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


12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. behindthemaskofabuse
    Aug 20, 2013 @ 11:57:12

    I would never tell you how to feel, I can only stand with you and show my support xo


  2. Rose
    Aug 20, 2013 @ 12:44:06

    Hi Denise,

    First of all, it’s good to hear from you and know that somehow you are settling in a place that you will eventually be able to call yours. I was thinking about you these past days, and remembered that you said you would not have much internet access to respond/ post comments.

    Second of all, like the comment above I can not tell you how to feel, but I can give you my support any time you will need it.




  3. Denise
    Aug 20, 2013 @ 14:41:58

    As always, Zoe, thank you so.


  4. amourningmom
    Aug 20, 2013 @ 15:34:10

    I feel guilty too. There are no comparisons or contests when you are talking about your dead sons but I wanted to let you know that you are not alone. I know the circumstances are different so please forgive me if this comment is not appropriate (or just delete it).

    You see the thing is as their mother, I thought I should be able to protect Jake and Sawyer from anything. Turns out I did not and could not. . . .

    Sending hope and hugs.


  5. Denise
    Aug 20, 2013 @ 15:50:14

    We are talking about our sons; how could it be inappropriate? And what can I say to you, who lost TWO sons, yet are reaching out to me? I can say thank you, which doesn’t quite cover it but it’s all I have. But I mean it deeply. And it’s taken me until now to take some comfort out of not being alone. I’m sorry this is the way we’ve joined each other, but if this had to be, then best we are together.


  6. grahamforeverinmyheart
    Aug 20, 2013 @ 21:54:18

    It’s so distressing to constantly play different scenarios in my head, wondering what I could have done differently to change the outcome of events. What didn’t I do that I should have done, what did I do wrong?

    We used to listen to the Beatles “All you need is love”. If that were true, none of us would have lost our children, because they were certainly loved and treasured beyond measure. Yet, that turned out to be not enough. It’s such a shock to discover that living right and loving deeply isn’t enough to protect our children from everything.

    Even if we know that we did everything we knew how to do, it’s almost impossible to escape guilt after the death of a child. Yet, perhaps, there is really a randomness or an element of (bad) luck that has led to this terrible misfortune.

    Certainly, it is clear that you went above and beyond in your efforts to prevent your children from becoming victims of drugs or alcohol. I can’t imagine what more you could have done. You can’t lock them up (even though we’d sometimes like to). Of course, like the rest of us, one side of your brain says it’s not your fault, while the other side reminds you that mothers protect their children. Maybe in time our thinking will become clearer and we will stop feeling so guilty.


    • Denise
      Aug 21, 2013 @ 14:29:45

      By the way – I found “Alive in Memory” from your website, and sent them a story this morning, which they published. Thanks much for the info ;o)


      • grahamforeverinmyheart
        Aug 21, 2013 @ 23:03:11

        I’m glad you discovered something meaningful to you. That’s the whole point of my website. If you dig deeply back through the pages, I know you’ll find even more. Some parents have stopped blogging, but you can still get a lot out of reading back through their old posts.

  7. Denise
    Aug 21, 2013 @ 12:16:57

    I guess it’s just the irony of it all, particularly the fact that I tried to kill myself when I was 21, and my son, who said to me, “Mom, I like my life,” is the one who died – and at the same age! Yet it’s that very irony that offers a comfort of sorts. I don’t believe in coincidences – there’s something here Philip’s trying to teach me. But I’m not in a mood for learning of late. I miss him too much; too, too much. And unfortunately, you know exactly what I mean.

    Thank you for all your support; may I help in return.


  8. Becki Duckworth
    Dec 18, 2013 @ 11:52:49

    This brought me back to when my own son Lance was smoking pot I did the same thing. At my place of employment we had drug tests. I asked the GM if I could by a few to test my son. he gave me 5 and for the next 6 or so months I tested him. it worked until he went off to college. Then all hell broke loose.


  9. Denise
    Dec 18, 2013 @ 12:37:43



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: