The First Time

I miss Philip. I miss talking to him. I miss his adoration, even though I feel his love. But I’m human and I miss the human things. Like taking care of him if he wasn’t feeling well. Or telling him secrets because I knew I could trust him and that he was paying attention. And calling him first when something exciting happened. Like the day I went on my first ride at Six Flags.

It was a hot summer day in July and I was at Six Flags in New Jersey, home of Kingda Ka, the tallest and fastest roller coaster in North America.  I came here every year with Natalie and her best friends, Rebecca and Eve. Every year I trailed behind them, carrying assorted bags, cell phones and iPods for them so they could go on the rides while I sat on the bench, waiting. I didn’t go on rides. They scared me. But that year was different. That was the year I’d turned fifty, the year I’d gotten a job after spending 17 years at home with Philip and Natalie. I needed a reason to get of bed that didn’t include driving them somewhere or making three dinners because Philip wanted meat and Natalie didn’t and Phil couldn’t eat black pepper without upsetting his stomach. My therapist said I needed a job for structure. She worried that I was being sucked too far into a hole and I was afraid that the hand she offered to help me out of it was slipping beyond my reach.

So I found a part-time job that quickly turned full-time, and something happened along the way. I replaced the khaki skirts and sensible shoes my husband suggested I buy with skinny jeans tucked into high-heeled ankle boots. I started asking my family to take out the garbage and empty the dishwasher and seethed in fury when they didn’t. I’d trained them well – for years I’d done everything so the fact of my job didn’t suggest to them anything at home needed to change. And much as I was finding less need to sleep away the hours that had felt too long and hard to be awake for, I was still depressed – I was dull, I didn’t have a career, didn’t have a degree, didn’t have a purpose.

But that day life was pulsing in the crowds, the colors, the lights, the blaring loudspeakers and the roaring roller coasters. Overweight people with super-sized drinks held tightly to children with sticky cotton-candy fingers. Giggling teenagers brushed past me, rushing to the next ride. Even here I was on the wrong side of excitement. There was something I wanted, something I needed to know, something in the crowds I normally disdain and the rides I was terrified to go on. I was pulled in their direction and resisting like hell. I thought I was different. I didn’t eat fast food, meat or dessert. I didn’t drink soda, I wasn’t afraid of the dark or of germs and I didn’t wash my hands after I went to the bathroom. I wasn’t afraid of cancer and I wasn’t afraid of death. Death sounded easy, like going to sleep and not having to wake up facing long, dull days when I went out only to buy groceries or pick up my kids from school.

I was restless and sticky as I prowled around the amusement park with the girls. We stopped in front of a purple behemoth of a ride that rose fourteen stories high with a track that twisted and corkscrewed around while riders screamed over its roar. That’s Medusa, Rebecca told me, and asked if I’d go on with them. They knew better than to ask me to ride anything more exotic than the gorgeously painted horses on the carousel, but all morning Rebecca’s been bugging me to at least try and I was secretly hoping she’d convince me.

“I can’t,” I said.

“C’mon,” Rebecca said, giving me a nudge. “Of course you can.”

“No. I can’t. Forget it.”

“You’ll be fine,” she insisted. “Just do it. We’ll be right there with you.”

“But…”

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” she cut in. She eyed me carefully, then shrugged. “If you really don’t want to…” She turned back to Natalie. My daughter hadn’t said a word, sure that her mother would never go on this ride and wondering why Rebecca would even bother to ask.

I followed them onto the line, where they turned to me.

“You coming?” Rebecca asked.

I don’t know what I’m doing. I think I’m cracking up here.  I’m tired of sitting on the bench, tired of waiting, tired of being afraid and I don’t have the nerve to do anything about it. If I stand here a while, maybe I’ll find it.

“No. But I’ll just stay with you for now.”

Staying meant walking with the girls up the staircase that ended at the platform where Medusa pulled in. I was filled with dread. I didn’t know if I was more afraid of getting on the ride or watching it leave without me. If I didn’t get on that damn ride I’d spend the rest of the day withering under the weight of yet another choice made by ambivalence. But that was the dismal habit of my life and I didn’t think I could break it.

I panicked as what I thought was a distant rumbling turned into a ground-shaking roar. Medusa pulled in and screeched to a stop in front of us. I watched people unbuckling seatbelts and unstrapping harnesses, looking for something in their faces that would tell me what to do. A lifetime of wanting someone to tell me how to live still hadn’t taught me that whatever answer I got wasn’t the one I wanted. I could have called the Almighty down and it still wouldn’t have helped. He’d already given me life; He just forgot to include the operating manual.

“Mom!”

“What?” I ask, startled out of my reverie.

“We’re going on. What are you doing?”

I looked over at the ride in desperation. That’s when I saw him. The chubby little boy who couldn’t have been more than eight, being helped off the ride by his father. He jumped out of his seat as soon as he was able, happily slipped his hand into his father’s and vanished down the staircase on his way, I was sure, to his next thrill. He was living life. He was awake.

I turned back to the girls.

“I’m coming.”

