It’s Easy?

“It’s easy to have faith when you’re with someone you love.”

That just came out of the episode of ER I’m trying to get lost in. Of course it made me think of Philip. And it made me think of a text conversation we had three years ago. I typed it into Word so I wouldn’t lose it. See, my faith came in part from Philip. He had my back. When I’d get shaky at just how alone I was I’d say, “I have my kids.” I could feel my son behind me, steadying me. It’s that male energy of protection I longed for. That was where our relationship had evolved to; he hadn’t caught up to me yet, but he was getting close.

Then he goes and dies. WTF?? But if I am honest, I have to say that he is everything but visible. He cracked me open and I am gushing things I’m desperate to put words on. If I can say it, I can contain it. So I think. But it’s not to be contained; it’s to be flowing and I’m to go along for this ride because this is my reality. Fighting it doubles the grief.

Still – I am scared. And I wonder what this need is to be witnessed; to show you that Philip really was here and really did love me. I’d mentioned that I was writing a post about what a “swell mom” I am, and that need is part of what I’m writing about. It’s difficult; I haven’t been able to get it right. But I also haven’t had time to think. I just moved, the apartment needs work, I’ve been distracted by looking for a job.

Oh. I didn’t tell you all. I got a job. I. Got. A. Job. I interviewed Friday, got an email with an offer on Saturday. I didn’t even have to wait the weekend ;o) More on this another time; just let me say that beyond the relief of having a job, I actually want the job. There’s much to say about how it all happened…

I’m going to post the text. Philip was 19, had finished his freshman year at Rutgers, was living in New Brunswick. It was a Friday night that had turned into Saturday morning; I’d trained to be an EMT and was doing my weekly overnight shift. He was thinking of me, decided to get in touch. In the conversation, I heard him trying to figure things out, trying to express them. I’d been separated from his dad for a year, and we talked a bit about the divorce. Philip seemed to be handling it well, but he hadn’t really told me how he felt about it. This, then, was a first.

(Much as I’ve been determined not to make excuses, I’ll say that what he said at the end was a loving joke that I’m not sure anyone would get but me; I understand it was also an honor. It was said in the context of me being alcoholic.  And “M” stands for Me.)

Saturday, July 3rd, 2010, 12:59am:

P:  I appreciate you mom 🙂

M:  Hey – what was that for? Love you ;o)

P:  Drunk discussions haha. I obviously love you but appreciation means more. I feel like I’m the only one on your side 🙂

M:  Well, I thank both you AND Johnny Walker. Heh. You are my light and I love you no matter what.

P:  Hahaha no hard liquor for me tonight, just beer. But I mean it. I love and appreciate you and love you to death. I hope everything’s ok, it seems like it. As much as I’m your shining star, you’re my fucking inspiration for life.

M:  How funny you should say that. I think I’ve been unhappy for a long time, and I’m sad to think of how that affected you. I don’t mean recently – you know what that’s about. I mean a long time before. I don’t know what things looked like to you, but what matters is that you know how much I love you and always, always have.

P:  No, you were both great parents and raised me very well. Admittedly the divorce fucked me up bit it’s ok, I think marriage is a silly institution. I’m happy with my life as much as I’m disappointed with the current state of things.

M:  Do you mean disappointed in the divorce? I don’t think marriage is silly, I just think it’s difficult, especially if you think about how long people live and how long they’re expected to remain together. But I don’t think lack of commitment works so well, either.

P:  Yeah, but it’s fine. I don’t know – humans are very social and the idea of devoting yourself to one person forever is absurd, but devoting yourself to raising a family makes sense. I don’t know, but don’t blame yourself for my views.

M:  I don’t “blame” myself because there’s nothing wrong with your views. I think it’s better for children to be raised in a committed family. It’s just difficult to stay with one person for life because if we’re committed to finding the truth of our lives, we’re going to discover the patterns that drive us. And sometimes the changes we have to go through to get to the other side means we cannot stay in the same relationships, even if that’s scary. It takes courage to live a fully realized life. Most of the time we’re flying blind. Things don’t get figured out once and for all; life doesn’t work that way.

