To all of you…

This is a day when many think about gratitude, but what I’m more thinking of now is forgiveness and perception. Because these are the portals to gratitude, and these are what I’ll be writing about next.

But not today. Today I just want to say that I do know what I have to be grateful for. First for my children; Natalie, who’s teaching me how to keep it real, and Philip, who’s teaching me to see it differently. And for all of you who’ve been helping me through his death. Because even though I’ve become one of the walking wounded, I don’t walk this way alone. I’m sorry for those I’ve joined, and for those who’ve come after. I want to say, “No one should go through this.” But it’s not for me to make that judgment. All I know is that this is where we are, and it’s what we mean to each other that’ll help get us through.

And today I’m wishing peace to all of you, even if it seems a distant dream. Because whatever short moments I’ve found of it these last months, it’s had much to do with all of you.


© 2013 Denise Smyth


Door Number Three?

A couple things happened this past week which don’t particularly seem related but are if only because there’s either the familiar, self-destructive way to deal with them or the way that I can say lots of really smart things about, but seem unable to actually do.

These couple things are also about writing; what it is I’m doing here writing this blog where I take pause and look at the sorrow of my son having died and what all that means because it’s not only changed whatever I thought the future was going to be, it’s changed the way I see the past. And it’s forced me into constant reckoning with the fact that there only, ever is Now.

I work this out here because we’ve all an ancient need to tell and to hear our stories, and we live in a time where we’ve got virtual communities to do so.

A couple weeks ago I started a short term writing class about how to publish personal essays, which I thought would be easy since I’ve a got a blog full of them. Except it doesn’t work like that.  After reading aloud the couple pieces I’d brought in, the woman who’s running the class said – and in the gentlest way possible – that what I’ve written doesn’t work in the way I’ve written it and this should go here and that should go there and the rest of it isn’t necessary and on and on until I felt like she was taking what I’d written and making it into something I wasn’t trying to say. But the worst thing about it was that I didn’t hear it. I thought it worked, exactly as I’d written it. That I can’t hear what I’m writing is beyond dismaying.

And into the mix came a cryptic email from a long-time long-distance friend X who I haven’t heard from in a month and a half or so and who wrote that she’s “been reading my blogs” and decided that “Natalie must feel like not only did her brother die, but her mother has as well. She must be very lonely;” and that she’s an “innocent victim of my grief.  Why else would she want to spend more time at Phil’s.”

And, she says, her only reason for saying this is because she’s worried about Natalie, who I’m not sure she’s ever even met and if she did, it was when Natalie was a wee bit of a thing. Because had she met her, the last thing she’d call my scrappy, in-your-face, don’t-mess-with-me daughter is a victim of anything.

But reading that shook me up and began an obsessive chain of thinking that echoed back through the years of when I didn’t know better. The years spent locked in relationships (not only romantic ones) where I swore I was the victim and the closest I got to seeing what my part was was to say, well, I must have a part ‘cause it takes two but I’ll be damned if I know what it is because she is so doing that to me.

Obsessiveness and writing don’t work for me, in spite of my writing teacher suggesting the reason I keep writing about Philip is because I’m obsessed. I see “obsessed” as blinding and shortsighted which maybe isn’t at all how she meant it, but that’s how I took it and so twice in one week I decided I was the victim of a world that I always knew I didn’t belong in.

I’m not obsessed with Philip. When he first died, and for at least that first year – that’s obsessed. What the hell else would I be? And for that year, I – who at the time of his death was 150 pages into what I saw as a hot and sexy memoir – was not able to write a word because the grief-obsession duo made everything move too quickly to capture in words and drained me of both the will and energy to do so.

So now I feel like the contestant in Monty Hall’s Let’s Make A Deal who has to choose between Door Number One or Door Number Two or Door Number Three, except that what’s behind them is no secret to me. Behind Door Number One is angst and depression because I am what I write and if I can’t make a goddamn essay with the thousands of words that I’ve already written, then what the fuck am I here for? Behind Door Number Two is self-righteous victimhood and insecurity because how dare she and who the fuck does she think she is but maybe she’s right and what kind of mother am I, what kind of person with my goddamn tale of woe and what’s wrong with me that I still haven’t gotten with the program?

Then there’s Door Number Three, which is where truth lies and you’d think it’d be easy to walk through that door, but it isn’t. It hasn’t the obsessive seduction of tearing X apart and stomping through her bloody remains, or of watching myself whither away because the Teacher likes everyone but me and I can’t write and I can’t live without my son and life’s a big suck ball so why can’t I please just fucking die.

