What I Know

I haven’t talked about this part of the story because it’s fucking hard to write. Harder than screaming down the stairs and pulling my hair and drowning in my cousin’s coat and all of it because that was about me. This is about Philip and what I know and what I imagine and I’m skittish as a cat about what it sounds like. This part’s focal point involves heroin, which is so Requiem For A Dream-ish that maybe it leaves nothing but Jennifer Connelly on her hands and knees and Jared Leto’s gruesome, festering, amputated arm as your tableau vivant.

This is what I know:  The night of February 21st, 2012, in celebration of the unfortunately-named Fat Tuesday, Philip went to a party. Last thing Natalia said to him was, “Don’t do anything stupid.” He did. Last thing he said back was, “I’ll call you in the morning.” He didn’t. At the party, he drank. Back home, he went into his room, locked the door, snorted some heroin. Wednesday he didn’t show up for lunch with Natalie. Thursday night, Max,* a housemate and Philip’s friend since elementary school, asked another housemate if he’d seen Philip, that Philip’s car was in the yard and hadn’t been moved in a while. The two of them went to his room, found it locked, broke into it, and saw him lying on the floor. Max started yelling, one of them called 911. The operator asked them to touch him, check his pulse, but Max was yelling and saying he couldn’t; he told me he tried to touch Philip with his foot, that he was freaked out.

‘’He was my friend since I was a kid,” he told me; “He was my best friend, and I found  him. How am I supposed to live with that?” So at the wake, when Max cried and said to me, “It’s my fault, I’m the one who brought it into the house, I’m the one who gave it to him,” I answered, “Look, you didn’t shove it up his nose. You can’t spend the rest of your life feeling guilty about it.”

A week later, raw as if my skin’d been peeled off with a razor, maybe I was thinking Max should feel guilty. I called him up to ask him why he didn’t tell the cops where he got the heroin. I’d get in trouble, he answered.  Well maybe if you told them, I answered, some next kid wouldn’t have to find his best friend dead and some next kid’s mother, father and sister wouldn’t have to spend the rest of their lives suffering about it. And if you don’t, I added, you get to spend the rest of your living with it.

I didn’t consider what I was really asking, that ratting on a heroin dealer isn’t like turning in the creep on the corner selling $2 joints, that we’re talking some serious Sopranos-type shit here. I saw Max, a couple months later, working behind the counter of a convenience store with narrow aisles lined with canned Vienna Sausage and 3.5 ounce containers of Bumblebee Chunk Tuna,  the counter crammed with Tic-Tacs and Tastykake Honey Buns and where there was always at least one customer doing some serious Lottery Ticket Buying. How are you, he asked. How do you think I am, I answered. And in case you’re wondering, when I got to back my car and sat gripping the steering wheel like a Mac truck was coming at me, thinking how Max had started the whole heroin thing and wondering if Philip’d be alive if he hadn’t, I did not wish that it had been Max instead. I thought about it, wondered why I didn’t wish it. I didn’t wish it because that’s a fantasy, and fantasies are dangerous. If I fantasize I’m living in a world that doesn’t exist, trying to solve a problem where it can’t be solved. I didn’t wish it because Philip is my child, dead or alive, and dead or alive I have a relationship with him. His death turned our relationship into sacred space, and thoughts of vengeance don’t belong there. I can’t get lost in whys and wishes. What would wishing Max dead mean? Only that I was furious and not doing the work that is required a parent do when she loses her child.

My son is dead and that’s forced me into a reality I do not want, but is what’s been given me. I can want it to be different, but it’s delusional to think that I can orchestrate one part of Life and not all of it. I don’t want the responsibility of all of it, and besides, it’s not an option. The only sane option is the one that feels like it’s driving me crazy: Philip has died, and how the bloody hell am I to live with it?

*NB: Natalia notwithstanding, I do not use real names when it comes to Philip’s friends.

© 2013 Denise Smyth



It’s over, all but the aftermath. Which isn’t ever really over, just the New Normal. The priest at my dad’s funeral mass told us not to believe that time heals all wounds. I don’t and haven’t and was glad to hear a Holy Man whose business is Hope say the same.

I wrote my dad’s eulogy, and one of the things I said was, “My dad has suffered the deaths of two of his grandchildren, two who should be here to mourn him, but instead are there to greet him,” and that “We take an anguished comfort that Nicole and Philip are with you.” I think that last might not be true. I think there’s no comfort I take from Philip’s death. Plenty of people die without their kids or grandkids or whoever else they thought would outlive them not being “there” first. It is our elders who should pave the way.

