The Voice in my Head

The man in the podcast I listened to today told the story of the day he got a letter from the police department. When he opened it, he saw a grainy picture of himself in his car, hands on the steering wheel, along with a $45 ticket for speeding. This was 1991, when traffic cameras weren’t as prevalent as they are now. Shocked and angry at the intrusion, along with the fact that there was no human being involved, he decided to fight back. He Xeroxed $45 and sent it in along with the ticket. A couple weeks went by, and he got another letter. In it was a Xeroxed copy of a pair of handcuffs and he laughed. There it was – human interaction. Playfulness, even. A sense of humor. So he paid the ticket and that was that.

Then the chief of police who was in charge of traffic cams at that time came on the podcast. He insisted that in spite of all the angry hate mail he received about the cameras, he did the right thing. Less people died, he said. Less people died.

Since when did the Chief of Police become God? Did he really know when it was the right time for anyone to die? Do I mean people should drive recklessly, plowing down anyone in their way? Of course I don’t. There are ways to figure out how to reduce speeding without violating people’s space. We are being watched in ways we don’t even know and those who are watching feel their power enhanced. Because they’re in on the secret, and we’re not. And they get to decide what it is they want to do with what they think they’re seeing. All in the name, of course, of saving lives. Because that’s what most of us spend our lives doing – avoiding death, as if we could. And at what cost?

See, death doesn’t give a shit about traffic cams or medical breakthroughs or gym memberships that in the end make for really good-looking corpses. Maybe. Of course you do what you can to keep your body healthy – you take care of it the way you take care of anyone or anything you care about. But you also understand that this body is a temporary means of communication and if you think only of how much you can bench press without also preparing for the inevitable, you will never have enough. Your body will never be tone enough, your clothes won’t keep you happy, your house will never be the way you think it should. There is always something more to want until death stops you in your tracks, which it will. Whether it’s yours or – worse, if you ask me – that of someone you love.

Death teaches us about life. Death adds dimension to life. You can’t take death seriously without also wondering what it is you’re here for. And that is what drives you to make meaning, to ask what it is to live fully, to go beyond the world’s definition of what you should be doing and what is important. And the question is not, why am I here if I’m going to die? That is a great and terrible distraction. The real question is, what do I do with this life that I’m given, because no matter what the why of it, the fact is I am here. Asking “why?” is living in some unknown past that prevents me from living, which is the the thing I claim I’m trying to figure out how to do.

What the hell would life be without death? Unimpeded growth is destructive. All you have to do is look at cancer to see that truth. We each die that others may live. By being born we agree to die. Listening to that police chief made me think how selfish I am, how selfish we all are – I mean the hubris, deciding I shouldn’t die and my son shouldn’t die when all of us are going to die so who are we to say when? If it was up to us we would never say “now” and we would become a malignant cancer on the planet.

These are hard, hard truths. But experiencing them – not talking about them, experiencing them, makes it easier to live with Philip’s death. I wrote about Krishnamurti saying, “I don’t mind what happens.” Five words that tell you how to live. But right there is the struggle – how does one “not mind what happens” when your child dies?

I think you don’t go directly there. I think you practice – I think you make it your life’s work. You start with the small things. Every day annoyances. What if you didn’t get pissed off about having to wash those damn dishes that keep getting dirty? What if you waited on the grocery store line without resentment? Or sat calmly in a traffic jam? To be angry at what is so is insane. It doesn’t change the situation, it just makes you miserable. You lose your humanity. If I’m waiting on line and I’m pissed, I’m forgetting that I am one of all these people who are creating that line. I’m forgetting that all these people are just like me. And I’m forgetting how to breathe.

I have been holding my breath about Philip’s death. I know that now because I breathe more. I resist less. Dedicating my life to grief is a false position. Grief is and will always be part of my life. I am grateful for what it’s taught me. Philip will always be part of my life – he is my guide, my muse, my love. And right now, this moment, I am able to breathe. I write this blog because it gives me room to breathe.

I used to pick at myself all the time – pimples, scabs, the suntan peeling off my body.  The more I picked, the longer the wound took to heal. So it makes sense that I would pick at my grief like festering scab. What else to do with this wild and gnarly feeling? But all the picking and hair pulling and determination to not ever be okay has changed into something else. Now I nurse my wound. And to do that, I spend a lot of time alone. I am hurt and tender but I want to take care instead of make worse.