Behind Door Number Three lies the meaning of “it takes two.” Because first there’s the fact of what happens, and then there’s the way I choose to look at it. And that is how one creates a life.

A blog post is not, in fact, an essay. There’s the possibility of it turning into one, but it’s hard. I can choose to try to do that, or I can work on an essay instead of a blog post. I can choose to put my energy into what it takes to get published now, or I can continue to learn about it and try to make it happen later on. That’s all; there isn’t any drama here. There’s figuring out what I want to do, then figuring out how to get it done.

And this situation with X, which is too perfect: here I am suffering a death I consider way more tragic than my own, and what I thought was her loving hand was really holding a knife. And when I tell this story like that, I can get my goddamn ego stroked because no one should treat a grieving mother like that and how much better am I ’cause I’d never, ever do such a thing. And there was a time that would have satisfied me, but at the price of having to repeat my sad story until it grew flimsy and full of holes, but then sure enough along would come another injustice and I could start all over again.

But how about I change the story. How about I say…nothing happened. It’s a fact, of course, that X wrote those things. But what’s that change about me or my life? If I think it matters that much and I attack back, then I must think I’m small and weak and that someone’s words can threaten me, can change something fundamental about me.

What if I changed the story to understand that X is in her own pain, because people don’t lash out if they’re not. And if that’s true, why do I want to make it worse with a counterattack? Contrary to the laws of this world, we have what we give. If I shoot poison at her, I have that poison, which comes from an ever-replenishing well where the more I give, the more I have.

AA talks about detaching with love. Whatever, I used to think. Not so much any more. And I mean love as in keeping an open heart. I’m not saying I have to send flowers to X and tell her what she said didn’t matter and everything’s all Kumbaya. I’m way too human for that, and the fact is, it does hurt. Detaching with love means seeing this friendship has been fraught with difficulty and if I don’t like the way I’m treated, I end it. But I keep my heart open because when it shuts down in response to the pain I blame someone else for, all it does is shut that pain deep inside of it. That’s what the light’s about, the diamond Philip offered me. That’s the light that burns through the suffering and transmutes it first into something bearable and eventually to the joy that’s its other side.

And I am working on it, because no one feels the deadliness of my anger more than I do.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

What He Meant

I’d like to say something interesting about the mad crazy start of the holiday season a whole two-and-a-half months before Christmas, but I don’t know what that would be except for the usual grousing. There was a time I thought since the six or so weeks between Thanksgiving and when the Christmas decorations came down were mostly absorbed by Christmas, I spent 1/12th of the year (generously rounded down) in some alternate universe where life revolved around garland, gifts, tiny, twinkling lights and how many different kinds of cookies I could bake. Now the time frame’s shifted to 2 1/2 months, and I’m not feeling so generous. Over 1/6th of our time is spent absorbed in the holidays or trying to avoid them.

Whether or not I want to think about the holidays doesn’t matter. I feel them. It’d be easy to say this time of year makes me sad or depressed, but it’s more complicated. I’d add trapped because grief and holiday-cheer is a toxic mix and I can’t avoid either; and scared, because so much of what surrounds Philip’s death is fear. I’ve been told it’s because I’m afraid of my own death. I won’t argue something I’m not sure about, but Philip’s death affects my life so deeply that I’m not sure at all sure which state I’d prefer.

Part of what’s so terrifying is I didn’t know just how awful life could feel and what’s to stop it from throwing something else at me? I’m told the worst thing that could happen to me, happened. No, it’s the second worst. First worst would be both my kids dead. And there isn’t any amount of money or any sort of insurance policy that’s going to keep me safe from what I fear most. I’m alive, I’m at risk.

During the last holidays I shared with my son, I was still sorting things out. It was the third holiday season since I’d left my husband. The first year, we kept things the same – Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve at my parents’, Christmas day at our house. The following year began the separation. We’d alternate Thanksgiving with the kids, and I got to go first. Phil declined to join us on Christmas Eve, but Christmas remained the same, with me going to Phil’s early in the morning to open the gifts I’d bought and wrapped and delivered Santa-like the week before.

But that next and last Christmas was the final split. It was Phil’s turn to have the kids on Thanksgiving. Christmas Eve they’d be with me, since that was the big day for my family, and Christmas Day they’d be with Phil and his family at the house like always, except I wouldn’t be there, even though Phil, last minute, invited me.

