Lonely?

Natale and Me, October 2015

Natalie and Me, October 2015

Natalie and I just had portraits taken. This is my favorite. I have a portrait of Philip and me, I wanted one of me and Natalie. How happy I look – it makes me smile when I see it. And it’s genuine – I love my daughter and I am able to enjoy her. “Enjoy” is a word I thought I would never use once Philip died. But the deep and grievous wound of his death has made me vulnerable to love as well as to pain. Never have I realized how deeply I love my daughter. Or that the fact of my love for my son is what sustains me through his death, even as it brings me to my knees in grief.

Sometimes when I’m driving, I say Philip’s name. I call out to him. And I realize how little his name is actually said. And how saying it doesn’t mean he’ll answer the phone or sit across from me and chat at dinner. It reminds me that something’s gotten smaller and more lonely. His name is lost in space. I can say it, it can go out there, but I will never speak it out loud to my son again.

I used to scream Philip’s name in my car when he first died. Now when I say it it hangs thin in the air, like an empty clothesline. A reminder that there used to be a person at the other end of that name, there used to be hair and flesh and hands that had two differently shaped thumbs. I’m the only one, besides him, who noticed. He was over 6’, tall enough to for me to lay my head on his chest when I needed a moment of love and protection. Reassurance, because what could be wrong if he was all right? That’s why I didn’t worry about him. Because he was all right until he wasn’t, and worrying wouldn’t have changed anything.

I’ve been wondering if I’m lonely. Another one of those feelings I thought would feel one way when in fact it feels another. I imagined lonely as sitting with my head hanging and wishing desperately for company. I imagined it small, sad and helpless in the kind of silence no sound can disturb. But that’s not what it is. It’s quiet, for sure. It’s a longing for I-don’t-what. It’s a restlessness. It’s me hurrying home because that’s where I’ll find what I love. My daughter. My dog and my cat. And it’s where I go to do what I love – to write, to quilt, to knit. When I’m creating I feel alive.

But I have to follow the flow of my energy because there’s only so much of it. I know when I want to write or knit or sew. I also know when I’m done with it for the day, and that often leaves a space that I fill with TV. The only television I used to watch was news. Now I can’t watch the insanity we call “the world.” The grief I hold for Philip is all I can manage. So I look for series, the longer the better. I started that when Philip died. It didn’t take away the sick knot in my stomach, or that I felt raw, bloodied and beaten up, but it quieted my mind. And if I needed anything, it was relief from the damn screaming in my head.

Now there’s no more screaming, just the chattering of the monkey mind. And confusion about what it is I’m yearning for but can’t find. Whatever it is, it’s not “out there.” It’s a reckoning from within. The past informs my present too much. Growing up I felt I was in the wrong world doing the wrong things. I was drunk and directionless. I went to college, then dropped out because I wasn’t interested. I got a job in the last place I thought I’d wind up, Wall Street. For years I worked there in misery. I knew I was in trouble the day I got a $12,000 bonus and looked at it with a shrug.

It is not enough to say, “it’s a job, you’re not supposed to like it.” If that’s what you make of it, then that’s how you’ll live. It was work I was after, not some job, but I didn’t know how to find it because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was asleep. What I wanted to do, what I always wanted to do, was write – but at 18 I was incapable of making decisions that didn’t involve alcohol. I wandered into FIT (Fashion Institute) in NY because my friend went there. As if I gave  a shit about fashion. When that didn’t work out I wandered into a job on Wall Street because a friend got me an interview. I spent my free time drinking and when I decided to stop, I spent my free time in AA.

I didn’t understand what I know now. Back then, the world was the problem, as if I had nothing to do with anything. As if I was at the mercy of an implacable universe. I used to say there must be a God because this much pain can’t be random

I can’t say how I think my life should be or should have been. The doing is only the reflection of the being. If I had the presence of mind when I was a kid, I would have gone to college to study the things that called me – writing and literature. That would have led to a different life. Not necessarily better, just different. But that’s not what happened. I am where I am because of choices I made and things that have happened that I have no control over. The classroom I learn from is wherever I am.

There is a way to live that feels right. You have to pay attention to where your spirit leads, not to what the world says. The world is crazy – why on earth would you want to listen to it? I’ve listened too long and too hard and much as I begin to disengage from the false, the truth is not so easily revealed. Or maybe it is and I still can’t see it. I’ve an inner struggle that manifests in the material. Today, talking with Kirsten, I realized that much as I don’t particularly think about the future, I have a sense that this is all there is, this is where I stop, this is where I’ll be when I die, restless and lonely, wondering what it was I was asked to do but too scared to hear the question.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

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For a Reason?

“Acceptance of the unacceptable is the greatest source of grace in this world.”
                        Eckhart Tolle

When Philip died, it didn’t occur to me to follow anyone’s prescription about how to grieve. The same when I was pregnant – I admit to buying “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” but I only read a couple chapters. I had already done some serious research on giving birth, including interviewing midwives and doctors. WTEWYE seemed to skim the surface. I wanted to understand the process of giving birth because I’d decided to have my babies at home. Death and birth need be aided by others, but the hospital doesn’t seem the place for either. I am grateful for the medical community, but it often interferes when it should simply facilitate. Death and birth are as intensely personal as they are widely universal. The question before me was, How do I want to do this?