That’s two “shoulds” in one paragraph. I don’t believe in “shoulds,” even if I feel them. This is what Death does. It forces you to look at your beliefs and assumptions and what you took for granted vs. Real-Time Reality. When I start “shoulding” it means I’ve not been paying attention. And even now I find myself clucking and disbelieving every time someone shoots themselves in the head after shooting their girlfriend in the head and why do I do that? Is there any form of terror or degradation left that is still shocking or stunning?

But maybe it’s good that we can be shocked. Maybe that’s our humanity, maybe that’s the best part of us, the part that wants peace more than fear or anger. The part that recognizes that we can feel just as violent as the next guy – “God! Did he really just do that?!?!? I could kill him!” – but we really wouldn’t want to back up most of what we say about someone when we forget the someone we’re referring to is part of that humanity. We are the recipient of whatever kindness and humanity we offer.

Dad, Philip, Nicole – again and always, rest in peace. You are loved and missed. I promised you I would find my own peace. I am not so sure now. It’s my hurt and restless heart I’m trying to listen to but I can’t always hear what it’s saying.

I haven’t written much this week – understandable, but I couldn’t figure out how to continue because I kept thinking, “I have to get back to it. How do I get back to it? Where was I?” But I’m not going back to anything; I’m going forward. I’ll continue to write from now, and the New Now is that my dad has died.

I think I left off  that first night, balled up in my couch, holding on for my goddamn life. Freefalling down the rabbit hole. I don’t know if or when I hit bottom, but I do know I got off the couch. More on that next.

© 2013 Denise Smyth


Neither Philip or Natalie were “there” for all of my life. But loving someone can do strange things to the space-time continuum. It’s hard to remember I had a life before my children. I can remember scenes, of course, but I don’t remember what I felt like then, how I lived without the love that has both brought me to my knees and given me a reason not to stay there. Phil told me about a friend of his who lost her son. She has a place where she’s set some things of his, and every morning she spends some time with him. Then she gets up and lives her life, reminding herself she had a life without him even when he was alive. Phil used that as a model.

But we all bring what we bring to the situations in our lives. There is a sameness to I-lost-a-son-and-you-lost-a-son. But it’s circumstantial, is all. We aren’t each other and we didn’t lose each other’s sons. And maybe you were pretty damn satisfied about where you thought you were headed, maybe you had a sustainable marriage or work that made you feel useful and productive or a burning desire to do x, y or z with the time that you had that was free for choosing.

I was trying to figure all of that out, and when it was hard or I got scared because I felt so alone, I’d think, “I have my kids.” They were my place to rest. But that place has to be my place; that place cannot depend on who is or isn’t here or what anyone does or doesn’t do.  Yesterday I said that Philip’s love is mine and so it doesn’t leave. Not so with my peace of mind. Maybe just not yet.

On Sunday I read something someone had written for her mom on Mother’s Day. She’d written the standard, “You were always there, etc.,” but not just because it’s what you say. It’s because – and this was clear – she meant it. Her mom meant to her, and she wanted her mom to know. But all I could think of when I read that was Philip. I might have been “here” first, but I wasn’t here the way I was after he was born. I want to say to him, ‘You were always with me,” because he’s just as gone as if he had been.

My dad died. On Mother’s Day, around 11:30 or so. His heart was so very tired. Today is his birthday – He would’ve been 83. It’s also my parents’ anniversary. 58 years, I think? I have to check.

My dad loved to bowl. Laura, Philip’s ex and good friend, knew my dad. She sent me a text that read, “It’s comforting that he will be able to spend time with Philip…they can bowl together.” For whatever reason, I laughed; how good to laugh. And Nicole, go join in and kick their asses!

Dad, Philip, Nicole. I love you, we all love you. And what we wish most is for you all to rest in peace. We will try to do the same. We need time, so be patient with us. We’ll get there. I promise.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

Still the best day…

It’s Mother’s Day, and I am reminded that my children are the best thing I’ve done in my life. And I do know they’re not “mine,” not really. They came to the world through me, and I’ve guided them as I’ve let them go.  All letting go of them ever meant was allowing the bond between us to grow longer. They are, truly, the people I love most.

It might be more precise to say that they evoke the most love from me. That is my comfort; that this love is deeply me, and in that sense, I “have” my children. But I miss my son and I love him so much, so very, heart-achingly much. Still; it’s my love, and always will be.

