So Tell Me

From Fourth of July:

Today is Natalie’s birthday; Happy Birthday to you, my sweet girl. I love you so.

Today I found us an apartment; Happy Birthday again, Natalie. It’s small, but we’ll make it work. It’s located exactly where we want to be, the rent is okay, and – the big one – they’ll take the dogs. Around here, that’s a Godsend. My application is in and I’m waiting for approval. The manager who showed me around wants us there. Assuming all goes well, we’ll move August 1st.

Today, I’m wondering how it got to be July again, without Philip. I didn’t want to use this blog to whine, but here I am. I think of him, my stomach churns, the tears at the back of my eyes spring forth, my voice has to fight its way out of my throat and the dark place is all there is. Natalie just turned 20; she’s closing in on him and I’m scared. One day she will be older than him. Do I have to add, ‘God willing?’ And I think I say this stuff because I’m reaching out for help, and I know people care, but no one can take this from me because if they took my grief, they’d take my love. And there is nothing that can “take” my love for Philip.


 So I piece together all that has happened and continues to happen. It’s the grace of connection I’m yearning for, the light of meaning, the knowing of what it is I am waking up for. My son – I don’t know how to live with him dead because the feeling is too much to bear. But these bits and pieces along the way tell a story, a story whose meaning I’m struggling to find and whose end won’t come until my own does. If, even, then. I’ve talked about some of it already: Philip, not yet two, saying his grandpa was, In the light;” the day at the beach, when I almost lost him; the desperate need I had that last year to let him know how goddamn much I loved him;  my “all bets are off” conversation with Natalie; my “dead in a ditch” message, which ironically enough makes me smile because that’s the sort of joke Philip and I would laugh at. And I feel him, smiling back at me.

Then the fact of where I was at spiritually, emotionally, psychically. For the six months or so leading to his death, I’d crossed a line, chosen to live, chosen to stop asking why I was here and accepted the fact that I was. Tried to figure out what I wanted to with the life I was given. Began to understand my inner state was up to me, that my emotions did not, in fact, control me. And I had the tools to work with all of this. Take a breath, take a mental step back from inner turmoil, look at it. No resistance, I’d say, which is the same as “accept it” except those words meant something to me in a way “accept it” didn’t. “No resistance” was a big, deep breath to which I had a physical response. My chest would relax, my arms and shoulders followed. My stomach remained tense and knotted. My stomach was always knotted; it was a question of it being background tension or being whacked-in-the-solar-plexus tension. “No resistance” helped me manage myself.

And, of course, I kept reminding myself, “Accept it, leave it, or change it.”

A year before Philip died, when he was a second-term sophomore, he took a creative writing class. He liked me to read his work and one day sent me an essay about a kid walking down the street, high on LSD, what this kid saw, what he felt like. Shit, I thought.

A week later he came to visit. You know that story I sent you, he asked? That kid walking down the street? That was me.

Well, duh.

“Philip,” I said, “listen; I know you drink, but now you’re doing drugs. Drugs are dangerous. I can’t force you not to take them, but I am asking you please, please, do not do drugs.”

To which he said that he’d done LSD twice, that he didn’t like it, wasn’t going to do it any more, not to worry.

“This is great,” I answered. “I’m your mom, you tell me this stuff, I can’t do anything about it, and when they find you dead of an overdose, they’ll blame me.”

We laughed.

And then there’s this:

The months leading up to Philip’s death, I kept seeing him dead. An image of him would float up in my mind, from the waist up, in a soft yellow button-down shirt (??), his eyes closed,  dead. I didn’t get upset, didn’t think I was having a premonition. I just saw him, dismissed it. Except for the couple times I thought about it a bit, thought about myself at his wake, pictured myself waist down, wearing exactly what it was I wound up wearing when I was actually there. And when I pictured myself, I wondered how I would act. If I truly understood “accept it, leave it, change it.” Because if I did, I’d have to be at peace. But how would it really be?