Back then, I couldn’t exactly say why I wanted to home birth, except it felt right and authentic. Through giving birth I was learning to trust the body that I’d been waging war with for years. I was sad and moody even as a kid and I took it out on my body. As if my body was the problem. Bodies are not the problem. Bodies are tools – while we are in them, they are expressions of life. They are the receptors through which we feel and experience. But to blame my body for what I was feeling was akin to blaming my pen for my inability to write when it ran out of ink.

I grew up in rage and depression at what I couldn’t articulate but now understand was a lack of love and compassion. And what can a child do with rage and depression? Certainly not reason about it. My particular way was to drink. Which I started to do when I was 11. Pot and pills followed soon after, then bulimia in my early 20s. All in a rage against my body because it was making me feel. And when getting high didn’t work, I tried a serious but flawed attempt to kill myself. That I didn’t succeed was not a moment of revelation. It was a defeat because I knew I wouldn’t try it again – I wasn’t about to become a joke, someone whose version of a cry for help was inventing new and futile ways to kill herself. I failed. I was embarrassed and beaten.

So I went to therapy, stopped drinking. Eventually tried to deal with the bulimia, something that proved a far harder challenge than drugs and alcohol. I could grasp the concept of not taking the first drink. What was the formula for an eating disorder? Don’t take the first compulsive bite? Exactly which one was that? Sometimes, in my confusion, I’d opt for eliminating all all bites and I’d go days without eating.

But the body, restored to its rightful place, is a point of power. It’s where we access the richness of our inner life. It’s where we learn what true connection means and how it goes beyond the point of physical. Philip did not start as a body – he started as a longing. I wanted a child and so was graced with him. His birth was a continuation of the relationship I’d begun to form with him when I recognized that I wanted him. And grievous as his death is, we are still in relationship. It is hampered only by my inability to get my body out of my way.

To go to a hospital to give birth would be to give away the inherent power of my body. Women have been taught that we can’t trust our bodies, that our bodies cannot function as they are meant to. That somehow our prodding, probing and technology know better than we, ourselves, can know. That the pain of childbirth has no value and that we are unable to bear what women have borne always. We have been separated from our natural functions.

Like menstruating. There came a point as a young woman where I began to wonder where women’s disgust of their periods came from. Fertility is a power. Much as I wasn’t sure I wanted to have children, the idea that I had the power to do so made me feel sorry for men and what they would never know. My body could give life. I was part of the mystery. And much as I spent decades wishing I was dead, which really meant I wished I could stop feeling the terrible things I felt, some part of me recognized the sanctity of being able to give birth.

In the spirit of beginning to respect what my body could do, I stopped using “sanitary” napkins  – was my blood dirty? I bought cloth menstrual pads which I washed myself, watching the blood run over my hands as I rinsed my cloths before putting them in my “moon bowl,” where they sat until I washed them. I loved having my period. It was the mark of my fertility, and it is through that fertility that I came to know the two who I love best in this world.

And birth control. In my early twenties, I briefly went on the pill. Like everyone else I knew, I wanted the freedom to fuck. But something felt wrong about manipulating my cycle so I went off it.  Any method of birth control that I could use involved pills, diaphragms, iuds – all too invasive. I didn’t trust my understanding of my cycle enough to risk what was then called “the rhythm method” – so it was up to my partner and a condom.

When Philip died I ran to no manual about grief. By that point I’d stopped looking for something outside myself to tell me how to feel, to tell me what I was supposed to “do” to be happy. I was not in control of my feelings, but I could figure out how to handle them, and what I’d figured out and written about here countless times is that my credo became, Accept it, leave it, or change it. What else could ever be done, in any situation? The simple answer was also the most profound. Thing is, leaving or changing a situation might be difficult but felt doable. But “accept?” Years of hearing AA’s platitudes about acceptance made me bristle to even hear the word. I thought it mean lying in the road and letting a mac truck roll over me. And since all anything can ever mean is the meaning I give it, I couldn’t “accept” because I couldn’t understand.

What brought this all to mind is something I read on the internet, something, as one blogger wrote, “is making the rounds.” It had to do with the notion that everything happens for a reason, and the grieving author’s anger at people who spout that platitude. And I do understand that anger – what is such a trite expression in the face of losing a child? Is that supposed to comfort? What reason could anyone possibly come up with that would make this okay?

But then I got the idea that here we are again – angry, and doing with grief what the world does with everything: it’s us against them. The victims that have been forced to grief and the enemies who want to look away. It’s exhausting. This anger perpetuates grief, even as it feels good to have somewhere to direct our anger besides the seeming randomness of the universe.

We are all going to die. The timing is not up to us. Since death is as birth is, how do we live with it?

