Fuck art. It’s time for a rant, because really, I’m exhausted. Not for lack of sleep. For my mind tripping over my broken heart to figure this out or make meaning or whatever the hell it is my mind is trying to do while it’s continually screaming Philip is dead Philip is dead Philip is dead dead dead.

WTF? What’s today? I don’t know but it’s the Aftermath. The Christmas quiet which I used to wind down with my family, wrappings gone, bows saved, boxes still under the tree like we could open our presents all over again. My family, of which 1/4  is dead, 1/4 I’m separated from, and 1/4 is beginning to leave on her life’s adventure. And I am paralyzed because there’s nothing in me to be adventurous, there’s nothing in me that wants to go out and do anything. WTF kind of life is this? I can’t carry Philip’s death. It’s too goddamn heavy and I don’t know what to do. I miss him, I goddamn miss him. What does anyone do? What do you say to yourself, what do you do with your time when you’re suffering? I wrote a post called “What I do” about that, but there’s more. There’s food, there’s not eating, or eating and vomiting, and torturing myself that I’m going to get fat and fretting about it all the time and for shit’s sake I’m 55 and I’ve got adolescent eating problems. I am exhausted.

Somebody told me that Joseph Campbell said – big paraphrase coming here – that it’s not meaning that people are searching for, it’s the feeling of being alive. WTF? So I’m doing it wrong again? I thought I was trying to make some damn meaning out of all of this and be on my merry way to some peace, which is another idea I have the way I had an idea about forgiveness. Because I keep thinking I want peace which, in my idea, feels not like life but like tolerance of life, which is feeling very fucking empty right about now. Is that what I really want? A life that’s “tolerable?” Any wonder why I’m waiting to die? Why do people want to live, I asked my therapist? What’s with the wanting?

Why do you want Philip to live, she shot back? Which brings up a whole shitstorm of questions like, WTF is life, really; what is it when I can hear my son and read his signs and feel his nudges which would mean (there’s that word again) that life can’t possibly be about a body so it must more be about connection.

There it is. I don’t feel connected to anyone right now, not myself, not Philip, whose eyes I feel watching me even as I write this. And I don’t mean “eyes” as in those of a body but I am restricted to language to talk about what’s going on and “eyes” watching me conjures up what I’m feeling. I feel his watching, his patience. I feel him waiting for me to calm the fuck down and begin again. So, what then? Am I connected, or am I not?

Maybe when it comes to Philip, I’m never completely disconnected. There’s some thread that at the moment is stretched to breaking even though I know it won’t. But it’s not enough. There are people here, people with flesh and hair and body fluids that leak from all different places; people that take up the same space as me and to need to be paid attention to.  There’s Natalie, for starters, who I sometimes feel like I’m watching through the long end of a telescope. She’s there; she must be. But I can’t take in that I matter to her or anyone else and it’s that profound loneliness that’s dogged me since before Philip was born and is unfathomably murky now. But there is no one to hug me. There is not one person I can sink into.What’s it matter? echoes the hollowed out place my heart’s supposed to be, and where not coincidentally Philip asked me to place that diamond. Light it up, mom; see what’s really there. But I think it’s a big, fat nothing. I think it’s loss upon loss with more loss to come because what else is life anyway? Being ready for the loss. As if you could be, even when you know it’s coming. (Tersia, Lucia – are you reading this?) In “No Chance,” Lou Reed sings of not having a chance to say good-bye to his friend who died: “There are things we wish we knew and in fact we never do / But I wish I’d known that you were gonna die.”

Really? ‘Cause I don’t. I dreamt of Philip maybe three times since he died. In one dream he was telling me he needed some fencing gear, and that he needed socks. “If you did your laundry, you’d have socks,” I’d thought, much to my surprise because I knew that on Sunday, he was going to die. I was sorry to have thought that about the socks, and it was awful to tell him yes, we’d go get his fencing stuff even though I knew he’d be dead before he could use it, and there was nothing I could do about it. Just keep acting normal until it happened. So no, I don’t wish I knew he was going to die.  Something had been driving me those last months, something that made me choke on my love for him and make my twisted way into his heart to let him know how much I did.

