Let It Be

When Philip was in high school, he was in the CGI program – Civics and Government Institute. Part of the core curriculum focused on learning how government worked. They’d do things like enact congress – the kids would write bills, present them, have them voted on. It wasn’t a program the kids tested into. If you were interested you applied, and as long as there was enough room, you were accepted.

At the end of the year there was a CGI dinner for the kids and their families. There would be a guest speaker, along with a question-and-answer period after the presentation. The year Philip was a senior the speaker was Andrew Rosenthal, editor of the New York Times editorial page.

I’m going to inject some politics, mostly for background. There was a time I was intensely political, followed the news and argued about it. Until I began to realize that the arguing was about being right and I was never right enough in spite of how certain I was that my “opponent” was wrong. Until I realized how deeply personal these national and global arguments really were. Take a position, identify with it and it becomes part of who I am. I can’t be wrong then, because if I am, I don’t exist. No matter how much worse than ever in history we think things are, how much more vindictive and out of control we insist the “other” side is, the fact is that we’ve been having the same argument over and over again forever. The content changes, but the form is the same. We write off most of the rest of the world because we’re so sure our side has it right.

And I think that when time comes to die, we will be comforted by how much we loved, not how much we were right.

The CGI dinner is not supposed to be political – it’s a family affair. Unfortunately, no one told Andrew Rosenthal. Obama had just been elected president, and a supremely smug Rosenthal started by telling us about his love affair with the new president, then went on to bash John McCain, made a sexist joke about Sarah Palin, disparaged Republicans in congress and then Republicans in general. He was playing to an audience of which I’d say 90% agreed with him. And you’ve probably figured out by now that I was part of the unpopular 10%.

Listening to Rosenthal, I was fuming. I leaned over to say something to my husband,  who replied, “You can’t be mad.” Really? Well, I was mad. That’s when I looked over at Philip’s table to see he was watching me with a smile. He put his hand flat out, palm down, about eye level and slowly lowered it. Smiling back, I mimicked him – his attention took the edge off.

If we’re lucky, we meet people in our lives who know us in ways most others don’t. They see us, they get us. And having felt invisible for so much of my life, I’ve been touched and grateful for those few who I’ve felt that connection with. Philip was one of them. It’s not because he’s my son – we can love our children like no other, but the connection I’m talking about isn’t a given with them. That kind of connection is a mystery. It’s either there or it isn’t, and when it’s there, we recognize it.

When I’m in the mood, I sit down and take dictation from Philip. It’s not odd or weird or seance-y. It doesn’t require candles or incense. It started as an exercise given to me from a grief group for parents I was part of after Philip died. I wrote about it here. And here’s a little story. After doing that exercise, I thought it might be something I should do on my own, but for a while, I didn’t. I felt confused about it – I didn’t know how to start. One day I was driving and thinking about it. How do I do this, Philip, I asked? Do I write a sentence, then listen for your response? Do I just sit and listen for you? Do I ask a question? As I was thinking, I stopped for a red light. I looked at the license plate on the car in front of me. Besides whatever numbers were on it, the letters there read, ASK.

So I had my start. One day when I was writing and listening, Philip started telling me about soulmates. Mom, he said, I know how much you dislike that term, but I need to use it. He went on to explain that people have the wrong idea about soulmates – they tend to think of them as romantic relationships, but that’s not necessarily what they are. A soulmate is someone who causes a deep and disruptive shift in your consciousness. And it’s not always in a kind and gentle way. I can think of three people who’ve caused that kind of disruption. One was the teacher I’d been looking for all of my life, and we are still close and dear friends. One opened me up by causing me what I thought at the time was the worst pain of my life. And then there’s Philip, this child I’m connected to like no other.

So why the struggle? Philip’s death purified that connection. He’s not in his body, he’s no longer an ego, he can’t disappoint, he doesn’t argue, he’s nothing but love. I’m closer to him than ever. He’s around me in ways that weren’t possible while he was alive. I am amazed and grateful for what he reveals to me. Why can’t I let that fill me more? I’ve written much about the ways I now experience him. Why can’t I let it all seep in, fill the holes and cracks I still suffer from his death? I’ve been flatlining lately, wanting to keep to myself, but so unhappy while I do so. Looking at Philip’s picture, the only feeling I can identify is resignation, defeat. He’s really – truly – not coming home and his loving presence gets lost from wanting to see him.

It just sounds so terrible to say Philip died. My stomach and chest still tighten to even think that. I’m still in the aftermath of his death, still experiencing the shockwaves. Still sometimes feel like I’m dreaming – like there’s something about this I’m supposed to grasp but I can’t. I still hold my breath – and if there’s something to “do” about this, maybe that’s it. Remember to breathe, send that breath to my chest, let it open my heart. Slow it down, let it be.