I can’t say how I got here. I think it has to with do having lived through and with Philip’s death my way. I felt a wild thing for a long time, loose and crazy and holding it together only because of Natalie. To even consider letting go of the way I felt was inconceivable -I was what I felt, and I thought my own death was the only solution. Besides, it was a betrayal. And all through this, I was listening to Philip urging me to life but shaking my head a huge NO. But because I let myself be as I needed to be, what is so began to change. Not the fact of Philip’s death, but the way I perceive his death. And the way I was true to my grief is the way I need be true what’s been changing about it. If you asked me three years ago, two years ago – hell, one year ago if these words would ever come out of my mouth I would have been deeply offended. It is an act of faith to not resist change. I thought I would lose Philip if I got up off my knees. But now I feel closer to him than ever. I am graced to have the contact I do with him. His death is an opening to light much as it’s driven me to the deepest dark I’ve ever known. This doesn’t mean I still don’t get scared, that I don’t despair when I stop and think of the years to come without him here the way I want him to be. But I am so tired of hurting that I can’t spend time thinking thoughts that make me miserable. “Let me be the voice in your head,” says Philip.

“Let me be the voice in your head.”

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Always Been So

So I crashed. Friday. Cried my makeup off on the way home from work. Felt something more than the dull edge of anger. Alone and overwhelmed, I took two-instead-of-one of what the doctor’d given me for when I can’t sleep. And so Friday night passed, and here I am.

Yesterday I woke up to a cold, sunny Saturday morning and I gave up. That is another thing I can do nothing about. I want clouds, and much as I know what trouble it is to let external factors make my mood, weather is a tough one. I was glad to find there’s a word to describe something about me: Pluviophile. Lover of rain. It’s not an “idea.” I have a physical, emotional reaction to sun, especially at certain times. Like Saturday mornings. That’s got to be something learned, since what matter Saturday or Tuesday? I think it’s the fact of having a whole day to do as I wish, and wishing I could do whatever that is in the comfort of if not a full-blown storm, at least a good amount of cloud cover.

But then today – it’s snowing and I am at peace.

So I crashed. Friday. Like I could see the outline of Philip’s body with the deep, dark space behind it. I think it matters that I see that void – that suggests there’s something there, something more than I am aware of, and in that deep dark lies possibility. I find comfort in that.

But it’s more complicated than Philip’s death, than that most terrible loss which magnifies all other losses. Along the way to February 23rd there was something else going on, something about a man, and even though most of it was in my head, it was the reason for the particular flavor these last few days have had.

I’d like to get the idea of needing or not needing a man out of the way before I go on. Ideas become part of the culture and begin to get mindlessly repeated because it’s easier to be mindless than thoughtful. And the idea that a woman shouldn’t need a man is another one of those things. By that standard, each of us shouldn’t need any of us. But we do need each other, even if it’s not for the reasons we think. Relationships are not here to make us happy – they are created to teach us. If we’re happy with them, so much the better. But happiness is not the endgame here.

As to whether or not I need a man – fact is, I would feel better with the right man. I know this not because I sit around wishing I had a partner. I do not. It’s been a long time since I’ve been involved with a man. And never have I more understood how fleeting “happy” is since Philip died. Not because I was so fucking happy while he was alive. I wasn’t. I wasn’t aiming for it, either. I was asking myself how I could be at peace with being alive since I’d spent most of my life at war. “Happy” is an emotion that comes and goes like any other. Peace is something else, something deeper, something that isn’t given or taken away. It’s something you realize is there once you allow all the grasping to fall away.

Relationships provoke feelings that are already part of us. If I find joy in being with a man, then that joy is part of me, man or no man. But that’s an idea that means nothing if it’s not experienced. I met a man recently. I was deeply attracted to him, and it has been years since I’ve been deeply attracted to anyone. We talked, we texted. Something, I thought, is going on here. He is kind, thoughtful and attentive. I took what I thought was happening between us and made him into something he wasn’t. But during that time, there was light. There was possibility. Excitement. There was, I thought, comfort.

Of course, there was also reality.

He wasn’t seeing what I was. So out went another light as I headed into the anniversary of the worst day of my life. It’s no wonder I found myself either numb or cursing. Loss – even of something imaginary – overwhelms. After suffering Philip’s death I thought nothing could ever bother me again – turns out I’m so vulnerable that things can bother me more. But it’s that vulnerability that makes me transparent enough that it all passes through. I can’t hold pain – and now I know I don’t want to. Feeling it and holding it are two different things. It’s what the Buddha meant when he said pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.

I am okay. No matter what, I am going to be okay. Philip knows that, and from that knowingness comes my own. There is no real separation from him. I was trying to say that in my last, when I wrote that it isn’t true that if I’m not at peace then neither is Philip. It’s his peace that grants me my own. Separation is created by the body, this wonderful, heartbreaking, temporary way we experience each other. But the true connection is always so. And it’s not caused by doing; it’s the not-doing that allows what isn’t essential to fall away and reveal what’s always been so. Philip and I have always been so. Ask any parent if they can imagine a life without their child. They can’t, because once you have a child, the relationship has always been so.

