I Just Don’t See How

I am glad to have had this week away. The timing couldn’t have been better. Nadiya is selling the house and Natalie and I have to move. It’s a huge, elegant house, the kind of house that has to be “staged.” Nadiya already bought an apartment where she’s moved her dog and three cats, and where she now mostly lives. She’s turned the house over to the realtors, who are in the business of making the most  money they can in a way that I find creepy.

I have nothing against making money. Money is good. But me and my daughter and certainly my dogs don’t figure into the realtors’ plans. They want us gone, which is the only issue where Nadiya has set her foot down. We can stay right up to closing if that’s how long it takes us to find an apartment. But to the realtors, Natalie and I are “The Third Floor” and “The Sewing Room” and “The Other Bedroom” and I don’t think the clear but angry email I sent to remind them we are actual human beings changed any minds. We were told what to pack up and what of our furniture would be moved. We are living out of boxes. This weekend was the Big Showing. When we got home from California Friday after midnight, we drove straight to my friend Kirsten’s for the weekend so that not so much as a toothbrush was in view or (God forbid) a stray hair was on the sink to remind anyone that we live there.

I’ve left the dogs with my mom for the week, and I’ve been put on notice that when the house is to be shown we are not to be there. When Natalie and I are both out of the house, we are not allowed to leave the dogs. The painters informed Nadiya that the dogs regularly poop on the third floor. We live on the third floor. I would know if the dogs “regularly” pooped up there. If  one of them pooped when the painters were there, s/he probably had an upset stomach in which case Nature wasn’t calling, She was screaming.

I haven’t worked full-time since Philip died, but now I have to. Turns out the job I found is temporary, so I have to look for employment elsewhere. I’m looking at apartments I don’t know if I can afford and that will please allow my dogs and please leave me money for food once I pay the rent. If I take a job with a shelf-life, what do I do with two dogs, a daughter and an extravagant rent when it expires?

And I hear my son saying, “Have a little faith, mom. It’s okay.”

I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing: I’m looking for a job and looking for an apartment and I’m looking for a reason to think any of this will be okay because none of it is going the way I am wanting it to go. I’m scared and I remember a couple weeks ago that Ron, over at the xanax diary, wrote, “…life isn’t really about the good times, the celebrations or victories. Life is really about the struggles we face and how we face them.”

I am not facing this well. I just don’t see how this works out, and reminding myself that my portion is no worse than anyone else’s is no help because all that means is things can get worse.

You work your faith – whatever it looks like to you – when things get rough. It’s easy to have faith with a son who has your back and a daughter by your side, a job that’s comfortable and a place to live you call “home.” I don’t think I’m going to look back on this and be proud of myself. Last week, finding out the job was temporary put me into a semi-coma, where I remained for the second half of Natalie’s competition and for which she called me out.

“I asked one thing of you,” she said. “Just to be here to calm my crazies. I need to be able to come to you. I saw you across the floor at the gym. You looked like death. And I was on my own.”

She’s right. I got unexpected news that I did not want to hear and instead of going all Krishnamurti on it, I panicked. I’ve already said worrying doesn’t prevent anything, it just makes you miserable before the inevitable. Seems I’m unable to follow my own advice, especially where money is concerned.

What I’ve left out of the equation is Life. That the things that happen unexpectedly don’t always break your heart. I went to see my grief counselor yesterday. We talked about work. What does Philip tell you? he asked. All he says is, “bake.” I answered. I walked out of there deciding to get back to it, to start making cakes for a restaurant that’s given me a standing order and to take it from there. Then Natalie called. Want to have dinner, she asked?

So she, James and I sat down to dinner at the new upscale diner with a menu that included wraps, veggie burgers, all-day-long breakfast and the ubiquitous panini. When we finished eating, a man who worked there came to ask how it was. Are you the owner? I asked. I’m one of them, he answered. Do you need a baker, I asked?

He introduced me to his dad, who said they’re going to need a baker at the seventh restaurant they’re opening, and for now I should bring them some cakes and we’ll take it from there. As I’m writing this I’m waiting for the first one to cool so I can bring it over.