This is my second Mother’s Day since Philip died. I have the last Mother’s Day card he’d given me on my desk. That year he and Natalie picked out particularly lovely cards, so I laid them flat on my desk, fan-style, as a decoration. This is what the front of Philip’s card says: “You are not only my mother, you are the woman who shaped my life.” He signed it, “Yeah, it’s corny. But it’s true. I love you.”

There is a reason – a very real reason – people say, “Don’t go to bed mad.”

So here are some stories because I very much need to talk about him right now.

Two weeks before Philip turned two – and while I was four months pregnant with Natalie – his Grandpa Bill (Phil’s dad) died. I took Philip to the wake. Death is a fact of life and I don’t think it should be hidden from children. The question is how to tell them? There isn’t any right answer. There’s you and your child and your capacity to know what s/he can handle and some imagination about how to broach the subject. I wanted Philip to begin to understand that sometimes the people in his life would no longer be there. I didn’t want to say his grandpa was sleeping and I didn’t want to say he was dead. One was a lie and one was too difficult to explain. There’s only so much an almost-two-year-old can grasp. So I knelt down to face Philip with a belly full of Natalie and said, “Philip, we’re going to see Grandpa Bill. He’s going to be lying down, and he’s not going to get up. Is that okay?”

Who knows how much he understood of what I was saying? But he was a calm child, so I wasn’t worried. I got him dressed, then picked him up and stood him on the kitchen table to straighten his little shirt, smooth his little pants. As I was being  a (slightly) fussy mom, I asked, “Philip, do you know where Grandpa Bill is?” to see if he’d say, “Sleeping.” Instead, he raised his little hand high in the air, index finger pointing toward the ceiling, smiled, and said “In the light.”

Whoa. I stepped back and stared at him, this sweet, innocent, amazing little boy, standing there with his hand in the air, full of smiles and secret knowing. I didn’t know where the hell that came from except to say that children are closer to something that gets lost for most of us as we get older.

After Philip died, Phil, Natalie and I went to the house he’d been living in to get his things. I took his notebooks, and it was just a couple of weeks ago that I looked through them. I found a short essay he’d written about his childhood, and he talked about two things. The first was the apartment we lived in until he was seven, which he described as small, dark and cramped. It wasn’t. It was a big, bright apartment, the entire first floor of a house. But the room he shared with Natalie was small, and maybe that’s what he was remembering.

The second thing he wrote about was the wake. He thought he was four years old, said that he saw his grandpa lying in a coffin and it was creepy, but that he looked around and saw people talking and laughing and then he knew it was okay. Being there struck him deeply, more deeply than I ever knew.

And this is what I mean about Philip being a calm kid:

We were a “traditional” family. Phil worked, which meant I got to stay home with the kids. They were my “work.” I nursed them because it was a way of loving them, washed their diapers because I didn’t like fuzz and plastic, made clothes for them because I love what I can do with fabric. I put them to sleep when they were tired and stayed up with them when they weren’t. And when they were ready for solids I made their food, which mostly meant throwing whatever I cooked for dinner into a blender. I don’t get buying Designer Baby Food packed in teeny, expensive jars. I can mash my own bananas, thank you very much. And what was the point of made-for-baby-applesauce when Mott’s-no-sugar-added served the same purpose? Earth’s Best came from my kitchen and not from a jar, no matter how many green fields, fresh fruits and diapered-only toddlers its adorable label had.

But traditional doesn’t mean popular, and the few friends I had went to work soon after their babies were born. My world was small and lonely before I had Philip, and shrunk to mostly me and him after he was born. By the time he was a year and toddling around I hadn’t changed my mind about staying home, but I was bored and frustrated which I attributed to my lack of imagination and not my circumstances. Most of my conversations were the ones I was having with myself, which is pretty bad news since I do not keep myself very good company.

One thing I did was set up a nook in the corner of my dining room where I could sew. Which involved pins. Lots of pins. When I worked, I’d wind up spreading out to the floor and the dining room table and I took my pins with me. Carefully, because pins in the hands of a child are weapons, which they’re likely to turn on themselves in ways I still don’t like to imagine.

But I wasn’t careful enough. One day Philip toddled over to the dining room table. One determined hand grasped its edge while one curious hand went searching until it found a box of 200 pins which made a slightly pleasing tinkling sound when he knocked them down and they scattered all over the hardwood floor.