And if that sounds inexplicable, it is. It’s part of the mystery. And I don’t need it explained, all I need is to know.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Three Years

Today is three years since Philip died. Since we found out he died, because he really died on 2/22 but since they found him on 2/23, that’s the day that’s on the birth certificate, the day it became real and true and official. These things matter, like I have to get it clear in my mind, I have to understand, and somehow I think these details will help me. Like I have to explain this to everyone because if I’m honest about all of it – the way it happened, the way I feel about it – then I have something to hold on to. All these thousands of words I write, these deeply personal words I publish, both bind me to my son and keep me grounded.

Three years, and I think I should have something wise and profound to say, something special to honor my son. But I’ve somewhat disconnected – I think a psyche can only take so much at a time. Grief, for now, is no fierce burning. It’s turned me into something aloof, distant. Lately, what I feel most, when I feel anything I can clarify, is anger. I noticed it because I’ve found myself saying ugly things at every day annoyances, and I am too easily annoyed. The dirty dishes, the unmade bed, the sick dog who needs his medicine and has to be carried up and down the stairs. It was the vulgarity I spewed that shook me up – it wasn’t anything I’m used to saying. Oh, I thought; I’m angry. And if there’s one thing I can’t take feeling, it’s anger. Because what do you do with such fury? How do you contain it? If I let my anger bleed out even a little I fear where it will take me. Philip isn’t coming home. I want him here. I can’t do anything about it and after three years I do know this is so. It seems more so than ever. I’m helpless to do anything about it. I am so angry that if I feel it I’m afraid it will suck me back to three years ago, to what it felt like to hear those three little words that chewed me up and spit out into some void that sometimes I think I’m still falling down into: “They found him.”

They found him. How the fuck am I supposed to live with that?

Well, I do live with that. I can live with that. Because in certain ways time has collapsed. What is time, anyway? It’s pain, for sure, because if there’s one thing pain needs, it’s time. If I think back to what happened or forward to a life where I grow old and Philip doesn’t, I will go crazy. But right now I can live with this. I don’t want to have to, but it is my reality. What does it mean to say three years? We’ve made up these things we call days and months and years. We give them names and think that gives us some control. We number hours and decide what should happen within those hours. We group them for convenience, we dole them out, we covet them. They feel longer when we’re anxious and shorter with our pleasures. So when I say time has collapsed what I mean is that in many ways I’m just paying attention. To Natalie, to work, to writing and knitting. To closely following whatever creative urge I have because creating lies outside of time.

Grief isn’t heartless. Grief is a teacher. Grief is the way into my heart. For that I am grateful. I am not someone who has loved life. I am not someone who has understood why anyone would want to be here. But never have I felt more alive than I do now. That’s Philip’s gift to me. What is the point of his death if I die, too? And how hard is this to grasp because if I choose to live I still don’t understand I’m not betraying him and I’m not losing him. But the pull to life is strong. The only betrayal would be to resist it, to make the fact that I’m grieving become a role. If I’m playing a role than I’m bound by fantasy. I don’t mean to say I’m not grieving – I’m saying that grieving is as fluid as everything else in life. I can’t say I experience his death the way I did three years ago, as if the intensity of it has to remain or I don’t truly love him. When someone asks how I am, part of me wants to say I’m broken because then they will care, then they won’t forget Philip. But those aren’t the right words. There is no brief conversation that’s going to let anyone know how I “am.” So I say, “I’m okay” and am content to leave it at that. Because after three years, the need to say how truly terrible this is is ebbing. When I need to talk about it, I come here and write it.

Three years, and still Philip is close. I’ve been told more than once that he can’t rest in peace until I, too, am at peace. That he can’t be free until he knows I’m okay. I disagree. He knows I’m okay – I’m the one who has to get it.  And I don’t think this is about “resting.” I think it’s about living, which is beyond the impermanence of a body. When it comes to these things, I’m willing to trust my own experience more than someone else’s, which is a triumph not only for me, but for Philip as well. I can’t make sweeping generalizations about the dead. I can only say what I know about Philip. That he’s kind and he’s patient, and he’s not worried that what he’s trying to show me is still, in many ways, eluding me. It’s his faith I rely on when I can’t find my own.

Many years ago I was told that this was going to be a very spiritual life for me. Wow, I thought; how cool is this? Visions of softly winding roads lit with a sun I’d finally enjoy passed before me. Who knew instead of a blessing it would feel like a curse? Still – it’s my life and my path and if it meant Philip would only be here for 21 years I’d still rather that, than not to have known him at all.

So mourn him I will – argue, I won’t.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

The Lasts

It’s February again, the month of lasts. Last time I saw Philip, last time I spoke to him, hugged him, texted him, left him a voicemail. Last time I told him I loved him and listened as he said it back. The deeper I move into February, the more I withdraw. I am alone in ways that only death can teach. There is something about life and death that no one can give to me. It can only be realized because it was always there. Thing is, I can’t reach it. I can’t define it. I hurt terribly about it because something is missing. Something more than just Philip. The hole he left only grows larger because that is where life is. And like it or not, I am being sucked swirling down into that deep. There is no way to resist. Except to keep my eyes closed and refuse what he wants me to see.

