Give My Life, Live My Life

What wildness there is in grief. What unpredictability. And exhaustion. I’m tired of this crazy ride, I’m tired of missing Philip. Crying won’t bring him back, but I do it anyway. When words won’t come, tears take their place. I cry because I want my son alive, because I am helpless, because I want somebody to hang on to for a while, two strong arms and a shoulder I can tuck myself into and make believe, even for a while, that someone’s love for me is greater than this loss I don’t want to live with. And so the ugliness of grief – it creates a terrible need and then makes it impossible to meet.

My son. Sometimes I call him Philip, sometimes I call him my son. I’ve been trying more often to write “Philip.” “Philip” is older, is more independent, more of a partner. He is tall and handsome. He goes to school and pays his rent. He comes to dinner with me and even when he’s 21, he comes and lies on my couch when he’s not feeling well.

When I say, “my son,” I’m on my knees with my eyes raised to the holy heavens, begging for him to please come home. When I say, “my son” I’m lamenting more than saying – and I join the collective of all who’ve lost a child. It doesn’t make it better, that anyone else should feel this. We suffer a loneliness that can’t be touched because each of us lost our child and our special relationship and no matter who is suffering this, it’s hard to believe anyone else really gets it. Because Philip is my son and I am the one who lost him most.

I’d have given my life for my son. I’d have stalked, roared, clawed, destroyed anyone who dare try to hurt him. Because that’s what mothers do. I think I’ve been calling him “Philip” more because it hurts just a little bit less. Because claws and all I couldn’t protect my son, and if I call him Philip I know that he’s responsible for his death, too.

I don’t mean that I’m responsible in that I could have done something so he wouldn’t have died. I’m responsible for his being born, for the ways I responded to his life and now his death. At some point, the madness of grief has to give way to at least some lucidity where I can make decisions about how I feel and what I’m going to think about. I resist this. I grieve – as we all do – in the context of my life. Since I was a kid I’ve found it hard to be here and I still don’t get what’s so great about life. The way people don’t understand what I’m talking about is the way I don’t understand their ready engagement with the world. I am so angry that when I’d finally broken it down into something I could manage, when I decided that what I had to remember was I have my kids and I could build my life from there, Philip died. The nameless darkness I’ve lived with can now be called Death – and I can’t tell the grieving from the blaming.

I’m staring down the question we all come to sooner or later – how do I live in the face of death? Lately I’ve been doing that by waiting. In between time with Natalie and time at work, when I’m alone, I wait for it all to pass. I tell myself it doesn’t matter if I write or sew or cook or just lie on the couch and watch TV because sooner or later it’s all going to be gone. So what if I don’t like where I’m living? So what if don’t do laundry for weeks or if I eat sandwiches every night? So what if staying home sounds better than anything I can think to go out and do? When my turn comes I don’t think it’s going to matter where I lived or how many pillows I’ve sewn. It’s all going to fall away anyway, so what’s it really matter?

There is something Zen-like in that. To “not mind what happens” is the way to peace. But that’s not what I’m doing. I’m perverting that into defeat and a surrender to despair instead of acceptance. I’m so tired of Philip being dead, so weary of what I now carry. I know death, I want to scream; I know death. And it is not the end, it is not anything like the end. In fact, it’s endless. And relentless. You can’t reason with it, you can’t stop it, and once it’s come you can’t make it go away. You can’t call your kid any more, can’t watch him graduate from college, can’t get to know his new girlfriend or wonder if he’ll ever have kids because even though you never much liked babies, you were wild about your own and “grandma” had stopped sounding old, it just sounded like having more to love.

I’ve gone through – and am probably not done with – feeing guilty about being a mother who couldn’t protect her kid. Philip, from the second I found out he died, has asked something else of me. And when I talk like this, when I give up, I feel I’m betraying him. What am I doing with all he communicates to me? There’s a deep disconnect between my ranting at his death and the wonder at the love and protection I feel from him, that he shows me every day in tangible ways. Little things, like when I signed up for an adult ed class, walked into the high school and said, “Philip, I want to be in room 201.” Ridiculous, I knew, because class was on the first floor and I’ve been in that school enough times to know the rooms on the first floor start with 1. So while it couldn’t have been room 201, it was the next best thing: 102.