So WTF? What’m I supposed to do? Nothing’s working here. I don’t want to knit or sew or read or cook or watch TV. I don’t even want to drink, which sometimes I think I do, but which I know won’t help ‘cause I’ll wake up worse. A pill, maybe. A big, fat pill – or several small ones – so I can go to sleep, which is my version of peace. It won’t make me connected to myself, but it’ll sure make me forget that I’m not.

© 2013 Denise Smyth


Nothing Good or Bad?

I was asked to guest post by Becki Duckworth at Becki’s story is brutal; you can read about it here.

And you can find my next post here.

I wish all of you peace on this day after Christmas. I find it’s not the “day” that’s hard as much as the aftermath, when I’ve survived to find yet again that life goes on and I’m just not sure how I’m supposed to go along with it.

Inside My Head

That caustic dread inside your head
Will never help you out
Lou Reed, “Magic and Loss”

The other night Natalie said, “You hate the holidays.” “Why do you always say that?” I asked her. “I don’t hate the holidays. I like them a lot. I like the feeling of them. I mean, I’m uncomfortable about Philip. But I like to get people presents. Really. I’m at the point where I like to give presents more than I like to get them.”

Where do I start?

Uncomfortable” about Philip?? That’s what I’m reduced to saying when I talk to Natalie about anything concerning Philip. She can’t take my grief, even though for a long time now I’ve not made it particularly visible to her. I give her a lot of attention, and I make sure she knows I love her. But any mention of Philip is a centripetal force, drawing her ever more inward and away from me.   And it’s especially hard that I can’t speak easily about Philip to her during this Season of Celebration. This second Christmas without him, I’m feeling defeated because nothing’s going to make him come home and what the fuck am I supposed to “do” with what I’m feeling?

Every year Natalie tells me I hate the holidays. And I do remember one year complaining about all the time, work and energy the holidays required because I was the one doing it all. That must’ve left a real impression on her because she’s turned it into my “thing” when it’s not at all any kind of “thing.”

But it’s forced me to think about the holidays, what they are, what they’ve been. When I look at Christmas Past, I think something was left out, some part of me wasn’t there. What I did best was buy the right presents, because to me, they were expressions of love. It was the act of giving that moved me. I wrapped them up, then typed their names on the gift tags because when I was in second grade, I realized there was no Santa when I recognized my dad’s handwriting on the tags. And I was terribly impressed with myself for figuring that out.

To slow down the process of tearing into the presents it took hours to wrap, I’d put little poems on each tag that described the gift. Philip and Natalie took turns reading each one, and had to guess what their gift was before they opened it. And I remember one year I got my husband a bike and hid it in the basement. On Christmas morning, there was an envelope under the tree for him that had directions for what he had to do next. The kids and I had written down clues on pieces of paper, then we hid them all over the house, each clue directing him to the next until he was finally directed to the basement where it didn’t take him long to find the bike under the tarp that was hiding it.

Sounds good, right? But even though I remember those things, I also remember something felt wrong. I loved a tree-lit, garland-filled home, but not what it took to get there. The tension of decorating, the way kids would help but they really didn’t want to. It was supposed to be Christmas Carols, hot cocoa and stringing popcorn. Or something all red and gold and warm. But this is how it really was: Every year, a couple weeks before Christmas, my parents would come to help decorate. Wind up was I’d be the one helping while my mom was directing. She was fast and irritable and if she wasn’t decorating she was cleaning and that can sound like gee, wish my mom was like that, I’d invite her over more often, but it wasn’t that way. My mom would take over and I’d let her, then resort to sullen, resentful 12-year-old behavior to deal with it.

But what did I know? Sullen-and-resentful was the norm around my mom, who was a walking whirlwind of anger. She couldn’t help herself – and who’s to say that if I was born and raised the way she was, if I had her exact life, I wouldn’t be the same way? I was the one that had to wake up, who had to stop behaving like my mom could send me to my room and take away my toys while she was at it. But I didn’t get it. For all the 30+ years of therapy and binders filled with email conversations with Ed about this, I didn’t get it. So as much as I hated the tension and rushing of the day, I didn’t know how to make it the way I wanted it to be. I was sure I was doing it wrong and ashamed and sorry that my kids were stuck with me.

Sound a little caustic?

