What He’s Asking

Three years. It’s like some subway stop I got off at where everyone on the platform knows where they’re going and they’re rushing around to get there. Not me. What way do I go? Do you know what I suffer, I want to ask these busy people. Do. You. Know?? But what for? It doesn’t matter if anyone knows – it changes nothing. Philip’s faded from the world. Not my world – but the contrast between the way he’s alive to me but visible to no one is frightening. This is so fucking hard to learn, these truths. Like the fact that he’s dead to the world but that doesn’t make him not in life. That Iife isn’t what I thought and death is a bigger part of it than I understood. That there’s meaning in death, beyond some black void we and our loved ones disappear in. That people die, relationships don’t.

Thinking of these three years makes me want to tell stories, stories about the past and Philip but I can’t write to an idea of what I want to say. I have to write what’s pressing. And what’s pressing is the unseen part of my reality which maybe makes me sound crazy. Or worse, hokey. Like I’m a beaming sprite with flowers in my hair, a flowing white gown, eyes glued to heaven with a brilliant smile. I’ve heard too much New Age treacle where people find some “spiritual” solution which (a) makes everything okay and (b) is what you should be doing and if you pay enough money, someone’ll show you how.

I am grateful for all the ways Philip is around me. That doesn’t make it okay that he’s dead. And no one’s going to give me any solutions. A true spiritual path is deeply personal in its form, but universal in its content. That’s why people don’t have to experience exactly what you do in order to get what you’re saying.

And because I want so much to get it right, the invisible audience I’m writing to’s become hostile. That’s the thing about writing. If you write, you want to be read. But if you write from need, then what you need is yourself on the page. What you cultivate is your voice. I listen for myself here – but lately, too often, my voice gets lost to what feels like a Greek chorus looking down their noses with crossed arms, droning on about what I say and the way I say it because really, it isn’t ever good enough.

But those voices don’t come from “outside.” They’re in my head. “A mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master” someone said. And it’s especially masterful when I speak of that which I cannot see but I know is there. I needn’t argue with the skeptics – I’m way cynical myself. I know the way I feel when certain others talk about their version of the unseen. There’s a culture to this that I am not part of. I share what’s been my direct experience and if I’ve learned anything, spirituality isn’t linear. It’s a deepening. It’s not about “getting” somewhere. It’s about releasing what’s false to get closer to the truth. That’s something we do on our own. My way involves my son. I cannot ignore what happens – it’s these extraordinary experiences that’ve helped me put one foot in front of the other.

Like this.

Driving the 40 minutes home from work a couple weeks ago, I was headed first to Grove Pharmacy to pick up prescriptions for Pippin, my thirteen-year-old shih-tzu with the collapsed trachea who has to take three medications to deal with it. Philip’s been heavy on my mind lately. It’s no wonder – the fact of three years is sinking in, and the time-and-weather change does not help. Spring means warmth and growth and people voicing joy over it. There’s pressure to go out. I prefer the ice and snow, the dark that makes it comfortable to stay inside.

So I was driving and thinking about how old Philip would be if he was alive and I didn’t know. For a couple minutes I was blank, clinging to the steering wheel because I had to drive but stunned and shrinking from the despair of being disconnected. Was I forgetting him? Was he becoming a blur, just some part of my life that was gone while I kept going? Okay, I told myself. Think. Philip has been dead for three years. He died when he was 21 so that means he’s 24 and of course I couldn’t remember he was 24 because that number has no meaning to me. I have a sense about certain numbers. Like 21 – it’s a beginning, a social milestone, a time of youthful man/womanhood. 22 is the next step; it’s graduating from college, a time when you have many choices. 23 is wonderfully odd. 24 draws a blank, as if nothing interesting could possibly happen. Given the Chinese curse, “May you lead an interesting life,” maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

When my senses returned and the car felt steady on the road, I said, “Okay, Philip. I’d like to see 24 before I get home.” And not because I was looking for it – it doesn’t work that way. He had to show me in a way that meant something. Like the time I asked him for a sign and a few minutes later a car cut me off and I saw his initials on its license plate. Something like that. And I was thinking that I’d get a receipt with the medication I was about to pick up and receipts have numbers and it would be nice if 24 would be one of them.

I forgot about it for the rest of the drive – I was too busy listening to stories on NPR because I love stories and if I’m not telling them I want to listen to them. Once I got to the pharmacy, I stepped out of my car and a van whooshed by that had 42 on it. I looked up at the sky like Philip is any and everywhere and said, “That doesn’t count.” But by the time I got inside, asked for the medicine, chatted with the grey-haired, pony-tailed man behind the counter about how Pippin is my dog, not my child, how his name came from Lord of the Rings and finally paid for the meds, I forgot to look at what they cost.

