Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

What fierceness to say, “I will never accept this.” What comfort is mixed up in that, knowing I’ve taken a stand. What despair is at the core of it, because not to accept what is, is a form of insanity. I can be as angry as I want, but that won’t change what is so. When I carry around anger about something I can do nothing about, it’s because I think anger is going to get me what I want. Why else remain angry? Why else tell myself the story of what happened so that I wind up the victim? What happens when I realize that I’ve taken some fact of my life, an event that happened in time, and told myself an unhappy story around it? Then I see how I keep alive the ghost of  the past and so miss my life, which is only ever happening now. Not in the past, not in the future. Now. But the voice in my head insists otherwise.

And if I think my anger isn’t an attempt to get something I want, I can think about the way I feel about letting it go. It’s  like if I’m not mad, then I’m saying something’s okay when it isn’t, and what an outrage that is. If I’m not mad, that person/institution/whatever gets away with “it.” How humiliating for me; if I’m not mad, I’ve lost.

Except that isn’t it, not at all. If I’ve let go that anger, it’s peace to me. It’s freedom. It’s not my job to see that someone doesn’t get away with something, as if anyone “gets away” with anything. An unconscious life is its own prison. Truth will out, with no help from me.

A year ago fall, the first fall after Philip died, I went outside one brilliant morning to walk the dogs. I lived in Montclair, known for its massive, shaggy trees. Four years I’d been living on that particular block, walking past one particular tree, and that morning I witnessed its transformation. The sun lit that tree and it shimmered red and gold; it was glass on fire, and if it could have  made a sound, it would’ve been celestial. This was shock and awe, I thought, as I stood staring up at it. Are you seeing this, a man yelled to me, from across the street? I couldn’t take my eyes off it to answer.

If I could live in that light, I thought, if I could just not move and stay right here, I will be all right and it will all have been worth it. Which is right about when my mind rushed in and reminded me that I’d caught a moment that would be gone in another, and I’d probably never see another one like it. Ever. What was the point, then? What was the point of having my breath taken away only to have it return with its disappointments and hopelessness?

It wasn’t enough because in some fundamentally human way it’s never enough; it’s the grasping, needy edge of ego that wants to want more than it wants to have. No having is ever enough, not when having something becomes essential to our identity.  If our reality is based on having, then that reality must be false. What can we possibly have that won’t turn into something else? After it disappoints us, first. Where’s the reality then?

It’s easy to see what I’m talking about if you look at the objects that once seemed so necessary to a happy existence. I had to have those pants and make it two pair, since that’s safer. In case one wears out or something. Or that car or house or earrings or lover or body size or whatever external thing will confirm the reality of me as I perceive myself. It’s not that hard to see the objects I’m attached to and begin to move away from their power. And of course we all need things – I’m talking about the attachment to those things, to the way they become part of our identity, the way we feel diminished we lose something, when it breaks, when it gets gone like all and everything eventually will.

But what happens when I think about attachment and loss in terms of relationships, of actual people? I’m 55. I have years behind of me of people – of romantic relationships, in particular – that I believed I had to have or I couldn’t go on. But their time passed, too; and from this view, I see what I wanted from them, how much of what I called “love” was grasping and clinging; how the wanting, in the end, drove me more than the having.

But then your kid goes and dies and you wonder where the hell you’ve been all your life because there isn’t anything that feels more real than the grief of losing them and the contemplation of living the rest of your life (we talking 20, 30 years? You fucking kidding me?) without them. What of all I’ve just written, I think? What of attachment, of wanting, of having, of disappointment, of anger? I am speaking of my child now, not the two pair of jeans I finally tossed into the giveaway pile. How now?

