What I Write

Lividity is when someone dies and the blood pools in their body based on the position they’re in. The skin turns dark. Philip was dead in his room for two days. He was lying on his back when his friends found him. One of the things I tortured myself about for months was thinking about what his body looked like, how all the blood had pooled on the back of it. I wished I’d never heard of lividity.

I knew that body wasn’t Philip any longer but it didn’t matter. I cried to think he was alone in his room for two days, to think that maybe he realized he was going to die and he was frightened; to think of him being handled by other people, put in a body bag, lying in the morgue. And now – I can look at it like he’s left this world and doesn’t get to live his life. Or I can look at it like he’s woken from this dream and so is spared the grief.

I’m grateful I wasn’t the one who found Philip. I used to wonder why we never see what a dead body really looks like, why the guy at the funeral parlor fixes them up first. You know what? Thank God. If I had to look at Philip in a coffin, better he looked like himself than what he looked like when his friends found him.

I thought about this because of an essay I read, which I’m linking to here.

My last post was a link, and I was about to end this one the same way. That’s not like me – and not that there’s anything wrong with linking. These two posts are just that good. But two in a row, plus not posting for two weeks, had me wondering, “What’s up with that?”

I started a ten-week writing class in January. It was hard to work on the assignments, as well as blog. Not because I didn’t have the time. Time doesn’t equal energy – I can only write for so long. And going from essay to blog post and back again was no easy transition. That would’ve been enough to deal with without my increasing frustration with the class. I had some real problems with V., the teacher. But that’s not the point. The point was I waited nine weeks to tell her what was going on. I acted like a resentful child, pleading sick when I didn’t want to go, until I went as far as I don’t want to write that assignment, and you can’t make me. And it’s not like I didn’t see what I was doing. I was paralyzed all the same.

Sometimes I think that since Philip died, what the hell else could bother me? Sometimes I think things bother me more because my emotional immune system is whacked. One thing’s for sure – his dying doesn’t give me a free pass. The things I was trying to work out before he died still have to be worked out. Like what went on in that writing class.

I’ve written about the way we take a situation – a set of facts – and turn it into a story where we’re writer, producer, executive director, star and victim. So if we see what we’re doing, we can stop, right? It’s that simple, but it isn’t easy. Some of my stories are old as I am, have a life and momentum of their own. It’s beyond thinking – my body gets involved. In fact, I’m not exactly aware of what I’m thinking because I’m consumed with reacting, wrung out and twisted and so terrified that I’m confused about what’s really going on or what to say about it.

So with V. I turned the problems I was having with her into she didn’t like me, wasn’t paying attention to me, wasn’t giving me what I needed. Blaming her rather than taking responsibility. Continuing the class with some secret hope that next time would be different, walking away pissed off and disappointed when it wasn’t. But why would it be? It was my version of “Ground Hog Day ” – doing the same thing over and over and thinking it’d turn out differently.

It didn’t help that I started class by announcing I wanted to use the assignments to write about something other than Philip. Did I forget who I was, who I am? That was a ridiculous and unrealistic pressure to put on myself because I do not want to write about something other than Philip. And what I write isn’t about “Philip.” It’s about me. What his death has done to me, what it feels like to live in the aftermath. This is hard, hard stuff. Writing’s a way I abide it. When I can abide it at all.

When writing is an assignment, it becomes a “have-to.” And it’s fine to say as a writer, I should be able to finish something when I have word count or a deadline. But I’m not living in a world of word counts or deadlines. I’m living in a world without. I don’t recognize it, I don’t like it, I don’t want it. When I’m with my daughter, when I’m at work, when I see Kirsten or Harriet, when I write – I crystalize. I feel it all, all of it. But then I’m driving or walking the dogs or sitting on the couch alone and it’s like trying to stand up in a rowboat during a monsoon.

It took nine weeks – as well as conversations with Ed, Kirsten and my daughter – for me to get the nerve to tell V. I wasn’t going to the last class.  “I’m like a child,” I told Natalie, who tilted her head and stared at me with a face full of  are-you-kidding-me?  “What do I say?”

“How about that class isn’t helping you?” she answered.

Result? V. and I talked about what was going on, and while I still didn’t go to the last class, I was out of the drama around it. In other words, I realized V. was not my mother.

And as far as what I write about, V said writers write about what they can’t stop talking about. I’d say we write about what we want to keep talking about but have to stop talking about because nobody wants to listen. So we write for others to read because we need that connection. I’m not saying “nobody” wants to listen to me about Philip. But it’d be impossible for anyone to listen to all I need to say, as impossible as it would be for me to keep talking. My throat would be scorched from the all of it.

It’s not for me to say, “I’m not going to write about Philip.” This is my need. For now, the writing is writing me.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

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Save yourself: write now, tomorrow, or whenever

I thought this was too good not to share. “One needs to grieve almost to death before they can live again.” Yes, one does.

Willow Post

LifeSaver Image ©Empire331 | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

Words that delivered

In her memoir, Lucky, Alice Sebold said, “No one can pull anyone back from anywhere. You save yourself or you remain unsaved.”

It is true.