Since I’m not Jesus or Buddha, I’ll tell you how it really was. I was wrecked. I walked into that funeral home with Phil and Natalie and my brother and outside the room he was in was a plaque that read, “Philip Smyth Jr.” which made me just a little more sick and a little more dizzy.  The name that so touched me when I saw it on a birth certificate or passport or high school diploma or fencing award or even in his own uneven handwriting, now turned on me. Are you telling me that the last time I saw my son we were saying good-bye in the restaurant where we’d just eaten dinner, and the next time I’ll see him is when I walk through that door and he’s lying a coffin? Phil went in first. I waited a minute to follow. And there he was, handsome boy, lying dead, looking exactly like he always did and I fell to my knees and sobbed and all the wide world was Philip, dead. There was no life in that body. What am I to do with this? What the fuck is this? What does it mean to be dead? That’s not an academic question, it’s a blood-and-guts question because Philip was just here, just around to talk to and laugh with and eat with and hug and just like that he wasn’t. So where was he? Don’t tell me he’s in my heart, don’t do that. Of course he’s in my heart, he’s my son. He has been in my heart since the night I woke from my sleep and heard  – I heard – the whisper in my ear: you’re pregnant. It is not enough that he’s in my heart. He has to be where I can touch him, watch him, call him, hold him. Where I can feel he protects me because I know he’s got my back. What is this dead body, what has this to do with my son? I am his mother, I carried him alone before he was born and I’ll carry him alone now that he’s dead. Don’t tell me you’re there to help me because I don’t even know what you’re talking about. If the dictionary-def of help is, “to give or provide what is necessary to..satisfy a need,” then tell me what can be done to bring my son home because that – that – is my need.

So tell me what you’re going to do to help me, and don’t leave me alone when I say that you can’t.

© 2013 Denise Smyth


27 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lucia Maya
    Jul 06, 2013 @ 18:21:24

    Dear Denise,
    I just finished reading this and I know I can’t know what you are feeling, I can’t change anything that’s happened. However, we have a similar, though different story, and I can listen. I am always available if you want to call or email. I know we’ve not met, but it doesn’t matter, I send my love.
    520-204-6280 (cell)


    • Denise
      Jul 06, 2013 @ 20:01:20

      See – that’s just what I mean. No one can help, I think at my worst moments; then there you are, you make an offering and I am crying in gratitude.


      • Lucia Maya
        Jul 07, 2013 @ 12:29:54

        I can relate – I often feel that I am totally alone in this journey of grief, and that no one can help, and on one level it’s true. Then I remember I’m never alone, and then a call or email or someone else’s story moves me, and I’m filled with gratitude…

        Please know I am sincere about being available to talk. (Though I also have times when I don’t answer my phone!)
        Blessings, Lucia

  2. behindthemaskofabuse
    Jul 06, 2013 @ 18:50:59

    I’m happy you found an apartment that will take your dogs too!
    I can’t help you, and I can’t take away your unimaginable pain but i can stand with you let you know you’re not alone and be here to listen. xo


    • Denise
      Jul 06, 2013 @ 20:04:16

      I’ve only been looking for a month but it’s felt so long because I’ve been so scared about the dogs. I had no idea that’s how it is around here. It’s a relief to begin to be settled, but it’s change, and it’s disorienting. But it’s good change, for sure.

      And hey – thank you. xoxoxo


      • behindthemaskofabuse
        Jul 06, 2013 @ 20:29:40

        Change is so very hard. We’ve moved 4 time in three years from three different provinces. It is disorienting. I hope you get the place and are able to settle in and make it home sooner than later. xoxo

  3. anna whiston-donaldson
    Jul 06, 2013 @ 21:00:24

    Yes. Yes. Yes. Kind of reminds me of the Push Me Pull You in Dr. Doolittle. No one can help, but we NEED our people. So hard. So much love. And oh my, all the spiritual signs/inklings/etc. I can so relate. Love and Hugs.


