Getting It Right

I’m steeped in a past where the details get blurry. I’ve been trying to write a post about the few days after Philip died, but I couldn’t remember how it went down. I called Austin, Philip’s friend, who I haven’t spoken to since Philip died. He was there in the aftermath. So now I have it clear. Except for one thing. I forgot to ask – was it Tuesday and Wednesday, or Wednesday and Thursday, or Tuesday and Thursday? I am not kidding. The “scene” involves one of these pair of days so how can I write it if I’m not sure? Call Austin again? He’ll think I’m crazy. Why should I care? It’s not like it isn’t true.

As a non-fiction writer, my responsibility is to tell the truth. As a narrator, I want to be reliable. As a human being, my memory is what it is. As a mom, I need to make Philip visible. I’ve a hard time accepting that maybe something didn’t happen exactly as I remember it. I work hard to get it right, to get you to see what happened. I don’t believe “creative nonfiction” means making up things that didn’t happen to fit the narrative of what did. Creative nonfiction is story-telling, with the obligation of telling it true.

Of course, who’s to say what’s true? We all know the phenomenon of, say, five people witnessing an accident and getting five different accounts of what happened. But that’s not a mystery. Our minds are a locked box. No one gets in there but us. What we see has to do with what we’re looking for. So if I look for death, when I see an accident I’ll go for the gore. If you look for life, when you look at that accident, you’ll look for who’s left standing. Of course, it’s all way more subtle than that – and it’s in those subtle ways we create our reality.

I’m writing the story of living with Philip’s death. What happened, what’s happening, how it all feels. I am trying to get at something, something that’s eluding me. Writing’s the way there. Writing stops me, forces me to breathe, to put form on the formless. But when I can’t remember something, anxiety forces me from the keyboard and to the internet where maybe I’ll shop for things I won’t buy or bookmark recipes I won’t cook. I think writing’s a way to get control over some aspect of what I really haven’t any control over. If I can’t get it right, I panic. If I can’t get it right, I lose a piece of Philip.

I think the holy act of writing is going to absolve me of something. Getting it right is Philip’s resurrection as well as my redemption. If get it right, Philip will still be dead, but at least I’ll have been a good mother. And there’s my karmic circle. “Getting it right” is another something outside myself that’s going to rescue me and pushing the “publish” button 83 times hasn’t cured me of that. It’s an impossible end, this Getting it Right. Because there isn’t any end. No matter what it is, there isn’t any end. Death included. Philip “died,” but he isn’t gone. And I’m not talking about his constant signals. That’s part of it, but there’s the fact of all the people he’s touched and continues to touch, the way we love him, remember him, live with his spirit. There’s me, writing about him, sharing him with those he’s never met. Dead has to do with body, not with what really matters.

But then, isn’t getting it right what drives art? That need to create so we can share our vision, to have others see as we do? It’s that need that keeps me writing, it’s that very getting-it-right that slows me down enough to get familiar with what still feels like the hole where Philip used to be. And that hole doesn’t get filled. It gets lived with.

And so I fret. Was it Tuesday and Wednesday…Wednesday and Thursday…Tuesday and Thursday…

© 2014 Denise Smyth


It’s Simple. Ask.

Sunday morning I woke up in a motel room with Natalie in Wildwood, NJ. Phil was in the room next door. We were there to watch Natalie compete in the annual NJ State Competition for gymnastics. Natalie’s been a gymnast since she was five, been competing since she was ten. This was the first year Phil came to States. It was the first time my in-laws came, too; Phil’s brother with his wife and two kids; his sister and her husband.

They all showed up because this was Natalie’s last meet. She’s outgrown her time at the gym. The last of the kids she’s close to is graduating, leaving for college. For Natalie, the sport includes the friendships that come with it, friendships that will hopefully last a lifetime. But it’s time to move on. We left Sunday knowing we wouldn’t be coming back. And I was feeling the loss particularly because it was Mother’s Day, and not because she’s never coming back to me,  but because another phase in her life  – in our life – is over.  “I’m trying to think – did I ever miss a meet?” I asked her; “There must’ve been one I didn’t come to.” She shook her head. “None,” she said. “You always came.”

She’ll practice, for fun, for the next month. Then July 1st she’s off to France for five weeks. The longest time she’s ever been away from me, a tiny taste of what’s to come. And I suppose I shouldn’t be upset because losing her to a life she loves living is far better than losing her to the alternative.

Yes, I know. I’m not “losing” her. But fuck all if that isn’t what it feels like. Today I’m angry, I’m mournful – I’m hungover from the crazy that was Mother’s Day. What’s any of it for? Life is loss and in my better moments I know there’s also what’s between the loss. Thing is the loss hurts more than the joy that having brings. Philip’s death has marked me. I’m branded and apart and I want something for it. What? Some recognition? Acknowledgment of how hard it is, as if I don’t get that anyway?

It was hard being around my in-laws. Leaving a marriage breaks up a family, each in its own way. I’m not sorry for my choices but that doesn’t make it easy. Sitting there Sunday, hearing bits and pieces of conversations that no longer have anything to do with me, added to a lonely I love to get lost in. And I was angry that none of them mentioned Philip, no one acknowledged I have two children, that the child who first made me a Mother died; that all anyone said was, “Happy Mother’s Day!” like it didn’t mean something it wasn’t ever supposed to mean.

But what do I know what anyone was thinking? It’s hard for people; no one’s sure what to do, what to say. It’s easier to say nothing. Grief throws people – certainly no one more than the person who’s suffering it, but also those on the edges of it. Would I have known what to do with someone’s grief before Philip died? And it’s not that I “know” what to do as much as I’m not afraid to ask. I understand the need to be asked. What more caring thing could someone say to me than, “How are you? How has it been for you?” And why is something as simple as that so hard to say?