You’d think I’d trust Life a little more, especially with Philip whispering in my ear. Panicking is familiar, and it’s still what I do. There’s more to this, of course, more to Life and its mysterious ways as I’ve experienced them, particularly with respect to my son. And in my next post, I’m going to talk about some of it.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

Suffering is Optional?

I started this post on a plane to Palm Springs, California. Natalie’s a gymnast, and is competing at World Championships. We both giggle at the name; it’s true that it’s worldwide, but while it sounds like it’s important enough to be televised, the only cameras that’ll be there are the ones all the parents have brought.  Still, there are talented gymnasts competing, and I’m proud to say that Natalie is one of them.

The last time I was on a plane was May, 2012, three months after Philip died. My so-always-so-generous cousin Maria took  me and Natalie for a long weekend to Key Biscayne in Florida, right outside of South Beach, Miami. Maria and I were both born in April; “For our birthdays, we’ll go,” she said. Like a sad little puppy I followed, not knowing what I should or shouldn’t do but hoping that if someone was taking care of me, it would somehow please make me better.

I’d heard much about the beauty of the Keys, the glamour of South Beach, Miami. We were staying at the Hilton, large and elegant with ginormous flower arrangements in the lobby and crystal bowls of glossy green and red apples for the taking. Maria booked one room for me and Natalie, and stayed in another with her daughter, Gina. Leaning over the railing on our 10th floor terrace, I could see the bay a ways off. A parking lot was to my left, with hotels in all directions. Below, palm trees and such lined the circular drive that was busy with idling buses briskly greeted by courteous, uniformed attendants. Their willingness-to-please was exhausting.

I thought my sense of beauty might’ve died along with Philip, but I suspected not. Whatever beauty drew people here was buried under the massive amount of building it took to support them when they came. But just in case I was missing something, when Natalie joined me on the terrace I asked her if she thought the view was beautiful. “Hell no,” she answered.

Then our trip to South Beach, which was awful. Our cab driver let us off on Ocean Drive. This is the real South Beach, he’d said. It’s 1.3 miles of hotels, restaurants and shops which look as classy as Fifth Avenue New York in pictures but are a few steps above seedy when you’re walking past them at 7:30pm just-after-tourist-season. Music was blaring from each of the crowded, canopied restaurants that lined the street, which was impossible to navigate. Natalie and I crossed to walk on the opposite side – the beach side – giving us I suppose a better view of the much-touted Art Deco designed buildings, which my unsophisticated eye saw as run-down. We continued to Lincoln Avenue, where the concierge at the Hilton suggested we go. It was an outdoor mall like every other outdoor mall that’s been popping up in America, with a broad street closed to traffic, chain stores I don’t have to vacation to shop in and restaurants who employ people to stand outside to try to coax you in with extended Happy Hours and two-for-the-price-of-one entrees.

I suffer from tourist-itis. I don’t go away much, and when I do, I remain a perpetual tourist, feeling like I don’t belong, looking for something I can’t find, thinking if I follow the signs that lead to The Village there’ll be something old and authentic, something that isn’t a bunch of chain stores with different facades to match the climate. I can’t even find a place to walk beyond the hotel, never mind trying to find something to do besides what’s offered in the brochures of endless attractions. It’s the soul of the place I want to find – is it in the side streets, the surrounding neighborhoods, in the parks, on a mountain, on a trail? It’s like some big secret that the kind of people I envy know about. But I think it’s my own soul I’m searching for and if I can’t find it inside of me, I’m not going to find it outside of me, either.

This searching is no longer an abstraction. I am sick from grief. My insides keep folding in on themselves and I’ve not stopped asking myself just how I am supposed to live without my son. Natalie and I went to lunch after we landed. There was an elderly couple in a booth to my right, deep in conversation for the entire time we were there. And another elderly couple in front of me, sitting side by side at a table made for ten, more interested in their food than each other. He was a handsome man with his silver hair and beard, decisively pushing around the food on his plate, intent on which was the next bite he’d be chewing. She was pale and birdlike, her mouth gently turned down at the corners, slowly chewing food that I never once saw her put in her mouth. In her I saw the result of my long, long life without Philip. She is unhappy, I cried to Natalie when we left. And I am unhappy; how can I be okay without Philip?