    • Denise
      Jul 06, 2013 @ 21:14:41

      Anna, I do not believe Life is random. There’s something going on here, something Philip came to teach me, if “teach” is the word. There is something between us beyond the mother/son relationship, something bigger, something that all of us have and need other people to experience. It wasn’t until Philip died that I realized that what makes life worth living is love. Love. Feeling utterly connected. And so I struggle with knowing my connection with Philip isn’t gone because he died, yet feeling like it’s not enough because I want him here. We who have lost our precious children; can we come to believe that we’ve not really “lost” them? There is no heartache worse, no there isn’t.


  4. Denise
    Jul 06, 2013 @ 21:06:49

    Oh, I do, too, I do. And I will, of course, keep you posted. I’m having minor surgery on Monday – and you know what? I have to stay off my feet for about a week, and I am looking forward to doing exactly that. No worries, no anything, just lots of rest and books and TV. And since I’ve found an apartment I don’t have to be thinking about that. The timing couldn’t be better. I’ll be writing as soon as I’m up to it.

    You’re so very sweet, you really are. oxoxoxo


  5. Judy
    Jul 06, 2013 @ 21:13:39

    When my son died, I replayed his death over and over. I called it “the opera of his death.” It tormented me. I would see him dead and then the opera would start over and play again from shortly before he died. It was my mind’s way of coping with the shock and agony. Denise, I wish I could hug you. There is little I can tell you except that over time I was able to handle it better. But in the moment it is an amputation of your soul. I wish you never had to go through this. I am so sorry!


  6. lenwilliamscarver
    Jul 06, 2013 @ 21:25:33

    I am so glad you are able to write of your heartache, grief, confusion, need. It took me quite a while before I could and now I just exist waiting for the day I can join my daughter. even my writing has faltered for I can say no more that hasn’t been said about her and the circumstances of her murder or my love and missing her. I wish I were close to you to offer you a hug and a box of tissues to listen to you tell the stories of your sons life for it is a healing balm when you can talk about him and how you feel. I am here if you ever need a sounding board I am here ~Len 913-634-1738
    Prayers hugs and love (((xx)))


    • Denise
      Jul 06, 2013 @ 21:31:43

      Len, thank you; I had no idea how much you were listening. It’s like we’re broken, isn’t it? So often I just don’t want to be here, I want to lay this body down and all the pain I feel with it. But my daughter; I love her so, and she needs me. All I can say is, What a world, what a world.

      Thank you for trusting me with your phone number and email; it’s a gift, you know.


      • lenwilliamscarver
        Jul 06, 2013 @ 21:39:19

        Denise, I have to listen and search for a someone to understand what I feel what I too am going through. I have family that depends on me to be strong for them and have no one I can break down with except my blogger friends. So I know how importanant it is to be able to express what we feel. No one in my home will talk about my upsets them too much. Oh great here I go blabbing again about me when this is about you and your pain. I am so sorry Denise for what you are going through. I am here for you if all you do is call and say this is Denise and start crying I am here, or if you need to rant rave and cuss the powers that be or life in general I will rread, listen and just be here.

      • Denise
        Jul 06, 2013 @ 21:53:34

        It’s about both of us, Len; we are suffering the unthinkable and we write to reach out to each other. I am so sorry no one at home will talk about your daughter. Sometimes I think Philip is all I can talk about. We handle tragedy the way we can. I’m here to listen to you, too; and how do I thank you for your kindness? I don’t know, but I so appreciate it.

  7. Denise
    Jul 06, 2013 @ 21:26:15

    Oh, Judy; I am sorry for you, too, and I’d take that hug in a second. After Philip died, I kept replaying that awful moment of running down the stairs, screaming, “My son, my son;” over and over and I’d want to throw up and then I heard my son: “Mom,” he said, “you don’t have to keep thinking about that.” And I realized I didn’t, that I could stop myself if I tried. So hard, but he helped. I try to remember that when I carried away with my thoughts – the mind, they say, is a wonderful servant but a terrible master.

    It’s so very good that we met.


