Sunday was my birthday. Third one since Philip died. And maybe the most difficult.

My birthday is April 20th – three months to the day of Philip’s (1/20), and two months after he died. I quit my job when it happened. No way I could work. But a couple months later I decided to work one day a week for my friend Cindy at her law firm, which I could do only because to be around Cindy is to be around peace. If you tell me there’s no such thing as angels in this world, it’s because you haven’t met her.

The day I started work happened to be my birthday. I took a window seat on the bus to Manhattan so I could look out the window and cry. Those were the days when I could not comprehend or accept this world that acted like it always did, as if Philip hadn’t died. That world couldn’t see me, had nothing to do with me. All I could do was watch and weep.

When I got to work, there was a cake and a dozen chubby red roses on my desk. At noon, Cindy announced she was taking me to lunch. And at some point during lunch when she started glancing at her watch and looking for the waiter, I figured we had to get back because she had important lawyer-stuff to do. Instead she got the check and said we had to hurry because she had to get me somewhere by 1:00. She’d booked an afternoon at a salon for me – mani-pedi, hair wash and blow, facial, makeup. And when the manicurist sat me down I said, “Listen. I’m not going to be able to sit here without crying and I thought I should tell you.” When I told her Philip died she burst out crying and told me that her son had died. None of that was planned, but it certainly made it easier.

And if all that wasn’t enough, Cindy paid me.

I wrote about last year’s birthday here. I spent the day with Natalie – it was a quiet day, and we were together, just the two of us.

This year my birthday was on Easter. My mom celebrates Easter Saturday, the day you break the fast from Lent. “I’m getting a cake for you,” she told me. “We’ll sing Happy Birthday.”

No fucking way. I do not want to sit with my aunts and uncles and cousins and have them sing Happy Birthday to me. “But we have to sing, Denise. Everybody’s going to want to.” Then it hit me that the attention I was trying to avoid was going to turn into an attention I wanted even less. If they sing, it’ll be over. If they don’t, there’ll be whispers and worries. There was a time I wanted that attention – any and all, I’d take. Because you had to know about Philip. That was – that is – the essential fact of my life.

Someone I know wrote me a letter and said he knew I didn’t want to be known as “the woman who lost a son.” But I am a woman who lost her son. That is the first, most thing you need to know about me. And if in ten years or twenty years or six months or tomorrow that changes, then it changes. But right now, whatever else you know about me, you have to know my son died.

My family sang and it wasn’t so bad. But next day, my birthday, I woke up in a rage. It’s my goddamn birthday. I was supposed to go to Cindy’s, but I couldn’t go out. Natalie went out with Phil, and I laid on my couch and spent the day watching “True Detective” for the third time. I got up to eat, to pee, to walk the dogs. I got up to brush my teeth, but I could still taste the bitterness.

I know the other side to grief is love. And I do love Natalie. But still grief overwhelms, seduces, feels hard and familiar. It’s my Dark Passenger. And as Toni at Wasted Times wrote, “It doesn’t seem right to celebrate what they have lost.”

© 2014 Denise Smyth


33 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. jmgoyder
    Apr 25, 2014 @ 02:43:48

    I can’t feel like you feel because I haven’t lost my son, but I can try to imagine it and, when I do, the pain is so severe that I have to stop. So for you to have this pain every minute of every day seems impossibly horrific and my heart goes out to because, even though you are so many things to so many others, you are also the woman who lost a son, I wish so much that I could give you some joy or relief from your pain, Denise. Love Julie


  2. tric
    Apr 25, 2014 @ 05:10:26

    There are no words when others are grieving. It is a very “alone and often lonely” thing. We friends can only walk along beside.
    Another friend of mine lost a son last week. He was killed in a climbing accident. 24 years old, his funeral is tomorrow. For her it all begins just as it did for you and my other friends. Life for them and you has changed. They and you are travelling a different road to those of us who have not had those losses. The truth is no one else can really experience that journey with you. Virtual hugs are all I have for you.