You have to save yourself (no one can pull you back from this place). You have to trust yourself. You have to be the expert on you, and your grief.

In my case, after the sudden death of my son, I withdrew, cocooned from the world, and ignored those who told me to do otherwise. I was the expert on my grief. This was my way.

I let myself die. Almost die. One needs to grieve to almost death before they can live again. And then, after days of almost dying, of starvation, I took a bite of a sandwich. A sip of something hot. Then wrote down a memory. Then almost died again.

There was no…

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Every Story

Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
“Landslide” by Stevie Nicks

Where does anyone turn to answer those questions? Because I’ve a sickening feeling about the season my life’s turned into, the one about moving on without Philip. I don’t mean “moving on” as in “getting over it.” I mean life is motion and where life goes, so go I. And I don’t mean – really – “without” Philip. I’ve said much about the way he communicates with me. But I’m facing his death, the loss of his physical presence, and I’m weak in the knees once more.

I am in need of spirit, and I’m still asking myself how to find it, though I know the answer is within, not without. I’ve done enough searching to know I’m not going to find it through a go-to guru – Louise Hay, Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra and Madonna and her Kabbalah included. Don’t ask me what any of them are talking about – that they’re on TV giving the rest of us their version of spirituality is enough for me not to listen. My big turn-off to New Age “spiritualism” came after reading something or other Louise-Hay which had me walking around “affirming” over and over what I thought I wanted and having a pit in my stomach while I was doing it. Whatever I wanted wasn’t happening, and trying to convince myself that it was, wasn’t working. Then I saw Ms. Hay on a talk show. It took a few minutes of her one-size-fits-all earnestness to realize no one thing works for everyone, but when some one thing works for someone, they sure like to tell the rest of us about it.

I’ve found some sense in Eckhart Tolle’s writing. When I first saw “A New Earth” in my friend Rebecca’s yoga studio, I thought, “Another book about saving the earth? Most of us can’t even save ourselves, never mind the environment.” And while I’d jumped on the green-is-better bandwagon way before it became chic and expensive to do so, I was sick of the moral indignation that made people care more about the air quality than they did each other.

But a few years ago, when my normal depression had spiked into crisis-mode, my friend Melanie told me Eckhart Tolle was a spiritualist, not an environmentalist, so I bought “A New Earth” on CD and drove around listening to it. It made a whole lot of sense. But I didn’t come upon Tolle in a vacuum. For years I searched for some sort of spirituality through AA, A Course in Miracles and Buddhism – to name a few. Then came the years of not searching for anything at all because it was too damn hard to find something when I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for.

But the stopping was just as important as the searching. I wasn’t grasping for something any more. I wasn’t at peace, either. Tolle came into the spiritual silence I’d been in, and what he was saying was an amalgam of all that I’d practiced before, in language I could understand.

Of course, considering him a teacher made it easy to go right back into the unconscious I was trying to wake up from. Yeah, yeah, yeah, live in the now, present moment, the past is gone, life doesn’t end, etc., etc. So I’m sure I’ve already heard Tolle say, “Every story ultimately fails.” But when I heard it the other day, I stopped the CD to think about it. I’ve been thinking about it for days now, and taking what comfort I can from it. Which isn’t much at the moment, but there’s something there that feels like truth, and no matter how hard a truth is, accepting it is better than arguing with it.

That every story fails is hard to hear, but it’s not a negative assertion. Stories “fail” because they involve form, and all forms are temporary,  are disintegrating even as they’re existing. That includes “thought” forms. Meaning, like, say I think of myself as a really important artist and I create all these wonderful paintings that everyone agrees are phenomenal and then one day I wake up blind. My thought of myself as an artist takes a terrible blow – who the hell am I now? My story as important artist ends and I have to make up a new one. Or not make up one at all, and just try to be. Because every time a form dissolves – whether it’s physical or mental – it leaves an opening to God.

And I use “God” to mean whatever it is you might think is divine in life. Whatever you think is more than you are, whatever force you think there is in this world. The Divine needs space and attention, and we can’t give it that if we’re only concerned with accumulating forms that we think will show both us and the world who we are.

But stories can have truth and beauty, and that doesn’t change when the ending does. And what I mean by story is what we tell ourselves about our lives, instead of living them – the stories about the way things are or were or should be, about what any of it means. Like, So-and-So walked right past me yesterday without saying a word – she’s such a shit. Or, So-and-So walked right past me yesterday – I’m such a shit.

Maybe So-and-So didn’t see me. Maybe So-and-So is suffering and preoccupied. Maybe So-and-So really can’t stand me. What does any of that have to do with me?

And ultimately, both So-and-So and I are going to die. Where’s my story then?

There’s nothing “wrong” with form – it’s our attachments that hurt us. We can enjoy the world of form – through it, we can sense the deeper joy and beauty that is as much a part of life as the terrible grief it seems easier to feel. How many times did I wear that dress before I tore it where it can’t be fixed? How many places did that car take me before it was too old and worn to do so any more? How many days, months, years, how many hours did I take joy and pleasure in  Philip before he died?