P:  Good and I know you stuck it out as much as you could. You raised me and Natalie great, and I hope she realizes that. I know she has to deal with it more than I do, but I don’t mind, I understand things change, emotions change, and I feel that that has made me more ready for the future than any bullshit fucking family ever will.

M:  If by “bullshit” you mean continual pretense, then yes. People stay together for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with love. Faking happiness doesn’t lead to real happiness; and sometimes people stay together at their own expense because they need to feel needed. It’s harder to live a happy life than a miserable one.

P:  Exactly. People feel that they have to maintain some sort of image and that’s not what life is about. I don’t know about miserable vs. happy, but the traditional idea of happiness is much harder to achieve. But I don’t know. I’m gonna go to sleep. I love you so much I wanna be drunk in person with you hahaha. Night 🙂

M:  Hey, it’s a date. ‘Night and love you.

P: Haha you too, I’ll see you at noon

M: ‘Kay.

© 2013 Denise Smyth


No False Strength

My grief counselor, John*, is a friend of Ram Dass. In one of my first sessions he read a letter to me that Ram Dass had written to a couple whose child died. A short time after that, my friend Melanie came across that same letter and emailed it to me. I thought it worth sharing with you all.

People who’ve lost loved ones often say how others think grief has a timeline, how they’ve been told it’s time they “move on.” Or whatever words were used to say, “enough.” That just tells you how scared and unprepared whoever’s saying that is to deal with loss. Phil never said anything like that to me, but he had a hard time talking to me about Philip. His way was to push forward, and he knew my grief weighed more than his resolve. I think it’s that dynamic that makes people say things like that; they want to get on, they want to get comfortable.

Of course, they could just be callous assholes. But on the whole, I bet not.

Anyway, that’s not been my experience. Once someone who couldn’t have known any better said to my daughter – a mere eight months after Philip’s death – that she couldn’t bring her brother into everything. Natalie did not and does not do that.  I saw the comment as a deflection from the real thing my daughter wanted to talk about.

The closest anyone came to suggesting an “enough” factor was my mom, who kept telling me to “go out.” But that was her worrying about me. For the better part of a year I only went out if  I couldn’t help it. I spent most of my time in the same corner of the couch I scrunched myself into the night I found out that Philip died. Knitting. Watching TV. Any series I could get my hands on. I watched 13 and half years of ER in as many months.

I brought this up because of something Ram Dass wrote in that letter: “Now is the time to let your grief find expression.  No false strength.”

That’s why I was on the couch for a year. Much as I hated this monstrous partner called grief, I couldn’t be parted from it.  Every trip to get groceries or gas or even the meds that were helping me though this was agony. My only business was mourning.

Now, a year-and-half later, I can and do “go out.” But I am not done mourning, nor am I part of the world in the way I was. And it seems a lot of my “going out” has more to do with responsibility than pleasure. Where do I go? To work. To therapy. To walk the dogs, to run errands. But I do go out with Natalie, and I do spend time with friends who get it, who’d never say, “enough.” I don’t have to talk nonstop Philip, but when I need to talk about him, I do. There is nothing – nothing – more important than Philip and Natalie, and nothing more momentous than Philip’s dying and how I’m supposed to live with it.

Here, then, is the letter:

Steve and Anita,

Rachel finished her work on earth, and left the stage in a manner that
leaves those of us left behind with a cry of agony in our hearts, as the
fragile thread of our faith is dealt with so violently. Is anyone strong
enough to stay conscious through such teaching as you are receiving?
Probably very few. And even they would only have a whisper of equanimity and
peace amidst the screaming trumpets of their rage, grief, horror and

I can’t assuage your pain with any words, nor should I. For your pain is
Rachel’s legacy to you. Not that she or I would inflict such pain by choice,
but there it is. And it must burn its purifying way to completion. For
something in you dies when you bear the unbearable, and it is only in that
dark night of the soul that you are prepared to see as God sees, and to love
as God loves.