    • Denise
      Apr 26, 2014 @ 09:34:54

      Virtual hugs are not nothing. If I’ve learned anything from Philip, it’s that love and connection are in my heart. You’re right about grieving being alone and lonely; but it’s also made me appreciate just how much people care, and how much it matters. We don’t “know” each other, not in the conventional sense, but look how much your words comfort.

      And, as always, my thoughts and prayers are with your friends. They don’t suffer alone, much as they feel might they do.


      • tric
        Apr 27, 2014 @ 15:14:41

        Thanks Denise. Reading your blog allows me to never forget the pain my friends are in. As you are too.
        Thanks and please know how much you have made a difference over here.

  3. Aimee
    Apr 25, 2014 @ 05:16:33

    I’m so sorry for your pain, Denise. I wish I could do or say something that would help ease it. All I can do is offer to sit with you in your pain and let you know that I’m thinking of you. I’m so glad you have someone like Cindy in your life. Hugs to you 🙂


  4. behindthemask
    Apr 25, 2014 @ 17:20:12

    Just listening and letting you know that I’m here.


  5. Lucia Maya
    Apr 25, 2014 @ 18:14:33

    Denise, first, I’m sorry I’ve been less present here for a while. I read all your posts, and they always touch me deeply. They are so deep and complex I always intend to write when I have time to write something equally thoughtful and meaningful, and then I’m not feeling up to my own challenge.

    I’m sorry your birthday was so hard. I get it too, about the anger. My rage feels so immense I can’t even begin to express it. In a way, you are lucky to be so in touch with your emotions, though I imagine it doesn’t feel that way!

    sending much love, Lucia


    • Denise
      Apr 26, 2014 @ 10:34:40

      Hey Lucia – so good to hear from you, and I’m glad you’re blogging again. I figured you were busy with moving and all. I know you’re there, believe me I do – and I can’t imagine I’m any more in touch with my feelings than you are with yours. Elizabeth and Philip brought us together, and never, ever will that change. I love you.


  6. grahamforeverinmyheart
    Apr 25, 2014 @ 23:21:48

    I’d like to wish you a happy birthday, but instead I wish you future birthdays that are less difficult and include moments of joy. Cindy sounds like a special and rare friend.
    My birthday is coming up in less than three weeks, the 2nd one without Graham. My birthday always falls around mother’s day (another “wonderful” day for all of us). I’ve already told my boss I’m taking the day off. Then, a week later, will be the anniversary of his death. I’m going to take two days off for that. One week later will be my daughter’s wedding anniversary. Her wedding was exactly one year before Graham’s memorial service. May used to be my favorite month. Now i dread it….


    • Denise
      Apr 29, 2014 @ 21:41:19

      What did the vet say today??


      • grahamforeverinmyheart
        Apr 29, 2014 @ 23:01:19

        Thanks for asking about my pup. In addition to the problems we already knew about (infective endocarditis, damaged heart valves, enlarged heart…) he now also has atrial fibrillation and tachycardia. His heartbeat was over 220 at rest! So we’ve added two more drugs to his cocktail – digitalis and another drug. The digitalis can be toxic, there’s a fine line between therapeutic and deadly…so we’ll have to have his blood levels checked. We’re hoping that all these drugs (5 now) regulate his heart and keep him with us for a while longer. I think we should change his name to Grandpa Oscar, even though he’s only about 6 years old.

    • Denise
      May 01, 2014 @ 22:01:05

      Okay – you have something to work with. I hope he responds. You have enough to deal with this month. xoxoxoxo


  7. Denise
    Apr 26, 2014 @ 10:58:54

    Talk about when it rains, it pours; it’s a wonder you can breathe.

    I wonder if you know what a good soul you are. It makes me that much sadder to know you’re suffering this. You’ve helped me so much this last year – would I could do the same for you. I think of you often – you’re one of my “peeps,” as they say. And I’ll be thinking of you even more in the weeks to come.

    So much love and gratitude to you….