People are frightened. People spend lifetimes avoiding death even though they are always creeping toward it. People don’t know what to say when it comes anywhere near them. If someone says, “Everything happens for a reason” it simply means they don’t understand. It’s not you they’re trying to reason with, it’s themselves. So why would I insist people have to be what I want them to be, say what I want them to say? Yet how that stings when we feel we are being strangled by our grief, how that cuts us off when what we need is love and connection. There is no loneliness like the loneliness that comes from losing someone beloved.

Maybe it’s easy for me to look at this because I haven’t anyone who’s said anything like that to me. I’ve been told to “move on” which of course isn’t possible – but it was said in the spirit of kindness and that is what matters. The worst thing anyone said to me that first year was, “Uh, here we go” when I brought up Philip’s death in what I thought was the right context. I was both incredulous and angry for a long time after. Now, what matter? What people say tells you much about them, but nothing about you. People speak from fear, from anger, from ignorance –  we all do it and we don’t realize it. And when people continue to say hurtful things it is good and right to absent them from our lives. Sometimes we can’t, and so we have to draw a line in their condition. But sometimes we don’t, because sometimes we just want someone to target.

Last week I was alone in my office. In walked a client to pick up some paperwork. Noticing the picture of Philip on my desk, he asked with a smile, “Is that your son?” It is, said. And then I told him he died. “I am so sorry,” he answered; and he stayed and talked with me for a while. He listened to what I had to say. He has children of his own, and at one point his eyes teared up. That’s what we want, isn’t it? People to let us speak of the unspeakable, to be unafraid to hear what we’re saying.

Whether or not you think everything happens for a reason – the point is everything that happens, happens. It’s not about reason, but about meaning. Searching for a reason perpetuates grief because there is no satisfactory reason. The only meaning can come from what we make it to be. Loss is. To live in a body is to experience loss, in all its forms. No one escapes grief, no one escapes death. It’s not personal and it’s not done “to” us. It happens. And when it does, it changes us forever. We live with it every day, and we have choice how to do so. Not at first – depending on who we are, not for a long time. I lived underwater so long after Philip died, I don’t know how I didn’t suffocate. Searching for reasons would not have helped – the opposite, in fact, because asking why is an impossible question, designed to distract and thus prolong the worst aspects of our grief. There is never an acceptable answer. Death is its own reason.

Rather than looking for reasons, I ask myself how I can live with what is to me both a tragedy and a blessing. Philip is dead. I will one day join him, and when I do it will seem like life went by quickly. But since I’m here, how is it I want to be in the world? How do I walk with an open heart as I long to do? How do I stop hiding myself away because there’s something nagging at me that I won’t face – it’s an ancient darkness I carry and it’s going to take some strength to lay it down.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Those Next Days…

If you tell me that I have to move on from grief, that I have a life to live, that I can choose to stop feeling this as if grief has no value unless I kick its ass, I’ll stop listening because all you’re telling me is you don’t get it. You’re telling me you don’t know what else to say and if you say it nicely, I appreciate the gesture; if you say it impatiently I think that maybe you’re the one who can’t deal with it.  What’s it mean to think you can’t both grieve and live? No one moves on from grief. It’s part of you, like an arm or a leg. You don’t get cured, you get different. You’re forced to live more deeply – it’s either that, or go nutty. But as life is in constant motion and change, so is grief.

There was a time grief was loud and screeching; it chewed me up, then spit me out so it could chew me up all over again. Prometheus, bound. It made the world spin too fast for me to get my footing. So I sat on my couch, month after month, and let it do what it would. But sometime between then and now I stopped resisting it. That didn’t make it go away, but it did allow me to get to know it. Pain is terribly enhanced when we resist it – we might think we’re pushing it away, but since it’s immovable all we’re doing is letting it drain our attention and energy. I didn’t know that, then. Why talk of “not resisting?” I was that grief. Until time came when I felt more. Like love for Philip and love for Natalie. Take that love and add a bit of time, and what came to be was a grief that was more a partner than a bloodsucker.

I don’t learn the things I need to learn the easy way. That’s not how it works. I no longer hold on to grief, I commune with it. It’s hard. It hurts. It still grabs me when I’m not paying attention, still brings me to tears of a sudden. It still makes my gut raw and throbbing – and it keeps me vulnerable enough not only to hurt, but to feel the deep love in my life. For that, I am grateful. So I don’t run from it or pretend I can turn it off because I will cut off no part of myself that feels. Whatever it is.

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Philip died snorting heroin. And what I found out later was he wasn’t alone. He was in his room with G, the kid who lived in the bedroom upstairs, the kid who left him there. I don’t know at what point, dead or alive. What I do know is that one year later G. himself died from an overdose.

