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


18 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. tric
    Nov 18, 2013 @ 18:55:35

    This is such a difficult time of year. I really feel for you. My own friend still sits by the side of the bed of her young son. Three weeks ago she said “Goodbye” to him three times but he is still with us. No one wants to think as far as xmas but she has three other children
    However she and I have had many conversations and months ago, before all got so very bleak and sad she stopped me as we were out walking. She turned to me and said “There is just one thing I want to be sure of and I need your help”, I agreed and she said ” if this doesn’t all work out the way we want I am adamant it will NOT lead to further tragedy in my family. I will survive it for my other children, and they will too, but I may need reminding”.
    Tonight when I read your post and you mentioned your daughter I thought of this, so I am reminding you just as I would my friend if the worst comes to the worst. You can only do your best but your daughter and you still have a life together. She is still here.
    I’m not saying you do not know that I am just saying I was reminded of my friends words when I read your post.


  2. Denise
    Nov 18, 2013 @ 21:35:03

    Thank you; it’s always good to be reminded of that because I’ll tell you, grief overwhelms. Sometimes it is the most of what I feel, deadening everything else. Even Philip reminds me that I am here and Natalie’s here so let me live and love her while I can. I get so drained from this; God help me sometimes I think I can’t. But for Natalie, I have to.

    Love to your friend in her time of need. I am so sorry she’s suffering this.


  3. behindthemaskofabuse
    Nov 18, 2013 @ 23:27:08

    My heart is with you. Although I haven’t lost a child in the same way you have, I have no family to celebrate the holidays with. It’s painful. Sending you hugs xo


    • Denise
      Nov 19, 2013 @ 22:05:51

      And hugs back to you. There’s so much “family” in the air that it’s devastatingly lonely. And I know you know what I mean; no, you’ve not lost a child, but you have suffered much, and I am sorry for it. You’re a good soul, Zoe; I mean it.



    • Denise
      Nov 21, 2013 @ 09:21:20

      Oh, Zoe, I didn’t know; your strength is an inspiration, and those aren’t idle words. You’ve been through so much, and you always write, “There is hope.”

      I’m kind of awed, actually…


  4. grahamforeverinmyheart
    Nov 19, 2013 @ 07:09:30

    Thanksgiving was always our favorite holiday. My mother would visit and we would have so much fun together. When she died almost 5 years ago, Thanksgiving became much more difficult, but I continued to make some of my mom’s favorite recipes for my kids.

    Last year (our first without Graham) was awful. My husband and I visited our daughter and son-in-law (they live 12 hours away from us) and had dinner with some cousins of mine. We felt the opposite of thankful or grateful for anything.

    This year my daughter’s mother-in-law will be visiting them so my husband and I will stay home alone, just the two of us. We were invited by friends to their family dinner, but we’ve decided that it’s just no fun for us to have to spend all evening pretending to be happy and normal, when the truth is that we are absolutely devastated. That day is also our wedding anniversary, but we just don’t feel like celebrating. I will make a nice dinner (no more turkey, we’re vegan now), but everything feels sad and wrong.

    December will not be any better, punctuated by my husband’s birthday on Dec. 31st (we always used to have a family dinner before the kids went partying). January is the month when both of my parents died and is also Graham’s birthday month. I wish I could hibernate until February!!!


    • Denise
      Nov 19, 2013 @ 22:03:25

      Did we already discuss that Philip’s birthday’s the same month as Graham’s? It’s January 20th; he died in February. I wish I could hibernate until March. Actually, I don’t know what I wish. Because I’d emerge and he’d still be gone and sometimes I think I’m going to suffocate from all of this.

      I will think of you on Thanksgiving, and I’ll remember I’m not in this alone.


  5. tersiaburger
    Nov 20, 2013 @ 00:26:33

    GRIEF AND HOLIDAY CHEER IS TRULY A TOXIC MIX. Oh my dear friend how I wish I could just hug you. Thinking of you today and everyday as we head into this toxic time. I have my own and Vic’s eldest’s birthday coming up. Christmas was Vic’s event of the year. But we will survive my friend because we have to.


    • Denise
      Nov 21, 2013 @ 09:19:50

      Birthdays AND holidays?? Sometimes I wish I could scream this out of me; I wrote how my brother went to the beach and screamed when his daughter was dying, but that I was sure a good night’s rest just brought it all back.

      Let’s try to remember a day at a time, Tersia; and that my kid and your grandkids need us.

      They really, really need us.


  6. tersiaburger
    Nov 20, 2013 @ 00:27:37

    Reblogged this on tersia burger and commented:
    What an amazing post.


  7. Trackback: Reblogged: “What He Meant” | New John for a New Year
  8. New John
    Nov 20, 2013 @ 09:03:53

    Reblogged on New John 4 a New Year: http://wp.me/p1gVPO-1J4

    Thank you for sharing this. It’s something for me to think about as the holidays loom.


    • Denise
      Nov 20, 2013 @ 15:52:29

      And thank you for reading, and for your kind comment. It’s a hard time of year for many, in part because we think everyone else is having a good time. But we’ve all got something.


  9. Rebecca Carney - One Woman's Perspective
    Nov 24, 2013 @ 09:41:22

    Holidays just aren’t the same once things “change” – whether that change is from divorce, death, moving, or whatever. Especially after the death of a child, it takes a long time to find new traditions that feel comfortable and real. Even after 11 years, I struggle with ALL holidays, but Thanksgiving with Christmas right behind is particularly difficult. I miss what was – the joy, the excitement, the all being together. I miss my boy. I miss the life I had. It’s just not the same, and it never will be. I keep on trying, but it’s not easy.


    • Denise
      Nov 24, 2013 @ 14:25:13

      I’ve been feeling like this holiday is worse than last, which was my first. What a fog I was in last year; but everyone was super-aware and really trying to take care of me. But now we’re in the life-goes-on thing, which is as it should be. But as mothers – we’re not going to get used to this. I think I feel so deeply lonely because “everyone else” seems to bustling along, while I want to tell them all to stop it, please; Philip is still gone and it’s not all right, it is not at all all right. But I can’t do that, nor should I. But then I get a comment from you, and terribly lonely as this is, I know that I’m really not alone.


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