Yes!” screeched Rebecca.

“Are you sure?” asked Natalie anxiously. And with a twist that was only the beginning of what would become an increasingly tense dynamic between us, she became the worrying mother, trying to protect me from making choices she didn’t understand to do things she’d never seen me do.

Once we were seated and strapped in, Medusa came alive with a clang as the metal floor dropped out from beneath us. I tensed as I looked down to where the ground used to be and saw nothing but narrow track. Then with a jerk, we lurched forward. My stomach lept up to my throat.  Medusa’s padded torso brace held my upper body firmly, while my legs dangled loose and dangerously free. We swung around the first curve and headed up the incline. The world was turning white hot as we inched up the slope until the sickening moment when we paused at the apex. Terrified, I did the only thing I could: I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and let Medusa take me where she would.

We were off. Straight down we plummeted, wind batting back my hair, my breasts pressed firmly against the brace. The momentum forced my legs apart with a freedom I’d yet to experience anywhere else. Up we went to loop around, then around again, my back arching to resist the plunge, then slamming against the seat when we raced back up, breathless as we spun upside down, elated as we rose once again. Inside the roaring, I was weightless, flying, careening side to side, tossed upside down, thrust forward yet again, until way too soon we jerked to a stop, then cautiously slid forward to the platform, where we exited on one side so those waiting on line could enter from the other.

Back on the ground, the air was pungent with barbecue and buttered popcorn. In the midst of the crowd I looked up. Kingda Ka rose forty-five stories into the dazzling blue sky before me. Natalie followed my gaze

.“Mom, no. No.

I didn’t argue. She’d gone on that ride before, but she was frightened; I saw it in the intensity of her big green eyes, heard it in the urgency of her voice. She wasn’t quite sure what happened but she had enough for one day. For the moment, I agreed.

© 2016 Denise Smyth

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01/20/91 – #4

Today is Philip’s birthday. He would have been 25. Time has ceased for him in that way, and it has changed for me, too. I’m much more conscious that the only time it ever is, is now. That’s become a kind of meditation for me, this focusing on the present. Trying to stay focused on now does not leave Philip behind. He died nearly four years ago. I don’t think a lot about that time. He is here, now, and that has to be enough, like it or not.

But last night I was full of the night I gave birth to him. He was born at home on a cold January night. At one point – probably after I bit her shoulder – my midwife took me outside, arm around me, holding me up when I’d get a contraction. The frosty air, the dark, the quiet – she knew I needed a change from my bright apartment with its hospital pads spread on my bed and placenta bowl empty and waiting.

I thought my good attitude and fearlessness about giving birth would ease the pain. It did not. I yelled. I wailed. Part of me then rose up somewhere, was watching this, and I knew it was going to be okay. But I gave myself permission to scream. Those contractions were long and dark and hard and brought me unwillingly to a place I call terror. At the height of one of them I heard the words that would eventually bring Philip and me full circle – “There’s no way out but through.”

Those are not words of comfort. Reality rarely is. I was being asked – no, told – to bear a pain I thought impossible to bear. I was at its mercy, and merciful it was not. But after it was over I had Philip, sweet baby boy, this child I loved when he was just a thought. How graced was I?

Those words came to me after he died, too. And if there was no other reason to have experienced his birth for exactly what it was, hearing those words would have been enough. They brought me full circle. I think of them often. I am more willing to get through. I have to – I’m still in relationship with Philip, and like any relationship, it needs to be tended to. Like any relationship, the more I am present to it the more I see it for what it is. A couple years ago Philip asked me if I knew what responsibility was. I didn’t want to know what he was getting at. I was a wreck then, and if he expected me to take responsibility for our relationship, I couldn’t. I did what I could, and if I could sum it up in one word, it would be “cried.” I didn’t know how many tears I had. In my mind I was hanging on to him for dear life. His presence was palpable, but I was too caught up in grief and terror to even utter the word “responsibility.”

“You know, you are his mother,” Ed reminded me once. That was too much. I was his mother, but I couldn’t act like one. Of course I couldn’t. I wasn’t ready, didn’t think I ever would be.

My sense of Philip has shifted. I am learning how to breathe with him. He’s come into play in the choices I make. I want him to see me do well. It’s my gift to him. And this can only happen because his death did not stop our relationship. When he first died, I took a drive, trying to figure out how to kill myself. Then I heard him: “Mom, it doesn’t work that way. You have to find the joy.”

I believe him. Death is not the answer. And as for joy, maybe it will come, but for now, it’s peace that I’m after. I want Philip to know that. I want him to know that I am doing well exactly the way I want Natalie to know I’m doing well. That’s what my children need – a mother who is present. Philip will get no less from me because he’s died. And I know not what death is except for the fact that it means a particular body will no longer be present. I don’t believe that just because you die you get to go to a better place. Or if you’re a “bad” person, a worse place. I just have this idea that whatever you’re working out you will keep on working out.

Early on I talked about being in a grief group, and being asked to write a letter from our loved to us. I sat and listened to Philip, and he ended the letter with a most lovely line: “Mom, I love you. I’m in the place of no good-byes so we can talk whenever we want.”

