Who I Am Not (Part 2 – The Reunion)

I thought about continuing Part Two from my last post without mentioning Christmas. Something seemed wrong with that…but I didn’t – still don’t – know what to say. This has been the oddest Christmas since Philip died. Including the fact that I don’t know what to say, because when it comes to how I feel about Philip, I am never at a loss as to what to say.

I love Christmas. I love it because the focus is on family and loved ones, because I get to give gifts, because the streets are lit up and people say “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays.” There was a time I would’ve snarled because how the fuck am I supposed to have a Merry or a Happy with Philip dead? But now I see it’s not personal – those are expressions of love and good will, and I will take all the tenderness that’s given me.

But this year was disjointed, pieces here and there, without a narrative. I have been reluctant. And removed. I look at Philip and I don’t know what I feel. There’s something I won’t touch here. I’m detached, but not because I chose to be. Detaching with love works. This is not that. This is the relentless march of life and at times there are things it requires of me – for Christmas, it required buying, wrapping, cookies, cake, chocolate mousse. It required spending time with Cindy, it required Christmas Eve at my brother’s. It required my tree, small and sparkly and which I kept lit – mostly -24/7.

I liked being at my brother’s and I liked being at Cindy’s and I loved giving my gifts. But getting there with all that doing – I hadn’t the heart. So what so what so what, I said? That did not help. Philip is not coming home for Christmas. Or anything else. I am not done being afraid. But I was numb. I was unable to feel what it felt like not to have Philip with me on Christmas. Who can I tell? I’m not ready to talk about it.

Peace, then, to all of you. If you’re suffering and that seems impossible, I wish it for you anyway. May it help you to believe that I believe.


But this post is part two, The Reunion. For the last ten years, my classmates from  Junior High have been getting together annually, along with our homeroom teacher, Mr. M. This I discovered when one of them, Jo Ann, found me on Facebook. Everyone’s been looking for you, she said. Who is everyone, and why were they looking for me? I have a hard time thinking anyone would remember me, much less care to see me. I remember that time as the start of my rebel years. I was already drinking, smoking and taking drugs. I had a boyfriend and I had sex. I was too cool for the smart kids in my class, but not cool enough for the badasses I wanted to hang around with. I had it coming at me both ways. I belonged nowhere.

I decided to go, which for me was a walk on the wild side. My first reaction to any invitation is no thank you. Especially an invitation I considered dangerous: facing an unhappy past with people I couldn’t possibly know any longer, who I hardly remember knowing when I was actually in class with them. What if they thought about me the way I thought about me? Unhappy, distant, angry. By all accounts, I’m aging well, so the way I look was one less thing to worry about. And at that point, it was the one thing I brought to the table. I mean, if they didn’t like me, at least they wouldn’t say what the hell happened to her?? when they saw me.

But the fun of going was that no one, other than Jo Ann and Mr. M., knew I was going to be there. I arrived before most, and as people walked in, they tried to guess who I was. What shock and joy on their faces when they realized it was me. And I wondered why, all those years ago, I held myself back from them. Because it was more important to stand alone than be part of. I thought that was power. All it really was was lonely.

Reunions are perception shifters. You not only see your classmates differently, what you think you are is also shaken up. The biggest shock to me was that people liked me. They didn’t see the addict, the miserable girl, the condescending bitch I thought I was. “You were nice,” someone said to me, and while I once said “nice” is the laziest word in the English language because it tells you nothing, I was grateful that I was remembered as other than bitch.

The evening was a mix of past confusing present, and never more so than when Mr. M. reminded people that I had been Arista Leader. Artista was an honor society, and every year the boy and girl with the highest academic achievements were chosen as leaders. I’d forgotten, like I’d forgotten so much of what I achieved before I got to high school and determined to be mediocre. In sixth grade, I was Valedictorian. There was year I scored the highest in the district in the City-Wides in math, and the year when I scored so high in reading, my teacher refused to tell me my grade until she could figure out a grand way of announcing it.

But being reminded of Arista didn’t make me feel proud. I felt ashamed. We were all in the SP (Special Progress) class, reserved for the smartest of the smart. And my classmates were now doctors, lawyers, nurses, production assistants – and me, an administrative assistant. What had I done? Sure, I had kids – but anybody can have kids. And I couldn’t even keep one of them alive. How’s THAT for an achievement?

So much for not questioning “who I am.” Because that questioning was the conversation going on in my head. Until it got too painful and I started to talk. Turning to the half of the table where Mr. M. sat. I told them how troubled I’d been in Junior High, how I’d already started drinking and taking drugs. No one knew. I told them that life felt difficult for a long time. I talked about Philip, about some of what it felt like living with his death. I did not cry. I was telling my story. I was trying to connect.

Talking tamed the beast, at least for a bit. But not enough to get me to talk to the handsome man at the head of the table, the boy who’d been Arista leader with me. “Don’t you know all the guys were crazy about you?” I’d been asked earlier. No I did not. In Junior High I tensed when someone attracted me and only looked at them when I was sure they weren’t looking at me. They were looking at the pretty girls, the ones who nailed their outfits daily, whose boobs could fill out more than a training bra and whose butts were bumps, not bulges. When it comes to men, that’s the shame I cannot tame.