If you ever have to get divorced, may it be from someone like my husband.

That last year was the year to begin new Traditions. That last year I was spending Thanksgiving at my cousin Maria’s, where I went the night before to help with the cooking, and then sleep over. This will be our new tradition, I announced, thinking how the following year the kids would come and join me because Maria’s home could sleep the three of us and then some.

That last year was the first year I put up a tree. I got the idea that the kids should sleep with me at Nadiya’s on Christmas Eve, open presents in the morning, then go to Phil’s after breakfast. This will be our new Tradition, I announced.

And that last Christmas morning, when the three of us emerged from the discarded wrapping paper and tissue and bows and ribbons to have some breakfast, Nadiya was already in the kitchen with her son and daughter, and we all ate breakfast together. This will be our new Tradition, I announced.

But last year, I was busted. And I will not be using the T word any time soon.

I’m coming unhinged because there’s a cruel chill in this holiday air, and it’s blowing away whatever sanity I’d been hanging onto.  I’m lonely in the way only the death of someone you love can leave you, in a way that has nothing to do with how many bodies are around because the strange thing is, I mostly want to be alone anyway. Except for Natalie, who’s around when she’s not slipping away to friends and college and work; to secret texting and ceaseless facebooking  and to instagram, picturegram and every other -gram that comes along to replace the one created the day before.  And to her dad, whose house she’s decided to sleep at once a week and which I believe will turn into two or three times. I envy the whole family she’ll be sharing the holidays with, my half and the half I left when I left my husband; I envy the joyful juiciness of her life whose only momentum is forward while I’m spiraling down, not down as in lost but down as in deeper, which isn’t at all the way I imagined deeper would be. It was supposed to be a state of peace and wisdom, and its cost was merely willingness.

But there’s nothing “merely” about willingness, which is mostly acquired when the life you’re living feels like it’s taking place in one of those rooms whose two opposite walls are moving toward each other with you stuck in the middle and you’re screaming and screaming because you know you’re not only going to be crushed to death, but it’s going to happen in a  hideously, slowly way. If you were told willingness would set you free, you might take the risk of jumping into the void, or you still might hold out, preferring to hear the sound of your own, right screaming than to trust in something you couldn’t see.

I see the tentacles of my grief wrapped around Philip and Natalie and Phil because I desperately want to be taken care of and I think it’s my need that keeps them circling me. Who am I to them if I’m not broken? Who am I to me if I’m not broken? I haven’t the nerve or the will to jump into the next void, which isn’t about any sort of letting go of grief (why do people say shit like that??) but about leaving behind the need to use my grief.

And that’s what Philip meant when he said, “Mom, it’s time.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

It’s Time

I’m not so sure about choice. I don’t mean like what boots best go with my jeans or whether I want scrambled or over-easy. I mean choice about the way I feel or the way I think or even – which seems the most controllable – the way I act.

I don’t have much choice about what I think, but I can choose to look at it and distance myself from it, or dive into its darkly deep and believe it’s the truth of it all. And lately I’m bad as I’ve been, nursing my secrets as gently, carefully and constantly as I did my kids when they needed me.

I think I’m depressed, which is not the same as sad. Sad is being protective of my mournful heart. Depressed is anger I won’t feel; it’s me crying and hopeless and lying on the couch and not writing and doing all sorts of things with food that sooner or later I’ll have to talk about. “You have to take care of yourself,” my therapist tells me. “That’s why you feel like this. You’re angry; and you think you’re angry at yourself, but I think you’re angry at Philip.”

I’m not going to argue, but if I am angry at him, I don’t feel it. I’ve said before that Philip was involved with something bigger than he was and he didn’t get out of it before it got him. Look, I know addiction. I know the pull of alcohol, the craving for drugs, the sheer insistence that being Out of Mind and so Disconnected From Body has got to be better than this. So what I see is my child vulnerable, and how can I be angry at him for his weakness?

I know emotions don’t always make sense. Look at how angry I am at myself because Philip died – what the hell sense does that make? I’ve conflicting emotions all the time – what would be so strange about being grieved that Philip died, as well as angry at him because he did?

But what is it I value? I think I value suffering. I think I value being apart-from, living in a world I won’t let touch me. Which is what I mean about choice. Am I really choosing this? I’m not talking about Philip dying or how-of-course I’m grieved and somewhat unmoored. I’m talking about the particular way I’m suffering and the way it’s so easy to sacrifice myself to it. The way I can’t stay connected – to Philip, to Natalie, to Ed, to you all, to writing – which only means I can’t stay connected to my-self. And so I’m asking again; is this a choice I’m making??