And now – now I do stress-free Christmas. My tree is up and my presents are wrapped. They’re not ribboned and bowed yet, but this snowstorm that’s just beginning will be the perfect time to do that. Next week I’ll make cookies, cakes and chocolate mousse, like I always do. And I’ll continue to  alternate between crying and flatlining because my kid is dead and it looks like everyone’s celebrating.

Which I know isn’t true, mostly because of you all.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

Death is Peace?

“There’s a risk in thinking death is peace.”
A Course in Miracles

Another solution shot to shit. Because it’s an illusion; whatever I “look” to to take away what I’m suffering is an illusion. There isn’t a “future” answer. Whatever happens is created by what I do now. So what do I want? What kind of life do I want to live?

To lose my son; how can I ask what kind of life I want to live when I am not always sure I want to live it?

But then Thanksgiving comes. When it’s time to go home, I sit in my brother’s TV room with my coat on, waiting for Natalie to get ready. Someone is flicking the channels, someone stops at the football game. I see Jerseys full of numbers; I want a number, I say to Philip. I see a 20 on a player’s back. Not good enough, I say. I want 21. I look at the top of the screen. The score:  21-14.

Driving home, I am stunned to see myself surrounded by four cars with 20, 21, 22, and 201 all around me, and in that order. My God, I thought; he’s carrying me. I bob and weave through the traffic, and when I get off at my exit, the same car with 201 is in front of me.  201 turns left like I do. But when 201 gets to the light, he turns left again and goes back on the parkway, heading in the opposite direction.

Natalie works at the Short Hills Mall. On Saturday, I go to meet her. It’s mobbed, of course. Philip, I say, help me find a spot. I got it, he says. I head toward where I always park, and he says to go further. I’m creeping along trying to look down the aisles, when a young man steps out in front of me and I brake. So sorry, I say. He nods. I look to my left and there’s a car pulling out. I take the spot, and the car that I’m facing has 201 on its license plate.

If Philip could knock me over the head and say, “Cut it out,” he would. And he is, but in his own way. And I am fighting like a crazed caged tiger because I WANT HIM HERE. I want him here. Today my knees almost buckled when grief whacked me from behind. That horrendous moment when it all crystallized and I knew he was dead, 201s and all.

I am losing everything I thought I could escape to. Starving myself, withdrawing, flogging myself, wishing for death, as if I know what I’m even asking for when I say that. If I can’t handle the changes in my own life, how do I think I’m going to meet Death when He holds his hand out? Philip said to me that I will die the way I live. If I live in fear, that’s how I die. It’s not a punishment, just a statement of fact. That’s what I mean about what I do right now is creating my life. I think each change that comes is practice for death. Each change requires a leap of faith because even if I want that change, there’s always some fear and holding back, some reason why I think I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.

But what about something like this. What about the day Natalie says, “Mom, I got my own place.” It’s true I would be bursting with pride because she’s growing and taking steps to take care of herself, to become just that more independent. But I’ve still got that black space that Philip’s asked me to put that diamond in, and it’s full of bile it’s ready to spew all over me. When Natalie leaves, I can go on about how alone and miserable I am and now both of my kids are gone and what the hell is the point of being here and on and on. That comes from fear; and if I go through that kind of change with that kind of misery, if I’m thinking death is the only way out, I’m going to be shocked and terrified when it really does come because it’s the last and biggest change I will ever make. So will I meet it with grace and faith, or will fly out of here in a tornado of terror and fury?

I don’t know what the hell death is, but I am sure it isn’t the way I imagine it. When I say, “I want to die,” what I mean is I don’t want to feel. I wrote a while ago about the night I was driving, right after Philip died, thinking, “That’s it. I’m done. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I’m going to do it.” And I heard Philip say, “Mom you have to find the joy, it doesn’t work that way.” I understood him to mean that death changes nothing. Whatever I’ve got to work out, I’ve got to work it out where I am.

Thing is, I don’t have the other way. If I’m to give up all the self-destructive ways I handle Philip’s death, the things I do over and over, expecting different results, what do I replace them with? How do I talk to myself differently, and then actually believe what I say?

It’s been rough; it’s the holidays. A mood comes on. There’s nowhere to go. Philip’s birthday’s in January, he died in February. His absence grows stronger, much as I feel his presence. He’s always on my mind, but I don’t talk about any of this except here. And lately I understand the meaning of, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.”

© 2013 Denise Smyth