Year Two

Last Saturday I was out with Natalie at a local Arts and Crafts Fair. We ran into G., a woman I know from a former job. She’s  also the mom of Natalie’s friend. G. is, in a word, rich.

What’s that mean, to me? Nothing simple, for sure. It’s too easy to say envy, jealousy. What does it mean to envy or be jealous? It’s in my reactions to the world that I learn how to live in it.

There is something exotic and fascinating about That Much Money, but I don’t envy G. In fact, never have I more not wanted to be anyone else or have what anyone else has since Philip died. What I want is Philip here and Natalie safe and sound along with him. I love Philip too much to want to be anything other than his mother. Any wanting for what I don’t have means I lose Philip. Because in order for me to know and love and have had 21 years of Philip, my life had to be exactly as it was.

And I can’t imagine a scenario where I would have done something differently so he wouldn’t have died. There’s the day I could’ve lost him, the day I wrote about in The Story. That would have been disastrous. That would have left me a hollowed-out wreck of a human being. But when Philip died, he was out of the house and mostly on his own. He seemed okay – but he’d gotten mixed up in something bigger than he was, and I’ll never know if the heroin was cut or if his body was compromised or if it was a straight-up overdose. Doesn’t matter. He died, but our relationship didn’t.

So – Saturday. G., who I last saw at Philip’s wake, asked how I was. I’m okay, I answered. Good, good, she said, nodding firmly, as she turned to Natalie. Which is right about when I split, like those people who have NDEs and feel like they’re up high watching what’s going on below them, which, of course, includes themselves. I understood that to G, being “okay” and soldiering on was what mattered. I wasn’t so sure I agreed, but I’m not so sure about a lot of things any more. I stood there doing the work of talking and listening while wondering who the fuck am I because what I am is not okay but I can talk and listen and be at this A&C Fair while my son is dead. My son is dead. And there is some profound crisis I’m in that I don’t know how to write about and that I certainly didn’t want to talk to G. about but it’s some next – what? Phase? Stage? I’m so changed I don’t know what call things, how to say what this is. But if I had to give it a name, I’d call it, “Year Two.”

G. has 5 kids. She told me about the daughter who’s graduated and works in D.C., about the one – Natalie’s friend – who’s been traveling all over the world, about the three kids that are still at home…I don’t know if what came up can be called “envy” or “jealousy,” but I do know the ghosts of guilt and shame were involved, at least for the few minutes I stood there trying to listen. Because she gave her children experiences I wasn’t able to. A lot of what bugged me about money, I told myself, was not about the things it could buy, but about the experiences it could offer. And with the exquisite antenna I had to to find things to make myself miserable about, the ways I couldn’t broaden my kids’ world because I didn’t have enough money became endless.

My kids grew up in a neighborhood with families that were pretty well-off. The people that lived around us vacationed several times a year, did endless home renovations; they had high-end cars, full-time nannies,  and money for college tuition for the expensive colleges that their childrens’ expensive tutors ensured they’d get into. And lest you think otherwise, I had some damn good neighbors. It’s just that I’d moved into a world that was different from the fantasy I’d had about it. I went to the suburbs thinking my kids would be out running up and down the block with a horde of other kids whose parents moved and thought the same. I had to get with the program. Who had time to run around? After school meant sports like soccer because my town’s big on soccer and one mom on my block told me Philip had to play soccer because, well, all the kids played soccer but what did I know of soccer? I came from Brooklyn. We played softball. And even that wasn’t something Philip particularly liked to do.

And summer? The school year hadn’t ended when the exodus to summer sleep-away camp began. Which made me feel like I was doing something awfully wrong because I wouldn’t have sent Philip and Natalie away for two months even if money had nothing to do with it. Life lasted longer than childhood. I wanted my kids around while I could have them.

Which was prescient on my part. Philip’s life lasted longer than childhood, but not by much.

Now, I knew enough to tell myself that whatever I thought I couldn’t give my kids because of money wasn’t what really  mattered. It nagged at me anyway.  I felt a little different, a little inadequate, a bit of a nobody. And “a little” was enough to make me feel like my kids deserved more than I could give them.