Sunday night, after Natalie and I got home, I went out with the dogs, found a bench in a field and sat and cried for a good long time, cried like I haven’t in a while. I wanted some stranger to come by, ask me what was wrong. I might’ve had more luck with that on the busy corner of Broad and Watchung than in a dark and deserted field. But I think I was digging myself in deeper, drunk on grief and pity. And I paid for it these last few, terrified of losing Natalie’s love because how could she care for a thing as low and pitiful as me?

Last year, on Mother’s Day, I wrote a post called, “Still the best day…” Who is that, I thought; who is that calm and thoughtful woman because I feel too crazy to think it could have been me. But it was me. Grief is not linear. It’s not a march forward – it’s not even a “one step forward, two steps back” thing. Its nature is cyclical, but truth is it’s a spiral, deepening even as it goes round and round. Crazy’s part of it, is all. How could it not be?

© 2014 Denise Smyth

It’s Not Personal

“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
Marcus Aurelius

My friend Harriet has MS. She developed it late in life – in her 50s.  She uses a walker on wheels to get around the house, a scooter when she goes outside. She lives alone, but sometimes she needs help – and she says she’s finally learned to accept it. Funny how that isn’t a loss of power, but a claiming of power. Because it’s saying this is the situation I’m in, what resources will I use to deal with it? Harriet lives with depth and grace because of acceptance – or what I’m more comfortable calling it: non-resistance. Non-resistance is breathing. It’s, “Okay. This is where I find myself. How do I work it?” Instead of, “Oh my God how could this happen to me and what the fuck am I supposed to do now?!?!?!

Which might’ve been Harriet’s initial reaction, and who wouldn’t? Krishnamurti, probably. But let’s talk the rest of us.

At dinner one night, Harriet told me: “Someone asked, if you could take a magic pill that would allow you to walk again, would you take it? I said, I’d have to know more. If the pill erased my whole MS experience and all I’ve learned from it, I’d say No…but if I could be who I am now with all my memories intact, I’d say Sure.”

Which is pretty much saying, “No,” because she can’t have one without the other. It’s an impossible question, but it sure is provocative.

Decades ago I read W. W. Jacobs’ short horror story/parable, “The Monkey’s Paw.” It’s something I’ve thought about from time to time, and – like so many other things that have struck me over the years – it’s become more layered and meaningful since Philip died. Its particular content heightens its message. If you’ve not read it, in short, it’s about an old couple and their son who are given a monkey’s paw that has the power to grant three wishes. They have, the father claims, everything they want, and they are not selfish, greedy people. This isn’t a story about punishing the wicked.

They don’t exactly believe there’s any truth to it, but I suppose like any of us, they kinda sorta wished there was. The son jokingly suggests the father wish for 200 pounds, just enough money to pay off the house. He does. Next day, a man shows up at their house. Their son, he’s sorry to tell them, got caught in the machinery at the factory where he worked  and has died. The firm is sorry, and while they claim no responsibility, as compensation they’ve sent the old couple 200 lbs.

After ten torturous days, the mother realizes there are two wishes left. She hysterically insists the father wish the son alive. He doesn’t want to – he’d seen the boy’s mangled body and can’t imagine what it would look like ten dead days later. But he gives in – and in a short while, they hear knocking on the door. The mother runs to the door and as she’s desperately trying to unbolt it, the father frantically searches for the paw and undoes his last wish just as his wife flings the door open.

The first wish was for what they wanted. The second was to undo the consequence of the first. The third was to undo the worse consequence of the second. And in the end, they’re worse off than they were before.

What’s this say about fate, about destiny? About accepting what is? I think there’s a massive picture that we don’t see, and within this play of form, yes, we have choice. But there’s a difference between magic and choice. Magic is trying to wish away what is and being miserable because we can’t. Choice is the way we deal with what’s so. And it’s in choosing that we create our reality.

We can’t necessarily make our life situations what we want them to be. We can move toward what we feel called to do, and we can stay present to the reality of it. But we’ve not the power to bend situations to our will because that’s what we think will make us happy. We’ve not the power to bring our dead children to life. And dare we drag them from where their destiny, their choices, led them – do we really think we know what’s best? What would we risk with our own monkey’s paw? I want my son here. I want him to come home. I want his physicality, not just his whispers in my ear. But is something as sacred as life and death up to me? Do I really want that responsibility? I hurt. I think I’m not going to be able to bear what I feel about Philip dying, I think life’s too long without him. But do I really know what’s best for him right now? Is it for him I want him here, or for me?

And here’s the truth, terrible as it is. Death is not personal. We all die. It’s not a punishment. It’s not inflicted on us by some judgmental Being. It’s not about “good” or “bad.” The only punishing is what we do to each other, what we do to ourselves. Death is, the way birth is. And what would be, then, without death? If we didn’t die we’d become a monstrous cancer on a planet that couldn’t sustain us – couldn’t fit us – and we would destroy it. It’s death that allows life to be.

I’m different since Philip died. Closer to the bone. I’m kinder, more helpful. I smile at strangers. I listen harder. I make people laugh, and then I laugh with them. I have no drama in my life, and I feel loved. All of this is the other side of my raging grief. If I was asked what Harriet was asked – provocative as it is – I wouldn’t answer. It’s an impossible question because it can’t happen. Do I wish Philip was here, alive – Christ, of course I do. But he isn’t and he’s not going to be. I don’t care what you call it – fate, destiny, an accident – it doesn’t matter. I don’t have control over Philip’s death. I can only choose how to live with it.

© 2014 Denise Smyth