Those days afterward – how did I survive them? How was I able to move around, to take care of things, to fall asleep? A couple days after the wake, Phil, Natalie and I had to go to Philip’s room to get his things. He lived in a house in New Brunswick near Rutgers with Max  and some other kids. And he spent a lot of time at his friend Austin’s house. Austin was urging Philip away from drugs and the tweakers he was hanging out with. And Philip was listening – he’d signed a lease and was supposed to move out at the end of the month. At the wake, Austin asked me if I wanted him to go straighten out Philip’s room. I knew the kind of mess Philip lived in. “Please,” I answered, “just don’t throw anything out.” I needed to get in and out of that bedroom quick as I could. No tears, no lingering – that was the room where he died. If I wanted to curl up with him around me I’d go to the bedroom he grew up in. The one with the rocket ship and stars that I painted on his closet door, with the plaid curtains and lampshade I made for him. The furniture I found at an estate sale, and the perfect hooked rug that was a steal at Marshall’s. I could crawl under his red denim comforter, stained with blood from the uncontrollable nose bleeds he had when he was growing up. And I’d hug his little dinosaur blanket, the one I made for him for his kindergarten nap time.

The night before I was supposed to go to Philip’s, I got a call from a furious Austin. “They robbed him. They actually went in his room and they robbed him. They took his stuff – his phone, his laptop, his Xbox. Everything was all over the place. I can’t believe they robbed him.”

A sponge can get so saturated that it can’t hold any more. The water washes right through while the sponge sits there, heavy and laden. I heard what Austin said. I understood what he meant. I knew I should be outraged. Instead I was numb, speechless. I told Austin we would be there next day and asked if he’d come meet us.

I didn’t know the kids Philip lived with. I knew Max, I knew of J., eventually came to know of G. I knew that right after Philip died, they cleared out of the house. At least for a while. J. had gone back to get something, saw a window had been broken, went into the house and saw Philip’s room had been robbed. No one else’s, just Philip’s. I spoke to J about it. “We all keep our rooms locked,” he said. “Philip’s was the only one that was open.”

Uh-huh. Like someone didn’t know Philip died, like someone didn’t use this as an opportunity. This sounds like I should be furious. I am not. At first I mourned the loss of his laptop. He’d been writing poetry and I wanted to read it. Philip was gone and they took another piece of him. Thing is, what kind of person does that? What kind of way is that to live? I hadn’t the capacity for anger, and so saw it differently than I might have. Nothing they took meant anything. So I didn’t have the poems – I still had my son. Who am I to condemn them? To live a life of preying on people is its own hell. You can’t get away with anything because life doesn’t work that way. Some people don’t get that until it’s too late. If I’m angry at these kids, I turn the situation into a drama and get sidetracked from what’s real about life  They are dreams, these dramas. And either I wake up now or death’ll come and do it for me.

Austin had straightened up Philip’s room again, but what I saw when I got there was a blur. I just wanted to hurry up and get rid of stuff before I started crazy screaming. I left his old bureau, got rid of a lot of his clothes (he had plenty more at home), grabbed any notebook he’d written in, took the Kindle Fire the thieves had missed. Took his sword and fencing helmets. His leather jacket and the parka I’d bought him for Christmas. But not his boots, his old, beat-up square-toed and very cool boots that were molded into the shape of his feet. Austin had been with him when he bought them, and he asked if he could have them. With love and gratitude I handed them over.

Funny how the thing that bothers me most is that I didn’t take his plaid flannel boxers. I could’ve worn them for pajamas, hung out at home in them. I could’ve cut them up and worked them into a quilt. The woman who taught me quilting had made a beautiful quilt from her boyfriend’s boxers. The odd and beautiful things that people make when inspired by love. I suppose you can make an an odd and beautiful life that way, too. Something to think about, for sure.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

01/20/91 – #3

My water broke about 1:00 in the morning, running wet and warm down my legs and pooling on the wooden floor in my bedroom. I’d gotten up because I thought I had to pee – maybe I did pee, maybe that was part of what was gushing out of me because what I didn’t know then, but is so clear now, is that this thing that was about to happen was not in my control. All I could do was go along for the shockingly painful ride. Shocking because I thought my good attitude meant it wouldn’t hurt so much.

My children were born at home which seemed to me the most reasonable way to go about it. Hospitals, doctors, nurses, fetal monitors worrying my baby’s every heartbeat – to have anyone try to manage my labor was intrusive. I was having a baby, not an operation. So when my water broke it was my midwife, Barbara, that I didn’t call. Didn’t call because I wasn’t yet in labor and saw no reason to wake her. What she said when I called her at 8 in the morning was, “I told you that if your water broke, you should call me right away. You have to come see me now.” I could go into labor any moment. She was an hour’s ride away – that meant an hour there and an hour back plus whatever time I spent with her and while I wasn’t worried that I’d be giving birth in the car, I did think my husband and I should get on the road so I could get back and make myself comfortable. “It’s time to go,” I told Phil, who was sitting at the table reading his New York Times. “When I finish my tea,” he answered, with a shake of the paper.

Being pregnant and giving birth didn’t make me nervous. It was Phil who worried that if something went wrong during birth we’d be blamed because we were having our baby at home. “When time comes, I’ll be at the hospital, pacing,” he used to joke. But it was time to go and I knew he was anxious. His way of tamping down anxiety was to try to slow down the situation. But no matter how much tea he thought he was going to drink, this baby was going to get born.