You know what? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how many vacations we went on or the size of our house or that Philip didn’t want to play baseball or soccer and that when he did, he wasn’t very good at it. The things that used to nag at me even though I told myself they didn’t matter, really didn’t matter.

What matters is the poem that Philip wrote in second grade, where he said that out of all of his friends, I was his best. What matters is giving birth to him exactly the way I wanted to, and the months of nursing him when all the world was his eyes locked with mine. What matters are the stories I haven’t told yet, the things I remember because even if it was just for a moment there was nothing but the truth of love between us, moments that even his dying can’t take away.

To elevate another cliche to the status of truth, all the money in the world can’t buy what matters. And yes – I had to learn it the hard way.

© 2013 Denise Smyth


47 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. anna whiston-donaldson
    Sep 28, 2013 @ 22:39:45

    Oh Denise, you sum up so much of how I feel. I hear you, Mama, I hear you.


  2. Denise
    Sep 28, 2013 @ 23:00:09

    Anna, that means much coming from. You’ve such a pure heart and there’s just something about Jack…they are angels, the two of them.


  3. lensgirl53
    Sep 28, 2013 @ 23:14:19

    I love how you expressed the way a mother and child’s eyes lock while nursing… life is about experiences that need no money but rather the quality of time and nurture. You say it so well. But know this ….you gave your children a love that tops any worldly experience…lasting for a lifetime into eternity, my friend.


  4. Denise
    Sep 28, 2013 @ 23:56:35

    You know…Brandon’s wedding day was Philip’s birthday…and his wedding was in 2001; there’s my number with Philip, 201. Just these connections all over the place, in different ways. You wrote, “But to a grieving mom, the “better place” is in her arms.” And my heart breaks all over again. I so wish you peace; my love and blessings to you, now and always.


    • lensgirl53
      Sep 29, 2013 @ 14:02:54

      There you go, Denise….signs to look for. I think that is what we mothers do when our children have gone before us. I do not believe in mere coincidences. Every thing and every one for a reason. Also “Natalie” is the name of Brandon’s much loved “step” daughter 😉 Love, Brandon’s Mom


      • Denise
        Sep 29, 2013 @ 16:02:10

        So there’s a “Natalie” involved, too???

        No, no coincidences – reminders that we’re connected. Because God knows we need them.

  5. reinventionofmama
    Sep 29, 2013 @ 00:24:33

    Posted a comment then goofed it up… Your posts give me such insights into my mother. We are six years in to the loss of my then 22 year old Little Brother. Please keep writing.


    • Denise
      Sep 29, 2013 @ 01:11:50

      Thank you for that – it’s an honor to hear that from another writer. Writing is the only way I can give some shape to this, at least in bits and pieces. My heart goes out to you and your mom. Tell her she’s not alone, if that helps at all. Six years? I can live for six years without my son? That’s when I have to remind myself I only have to live this moment without him. Just a moment at a time because if I think any longer I won’t be able to breathe.

      (And all I can say is, ditto me on your prompt. Let’s see where we are in three years ;o)


  6. lenwilliamscarver
    Sep 29, 2013 @ 05:27:37

    two years, seven months and nine days ago I lost my beautiful daughter, my heart and soul weep for you,Each day, each breath I take, I think of her wish I could express my emotions/grief as well as you do but words really mean nothing just like money…Hugs my dear one big hugs ((((xx)))) and love. God Bless and give you strength.


    • Denise
      Sep 29, 2013 @ 09:08:50

      Words are pointers to the truth, is all. They’re what we have to try to reach each other. You’re right about them being like money, in a way; I never thought about it like that. In fact, I’m going to think more about that. You might’ve just given me another post. ;o)

      Love, hugs and blessings to you, too, my friend. So hard to live with our weeping hearts…


  7. tric
    Sep 29, 2013 @ 07:02:29

    My best friend is sitting with her young thirteen year old, who has battled leukemia, and had a successful bone marrow transplant, only to catch a rare virus. His life is on the brink. We do not know what will happen from hour to hour. They have been in intensive care now for four weeks. It is never an easy time to lose a child, at 13 or 21 whatever. I read your posts and I hope she does not have to live your life. You do though keep your boy alive through these posts, by your side and in your life, where he will always be.
    Best wishes. Keep writing.