Since he’s really – truly – not coming home, maybe I can try to let it be.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

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The Loop

Natalie’s birthday is the Fourth of July – she was born around 9:00pm, when the fireworks start, so I always say she came out with a bang. And that she did – she burst out and tore me open so my midwife had to stitch me up. What different births I had for these two who were born at home – Philip my winter child, Natalie, my summer. With Philip, labor was slow and steady, the pain mounting and tormenting. With Natalie the pain reached its peak quickly, stayed there longer. With Philip I couldn’t sit, with Natalie I couldn’t stand. With Philip my water broke before I went into labor. With Natalie, at nearly nine centimeters dilated, my water was intact. I can break your water and you’ll have your baby, my midwife told me. I was on my couch and thought I wanted to stay there; with Philip I wanted to be in my bed. Do it, I told her; I’m staying right here. So she did and then I panicked – I have to be in my bed, I have to, I told them. “Them” being my midwife, my friend Marilyn, my sister-in-law Ann, my husband. So Marilyn and Ann each took hold of an arm to walk me to my bed. I had a contraction on the way and would have collapsed but for them. Get her to the bed before this baby’s born on the floor, my midwife ordered.

When I started pushing Philip there was a period of relief from the pain; with Natalie it was relentless. When Philip’s head finally popped out, my contractions stopped and I had no energy to push. With Natalie my midwife told me to stop pushing but I couldn’t – hence she exploded into the world and then into my arms.

With Natalie, I needed stitches. With Philip, I didn’t.

I’d never known physical pain like the pain of childbirth. Nature makes sure we don’t remember it – we might know it’s awful, but we can’t re-feel it.  If we could, there’d be a whole lot less babies born. But that pain was nothing compared to the psychic pain of Philip’s death, which also – mercifully – can’t be remembered, at least not at that all-consuming, eviscerating zenith. I don’t know how I bore it. I can say the same about childbirth, but at the end of it, there was my baby. It’s been suggested that going through Philip’s death can become my own birth. I don’t disagree with that…but it doesn’t comfort. I’m certainly not the same as I was. But I’m not at peace, and it’s hard to imagine I will ever really feel okay. It felt hard enough to be here before he died. Three-and-a-half years later, I’m still mixing up grief with the deep unhappiness I had before. I have not learned how to get out of my own way.

Phil had a party at the house for Natalie on her birthday. My mom was there, my in-laws, a few of Phil’s friends, a few of Natalie’s. It’s what we do every year. This year, while I was there, I wandered into Philip’s room for a while. His two bureaus are now Natalie’s and are at my apartment – other than that, his room is as he left it. It needs to be cleaned up, it needs to be gone through. I looked through some things, touched his books, wondered what it would take to sort each thing piece by piece, to make decisions about what to get rid of. Three-and-a-half years later and I can’t imagine spending the time it would take to do that, nor can I imagine Phil making those decisions without me.

I don’t think I said a word about Philip that day. Except when I told Phil that I missed him. “Miss him” falls far short of what I really mean. There was a time I’d be upset because no one talked about Philip. Now I don’t know what I would say. I don’t even want to say. No amount of talking is going to bring him back, and I struggle to find the words for the magnitude of this. My silences both hurt and comfort. I still feel different, still don’t understand the world the way others do. I still sometimes want to say, Do you know my son died?? Yet I’m also glad not to talk about it, to hold this close and keep watch.

I’ve been in Philip’s room since he’s died, but this last time hit me hard. I’m stuck – life seems to have a sameness that’s difficult to bear. I look at Philip’s picture and see that “sameness.” He will never get older, never look any different. The rest of it – of life – is up to me. Lately I haven’t the heart for it. I do what I have to do, but enjoying myself isn’t easy. I read, I write, I knit – but I lose my concentration awfully fast, even if I’m trying to watch a movie or a show. I don’t want to go anywhere, can’t think of anything I’d want to do. I see Kirsten most Sundays and that’s one of the few things I look forward to. As well as when I spend time with Natalie. I feel better when she’s around, but she has a life of her own. And I’m grateful it’s a happy one.

I’ve talked of grief being a spiral, but lately it feels like a loop. Same thing, different day. And life’s been like a loop, too. I don’t remember feeling like this, not in a long time, and not since Philip died. That brings me to connection, which – in my last post – I said I’d be writing about, but haven’t yet. Feeling close and connected to others starts with feeling that way toward myself. Without that, I’m like a shirt that’s been mis-buttoned, each side missing the point. That’s why pleasure is absent, why the things that have sustained me through Philip’s death seem lost. I’m all body and no soul and to identify most with something so temporary leaves me restless and unhappy. As with all things I don’t want to feel, I ask, “What am I supposed to do with this?” Is there some action I’m supposed to take? Go out, exercise, call someone, take a trip, meditate? Wait, be patient, it’ll pass? I swear I’m missing some part that I can’t blame on Philip’s death, easy as that would be.