Why do you do that, Natalie asked? Why are you paying attention to the couple you think is unhappy instead of the couple who couldn’t stop talking to each other? You are not going to be okay because you are okay.  It’s not a place you get to. It’s where you are, right now.

Part of me thinks she’s right and part of me is screaming you don’t know, no one knows, because you can’t be inside me and feel what this feels like. Am I supposed to take heart because so many are suffering and so many go on? I can’t, not in the way that other shared experiences might buoy me. But it is humbling, for sure; that I could feel so unbearably isolated and unnervingly grieved while knowing that every day people are suffering this, and worse. That my portion of pain isn’t any more extraordinary than anyone else’s. Pain, they say, is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

If so, I am choosing wrongly and feel helpless to do otherwise.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

Elizabeth Blue

I’m posting a poem from Luminous Blue. It was written by Elizabeth Blue, a young woman who’s taken my breath away and made me cry the kind of tears that need to be cried. I don’t want to tell you her story – you can read about it on Luminous Blue, and I would urge  you to do so. Her mother, Lucia, is as extraordinary as Elizabeth, and I’ve been blessed to meet her through our blogs. Elizabeth died at 22. What hurts my heart is that I feel the love between her and her mom, so evident because of the way they are present to each other. Read what this child had to say; she knew more at 22 than most of us learn in a lifetime. I want to post a poem she wrote; a poem that’s so layered it deserves – it needs – many readings. Keep in mind she was 20 when she wrote it.

Lucia, thank you for sharing Elizabeth with us.

Elizabeth Blue's Bird's Nest

The Risk I Took

Here’s how I know I’m getting better:

A couple weeks ago, I was at Cindy’s house when her decorator-friend came to put up some curtains. DF and I were alone, so I asked her about her life instead of talking about mine (that’s number one). I asked her how she got into the decorating business, not about how many kids she had (numbers two and three). And then – number four, the really big one – when she (through no prompting on my part) said, “I miss my son,” and I asked, “Why?” and she said, “He went overseas for a term to study Arabic and now that he’ll be home in a week, I realize just how much I miss him,” I did not say, “Lady, you don’t know how fucking lucky you are.”

And on a maybe more minor note (maybe), when Cindy’s, em, “friend,” found out the wrist she thought was sprained was actually broken and required six weeks in a cast followed by physical therapy and characterized the whole freakin’ thing as “A Nightmare,” I did not ask her how many of her three children were still alive since, well – oh wait; they all are.

Of course, then there’s days like Friday, when I spent four morning hours watching the final season of “The Big C – Hereafter” and then cried to  Rene, the construction guy who was  in my TV room fixing some water damage on the ceiling. It wasn’t Laura Linney’s fault. If I’m watching morning TV I’m already gone. Turns out Rene had a daughter with his first wife and she died the day after she was born. He’s remarried and has no kids and I’m sure he had hours worth of story to tell me, but how do I ask when I don’t know if he’d want to tell? “Not everyone’s like you, mom,” Natalie likes to say when she thinks I’m too quick to share what she considers private.

It’s just that I’m as interested in other people’s stories as I am in my own. I want to be in your world for a while, to see it the way you do because even if it’s in some small way, I will recognize me and that means we are connected. Once I asked someone I cared very much for if I was still there if he didn’t see me. I knew I was pleading for something he couldn’t give me. Now I know I need to see as much as I need to be seen. I need to tell you about Philip as much as I need you to tell me what’s true and authentic in your life because if I cannot live in what’s true and authentic, even if the true and authentic is grief, then I will become one of the walking dead and that is not what Philip wants.

What Philip “wants?” After Philip died, Phil said to me that he wanted to carry Philip’s kind and generous spirit into the world and that I should too; that Philip would not want me to be in the grief I was in.

“How do you know what he wants?” I shot back. “Maybe he’s lonely. Maybe he wants company. Maybe he wants me with him.”

Phil didn’t answer, but months later he told me that after I said that, he thought, she is fucked up.

But here’s the thing. Some point during The Wilderness of the two days between when Philip lay dead in his room and then dead in a coffin, I was out driving somewhere for something.  Stopped for a red light at the corner of Park and Chestnut in front of  Montclair High School, I thought, I am done. I have had it. I am going to do it. I don’t know how, but I will do it. I have had it; I have had enough. And for the second time I heard my son and he said, “Mom, you have to find the joy. It doesn’t work that way.”

I knew what he meant. I knew that whatever it was I had to work out, I had to work it out where I was and that killing myself wouldn’t matter. I had to work this out. And Philip asked me if I wanted to take the way I was feeling, pick it up and give it to Natalie. Because that’s what killing myself would do. And I had this weird vision, like I’d crossed over and was standing next to Philip, unable to get to Natalie, and the grief I carried was now for her.

See, I took a risk. I took the risk of having children and what I had was one that was dead and one that was alive and needed me. I chose that responsibility –  I chose it. But all that made me feel was trapped. It was my love for Natalie that would give me the strength to lay my burden down, but I couldn’t feel it. The heart that loved was gone; without it, where could I find what I was supposed to give her?

“For I am just a troubled soul
Who’s weighted…
Weighted to the ground
Give me the strength to carry on
Till I can lay my burden down
Give me the strength to lay this burden down down down
Give me the strength to lay it down.”

From “Little Bird” by Annie Lennox

© 2013 Denise Smyth

Maybe God, Maybe Not

When I joined AA I had pretty low opinion of God, if I had one at all. He wasn’t much of a factor in my life. If He created me, He must’ve gotten interrupted by a phone call or needed a bathroom break so that when He got back to it, He forgot what He was doing and left a piece out. If He existed, why wasn’t I happy? It didn’t seem fair that I walked around wanting to die while every day millions of others actually did.

God made no difference in my life, but drinking did. Why waste time on my knees when The Answer was limitless, close and affordable? And fast. If there was a God, He took too long, what with all those people he had to care for. So I took care of myself, starting with Boone’s Farm Apple Wine when I was 12 (those days I could take my 12-year-old-self into the liquor store and buy what I wanted) then graduating to rum, vodka or gin (mixed with soda so it wouldn’t taste so bad), pot, quaaludes, amphetamines and whatever I could find in any bathroom I entered that had a medicine cabinet.

God was a nonstarter until January, 1983, age 24, when I took my beaten self to an AA meeting. Instead of finding smoky basements filled with the old and the wet-brained, I found a group called Young Winners* and met people my own age. Younger, even. The group met on Friday nights, which made sense because Friday was drink-your-ass-off night. After the meeting, we’d go out to a diner. I didn’t do God and I didn’t do diners but I was doin’ what I was told because I believed it would make me better.

AA gave me the idea that maybe it was God that I was missing. I thought if I changed His name to Higher Power, it would change the way I thought about Him. Except HP As I Understood Him was still pretty much as distant and pissed off as my parents used to be. I was told prayer was talking to HP, and meditation was listening, so I tried both but I still felt like the only one I was talking to was myself. I was told not to worry, to “believe that we believe.” After a couple years, that’s exactly what I did. Praying got me nowhere so I let everyone else believe and concerned myself with keeping sober and trying to find the right group or the right book that would lead me to some version of a Benevolent Being just right for me.

What I didn’t know was that I was looking for something Out There that only existed in here. The connection I wanted was with  myself which sounded like some platitude until I understood what it meant. I thought I had a connection to my-self, a worthless, shameful self I devised and despised and so when I wasn’t drinking to destroy that self, I tried to do it by vomiting or starving myself (name me one addict who has only one addiction). I didn’t know that the “self” I hated was born and nurtured from the voices in my head which, powerful as they were, were just, well, voices, and since they were in my head not only could I choose not to listen to them, I could make them say something else. Something nice, even, weird and uncomfortable as that felt.

Which brings me back to Simple Isn’t Easy, but at least it’s clear and sensible. And revelatory.

Feeling more connected to a self that I was starting to like let me feel more connected to my kids. I was never as close to Philip as I was when he died. I might’ve tormented myself when my kids were growing up, but I didn’t torment them. My heart hurt for loving them and for not being able to feel how much they loved me back. And when I would tell Ed that in a show of love, Philip did this or Natalie did that, he’d say, “Why do you act so surprised every time you realize how much your kids love you?”

