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

Things of the Spirit

You’d think that Philip’s death would make the holidays miserable for me – a reminder that my family is no longer intact, is not the way I ever thought it would be. That the unthinkable has happened. But the light of Christmas is as much a part of me as grief is. So I go back and forth between the warmth I feel this time of year and the chill I get when it hits me again that Philip has died. It strangles me sometimes – looking at his picture, knowing he was here, knowing he isn’t coming home. Knowing I can’t do anything about it, that talking about it can make me feel even more helpless because it changes nothing. Things of the spirit need come first, I remind myself. But why is the path to peace so hard?

When I was a kid we had big Christmas celebrations. Christmas Eve was the best. We gathered at my grandmother’s house, my mother’s mother. My mom had six brothers, and some-but-not-all had kids. Plus my uncles had lots of friends who’d stop by. There was an uncle who’d dress up as Santa, me always guessing which uncle it was, proud of myself for recognizing he wasn’t the real Santa. The real Santa was too busy running around in his sleigh to stop and visit grandma’s.

I love giving gifts. I’ve baked dozens of cookies, an apple cake, a caramel cake and chocolate mousse. Christmas Eve I went to my brother’s house with Natalie. Christmas Day Natalie will be with her dad, and I’ll be at Cindy’s where we’ll eat leftovers and watch movies. I don’t have a lot of friends, but I am blessed with the ones I do have.

I prefer fall and winter, even though I get cold easily. At work, where my co-workers think it’s too warm inside and so open windows, I wait for them to go to the bathroom and quickly close them. I have coats for varying temperatures and have finally figured out that scarves and hats actually work. Still, I adore winter, though I balk when it gets here because that means it’s leaving. Its coming means the days begin to get longer. Dusk at 4:30 is still too late for me. I want the short days, I want an excuse to stay inside. Winter is cozy and comforting. As are evening and night.

Philip was born in the winter, and he died in the winter – still, that’s when I feel safe. His birthday brings me close to him, and the day he died, closer still. Closer because his death was an explosion, making him larger than life. It took him away, yet I feel him near. How to explain that? The only thing to say is love. Because no matter what’s gone, our love remains. My time with him can’t be taken away and even though he’s died, he hasn’t become what I feared – only a memory. Memories are static, and what I have with Philip feels much too alive. For that I am grateful. I have suffered grievously for having lost him. Now I am grateful for having had him, for what I still have with him.

And for knowing that whatever I suffer I do not suffer alone. Who is simply “happy” to be alive? Who doesn’t feel the terrible sadness conjured up by a supposed season of peace? A sadness more profound because, as a child, in my innocence, I believed there was a special kind of magic around Christmas. The Santa Claus dreams of then can form a cruel contrast  to the reality of now. Those childhood years may have been short, but the impression they left is endless.

Where is hope, then? Not in things of this world, for sure. For this is a world we come to in order to die. Hope lies not in imagining the world as I think it ought to be. It lies in my ability to see it differently, an ability that Philip’s death has honed. That everything dies is no longer an abstraction but a hard truth. I can hold my breath and curse God if I choose. Or not. I choose not. What has God to do with this world? If I believed in the vengeful God of my childhood, I’d say everything. But even as a kid that God made no sense to me. I never understood being told that “God loved us so much he sacrificed his only son for us.” What does that even mean? How do I benefit from God’s dead son? And how could I love a father who had one special son who he then killed for my sake? Why did one son get to be special, and not another? And if He killed his special son, when was He coming for me?

The first time I heard, “Man made God in his own image” I knew I’d learned something profound. And freeing. The vengeful, tyrannical God of the Old Testament was a choice. Which didn’t mean I invented a kinder one or that I chose to be an atheist. I’d mixed up God with my parents too deeply to switch to a godhead more friendly, and I wasn’t arrogant enough to be certain there was nothing beyond what my senses showed me. There was too much mystery to life for me to presume I had an answer.

I saw the absence of God in the world as proof that He didn’t exist. The problem right there presents itself as one of language – “He” didn’t exist, as if God had a sex, a gender, a form, was a being the way I was a being, only mightier. Then one day I read, “We say, ‘God is’ and we cease to speak,” and I thought that was as close to an answer as I’d ever get. Because when it comes to things of the spirit, it’s the open-ended answers that come closest to the truth.

