Three Years

Today is three years since Philip died. Since we found out he died, because he really died on 2/22 but since they found him on 2/23, that’s the day that’s on the birth certificate, the day it became real and true and official. These things matter, like I have to get it clear in my mind, I have to understand, and somehow I think these details will help me. Like I have to explain this to everyone because if I’m honest about all of it – the way it happened, the way I feel about it – then I have something to hold on to. All these thousands of words I write, these deeply personal words I publish, both bind me to my son and keep me grounded.

Three years, and I think I should have something wise and profound to say, something special to honor my son. But I’ve somewhat disconnected – I think a psyche can only take so much at a time. Grief, for now, is no fierce burning. It’s turned me into something aloof, distant. Lately, what I feel most, when I feel anything I can clarify, is anger. I noticed it because I’ve found myself saying ugly things at every day annoyances, and I am too easily annoyed. The dirty dishes, the unmade bed, the sick dog who needs his medicine and has to be carried up and down the stairs. It was the vulgarity I spewed that shook me up – it wasn’t anything I’m used to saying. Oh, I thought; I’m angry. And if there’s one thing I can’t take feeling, it’s anger. Because what do you do with such fury? How do you contain it? If I let my anger bleed out even a little I fear where it will take me. Philip isn’t coming home. I want him here. I can’t do anything about it and after three years I do know this is so. It seems more so than ever. I’m helpless to do anything about it. I am so angry that if I feel it I’m afraid it will suck me back to three years ago, to what it felt like to hear those three little words that chewed me up and spit out into some void that sometimes I think I’m still falling down into: “They found him.”

They found him. How the fuck am I supposed to live with that?

Well, I do live with that. I can live with that. Because in certain ways time has collapsed. What is time, anyway? It’s pain, for sure, because if there’s one thing pain needs, it’s time. If I think back to what happened or forward to a life where I grow old and Philip doesn’t, I will go crazy. But right now I can live with this. I don’t want to have to, but it is my reality. What does it mean to say three years? We’ve made up these things we call days and months and years. We give them names and think that gives us some control. We number hours and decide what should happen within those hours. We group them for convenience, we dole them out, we covet them. They feel longer when we’re anxious and shorter with our pleasures. So when I say time has collapsed what I mean is that in many ways I’m just paying attention. To Natalie, to work, to writing and knitting. To closely following whatever creative urge I have because creating lies outside of time.

Grief isn’t heartless. Grief is a teacher. Grief is the way into my heart. For that I am grateful. I am not someone who has loved life. I am not someone who has understood why anyone would want to be here. But never have I felt more alive than I do now. That’s Philip’s gift to me. What is the point of his death if I die, too? And how hard is this to grasp because if I choose to live I still don’t understand I’m not betraying him and I’m not losing him. But the pull to life is strong. The only betrayal would be to resist it, to make the fact that I’m grieving become a role. If I’m playing a role than I’m bound by fantasy. I don’t mean to say I’m not grieving – I’m saying that grieving is as fluid as everything else in life. I can’t say I experience his death the way I did three years ago, as if the intensity of it has to remain or I don’t truly love him. When someone asks how I am, part of me wants to say I’m broken because then they will care, then they won’t forget Philip. But those aren’t the right words. There is no brief conversation that’s going to let anyone know how I “am.” So I say, “I’m okay” and am content to leave it at that. Because after three years, the need to say how truly terrible this is is ebbing. When I need to talk about it, I come here and write it.

Three years, and still Philip is close. I’ve been told more than once that he can’t rest in peace until I, too, am at peace. That he can’t be free until he knows I’m okay. I disagree. He knows I’m okay – I’m the one who has to get it.  And I don’t think this is about “resting.” I think it’s about living, which is beyond the impermanence of a body. When it comes to these things, I’m willing to trust my own experience more than someone else’s, which is a triumph not only for me, but for Philip as well. I can’t make sweeping generalizations about the dead. I can only say what I know about Philip. That he’s kind and he’s patient, and he’s not worried that what he’s trying to show me is still, in many ways, eluding me. It’s his faith I rely on when I can’t find my own.

Many years ago I was told that this was going to be a very spiritual life for me. Wow, I thought; how cool is this? Visions of softly winding roads lit with a sun I’d finally enjoy passed before me. Who knew instead of a blessing it would feel like a curse? Still – it’s my life and my path and if it meant Philip would only be here for 21 years I’d still rather that, than not to have known him at all.

