Prelude

I am angry, I wrote in my last. Once I had someone sigh and say, “That again?” Yes, that again. Like what, it has a term period? A date of ending, when I can check it off the calendar as done and over?

Truth is, what I have needed to do is slow down and pull apart the tentacles of my anger, to look at what it is these tentacles are clinging to. I’ve pushed aside, for later, what seems too unwieldy in order to peer more closely at those things I feel ready to contemplate. And there is nothing I am angry at that is not born from a lack of control. Nothing.

I am angry at the weather, the heat and lack of rain. I am angry that Trump is. I am angry that I – literally – do not know what to do when it’s my choice. Work and obligations aside, most of what I want to do is read, with maybe some TV on the weekends. That doesn’t much hold my interest, either, although I’m pretty happy with Succession. I don’t want to go out and meet people, there’s nowhere in particular I want to go, and I’m frustrated and angry that I am not someone who can say, “Hey, I’d like to ____ and then go find someone to do this mysterious activity with me.

I could go on. But I’m going to get to the one thing that angers me the most – my mom has Alzheimer’s and where to start with that? I will thank you all for your sympathy in advance. Direct it at her. While my part in this story can’t be unique, I don’t think it follows the usual trajectory in terms of feelings. But what do I know? Maybe positing this will show me different.

No matter what we’re suffering, our personalities, experiences, and habitual ways of dealing with things will surface and color our reactions, if not our actual actions. Sometimes we have the forethought to understand we might feel like saying, “fuck this” and then walking away, but something more rational takes over, sees the implications of such action, and maybe tries to do better.

Like me.

I don’t think I’ve ever really sat here and took a good, deep look at the relationship I have with my mother, who I see her as and who I see myself as in this context. In fact, a few years ago I decided I wanted to turn my blog into a memoir. During the writing it hit me how much a part of my story my mother is. There was an incident that occurred a few days after Philip died that I wanted to write and I went dumb. There I was, writing the most excruciating account, day by day, of what I felt like losing Philip, but I could not figure out how to describe an incident that concerned my mother. It was after that that I gave up the memoir, started writing much less in my blog. That is not the whole and complete reason for my withdrawal from writing. It is, perhaps, a tentacle.

Mom and I are oil and water, which I can pretty much say about my whole family. Yes, I am that one. I’d always felt on the outside but refused to think too deeply about why. I come from a large Italian family where every Sunday was spent at Grandma’s. My mom was the only girl out of seven siblings, which placed a unique burden on her when time came to helping with chores or taking care of the little ones. Two of her brothers were younger than she and she was often responsible for them. My mom’s 90, and there is one of them she still feels responsible for. In fact, in younger days when my dad was alive, the family joke was that if my dad was lying in the road and Uncle M was across the street, my mom would walk over my dad to get to my Uncle. Wasn’t any funnier then than it is now.

I used to think that maybe I felt odd because I was the only daughter of the only daughter. When Sunday dinners came around, My family would have to get to my grandparents’ extra early because my mom had to help my grandma get dinner ready. Soon as I was able, I had to do my part, whether it was putting glasses on the table or running downstairs to the club – where the men would gather and play cards while the women cooked – to get the men to come upstairs for dinner. 

Another reason I may have felt odd was because I wanted to drink. When I was 7 or 8 I asked my mom if I could have one of the cordials in that glass that just so cute. My mom said yes but my dad overheard and forbade it. I hated him then, but by 3 or so years later I figured out how to get some myself.  My grandparents made wine in the cellar, and while everyone (except the kids) drank, it was obvious that my grandfather was alcoholic. 25 Years in this county and he did not speak one word of English – only his native Italian. Many a time he’d be escorted into bed or another room, happily singing drunken tunes. Once, during dinner, there was a commotion during desert as my grandmother began hitting my grandfather over the head. Turns out he’d poured wine into his coffee cup and was blowing on it as if it was coffee because my grandmother had given him stern orders not to have wine at the table.

My grandmother lived in a two story house in Brooklyn on the top floor. The bottom, as I mentioned, was the club where my dad, my uncles and their friends hung out. On the second floor lived my Aunt J., Uncle G., Cousin R. and Cousin Maria, who is exactly two years older than I am and the sister of my heart.

I have lived very much outside the lives of the family I grew up with. Most of my uncles stayed in Brooklyn, cousins scattered to NJ, Long Island, Staten Island. My brother and sister-in-law moved to Staten Island, and I wound up in NJ with my immediate family when Philip was 7 and Natalie 5. I kept in touch with my cousin Maria on and off throughout the years – and if you’re a follower you might remember Maria was the first person I called when I found out Philip died. For the last two years I’ve worked for her and her husband, and they have graciously allowed me to escape to their shore home when I need to.