February. It’s different, as everything is always different. I know, every day I know, it’s February. I am walking apart, taking one careful step after another. I can’t see where I’m going, I only know I walk with death. This is not a bad thing; it’s not a good thing. It’s just what’s so and I would like to get to know death. It is, after all, my constant companion. I want to keep it close. Anything that has to do with Philip I want to keep close. I need solitude. Natalie’s moved back – she is all the company I need right now because I love her so. I keep to myself much as I can, spend whole weekends in my apartment. I consider it a victory If I park my car on Friday and don’t move it until Monday.

And why, I wonder, is that so hard to understand? This is my life and I’ve lived it enough to know what I need. I created Philip’s birth and now I’ll create the way to live in his death. Three years is nothing. It’s as though he just died, yet it’s like I’ve not seen him in forever. What is time? It’s perception, is all. My 24 hours are not the same as yours. I’m not talking about clock time. I’m talking about psychological time – past, present, future. All that’s real about time is that it’s always now. So can I, for now, live with Philip’s death? Yes. I can and I do. I show up for work, I show up for my daughter. And in my alone time I write, I knit, I sew. Creativity is a call to life. I am not sitting and crying, I’m sitting and knitting. If I did sit and cry, then that would be what I needed to do. I bristle when I’m told I shouldn’t be alone. And I think anyone who tells me I should be doing anything other than what I am is afraid of getting burned by the fire of this mad grief. Because death is exactly what we try to avoid every day, and who wants to see it in the eyes of a mourning mother.

When Philip and Natalie were little, I’d bought a book on numerology. I’ve always been fascinated by the unseen, by wanting to commune with something I knew was there but couldn’t quite grasp. So I read maybe half – because really, there wasn’t a book that could give me what I was looking for – and put it down after I went through the exercises that would tell me what my own personal number was. The result was that 2 was going to be an important number for me. 2? What’s with 2? Give me complicated 3 or sexy 9, but 2? 2 had no personality, meant nothing to me. Besides, it was an even number. How much more boring can you get?

Philip was found lying on the floor of his room on 2/23, which is the official day of his death. But we know that he really died on 2/22. I’d say 2 got real important. It took his death to connect me to the unseen. His death is both a blessing and a curse. I am closer to Philip now than I ever was. It is not his body I need, much as it’s what I want. Why do we cling so hard to these bodies that are only temporary? I wonder that I don’t let myself be more comforted by Philip’s presence, by the way he nudges me, helps me, all the time. It’s merely his body that’s gone, and if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t know the things I now do. I live on two planes. The one where my bare feet feel the cold floor, where I pick up dog shit, shop for distraction, spend too much time fretting over what to wear. Then there’s the plane where I feel loved and tended to, where I know what matters, where I see how fleeting this all is and that’s okay because it’s what is so and to argue about it is pointless. To be in touch with what’s beyond what I can see is to be graced.

February. I don’t want it to end. I know it’s a construct, but I feel safe here. I feel close to my son because this is the month he  died and so offered me an opening to the Divine. This is the month I excuse myself from obligations I don’t much tend to anyway. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s that I haven’t the energy. Going to work is about all the going-out, all the interruption from my real work, that I can take. I need the calm and quiet of my home. This must be what seedlings go through before they sprout. They live in the deep dark until the day they poke their tiny heads out – then they are fragile things, growing roots underneath as they reach for the sun. Some of them make it, some of them don’t. Me? Resist though I do, I know something that is difficult to say. I think I’m going to make it – and Philip wouldn’t have it any other way.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

What I Carry

I’m in a river that’s broken through a dam, a river full of furious energy, mindless and untamed. Moving in one direction, but going too fast. I’m not fighting, I’m not even trying to get a grip. I wouldn’t know what to grab on to. I can’t think about it. At this speed, I don’t think, I just navigate past the danger. But I don’t breathe, either.

I smashed my car (no one got hurt and it didn’t get totaled). I spilled water on my computer, dropped my cellphone in the toilet. On a whim I looked online for an apartment and found one. But there’s the matter of the lease I signed for the place where I’m living, which means (so I’m told) I’m responsible for the remaining 8 months’ rent (read: $12,000). But there’s also the horrid brown water coming out my faucets and the refusal of the people responsible to respond to it. To me. That, along with several other issues, might help to break my lease, especially since my friend Cindy put her formidable lawyer shoes on and contacted the Property Manager.