Drastic times call for drastic measures, and it seemed to me that picking up the nearest chair and banging it repeatedly on the floor while yelling, I CAN’T TAKE IT ANY MORE! was the exact right thing to do. Except no matter how much I tried to lose my mind, a piece of it remained. “What the fuck?” it asked. “Your kid is watching you and you’re scaring him to death.”

Philip was behind me, and I imagined the terror that must be on his face, his eyes tearing, his mouth turned down and trembling, ready to open up and start howling. Goddamnit. I stopped with the chair and turned around expecting to gather him up to shush and reassure him, except he didn’t need any of that at all. He was watching me, little Buddha, waiting for me to stop, and if he could’ve talked I swear he’d have said, “Better now?”

I was, enough to laugh and pick him up and forget about sewing pins for a while. Which makes me think of the saying, “Little kids, little problems. Big kids, big problems.” It never occurred to me what they were talking about.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

The Story

I thought of this story because I was talking about protecting Philip, and because of how deeply we’re affected by the vulnerability we share with our kids. Because we do share it. I might be the one who’s supposed to be doing the protecting, but look at the price I pay if I can’t.

The summer when Philip was four or five and Natalie was two or three, we stayed overnight in Point Pleasant, NJ, with Janine and her son Jake. It was hot and sunny and sticky and when we got to the beach, it was closed. If there was such a thing as a triple-X red flag, it would’ve been flying. I’ve never seen a beach this way. The water was hurling itself at the shore, right up to the boardwalk. In fact, there was no shore; just a boardwalk and lots of hysterical water.

Do Not Enter or not, the beach wasn’t roped off, so we went down the boardwalk stairs just to gape. I’m a weather girl. Not as in, oh, it’s warm and sunny so we should get our asses out and do something. I mean as in ice storms, snowstorms (which my town has decided to call “snow events,” leaving me to wonder just what it is our Town Officials spend the better part of their time – and our money – doing), rainstorms, thunderstorms, storms of any kind. The more nature misbehaves, the better. Of course, all I know is the NY Metro area kind of weather, not the Storm-Chaser, Dorothy’s-house-flying-through-the-air kind. The ocean that day might not be classified as “weather,” but it was Nature being Really Exciting.

The five of us stood just under the boardwalk, Janine and I holding our kids’ hands. No one else was there because really, no sane person would’ve been. You could see what was going on from the top of the boardwalk; no need go down those stairs to get under it. But we did, and the panorama of that unobstructed wild ocean letting its white, foamy hair down and shaking it out with a vengeance was mesmerizing.

Possessed, I took Philip’s still-chubby four-(or five)-year-old hand and walked deeper into that maniacal frothing sea. I was both thrilled and terrified; for God’s sake, I wouldn’t know how to float in a bathtub, never mind do a free-stroke or a backstroke or any other stroke that was supposed to keep my head above more than about four feet of water; what the hell was I doing tempting fate?

Correction. What was I doing tempting fate with my child?

I’d say it was a modified version of that thrill-seeking thing that makes people jump out of airplanes or climb big, scary mountains. And I think that attraction, dangerous as it is, is the pull of life. It’s the need to have all your senses mobilized and attentive, so there isn’t you and the ocean or the sky or the mountain because you are the ocean and the sky and the mountain. I mean, you’re not thinking about anything except what you’re doing, and how peaceful is it not to have to listen to the damn whining voices in your head. It’s what I’d thought meditation was about, but I hadn’t the patience to get there by sitting around and trying not to think. And here was an unsought opportunity to shock myself awake.

We didn’t walk far. We couldn’t. The water rushed at us, smacking my shins and splashing up my thighs, then rushed back on itself, trying to take us with it. It was gorgeously, savagely, beautiful; it was The Call of the Wild that I wanted to answer, but I didn’t know how.

So I turned to go back to the boardwalk, and a few steps later I realized I’d let go of Philip’s hand. I had stood there marveling at the ferocity and velocity of that ocean and then I dropped my son’s hand. I don’t remember doing it, I just remember spinning around in shock and dread, to see that Philip had been knocked down to his hands and knees, and some woman was helping him to get up.

