To Sit Quietly

Natalie's Birthday

Natalie’s 21st Birthday

 

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
Blaise Pascal

In “True Detective” there’s a scene where Marty, angry with Rust’s take on things, tells him to “stop sayin’ shit like that.” Rust answers, “Given how long it’s taken for me to reconcile my nature, I can’t figure I’d forego it on your account.”

It’s things like that that fascinate me. Rust is cynical, aloof. He’s a self-proclaimed pessimist. He has no friends, and the only relatives we hear about are a mother who might or might not be alive, a father he didn’t get along with when he was alive, a daughter who died when she was two and a wife he’s divorced from because of it. He thinks existence is a mistake and the best thing we could do is stop reproducing, and so “opt out of a raw deal.”

Awful as any of that sounds, he says he’s reconciled his nature. “I know who I am,” he says. And what fascinates me is the idea of  knowing who I am and then allowing myself to be, even if I don’t look the way the world says I’m supposed to. But is that “self” knowable? Is “who I am” something other than fluid? Is “who I am” anything more than some self I’ve invented, and then judged?

Sunday we had a party for Natalie’s 21st birthday. Her birthday is actually July 4th, but she’ll be away in France so we had her party early. I made dessert, like I always do; pie, cookies and a sheet cake decorated to look like a flag. And like every day – which is something that I’d been starting to grasp right before Philip died – it wasn’t a good day or a bad day; it was a day of moments and some felt better than others.

Natalie is now (or at least, in 9 days will be) as old as Philip was when he died. Last year, when she turned 20, I spent some time feeling sick and scared because it hit me she was no longer a teenager, that she was “catching up” to him, which seemed to make him more dead. How will I feel when she turns 21, I wondered? On Sunday, I felt nothing in particular that I could connect to her birthday. Since then, whatever mood I’ve been in, whatever dark places I’ve been banging around in, I can’t connect them to Natalie’s turning 21. And I know that no matter what, Philip will always be her older brother.

At the party, I spoke to my sister-in-law J. for a while. She told me that when she was looking at cards for Natalie, she saw one with a big 21 on the cover. “I couldn’t buy it,” she said. “It didn’t feel right.” I’m sorry I didn’t tell her what it felt like not only to know she was still thinking about Philip, but that she told me about it. I told her that I just felt done; that I’m always feeling that I’d rather be where Philip is than be here, even though here is where Natalie is. I feel bad saying that, I told her. But my grief feels so much bigger than wanting to live ever could.

But is it true that I “always” feel like that? I don’t “always” feel like anything. Last week, I was asked to find a plumber for a job we’ll soon be starting (reminder: I work for a design and construction company). The job’s in an area we’ve never worked in, so we need to find subcontractors. So I googled “plumbing contractors” and that’s where I found Doodyman. In fact, what came up was not just Doodyman – it was “Doodyman to the rescue.” I was thinking, gee, poor guy, how hard to grow up with a last name like Doody, how fortunate he became a plumber – until I went to his site where there’s a Superman figure with a toilet bowl on his chest instead of an “S” and he’s talking about unclogging this and unclogging that and how he’ll make you “doody-free” and there’s even link to “The Adventures of Doodyman” and I realized, well, duh, it’s a schtick, not a last name.

I found this hilarious. I mean bent-over-belly-clutching-wiping-tears-from-my-eyes uncontrollably hilarious. I haven’t laughed like that since Philip died. And every time I told someone else I lost it again and I don’t think anyone was laughing at old Doodyman as much as they were laughing because I was.

So what was it I lost? The voice in my head. The voice that creates my-self so exquisitely that I can’t tell which came first, this terrible self that deserves what it’s being told or the secret, brutal voice that assures me my daughter can love me, my friends can care about me and I can do as well at work as I want, but when I come home and sit alone with myself there’s an ugly truth to being alive that’s always been and always will be, and if I want proof of what that is, it’s that Philip’s dead. And his death becomes real personal, the antithesis of what I wrote here.

I’m told life is in the living. I’m here, Philip isn’t, but I have to go on, make a life for myself. Philip wants me to be happy. I’m told I should be happy that Natalie’s going to France, I should be proud that I’ve raised a kid who’s moving out into the world. She’s also found an apartment, and chances are she’ll be moving out when she gets back. I’m not losing her, I’m told. She’s still here, she’s in my heart. Like Philip’s in my heart. Like that’s a comfort – and maybe it should be, but right now, it’s not.

I can’t be logical about Philip’s death. I do go on. I love my daughter; when I see how happy, scared and excited she is to go away, of course I can join her in that. But be proud that she’s leaving? That’s what kids do. I could be a shitty mom, I could be mom-of-the-year; kids leave. What’s to be proud of? She should be proud, for all she’s accomplished, particularly these last few years. I didn’t need her to do any of that to be “proud” of her. I love her; that she is, is enough.