So mourn him I will – argue, I won’t.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

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The Lasts

It’s February again, the month of lasts. Last time I saw Philip, last time I spoke to him, hugged him, texted him, left him a voicemail. Last time I told him I loved him and listened as he said it back. The deeper I move into February, the more I withdraw. I am alone in ways that only death can teach. There is something about life and death that no one can give to me. It can only be realized because it was always there. Thing is, I can’t reach it. I can’t define it. I hurt terribly about it because something is missing. Something more than just Philip. The hole he left only grows larger because that is where life is. And like it or not, I am being sucked swirling down into that deep. There is no way to resist. Except to keep my eyes closed and refuse what he wants me to see.

February. It’s different, as everything is always different. I know, every day I know, it’s February. I am walking apart, taking one careful step after another. I can’t see where I’m going, I only know I walk with death. This is not a bad thing; it’s not a good thing. It’s just what’s so and I would like to get to know death. It is, after all, my constant companion. I want to keep it close. Anything that has to do with Philip I want to keep close. I need solitude. Natalie’s moved back – she is all the company I need right now because I love her so. I keep to myself much as I can, spend whole weekends in my apartment. I consider it a victory If I park my car on Friday and don’t move it until Monday.

And why, I wonder, is that so hard to understand? This is my life and I’ve lived it enough to know what I need. I created Philip’s birth and now I’ll create the way to live in his death. Three years is nothing. It’s as though he just died, yet it’s like I’ve not seen him in forever. What is time? It’s perception, is all. My 24 hours are not the same as yours. I’m not talking about clock time. I’m talking about psychological time – past, present, future. All that’s real about time is that it’s always now. So can I, for now, live with Philip’s death? Yes. I can and I do. I show up for work, I show up for my daughter. And in my alone time I write, I knit, I sew. Creativity is a call to life. I am not sitting and crying, I’m sitting and knitting. If I did sit and cry, then that would be what I needed to do. I bristle when I’m told I shouldn’t be alone. And I think anyone who tells me I should be doing anything other than what I am is afraid of getting burned by the fire of this mad grief. Because death is exactly what we try to avoid every day, and who wants to see it in the eyes of a mourning mother.

When Philip and Natalie were little, I’d bought a book on numerology. I’ve always been fascinated by the unseen, by wanting to commune with something I knew was there but couldn’t quite grasp. So I read maybe half – because really, there wasn’t a book that could give me what I was looking for – and put it down after I went through the exercises that would tell me what my own personal number was. The result was that 2 was going to be an important number for me. 2? What’s with 2? Give me complicated 3 or sexy 9, but 2? 2 had no personality, meant nothing to me. Besides, it was an even number. How much more boring can you get?

Philip was found lying on the floor of his room on 2/23, which is the official day of his death. But we know that he really died on 2/22. I’d say 2 got real important. It took his death to connect me to the unseen. His death is both a blessing and a curse. I am closer to Philip now than I ever was. It is not his body I need, much as it’s what I want. Why do we cling so hard to these bodies that are only temporary? I wonder that I don’t let myself be more comforted by Philip’s presence, by the way he nudges me, helps me, all the time. It’s merely his body that’s gone, and if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t know the things I now do. I live on two planes. The one where my bare feet feel the cold floor, where I pick up dog shit, shop for distraction, spend too much time fretting over what to wear. Then there’s the plane where I feel loved and tended to, where I know what matters, where I see how fleeting this all is and that’s okay because it’s what is so and to argue about it is pointless. To be in touch with what’s beyond what I can see is to be graced.

February. I don’t want it to end. I know it’s a construct, but I feel safe here. I feel close to my son because this is the month he  died and so offered me an opening to the Divine. This is the month I excuse myself from obligations I don’t much tend to anyway. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s that I haven’t the energy. Going to work is about all the going-out, all the interruption from my real work, that I can take. I need the calm and quiet of my home. This must be what seedlings go through before they sprout. They live in the deep dark until the day they poke their tiny heads out – then they are fragile things, growing roots underneath as they reach for the sun. Some of them make it, some of them don’t. Me? Resist though I do, I know something that is difficult to say. I think I’m going to make it – and Philip wouldn’t have it any other way.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

How I Practice

I’ve been getting rid of stuff. Because when there’s too much of what you have, it becomes stuff instead of what it really is. It’s not clothes, books, shoes, jewelry, fabric; it’s stuff. And when there’s too much around there’s that much more of a psychic load to carry.

But it’s a mistake to get rid of things for the sake of getting rid of them. Things have value. I don’t want to worship what I have – I just want to understand what it all means. I want to remember everything has a life cycle. If I buy something, I’m responsible for seeing it through to the end. Whether it’s become garbage because it’s useless, or it’s something I donate it because I’m overwhelmed at the thought of dragging it to consignment, I am responsible.

