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


18 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. DragonPack
    May 24, 2014 @ 18:48:37

    “If get it right, Philip will still be dead, but at least I’ll have been a good mother.”

    OMG I get it, and I get you. If I get it right, Qory will still be dead, but at least I’ll have been a good mother.

    I never, ever, ever seem to get it right. Anything and everything. Grief. Mothering. Living and loving. There never seems to be an enough for me to be. But that’s just me.

    Sigh. Keep writing my friend. For you, and for me… for Philip and for Qory… for all of our tribe of parents who are doing our best to survive death out of order. I love you.


    • Denise
      May 25, 2014 @ 01:01:21

      It’s so good to hear from you and I love you, too; you’re making me cry. It’s too much, sometimes – and I don’t have to tell you that. What comfort that you “get” me – I’m sorry it has to be this way, but relieved that you’re there. And know that I read everything you write, whether I comment or not. Everything’s felt like an effort lately – writing’s been hard, which is probably because what I’m writing is hard.

      Thank you – you might think you never get it right, but that’s not how it looks from my end. Peace to you, my friend; so much love and peace.


      • DragonPack
        May 25, 2014 @ 15:36:08

        I read all of yours too… and, yes, I totally get that sometimes even a comment feels like it requires too much effort. I know you’re there, and I hope you know I’m here.

  2. Rebecca
    May 24, 2014 @ 21:49:59

    Call me, Denise. I’ve meant to call and I just get caught up in my own stuff. But, I’d love to get together. Tomorrow morning????


  3. daveallen
    May 25, 2014 @ 05:53:25

    I’m amazed at your strength; I still have too many days where I can hardly get out of bed, let alone write. Bless you!


    • Denise
      May 25, 2014 @ 15:26:37

      Dave, you’re strong, too – stronger than you know.This morning when I woke up I cried and cried and then I saw what you wrote – yes, I get out of bed, and you do, too. We have others who need us, even if that sometimes feels like a trap.

      You’re a writer. You’ll write when you ready. All of us who’ve lost a child and get out of bed are stronger than we think.


      • daveallen
        May 26, 2014 @ 21:53:05

        Thanks – I appreciate the motivation and kind words. To still do what you do, sharing as often as you do… you’re incredible…

  4. Denise Hisey
    May 25, 2014 @ 10:46:09

    “If I don’t get it right, I panic. If I can’t get it right, I lose a piece of Philip.”
    For different reasons, I can relate to this so well.
    This is an important part of your grieving process, and for that reason I hope you call Austin back. Even if he thinks you’re crazy, at least you won’t feel that way so much after having the information you desperately need to continue moving forward.
    Sending hugs your way…


  5. behindthemask
    May 25, 2014 @ 12:51:19

    I had a thought. You may not like it an forgive me if you don’t. Have you ever considered that you may be angry with/at Philip for dying on you? My heart as always goes out to you xo


    • Denise
      May 25, 2014 @ 15:32:30

      Zoe, you know you can always tell me what you think – because it doesn’t – and it couldn’t – come from anywhere other than love. I’ve been angry at Philip at times. Sometimes in my head, I’ll say, “Go away. Just leave me alone.” And once when I was that way for a while, and I felt so far from him, I said, “I feel so far away from you” and he answered, “Who moved?”

      I suspect there’s a lot more anger than I realize. I’m lonely for him – he was supposed to have my back. And I know he’s teaching me he still does…but he’s not ever going to walk through my door and it’s going to be lifetime of living what I’ve lost of him, and what I’ve gained. oxoxoxoxoxo


      • behindthemask
        May 25, 2014 @ 21:02:59

        That’s good that you know you are at some points anyway. As painful as that is, it’s probably necessary to walk through. I’m so sorry you’re hurting my heart just aches for you xo

  6. afichereader
    May 25, 2014 @ 19:21:57

    Recently, some women (with love) pressed me to explain why, if I’m so unhappy in this town, I don’t just pack up and leave. I faltered and stumbled over my words, and I found myself muttering something about “Christmas.” What I was saying was inexplicable, to them and to me.

    The next morning, though, it hit me–we don’t have the stability that other families have. We don’t have a base to get us through hard times. If we moved and my kids fell apart, I wouldn’t have the strength to hold them together. It would all just unravel. How do I know this? Because we can’t even have a decent Christmas (or birthday or graduation). All the “normal” dynamics that other people presume are just *poof* gone. That’s all to say, that I’m not as concerned with getting the story right. I think this is a journey, one we’re in for the long haul, and a lot of times the insight comes from “Tuesday? or was it Wednesday?”



  7. Denise
    May 28, 2014 @ 23:05:54

    I love the way you think, what you say when you say it. Once you wrote, “There is no story. There’s just this.” A terrible and liberating wisdom I think, which will soon find its way into a post (with full credit to you, of course ;o).

    Thank you, and know how much I appreciate you.


  8. Joyce McCartney
    Jun 01, 2014 @ 02:01:07

    Denise, I relate so much to what you write and I feel like a coward because I’m not there I feel like a fraud. I have this blog and I promise honesty and when I’m at an all time low I can’t do it, any of it


    • Denise
      Jun 02, 2014 @ 21:29:25

      Oh, Joyce, you’re so not a fraud – you’re mourning. You lost your partner, you lost the way you saw your life going. I know how hard it is to write. These last couple months I’ve slowed down – and the post I’m writing now is about how listless I feel. Your writing is YOUR WRITING. You do it when you can, you stop and grieve and cry and throw things and lay on the couch or watch too much TV or whatever it is you do to get by, when you can’t. There is no wrong here; you’re in terrible pain and how the fuck are you supposed to live with it? That’s always the question, always.

      I have such affection for you – I’m here, I’m thinking of you, and I am so sorry for your loss, for my loss, for all of us and all of it; but I thank God you’re around.


      • Joyce McCartney
        Jun 02, 2014 @ 21:31:37

        How the fuck are you supposed to live with that? It’s the eternal question. I think of you often as well and am equally sorry for this while damned mess

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