It might sound odd for me to be loving Christmas given all I’ve just said. I don’t see it that way. I see Jesus the way I see Bhudda – a being more enlightened than the rest of us who walked this world for a while. It’s the religion man made around him that I object to. The seed of Christmas is love and now’s when I have a chance to express it in ways that I don’t during the rest of the year. It cuts both ways, this love, filling me up for what I have while making me keenly aware of what I’ve lost. When I say, “Merry Christmas” what I mean is much love to you and yours. And that’s what I wish for all of you – love, and whatever peace you can find.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

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

Let It Go

Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
go,
to let it go.

                           –Mary Oliver

Let it go. Not Philip – that isn’t possible, even if I wanted it so. Just let go the rage, the grief, the despair, the emotional flailing because my child has died. My child has died. The most shocking words I have ever said.

The way I better understand this is to say, “no resistance.” “Let it go” sounds like make it go away, make these things we think we owe our dead disappear. That’s not what it means. To not resist is to let it be. Let the grief be. I’ve reached a point where I can think about what that means. Grief isn’t going to go away, nor is anger. When I resist them, it’s like holding on to fiery coals and what happens to hands that cling to fire? They burn. And they burn. And then they burn some more. They won’t stop burning until the hands begin to loosen. The fire doesn’t go away. But the hands, while still hurt, begin to heal, even as they remain forever scarred.

The source of salvation in this world is letting go. To stop resisting what is. I’ve spent my life looking for an answer when it was there in front of me all the time. Salvation comes not from without, but within. It took Philip’s death to catapult me into this wisdom that I was dancing around with before he died.

Letting go is work. It’s not something done once, but once you really do it, there’s no turning back. You forever know the grace of letting go, you know what it feels like, you know it’s a decision in your power to make. When Philip died I said a cosmic fuck you. I didn’t want to know what was then my credo: Accept it, leave it, or change it. The only workable alternative was impossible. Accept it? In my hellish grief, I misunderstood what that meant. Accept it didn’t mean it was okay. It meant grieving but not fighting. It is possible to grieve without fighting. That doesn’t mean I don’t love Philip. And in letting go of the fight, I am free to live in his love.

The month before Philip died I was debating whether to take a Shakespeare class at the local adult school. While I love Shakespeare, it’s difficult to read on my own. It’s in class that the work comes alive. I was ambivalent, and as Philip told me, ambivalence is not nothing. For a month I carried the brochure around, longing but stopping. Until I finally decided to stop stopping and went online to register. The class was full, the fact of which knocked me off my feet and sent me spinning into some fantastical universe. The chattering in my head was unbearable until I finally listened to what that voice was saying:  You’re not good enough, you’re not smart enough, this is Montclair for God’s sake, filled with intellectuals, did you really think they’d let you into their club??

Notice that the voice was saying “you,” not “I.”  What, who, was this voice that drove me into such darkness, such hatred? It didn’t matter. All that mattered was I got it. The only reason I didn’t get into that class was because it took me a month to make a decision. It wasn’t personal. It wasn’t about me. The class was filled. Period.

I let it go –  I took a big, deep breath and let it go. The knot in my stomach didn’t go away, the ground didn’t immediately return to steady me, but there was space around all of I. I saw it was my thoughts that created my reality. I was excited. This was the work and I was doing it. So simple, so profound. And it didn’t mean I wouldn’t come up against something like this again, it just meant I could choose not to get caught in it.

So I looked at the brochure and took note of the date class started. Monday, February 27th. Let me see what I’ll be doing on that day, I thought. Maybe something better will come along.

I couldn’t know that what I’d be doing was giving my son’s eulogy.

Heaven and hell converged that night, and for a long time hell won. Philip’s words to me were never forgotten: Mom, you gotta go deeper. I knew he was right. I didn’t care. He was dead and that’s all that mattered. What I refused to realize was that the greatest teaching in this world would come from from his death. Of course I couldn’t realize – death consumes, strangles, destroys everything in its wake. But it is not for nothing that the phoenix rose from the ashes, its youth renewed, ready for another cycle.