Shame is exhausting. And sad – so very sad. How much of my life has been lost in shame? How much care and comfort have I rejected because I was so ashamed to need? I thought if I let myself feel how much I needed I’d be swept away screaming, and who would want to come near me then?

I still weep for what I carry, wishing someone would appear and ask if I’m okay. No, I would say. I am not. And the best thing is that when I came from a day where I’ve had to listen to how John’s kid was a varsity golfer, Mary’s kid was accepted into Columbia, and Bob’s kid was auditioning for a Broadway play while my kid’s a bunch of ashes is in various jars around my house , I can say, “Today was hard,” and two strong arms would pull me close. No one can take this grief from me – I don’t want anyone to take it from me. I just want to come home to someone who cares.

© 2014 Denise Smyth


Who I Am Not (Part 1- The Question)

I was listening to a podcast of “Snap Judgment” called “Identity Theft” when the host said there would be stories about people answering the question we all ask: “Who am I?” And I thought about that, how I no longer ask myself that, how angry I feel about that question. About how the first thing I think about the question is, who, exactly, is doing the asking?  Are the asker and the “I” two different beings? If someone asked me if I ever wondered who I was, I’d answer that I was the one doing the wondering.

It’s a relief that question doesn’t bother me. I used to torture myself with it. Who am I? Nothing, nobody, unlovable, average-everything and so seriously troubled that I didn’t finish college and didn’t have a career so I couldn’t even say I was something. And most devastating was I couldn’t say I was a writer. I wasn’t published, I hadn’t the legitimacy. So if I’m angry when I hear that question, it’s because it implies there’s an answer that can be found – at least in part – through naming what it is I do.

Of course, for the last 24 years I could call myself a mother. But that wasn’t ever enough. I told myself I stayed home with my kids not so much out of choice but because I hated my job and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. That was true – and what I wanted to “do” was – at that point – unknowable. I believed that was why I suffered depression – I was here, but what the fuck was I supposed to do with myself? Everyone (everyone!) had a life. Work, friends, vacations, interests. Whatever I was interested in I quickly tired of. And I spent much of my time alone.

Things have changed since Philip died and what matters or doesn’t has gotten a whole hell of a lot clearer. I don’t think about “who I am.” I just am. And I won’t be for long, either. I am as temporary as everyone and thing else. I get up every day with a heart that’s cracked open which means I hurt as much as I love. Then I tend to the day. If it’s a weekday I go to work. When I get there I do what needs to be done. I am an assistant – never have I cared less what title is given to what I do. I love my job, I love the busy-ness and diversity. The people are funny and demanding and we work as a team. I love all the ways I am helpful, and that no matter how much I do in a day there are things left unfinished, which means there’s always something waiting for me next morning.

So call me an assistant, call me a mother, a writer, call me whatever you think I am because as you read what I write you are forming a picture of me. That’s what we do. We label people, and since those labels have meaning, we assign that meaning to the person we’re labeling.  To label someone implies you know something meaningful about them. But really, all you know is what they mean to you.

Like this. I dress in what I’ll call Free People du jour. I live in a very liberal town. And when I used to care about politics (which is to say I loved the argument)  I called myself a Republican. One morning I called into the Brian Lehrer show to offer the lone Republican voice on something or other. The next day I met a woman I knew outside the school our kids attended. She hurried over to me. “I heard you on the Brian Lehrer show this morning. I didn’t know you were a Republican…I mean, you don’t dress like a Republican,” she said sadly.

So she saw my clothes and made me into someone, then heard I was Republican and made me into someone else. Those words have nothing to do with me because she’s the one who gave them their meaning – as well as my meaning, by extension.

So “who I am” came to seem a pointless question. The words I longed to use to tell people who I was – a writer, a quilter, a chef, a therapist – were words that conjured up a meaning to me, words that would give me an identity and show people the me I wanted them to see. An acceptable me. No. If I want to do those things, fine. Whatever troubled me wasn’t going to get solved by calling it what it wasn’t.

Philip’s death has left me a wide open space. To be his mother is not just to be the one who gave birth to him, nursed him, took him to school, tended to his needs. Because as he grew so did what was between us. Whatever I was to him when he was five or nine or 12 or 21 changed. The lines blurred, the power shifted. If he had a need I would rise up to meet it in a way that I would only do for my child. But the rest of the time it was a dance, a lovely, lively, lilting play between us. Sometimes I led, sometimes he did. Mostly we were in step with each other, always we did love each other.

To be an assistant is to help in a way I find joyful. To be a mother is to know love. To be a writer is to sit here and work to put words on what it feels like to be alive, what it feels like to live with the death of my son. But whatever it is I am doing, it is not who I am. It’s just what I do. Who I am is part of the mystery. My work is to respond to the moment, not ask myself questions that have no answer. Who am I, why am I here – impossible distractions from reality. Because no matter who, how or why – I am. And “now what?” is up to me.