  8. Denise
    Sep 29, 2013 @ 09:21:17

    No, it’s never easy. I wish peace for your friend, though I know that’s the last thing she can be feeling right now. Talk about a weeping heart.

    By the way – you’ve such a lovely blog; light, airy, sad, funny – and the pictures are knockouts. Thanks for the space you’ve created.


  9. April
    Sep 29, 2013 @ 09:37:10

    Your writing has really touched my heart. I have always been the “tough” one in my family, and every time there was a crisis, I was the one to take care of things. I held my mom together 5 years ago when we lost my brother, her mother, and my dad within a three month time frame. Then, this past March, we lost my sister.

    I can’t say that I know how you feel, because I couldn’t imagine living without one of my kids. However, I did witness what my Mom went through, and I can say the loss of a sibling is pretty darn tough as well.

    You’re right about money not having that much meaning. Some of my, and my kids most favorite memories are of playing under a blanket tent, and sitting around a campfire making up stories to tell.

    I have a ton of memories of my sister, but my favorite times were the chats we had while she was hooked up to a dialysis machine. Her words that I remember, are priceless.

    I’m not going to give you the old ‘things will get better with time’, we all have our own unique way of grieving. The only thing I can say—don’t forget to live.


    • Denise
      Sep 29, 2013 @ 13:00:39

      Things get different with time, for sure; “better” isn’t the word, as you say, but different, yes. I thought the world changed until I realized it hadn’t; it’s me that’s changed. And I cannot begin to speak to what you and your mom have gone through; two siblings, two children?? And a husband, a father?? How in the world do you – does she – deal with that? In one of my posts I’d written that I’d said to my daughter, “How can I live without him? I was supposed to go first.” To which she answered, “How can I live without him? He was supposed to be here when you did.” And it struck me on another level what his dying meant to her – the loneliness of being left without her brother, the one who comforted – and was “supposed to” continue to comfort – her in her time of need.

      Love and peace to you and your mom, from that place in me that knows grief and sorrow.


      • grahamforeverinmyheart
        Sep 30, 2013 @ 10:47:04

        As a mother, it is also painful to watch your only remaining child struggle with the loss of their only sibling, knowing that someday they will be “alone”, having no one to share those special memories of growing up and all of the memories of the family. Even though my daughter is now married, her husband only knows what he’s heard about her childhood. It was her brother who shared the experience and the memories. There is no replacement for the person who was meant to be your lifelong friend.

  10. April
    Sep 29, 2013 @ 17:05:17

    One moment at a time…..


    • Denise
      Sep 30, 2013 @ 10:59:04

      No, there isn’t. And I hate to think of her “alone” in that way. I hope to God she has her own family and that she feels so very loved, as she is now.


  11. Lucia Maya
    Sep 29, 2013 @ 22:42:52

    Denise, once again, I feel we’re on the same wave, and I’m sorry and I’m grateful at the same time… Always grateful for your beautiful way of expressing yourself, and bringing Philip to us all. blessings, Lucia


    • Denise
      Sep 29, 2013 @ 23:41:31

      Thank you Lucia. Yes, it’s that odd and weird thing of having to carry opposing feelings. Sometimes I think my heart’s going to burst. I’m glad and relieved that you’re there. Blessings back, and many hugs, too.


  12. behindthemaskofabuse
    Sep 29, 2013 @ 23:30:04

    I know it doesn’t make things better, but I’m so glad for the treasurs he’s left you that you can carry with you. Sending my love xo


  13. Denise
    Sep 29, 2013 @ 23:38:35

    You’re right, Zoe. Without them I’d stay unmoored. Taking in your love and sending my love back. You’re a treasure, too.


  14. tersiaburger
    Sep 30, 2013 @ 18:35:49

    You gave Phillip something that money cannot buy – pure, unconditional love! Your love for Phillip and Natalie is the greatest gift ever. Peace and love my dear friend!


