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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