What followed was some eerie dream-like sequence where I moved toward her and she gave Philip’s hand to me and I took it, unable to see what I’m sure were her accusing eyes behind her sunglasses, unable to say anything because the enormity of what I’d done was already taking hold, because the roaring of the ocean wouldn’t have allowed me to be heard anyway. Then somehow I was back at the boardwalk, back to Janine, who hadn’t seen any of it. I didn’t tell her. If I had, I would have had to say, “I think I almost let my child die.” That he didn’t die didn’t change my carelessness. It wasn’t because of me that he didn’t die. It was because of that woman, whoever she was, wherever she came from.  As far as I was concerned, she saved his life.

For years, right up until Philip died, I’d get slightly sick and slightly dizzy when I thought about that day. For just a second my stomach would lurch. I told Philip about it once, but he just shrugged it off. What did it matter to him? He didn’t even remember it.

But after Philip died, the truth of that day hit me, and it knocked me over like one of those big old waves did to him. My son wasn’t saved that day; I was. Because if he would have died then, I don’t know what shell of a person I would have become and what Natalie would have had to suffer because of it. Look; Philip was a young man on his own, and I couldn’t protect him from the choices he made, or the body he was given. But he is my son. He was vulnerable and I was helpless. That I can work through; and to a degree, I have. But if I’d lost him then? If he had died because of my carelessness when I was supposed to be taking care of him?

My heart is on its knees in gratitude. I was graced that day, and I understand the difference between the way it happened and what it would have been like if it had happened then. It’s a nightmarish way to get perspective. But if my son had to die, better it be with my conscience clear.

© 2013 Denise Smyth


Yesterday a window opened. Just for a moment. And there he was – Philip, in his biker jacket, standing there. Palpable. Tangible. In living color. As in I could touch him? No. Do I mean I had a vision? No. I just mean I remembered him like it was yesterday and I am aching for what I can’t have.

Sometimes…well, it’s like this – and not as in a complaint, but as a result of choices I’ve made. I haven’t anyone to hold me; I mean, to just sink into. And right about now, that’s feeling like it would be a good thing. I’d rather be sitting on my couch balled up under someone’s arm with a reassuring head resting on mine than sitting on my couch trying to explain it to you. There’s a release that happens when it’s the right person. Like lancing the wound and the pus runs out and the hot pain chills out and from the simple act of touching, there’s nowhere one of you ends and the other begins. Just breathing in a place where you think you’re safe from something it’s not possible to be safe from, but it’s okay to make believe you are, just for a while.

It’s a break in the tension. It’s what I drank for; that click, the one that came right around the third drink, when I started nodding to the music all warm and dreamy because really, everything was going to be all right.

Philip used to let me sink into him. Just for a moment, here and there. He knew me. He saw my unhappiness, he wrote about it, he tried to love it out of me. Funny thing is, I was finally letting him, then he went and died.

Yeah, well. Maybe not so funny.

I guess I’m saying that it just hit me weak-in-the-knees hard that my son is gone and I am crying crying crying again and for what? I well know that people are suffering this and I can’t do anything about mine like they can’t do anything about theirs. And it matters; it matters that people suffer all sorts of things because I don’t think I’ve been given more or less than anyone else. It matters that people are trying to cope with what’s in front of them. It has to matter because if I can’t make some sense – even some vague, primitive sense – of this, I think my spirit will lie broken and useless and my body will follow right along.

For months and months and months I asked Philip to come to me in my dreams. I had two dreams about him after he died, but no more. Phil told me he dreams of Philip. He sees him standing with his friends, and he wants to tell him something but he can’t. How do you feel when you wake, I asked? Terrible, he answered.

Then I thanked Philip for not dreaming of him because I got it. To feel like I experienced him would only make me feel worse. There’s a cushion that’s developed, between and around me and my son. It doesn’t keep me from him, it doesn’t make the grief go away. But it’s the difference between how I grieved when he first died and how I grieve now. It has to do with the physical fact of him; 14 months of not seeing him or touching him has lost its sharp edge.

Then that window that opened. It was visceral. Again; the brutality of loss. Philip popped up and was gone, and I’m haunted by the line I wrote, weeks ago:  “I see him, beautiful boy…”

My beautiful boy; oh God, where is he? When Natalie went to pre-school, and then again in kindergarten, she screamed for me. Mrs. M had to carry her in while I watched, Natalie reaching her arms out to me over Mrs. M’s shoulder, Mommy…Mommy…Mommmmmmmyy!! And kindergarten, Mrs. R holding her hand, Natalie screaming, Mommy! My stomach hurts! Mommy! Mommy! Please!