Now is the time to let your grief find expression. No false strength.
Now is the time to sit quietly and speak to Rachel, and thank her for being
with you these few years, and encourage her to go on with whatever her work
is, knowing that you will grow in compassion and wisdom from this experience.
In my heart, I know that you and she will meet again and again, and
recognize the many ways in which you have known each other. And when you
meet you will know, in a flash, what now it is not given to you to know: Why
this had to be the way it was.

Our rational minds can never understand what has happened, but our hearts
– if we can keep them open to God – will find their own intuitive way.
Rachel came through you to do her work on earth, which includes her manner of
death. Now her soul is free, and the love that you can share with her is
invulnerable to the winds of changing time and space. In that deep love,
include me.

In love,

Ram Dass

*It was John who said to me, “A broken heart is open to receive.”

© 2013 Denise Smyth


After 15 years of living in a house, Natalie and I have to think apartment-style. We are overstocked with groceries we have to eat through and shampoo and conditioner we have to wash through. It’s Costco and its coupons that’s turned me into a hoarder. Excess disappears into the nooks and crannies of a house. Here – what am I to do with the 50 or so vintage chenille bedspreads I’ve collected to cut up and make into pillows? I could sew for the next 20 years and still not run out of fabric.

I’m swirling in the chaos of the newly-relocated; there’s nowhere for my eye to rest. And I’m still not done moving. This week, Natalie will pick up the last of what’s left at Nadiya’s. Except for the dozens of books I bravely decided to get rid of. What am I supposed to do with them in the short time I’ve left to decide? Have I ever considered that each thing I buy needs a place, that I am responsible for where it goes and where it winds up when I’m done with it?

At home, I’m taking out the photographs, taking out the urns. I found out urns came in different sizes when the funeral director handed me a catalog full of them. You can put all your ashes in a big one, or distribute them among varying styles. You can put some in mini-urns to give to family and friends. They even sell necklaces with charms to put them in so you can carry them with you all the time. Natalie and I sat browsing the catalog one day to choose. Is this fucking crazy, I asked? We’re picking out urns like we’d be picking out our next pair of skinny jeans. I wanted the large rose Cloisonné since I’m all about flowers, but decided to try something different, gold with a band of Mother-of-Pearl inlay. Phil couldn’t deal with looking, so I chose a smaller, more masculine-looking one for him; a rich, deep blue with a matted, etched silver top and bottom. Natalie chose a tiny one similar in style to Phil’s; charcoal gray shot through  gold, with a matte coppery-gold top and bottom.

Phil hasn’t taken his so I’ve given it a place here. Natalie’s is in its velvet box in a drawer. Me? I should have gone with the rose Cloisonne.

There used to be a commercial where a decent if neurotic-looking woman was speaking into the camera with desperate earnestness about all the reasons you shouldn’t smoke. By the time we realize she’s speaking to her kid, the camera pans back and we see the kid’s just a quizzical babe in a high chair, more interested in sticking his fingers up his nose than anything his mom had to say. The message, of course, was to start planting those seeds early and all will be well.

I did that. I am an addict. I told my kids the things I was supposed to tell them about smoking, drugs and alcohol and the science that says alcoholism can be passed along in your genes.  I thought my loving attention would be enough to stay addiction’s hand. I drank because life was unbearable. I thought all I had to do to keep that from happening to my kids was to remove the misery factor. Happy kids don’t drink or do drugs, right? And they certainly don’t die before their parents do.

When Philip was maybe 16, Phil and I found out he was smoking both pot and cigarettes. I was more surprised by the cigarettes than the pot. Who does that any more, especially without a job to afford it? As far as the cigarettes, Phil and I talked to him and he promised he’d stop. Then I got a call from a friend. I was uptown, she said; I saw Philip smoking and I thought you should know. When he came home that day, I told him I knew he was smoking and where he was when he was doing it. He shrank. How do you know, he asked? Because I know, I answered; there are more things I know about you than you realize.