  15. Denise
    Sep 30, 2013 @ 19:40:48

    You too, Tersia. I thought if I loved my kids enough I could save them. I’m learning words don’t mean what I thought they did. Just because Philip’s dead doesn’t mean he isn’t saved. My head’s awhirl, my heart’s in pieces. I see him right there, Tersia – he’s looking straight at me from those pictures. What do you mean he’s not coming home? Still I get like this. Tonight it’s exhausted me. But I am always grateful to hear from you, always.


  16. Peg
    Oct 01, 2013 @ 12:34:59

    A new reader dropping by to tell you I’m so very sorry about your loss. Our family has also suffered a tragic loss and every day we deal with it. I love you writing and have paused multiple times as I’ve read through your archives at how perfectly you’ve captured grief. Thanks for giving me these moments of not feeling so alone. Again, I am sorry very sorry for your loss. Phillip sounds like he was a great person.


    • Denise
      Oct 01, 2013 @ 13:54:28

      Thank you for your kind words, and for making me feel so “not alone,” too. Every bit of kindness helps. Yes, Philip was a great kid. To say I miss him terribly doesn’t begin to cover it.

      And I am so sorry for your loss, and wish you and your family some peace.


  17. Rose
    Oct 03, 2013 @ 15:34:14

    My dear friend Denise,

    I read your post as it first came out, as I always do..however, I was pondering on what to write, because I wanted to be some meaningful to both of us. So, I sat on my thoughts for a couple of days. Then, I received a message from someone I’ve also got in contact through a let’s say ‘unsual’ way and in a part of the message she mentiones this :
    “Love is strong as death.” ” It flashes fire, the flame of Jehovah. Many waters cannot quench the flame of love, neither can the floods drown it. If man tried to buy it with everything he owned, he couldn’t do it.” ……….Song of Solomon 8: 6,7

    There goes what I think about having money….it doesn’t really matter if you have it or not, cause it won’t buy feelings…


  18. Rose
    Oct 03, 2013 @ 15:37:35

    Also, I forgot to mention something else…one day as I was thinking on what to write to you, I was driving and listening to the radio, this song called Gone, came on . I was trying to drive and see the name of the singer, because what he was singing always reminded me of you and your son…when the song finished the name came up and guess the name of the singer…PHILLIPS




  19. Denise
    Oct 04, 2013 @ 11:53:18

    Rose, is that weird and incredible or what??? Did you also realize the the post that was Freshly Pressed was called, “Gone?” And that the singer’s name is Phillip Phillips?

    And no, money doesn’t buy love. Never have I understood that more with Philip’s death; and this post was me really realizing that.


  20. Jeannette
    Oct 04, 2013 @ 15:02:22

    I just found your post and I thank you for sharing. My beautiful 23 year old son died of a heroin overdose 29 days ago in my house while I was home. He was the light of my life and today I started the day angry. Angry at him for choosing the heroin and now I am simply in excruciating pain and agony. My husband and I are both ripped apart – we loved hime so. He would light up a room with his smile and now he is gone forever. I have a daughter and it is so hard for her as well. I have to go on for her and my husband but I feel as though I am in an abyss and will never see light. What is the point of going on without my rock. I feel hopeless.


    • Denise
      Oct 04, 2013 @ 15:42:51

      Okay – I’m crying right along with you because there is a special kind of hell for parents who lose their children and we’re in it. I know there isn’t anything I can “say” to you to make this feel even remotely better. I also know it didn’t help to know other people went through this. I would think, “I lost Philip; even if you lost your son, you didn’t lose Philip.” Please know that each parent/child relationship is unique, and that one and a half years later, the people I connect with matter.

      There’s so much I could say to you – I hope you look through my blog from the beginning, because you’ll see my story, see what I’ve gone through and what I’m going through. I was nearly immobile for months and months, couldn’t work, eat, shop, whatever. I have a friend who’s a grief counselor – she told me to follow whatever creative impulse I had. I tried knitting, because I could stick myself in the corner of my couch and stay there. I knitted and rented TV series and every second of every day I wanted to die. And like you, I have a daughter, and I had to keep reminding myself that she needed me. One of the things I wrote about in my blog was that I took the risk of having children (and who looks at it like that??) and now one died but one was very much alive and I had to tend to her.

      Whatever you need to do, you do. Don’t let anyone tell you what you “should” be doing. You have to grieve – you have to. I stayed in so much that people were getting worried about me. Didn’t matter. I could only do what I could do, which wasn’t much.