In the couple years before he died, Philip grew more tender than I’d ever seen him. Or maybe I just noticed it more because once he left to live on his own, he no longer had to come if I called, but he did. He’d often get in touch with me in the middle of the night to tell me he loved me. One night he called and said, “Mom, you fascinate me.” What the?? I was living on the top floor of my friend’s house ‘cause I couldn’t afford an apartment, I hated my job, I was manless and restless and still wondering what meaningful thing I could do when I got up in the morning, so what the hell was so fascinating?

“Because you’re growing up,” he said. “And I’m growing up. And we’re doing it together.” `

To which I said nothing because he’d taken my breath away.

The year before Philip died I found myself desperate to tell him I loved him. He was sweet and vulnerable and I didn’t know what I meant by that except I felt a hole in him that I was trying to stuff with my love. I told him that when I was a kid I was struck by the idea that an inch was such a tiny thing, but if you divided it, it became infinity. “I am that inch,” I told him, “and inside this body, my love for you is infinite.”

And a few months before he died, I sent him a text that read, “I am sorry for any time I was ever angry at you or made you feel bad about yourself.”

There was something between us, me and my son. Something relaxed and familiar and right. Something like we fit together, and all it ever was was easy. And that is why on the landing, when I finally stopped crawling and screaming and gave Phil a moment of space to say what he had to say, and what he had to say was, “They found him…” I didn’t hear the rest of the sentence because what I heard was Philip, and what he said was, “Mom, you gotta go deeper.” In the hot, swirling, sinking, stinking mess my world had become, I heard my son and I knew what he meant but all I could think was, fuck you, are you fucking kidding me, is this some fucking cosmic joke? and it occurred to me that right then, right that very second, there were people all over the world who were finding out their children were dead and they were feeling exactly what I was feeling and if it was possible to feel like this, what was the point of being alive?

Accept it, leave it, change it. Somebody, anybody – please, tell me; are there any other options? Because these are not going to work for me this time; these are most definitely not going to work.

*I’m not sure if anonymity only applies to people, but just in case, this was not the real name of the meeting.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

What I Chose

“When I chose to live
there was no joy
it’s just a line that I crossed
It wasn’t worth the pain my death would cost,
so I was not lost or found.”
–Dar Williams

Two weeks before Philip died, Natalie and I were talking. It was a Sunday night, and we were headed south on the  New Jersey Turnpike, driving back to Rutgers. Some weekends she’d take the train from there to New York City to visit her boyfriend, James, at Columbia University. On Sunday, she’d take the train home to Montclair. We’d have dinner, then I’d drive her back to Rutgers. I liked that time with her. I liked any time with her. Driving home, I’d think about the things we’d spoken about.

It was good.

That particular night, we were on the subject of stability. Or lack thereof. How nothing would be here forever. This highway won’t be here one day, I told her; this car we’re riding in – gone. Nothing stays the same. Including us. We won’t be here one day, either.

And then I said something like , as far as  what happens when we die – who the hell knows? But I believe something remains. I think the energy that animates us remains. I’m not talking about heaven or hell, reincarnation or afterlife. I don’t know what I think about any of that. But I do think something remains, and that’s as far as I’ve gotten.

“Of course, if anything happens to you or Philip,” I added, “All bets are off.”

Naturally I’d say that. What parent wouldn’t? My kids’ dying was an abstraction, something I knew would be nightmarish but I didn’t really know.  Thinking back on all that’s happened is sort of like watching a movie. In the theater, you sit in the dark and you know something bad’s going to happen. The damn rabbit’s too cute not to end up dead, even if you didn’t know it’d be boiled.

What a relief; it’s not us. Even better when it turns out well, when they don’t get divorced and he’s learned his lesson and the kid gets another rabbit and and we get what we think is a Happily Ever After. Afterward, back in the sunlight, we adjust our vision, our world safe because the bad’s already happened and been resolved and what we don’t realize is that the ruby red sands of time are running out on us. And our kids, and everyone-and-thing we care about.