This has been a short but necessary background – next, Alzheimer’s

© 2022 Denise Smyth

Time

They must’ve told you – someone, somewhere, many someones in multiple some-wheres, how, “Time heals all wounds.” And you probably had to find out for yourself that it doesn’t. I wrote about this once, somewhere in this blog. The priest at Philip’s wake told us so and I was grateful. There is no comfort, particularly at the nadir of one’s grief, to think, in time this will go away or one day I won’t feel so bad, I will be able to manage this. When Philip died I existed in a dimension called Grief and the idea that time would heal it meant…what? That it would be okay, that I would be okay? That there was somehow going to be something called Life as Usual?

The naiveté. The shallowness. Even if said from a loving heart with all the kindness, concern and worry that comes from the helpless onlooker who truly cares for you. This month it is ten and a half years since Philip died. Since my son died. I had a therapist ask me why I called him “my son.” He is, after all, his own person, not my possession. He has a life apart from me. Except he no longer has a life – at least on this earth – apart from me. I have two children. And calling them “my child” is an acknowledgment of the bond that can be between me and them and no other. I need that. I need to know that what was and is between us is special, real, everlasting. If calling Philip “my son” soothes me that way I’ll skip the analysis of where he ends and I begin because I dare anyone with a dead child to try to figure that one out.

Then there was Phil, seeing my grief-hysteria weeks after Philip died. “Denise,” he said, “You gotta stop. Philip wouldn’t want this – he wants you to be happy.”

I turned on him. “How do you know?” I demanded. “How do you know what he wants? Maybe he’s missing me. Maybe he’s lonely. Maybe he wishes I could go keep him company!”

Phil blinked slowly. “You are really sick,” he said softly. Which fits in pretty much with the way I view myself. If thoughts wear grooves in our brains based on usage, then, “There is something wrong with me” is my Grand Canyon.

But how did he know what Philip “wanted?” We know nothing about the dead. But when it suits us we make proclamations?

I did, though, have an experience to counter this. Driving one night, not long after this exchange, I was thinking that I was going to kill myself. I once tried – and obviously failed – when I was 21. This, too, is for another post, but throughout my life I thought the only way out of the prison of my brain and the repetitive negative thinking was death. So it was natural for me to be thinking in the face of Philip’s death, “I’m done. I don’t know how yet, but I am done.”

That’s when I heard Philip. He’s behind my right shoulder, he speaks into my right ear. “Mom,” he said, “It doesn’t work that way. You have to find the joy.” And in that instant, it occurred to me that I took the responsibility of having two children, one who died, but one who was very much alive and needed me. And I saw myself standing next to Philip looking toward Natalie, but now unable to reach her. The grief was just as intense. That’s when I knew things were as they were and I must deal with them in that way. Natalie needed me. That was all there was to know.

I also understood at that moment that suicide was not a solution. It was a continuation of what I was trying to escape. If I believed death was like going to sleep and never waking up, then suicide made sense. Philip was teaching me something different. He was telling me the way out is to find the joy. I can tell you that ten years on, I have not found the joy. I still circle back to “There is something wrong with me.” I watch people, I watch the things they do and what they enjoy and what keeps them going and I still feel the odd one. My greatest pleasure is reading, which I do for hours on end daily. Today I started to write – something I have not been able to do for years even though it is one of the things I have loved to do and it was certainly what kept me going during the earlier years when Philip died. 

I have been, I am, so angry.

But back to where I started this post. Time does have a part to play. Its passage changes things. I no longer cry for hours on end every day. The constant knot in my stomach is gone. Philip is not on my mind 24/7. I can laugh. I can hold a job. I can eat. No more drinking, no more bulimia. Outwardly, no one would be able to tell I suffered such a tragic loss, that my world is upended, that I will never be the same in ways I can only accept. And that maybe I shouldn’t accept, but I do.

I have a picture of Philip from when he was maybe 5 or 6. If I can figure out how to post it under photos I’ll put it there. He’s wearing an orange pullover with a collar. His right arm is leaning on a table, bent at the elbow, his face is leaning into his hand. He’s not looking at the camera but a bit to the right, a smile on his closed mouth, his far away thoughts giving him secret pleasure. If I look, I can just make out his left hand resting on the table, clutching a small dinosaur. He is angelic. Months ago I made that picture the background on my phone and it still unsettles me to see the beauty of that innocence. It still brings me to tears, still makes me stop what I’m doing and give pause. And I would like to say I smile to see my little boy so happy and so at peace, but mostly my heart twists into something unnatural because of what I have lost and my inability to find adequate words to share this with so that maybe someone can…help? Understand? What do I want? There isn’t any help, and from those who can understand – unfortunately, there are far too many who do – I cannot take comfort. 

© 2022 Denise Smyth