I can’t stop thinking about this because I am Natalie, screaming for help, reaching out for someone who cannot or will not help, and it’s killing me that I let her go and I know exactly how she felt, her big eyes streaming tears, terrified, not understanding how mommy could let this happen and of course it took one day for it to be all right, but she didn’t know that, not in those moments. I am stuck in that tableau where I am Natalie more than I am me. Terrified and bewildered at what’s happened, guilty and ashamed for letting it.

I know Philip’s death wasn’t my fault. But I am his mother; protecting him is what I’m supposed to do. It’s beyond sense or reason. It’s biological, it’s psychic. I didn’t do it, couldn’t do it, and that’s what I have to live with. I did nothing wrong; if you think I’m saying I feel guilty because I could have done something to prevent this, I’m not explaining it right. See, what I know and what I feel have nothing to do with each other. The fact is that Philip is dead, the fact is I couldn’t have stopped it, the fact is I am wired to protect him and I didn’t.

Next, I want to tell you a story.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

Day 3, and So On

I hate this. I goddamn hate that my son is dead and that you’ll say so very sympathetically, “Of course you do” but you don’t know. You think I’m brave and I’m doing great and hey, I’m writing a blog and maybe it’s what’s keeping me sane, but what do I do when I’m done with my story? Day One and Day Two (parts one, two, three and four) and now Day Three, and then what? What if I run out of things to say? Because I certainly won’t run out of things to feel. It’s my silences I don’t know how to live with.

It’s Friday, and I am at my parents’ house in Brooklyn. Philip is all around, pictures of when he was 2 and 4 and 14 and 17 and 18 and 20. He’s kissing his cousin, sitting with his grandma, sitting on a rock in Wyoming during the last vacation we’d taken as a family. And he’s in my old bedroom, on the bureau, he and Nicole, two dead grandbabies with a place of their own. And if I sound angry that my mom did that, I’m not. I’m angry that such a thing should be necessary.

I’m here to visit my dad in the hospital, where he was taken for arrhythmia on Monday, and where we briefly thought he might die. What do people think about when they’re not thinking about death? It’s most of what I think about, no matter whatever else it seems I might be thinking about. Fill it up, regular; do you know my son is dead? Three veggie burgers and a chicken Panini; do you know my son is dead? What time should we meet for dinner; you didn’t forget my son is dead?

I don’t want to be in this hospital, this Bizarre Hotel where the NICU is opposite the birthing center and which I suppose might be viewed as perfectly normal, but it’s a normal I don’t want to be reminded of. Philip and Natalie were perfectly healthy babies who were the result of perfectly healthy pregnancies and had perfectly healthy births, right in my very own home – but who knew that babies who aren’t sick or hurting didn’t necessarily grow up to be adults who aren’t sick and hurting? If they managed to grow up at all, that is.

I’m at the hospital with my mom, and my Aunt Joan and her granddaughter, Andrea. The two of them flew in from North Carolina Thursday night. I picked them up from the airport, drove them to my parents’ house and slept there with them. Natalie’s working in the city. When she’s done, she’ll take the train here, to the hospital. Tonight we’ll drive home.

But I want to go home now. I want to be in my TV room on the couch, the same couch I’d tucked myself into when I found out Philip died, and where I’d spent most of the next year because to move off it was to take my attention away from my grief and I refused to take my attention off my grief.

No. That’s not it. It wasn’t possible to take my attention off my grief. It was intolerable. People thought it would be good for me to go out, get my mind off it. Even now I want to throw my head back and cackle like a crazy hyena at the absurdity of such a sentiment. You can be forgiven if you say such a thing because you don’t know what else to say, but if you really believe what you’re saying, then naiveté is the color of your world.

Never mind. Either way, there’s deep ignorance involved to suggest there’s such a thing as getting my mind off what Philip’s death felt like, and today I am in no mood to be charitable about any of it. The damn stupidity of suggesting I could take my mind off it, like getting some fresh air would do anything other than remind me that Philip couldn’t breathe it. What was I supposed to do, pluck my mind out of my head, lay it down on my pillow, tell it, “I’ll be back a little later, when you’ve calmed down?” As if that would have mattered, as if without a mind to think about it, my body wouldn’t still have been folding in on itself in its shock and disbelief that This Is My Reality, not some episode of ER where I could shake my head and think, “Wow. Sucks to be them.”

