When We Connect (Part 1)

“There are no rules for friendship. It must be left to itself. We cannot force it any more than love.”
William Hazlitt (1778-1830) British essayist.

A song I’ve recently listened to ends with the line, “There’s nothing in this world that’s holier than friendship.” I disagree. Try to define friendship. There’s a certain general meaning to it, but we each experience it differently. Some people are comfortable calling even casual acquaintances “friends.” What’s holy about that? Some people accumulate friends to fill a hole that only grows larger as they try to stuff it. Many try to be friends with the rich and powerful because it feels good to say you know someone who most of us have only heard of. And there are people like me, who are touchy and careful and scared to use that word. What if I call someone my friend and they don’t like me? I can only call you my friend if I am sure.

I’m going to use the word “soul” here, even though using that word other than in the context of, say, “food,” gives me the creepy crawlies. But it expresses a concept that I have no other word for. So when I say “soul” I’m referring to that holy, sacred, untouchable and often inaccessible place we experience inside ourselves. Simply put, it’s our better nature revealed.

Monday night I went to my writing group at Nancy’s house. We usually start with her reading something that’s caught her attention, a thing of the spirit. That night she read us someone’s take on what he called, “soul friends.” I had a conversation with Philip about something akin to this. Mom, he said, I know you don’t like the term “soul mate” but I have to use it. He told me that people have the mistaken idea that soul mates are romantic relationships, that they last forever. That can be so, but not always. A soul mate is someone who moves you deeply, challenges you, changes you in ways unexpected. And it’s not only through kindness and wisdom. You can have that connection with someone who moves you deeply, then hurts you terribly. It is the quality of the connection that determines the soul of it.

These relationships aren’t made. They are recognized. And that recognition reveals truths. The person in this world I am closest to, who knows me best, is Ed. I met Ed when I was about 40 and had gone back to college. He was my English professor for a Shakespeare class. He started the class sternly. He told the young men to remove their baseball caps. He went over the syllabus, laid out the rules. He talked about missing classes and missing assignments. Shit, I thought, this guy is serious. The he picked up Romeo and Juliet, walked out from behind his desk, gave a small, knowing smile and said, “Now. Let’s read some Shakespeare.”

That was my moment of recognition. I knew he was the teacher I’d been waiting for. Understand this had nothing to do with sex – it could sound like the older-professor-young-adoring-student thing, but that is a caricature of what I have with Ed. What I was after was his mind, his wisdom. I worked hard in that class, and continued to take classes with him. Our relationship developed over the years. It was simple and intimate. Ed knew who he was, and somehow, he knew who I was, too. He lived in Bloomfield, and when I moved from New York to Montclair I was a ten minute drive away. We began to spend more time together. I was restless and unhappy, but when I spent time with him my pieces all fit together. I used to joke that I wanted to move in with him. And I practically did, when Philip died. I’d spend long days with Ed and his wife, Franny. I’d sleep there, get up early to go home and walk my dogs, then go right back to his house. He was my home.

Then there was M. A writer, a poet. Someone I got to know through email, which is a story for another time. We had so much to say to each other, we were so easy together. He, too, felt like home and I fell deeply in love with him. At the time, he was my heart. That was my breakout relationship – because of him, I was catapulted out of whatever it was that bound me. I became a sexual being, I started to like myself because I saw myself through his eyes. When he left I was wrenched, but the gifts I’d discovered remained.

And, of course, my son. It is comforting to say that: my son. It reminds me how much a part of me he is – my son. He is unquestionably my soul mate. When I put my life together, look at it more as a whole, I see the unexplainable experiences I’ve had with Philip. Starting with the time I woke up in the middle of the night to hear the words, “You’re pregnant.” Next day I found out I was. And these things I’m talking about are too real for me to doubt my connection to him. When he was here, I felt how much he loved me and I do not easily feel love from the way I feel love for. He watched me, he paid attention. Such comfort I took from him. I didn’t have to call him or see him, I just had to think of him to feel the way he protected me. Kinda like the way it is now.

Philip is teaching me about death – and no one person has wrenched my soul as he did when he died. I saw Truth in all it harsh and terrible glory. But this theme of death was there from an early age. In the month Philip was to turn two, his grandfather died. I decided to take him to the wake. He has to know death, I thought. He shouldn’t be afraid of it. Getting ready for the wake, in my kitchen at our apartment in Brooklyn, I got down on my knees, took Philip by the shoulders, and said, “Philip, we’re going to see Grandpa Bill. He’s going to be lying down and he’s not going to get up. Is that okay with you?” I wasn’t sure how much he understood. But a little bit later, after I dressed him, then stood him on the kitchen table to fuss with his outfit, I said, “Philip, do you know where Grandpa Bill is?” With no thought or hesitation, he raised his arm, pointed to the ceiling, and said, “In the light.”