      I’m not going to tell you it gets better, but it does get different. People would say that to me and I’d think they were nuts; and anyway, if by “different” they meant less grief, I didn’t want to know about it. I felt like less grief meant losing Philip even more. It didn’t mean that, not at all. But I had to find that out for myself.

      If I wish I could say something to help you, it’s because when I think about first finding out and all of it, I don’t know how I survived. I truly don’t. But here I am – still heartbroken, still with a piece of me gone, but wanting to help other parents in any way I can. If you ever want to email me – and I absolutely mean it – it’s

      Love and blessings to you; I hope you keep reading, I hope you see yourself reflected in these pages and maybe take something from feeling connected. I’m here, and I’m listening.


    • grahamforeverinmyheart
      Oct 04, 2013 @ 22:52:08

      Jeanette, I am so very sorry to hear about your son’s death. My 23 year old son died 16 months ago and so I have a good idea of the pain you are experiencing. I also have a daughter who needs me more than ever.
      I agree with everything Denise has told you. There’s nothing anyone can say that will give you what you really want and need – your son. There is no prescribed path to follow. And don’t listen to anyone who tells you what you “should” be doing. Only you know what you are capable of doing. There really is no timetable. I know I will grieve as long as I am alive and I will continue to miss my son every day. I do hope that I will be better able to integrate the loss into my life and that the pain will be less intense someday.
      There is truly no greater nightmare for any parent. I have been struggling every single day since I lost my son and I’m still trying to figure out how to keep going. One thing that helps me is reading other parents’ blogs and reading books by bereaved parents. At least it helps me to feel less isolated, because other people just can’t understand and don’t get it.
      So far I’ve found enough blogs, articles, websites, etc to fill 13 pages on a website I’ve been curating: Please feel free to visit and look through all the pages and check out the different blogs. I think you’ll find some blogs that will be helpful to you and you’ll also find blogs by parents whose children died from overdoses.


  21. afichereader
    Oct 04, 2013 @ 19:54:47

    Denise, I am so struck by these stories that reveal that the strength and sensibility that are getting you through this hell have always been there. You’ve always been strong. You’ve always trusted yourself. I know that “always” is an overstatement, but from what I’ve read here, it’s always been inside of you.

    When you recount that conversation about running into another mom, my heart breaks with you. Please know that, if your heart is ever breaking in public, that you are not alone.


    • Denise
      Oct 05, 2013 @ 07:23:04

      Lord, I don’t feel so very strong – but I think too much of you not to trust you’re seeing something I’m not. And it just hit me that of course you know what I’m talking about – how often you write of what it feels like to live in your community, what’s really going on for you when you’re running into people, even if you’re trying not to. And I get this picture in my head of what that is because that’s what I’m doing, too.


  22. Jeannette
    Oct 04, 2013 @ 23:20:10

    Thanks Denise and Grahamforeverinmyheart! Today is over and I am glad – don’t know what to expect tomorrow but I will find out soon enough. I am so desperate to have some connection with him that silly as this seems I am consulting a psychic medium tomorrow. Thanks for all your generosity i reaching out as well as blogs and websites. This is what makes this journey bearable – the hope you have given me that even though this never ends – there is ultimatley less pain. I cannot imagine feeling this way forever.


    • Denise
      Oct 05, 2013 @ 07:27:52

      You won’t – everything changes, which we’ve learned in the hardest way possible. And it’s not “silly,” wanting to see a medium. I did that, too – and I’m working on a post about what that was like for me. Sometimes I tell myself it’s just for this moment; just this one moment. I don’t have to bear this for the rest of my life, whatever that means. It’s just now.

      Thinking of you; please stay in touch – there are so many people who are here to help.


  23. Alex
    Oct 05, 2013 @ 00:39:33

    I’m so sorry for your loss and terribly pain. I found this post so relatable because of what you wrote in respect of this women who basically just want to hear a platitude so she could pat herself on the back as being a good person, having asked you how you’re doing. Isn’t it amazing how people just assume or expect you to move on? I haven’t lost a child – I’m struggling to even conceive one – but I’ve lost someone who was as dear to me as your son was to you; as unexpectedly and devastatingly. And, years later, I still struggle, I still choke up – and your post, as sad as it is, made me grateful to know that I’m not the only one who can’t just move on because of some arbitrary notion of soldering on after some predetermined period of time.