I’d had a few mild contractions during the morning, but it was on the way home from Barbara that they really started. What I thought they were going to feel like was some gentle vibration from the top of my belly to the bottom, like waves that would carry Philip down and out. Instead they were like a steel band squeezing under my belly and around my back while a mac truck was trying to ram me open. I’d fooled myself into thinking I had this together. I didn’t know that once I was in labor, my body wasn’t my own. She was doing the only job she had to: getting my baby born.

Pregnant bodies have their own intelligence. Birthing starts with hours and hours of contractions to force an opening wide enough for a baby-body to pass through, then hours of pushing to actually get it out. After the baby’s born, the placenta follows. Meanwhile, the mother’s breasts will have filled will colostrum, which the baby will eat for the first few days. It helps their immune system. Milk follows after, and will keep filling the mother’s breasts for as long as baby keeps emptying them. If I think about that, if I think about the intricacies of my pregnancy, intricacies caused by the merging of two microscopic cells, I know I was part of a miracle.

Labor was intense and painful. And the more it hurt the more scared I got until I didn’t have the pain but I was the pain and I couldn’t yell myself out of it. Even when I bit Barbara’s shoulder it didn’t help. Yet there were times I felt I was in some parallel universe, some place where I was watching what was happening to myself, checking in to remind me I was okay, to ask if I really had to yell so much. And during one particular moment of hot pain I heard the words, “There is no way out but through,”  which I wrote a bit about here.

Then it was time to push. It was not a choice. Pushing was an urge, a physical sensation impossible to ignore, an insistence I bear down with everything I’ve got. Which, at that point, wasn’t much. After some hours I thought myself physically unable to do it any more. My body said otherwise. I am not going to make it, I thought. I cannot do this. And when Philip’s head finally popped out, I gave up, too exhausted to care any more. “Push,” Barbara ordered. “I can’t,” I answered. I’d had enough. Let her pull him out. “Push,” she commanded. “Can’t,” I answered, eyes closed and resting. Truth was I wasn’t having contractions and I hadn’t any strength to push without them. Until Barbara stuck her finger up the only other available hole down there, and with one indignant push, out slid my son, a bit blue in the face, but strong and healthy and ready to nurse. He was born around 1:00 on Sunday morning, January 20th, 1991.  I do not remember the exact time. He was a true Sunday’s child, fair and wise and good and gay.

I often say I don’t know the world, but it’s not the world, it’s me that’s different. Am I anything but what I see myself to be? I had a flashback recently of November, 1990, the month I stopped working because of my pregnancy. I wanted to spend the last couple months alone with my baby. I see me in my forest green jacket and black stretch pants, walking in the chill and with a peace like I’d never known. Who was that woman? She was married and about to have her first baby, still living in Brooklyn, so damn innocent of what was to come. Not having any plans other than to be with this baby. Knowing, all the time knowing, that childhood is a small part of life and much as there were times when it was so difficult to be alone with Philip I knew it wouldn’t last. Patience, was all. I saw myself as earth mother, with my nursing, the cloth diapers I washed myself, the beans I soaked, the bread I baked. The baby food I cooked. I was going to do it right and because I was working so hard at right, things would turn out okay.

I didn’t see life for what it was. I saw it the way I wanted it to be. I was no earth mother, beans and bread or not. I was not someone who could stay in my marriage til death did we part. I was not someone who could live in the shadow I thought I was in. I was not someone who could stay as disconnected as I felt I was.

And I was not someone whose son would live longer than she did.

If there is anything that will get me to make peace with Philip’s death, it’s if I’m afraid of mine. Every change I go through is a little death, and gives me a chance to practice for my own. I do not want to wail and mourn for myself, to be this wracked and grieved when death reaches out for me. Philip has said I might think I’m not afraid to die but what is true for me in life will be true in death. And that whatever keeps me from loving life fully keeps me from loving him fully. These are hard truths and no twisting of my mind can help me escape them.

Philip, honey – Happy Birthday. It will always be Happy-Birthday, this day. And even though it’s your day, you are the one who gives the gifts. I love you, sweetie, I miss you being here, I miss the sound of your voice, your laugh, your midnight phone calls to tell me you love me. But I’m grateful for your constant presence, for the life you’ve given me to live. You know I’m still on the fence – patience, please, until I get off it.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Who I Am Not (Part 2 – The Reunion)

I thought about continuing Part Two from my last post without mentioning Christmas. Something seemed wrong with that…but I didn’t – still don’t – know what to say. This has been the oddest Christmas since Philip died. Including the fact that I don’t know what to say, because when it comes to how I feel about Philip, I am never at a loss as to what to say.

I love Christmas. I love it because the focus is on family and loved ones, because I get to give gifts, because the streets are lit up and people say “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays.” There was a time I would’ve snarled because how the fuck am I supposed to have a Merry or a Happy with Philip dead? But now I see it’s not personal – those are expressions of love and good will, and I will take all the tenderness that’s given me.