I’m trying to teach you what death isn’t, Philip told me. It isn’t the end – there is no “end.” Not to what matters. Bodies are temporary. Death is change. Change is always uncomfortable because it’s the death of what was. I’m looking for the courage to jump into the void of change. I know what it feels like. I’ve done it. It’s what to do with Philip’s death. Holding my grief is not going to bring him back. Letting it go isn’t a betrayal. And yes, it leaves me vulnerable. To pain as well as to love. But still there’s that knot, past pain tangled up with Philip’s death and I am yet scared to really let go. To fully embrace my son exactly as he is. Still there’s something so terrible about him dying, and something that feels familiar about this sorrow.

At the end of Philip’s eulogy I asked, “Can I love this child of mine without attachment?” In other words, can I love him and not cling to my wretched grief? Even then I knew letting go was the answer, much as it was impossible to do so. Now I do it in bits and pieces as I hold him close to my heart. Because holding onto him feels better than those fiery coals.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

When We Connect (Part 3)

Last year, holiday time, Max was on my mind, seemed to be all around me. I’m not even sure what I was thinking about him – just some sense of him, along with something vaguely disturbing. Driving home on a late Friday afternoon, I heard Philip say, “Call him.” In that heart-racing-stomach-clenching moment I knew that’s what I had to do. The rest of the way home I had time to think about it. I wasn’t sure what to say…I could wish him happy holidays, tell him I was thinking about him…I could tell him I wasn’t angry, ask him what he’s been up to…but most importantly, I had to understand that I could not expect a Kumbaya moment out of this. I’d love for us to bond over my love and good will, but I couldn’t call him for that reason. No expectations, I warned myself. I’m doing this because it need be done. Period.

Good thing I warned myself. When I called, Max was withdrawn, hesitant. He didn’t say much, not when I tried to chat about what he was doing, certainly not when I told him I wasn’t mad at him, that he was part of Philip’s life and that meant something. Not sure what to do with his awkwardness, I ended the phone call as gently as I could. But I was there for it. I was there for the discomfort of the call mixed with the lightening of a load I wasn’t aware I was carrying. And even though I’d failed at getting Max to open up, I was left with the quiet excitement of being in life.

I told Natalie about it, and she said I had no idea what effect I’d had on Max. Maybe nothing now, maybe something. And if nothing now, maybe one day years from now, a more mature Max would think of this and be relieved. He was, after all, the one who found Philip, the one who felt guilty for introducing him to heroin in the first place. But as I told him when he cried to me at the wake, he didn’t stick it up Philip’s nose and he can’t spend the rest of his life feeling guilty about it.

I offered Max absolution I don’t believe I have the power to give. I am not God. But I am Philip’s mother and as such have a power I don’t often understand. Forgiveness is a tricky thing. If I truly believe you did something wrong, how can I forgive? It feels so high-handed – I’ve decided you’ve sinned and now I will absolve you. But what word is there for what that was? I was freed from a resentment that I didn’t realize was background noise. I’ve no interest in Max suffering – if I knew his suffering it would only add to mine. So if forgive is the word for what I did, then the definition has to be “freed from resentment.”

And then there are those moments – time stops and all there is is what you know. It’s not intellectual – it’s the deep wisdom within, finally, elusively, surfacing. Shattering the monkey mind, however briefly. Why can’t I live in the light of that? Maybe it’s just too bright to be constant. Maybe if it was, I’d burn.

Or maybe I’m just too afraid.

The first year after Philip’s death I was still living with Nadiya. One Sunday night I was in the first floor bathroom, Natalie was up on the third floor, the floor where we lived. Looking in the mirror, I felt a pain in my chest – it was toward the left side and for a moment, I shivered. What if I was having a heart attack? I didn’t believe I was – more likely gas. But I took the opportunity to act it out. I’d been saying how much I wanted to die…what if this really was a heart attack? I bent over and let the pain take over, let myself believe my heart was giving out. Then the shock of reality – Natalie needed me. She needed me. She was not ready for me to die. Her world would be shattered and I could not do that to her. She mattered – she was all that mattered. I stood up to a world that had shifted. Could I? Could I not? Clarity is a shock that humbles. I can’t say I never thought that I wanted to die since then – but I can say I never thought it without seeing Natalie along with it.