  8. grahamforeverinmyheart
    Jul 07, 2013 @ 15:13:52

    I understand completely what you are saying and feeling. Somehow you have to turn what is completely senseless into a life. Not the life you had carefully crafted over many years, but another life for which there is no preparation. Somehow we have to keep it together, not just for ourselves, but for our remaining children who are also suffering a devastating loss.

    Please write to me:


    • Denise
      Jul 07, 2013 @ 16:48:48

      I think I wrote about how early on, my daughter had to remind me that she lost a brother, too. So yes – we do have to keep it together for them. It’s so hard because my “life” wasn’t Philip, but as a parent, well – our kids are our hearts. I’m still devastated and I keep saying it’s hard to see how this turns out well. So I should stop looking at life as an abstraction called “the future” and remember it’s only lived now.


  9. Ron Stempkowski
    Jul 07, 2013 @ 16:39:14

    This is some awfully powerful writing, Denise. You’re able to express yourself in a very real way for me, like I was on your shoulder during all of these experiences. There is a beauty in the way you describe such gut-wrenching feelings. On the lighter side, I’m so glad you found an apartment in the area you wanted that will allow you to keep your four-legged children with you! Best always, Ron


  10. Denise
    Jul 07, 2013 @ 16:53:29

    Thank you, on both counts. There isn’t anything better to hear than I’m touching you with what I’m writing. And the dogs – yes, they’re like my children, as you well know. What’s up with all this no-dogs-allowed stuff? Doesn’t matter – and like I said, the apartment’s small, but they have bigger units, and if I’m in a better position financially next year, we can move up. Meantime, it’s a big relief.


  11. Rose Vidotto
    Jul 08, 2013 @ 10:07:15

    I’m really glad you’ve found an apartment for you, your daughter and your 2 dogs! This weekend, your story popped up my mind several times and I just want to say that everytime I thought of you, I asked the universe to touch your heart and give you comfort. In my own special way, I’m praying for you and your daughter. Love, Rose.


    • Denise
      Jul 09, 2013 @ 09:47:12

      Thank you, Rose. It’s a relief to have found an apartment, but then Philip’s gone and it overwhelms everything. Internally. I feel crazy sometimes, like I’m acting all normal but in my head I’m screaming, “You think it’s okay? It is most NOT okay.” It’s not a matter of anyone thinking it’s okay, it’s just people going on with their lives, and I can talk to my friends about Philip at any time. But there’s a point where there’s not much to say except this is excruciating. So I write, I tell our story and putting shape on it helps. And to have people like you reading and sending thoughts my way is all I could wish for.


  12. Jamie
    Jul 09, 2013 @ 11:12:03

    Oh how we long to have that need fulfilled. The need to have our children right here where we can see them, touch them, hold them. And even though there is no one who can make that happen, there are people who somehow find it in themselves to stand by us even though they cannot take the pain away. Thinking of you…


    • Denise
      Jul 09, 2013 @ 11:24:06

      Addie died a month after Philip. I’m so sorry, and I’m thinking of you, too. I’ve never been aware of what people carry, people who look just like you and me and go about their days; how, I wonder, how do they – do we – do it? But you and I have other children, and if for nothing else, we do it for them. And maybe in time, we’ll find we’re doing it for ourselves, too.


  13. tersiaburger
    Jul 09, 2013 @ 12:25:41

    My dear friend Denise, I am so grateful that you found an apartment that is perfect. I hope the surgery is not serious. My friend, I have no words for you. I wish I could reach out and hug you. I know we would weep together – for our children, for one another, for our pain… I can only say “I care and I share your broken heart!”


  14. Denise
    Jul 09, 2013 @ 12:38:50

    Tersia, thank you; and we do weep together, we just can’t see each other. A hug would be great – if it has to be long distance, so be it. I know you’re there, and that’s what counts.


  15. Becki Duckworth
    Dec 18, 2013 @ 00:01:32

    I can’t help but I can read and listen. I can offer what little I know about crossing over. I can cry with you.


  16. Denise
    Dec 18, 2013 @ 08:33:03

    Then get ready for a lot of crying…I don’t know; it’s been awful since the weekend. I just want to curl up somewhere and not come out.


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