  8. grahamforeverinmyheart
    Apr 26, 2014 @ 11:26:57

    You’ve also helped me. I’m too much of a mess to actually write a blog, but I always read your posts (and identify with so much of what you write). I think of you and Philip and Natalie quite often.
    As far as the “when it rains it pours” reference, I should add that we adopted a homeless dog two months after Graham died. He was going to be our therapy dog and he’s been a wonderful loving companion. But a few months after completing all his heartworm treatments (immiticide shots for 3 months), we started noticing that he was always panting. He was ultimately diagnosed with infective endocarditis and we’ve been giving him many daily medications to keep him going this past year. Unfortunately his heart failure has progressed significantly and at this point we’re hoping to see a cardiologist on Monday and keeping our fingers crossed that there is another medicine that will help. My secret fear has been that he, too, will die in May.


    • Denise
      Apr 26, 2014 @ 20:43:37

      Okay. A breath at a time. May Monday bring you good news. I’ll check back with you to see how he’s doing – and praying for the best for you.


  9. anita
    Apr 26, 2014 @ 14:37:02

    However you can get through each day Denise, whatever it takes, you go for it. Don’t ever let anyone tell you HOW you should grieve or for how long. I know with all my heart if i lost my son, i don’t know how i could even have the strength to breath, or lift my body up with my own two legs. I’d want to die also but i know that’s not the answer or what my son or other loved ones would ever want to happen. I read your journal and even though i don’t know you, i feel your pain, your loss, your sadness for the son you lost. Mother to Mother, we all feel your pain and if we can be there for you, if even just to listen to what your heart has to say, then we will be there for you forever. All us strangers, reaching out through the internet to wrap our arms around you and give you a small sense of comfort that we are here listening. It’s unimaginable and so heart wrenching to think anyone has to endure such pain. I think of you often.I know you are an inspiration to anyone who has lost someone they love. If anything, today i wish that something, ever so small brings a smile to your face. Even if for one small second.


  10. Denise
    Apr 27, 2014 @ 11:33:59

    You brought a smile – and tears, too, because you’ve so aptly described my need; to be listened to and cared for. And to help, because this is a mad, torturous thing to live with and I would want to offer what I’ve been given. As you help and comfort me, may I help and comfort, too.

    And with much love and gratitude I say, Thank you.


  11. daveallen
    Apr 28, 2014 @ 22:33:53

    Bless you for sharing – seeing my own life in our words help me cope. I still have too many days where I don’t have the strength or motivation to write; I don’t know how you do it…


  12. Denise
    Apr 29, 2014 @ 21:50:02

    You have the gift of humor – and when you’re ready to share it again, you will. Or you’ll share your sorrow. You can’t do anything but follow your grief. Don’t forget it’s over two years since Philip died. I think it’s five months or so for you? When Philip died, I quit my job. I stayed home, tucked into the corner of the couch, cried, knitted and watched hours and hours of TV series. I couldn’t write for over a year. Not even an email. After a while I worked one day a week. I went to therapy, I shopped for food. Other than that, I wouldn’t go out. That was my way of grieving – and you’ll grieve as you have to.

    And when you’re ready to write I’ll be here to read. You’re not alone, much as it might feel that way.


  13. Anne Whitaker
    May 01, 2014 @ 12:23:26

    Sending you warm thoughts, Denise.


  14. lensgirl53
    May 01, 2014 @ 13:50:59

    I think we are defined by what happens to us because it changes us. How can we NOT be changed? “Celebrating birthdays” almost seems like an oxymoron of sorts. I now say that I “observe” a birthday or any other celebratory event instead of actually celebrating when it comes to my own birthday or my son’s. I hope that as you “observe” those painful unavoidable dates, that some peace will overwhelm you and give you hope. xoxo dear friend.


  15. Denise
    May 01, 2014 @ 22:04:56

    I never thought to say “observe.” It works. And with language, I need to get right – do you know what I mean?? Words are a lifeline right now.

    Thank you, Dale, for caring. And I wish peace for you, too, dear one. xoxoxoxo


  16. lensgirl53
    May 01, 2014 @ 23:18:55

    I meant to say, “my son’s departure date”…I will always celebrate the day he came into my life. It is just such a sad celebration without him. Of course, you know all of this. xo


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