Maybe there’s truth to that. If emotion truly is the body’s response to what the mind’s thinking, “taking my mind off it” might’ve given me some relief. Except it’s delusional to think there was another response to Philip’s death besides the one I was having, that spending my time figuring out how not to think about my son being dead was somehow going to help me live through it. Why not just tell me to go get drunk about it? That would have been just as productive as any other way to not think about it. I mean, isn’t this what I got sober for? So I could fully feel what something like this feels like?


If, in fact, “getting my mind off it” was valid advice, it didn’t matter. No one can tell anyone else how to grieve. The one thing that made any sense to me was when my friend Debbie, who works with the bereaved, told me to follow any creative impulse I had. Which led to months and months of me sitting on my couch and knitting, and to consider writing the book, “How Knitting Saved My Life.”

You’d think it would’ve taken something heroic for me to make it through that night. The magnitude of my loss seemed to demand heroism to survive it. But I’m no fireman running into a burning, crumbling tower. They were the brave ones, the ones the word “heroism” was meant for. Me – I had no choice in this. This was life. Wait – no. This was death. Happens every second of every day and sooner or later everyone has to deal with it. Just so happens now it was my turn.

That night I sat on my couch like a wild thing caught in a trap, scrunched in a fetal position, knees bent, toes clenched, hands fisted, chewing on my thumbnails and staring at nothing, wanting someone to come and help me, embarrassed and afraid that they would. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to be. For two hours I sat in an ungodly silence broken only by my on-and-off sobbing and heaving. It should have been storming outside; the rain should have been pelting, the thunder ferocious, the lightning dazzling, the trees snapping and cracking from its impact. At the very least someone in the house besides me should be making maybe a sob or a moan.  And when the silence of that huge and implacable house provoked the racket in my brain into a simply unbearable frenzy, I grabbed my phone, went to my bedroom, shut the door and called Janine.

Janine is my friend from Brooklyn; we’d met one morning when we’d taken our kids to the same park on 79th Street and Shore Road. Philip was around 4; Janine’s son Jake was a few months older. There’s no good that can come from an unexpected phone call at 4:00 in the morning, which is maybe why she didn’t pick up the first time around. I chose her to call because if you’re going to give someone a 4am call, it’s got to be someone who’s going to start screaming right along with you.

Because that’s what we do, we women. We moan when our children come into the world, wail if they leave it before we do.  Our lives then become Life Sentences, as we’re condemned to carry on without those we carried into this world. What are we to do, we ask? We are a society of do-ers. What use is it to just be? Where’s the value in that? If we don’t have something to show for our time spent, what the hell are we worth? That’s why we have such a hard time with the elderly; theirs is a time to be, but the rest of us are so busy doing that we whiz on by while they watch with rheumy eyes, eyes that probably have lots to teach us if we’d just slow down and pay attention for a bit.

How ill-equipped are we to deal with death, then? The original moment when the immovable object meets the irresistible force. My body was screaming for action while my mind understood it wouldn’t matter. I wanted this feeling out of my body. One night, during the relentless progression of Nicole’s cancer, Robert went to South Beach on Father Capodano Boulevard in Staten Island and screamed. I picture him, head thrown back, maybe shaking his fists, maybe stamping his feet, howling his anguish to that dark and endless universe, the only place that could contain it.  And maybe he screamed until he was sure he had not one more drop of rage to exhaust, only to find that all it took was one night’s sleep – and not even a good one, at that – to revive his rage, but not his spirit.

Animals caught in traps have been known to chew off a limb to escape. I was that animal, but short of ingesting my entire body, there was no escape. Where would I escape to, anyway? I wanted to escape what I knew. I cursed Eve for biting into that goddamned apple. The Tree of Knowledge; the tree of consciousness, the part where we woke up and began to know things like loss and grief and death, things that I was quite clear I did not want to know about. Not where my children are concerned. Most unequivocally, especially, assuredly where my children are concerned.

But here’s the thing. There’s only grief because there’s love. That’s what it means to live in a world of opposites. Once we decide “good,” we’ve automatically created “bad.” Once there’s birth, there’s death. Once we love a child, we grieve if we lose that child. If I intend to make meaning, then I have to pay attention to what I say. “I do not want this grief,” I say. But I love my son; I want to love my son. What am I meaning, then? That I wish I had no kids so that I didn’t have to know this formerly unspeakable thing that is kicking the damn shit out of me? But you don’t know the unspeakable without having the mad, deep love that is its cause, and I would have rather had Philip for a while than not have had him at all.

© 2013 Denise Smyth