I this started back in November – I took every piece of clothing and every pair of shoes I owned and put them on the living room floor. Panties included. Then I picked up each piece and asked myself if I loved it – I did not ask when the last time was that I wore it. And if I didn’t love it but didn’t want to give it away, I asked myself why? Like the dark green sweater that found its way back into my drawer. It depresses me when I wear it – it feels dark and sad and I’ve enough of that inside without wearing it outside. I kept it because it was expensive, because I bought it only last year, because Natalie really liked it and part of why I bought was so she could wear it. We often share clothing (which means she borrows my stuff) and I find myself greedy to be the one who can claim ownership. But she’s the one that likes the sweater and now she’s the one who owns it.

If I can’t let go of a sweater, what am I going to do about the last letting go, the biggest one of all?

During this purging, Laura, Philip’s first serious girlfriend, came to visit with her friend, Ella. Natalie and I lived with Laura and Nadiya, her mom, for a few years before I got my own apartment. Laura wanted to come over to see my apartment, to meet Nikki, to rummage through my clothes before I gave them away. While she and Ella were here, I told them the story of the day I was packing to move, and decided not to drag along the 3,000 or so pages of emails that I’d stored under my bed (which is a story for another time). Downstairs I went with boxes full of paper, sat on the bottom of the staircase and started tearing. Two good long rips later I balked. Was I doing the right thing, was I going to need these one day, what if  I needed them to write the book I thought I was going to write before Philip died, the book about something that seemed so important and came to matter little after I discovered just what life could do to me.  That’s when I noticed a something on the on the floor. I picked it up to find it was a clothing tag from the store called Forever 21.

I saved that tag, and as I told my story, I pulled it out for dramatic effect. And since I have a habit of putting things down and forgetting where I put them, that is exactly what I did. A couple days went by, and it hit me that I remembered picking up the tag, but I didn’t remember putting down the tag. I went to the cubby in my desk where I kept it, but it wasn’t there. I tore my desk apart, looked under the couch and the bureau, picked the edges of the rug. It wasn’t anywhere. That tag was proof that Philip was around I needed it. But a few panicked minutes later I stopped – I cannot stay upset for things I can do nothing about. And if I’m practicing letting go, then what did it matter? What mattered was that it happened, and what it means to me. I still have my story to tell. Maybe without the dramatic flourish at the end, but it’s still my story.

Then came Thanksgiving at my brother’s. Late in the evening, when I got home,  I got out of my car and said, “Philip, I want something.” I opened the door to my building, and in the entry was a box of recycling with a glossy flier on top with a store announcing a 21%  off sale. 21% off?? Who has a sale for 21% off?? So I lost a tag but have a flier. For now.

The phenomena of the tag and the flier are not isolated incidents. Philip communicates with me every day, in startling ways. I have stories and stories. I am graced, for sure. I’ve no doubt he’s here, and he won’t let me forget. Still – he’s dead and it terrifies me. But…he’s here. Not his body, but his presence is clear. So I find myself choosing my words more carefully. I can’t say Philip’s gone because that’s not the truth. But he’s dead and I’m still trying to figure out what that means because it’s the end of our lives as we knew them, but it’s not the end of the story.

So why this raging grief, and what am I terrified of? Am I afraid to die? There’s a correlation between my fear of letting go and my fear of death. The less I’m attached to what or who is part of my life, the easier it will be to die. This life needs to be let go of and I can practice doing that every day. That’s not to be confused with, “Who gives a shit? I’m going to die anyway.” Because what I’m talking about takes courage. It is a conscious, meaningful decision to stop resisting what is. And the more I stop, the more I know love. Because love cannot be grasping and clinging. Which makes me question if I’ve ever truly loved, and what I really meant when I said, “I love you” to someone. Was it them I was really loving, or was it my need for them to love me?

The one true love I know is that for my children. That’s why I knew how to let them go. Let them be. And that’s why I’m in such deep communion with Philip now. What was between us in life doesn’t change with his death.

It was three years ago today – 2/01 – that I last saw my son. This is the season of his birth and his death. I find myself doing exactly what I did when he first died. Sitting on the couch, knitting and watching TV. If I have any advice for people who lose loved ones, it’s what someone told me when Philip first died: Follow whatever creative urge you have. So I knit, I write, I sew, I cook. I’m alone and quiet in my mourning because it’s time to tend to it.  Whatever letting go needs to be done around Philip’s death, I cannot yet do. When I say, “letting go” what I mean is to stop resisting what I feel. That doesn’t mean I won’t grieve any more, it does not mean it’s okay that Philip died. It just means I allow what I’m feeling to be as it is, knowing that – whether I like it or not – it will pass into something else.

It is in not resisting that I will mine the riches of Philip’s death. I am coming to understand that is the way to honor him, that is the way I can see his death was not for naught. His death means what I make it to be – and he’s asking me to make it my way into life.

© 2015 Denise Smyth