Or the bigger things, the things he gives me to think about. Like last week, on my way home after work, when the drive went from annoying to unbearable. I’m obsessively crazy about getting home, watching the cars on the highway more than the road itself to see if there’s an opening to get ahead. I strategize, I maneuver. I’m aggressive and treat each car like its sole reason for being in proximity to me is to keep me from getting where I want to go. It doesn’t matter that I see how crazy I am, or that I’m rushing home to spend a night alone, a night where I’ll dive under the covers in despair about Philip. I just want to get where I’m going. And on that day while I was thinking that I can’t do this any more but I’m helpless to do otherwise, I heard Philip. “Swerve, mom,” he said. “Just swerve.”

That’s all he had to say and I could breathe again. Philip was asking me if I could go gently, gracefully, from one lane to another when there was room to do so. I felt the breath that would allow me to do that, breath that would create the room I was desperate for. It’s holding my breath that makes me feel trapped. And then I understood what Philip was really telling me. That there are things I will come up against all the time, things that will not move and that I can’t barrel my way through. I can’t control any of that. But I can breathe and go round them, because that is the part that’s up to me.

I still don’t know what death is. I just keep learning what it isn’t. It’s life that’s harder than any of it. And the hardest question of all is that I said I’d give my life for Philip – why, then, won’t I live it for him?

© 2014 Denise Smyth


11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. kmlagatree
    Nov 04, 2014 @ 05:52:18

    This essay is extremely lucid and beautiful in its expression of unbearable


  2. jmgoyder
    Nov 04, 2014 @ 09:06:05

    Crying my eyes out


  3. lensgirl53
    Nov 04, 2014 @ 10:16:33

    Lovely in its sadness….wise in its questioning….agonizing in its answers….all from a mother’s grieving heart and soul. At the same time, it has caused me to want to address all of these in my own blog. I think that I will and hope you don’t mind. Love ~for you and for your son, Philip.


    • Denise
      Nov 10, 2014 @ 02:10:05

      Of course I don’t mind, Dale. You are kind and lovely and write whatever you want. I’ve been quiet lately with commenting, but I am here, reading. xoxoxo


  4. grahamforeverinmyheart
    Nov 09, 2014 @ 14:34:23

    I don’t quite understand how we can live our lives for our children? They were part of us, but completely different than us. I can’t even come close to his talents and brilliance, I can’t recreate any of that genius that he had. I can’t fall in love for him or create the children he never had the chance to have…..
    All I can do is try to be the kind of person that he would be proud of and continue to be here for his sister.
    Your writing is so poignant and powerful!


  5. Denise
    Nov 10, 2014 @ 02:24:03

    I struggle with what that means, too, but you broke it down into its simplest terms – be someone he’s proud of and take care of those you love. I hear Philip guiding me all the time, I feel him pushing me toward life, which isn’t where I want to be. At least, that’s what I think. To live for him means living even though he’s dead, taking the risk of being happy and understanding that I won’t lose him if I am. That I’ll only be closer to him. So often I just don’t want to go on without him – yet there he is, saying, “Mom, I’m right here. And you’ve got to take care of Natalie.” Maybe that’s not exactly living for him, but it’s living because he’s asked me to. xoxoxoxo


  6. Trackback: Will Peace Come To Our Grieving Hearts? | In the Wake of Suicide....trying to understand
  7. deeincollingo
    Nov 14, 2014 @ 06:09:34

    Denise, I feel your raw, vulnerable and tender words. Oh how I wish it was all a bad dream and our minds did not have to wander and wonder into the land of whys, what ifs and if only … It takes great courage to keep pushing forward. I know Philip and Natalie are your energy because Amy and my children do the same for me, but it sure isn’t easy. Sending you peace, my friend.


  8. Denise
    Nov 19, 2014 @ 05:42:22

    And peace to you, dear Dee. Your anguish breaks my heart because I know my own too well. It’s so damn hard to get up every day…and here the holidays again, without them…it’s one day at a time for sure, but there’s already Christmas everywhere and how lonely does it all make me feel. I miss him, Dee; and you well know what I’m talking about.


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