And for whatever reason, I am beginning to understand what it means to “carry Philip’s spirit” into the world. I hate the phrase – it reeks of desperation and I’ve never understood what it meant. How could I? I am grieved and mourning and when I’m alone I can’t help but to just be. Whatever that is. I’ve not hidden how I felt since Philip died. Early on, I’d tell anyone and everyone. Salespeople, cashiers, the gas attendant; someone help me, please help me. I needed kindness. I needed to feel contact, which was impossible. I couldn’t make some effort to carry Philip’s spirit into the world. What I was carrying was crushing me as it was.

Two years and nine months later there’s been a shift. What I carry now, along with my sorrow, is Philip. Like when I was pregnant. For the first three months the only people that knew I was pregnant were my brother-and-sister-in-law and my parents. I said, as many do, that there was most chance of miscarriage during the first three months. I didn’t want to share the joy of pregnancy with anyone who I wouldn’t also want to share the anguish of a miscarriage with. But that wasn’t the all of it. It wasn’t even most of it. What I wanted was quiet time with my son. It would be a rare and short time that I didn’t have to share him with the world. He would always be part of me psychically, mentally, emotionally – but this was the only time he’d be part of me physically. He was my secret joy, he was love in a way I hadn’t known it. Once everyone knew it would be both a celebration and an intrusion.

And so it is now, in reverse. When Philip first died, I couldn’t stop telling people. Now I’m mostly quiet. It hurts. Not always, but often. It was after Philip came into the world that I wanted to share him. This is my son, I would say. Now I can’t, not in the same way. The other night someone asked how many children I had. I have two, I said; but my son died. “I shouldn’t have asked,” the woman said. “Of course you should have,” I answered. “It’s just that death is hard to talk about.” An invitation, for sure – but not one that was answered.

My relationship with Philip is constant and private. He’s too much a part of me to ever be gone. I know this – at least when grief doesn’t overwhelm. And as far as his spirit – I am kinder, more friendly. I am curious about people. I’m not so afraid of them any more. That is Philip, with his grace and ease. “Mom, I like my life” he once said, with a sincerity that stung because I could not say the same. To live with him guiding me is to live gently, is to let life be. And then things happen, then I meet the right people, without even trying.

Like this.

When I’d decided to look online for apartments, I sent emails to different realtors, who emailed back wanting to make appointments. I chose M. M. showed me two apartments that I really liked, one of which I wanted to live in. When I realized I couldn’t just break my lease, I started to flip. Not as bad as last year, which I wrote about here. And M. is one of the reasons for that. Besides her calm and her humor, she’s smart. When I realized I was most likely going to lose the apartment, I started babbling to her about last year and how hard it was and everything was too expensive and no one would take my dogs and she interrupted with, “Okay. But it’s not last year. It’s now.” When I cried because I had to turn that apartment down, she sent me a link to the Rolling Stones, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” When I called her up to tell her the various scenarios that could take place if I could break my lease in two months or four months or not at all, she said, “But we can only deal with reality. Reality is now. And now you have a lease and you’re starting the process to see if you can get out of it early. That’s what we have to work with.”

And really, it’s no surprise. It’s no surprise I chose the Realtor who’d say the things to me that I should be saying to myself. It’s no surprise that as I was driving and thinking Philip is the face of love is the face of love I passed police van #201, then got cut off by a car whose license plate had Philip’s initials. Yet much as I can rattle off the hundreds of times he’s let me know he’s around, I still spend so much of my down-time under the covers, waiting. Just waiting. Philip is asking me to live differently. He is offering me things to think about. He is suggesting that maybe I can try – just a little – to walk in the world the way it is, instead of being seduced by the misery of the underworld. He is asking me to have some faith.

I am grateful for what I have with Philip. That the bond we had in life is even clearer in his death. That he’s teaching me life isn’t what I thought it was, and neither is death. But my God –  I miss him, I miss him, I miss him and there is something too terrible about his death to bear.

But let me share some joy. Here is Nikki, five months old:

Nikki, five months old

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Year Three

Year three. I laugh. I’m happy at work. I eat more. I’m kinder, I smile at strangers. I take pleasure in being helpful. I go out more than I used to. I don’t always notice the perpetual knot in my stomach. I’m sewing again. I signed up for a class on Macbeth and another at a local craft store. I don’t wake up every morning and wish I hadn’t.

But I still wake up lots of mornings and think, “Again.” I might go out more, but not a lot. I feel odd and different. I’m alone in a way I didn’t know possible, and I know too many people know what I mean. I often feel like I can’t do this, but I don’t know what that means because I do, in fact, do this. I buy too many clothes because every time there’s a box at my door with my name on it, I think it’ll save me.