Philip’s dead, Natalie’s leaving. Ed’s moved. I feel diminished and that makes being alone a tortured and terrible place to be. Alone’s where I read, where I write; where I sew, and where I cook. I can’t do what I love without alone-time. Except alone is like being with three people – the one who’s vicious and abusing, the one who feels deserving of abuse, and the one who’s sitting here writing about it. How the fuck am I supposed to sit quietly in a room with that??

The Wanting

I don’t know the world since Philip died. Sometimes I think I’m just dreaming it away. But I try to pay attention to the light, what I hear it saying when I see the way it hits the trees. I’m cautious with morning light – it’s full of promises it can’t keep, has a brightness I don’t understand. What’s it so happy about, what’s it looking forward to? Morning light means adjusting – again – to time without Philip. I’m pissed at the afternoon light. That’s the light that’s turned against me – the trees catch fire and motion stops. The world’s suspended for hours in its harshness. But then there’s the evening light –  the softening of the day, and the lovely word for its waning: the gloaming.  Evening light is warm and rich and I’d like to slide right under it and stay there. Let it close in on me, let it wrap me in its luscious velvet and then maybe I can stop thinking.

***************************************

Match.com, story number two. Michael. Nice guy, interesting, handsome. Stud in his ear, which I find sexy. Suggested meeting at a yoga class. Skin-tight yoga clothes on a first date is a risk. I took it. And I liked it. After, we went to a cafe, talked over sandwiches full of whole-grain goodness. The bill came and Michael shook his head when I reached for my wallet. It’s the kind of gesture I want a man to make. Then he walked me back to my car. That’s the crucial moment – it’s either “let’s do this again” (said casually so you don’t sound too eager) or “I’ll be in touch,” (which means s/he won’t.) I let him decide because I was ambivalent. “I’d like to read your blog,” he said. I gave him the address. Then he handed me his business card and said to email him.

Sounded like a “let’s do it again” to me.

“Ambivalence is not nothing,” Philip tells me. I try to work with that. I’m often ambivalent because I don’t know what I want, I don’t know what’s driving me. Or stopping me. So while I didn’t particularly care whether or not I saw Michael again, I decided any decision was better than no decision. Next night I wrote him a short email, ending with, “So now that the first awkward date is over, if you’d like to get together for a second semi-awkard date, let me know ;o)”

I never heard from him. And other than being a wee bit stung by his rejection, I didn’t care. Since Philip died, I’ve never more known that the way people treat me has nothing to do with me. Even on a date, that intensely personal time with its concomitant judging. Someone not wanting to see me again isn’t personal.  What’s it change about me, if someone doesn’t think I’m second date material? It just means he realized we weren’t right together before I did.

I was listening to a podcast with Natalie about a man who, because of some temporary condition, lived with no testosterone for a few months. I had no desire, he said; none. He’d sit and stare at a wall for hours at a time. He didn’t want to read, or watch TV. He didn’t care what he ate. Yet he could see things were beautiful – in fact, he thought everything beautiful – but he didn’t want. Did I feel like that when Philip died, drained of anything I ever thought mattered? No – what I felt was way too wrecked and crazed to have lost all my wanting. I had no desire to bathe, wash my hair, go out, dress in anything but pajamas; and makeup – you’re kidding, right? But I had piercing desire, wanting either Philip to come home to me, or me to go to him. I was beyond reason.

In spite of the fact that Philip died, the world continued on its way. Eventually I had bouts of no-desire, lying on the couch in a state of One Huge Shrug. It wasn’t Zen-like, the way the guy on the radio described it (not that this guy ever wanted that to happen again). It was depression. For the most part, it’s not like that now. I want to write, to read, to watch TV; I want to knit and sew. I want to buy clothes. Partly because I’m not done being vain, partly because the way I dress draws attention, and if you can’t see I’m different and branded because my son died, I’ll wear my difference so you’ll notice something. “Hey – what a cool top – where’d you get it?” “Free People, do you know my son died?” “I didn’t know bell bottoms were back in style.” “Then you’re not paying attention, do you know my son died?”

As far as desire for a man…I must’ve wanted something beyond stories when I put myself on Match.com. But whenever it comes time comes for a date, I shrink. When I’m home with my writing, my books, my computer, my TV, on my couch that needs to be replaced in a living room that still has no curtains, I see no reason to invite a man into my life. I’m still nursing my grief. Working full-time and seeing friends just a little bit more than I used to gives me less time to do that. Something tells me if I let a man love me, it would be good for me; something also tells me I’m not emotionally up for what it takes to get there. I’m drained and vulnerable from living with Philip dead, and I’m not so sure about putting myself in the path of desire. Because really – it’s the wanting that undoes me.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

It’s My Heart

I haven’t felt as blocked and listless about writing – which is to say, about living – since I started this blog. I’ve been writing a post for a week, and I’ve got the bones of it. That’s usually when it starts clicking, when the writing starts writing itself. But the writing can’t “write itself” if I don’t show up for it. And I can’t seem to do that.