Grove Pharmacy is not just a pharmacy, but not like the way CVS isn’t just a pharmacy. CVS is large and impersonal, and its only surprise is whatever cheap items pop up in the seasonal aisle. Grove Pharmacy is smaller, but you never know what you’ll find there. It has a candy counter where you can buy by the piece or the pound. There are Halloween costumes, lovely and unusual greeting cards, gifts for christenings and communions. There’s a small selection of interesting and well made jewelry behind glass counters, and they can pierce your ears if you like. And they play real music, like “In Your Eyes,” which I’d written about here and so hearing it reminded me of Philip and that I’d forgotten to see how much I paid for the medicine.

The pharmacist had shoved the receipt into the bag with the meds so I hurried to the car to see. And I will be damned if that medicine didn’t cost $42.24.

What I make of this is faith. Not happiness, faith. Sure, I get happy when these things happen, but happy fades like all emotions do. This is more than happy. Different than happy. And it’s profoundly challenging. “Have you asked yourself why you keep asking for signs?” Philip said. “Have you asked yourself what you do with them?”

It should be a back-and-forth, I think. He gives to me – what do I give to him? It’s pretty simple – love and faith. I’ve got the love part down. It’s the faith where I’m shaky. Faith is a leap into the void. It’s having the will to not resist what is so. Including his death. He’s asking me not to treat my life like a tragedy. I’m not done asking him to tell me how.

© 2015 Denise Smyth


9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. jmgoyder
    Apr 08, 2015 @ 20:58:29

    I can relate to your feeling about numbers and I love that this happened. I was also struck by your phrase “New Age treacle”. I love the way you write and how you communicate with Philip.


    • Denise
      Apr 09, 2015 @ 15:28:35

      It’s such a gift, Julie; I mean, I feel him around me. How much more sorrow if I was cut off?

      Thank you, as always, for listening.


  2. Lucia Maya
    Apr 08, 2015 @ 21:22:25

    I love this, and you, and Philip. I love how we have such similar ideas and understandings about spirituality and signs/numbers and spirits. (Or dead people, as one medium i know likes to call them, honestly.)

    I’m so sorry. I can relate to so much of this – someone was talking about their 24 year old and I couldn’t remember how old Elizabeth would be now, and felt terrible. How could I forget? I had to do the calculations too, and realize, again, that she’d be 25. How is that possible?! I could write a whole blog post about that, so won’t take up more space here…

    Mainly, I wanted to connect and tell you I love all your posts, and I’m sorry I don’t comment on them all. I intend to, and then somehow just can’t, in the same way I can’t seem to write much on my blog either these days. Just know it’s not personal, and I love each post your write.
    love, Lucia


    • Denise
      Apr 09, 2015 @ 15:36:55

      Please don’t apologize – I know you’re there. I’ve not been commenting either, the way I used to. My writing’s even slowed down. Hell, I’VE slowed down. I’m keeping close to what goes on inside, to the unseen. I spend a lot of time alone which is what I need to do now. And it’s harder to write about because it’s like I’m mining that which I wasn’t able to before.

      So much love and gratitude for your friendship – you are more dear to me than you know.


  3. Jane
    Apr 09, 2015 @ 02:14:32

    Thank you.I love your writing. My younger son Rhys was 21 when he died suddenly.I am giggling at what you have written here,because I am just picturing him looking down at me from wherever he is now and saying,” see Mum,you are not the only one,” when I panic because I have forgotten how old he would be. It sounds so silly, I have two more children,Rhys was my middle child so I should know,but I have to find something in my head to connect to,that alows me to count the years since his death. He would be 27 now.


    • Denise
      Apr 09, 2015 @ 15:40:47

      It’s not silly, it’s part of what grief does to us. It strips away what is no longer necessary. It doesn’t matter how old they are – the two of them will always be 21. We feel a need to count because it’s some kind of false control over what’s already gone and done. I’m glad Rhys made you laugh – Philip’s a funny kid, too, and he teases me all the time.

      I wish you peace, Jane, wherever, however, you can find it. And I’m glad you have two other children. I don’t know where I’d be without my daughter.


  4. Sammy
    Apr 09, 2015 @ 10:04:00

    Well written Denise. Bless you.


  5. Rose
    Apr 09, 2015 @ 19:30:54

    Sweet Denise,

    I know that I’ve said this before, but it’s always worth to say it again… I love the way your write. I love how you are able to express all this love, all these emotions you have inside of you. This is not for everyone. I’m more or less like you when it comes to faith. Well, actually I’m completely lost when it comes to this subject. I’ve gone all over looking for something that I don’t even know what it is. But, I can tell you that sometimes, I do feel close to some people that are not in this world anymore. I don’t ask for signs, perhaps I should…but I do feel their presence somehow right next to me and I can tell you that for that short period of time, I do believe in something. Then, the energy and the thoughts go away and so goes my “believe” in anything. I want to say that, it doesn’t really matter how often, and how we have these connections, or even if they should be called connections, but as long as whatever we have, for as long as it lasts it makes us believe that someone is there, looking over us, “communicating” to us, sending us signs it’s worth every single minute. I never met Phillip, and never met you either…wish I had…but when I lighted up a candle for him on his anniversary, and I asked that he wherever he would be, had found his path, his light and that he was happy I guess he heard me……. his candle burned, straight and strong all night long.




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