And I still cry in the grocery store, like when a song I wouldn’t normally pay too much attention to comes over the sound system and the singer is so earnest when she sings, “Because of you…” but I don’t hear the rest of it because whatever she’s singing couldn’t possibly mirror what I think/feel when I hear those three little words. And I still won’t let it comfort me that when I got out of that grocery store, the car parked across from mine had Philip’s initials and the year he was born on its license plate and was next to another car with his initials and the day he died.

Year three, and I still spend a lot of time alone. Grief’s my companion and I can’t get to know it if I don’t spend time with it. How shall I mourn? What is it to live with this shocking truth I’ve come to know? And what of my secret? That I know the yin-yang of grief means there is joy and beauty that’s as terrible as this anguish. To even think such a thing feels like a betrayal. And I don’t have to be told that it’s not – I’m not talking rational here. Philip does not want me unhappy. “Mom, you don’t have to choose,” he said. But that remains a thought, not an experience. When I go too long without thinking of him, I panic. When Philip was alive, I learned I wasn’t going to lose him. That the more I let go, the longer our bond. That hasn’t changed – I haven’t lost him, except for the way that I want him.

But how blessed am I? Philip is all around me. He talks to me, guides me, makes his presence known in ways that still make me twitch and blurt “fuck” because that’s how amazing he is. But Year Three, and I still ask myself, what I do with all that? His presence is a given. I don’t “look” for him – he is the one who makes himself known. But what do I do with that? I see sign after sign after sign and then I disconnect, go home and have a good cry. Because grief trumps all.

Year three and I’m still struggling with language. I’m struggling to write about truths without sounding trite and cliched because they sound like those things people say without really thinking about what they’re saying. Anything said over and over loses its power to move us, to tell us something we don’t already know. To say things like “you don’t get more than you can handle” or “everything’s a lesson” is infuriating when things start to get real, like they do when someone you love dies. Especially when that someone is your child.

But the saying is necessary. That’s why writers write. Good writers will make you pause and consider, rethink what you thought you already figured out. I want to be that writer because how the hell else am I going to figure this out?

Year three and there’s still that one thing that’s always been easy. It’s easy for me not to ask why – it doesn’t matter and it doesn’t help. It’s never the why, it’s the what-I-do-with-what’s-so. “Why” might have a time and a place, but Philip’s death isn’t it. “Why” keeps me rooted in an ugly world where I judge and condemn and assume that I know what should and shouldn’t be – it keeps Philip’s death real personal, as if it was something done to me and if it was done to me, then something’s done it and might do it again. But there is no “something,” not in that way. Of course more crises can come. That’s life. But it’s not personal, there’s nothing out there doing stuff to me. We each have our share. So what do I do with mine?

To be in the world, but not of the world – that’s what Philip’s trying to teach me. And I see the simplicity of it. If I take seriously all the signals he sends every day in the most startling ways, then I am beginning to see things a little differently. If I pay attention to what he is now and stop looking back and forth to what we were and what I thought we’d be, then I can breathe a little. If I stop trying to make sense of a world that is essentially senseless and look to my experiences to teach me what’s so, then I am taking real responsibility for creating my own world – something I’ve never done. I’ve watched most of my life, like it’s a movie. I’ve waited for life to give me something it can’t. I’ve let it happen and taken my sorrows as defeat. My choice – I have a choice. And when I finally had the nerve to choose differently, Philip died and I thought the world was making some hideous cosmic joke. “Mom, you gotta to go deeper,” Philip said. But this grief, this grief; it’s this dark where I go deeper, and I know that’s not what he meant.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

What Matters?

Brookdale Park July 2014

Brookdale Park

“Nothing worth knowing can be understood with the mind. Everything valuable has to enter you through a different opening.”
Woody Allen in “Manhattan”

Friday night I went to the dog park in Brookdale Park, a couple minutes drive from my apartment. Since it’s a couple minutes I could walk it, except the last time I did, I thought Zoe was going to burst a valve with the way she was panting. Both she and Pippin are shih-tzus – with their pushed-in faces, they don’t breathe so well when it’s warm. But I happened to meet someone I knew who gave us a ride home, which is, in itself, an entirely different post.

Brookdale Park is large and lovely, with fields and winding paths lined with trees. There’s an order to it, which my mind finds soothing – but there’s something else in me that’s restless for the mystery and terror of a wild, tangled forest. It’s hard to find a place in the park that isn’t there by design. But I found an elvish clearing with trees that stood apart from each other, their graceful tops meeting to form a lacy canopy. Watching from the path, in light that had just faded from late afternoon to early evening, I saw a fairy circle in the middle of the clearing. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a sprite flit by.

During summer, the park sometimes has Friday evening concerts. They’re held on the field where Philip used to play soccer. The field’s lost its power to overwhelm. Sometimes I visit a place full of Philip until I wring out every last drop of him. I’m grieved enough without physical reminders whacking me back to a time that can’t be. So it wasn’t the fact of the field that pissed me off about the concert that was being held there – it was the intrusion of crowds and happy music. Collective pleasure’s always been hard to abide, and never more since Philip died. But Friday night was irresistible Motown Night, so I wandered over in spite of myself and sat on the rough and itchy grass to listen.