Mom, Philip says, when you think of me, you think of me in a long dark tunnel. It isn’t that way. Think of me in the light you saw in that tree, only infinitely brighter, and you’re closer to the truth. The truth? That’s what I’m trying to figure out here. Truth doesn’t change – in the world, it’s relative. But in stark reality, it’s unchangeable. Else it wouldn’t be Truth. So how to think about these truths in terms of Philip? When is “having” enough, and what do I mean by that? In essence, I have not lost Philip. In fact, I’ve never felt closer to him or more certain that he’s around than I do now. I ask, he answers. He leads, I follow. He talks, I listen. And all any of that requires is turning my attention to him.

I dreamt of Philip a couple weeks ago – twice in one night. In the first, he was running up the stairs, “Philip!” I called. He came down smiling. “Why didn’t you tell me??” I asked, in shock. “I wanted to surprise you,” he said. In the next, again, I saw him. This time he looked confused. “Philip,” I said, “Where have you been? I thought you were dead!” “I’m not,” he said. “But where were you for two years?” “I don’t know,” he answered. “But I saw you in the coffin,” I said. “I know,” he said. “But I got up afterward.”

I’m no interpreter of dreams. So I went to the source. What was that about? I asked Philip. I’m trying to get your attention, he answered. Because for these last few whatever, I’ve been thinking about him instead of listening to him. I’ve been looking at a world where dead means dark, stark silence instead of seeing the startling ways he lets me know he’s around. It’s time to start working, he said to me. I’m here, but you’ve got to do the work.

If I’ve jumped around here, I’ve no doubt I’ll be sorting it out as I go on. Yesterday was two years since the last day Philip was alive. Today was the day he lay dead in his room, and no one knew. Tomorrow was the day we found out, the day on his death certificate, the “official” day he died. These two years seem to have passed quickly. I’m grateful. Because I’d rather wrestle with my grief as it is now, instead of as it was then. It’s not gone, for sure, but at least it’s different.

© 2014 Denise Smyth


26 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. gracielynne62013
    Feb 22, 2014 @ 10:56:07

    Wow. This post is weighted with such wisdom, truth and brilliance. You are amazing, even in your grief, you dive so deep that most of us wouldn’t be able to breathe at that depth. Yet where others would suffocate, you breathe wisdom through every pore of your body, looking for understanding. This post leaves me breathless as that tree did you. Thank you for sharing. You have awed me and it is seldom that I reach that level of admiration.


    • Denise
      Feb 22, 2014 @ 23:02:24

      I am honored and grateful and humbled; I don’t know what to say. Philip’s cracked me open, and what comes through me comes from him. Such need I have to talk about all this, to get it right on the page; and not some final “right,” just trying every day to find some right way to live without Philip here the way I want him to be; and always, always remembering my daughter.

      Thank you. You’ve no idea how touched I am, what your words mean to me. “Thank you” doesn’t seem to cover it – I think you know what I mean.


  2. Harriet Halpern
    Feb 22, 2014 @ 11:01:52

    You’re last 2 posts have been, for me, the most powerful. Let’s have dinner again soon. Give me possible dates. Ok?


  3. Book Peeps
    Feb 22, 2014 @ 11:57:52

    I always think I must come up with something to say to you that might be helpful or soothing somehow. It has, a few times, prevented me from commenting on some of your previous posts. The reality is, the immense weight of the grief you carry and wrestle with is something I’ve not myself experienced..grief, yes..I’ve suffered loss of course, but not the loss of a child…as a Mother myself, I can’t even fathom. The thing that hits me smack in the face every time, like the familiar tree you described that stopped you in your tracks, is the grace, honesty and wisdom that pours out from the depths of your despair. It is nothing short of mind blowing.


    • Denise
      Feb 22, 2014 @ 23:17:13

      As I said to gracielynn (above), Philip’s death has left me an open channel. I don’t know how to tell you what your words mean to me – my head is bowed in gratitude. You’ve been in my heart all day, and if there’s a time I’ve needed to hear such things, it’s now. Two years – it’s two years. I miss my son, much as I feel him around me. Whether you comment or not, that you read this is a blessing. How to thank you? I’m kind of speechless. And touched, and grateful.