Then this. I’ve been watching “House.” If you’re not familiar with the show, House is a doctor in a hospital whose team diagnoses patients with puzzling illnesses. And I can’t watch a show about a hospital without envying the patients. This is an old, old habit. In my fantasy, there is relief in not having to do anything but let the staff take care of me. In fact, when I was a teenager and my friends talked of their fear of giving birth, I’d tell them, I’ll have the babies, you’ll raise them. Because that fantasy also involved a hospital – there I’d be, resting in bed, surrounded by flowers, for just a short bit of time being relieved of the burden of living.

Except that’s not where relief lies. Relief lies in realizing truths. Watching House one day, the shock of what being ill really means hit me. These people were sick. Their lives were on hold, their bodies were out of control. They were frightened. They could become disabled. They could die. And so another fantasy turned inside out, another opportunity to live in truth.

Apparently that particular truth took some kind of hold. Because the next day, outside walking, there rose a thought that was odd and strange and alien to all the things I’ve been thinking since Philip died. I say “rose” because it came from my gut, not from my head. And the thought was this: I am not ready to join him.

For a moment I had faith. Until the murmuring mind began. Are you sure? What if you have 20 years ahead of you? Can you live that long without him? Can you really make that commitment? Do you know what you’re getting into? And Philip chiming in to remind me, Mom, I am right here.

I could go on about the way I struggle with the past in the present, I could say that that’s the voice that always takes over…and maybe it is, but its motivation is something I haven’t explored, something I hadn’t even considered because I didn’t understand what it really was: Survivor Guilt.

And next time I’ll be reckoning with it.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

When We Connect (Part 2)

Grief is a spiral, not a line that goes from here to there. There is no “there,” only here. I still bristle when I hear people talk of “moving on,” though I know it’s said out of a naiveté about death. I am not nostalgic for that time in my life, when death was a concept, not an experience. I have no wish to be innocent. That’s what I love about a wide-eyed child, a nursing baby, a puppy, a kitten – their purity and innocence. Maybe why I ache for them is because it won’t last. Life will make sure of that. Whatever I’ve gone through has been inevitable, and none of it is anything I want to go through again.

*****************************

What is it that happens when we feel the relief of connection with others? I talked about that in my last. I think what happens when we feel that close to someone is that we recognize something within ourselves. We feel our worth, our value; we feel love. To feel that love is to understand that is what we’re here for. If we can feel that through another, then we know it exists within – and so we feel connected to ourselves. But how strange is that – when I feel love, I feel connected to my-self. So who is the I, and who is the self? Am I two, or am I one? I think of the “I” as the watcher, the constant presence. It’s different from my personality, from my reactions. It is the presence that observes what I do and what I feel. Think about it. Think about the past. When you do, you’re remembering moments that occurred in time. But the “I” that is remembering is outside of time – it is always there and has always been.

As a human being I am subject to rules and conventions. As a spiritual being I have an aspect that’s timeless and changeless, where the laws of this world do not apply. It’s up to me how to integrate these two. It’s up to me to take that spiritual dimension as seriously as I take my humanity.

I’ve had moments that are breaks with the world as I see it. A truth is realized, there’s a shift in perception. And a shift in perception of the world is a relief. Those moments connect me to life and do not necessarily require the presence of another. The question, then, is do I trust enough to take the risk of belief? My ego is not so keen on truth.

I have a niece who died from brain cancer. I wrote a bit about it here. Nicole was only four years old. She’d developed a rare cancer that at the time had only been seen in 60 children in the country, all of whom died. The doctors tried an experimental protocol with her – remove the tumor, then four months of chemo followed by a bone marrow transplant. Three months later the cancer was back. In another three months she was dead.