I just remembered something that I’d like to share here – it might be hard to come by, but even I can recognize joy when I see/hear it. Hope it makes you feel the same: Some joy to share

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Some Before, During and After

It’s over – we euthanized Pippin Thursday, June 25th. I’ve had pets before, but never from baby to death. My veterinarian, Dr. Katz (I kid you not)  eased us through the transition. She had a separate room away from the check-up rooms, on the opposite side of the office. The lighting was dim, there were sweet decorations around – like rocks painted by a friend of hers with angel-dogs and angel-cats. There’s what looked like a changing table with a blanket on it. We put the blanket on my lap and lay Pippin on me. Afterward, I would pick up him with the blanket and lie him on the changing table.

As soon as we walked in, the staff was ready for us. We were led directly to the room, followed by two attendants.  They explained the procedure, asked if we had any questions, asked how we were doing. There is no soothing like kindness, and they were full of it. They processed my payment in the room, before the procedure started, so we could leave directly when it was over. Neither Natalie nor I wanted his ashes – I think having Philip’s is enough. But we will be getting a paw print.

Then Dr. Katz’s assistant came in. Another kind, lovely woman. She gave Pippin a shot to put him to sleep. We were warned his eyes might stay open, and they did. Natalie and I sat next to each other, holding him, while he relaxed. Ten minutes or so later he was still somewhat awake, so he got another shot. A few minutes after that, Dr. Katz came in. She touched his face by his eyes and squeezed his paws – no response. It was time. She sat on the floor with her assistant, shaved a bit of his leg, found a vein, inserted the needle and then the drug. I thought I would feel something when he died, a lightness, a sense of something leaving his body. I didn’t. A minute or so after the injection, he was gone.

Years ago, when I first moved in with Nadiya, Pippin kept pooping in the house. It was a reaction to living in a new place, but it went on for too long and I thought I was going to have to get rid of him. Philip was living in a house by campus and offered to take him in if it came to that. He didn’t get him then, but he has him now.

When we left the office, Natalie leaned against a wall, bent over and sobbed. I rubbed her back and wondered why I didn’t feel the same. I had my bi-weekly therapy appointment that evening. My therapist said I was in shock. Okay. But I’m still not feeling much of anything and it’s more than a week later.

I don’t understand the magic of connection. It’s what I’ve been writing about for one of my next posts. You can’t force it. I love Pippin, but at some point I didn’t feel connected to him. He grew into a serious dog. He was always happy to see me, and I don’t mean he had a temper. Well, a bit of one. His idea of playing with a ball was taking it in his mouth and lying down with it, then growling if you came near. We tried to cure him of that – we’d force the ball out of his mouth and say, “no.” But nothing changed until he got older and didn’t care enough to take the ball in the first place.

We got Zoe when Pippin was six. I thought for sure he’d get excited – he was intensely interested in other dogs when we were outside, so I figured I’d get him one for his own. Plus I had this idea in my head that shih-tzus should come in pairs.

My neighbor Jim had a friend Elaine who raised shih-tzus, and gave me her number. It was around Christmas time, 2007. I called, Elaine told me she had a litter that she wasn’t showing until January, but since Jim was a good friend, she’d let me come and see. When I got there the puppies were toddling all around the kitchen – six of them, I think. I picked one up as I spoke to Elaine. Puppy put her tiny head on my shoulder and I stroked her. “You can’t pick one yet, she said. They’re young, and I’m waiting to see how their blaze comes in.” These were show dogs, and the “blaze” was the shock of white hair above their eyes. Then she looked at the puppy I was holding. Unless you want that one, she said. I can tell her blaze isn’t right.

Of course I wanted “that one.” I had to wait six more weeks to get her, sometime mid-January. By this time, Philip was 16, Natalie 14. I wanted to make Zoe part of Christmas, but not as a gift. I wouldn’t give a dog to a kid as a gift. They’re simply not going take care of them the way they need to be taken care of, and what happens when they grow up and leave? So I made a certificate that read, “This entitles the Smyth Family to one female shih-tzu named Zoe to be picked up in three weeks.” I put it in an envelope under the tree and had the kids open it last. They looked at each other, looked at me, and shrugged.

Yeah, I felt dopey, but I wanted that puppy and no amount of adolescent indifference was going to change that. Besides, wait til I got her home – who doesn’t love a puppy?

Pippin, for one. When he saw her, he gave a sniff and walked away. As the weeks went by, nothing changed. Sometimes when he looked at me I thought that if he could talk he’d say, “Really? I mean, really???”

Mourning is as it is. Grief knows its own mind. Pippin was hard for me. He had anxiety – he would constantly pace and start howling for no discernible reason. He threw up several times a week for years. He was serious. He had to be on leash or he’d wander away. And by the end he was deaf and blind, had to be carried anywhere you wanted him to be. It’s no wonder I grew apart from him. Zoe’s different. She’s so happy it looks like she’s smiling. She’s affectionate, gentle and her feelings are easily hurt. Sometimes I put her on my lap and talk to her, and she makes noises like she’s trying to say something back. She stays by my side, she looks for me. I can read her – something I couldn’t do with Pippin.

Connection. There’s so much to say about that. More, then, in my next.

© 2015 Denise Smyth