But life will out, and what I need to live more deeply will be given me. And I am not talking about a walk in nature where the play of sun among the awesomeness of the now-naked trees reveals the meaning of God. How I long for my epiphany. I’m talking about the harder stuff, like going to my junior high reunion for the first time ever, which meant the past mixed in with the present. As did the shame and the joy.

Next: The Reunion

© 2014 Denise Smyth

The Argument (for Lucia)

(This post is dedicated to Lucia, mother of amazing Elizabeth Blue. I love you both.)

“When you’re unhappy you are at war with the truth.”
                                                My Son

I used the possessive there because the things Philip tells me are both simple and profound and I am humbled and grateful to be his mother. It’s because I want some acknowledgment that I brought this child into the world. It’s pride, and I do not say I’m proud of my children. It sounds arrogant and self-serving, as if they need to do something for me to be proud of them, as if their being wasn’t enough. Of course I praised them. Of course I’ve taken deep pleasure at their achievements, at the the things that were important to them. But to tell them I’m proud of them seemed a set-up where they had to do something to get something from me, and if they didn’t do it were they disappointing me –  but it wasn’t about me. Philip and Natalie didn’t have to do anything for me to be proud of them. Their presence was enough.

I wrote before of the way it used to feel to have Philip beside me, to be able to say, this is my son. I can’t do that in the way I want, but I can do it here, with his words. What he says is so right and so true and yet so so so damn hard.

I am not unhappy all the time. One of the reasons is my blog. Here is where I slow down, where I get to spend time with my grief and with my son. And I do need time with both. Another reason is work – I spend over 40 hours a week in a place where my spirits are lifted and laughing is easy. If I did such a thing as make a gratitude list, my job would be up top there with Natalie, Philip and all the people I care for. It’s a blessing, for sure.

But then there’s the quiet. That’s when I think about Philip and the shock of it all. I do better when I’m talking to him instead of thinking about him, because he does comfort. As the edges of my life grow sharper, clearer, I see a way to live with what I know, with what I’m being taught. What if I stopped arguing about the fact that Philip died? What would that look like? It doesn’t mean I’d be carefree about his death. But arguing creates more unhappiness in a situation already fraught with anguish and despair. Arguing is polarizing. It makes it impossible to experience the deeper emotions of what I call grief. “Grief” isn’t one thing. It would be nice to make this all neat and tidy by calling it grief and expecting something of it. Like it will get better every day, that there’s some end to it. There isn’t. But the rage around Philip’s death – that is what keeps me wracked with pain. When I stop the argument – which is what I do when I’m talking to Philip – then a deeper mourning is revealed. Then I hear things like, “When you’re unhappy you are at war with the truth.” Then I have a chance to make meaning. Because meaning isn’t found, it’s made. It’s not a secret that’s revealed, it’s not something anyone can give to you. It’s what you make of what is so, what’s uncovered when you pay attention.

So when I’m not arguing about Philip’s death I can experience what it is. And not just once – there’s not one meaning that wraps it all up. I will live with this sorrow until I die. And life goes on because life is not my life span or Philip’s life span – life is, and it is the fact of death that gives each of us life’s meaning. When we don’t think about death, we’re avoiding it. All the money that’s made and things that are bought and successes we strive for are all to avoid the inevitable. Then when it comes and we are unprepared we ask, what is the meaning, what was it all for? When all the meaning we needed was right in front of us. We just kept looking the other way.

“If you want to die fully, you have to live fully.” That, too, is from my son. Is that not something to think about? Because really, who wants to “die fully?” What does that mean? You and I going to die. So why not do it fully – the way anything you care about doing feels better when you do it fully. But you don’t care to die. The thought makes you unhappy. Because there you are, at war with the truth. If the truth of life is that we’re going to die, how do we live with that? How will we die with that? And how do we live with that most grievous death of all, that of our children? Our children, for God’s sake.

I can’t work with these questions when I’m arguing. Because I’m not listening, and if I don’t listen I can’t learn. Or accept. Or stop resisting. Or whatever words describe what I think I need to do to live with Philip’s death. It is when I relax back into his love that I can talk to him, that I hear what he has to say. Whether I’m asking him which socks go best with my boots or how the fuck am I supposed to live with his death, he answers. Then there’s room for something else besides this raging grief. There’s sadness and mourning that have room to turn into something else. When I’m not arguing I’m transparent, allowing what I feel to shift and move. Understand I’m not talking about happiness. Happiness comes and goes like every other emotion. I’m talking about allowing these feelings to become something different. I’m talking about discovery, I’m talking about the mystery. So sometimes it’s worse, sometimes not. It’s part of the mystery that I miss when I’m insisting things should be other than they are because this is the way I say it should be.

My son. My beautiful, kind, loving child. Look at what he’s done for me in his death – he has blessed me with a better life and he’s asking me over and over to go live it.

© 2014 Denise Smyth