On February 23rd, 2012, I did not yet know things were converging, things were in motion, things I couldn’t imagine. Choices were being made, choices that could create life or destroy it. And before 10:00pm or so, this was my mental/emotional/spiritual condition: I’d finally decided to start living life instead of fighting it. Not because the thunderbolt of enlightenment finally zapped me awake, but because I’d had enough of wondering what the hell I was here for. What did matter? Point is I was here, and it was up to me what I did with what I was given. I chose life, and it was a choice I had to make every day. I knew I was part of something greater than me, something maybe people called God but I called Life. That maybe I couldn’t see the why of things, but there was some sort of order and my part was to accept it, leave it, or change it. That was my version of faith. I was workin’ it. And on February 23rd, 2012, I was workin’ the shit out of it as my son lay dead in his room, and I didn’t, couldn’t, know that the hell I thought I didn’t believe in was headed my way.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

Simple Isn’t Easy

One day Krishnamurti told his followers he was going to tell them his secret. I can imagine the excitement rippling through the crowd, the expected relief, the gratitude that they must be his Very Special Followers since they were the ones present at this much-unexpected announcement. I imagine many of them thought their journey was over, that once they knew this secret, their suffering would end. And I expect it would, if they could really understand what he said. Because what he said was, “I don’t mind what happens.”

Truth is simple. That doesn’t make it easy.

I already said that Natalie was unhappy at school. She was a freshman at Rutgers in New Brunswick, the same college where Philip was a junior. This wasn’t a matter of oh-she’ll-be-fine-in-a-couple-of-months. In February of 2012, she was in the middle of her second semester, and I was still talking her off the ledge. She was working on transferring, and I was trying to encourage her to hang in and just finish the semester.

Conventional wisdom says “Going away to college is good for them.” CW isn’t always – if ever – wisdom. CW easily turns into something she said so he said so everyone says but not many give much thought to what they’re saying. Some kids do well at college, some don’t. There’s more than one way to live a life, and SAT brilliance coupled with a $60,000-a-year Ivy League education doesn’t mean you or your kid are going to have the fantasy future you think it promises. If you have a future at all, that is.  But it sure is fun to tell your friends about it. Even more fun than telling them about your last raise or your new Mercedes or any of those other things that make us really proud to be us until we need the next proud thing because the first proud thing is well, just so yesterday.

Philip took easily to living away, but Natalie did not. Many of my conversations with her were to remind her that there were three options in any situation: Accept it, leave it or change it. She was trying to change it by applying to other colleges; but on the way to leaving Rutgers, all she could do was accept that she was there for the short term. To do that is to take responsibility for your life, for what you’re feeling and how you’re thinking. Blame your circumstances all you want, all you’ll get is more suffering. Which isn’t to say you “accept” any kind of crap that’s thrown at you. You recognize it’s crap and figure out how to clean it up and stay out of its way once you do. And not once; it’s never once. It’s the work of a life, the work that matters most, the work that every degree in the world isn’t going to ensure you’ll have mastered.

Not to suggest this is any sort of easy. See, I’d been grappling with How to Live forever. The first time I drank I was 11, which is just to say how early I was unhappy, how early I was looking to escape. At 24 I joined AA, but nearly 30 years later I still didn’t get what was so great about life, why after 30 years of therapy and 10 of antidepressants I still didn’t want to be here. But I’d spent the year-and-a-half or so before Philip died listening to Eckhart Tolle CDs whenever I drove anywhere – and often, to listen was the reason I got in the car in the first place. Accept it, leave it or change became my credo because it gave me a way to think about a given situation instead of reacting to it.

And I paid attention to the 24/7 film festival that was going on in my head, which was mostly playing reruns. Stories of vengeance, hate, anger, victimhood, all of which I wrote, produced, directed and starred in. Worst of all, I believed them, and my emotions acted accordingly. It wasn’t the situation that was causing the feelings; it was the endless, looping, dog-chasing-its-tail stories that kept my gut churning.

So I stopped. I became a spectator instead of a participant, stopped the show when I didn’t like it. Simple, but not easy. But the work was to stay here, in the present. Not in the past that was gone or in a future that never came except as the now.

When Philip was little, I used to tell him that I was going to paint on his wall, “Be here now.” I was so busy noticing he wasn’t present that I didn’t get that I wasn’t either.

Accept it, leave it, change it. This was the work I was doing at the moment of impact, the moment I crashed and burned on the landing.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

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