Which wasn’t true, of course. I was trying to strike the fear of God into him. Or of Me, which really wasn’t necessary.  Philip wasn’t a sullen, rebellious kid; he didn’t want to risk my anger, much less my disappointment. I never knew how much he needed me.

And as far as the pot, a week after we found out about it, the three of us sat down with a therapist whose specialty was addiction. The following week, two home drug tests arrived in the mail and Philip was seeing the therapist by himself. It took one visit for her to tell us this was not a kid with a problem. Still, we did one random drug test on him a couple weeks later. It was negative. We kept the second one in a drawer as a threat.

Ed says I feel tremendously guilty. My therapist says the same. Since I do not believe I could’ve done anything differently, I don’t see why they should say that. I mean, a different mom might have grabbed Philip by that long, curly hair she so lovingly encouraged him to grow and not let go until she knew he was safe. Until she knew he stopped hanging around with the kids she didn’t want him hanging around with. Until she got him so interested in books and music and ideas that his mind would have been full of the richness of life instead of being fucked by drugs. But I am not that mom. I am this mom and I did the best I could so what do I have to be guilty about?

See, what I don’t understand is all this talk about what a good mother I am. Philip was sweet and funny and responsible and if you met him, he’d shake your hand and look you in the eye. That didn’t come from nowhere, I’m told. But if I’m to take credit and comfort for the loving face he presented to the world, where does my responsibility lie for the drugs and the alcohol and the poor choices he made that led to his death? I am not God is another thing I’m told. Fair enough. But I am his Mother. Wasn’t my job to teach him enough to choose better? This is the knot I can’t untie, this is where my thinking twists and turns and wraps around itself because no matter my love for him or his for me it wasn’t enough to set him on a path that would have kept him here.

I’m only just realizing the depth of the guilt that’s been running my life. It’s hitting me now how deeply ashamed I feel that Philip’s dead whenever I see a mom and her son doing whatever everyday things a mom and son might do. And if this was your story and you were telling it to me, I’d tell you just how much you didn’t have to feel that way because I’d see it so clearly. But to see it about myself – not so much. It’s going to take faith to see that life means something and discipline to stop my monkey mind when it says otherwise. Faith and discipline, both of which turned to ashes when Philip did. Thing is, how come I believe Philip’s spirit doesn’t lie in those ashes, yet not believe that mine doesn’t, either?

© 2013 Denise Smyth

Wantings and Warnings

I’ve been nominated several times for blogger awards, most recently by dear Lucia from Luminous Blue. I want to take a moment to say thank you; I am honored. And I haven’t meant not to “accept” the awards so kindly offered. It’s just that there’s a whole long process involved, and I haven’t had time to sit down to do it. But I am grateful for even being considered.


Natalie and I have officially moved. We have no internet service, so I haven’t been online in days.

Just sayin’.

There’s a story about Philip I’ve been wanting to tell, but I couldn’t figure out why except for thinking it shows just what a swell mom I am. I was working on it last week. Turns out maybe I am a swell mom, but that’s not what the story is about. It’s getting complicated, so I’m taking a break because it’s been hard to concentrate. I am not feeling so very well. See, Philip’s dead and my stomach’s threatening to hurl its contents. How to live in a world where such things happen, where every moment parents all over the place are getting whacked into this appalling reality? How many times can I say it’s unbearable, even as I get up and bear it anyway?

Ed’s been talking to me about a young man and woman he’s working with at the college where he teaches. They’re a couple – she’s 21 and has her Master’s Degree; he’s 25 with two Masters from Columbia and will probably go on to his Doctorate. Ed says they are beautiful and brilliant with a future to envy. They are all three passionate, with Ed wanting this future for them and teaching them what he knows to help them have it.