But this year was disjointed, pieces here and there, without a narrative. I have been reluctant. And removed. I look at Philip and I don’t know what I feel. There’s something I won’t touch here. I’m detached, but not because I chose to be. Detaching with love works. This is not that. This is the relentless march of life and at times there are things it requires of me – for Christmas, it required buying, wrapping, cookies, cake, chocolate mousse. It required spending time with Cindy, it required Christmas Eve at my brother’s. It required my tree, small and sparkly and which I kept lit – mostly -24/7.

I liked being at my brother’s and I liked being at Cindy’s and I loved giving my gifts. But getting there with all that doing – I hadn’t the heart. So what so what so what, I said? That did not help. Philip is not coming home for Christmas. Or anything else. I am not done being afraid. But I was numb. I was unable to feel what it felt like not to have Philip with me on Christmas. Who can I tell? I’m not ready to talk about it.

Peace, then, to all of you. If you’re suffering and that seems impossible, I wish it for you anyway. May it help you to believe that I believe.

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But this post is part two, The Reunion. For the last ten years, my classmates from  Junior High have been getting together annually, along with our homeroom teacher, Mr. M. This I discovered when one of them, Jo Ann, found me on Facebook. Everyone’s been looking for you, she said. Who is everyone, and why were they looking for me? I have a hard time thinking anyone would remember me, much less care to see me. I remember that time as the start of my rebel years. I was already drinking, smoking and taking drugs. I had a boyfriend and I had sex. I was too cool for the smart kids in my class, but not cool enough for the badasses I wanted to hang around with. I had it coming at me both ways. I belonged nowhere.

I decided to go, which for me was a walk on the wild side. My first reaction to any invitation is no thank you. Especially an invitation I considered dangerous: facing an unhappy past with people I couldn’t possibly know any longer, who I hardly remember knowing when I was actually in class with them. What if they thought about me the way I thought about me? Unhappy, distant, angry. By all accounts, I’m aging well, so the way I look was one less thing to worry about. And at that point, it was the one thing I brought to the table. I mean, if they didn’t like me, at least they wouldn’t say what the hell happened to her?? when they saw me.

But the fun of going was that no one, other than Jo Ann and Mr. M., knew I was going to be there. I arrived before most, and as people walked in, they tried to guess who I was. What shock and joy on their faces when they realized it was me. And I wondered why, all those years ago, I held myself back from them. Because it was more important to stand alone than be part of. I thought that was power. All it really was was lonely.

Reunions are perception shifters. You not only see your classmates differently, what you think you are is also shaken up. The biggest shock to me was that people liked me. They didn’t see the addict, the miserable girl, the condescending bitch I thought I was. “You were nice,” someone said to me, and while I once said “nice” is the laziest word in the English language because it tells you nothing, I was grateful that I was remembered as other than bitch.

The evening was a mix of past confusing present, and never more so than when Mr. M. reminded people that I had been Arista Leader. Artista was an honor society, and every year the boy and girl with the highest academic achievements were chosen as leaders. I’d forgotten, like I’d forgotten so much of what I achieved before I got to high school and determined to be mediocre. In sixth grade, I was Valedictorian. There was year I scored the highest in the district in the City-Wides in math, and the year when I scored so high in reading, my teacher refused to tell me my grade until she could figure out a grand way of announcing it.

But being reminded of Arista didn’t make me feel proud. I felt ashamed. We were all in the SP (Special Progress) class, reserved for the smartest of the smart. And my classmates were now doctors, lawyers, nurses, production assistants – and me, an administrative assistant. What had I done? Sure, I had kids – but anybody can have kids. And I couldn’t even keep one of them alive. How’s THAT for an achievement?

So much for not questioning “who I am.” Because that questioning was the conversation going on in my head. Until it got too painful and I started to talk. Turning to the half of the table where Mr. M. sat. I told them how troubled I’d been in Junior High, how I’d already started drinking and taking drugs. No one knew. I told them that life felt difficult for a long time. I talked about Philip, about some of what it felt like living with his death. I did not cry. I was telling my story. I was trying to connect.

Talking tamed the beast, at least for a bit. But not enough to get me to talk to the handsome man at the head of the table, the boy who’d been Arista leader with me. “Don’t you know all the guys were crazy about you?” I’d been asked earlier. No I did not. In Junior High I tensed when someone attracted me and only looked at them when I was sure they weren’t looking at me. They were looking at the pretty girls, the ones who nailed their outfits daily, whose boobs could fill out more than a training bra and whose butts were bumps, not bulges. When it comes to men, that’s the shame I cannot tame.

Shame is exhausting. And sad – so very sad. How much of my life has been lost in shame? How much care and comfort have I rejected because I was so ashamed to need? I thought if I let myself feel how much I needed I’d be swept away screaming, and who would want to come near me then?

I still weep for what I carry, wishing someone would appear and ask if I’m okay. No, I would say. I am not. And the best thing is that when I came from a day where I’ve had to listen to how John’s kid was a varsity golfer, Mary’s kid was accepted into Columbia, and Bob’s kid was auditioning for a Broadway play while my kid’s a bunch of ashes is in various jars around my house , I can say, “Today was hard,” and two strong arms would pull me close. No one can take this grief from me – I don’t want anyone to take it from me. I just want to come home to someone who cares.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

“It’s just one story”

(Spoiler Alert: In case anyone’s watching or planning to watch “True Detective,” I’m writing about the final scene.)