After that, trying to find some perspective about death, I started to read “Who Dies” by Stephen Levine. I did not consider that one day I would be in the same position as my brother – I was simply trying to understand. At the time, I lived in a large five-room apartment in Brooklyn. This particular day I was in the back of the apartment, in my bedroom, reading Levine. Outside my bedroom was the hall that led to the kitchen, where my mom, who had come to visit, was cooking. Philip, then four, and Natalie, about one-and-a-half, were in the living room watching TV.

It was a winter evening; such a lovely word for the transition between day and night. There’s a mental winding down, a break from the day’s madness. Lying on my bed reading, I could hear the vegetables being chopped, the furious boiling of the water as it waited impatiently for the pasta. The sounds of being taken care of – for just a while I could be the child, waiting for my mother to have dinner ready.

In his book, Levine has a Tibetan meditation on the process of dying. You imagine yourself dying, imagine your body dissolving. So I laid on my back, closed my eyes and relaxed, let go of my body until it no longer felt like pretending. That’s when I started to panic. I was too deep in the darkness to come out of it. All I could think of was my kids. Who was going to raise my kids? My husband would work it out, but no one would love and tend to them like me. Wait, stop – I can’t die yet. They’re going to grow up – I’m not going to see them grow up. This can’t be happening. Except it seemed to yes, really be happening and I could not control it. They were slipping away too quickly and my arms were not long enough to reach them.

Yet in an instant there was a shift. I took a breath and let go. What was happening to me was happening. No point arguing. My children would be fine. My time had come and they were no longer my responsibility. My work was to take the risk of letting all that I knew go, because there was no other way. And I did and I knew peace – the peace of being with what is so. The great and willing leap into the darkness. Swiftly it came, and swiftly it went.

When I have to die, that is the way I want to go. The practice is here, now. The non-resistance of the circumstances of my life. Accept it, leave it, or change it. I recognized that moment of peace, and I have had many since. But swiftly they come and swiftly they go. That great peace of just being. Of breathing. And that is the way to deal with Philip’s death…but that is a darkness I’m still arguing with.

Next, Part 3.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

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

There Must Be

“There must be another way.”

(NB – on 5/29 I updated the links to A Course in Miracles, as I’d mistakenly put the wrong ones.)

And so began the birth of A Course In Miracles, the origin of which is as fascinating as the course itself. I won’t go into it because out of context it can be an eye-roller. I read the story of how it came to be as I was reading the Course itself – and though skeptical, I decided it didn’t matter where it came from or how it got here. It spoke Truth to me and that’s what mattered. And I’m talking about the serious Course in Miracles, not the watered-down Marianne Williamson version. I think she’s helped bring the Course to the attention of many; but I also think to begin to understand what it’s saying, one needs to turn to the Foundation For Inner Peace for help.

The Course is combination of three books – the text, the workbook and a manual for teachers. The workbook has a lesson a day for a year – I did it, but it took me much longer. Some lessons I lingered on, some days I skipped. If the purpose of the Course can be summed up in one sentence, “There must be a better way” is it.

If the Course taught me nothing else – and it taught me much – I came to understand that it is the way I look at things that creates my feelings, my very life. When something happens, it’s a fact – I perceive that fact and make a story. Like this: I’m driving to work, I hit the curb, my tire goes flat. I’m furious. I’m going to be late for work, I have to call AAA, I have to wait for them for God knows how long. I want to blame someone but there’s no one to blame so I blame myself for being a shitty driver, I blame the town for making the street so narrow.

So is the truth of this is that it’s a calamity? If I look at it from AAA’s view, it’s not a problem – it’s their job. If I look at it from my boss’ view, he knows I’ll be a late for work and he’ll go back to what he’s doing. I can sit and fume, but for what?? If a flat tire is inherently a calamity, then it must be a calamity for all. So if there must be another way to see this, what can that be?

I have a flat tire. I am not helpless. If I have to wait I can read or listen to the radio or sit and pay attention to where I’m at. I have discovered that when I give my full attention to whatever it is, I become interested. When I make room to breathe, the anxiety dissipates. And it’s not theoretical – I know what it’s like to sit and wait for AAA and I have spent the time enjoying it.