People come to these shows to enjoy themselves. When Philip and Natalie were little, I sometimes did the same. A couple of chairs and a blanket, a warm night, my kids wandering around with everyone else’s kids. And me wondering why the hell I didn’t feel like I belonged, what it was I needed to feel the carefree ease I believed everyone else was feeling. They sat with their friends and kids and food and coolers full of whatever (supposedly non-alcoholic) thing they were drinking. That was the club I was supposed to join when we moved to Montclair, when I left the sprawling, intellectually vacuous part of Brooklyn I lived in. Montclair was supposed to be the place. The one where I’d raise my kids and meet the friends I’d have for life. But wherever I went, there I was – and it wasn’t the place that isolated me, it was the way I thought about it.

You’d think I would have felt worse on Friday, me being alone with my dogs, no one I knew in sight, sitting with memories of past summers and soccer games – but it wasn’t like that. Sure I felt separate, alone in ways I couldn’t have known before Philip died. What felt different had to do with judgment. We are all, each of us, judging everything, all the time. It’s what we do – and maybe one of the kindest things we can do for ourselves and each other is step back from those judgments and understand they are intensely personal, and therefore, not entirely true. I can’t say I wasn’t “judging” as much as I wasn’t minding whatever I was seeing. Particularly about myself – I might’ve been alone, but at least I didn’t feel freakish.

It’s not like I’ve come to some great acceptance. I’m just talking about Friday night. I’m talking about the glitter on the performers’ lapels, the dancing, the lone food tent with zeppoles and sausage-and-pepper heroes, the people who stopped to talk to me about my dogs, my gladiator sandals that drew surreptitious glances, the woman next to me who looked really neat with her flares and flannel shirt and her blanket stitched with moons and stars. It was clear her oh-so-casual “look” was deliberately chosen, like the careful way I choose whatever I’m wearing, even if it’s jeans and tees. And that’s very different from the way other people’s clothes seemed to have carelessly chosen them. But what’s it matter? What’s it matter what any of us wore or what our hair looked like or how old we were? I’d like to say I thought it didn’t matter because I realized it’s our relationships that matter, and that sounds like a deep and lofty thing to think. But what did I know of the relationships between the hundreds of people in their separate groups around their separate blankets with their separate dramas? In the end, is that the thing that really matters?

Friday night I was super-aware that we were all going to die and in the face of that, I wanted to understand what was real in the moment-to-moment shifting of my perception. If my heart seized and I realized death had me by the hand, whatever it was that mattered wasn’t going to have a damn thing to do with gladiator sandals or moon blankets. What was it, then? I watched and listened and sang and smiled, but I could not see what mattered. Maybe I couldn’t see it because was right in front of me, the way my nose was right in front of me and I couldn’t see that, either. But there was a bitty opening and some sort of knowing tried to make its way in. Stay with it Mom, Philip said; don’t make it into something. But I tried to grasp it with words and it slipped away.

There are things I can’t yet put words on. I might never have the deep attention and humility it would take to do so. And there are things I cannot put words on because if I do, I’ll move from possibility to ideas. Ideas return me to my mind, where I’m not going to find what I’m looking for – because when it comes to ideas, there isn’t a single one I’m going to take with me when I die.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Depth and Breadth

“Not everyone will understand your journey. That’s fine. It’s not their journey to make sense of. It’s yours.”

I don’t know who wrote that  – it’s the way Dee over at MourningAmyMarie started her last post. I commented on it, and when I started going on and on I cut it short because I realized I wasn’t commenting, I was posting. So thank you, Dee, because while I’ve got several posts started, this is the one I didn’t know I needed to write.

One of the things Dee wrote about was “The chirpy, self promoting, thoughtless stuff that gets posted” on Facebook. Facebook is a phenomenon I don’t pretend to understand. I have a Facebook page, and I’ve come to see its value. People from my past have gotten in touch with me through it, and they’re people I’ve been happy to hear from. And ironically enough, in the middle of writing this, someone from my JHS found me and wrote, “so many people have been looking for you.” I am too stunned by the thought that anyone remembers me – much less is looking for me – to say anything more at the moment.

Since my blog is connected to Facebook, it’s a way of letting people know when I’ve posted. I don’t use it to stay in touch otherwise – I’d rather email. But the way I am about Facebook is a reflection of the way I am in life, as it is for all of us. There are people who update others with pictures of where they’ve been or what they’ve been doing, and their friends do the same. If they weren’t doing it on Facebook, they’d be doing it some other way. It’s a broad and ongoing conversation, and it’s no mystery to me what’s bothered me about it. It’s another something everyone’s involved in that I don’t  much want to be a part of. Yet sometimes it feels like a rejection rather than a choice.

