it was the police. That after they told him, he called his friend Larry and asked if he’d ride with him in the police car to Nadiya’s because he had to go there to tell me.

When my phone rang, I thought it was Natalie calling to finish what she started. Instead I saw it was Nadiya, which was odd because Nadiya never called, she texted. I answered the phone and she said, “Denise?” and I said, “Yeah,” and she said, “Phil is here,” and the simple equation (Phil is here + 10pm) – Philip = fucking X took no time to compute since I blasted down the stairs screaming, “My son my son!” and I heard Phil running up the stairs and I was still screaming, “My son my son!” and we were both on the second floor landing where I’d flung my phone and dropped to my knees, crawling around the floor screaming, “My son, my son!” and I was waiting, waiting, for Phil to say, “Calm down, it’s not that bad” because it couldn’t be, not really, it had to be that I went straight to panic because this is my child and then when Phil said it wasn’t that bad I’d be able to bear whatever it was because I’d already gone to the worst possible place, which it couldn’t be, not really, and I was waiting, waiting, for the relief of Phil’s words. But there was no relief, there was my husband, sitting on the landing, taking me by the shoulders, saying to me, “They found him…”

 They found him.

No, no, no, oh God no, no.  No!

I don’t remember what I said or when I stopped screaming or how long we sat there.  I didn’t want to compute what I was supposed to be computing. Philip is a light, a joy – my joy. Lights don’t go out. They just don’t. I had entered the unholy quiet of the tragic. I couldn’t scream it away, because it was true. It was true.  I lifted desperate, pleading eyes to Phil and asked softly, softly, “But…how?” Maybe they missed something. Maybe I could see they got it wrong. I pictured Philip in the backseat of whatever car he’d been in, victim of the stupid (possibly drunken) teenage recklessness of some other kid, when Phil said, “Drugs.”

I started to fall. Except I still hadn’t gotten up.

“Drugs?” I whispered. “But wha…”


“Heroin? Heroin? He was shooting heroin?”

Phil shook his head. “He snorted it.”

You could snort it? Heroin? You could snort heroin?  But it’s Philip, don’t you see; it’s Philip, this can’t be, it’s Philip, it’s Philip. FOR GOD’S SAKE, IT’S PHILIP.

And yes, yes it was. It was Philip.


© 2013 Denise Smyth

“Is this your brother?” (Day 2, Part 1)

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012 – Philip still hadn’t called me back. I still didn’t think anything of it. I figured I was on his mental to-do list. But I wanted to talk to him, so by afternoon I called and this time, I left him a message: “Well, I know you’re not dead in a ditch ‘cause someone would’ve called me by now. Call me.”

He was not in a ditch; at least I got that right.

Later that night, home, alone, I turned on “Lost.” It’s available on instant-watch through Netflix. I didn’t much like “Lost,” but I’d been watching it with Natalie during the summer. When she left for Rutgers and watched a few episodes without me, I figured I’d let it go. But I was afraid something really good and mind-blowing would happen and I would miss the Big Point after all the hours I’d spent watching this crap. We were, after all, up to season six. And much as I swore I’d never forget what scene I was watching when I got The Call, forget I did. Juliet and Michael were on the beach, I remember, but that narrows it down to exactly nothing. It’s Lost, for God’s sake. Everyone is always on the beach.

But the first time the phone rang, it was not The Call. It was Natalie. When I answered, she was choked and panicked and saying, “Mom, mom.” Since she often called choked and panicked and saying, “Mom, mom,” I did what I always do.

“Natalie. Natalie. Breathe.”

“But mom…”

“Natalie. Take a breath. I can’t understand you when you’re like this. Take a breath and tell me what happened.”

Nothing unusual about the silence that followed. Nothing unusual, either, in the abrupt change in her voice when she said, “Mom, I have to go.”

“Oh no you don’t. You’re not hanging up like this. Tell me what happened.”

Mom. I have to go.”

“Okay, okay. But call me back and let me know what’s going on.”

On my end, I thought her roommate walked in or someone started pounding on the door and that she would head for the nearest empty hall, stairway, bathroom or closet, wherever she could find somewhere to talk to me in private. It’s happened before. Uncontrollable weeping gets controllable real fast when you’re afraid one of your peers might catch you doing it.

On her end, she hung up, holding the photocopy of Philip that the four policemen who were standing in her room had given her when she opened the door and found them standing there. “Is this your brother?” they’d asked. A question harmless enough, except when it isn’t. Except when you realize it’s a question you’ve heard your entire life but you probably weren’t going to be hearing very often any more. And since she realized I didn’t know, she figured she’d give me a few more minutes peace before I woke to the nightmare that would become my new reality.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

What the hell?? (Day 1)

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012 – Sometime around 4:00 in the afternoon, while I was at work, Natalie called. “Mom,” she said, “Philip was supposed to meet me for lunch, but he didn’t show. What the hell??” “Oh,” I answered, “That’s weird. Well, you call him and I’ll call him and whoever hears from him first’ll tell him to call the other one.”

“What if he’s dead?”

I laughed. He’s not dead, I told her. She is a worrier; I am not. At least when it comes to my kids. I am the only parent I know who handed over the car keys and didn’t then picture my children splattered all over the road. Money, getting fat, dying without a significant other – these are the things I sometimes torture myself about. But my kids – I have faith in them, in their well-being. That might sound odd, worrying about the small stuff, but not my kids, who are the Big Stuff. Like, the REALLY Big Stuff. The Biggest Stuff EVER. But it’s not odd, not at all. It is precisely because of their Big-ness that I do not worry. I wouldn’t know how to picture my life without them, any more than I could picture my life without air, without the sun or the moon or the stars. All of which are always there, whether I can see them or not.

Whether I can see them or not.

I see no irony in this, in spite of what happened. Worrying prevents nothing. It just makes you miserable before the inevitable.

Besides, it’s Philip we’re talking about. My calm, well-adjusted, feet-on-the-floor, happy kid. Why I thought “calm” or “well-adjusted” or “feet-on-the-floor” or “happy” equaled “not dead” is probably because I was none of those things, most particularly when I was his age. And if I could survive my adolescence, which was dangerously unhappy, and included what I consider to be a serious attempt at suicide, then of course he could. He would.

Assumption is not a mistake I will easily make again. But I was living in my final 30 hours of assuming that that (and we all think we’re immune to those thats, reality to the contrary) is Something That Happens to Other People.

I hung up with Natalie and called my son. I knew enough not to leave a message.  Natalie, in particular, gets irritated with the time it takes to listen to a voicemail asking her to call me when the “Missed Call – Mom” message pretty much says the same thing.

She has a point.

I didn’t think anything when Philip didn’t call back. I called him again that night. Still no answer. At 11:02 I sent him a text. I know it was 11:02 because it’s still in my phone with all of our other texts from the last few months. The ones I hadn’t deleted, that is. I delete old texts because I first owned a computer when hard drives were measured in MGs, and deleting was what I did to make room. Besides, it seemed cleaner or something not to have stuff hanging around.

I no longer think like that.

Anyway, the text read, “Hey. Where are you? Call me or something.”

See, my world was still intact. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make a sound? If you’re child is dead and you don’t know it, does the world still make sense?

© 2013 Denise Smyth

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