So you start with the small things to see how it feels and you come to see that that is the way. Then your kid dies and it all goes out the window because all you can think is Really? See this differently? Are you FUCKING KIDDING ME??

A  miracle, simply put, is a shift in perception. A Course In Miracles recognizes no difference in the degree of difficulty of that shift. But it takes major practice and willingness to see that other way. I say I want to feel better – is that so? When I think of my son dead, I have to wonder how much “better” I really want to feel. I am not talking about anything like “moving on” (the mantra of the unconscious and uninitiated) or forgetting. I am talking about my ability – my willingness – to join with life in the face of this most torturous death.

To see Philip’s death differently is to separate my riven heart from my shrieking mind, the mind that takes haunted voices from a troubled past and lets them speak of that which they know nothing about. My heart needs to put words on what this is because my heart doesn’t lie. I just need some quiet and patience to listen. And I’m not doing this alone. When Philip said, “Let me be the voice in your head” he was asking me to let him help me see things differently because that is the answer to the question, what can I do?

For months after Philip died I relived the moment I found out – the phone call telling me Phil had come, the knowing without another word being said, screaming down the stairs, crawling on the floor; My son, my son, my son my son. Over and over I would think about how I flew down those stairs, making myself sick and dizzy until one day I heard Philip: Mom, you don’t have to do that. Of course I didn’t. All I was doing was jackhammering my already raw and bloodied heart. So there was one, clear thing I could do. When I found myself on those stairs, I brought myself back to where I was, gave my attention to my surroundings. I tried to stop telling that story because my stories take me from life, which is only ever happening in the present.

What I’ve never been able to reconcile about “living in the present” is that Philip lived and died in the past, so am I supposed to forget?? But I think I’m starting to understand. It’s the past that’s gone, not my son. The past is memories of moments in time, and every moment in time becomes but a memory. Every word I write was a thought in my head a moment ago. Every moment is new until it isn’t. The future comes only as the present. And while Philip’s death can make my my life seem too long, when time comes to die I’m going to feel like it all went really, really fast.

Turning to the present from the dream of past doesn’t mean I leave Philip. He is not here as I want him to be and he’s not going to give me the future I had in mind. Such is my sorrow. But he is my love, my heart, my guide, my muse. He is here and he makes himself known. There are times I rest in that knowing…and there are times when it just isn’t enough. And too often lately it really isn’t enough. Next time I’ll talk a bit about why.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Sometimes

Sometimes. The word sings in my mind, so heartbreaking, so poignant. It reminds me of the good that doesn’t last, of the grief that comes and goes, of the way I miss Philip more at certain times. Living is odd and hard. But sometimes it isn’t, and if something comes along and I can enjoy it, I do. I absolutely do. Like the wedding I went to a couple weekends ago, in my red Indian-styled gown with its splashes of black, golden sparkles, crisscrossed back and sheer flowing bottom. Natalie came with me, my “plus-one” as people say, wearing my crimson Free People “French Courtship Slip” with its see-through top and layers-of-lace bottom. We danced all afternoon, danced until I was tired and breathless and then we danced some more. How joyful to let myself shimmy and spin, like I’d not a care in the world. And when I danced, I didn’t. I was with Natalie – what more, in those moments, did I need?

Sometimes I think things will bother me, but they don’t. The wedding was for my friend Pete’s son. We know each other from work, and he’s become like a brother. I wondered what it would be like, watching his son get married while mine has turned to ash. Watching Pete host this celebration was seeing another side of him, was seeing his kindness in action. To be part of this wedding that meant so much to him and his family was an honor. It wasn’t about me, and for that, I am grateful.

Sometimes I have a hard time with Pippin, my sweet and aging shih-tzu. I feel guilty about my impatience. I try to think how the world is for him – his sight and his hearing is almost gone. It must be like living in a tunnel – or not, because dogs sense differently and I’m looking at this from a human perspective. He’s on three medications for his collapsed trachea, won’t walk up or down stairs, and has taken to arguing with me when I take him out for a walk. It’s not that he can’t walk, it’s that he likes to pause and then go in his own direction which, of course is different than mine. He wears a harness now, and sometimes I have to drag him where I want him to go while he digs his paws down and does his best to refuse. So I’ve been practicing breathing around this. It’s just more change. If anyone’s arguing, it’s me. Why, for God’s sake? I’m trying to call a truce here, trying to walk slower, let him wander the snaking path he chooses instead of the straight line that I’m so fond of. See, he – like all – will die, and I don’t want my last memories to be of my impatience.

