Was I?

No one trains to be a parent. And I didn’t read any books about someone’s version of how to do it, their methods, their advice. I’d figure it out on my own. Like when Natalie was a baby and cried and cried and cried; I’d heard of the “Ferber Method,” where Dr. Ferber thought babies needed to be trained to fall asleep, so let ‘em cry.  As opposed to assuming they’re crying because they need something and maybe if you hold them, they’ll feel safe enough to sleep.


Natalie would wake up at all hours of the night to nurse. By the time she was five months old, I was exhausted. One night when she woke up at midnight, I decided that’s it. I’d let her cry. Screw it. I needed to sleep. Like I could sleep during the three hours she screamed bloody hell. Three hours before I ran to pick her up and nurse her. She latched on between the shaking and muffled sobbing; she sucked my breast like it was the breath she was breathing. By that point my milk was irrelevant. She was hungry for me. For what, I asked myself, for what? For what did I do that? I don’t think babies (or children, or adults) should be left to cry – it’s not natural. If they’re crying, they need something. Natalie’s needs were my needs. By the time I picked her up,  I craved her as much as she craved me. Bottom line – I wanted babies, and babies need attention. I wanted to nurse them, and that meant extra attention. And when I gave my kids what I knew they needed, we all felt better.

But when my kids got older, my instincts got confused. There were things I wasn’t clear about, things I wasn’t sure how to handle. My mind was telling me to interfere with this or try to stop that, but my heart didn’t agree and it’s like I was a trio – mind, heart and the one who had to decide between. Most of the time I went with my heart because it felt right, but maybe I was too scared to choose any other way, scared that Philip would be mad at me. So was I, then, looking out for him?

When Philip was 16, he wanted to go to an all day concert some hours away. Phil and I weren’t crazy about some of the kids he was hanging out with at the time. He’d gone the year before, but it was with a kid we trusted and his dad, who’d agreed to take them and spend the day. Not so this year. Someone was driving there, someone driving back. The details were vague, and Phil and I knew there’d be drinking and drugs at this thing. Phil refused to let him go, and Philip was furious. I’d never seen him so angry – and I knew that if it was me alone, I would have let him go. I stood there wide-eyed and twisted while Phil and Philip fought it out. I don’t know how Phil did it – I do not know how he was able to hold his ground. He was protecting his son. All I was was terrified, and that is what I’m talking about – was I looking out for him, or protecting myself from his anger?

Phil and I found out Philip had been smoking pot when he was sixteen. We took him straight to a drug counselor, which might sound dramatic except that I’m an addict and thought I could fix him before he turned into one. She sat with the three of us, then with Philip alone. Afterward she said, “This isn’t a kid with a problem.”  And at that point, he wasn’t. We bought a couple of drug tests, tested him a few months later, he was clean.

Philip was a kid with his feet in two worlds and he died with his foot in the wrong one. This is something I’ve been deeply ashamed about. Phil and I are decent people. We lived in good neighborhood, were surrounded by families whose kids were smart and active. Philip was intelligent, kind and sensitive. He got into one fight in his entire school career, and that was because he was picked on. In high school, he joined the fencing team and began to hang around with good kids, kids interested in school and their future. So how did he also wind up hanging around with kids who were more interested in drugs than in school? And while he wasn’t acting badly, he wasn’t working as hard as he could in school, only wore t-shirts that were black, and refused any shoes except his black high-top Converse.

Was there something I was supposed to do about that? Was I – really – looking out for him?

When my kids were growing up, there was a family who lived across the street from us for a while. The dad was a doctor, and I’m not sure what the mom was, but she worked full time. They had two kids – Ethan, who was a year older than Philip, and Julie, who was a few years older than him. Ethan was polite. He was allowed to play with Philip, but he wasn’t allowed to come into our house. It wasn’t personal – it was just a rule, and I figured that the parents wanted to be able to see exactly what he was doing. So he’d ring the bell and wait outside for Philip to come and play. Once I asked the mom if Julie could baby-sit for my kids. No, she said; she’s not allowed to work, she has to pay attention to her homework.