That’s the story as Ed tells it. I listen, then make my own story. The one about these beautiful, brilliant kids who have life by the balls because something was granted them that wasn’t granted Philip. To say “granted” is me having a tantrum. Truth is there isn’t any answer why people are the way they are. I thought my efforts to raise my kids would yield a certain kind of future; I thought if I loved them, fed them and read to them, they’d be good to go.

A couple days ago I thought about a story I read when Philip was a baby. It was in a magazine called “Mothering,” which was (is?) the go-to manual on birthing/raising children au natural. You know – born at home, nursed, cloth-diapered, fed organic foods, carried around in calico cotton slings that fit across your torso. Vaccinations and circumcisions were hot topics, with writers on the side of nay to both. See, that was me; wanting to live down to the bone, wanting to stay at home and hand-raise my babies. Thinking that would make them into some version of what I wanted to but couldn’t be. Philip had the same innate intelligence I had when I was a kid; but he was generous, kind and friendly and so I thought his world richer than mine, me with my troubled, emotionally crazy responses to Life. So what makes some kids beautiful and brilliant and other kids dead from heroin?

I know that’s not the question. But I can’t help feeling sick with envy at beautiful and brilliant while my son is reduced to ashes in an urn.

But the story. The story was written by a woman who had five kids. All born at home, all nursed, all taken care of by a 24/7 Mom. But one of her kids, a son – he didn’t do so well. He was an addict, he was wild. One day he disappeared. She didn’t know where he was, didn’t know if he was dead or alive. A warning that all the breast milk in the world won’t guarantee your children will live longer than you do.

I thought of that story many, many times over the years. I got what she was saying; I really did. I was touched and humbled and so very sad for her. Still, that was her life and I didn’t consider the possibility of something like that happening to my son. What parent would? That kind of stuff happened in magazines and newspapers; what had that to do with my life? Thing is, for all the years I read “Mothering,” that’s the only story I remember. It’s another piece of what I’ve already written about, that in some larger sense I was being prepared for Philip’s death.

How is it that I believe in the pattern I see evolving, yet so often feel on the edge of unhinged? And get what happened yesterday:  First off, for anyone who doesn’t know, there’s a woman’s clothing store called Forever 21 (it’s written “XXI,” and it’s the reason the name of my blog can’t also be its address). The clothes are trendy and not made so well. Neither Natalie, Nadiya or I shop there.

I still have stuff at Nadiya’s, and yesterday I was packing some of it up. I made a decision to get rid of something I’d been holding on to for a long time. It was a hard decision, but I’m in letting go mode, so I took a breath and released. Getting rid of this something involved tearing up papers. Lots of papers. So I took a stack of them, sat on the bottom stair in the foyer and started ripping away, wondering if I was really doing the right thing, scared I was going to be sorry for this one day. Then I noticed something on the floor, next to the garbage bag. I looked closer, picked it up and son of a bitch if it wasn’t a clothing tag from Forever XXI.

I think I need to go think about that; I need to really, deeply think about that.

© 2013 Denise Smyth





In AA there’s a lot of talk about gratitude. Make a gratitude list. Replace guilt with gratitude. Put some gratitude in your attitude. All I ever felt about that was resentful. Gratitude for what, exactly? And it wasn’t my circumstances so much as the way I felt. I didn’t take my first drink at 11 for nothing.

Things were difficult with my parents. But I’m not talking about abuse; I was an emotionally precocious kid with a mom and dad I felt I had to manage. At 55 I see they did the best they could; back then, it wasn’t enough.

In the nature/nurture debate, I stand on the side of both. We come into this world with what to work out, and our parents don’t always help us in the way we want them to. Sometimes we can only learn what we need through difficulty, starting with the Moms and Pops. And as far whether we carry either light or grief (or anything in between) into this world, I can speak to this because of my pregnancies. With Philip I felt the same light and ease about him as I did for all the years he was here. With Natalie, I felt a heaviness, and a stubbornness. And she and I have talked about what it is she feels she carries because there are times and ways she’s troubled that seem to just be part of her.