Sometimes I wonder why spring seems so troubling, why I keep the blinds down, why I don’t understand the joy people have when the weather is warm and sunny. Sometimes I wonder about this need to be alone, this resistance to leaving the house. Sometimes I have my groceries delivered so I don’t have to go out.  Grief needs room and I find that room in my solitude. Don’t pity me. I have my season – while others are cranky about winter, that is when I take comfort. I spend time alone because I choose to. And I’m not really alone just because no one else is here. I am the best of company, and Philip is right by my side.

Sometimes I hear people talk about the college their son is about to start or to graduate from, or the varsity sport that they play or the way they save/spend money or whatever things sons do around their families and I stop, I make myself small, I look down and away and I hear Philip say, “Mom, I’m here.” And I think that I, too, have a relationship with my son. It’s just not one most people understand so it isn’t something I often talk about. Which is the hard part. We all have a need to be visible. To be connected. You tell me a story about your son, I tell you one about mine. Somehow I don’t think injecting stories about receipts with numbers and clouds that turn into diamonds will go over too well. But that’s what makes my relationship with Philip so precious. It’s intensely personal – it’s my story and my dead son and no one can touch it. Sometimes I’m sad because I’m silent – but sometimes, most times now, I’m grateful for what I have and my secret is not a burden but a joy.

Sometimes I notice that Natalie is so little part of this blog. She is the one who teaches me about living while Philip teaches me about death. They are not separate. “Mom,” Philip said, “You have to look to Natalie for life – else all that I say will mean nothing.” But life in the wake of his death is tattered and confusing. Yet sometimes I think if I approached it with the intensity I approach death, what a wonderful world it could be.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

What He’s Asking

Three years. It’s like some subway stop I got off at where everyone on the platform knows where they’re going and they’re rushing around to get there. Not me. What way do I go? Do you know what I suffer, I want to ask these busy people. Do. You. Know?? But what for? It doesn’t matter if anyone knows – it changes nothing. Philip’s faded from the world. Not my world – but the contrast between the way he’s alive to me but visible to no one is frightening. This is so fucking hard to learn, these truths. Like the fact that he’s dead to the world but that doesn’t make him not in life. That Iife isn’t what I thought and death is a bigger part of it than I understood. That there’s meaning in death, beyond some black void we and our loved ones disappear in. That people die, relationships don’t.

Thinking of these three years makes me want to tell stories, stories about the past and Philip but I can’t write to an idea of what I want to say. I have to write what’s pressing. And what’s pressing is the unseen part of my reality which maybe makes me sound crazy. Or worse, hokey. Like I’m a beaming sprite with flowers in my hair, a flowing white gown, eyes glued to heaven with a brilliant smile. I’ve heard too much New Age treacle where people find some “spiritual” solution which (a) makes everything okay and (b) is what you should be doing and if you pay enough money, someone’ll show you how.

I am grateful for all the ways Philip is around me. That doesn’t make it okay that he’s dead. And no one’s going to give me any solutions. A true spiritual path is deeply personal in its form, but universal in its content. That’s why people don’t have to experience exactly what you do in order to get what you’re saying.

And because I want so much to get it right, the invisible audience I’m writing to’s become hostile. That’s the thing about writing. If you write, you want to be read. But if you write from need, then what you need is yourself on the page. What you cultivate is your voice. I listen for myself here – but lately, too often, my voice gets lost to what feels like a Greek chorus looking down their noses with crossed arms, droning on about what I say and the way I say it because really, it isn’t ever good enough.