But it wasn’t enough. Philip is my child. In my story, he goes on to find work he loves and a woman he loves and they have kids and Natalie and her partner have kids and even though I’m alone I’ll always have somewhere to go and maybe I’ll let everyone else cook Christmas dinner while I sit by the tree and play with my grandkids.

But Philip went and died and half my story is gone and I feel like half of me has gone along with it. What he’s left me is that opening to the spiritual, which I can define as simply learning to see things differently. This is where it gets hard. Really hard. Because the stories we tell are to invent a self. That’s why when one of them disappears it can cause a crisis. And while in so many ways I understand this, where the fuck does that leave me with Philip? In essence, the work is no different: How do I live in the face of loss without feeling diminished?

The short answer is, one breath at a time. And while some part of me knows that, some other – bigger – part of me sees that as just words on a page.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

What I See

Philip at seven

Philip at seven

Last week I walked into therapy, sat down and made an announcement.

“I want to have a baby,” I said.

“What you need to have is a man,” she answered.

First off, in case you’re wondering, the baby ship sailed about five years ago. Second, that’s not exactly what my therapist said; she’s way more subtle and nuanced. But it’s what she meant, and it’s not about being saved – it’s about what I need and how I take care of myself.

It’s not just having a baby. I want to feel the fullness of pregnancy, I want to walk in the world belly-first. I want to use words like holy and sacred and cherish and tell you I’m on hallowed ground because that’s what it felt like to carry my babies. I want the peace and wonder of those all-too-short nine months. Twice in my life, I used to think; only two times in a whole lifetime do I get to be pregnant. And maybe I’m remembering all this in a blue haze of sentimentality, but I’m longing for Philip and it’s making me crazy.

The need I feel doesn’t seem to be for a man; but I suspect I’m needing to hold and be held, and it’s easier to feel it for a child than an adult. Hence maybe it is for a man. But I can’t see it, not the way I see my child’s gaze, my child’s sleepy arms around me when I carry him to bed. I can’t see it. I’m an adult. If I’m yearning to be held, then I have to think about how that happens. I’m never going to be pregnant, not in this life. If I have a need, I have to figure out a realistic way to meet it.

I don’t know how I got on to that whole thing when what I wanted to write about is what I see when I look at that picture of Philip, and how there are times when I feel like his death is killing me softly and slowly. I try to write truthfully, to stay away from sentimentality, from victimhood. But when I look at this picture – and for some reason I’ve been thinking about it and staring at it for days now – I see an angel and I remember what a sensitive kid Philip was. I remember the way he used to toddle after me, even into the bathroom, how he’d cry if I closed the door. And I loved it because I knew it wouldn’t last. I remember the poem he wrote in second grade, where he named all his friends, but ended by saying that I was his best. I remember the day when we first moved to Montclair – he was seven, like he was in the picture – and I looked out my window to see him in front of our house, leaning on a telephone pole, watching my neighbor’s kid across the street. Jimmy was a year older than Philip. He was on his front lawn playing with what looked his entire little league team. Back and forth I looked with a tight stomach and sagging heart, knowing Philip wanted to be invited over, knowing that if they were letting him stand there, he wasn’t going to be.

But Philip got himself into that, and he’d have to get himself out of it. What parent doesn’t wish they could protect their kid from any-and-every-thing? But we can’t – and if we think about it, why would we want to? Because sooner or later they’re going to be on their own, and what then, if they’ve never figured out anything by themselves? And how does one live more deeply and with meaning, without having had to move through suffering in some way or another? Because not only don’t we get out of here alive, we don’t get out without grief.

When I look at that picture I see Philip at nine, at a pool party with his friends and their families. I see him coming over to me and Phil crying, because his friend Tim pushed him. He didn’t understand why Tim was mean – that’s what got to him. One by one the kids in the pool began looking our way and whispering. It’s that pack mentality that senses weakness – it’s the scent of blood, and they were circling for the kill. Philip’s weakness was wanting to belong but not feeling he did. Plus he broke the unspoken rule of not “telling” on another, a sin with a hard recovery.

Phil went to speak to Tim’s dad, who told him Philip should have pushed back. I think nine is a good time to tell your kid not to lay your hands on another kid if it’s not self-defense. But what do I know of a boy’s world? What I knew was my son was crying and everyone was watching. And what greater humiliation than to be the shut-out of the group, to be the kid leaning on the telephone pole, watching.

When we got home, I knelt down to talk to him. “Philip, look,” I said, “I don’t care if you cry. But those kids aren’t going to be nice to you if you do. Maybe you could try really, really hard next time not to cry, and just tell yourself you’re going to wait until you get home. Because here you can do what you want. Go in your room if you have to. Cry, yell, whatever. But don’t give them any reason to make fun of you.”

I was begging him, really, to let it go, because then could feel better. You know how it is – your child doesn’t hurt without you hurting right along. But it didn’t work. Philip was upset and didn’t say a word. So I stopped talking and stepped back because this was something else he was going to have to puzzle out on his own. And I had to trust that he would, and that both of us were going to be all right.

And that’s not all I see, but it’s all I’ll talk about for now.

© 2014 Denise Smyth