Ed moved. For the twenty year’s I’ve know him, Ed’s lived in Bloomfield, and ironically enough, when I moved last August, I moved close to him, close like a good, long walk away. But he and his wife had enough of working their house. They left it a buyer’s dream. I’m happy for them, that it sold quickly; but that house had been my sanctuary when Philip died. I spent days and nights with Ed and his wife, waking up early to go home and walk the dogs, returning a couple hours later to the only place I felt safe. Now they’ve moved to Florida, where they’ll stay for a year before coming back to buy a second home in New Jersey – something smaller than their last, something farther west, something that at least will be driving distance away.

So it’s not that “bad,” if you will. I can fly to Florida to visit, then they’ll be back before I know it. And If I’ve learned nothing else from Philip, it’s that when someone’s in your heart they’re with you always – you just have to accept it the way it is, not the way you want it to be. I keep saying that every change is practice for death. The practice is the leap into the unknown, the risk of not resisting what’s so. If I can’t handle the changes in my life now, how am I going to handle that last big change, that final slipping into the unknown? I’m kidding myself if I think I can stay miserable about my losses, yet go gracefully into that Good Night.

I’m mourning. I’m withdrawn. I’ve been depressed, which is different from sad. Depression seeps – it’s a whole, big, generalized “what-for-what’s-it-matter?” Growing up, I felt alone and tormented. I looked to death as a way out – at least, to my idea of death, which I imagined as a release from pain. But Philip’s told me that thinking death is some kind of answer is the same thing as thinking hitting lotto will make everything better. It’s the same in that it’s thinking some event in time, some situation other than the one that is, will be a cure. It doesn’t work that way. And I watch the way I’m responding to life, knowing so much of this heartache is about Ed, but unable feel it that way. I’m disconnected from the source.

When Philip was alive, he’d become my center. A cure for my unsteady. The older he got, the more I let go and the closer we became. But no matter what was between us, while he was alive I wouldn’t have had access to his wisdom the way I do now. And that’s because when we’re alive, there’s a lot of ego-noise that interrupts the flow of what we’d otherwise know to be true. Things like greed, power and desire, which have to do with the body. Philip’s gone from his, yet I experience him clearly and continually. Which doesn’t mean I don’t grieve for him incessantly.

A couple weeks ago, I joined Match.com. Last week, some guy named Steve sent me an email. Good looking guy, says he’s a trial lawyer, says he does stand-up comedy in NYC, when he can. His letters were funny enough that I believed him. He started his email by stuttering about how  b-b-beautiful  h-h-he  t-t-t-thought I w-was, then launched into funny bit about about where he lived, how he liked my profile, how he’d like to hear from me.

I was smitten. ONE email, and I was smitten.

So I answered him and he answered me and I answered him and it’s all funny and I’m feeling warm and fuzzy. And while I was feeling that warm-fuzzy, I thought of Philip, saw him in lying in the coffin. That’s when I heard him: “Mom,” he said, “You don’t have to choose.” Because that’s what I do. I can’t figure out how I’m supposed to live without him and feeling a certain kind of pleasure just seems wrong. He’s trying to tell me it isn’t.

As for Steve, he was the fantasy guy. The one that makes it seem like it’s so easy because that’s what he does. It was like shooting up pleasure. I mean, it was all about me – he saw how lovely and beautiful and special I was. Hell, he “snuck out of court” to write me!  He made it easy to slip past the goddamn anxiety of real-world dating. But like any fantasy, eventually you wake up. And I don’t mean like Sleeping Beauty, when you find The Prince has been waiting for you. I mean like when your second email doesn’t get answered and the guy hides his profile so he’s inaccessible and it hits you that maybe Prince Charming has a heavy hand when it comes to Cut and Paste.

Two emails was all it took for me to plunge into the netherworld of disappointment. I spent all that Saturday lying on the couch watching “True Detective” for the seventh time. I stopped for half an hour to take a quick drive to Ed’s for a final good-bye. Watching him direct the movers was too much. “I have to go,” I said. “I’ve had enough.” “I know,” he said. “I love you.”

So who the hell was I mourning for, really? For two-email Steve? I think not. I think it ironic that the weekend Ed was leaving was the weekend I let myself be seduced. I used to think that with Philip dead, what the hell could ever bother me again? Now I think that because Philip’s dead, many things bother me more. Prometheus was tied to a rock. Every day an eagle came to peck out his liver, every day it regenerated so the eagle could come back and do it again. It’s like that, except it’s not my liver. It’s my heart.

© 2014 Denise Smyth