    • Denise
      Oct 05, 2013 @ 07:16:26

      No, no moving on; it doesn’t work that way. You’re alive, so you make it up as you go along. You don’t forget, not ever. And I understand your being grateful; how many times have I said to people I’ve met through this blog,”So glad to have met you, so sorry it’s through our grief.” Thank you for your kind words.


  24. Joyce McCartney
    Oct 06, 2013 @ 21:34:33

    I’ve spent the better part of today trying to figure out 1) how to blog about my one year; and 2) how to respond to this post. Here’s what I want you to know: You don’t need to be a poet, you write from the heart and that’s some of the most beautiful poetry there is. Hugs.


  25. jeannette
    Oct 07, 2013 @ 09:02:12

    We had dinner with me daughter last night for my husband’s birthday. She was saying “life is for the living” and we have to go on. As much as she loved her – and she did – she said there is no joy in this house.!?!?? Joy???? She continued to tell us how as a senior in college she will be changing her major and pursuing her real dream of acting and singing. As difficult as it is for a sibling – not even they can understand the completely flat and joyless existence a grieving parent must go through. I hope to feel joy someday – but that will not be for a very long time.


  26. Denise
    Oct 07, 2013 @ 14:26:57

    Oh, Jeanette – no one can understand the loss of a child. We carried them, for God’s sake. We had a relationship with them like no one else. Part of us is gone. Gone. Not coming back. “Life” is not the way it was any more; and it won’t ever be. How in the world could there be joy in the house? How anything other than grief and mourning? It’s so new – what is it, just a month? A month?? I think I told you – I rarely went out; and I didn’t talk about anything other than Philip dying for so very long. There wasn’t anything else to talk about.

    If it helps at all, there are so many grieving parents – grieving moms – here. We know the devastation. You can’t look for joy, not now. I’m much better than I was, but I’m sitting at my desk weeping for Philip. I’m not going to tell you that I never laugh or enjoy myself. But my life revolves around dealing with my son’s death. I write the blog because it’s how I grapple with it, how I give some shape to what I’m going through. I hope you don’t ever feel that you’re shouldn’t be where you are, that you’re supposed to feel this or that. You’re supposed to feel whatever you’re feeling, and whenever you’re unsure, talk to someone who gets it. Like me, or any of the other countless parents who’ve been forced to deal with this.

    Anytime, Jeanette. Really.


    • Jeannette
      Oct 07, 2013 @ 15:16:02

      Thanks Denise, my daughter is so angry at her father for not embracing her boyfriend (doesn’t care for him) and me for not seeing that as clearly as she would like. I feel helpless and hopeless….I just want to be left alone.


  27. Denise
    Oct 07, 2013 @ 17:46:30

    Jeanette, every family dynamic is different. This is not the time for any concern other than the fact that your son has died. Grief hits people in different ways at different times. My daughter’s tears came later. Your daughter’s anger at her you and her dad surely has an “acting out” aspect because her brother is gone. It might take her some time. But if you need to be left alone, then be left alone as much as you can. I think I told you – I stopped working, stopped going out unless I had to, didn’t talk to anyone who wasn’t calling me to talk about Philip. Nothing else mattered. All I could try to do was give Natalie, who was 18 at the time and living with me, whatever attention I could. I cried and cried and cried for months and months; I was crazed. I feel for you, God I do. No one will understand like another grieving parent. This is a life-altering catastrophe. It’s not the time for you to see what lies beyond that.


  28. Becki Duckworth
    Dec 19, 2013 @ 20:24:18

    G’s world is probably not all that great, I grew up with money, camps, beautiful clothes , jewelry and trips to New York and we stayed at the Waldorf, but I was being severely abused behind closed doors. All the goods of the world never brought me the one thing I wanted, a mother that cared and loved me. Philip has that a mother that loves him.


  29. Denise
    Dec 21, 2013 @ 01:35:23

    That I do, Becki; he is my heart.


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