After Philip died, I went to the bedroom in the house he lived in to clean it out. I grabbed some of his notebooks to take home. Months later, when I felt ready to look at them, I found an essay he had started. His assignment must have been to write about childhood memories. He wrote a paragraph describing the apartment we lived in, then he wrote this: “When I was four, my parents took me to my grandpa’s funeral. At first I was scared, but then I saw everybody laughing and I felt better.”

He was not four. He was not yet two. But he remembered.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

On Trust, Love and Death

Dee over at Always Remembering Amy wrote a post about trusting life that got me thinking. First a word about her. She is amazingly kind and compassionate – and she’s a giver. I love and admire this woman whom I’ve never met and probably never will. She knitted a prayer shawl for me, which I cherish; and when Pippin died she sent me a condolence card. She breaks my heart for her suffering. I wish I could take it from her but it’s not up to me to say what people should go through. I am not God.

I’ve never trusted life. I’ve lived in deep argument with it, like it was something outside myself, a dark and implacable presence hovering over me. Philip died when I was finally learning how to make peace with it. How to make peace with myself. The argument was being absorbed by a slow and steady knowing. When I stopped resisting I felt full and calm. Like I’d been an outline of a character in a coloring book that someone – that I – finally filled in.

That’s what Philip wants from me. That’s the work he meant I needed to keep doing when I heard him say, “Mom, you gotta go deeper.”

Life is benign – in that, I trust. I don’t think it “does” things to me because that implies I’m the center of the universe. I am not singled out – it’s not personal. Awful, horrible, terrible things happen to people all the time. Some of them we cause, some of them just are. Our worst tragedies involve death; but since death is an absolute, we need to find a way to reckon with it. I can say Philip shouldn’t have died, but who am I to say what should happen and when? Of course, that doesn’t change the fact of my grief. The way I think about his death creates the way I feel about his death. Sometimes I make it worse by telling myself I will never get out from under this. That is my monkey mind dancing in the graveyard. There is a difference between the stories I tell myself about Philip’s death and just feeling what it feels like to have lost him that way.

None of this means I think I don’t have trials ahead of me. “Trial” doesn’t nearly get at the depth of what I deal with every day because my son – my son – has died. Never have I known this kind of desolation. And I’m not safe from having more of it. I have a daughter – it is entirely possible that she, too, can die before me. Yet I don’t worry about Natalie – it’s not in my nature to do so, and Philip’s death hasn’t changed that. I am simply saying it because it’s true. If you think death is something you need to be shielded from, you will one day find there is no protection from it. So maybe we have to stop looking at it as the tragedy we feel it is.

We are all going to die. Every single one of us. How do we live in the face of that? You can spend your life worrying about it, you can try to acquire power, money, friends and possessions to avoid it, you can make every day count because of it.

Or, like me, you can be confused and unsure how to live with it and maybe make a hobby of withdrawing. At least for some of the time. I do well at work, am able to enjoy other people. I laugh when something’s funny. I love. But I also feel deeply alone and grieved and just don’t know what to do with myself. I mean that literally. I don’t know what it is I want to do when I have time to myself. I write, I knit, I mourn. But I’m restless and unhappy. I have a sense there’s some next step and I can’t see what that is or what it is that’s holding me back.

I need stay present to Philip’s death, which means not to resist it. It means gratitude for the connection I have with him, for his loving presence and the way it manifests every day. Except it’s difficult to remain there when a whole chunk of me feels gone, when I feel so deeply and irrevocably alone. When I feel like I need but I don’t know what I’m looking for. Maybe it’s because when I am not in the presence of someone I love, I lose all connection to them. Funny how I can remain connected to Philip who’s gone and died, but feel so distant from Natalie the minute she walks out the door. Every time I see her there’s a shock of love, a relief from my thoughts. You’d think I didn’t see her often, but I live with her. We spend a good amount of time together. She is who got me through the worst of Philip’s death, tending to me until I could begin again to tend to her.

There is only one thing that needs to change for me if I really want to find some peace. And that is my relationship to my thoughts. I am not my thoughts, I am the thinker of those thoughts. I can learn to recognize the background noise in my head and dismiss it, I can look at the stories I tell myself and change them. It’s believing the clamor in my head that keeps me bound and helpless.

Eckhart Tolle says it simply: “The more you make your thoughts and beliefs into your identity, the more cut off you are from the spiritual dimension within yourself.”

© 2015 Denise Smyth