  4. kmlagatree
    Feb 22, 2014 @ 14:28:31

    This post is so powerful that I hardly know what to say. The previous comments, however, get to the heart of it beautifully.


  5. Lucia Maya
    Feb 22, 2014 @ 14:32:37

    Ohh, I love this, and I love you. I love those 2 dreams. It feels SO clear to me that he is letting you know, “in no uncertain terms” (an Elizabeth quote somehow – I heard her say it in my head, a line from a poem of hers…), that he is better than fine. He is the best he’s ever been, and he did “get up” after he died and continued on, just in another form…

    I love that you’re using and writing about the essence of The Work, that when we argue with reality, we suffer. It’s really simple in some ways. And soo complex in others…I’m struggling myself with my move out of my home where Elizabeth last lived, and wanting to write about it, but feeling this ticking of the clock to get everything done! I hope I can write when I’m in my new home, and I’m so grateful that you are writing and healing, step by step, day by day…

    I am with you on this anniversary, holding you in my awareness, with love.


    • Denise
      Feb 23, 2014 @ 05:17:25

      Oh, Lucia, I love you, too, and it’s so good to hear from you; I’ve been thinking about you, about the move, and wondering about exactly what you said – your leaving where Elizabeth last lived. But it’s exactly the work, isn’t it? She’s always with you, which has nothing to do with place. And I guess that’s how we learn, by taking the risk of releasing what we’re attached to, jumping into the void of whatever Now brings. When do you leave? I know you’ll write when you get there, if not sooner. And I’m here waiting…



  6. edcol52
    Feb 22, 2014 @ 19:23:30

    Thank you for your insight here. It is those transcendent moments you so eloquently describe that inform our lives. I have had a few since Jake died. It is 8 weeks ago today. I feel his presence now and then so strongly, I can almost see him. I have had a few vague dreams about him, but nothing where I have had a chance to converse. I have so many questions. Of course, those questions are mostly unanswerable but we do so want everything explained. Don’t we?

    I move through the cycles of grief and sometimes the “anger” is so strong I want to just smash something, someone. I want to let everyone know how badly we all failed.It can be paralyzing. But I also know that holding on to that anger doesn’t serve Jake’s spirit or memory. It doesn’t help me in moving forward to figure out this new irrevocably changed life I now live.

    I look forward to the time when I can truly let go of the anger. Thank you for again for giving me a glimpse of how I might begin to do that.


    • Denise
      Feb 23, 2014 @ 05:27:36

      Yes, we do want everything explained. “Have a little faith, Mom,” Philip tells me. Jake’s death is so horribly fresh – so much about what you feel must be paralyzing. What to do with anger? There’s no easy answer, not for any of it. And whether you believe me or not, you didn’t – not you, not your family – “fail.” There are things we just have no control over, especially when it comes to other people. But when our child dies, we feel responsible because we are supposed to protect them. It’s how we’re wired. It doesn’t matter how much it isn’t our fault, it just feels like it is.

      Peace to you, friend; it’s a long road, but you don’t walk it alone.


  7. jmgoyder
    Feb 23, 2014 @ 02:03:39

    I so wish I could meet you – this is an amazing post. I wish I could meet Philip too which is obviously impossible in the realm of now but you brought him into our lives. I have no adequate words except to say that I wish I could give you a real hug! xxx


  8. Denise
    Feb 23, 2014 @ 05:31:30

    Julie, you are a bright spot in my life. I wish I could meet you, too, and boy, would I love that hug. Thank you for that – today I can use all the loving I can get. xoxoxoxo


  9. tersiaburger
    Feb 23, 2014 @ 05:36:12

    Oh my friend you are such a gifted writer. You articulate your emotions and Phillip encounters so beautifully. I have never dreamt of Vic. I wish I could. Hugs and fond regards


  10. Denise
    Feb 23, 2014 @ 05:43:28

    Thank you, Tersia. I didn’t dream of Philip for so long, and I’d ask him over and over again to please let me dream of him. Then one day my husband told me that he often dreamed of Philip, and it upset him. It hit me then that I wasn’t ready, because to “see” him would only remind me even more that he wasn’t here, that I couldn’t touch him and hug him. Vic will come to your dreams; she knows when it’s time for that.