And she is both wonderfully and exasperatingly stubborn.

Regardless of how I got wherever I was, when I was 24 I walked into AA  and thought I found the answer. Back then, I thought there was an “answer.” A one thing I was missing that maybe could be found there. I went to meetings nearly every day for ten years. I watched people come into the rooms and get sober and get earnest and get God and I just didn’t understand why I didn’t get it, too. After two years of not drinking, a man I knew said to me, “This is the first time I’ve seen you at a meeting and you aren’t crying.” Crying has been a big part of my life. It was the only way I knew to ask for help.

I refused gratitude because something always felt wrong. I didn’t want to live and I didn’t think that was normal. I figured most people were happy to be alive but had their moments when they struggled. Not so me. Depression was my baseline; anything else was an aberration. I had a job, a nice apartment, I was making friends in AA; none of it mattered because of what I felt. No matter what I did, I was unhappy. And angry that I was following the rules but God didn’t reach his hand inside my gut and wrench that misery right out once and for all.

I didn’t consider that vomiting on a daily basis had anything to do with my state of mind. I’d started doing that when I was 22, and continued for the first three years or so after I stopped drinking.  I stopped when I met Phil, who seemed quite sane in the face of my crazy and who I didn’t think would stick around if I kept flushing all dinners he treated me to down the toilet. So I dragged myself to the city to attend the Bulimic/Anorexic stepchild-meeting of AA and got control of not only eating, but of letting the food stay in my belly once it got there.

But AA remained the main front. One day I did my fourth step. That means I “made a searching and fearless moral inventory” of myself. There isn’t any one way to do it, but at my sponsor’s suggestion I looked at all the troubled relationships of my past and wrote about them as honestly as I could. Four hours later, I’d learned something. Every relationship I wrote about was the same. I could’ve save 3 hours and 45 minutes had I just changed the names. It couldn’t be that all the people in these relationships were the asses I thought they were. I had a part in all of it, but I couldn’t yet see it.

Of course, all that did was cement the idea that there is something wrong with me.

It’s been a torturous route to gratitude, and it isn’t the fullness and peace I imagined it would be. And I would really appreciate it if someone could explain to me why so much of what matters in life is learned through suffering. Is it the curse of living in a world of opposites? I mean, how do we know except by contrast? If everything was, say, red, then we wouldn’t know not-red. If I’m “happy” all the time, how would I know that I am, except by its unhappy opposite?

Ironically enough, I’ve learned of gratitude through Philip’s death. See, I know how much worse this could have been. If he had to die, at least there was the clarity of love between us.  And I do believe I was being prepared for his death. The images of him dead, picturing myself at his wake, the terrible vulnerability I felt in him and the desperation I had to let him know that I loved him. The joke about finding him dead of an overdose.  That apology I made to him, that seemed to come from nowhere. Philip’s answer to that was, “Mom, I love you and I’m grateful for you.”

He was 21, and he knew gratitude. When I was 21, I sat in a bathtub  and hacked at my wrists with a razor. Yet he is dead, and I am not. Am I the only one who finds this bizarre?

I am grateful that much as Philip’s dead, he’s not gone. He’s not here the way I want him to be, but he’s here in the way I need him. I’m blessed to feel him, to hear him enough to write down what he’s trying to teach me. I’m grateful for the people he’s brought into my life since he died, and for forcing me to feel the heart I didn’t know I had.  He is my muse. And I am grateful that he cracked me wide open because something had to jolt me into the reality I’ve spent my life trying to avoid.

But gratitude is a place I visit, not the home that I yearn for. I’m still struggling with things I’ve struggled with long before Philip died, before he was even born, things that seem insurmountable now that he’s gone. And if my life felt hard more than good when he was alive, it feels impossible to cope with now. Philip’s trying to teach me how to do that. Then you shouldn’t have left me, I tell him; you shouldn’t be gone.

© 2013 Denise Smyth