Last week, I had another of my extraordinaries. A week ago Friday, actually. I’d been so down and withdrawn that maybe I scared myself, but whatever it was, something nudged me into getting in touch with Harriet, who I love very much and who’s seriously good for my soul.

We decided to have dinner at her apartment on Friday, which meant me picking up Greek food from the tiny Greek takeout in town. I went there to order, and while I waited, went next door to my dry cleaner to pick up some pants I’d had hemmed. My dry cleaner – whose name, after all these years, I still don’t know – is always happy to see me, but this time all her big smile did was make me burst into tears and when she came round the counter to hug me, it hit me how long it’d been since someone did.

Back outside, I sat at one of the small, curbside tables the Greeks put out when the weather allows, closed my eyes and tried to relax, listening, as always, for Philip. When I opened my eyes I looked up, and caught the sun lighting up some cotton-ball clouds into shades of golden red. Look at the clouds, Philip said. Watch.

So I stared, trying hard to make cloud shapes that looked like Philip. Am I going to see you, I asked? Am I going to see your fencing sword so I know for sure it’s you??

Just look and don’t try to see, he said; and what immediately popped up was a wolf’s head. Which I stared at and which appeared to be moving because clouds really are moving and because if you stare hard enough at anything it’ll seem to start moving. And this wolf had its mouth open, sometimes looking snarly and sometimes not. Then I saw a hand appear in front of its head, palm up. And then something swirling on this hand, something trying to take shape. Are you giving me something, I asked Philip? Are you giving me a gift?

And yes he was, because the thing swirled itself into a huge, red diamond shot through with light, perfectly balanced in the palm of this hand and I asked, are you giving me a diamond and he said yes, I am. You always say I’m the light. Now I’m giving you the light and I want you to take this diamond and put it in the dark spot where your heart is, because it’s time, mom. It’s time. And before I could fully grasp the thing he was telling me, a car pulled into the spot in front of me and had his initials on its license plate.

I swore I wasn’t going to tell this story. But I did. First to Harriet, and then to Ed. Ed’s the most realistic man I know but has yet to shrug off anything I tell him Philip says because Ed can hear its wisdom. Do you know what this story means, he asked and yes, I thought I did except for the part I missed. It’s that part that Ed said was the reason I wouldn’t tell this story, because if I did, I’d be committed to what it meant. Because what Ed heard was Philip asking me to be his mother because he is not my father and I cannot depend on him as if he was, and  the reason I refuse to live my life is that I insist the only way I can “keep” Philip is by going all helpless-little-girl-I-need-you on him and I’m afraid if I grow the fuck up my son will vanish and take his diamonds and license plates and 21s with him and then he will have left me twice.

It’s closing in on me; Philip saying, “it’s time,” and all the things he’s said before. Asking me what it means to be his mother, what it means to be responsible, what do I think it feels like to him to have to watch the way I suffer. Not that I suffer, but the way that I suffer. The way I bring it on and lose myself and refuse to take what’s offered me.

Like that diamond, the one that’s supposed to be in my heart.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

An Ordinary Miracle (Part Two)

A couple months after Philip died, a friend asked if I was interested in seeing a medium she knew, S. Since S. was recommended, I said yes. Before Philip died, I hadn’t been to a psychic in decades, not since the Famous Jeffrey, whom Stephanie and I had to get on a waiting list in order to meet. We finally got the call, and the visit went something like Jeffrey telling me I was going to have two children and me answering that I was pregnant with my second and him saying smugly, See? I told you and me not saying that no, actually, you didn’t tell me, you should’ve known I was pregnant, and with a waiting list months-long and a fee of one-hundred-and-fifty-(1993)-dollars, I expected precision.

After that, the fascination remained, but I refused to waste my money on it.

And much as I thought I was going to get myself in trouble seeing a medium so soon after Philip’s death, I went anyway. See, I thought a medium was like a telephone. Like it’d be, Hello, Philip? Medium here. Your Mom’s freakin’ out. Say something to her, will ya??

I called S. to make the appointment and she only asked for my first name. She didn’t want to know anything about me, didn’t even ask if there was a particular dead person I wanted to talk to. I hung up thinking maybe this’d be okay.