I’ve watched “True Detective” three times. When I finished the post before my last (“Hand to God”), I was up to my second viewing of the final episode. I knew what was going to happen, but I didn’t remember the all of it. And what struck me was the final conversation between Rust and Marty, because this is what I’d written in that post:

“So on the one hand, I say I need the dark to understand death. On the other, I say it’s light that leads to transcendence. Do I even know what the hell I believe?”

I’ve mentioned “True Detective” several times now; if you haven’t been reading along, Rust and Marty are two detectives trying to solve a macabre murder. Rust is the dark one. The fact that his two-year-old daughter was hit by a car and died is a huge part of what drives him.

The final scene in “True Detective” takes place at night, outside the hospital where Rust and Marty had been taken after being attacked by the suspect they’d been pursuing. Marty was already released, Rust was in a wheelchair. He’d sustained more serious injuries, was in a coma for a while. As Marty pushes Rust in the wheelchair, Rust talks about what we’d call a near-death experience, but not quite like the ones most of us heard about, the ones with the white light. He says he went somewhere dark, and in the deeper-dark he knew his daughter was there; he could feel her love. In that place, he said, there was nothing but that love. And even if you haven’t watched any of “True Detective,” if you’ve read the bit I wrote about it or watched any of the scenes I linked to, you’ll know Rust is not a sentimental guy. Hell, in eight episodes his one and only smile was a smug one.

Rust says that he wanted to stay in that love, and so he let go. That’s quite the opposite of near-death experiences I’ve read about, where people say they didn’t want to “come back,” but they knew they had to. Rust had no such dilemma. He let go, but he woke up. “I’m not supposed to be here,” he cried.

So Rust is crying in his wheelchair, and Marty looks up at the sky, at all the stars. Marty reminds Rust that Rust once told him that when he lived in Alaska, he used to look at the stars and make up stories. Tell me a story, Marty says.

“…I was thinkin’. It’s just one story. The oldest,” Rust answers.

“What’s that?”

“Light vs. dark.”

Marty looks up at the sky again. “Well, I know we ain’t in Alaska, but it appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory.”

“Yeah. You’re right about that.”

But then a minute later, this is what Rust says, the last lines of the show:

“You’re lookin’ at it wrong. The sky thing…Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light’s winning.”

Light and dark – there it is. Rust found something in that deep-dark that allowed him some light. It was Love. Because if Love is real, is tangible, there’s a reason to live. I don’t consider that a ride-off-into-the-sunset moment. It was a transcendent moment, which is no guarantee of what any next moment will be. But each moment like that is a star twinkling in the blueblack night. If you’ve ever looked deeply into a sky lit with stars, you know the beauty that comes from the interplay of dark and light.

Years ago, when I first joined AA, I met Maria. We shared the same sponsor and vied for her attention like two children. It was part of the friction between us, but I had no friends except the ones I was making in AA. I needed her.  Maria was short and dense with a long, serious face, wildly curly black hair and eyes that warned you away, like there was something inside she was keeping watch on. I used to think she was mean. But maybe she was watching the hurt that she’d been trying to drink away, maybe she was protecting that hurt because if your pain runs your life, what are you without it? And if that pain’s lived holding hands with alcohol, what kind of monster does it turn into without it?

One day Maria told me she’d seen God. What do you mean, I asked – you saw Him, like He was a person? Yes, she said, I saw Him. He’d come to her in a vision of robes and glory. I didn’t know if I believed her. I imagined such a thing was possible, but talking about it made it sound loopy. I wanted to ask Maria, “Then what could ever be wrong for you? If you saw God, if you knew He existed, what could your sorrows be?”

I didn’t ask because I didn’t want her to think I doubted her. Truth is I was envious. Why’d God visit her and not me? I’d stopped drinking and was trying to “turn my will and life over to the care of God” like everyone around me. It wasn’t working. But if I had a vision, I would finally be once-and-forever all right because I’d know something I hadn’t known before. If God revealed Himself to me I could believe there was something beyond this deeply disturbing world. But where was He, and why should I want to live in a world that even He refused to inhabit?

There isn’t – for most of us – a single epiphany that causes a big enough shift that world settles down forever. That we settle down forever, because the world is the world and it isn’t going to change. If you want to change the world, change your mind about the world. That’s the way to peace. I’ve had moments of transcendence, and never more so than since Philip died – not the least of it being the way he communicates with me. Two years of it and I’m still sometimes shocked. Philip’s wise in ways I didn’t have access to when he was alive. To be this close with him in death is pure grace. But what do I do with it? I know these daily signs are nudges from him telling me to wake up to life. He told me a long time ago that signs are pointers to the truth. At some point they’re not necessary. But he knows I’m too hurt and shaky to do without for now.