The place of no good-byes – if I have to think of him in a place, then let that be the one.

© 2016 Denise Smyth

On Love and Death

Cindy and I spent New Year’s Eve at her house, watching almost all of season two of “Transparent.” At 11:53 she put the TV on one of the channels that was broadcasting the ball dropping from Times Square. We were treated to the sight of – hundreds? thousands? – of people crushed together in the closed-to-traffic streets, some of whom had gotten there at 8am that morning. On top of one of the buildings in the area, the host of a news show was bleating excitedly about the ringing in of the new year. He was accompanied by several people I assume were in the entertainment industry, none of whom I recognized. Once the ball dropped, the host asked them about their take on things. Some of the responses were, “Uh, I don’t know what to say,” “It’s surreal,” “Um, I don’t know what to say,” “Unbelievable,” and “I really don’t know what to say.” The most thoughtful of them added, “It’s a chance to wipe the slate clean!”

I will never understand what drives people to stand outside in the cold for hours and hours to watch 30 seconds of a ball dropping. I will never understand why anyone would solicit opinions from a bunch of entertainers who can’t speak unless they’re scripted, and why anyone else would care what they have to say. I don’t even understand the big deal about one year passing into another, although it seems to make a great excuse for excessive drinking.

This was a bad year, a coworker said. I hope the new one will be better.

Philip died in 2012. But I do not consider that a “bad year.” The second worst thing that could happen, happened (because I have a daughter, and losing both my children is the first worst). I do count time in that way – Philip will be dead four years next month. But I can’t label swatches of time. That’s a way of holding on to pain. Even when reminiscing about “good times,” the implication is that the current time is worse and so that is also holding on to pain.

There is a freedom in not reminiscing. In not projecting. In not thinking and dwelling about a past that can’t be changed or a future that never comes. I remember Thanksgiving at Cindy’s – I had fun. I didn’t think of Philip during dinner, dessert or the endless rounds of Catchphrase played afterward. Later that night, I did. There was a flicker of guilt until I also remembered that’s what Philip wants. I know that because in life he wanted me happy and his death doesn’t change that.

When Philip first died, Phil said to me Philip would want me to be happy. “How do you know what he wants?” I snapped. “Maybe he’s lonely – maybe he’d rather me be with him.” I understand things differently now. To” be with him” has nothing to do with my body or his body. He’s with me always, teaching me love and peace even as at times his death renders me breathless. It’s the way I love him that doesn’t allow me to experience his death the way I first did – as terrifying nothingness, as proof of random viciousness and meaninglessness. Not so – death is not a punishment nor an attack. It is a fact and I cannot interpret it only as grievous without also making my love for him and joy in him meaningless. Because his death takes away neither of those things. What then is death, and what is love?

I can’t pretend to answer either of those questions but I spend a lot of time thinking about them. “I’m trying to teach you what death isn’t,” Philip told me. Because to do otherwise is to give it a reality it doesn’t have. The shock of it when we lose a loved one can’t be denied. But the love that remains long after the body has disappeared also can’t be denied and is as real and palpable as ever. Philip continues to reach out to me through both sight and vision – the difference being sight is what my eyes see, and vision what my heart knows.

As far as love – I’m starting to think that love in this world is impossible without ambivalence, and so, then, is it really love? is what we call love merely believing that the desired other is someone who can meet our needs? How else to explain the deep and unending difficulties we have in maintaining relationships? To explain how we meet that other, pledge to spend our lives with that other, only to be disappointed and disenchanted as the years roll by? How, exactly, does that “love” we feel for that other turn into hatred, as it so often does? Was it, then, really love?

I question whether I have ever truly loved anyone. The closest I have come is what I feel for my children, particularly Philip. And I do not mean that I “love” Philip more than Natalie. It’s not only about what I feel for, but what I feel from, and in feeling Philip’s love I’m learning about my own ability to love. Philip’s loss of body is also loss of ego. I define ego as that part of us which is grasping, clinging, angry, greedy, fearful – that which interferes with the peace that lies deep and often buried, interferes with our ability to love. Philip’s is a voice of patience and kindness. Mine is not, at least not as much as I’d like it to be. My experience of Philip shows me how I fall short with Natalie. Egos colliding is not a pretty sight. It is only when I can let Natalie be, when I’m not pissed because she left a dish in the sink or shut herself in her room for too long, that I experience something akin to the peace of love.

Relationships are not here to make us happy. They are here to teach. And if we learn our lessons well, happiness is certainly possible. I am not happy that Philip’s died, but I recognize our relationship is about something beyond what I thought it was when he was alive. I have chosen to try to learn what he’s teaching me instead of making my life a bloody hell because of his death. Which isn’t to say I don’t wish he was here – I miss his touch, his voice, his laugh. But I do not miss his comfort because I still have it.  “Mom, you have to find the joy,” he said. He’s trying so hard to help me – I owe it to him to try as hard as well.

© 2016 Denise Smyth