But those voices don’t come from “outside.” They’re in my head. “A mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master” someone said. And it’s especially masterful when I speak of that which I cannot see but I know is there. I needn’t argue with the skeptics – I’m way cynical myself. I know the way I feel when certain others talk about their version of the unseen. There’s a culture to this that I am not part of. I share what’s been my direct experience and if I’ve learned anything, spirituality isn’t linear. It’s a deepening. It’s not about “getting” somewhere. It’s about releasing what’s false to get closer to the truth. That’s something we do on our own. My way involves my son. I cannot ignore what happens – it’s these extraordinary experiences that’ve helped me put one foot in front of the other.

Like this.

Driving the 40 minutes home from work a couple weeks ago, I was headed first to Grove Pharmacy to pick up prescriptions for Pippin, my thirteen-year-old shih-tzu with the collapsed trachea who has to take three medications to deal with it. Philip’s been heavy on my mind lately. It’s no wonder – the fact of three years is sinking in, and the time-and-weather change does not help. Spring means warmth and growth and people voicing joy over it. There’s pressure to go out. I prefer the ice and snow, the dark that makes it comfortable to stay inside.

So I was driving and thinking about how old Philip would be if he was alive and I didn’t know. For a couple minutes I was blank, clinging to the steering wheel because I had to drive but stunned and shrinking from the despair of being disconnected. Was I forgetting him? Was he becoming a blur, just some part of my life that was gone while I kept going? Okay, I told myself. Think. Philip has been dead for three years. He died when he was 21 so that means he’s 24 and of course I couldn’t remember he was 24 because that number has no meaning to me. I have a sense about certain numbers. Like 21 – it’s a beginning, a social milestone, a time of youthful man/womanhood. 22 is the next step; it’s graduating from college, a time when you have many choices. 23 is wonderfully odd. 24 draws a blank, as if nothing interesting could possibly happen. Given the Chinese curse, “May you lead an interesting life,” maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

When my senses returned and the car felt steady on the road, I said, “Okay, Philip. I’d like to see 24 before I get home.” And not because I was looking for it – it doesn’t work that way. He had to show me in a way that meant something. Like the time I asked him for a sign and a few minutes later a car cut me off and I saw his initials on its license plate. Something like that. And I was thinking that I’d get a receipt with the medication I was about to pick up and receipts have numbers and it would be nice if 24 would be one of them.

I forgot about it for the rest of the drive – I was too busy listening to stories on NPR because I love stories and if I’m not telling them I want to listen to them. Once I got to the pharmacy, I stepped out of my car and a van whooshed by that had 42 on it. I looked up at the sky like Philip is any and everywhere and said, “That doesn’t count.” But by the time I got inside, asked for the medicine, chatted with the grey-haired, pony-tailed man behind the counter about how Pippin is my dog, not my child, how his name came from Lord of the Rings and finally paid for the meds, I forgot to look at what they cost.

Grove Pharmacy is not just a pharmacy, but not like the way CVS isn’t just a pharmacy. CVS is large and impersonal, and its only surprise is whatever cheap items pop up in the seasonal aisle. Grove Pharmacy is smaller, but you never know what you’ll find there. It has a candy counter where you can buy by the piece or the pound. There are Halloween costumes, lovely and unusual greeting cards, gifts for christenings and communions. There’s a small selection of interesting and well made jewelry behind glass counters, and they can pierce your ears if you like. And they play real music, like “In Your Eyes,” which I’d written about here and so hearing it reminded me of Philip and that I’d forgotten to see how much I paid for the medicine.

The pharmacist had shoved the receipt into the bag with the meds so I hurried to the car to see. And I will be damned if that medicine didn’t cost $42.24.

What I make of this is faith. Not happiness, faith. Sure, I get happy when these things happen, but happy fades like all emotions do. This is more than happy. Different than happy. And it’s profoundly challenging. “Have you asked yourself why you keep asking for signs?” Philip said. “Have you asked yourself what you do with them?”

It should be a back-and-forth, I think. He gives to me – what do I give to him? It’s pretty simple – love and faith. I’ve got the love part down. It’s the faith where I’m shaky. Faith is a leap into the void. It’s having the will to not resist what is so. Including his death. He’s asking me not to treat my life like a tragedy. I’m not done asking him to tell me how.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

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