Never have I felt as loved as I do since Philip died. A broken heart means I’m as vulnerable to love as to grief. But my dark still has a lot more territory. I know that sometimes life’s irredeemable, sometimes people die sad and broken. So I have to ask myself what do I make of I’ve been given and what’s been taken? Will I die treating my life like a tragedy?

© 2014 Denise Smyth

My Secret

I ended my last post with what was to be next. Instead, I digress.

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 AA says you’re only as sick as your secrets. The light’s supposed to shine away the dark. Because it’s always there, the light. It’s a matter of if you see it.

Secrets are built into addiction. It’s a matter of survival. “Addiction” becomes this thing you are, not this thing you have. It’s a force, and it wants to survive. It’s not supposed to be able to thrive in the light. So where does the light come from? Just from telling the secret? What exactly happens when you say the thing you think you are or think you have? With all the AA I’ve absorbed, you’d think I’d know.

I have bulimia and anorexia. I don’t mean I had bulimia and anorexia. I mean I have bulimia and anorexia. That’s been my response to Philip dying. At first I wouldn’t eat. For months after Philip died I picked at food. I was drained. A bag of bones my clothes hung on. It wasn’t so much a choice; the food wouldn’t go down. Anxiety was a tsunami in my belly. If anything went in, it would have been blown back out.

In the mess of days after Philip died, people wanted to feed me. “Are you hungry? Can I get you something to eat?” they’d ask. I could only shake my head. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t do normal. I couldn’t pay attention to anyone because they weren’t in my world. In my world the only answer was, “I will never eat again; I will starve myself to where my son is.”

David Foster Wallace, himself a sober addict when he died, wrote about benign and malignant addictions. “Many addictions, from exercise to letter-writing, are pretty benign.” He then adds, “…  something is malignantly addictive if (1) it causes real problems for the addict, and (2) it offers itself as relief from the very problems it causes.” And so round and round I go.

I am so damn angry. And I’ve a habit of punishing myself when I suffer loss, which I wrote about here. In the past, it was about The Guy. The one who always turned out to be a jerk, because, of course, it was his fault. All I wanted was to be loved. I lived for these guys, yearned for them, dressed for them, got on my knees for them; why the fuck couldn’t they love my need away? So I’d leave them, depressed and angry, and start the Food Games. Months of barely eating until my body couldn’t take it any more, at which point I went to war with it. Hunger was a betrayal, forcing me to eat when all I wanted to do was die. I’d sneak into delis and grocery stores, head down, walking as close to the shelves as I could, as embarrassed by my hunger as by my cartful of cookies and cupcakes and chips. I’d start eating in the car, and once I was home, tore through that food until I felt like a blimp about to burst. Then into the bathroom to hurl it all back at the universe. And soon as I got hungry again, I did it all over. Buying more food at different stores. At my worst, binging eight or nine times a day. At my worst, all 5’4” of me weighting 98 lbs., and counting down.

It was my mind that drove me crazy, and my body that I punished.

So what happened? At 28, I met my husband and it hit me it was either him, or my crazy. I chose him. I got help. I settled down. I learned how to eat, how to listen to my body. I stabilized at 125 lbs. The more I let myself eat, the less food was an “issue.” I got married, had kids. And to my wonder and surprise, after Philip was born, I lost more than my pregnancy pounds. I weighed in at 118, where I stayed for the next 20 years.

The blow of Philip’s death blasted me into a suffering I was helpless to deal with, so I turned to food. Same pattern – I went from barely eating, to vomiting. Back and forth, back and forth. Down to 102 lbs., obsessed with staying there. Telling no one; not anyone, for longer than I can remember. Until the day I told Kirsten, told Rose, who is sweet and lovely and who I’ve yet – but hope – to meet. Finally, I told my therapist. And most importantly, I told Natalie, because I would never have taken the risk that she’d find this out through a blog instead of directly from me.

I’ve been throwing out weight and height to make a point, to make the picture clear. To make myself see what I am doing, to shake myself into some semblance of caring for myself. Because much as I’m taking the steps to do what’s right, it’s coming from “I have to,” not, “I want to.” The have-to is because of Natalie; I love her enough to understand she needs me right where I am. It’s all for her; I don’t know how I ever let it get to be for me, too.

Here’s where I stand: I have stopped throwing up. I am afraid to eat, even though I do. I do not weigh myself. I am probably somewhere between 110 − 115 lbs. I am told I am too thin. I do not believe that. When I look in the mirror I don’t see what you do.

And I’m exhausted; I’m tired of worrying about food, tired of it always being on my mind, tired of the voices in my head  that don’t even sound like voices, just sound like normal thoughts. Normal? Here’s a sample: “Oh, are you going to eat that for lunch? That’s too heavy. You better not eat breakfast. Eat some grapes and drink some Vitamin Water. Don’t finish what you’re eating. It’s good to leave food on your plate. What are you going to eat for dinner? You ate lunch, after all, you can’t eat too much for dinner. And don’t eat too late. What? You’re eating popcorn at 10:00 at night? I don’t care if it’s fat-free; that’s bad. Very bad. Bad, bad, bad.”

This isn’t the end; it’s just all I can say for now.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

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