  11. daveallen
    Feb 23, 2014 @ 11:02:41

    I hope that someday I can get to the point you’re at – I’m still wrestling with the thought of grieving for the next 20-30 years… the visits we won’t have, the grandchildren that won’t come… It helps knowing that there’s some light further down the tunnel…


    • grahamforeverinmyheart
      Feb 23, 2014 @ 11:42:37

      That’s a terrifying thought. A friend jokingly commented that because of our vegan diet, we’d probably live to be 100. That made me wonder how I was supposed to face all of those years without my son. More years to experience pain, longing, sorrow and his absence…


      • Denise
        Feb 23, 2014 @ 13:48:10

        I so know what you mean – when I wrote a few weeks ago about having bulimia, I talked about the hope I had that it would hasten my death. Not like kill me now, just maybe take ten years off or something. And I’m so sorry for Natalie when I think that way; I don’t want to hurt her and I don’t want to leave her. But how to carry this, how are we supposed to do this? It’s inevitable that sometimes I’ll look up and think – um, HOW many more years? But mostly I try not to do that. It’s just for now. Every day we’re one day closer to death; we’re going to breathe a last breath just like our sons did. I’m not afraid to die, but I owe it to Natalie to live as best I can while I’m here.

        Whether I want to be, or not.

    • Denise
      Feb 23, 2014 @ 13:42:38

      Joe’s death is so terribly fresh…I don’t know what all sense I made out of anything in the months after Philip died. And I don’t know that I’m making “sense” now, I’m just trying to live with it, with his help. I was in AA for a long time, so I’m no stranger to “A day at a time.” It never meant much of anything, but now I see its value. Except “a day” is too much of a stretch. It’s more like, just for now, just this moment. And you’re so damn right about the grandkids, etc.; I didn’t think I thought much about the future until I felt like it was snatched from me. So I remind myself that the future only ever comes as now, and for now, my daughter is here and that has to be enough.

      But my God I miss him…


  12. Anne Whitaker
    Feb 23, 2014 @ 17:22:30

    “….Four years I’d been living on that particular block, walking past one particular tree, and that morning I witnessed its transformation. The sun lit that tree and it shimmered red and gold; it was glass on fire, and if it could have made a sound, it would’ve been celestial. This was shock and awe, I thought, as I stood staring up at it…..If I could live in that light, I thought, if I could just not move and stay right here, I will be all right and it will all have been worth it…..”

    Dear Denise, this is such a moving, deeply affecting post. I have reproduced part of it because it struck me as being so powerfully similar to a wonderful description of the ‘tree with lights’ which Annie Dillard talked about in her Pulitzer Prize winning book “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”. I googled it, and have found it for you. I hope you find this passage as moving and inspiring as I did:
    “…..Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The lights of the fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had my whole life been a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. I have since only rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam…..”
    –Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974).


    • Denise
      Feb 23, 2014 @ 19:18:04

      Oh, Anne, I LOVE this. And the imagery of the bell – I used it here – not in the same way, but I’m struck by that. I have the deepest respect for Annie Dillard. I have “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” And I am thinking I need to read it now, I think I need to read people who are thinking deeply and working with life. Thank you for reminding me, thank you for the quote.

      And thank you for caring.


      • Anne Whitaker
        Feb 24, 2014 @ 12:16:12

        Denise, you are most welcome. And I feel it’s time I re-read “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” Perhaps we’ll be reading it at the same time….

  13. Susan
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 06:53:59

    This was just beautiful and touching. ❤️


  14. Denise
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 08:34:29

    Thank you, Susan.


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