That day I’d say I was half out of my mind, except my mind was half gone already, gone somewhere far away, probably in search of my son. That day my anxiety exceeded the limits my meds could handle. I was all sped up with nowhere to go. My appointment was at seven. It was a ten minute ride which meant I’d leave 25 minutes early to get there so I could hurry up and wait. At 6:00 I took my dogs for a walk, hooking my glasses in the top of my shirt. I usually kept them on a chain around my neck, but it’d broken and I hadn’t replaced it. I needed glasses for reading, for shopping, for seeing the food on my plate that, since my son died, I wouldn’t eat anyway. I couldn’t use them for distance because if I did, the world became muddled and distorted. Kinda like it was anyway.

When I walked my dogs strictly for business (their business, that is), I took a right turn out the house, walked to the corner, crossed the street, and circled back home. That’s exactly what I did as quickly as I could, as if quicker would make 6:35 come any sooner. Once inside, I realized my glasses were gone. Goddamnit. I’ll be right back I snarled at the dogs, and stormed out of the house. Since I was already in the habit of asking Philip to help me find things, I said to him, Philip, I want my glasses. Help me find them so I know you’re here. 

Twice I went round, but no glasses. Furious, crying hard tears, I headed back to the house cursing and cursing and I don’t curse much but when I’m feeling whacked and out-of-control I go all Brooklyn-Italian on myself (don’t let “Smyth” fool you). Like, what the fuck, fuck this, are you fuckin’ kiddin’ me and fuck you, him, it and her.  I had no problem hurling it all at Philip. Fuck you Philip, what the fuck was that? I want my glasses and when I get to this fucking medium you better either tell me where they are or tell me you’re sorry you didn’t help me find them or whatever, but fuck you’d better say something about my glasses.

Or what? I’d kick his ass?

I knew I was in trouble at S.’s house when she put some goopy new-age chakra meditation on and asked me to close my eyes, put on the headphones and listen. Like I really wanted to hear the deep, dulcet tone of some Woman-Wiser-Than-Me telling me to let my orange chakra allow my abundance to be abundant and my yellow chakra to allow my self-worth to be worthy and my green chakra that should be red because it’s the bloody heart chakra to allow its lovepeacejoy  to be all that and Lady, you’re off your rocker if you think love, peace and most particularly joy and I can stand to share the same room, never mind the same headphones. I sat for ten minutes crying noiselessly because I was embarrassed by my need.

When it was over, S took my headphones, nodding, and said, “I know. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

Which pretty much sums up the session. Because what followed was this really nice lady saying meaningless things to me about ghosts I didn’t know or barely recognized. Although it did seem like my mother-in-law was making a stink, but we hadn’t much gotten along, so what was that to me? When I finally asked if I could talk to the person I wanted to, S. said it doesn’t exactly work like that, except that when I helplessly added, “See, my son…” she got the picture.

She told me that when I walked into the room, an 8-year-old boy came in with me. But he wasn’t eight, I said, not asking her why she didn’t mention that earlier. They do that sometimes, come in at different ages, S said. I don’t know why.

Then what the hell am I paying you for?

Nothing else much resonated. She said Philip liked to garden and he liked to draw and that he kept mentioning Brad, none of which meant anything since the first two were just wrong and the third wasn’t anyone I knew or ever heard Philip mention.  She also talked about the letter K, another thing meant nothing and has since come to mean something so okay, I’ll give her that.

I left there devastated, angry at S. for what I felt was her ineptitude, angry at Philip for not showing up, angry at myself for exposing myself to such a risk.

Next morning, I took my emotionally-hungover self out to walk the dogs again.  As usual, I walked without seeing, letting the dogs lead, lost in the space where Philip used to be. But then it was like something knocked me on my ass and I stopped dead where I was, looked up at the sky, and said, “Philip, I want my fucking glasses. NOW.”

When I looked down, there they were. Right at my feet, right on the grass I was standing on.

I got it. I really got it. Which is why Part One of this story set the stage, the part about me needing someone to please tell me how to live and please help me find the life I was missing. Because what Philip was saying to me was, “Mom, you don’t need a medium to talk to me. You need faith and responsibility, and it’s up to you to choose it. And you know I’m talking about something larger, too. I’m talking about life. Your life.”

Wouldn’t you think me “getting it” would amount to more than just some understanding? That “getting it” would be more than idea? Because so far, it isn’t. So far, I’m feeling like a lost little girl, alone and cut off again. So far, I’m crying a lot and thinking it’s all too much.

But I have another thought about this – well, actually, a lot of thoughts. More on that next.

© 2013 Denise Smyth