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


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Judy
    Jun 24, 2013 @ 10:05:20

    Denise, I do believe grief is like a sickness – it can also be terminal, as I’ve seen people die from their grief. Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple cure and what might work for one person, doesn’t help another. The worst part is that you are ill and suffering and unable to really help yourself. When I was in that place, I didn’t even care and wasn’t open to feeling better. It’s okay and horrible at the same time. Your daughter is also suffering with her own grief and you have such a burden of trying to hold back expressing your pain while you are with her. I highly suggest you get involved in something like Compassionate Friends (an organization for bereaved parents and siblings). You express yourself so well. You need a place to be with others who are coping with what you are going through. You might find miniscule comfort, but later on you’ll see it differently. Phillip’s death has amputated your soul and this adjustment is something that takes years and years. You are still in shock and wish this could all go away. I wish I could take away your pain. Your life blood is pouring from you and there is no stopping it.


    • Denise
      Jun 24, 2013 @ 11:34:18

      Judy, it is so like a sickness; I don’t know what other word to use. I’ll be going along, enjoying someone’s company (and truly, I am glad to be away with my daughter, with the other couple of women who are here), but I’m always tearing up, I think about my son and it just feels intolerable. It’s like I’m an inside person and an outside person, and the two aren’t communicating. I so appreciate your understanding.


      • Judy
        Jun 24, 2013 @ 12:14:13

        That is why is to so great to write. Search for more and more understanding – it obviously is helpful for you. You are in deep, deep grief. It is hard to help ourselves when we are dying inside. But survival is just that. Go through the motions until one day you will discover that the agony is almost bearable. Right now, I understand it isn’t. Tears are about love. Grief is torture. Hang in there – I am sending you a hug.

  2. Becki Duckworth
    Dec 17, 2013 @ 22:53:04

    I am curious , has the trauma and grief at times caused you to have any memory loss? After my friend Sharon was killed by her husband , we took a trip to Maui. That was our 3rd time visiting Maui and I can hardly even remember being there that trip. The trauma of her death was so shocking to me. I literally just floated through 9 days on vacation not remembering a moment of the trip. It was bizarre.


  3. Denise
    Dec 18, 2013 @ 08:38:09

    I don’t think so – I think a lot of what I forget more has to do with getting older ;o)


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