I was impressed. It seemed to me that these people knew exactly who they were and what they expected from their children. It also seemed to me that they were going to get it. I took clarity for certitude. Because I was so often unclear – how was I supposed to force Philip to use the brains he had when he slacked off? How was I supposed to force him to hang around  with kids I thought would be better for him? I couldn’t lock him in his room, I couldn’t forbid him to stay away from people. I blamed myself for the choices he made that were poor. Of course, I took no credit for all the good in him.

This is part of the ongoing conversation I have with myself about Philip’s death. Fortunately, it’s a small part. Regret and guilt are inevitable, but they are as much a part of the story as I make them be. And I do not much make them be. Philip has died but I have not. Nor has Natalie. And “died” doesn’t mean gone. It means change, change I don’t want but change that is so. I can ask myself if I was looking out for Philip, and the way I answer that is the way I feel about it all. If I want to wallow, I will answer no. If I want to find peace, I will say of course I was. He is my son and my love and so yes – of course I was.

© 2015 Denise Smyth


14 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Ed Hack
    Dec 10, 2015 @ 07:55:29

    I tried to leave a comment, twice. I don’t think it worked in either case. Don’t know what I did wrong.

    I wrote:

    An unsettling ending to a starkly honest, unsettling piece.

    Love you—

    Call me.

    Ed >


  2. Tricia
    Dec 10, 2015 @ 17:58:34

    of course you were


  3. pedro
    Dec 10, 2015 @ 18:33:23

    Pedro was here ( about 3 times cause im so thick) but at least I was here


  4. Denise
    Dec 10, 2015 @ 20:27:40

    Ha ha and I’m glad you were! ;o)


  5. jmgoyder
    Dec 11, 2015 @ 19:57:31

    Of course you were – absolutely. xxx


  6. Lucia Maya
    Dec 12, 2015 @ 14:29:32

    Once again, I am stunned at how similar we are, past and present, and also in how we have parented! The questions you have are the same as mine, the main difference being that Elizabeth died of cancer, but it could just as easily have gone another way with her too…

    And still, I question whether the emotional intensity she had, and the choices I made that fueled her anxiety and sense of betrayal, didn’t create an opportunity for cancer to grow… Most of me knows that it was her soul’s path, that I’m not powerful enough to change her life in that way, but it still shows up in the underbelly of my thoughts at times. It helps to know I’m not alone in my experiences. Thank you. ❤


    • Denise
      Dec 18, 2015 @ 07:02:29

      As their mothers, we’re hard-wired to think we could have – should have – been able to protect them. But from what? Death? If we think any of us are “safe” from death, we’re not in reality. So you and I – we walk the line between what makes spiritual sense and what we feel as human beings. Philip’s too much with me for me to believe he’s gone, but my God, bodies are powerful illusions…happy holidays, Lucia xoxoxo


  7. candidkay
    Dec 17, 2015 @ 20:49:09

    Oh my. Every parent’s nightmare. Because no matter what, we think we should be the one to make them bullet-proof. And yet, that is not possible in today’s world. We have to let them have some independence. My heart aches for you–and I hope the questioning ends with peace.


    • Denise
      Dec 18, 2015 @ 07:07:45

      Thank you for your kind words – we are their mothers, we can’t help but think our job is to protect them. I’ll tell you – thank God he didn’t die when he was younger, when I would’ve even MORE felt like I was supposed to protect him. Philip was already living on his own, paying his own rent. We were close – I know there wasn’t anything I could have done. I am not God, his path and his choices were his own. That helps balance my sorrow somewhat. I just miss him so much.


  8. kmlagatree
    Dec 18, 2015 @ 17:46:54

    This piece is so beautifully clear and touching. And yes, of course you were watching out for Phillip, just as he now is watching out for you. Looking forward to Sunday!!!


  9. Denise
    Dec 19, 2015 @ 21:42:40

    Me, too. I’ve missed you.


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