Of course, there’s a nasty, voyeuristic side to Facebook. People say awful things about each other and to each other and are glad to have an audience to play to. People will follow up on others who’ve hurt them and become outraged to see them doing well – in effect, allowing those people to hurt them more. A Facebook picture might paint a thousand words, but we are the artist. We decide what kind of lives the people in those pictures are living based on what itch we need to scratch, and we scratch and scratch and wonder why the damn scab won’t go away.

As I wrote to Dee, Facebook exposes the ugly underbelly of our collective condition. It’s not that we’re any worse than we ever were, it’s that now it’s in full view. I’ve heard about things posted on Facebook and wondered what made someone – in such a traumatic moment – even think to snap a picture? One of the worst I’d heard about was someone taking a picture of her dead child and posting it…and I’m sure that that’s not only true, but that it’s been done more than once. Is there anything we can imagine that’s not been photographed and made public? So maybe we are worse, because now we have a platform for all of it and we’re in a hurry to be the one who gets there first.

Blogging is another sort of conversation; more depth than breadth, and one I’m more comfortable with. I’m not going to understand the need to post pictures and updates any more than others might not understand my need to write a blog so intensely personal. We each have our way of wanting to be visible.

I write my blog because I’m still stunned and grasping for words to wrap around Philip’s death. It’s the only thing I know to do. There isn’t anything worse than losing a child. Take my arms, my legs, my sight, my life – not my child. But here I am. And whatever hurt before about “the world” only hurts more. I’ve said I can’t change the world, I can only change my mind about the world. I can think people cruel, stupid, vicious, angry, even evil – but what it comes down to is we’re unconscious. All of us – and either we’re trying to wake up or not. When we’re unconscious we’re driven by wanting and needing, without asking what it’s for. And it’s not either/or – waking up is a process. Jesus and Buddha were there. The rest of us have to do the work.

Which is what Philip’s asking me to do. It’s what his death is for – so I try to tune out “the world” and deal with what’s going on with me, in light of his death. I’ve talked many times about what I heard Philip say the moment I found out he was dead: “Mom, you gotta go deeper.”

When Philip first died, Phil said he wanted to carry his spirit into the world. What’s that even mean, I thought? That sounded like a plan. It was hard enough to breathe, never mind decide what my life was going to be. And I wanted no part of any plan because plans involved future, and I was determined there wouldn’t be one for me, not without Philip. But here I am, writing this blog. When I started it, I said part of the reason was to carry Philip’s spirit into the world. I don’t believe that. I don’t even like the phrase. When I wrote that I was trying to justify why I needed so badly to write all this. It was easier to say I wanted to carry Philip’s spirit into the world than to say I needed you to read what I’m writing.

And I’m not saying I’m not keeping Philip’s spirit alive, but it’s more of a by-product than a goal, which makes it no less valuable. I’m writing for me, and if you get a sense of who Philip is through what I say, it’s because he is my muse and he’s helping me get to the truth that I’m trying so hard to recognize.

I don’t consider this blog a legacy for Philip, or for me. Much as it hurts to know Philip will live on for no one else the way he lives on with me, that’s not going to matter to me when I die. It’s now that I need to make matter, because now is where my experience is. I’m not concerned about being remembered after my death, because the only thing that’s going to matter when I die is what’s essential. And I don’t know what that is, but I bet it’s not the boxes of photos in my attic or the binders full of my writing. I know Natalie will always remember me. People who love me will remember me the way people who love Philip will remember him. Then one day they won’t because we’ll have faded into time. That’s the truth of life going on. However long I am or am not remembered after I die changes nothing.

There was an evening last week where gray, saturated clouds crowded the sky and trees danced frantically in a whirring wind. I took my dogs for a walk because if a storm was coming, I wanted to be part of it. When I reached the corner, I stopped and looked up. Philip, where are you? I asked. I’m right here, mom, he answered, like he always does. Do the clouds have something to say to me? Just watch, he said. So I watched for a while, watched one tiny puff of white cloud holding its own among the gray, and there it was again – Light vs. Dark, the unending story. And he wanted me to think about that vast, unknowable space that we can’t live without. There would be nothing if there was no space because where could anything be? But what’s it mean, I asked him? What is this? Think about it mom, he said. Just keep thinking.

Next day I saw my neighbor, a woman I haven’t spoken to often, but who’s easy to approach and quick to ask how you are. Our dogs sniffed around while we talked about the garden apartments we live in, and I was surprised to hear her say she wanted to move, that there were things about the place that were troubling her. I’d like to move back to Montclair, I told her. But here I am for now, so I try to make my apartment what I want it to be, because that’s what matters most about this place. She looked at me a moment. “You know, I saw you the other day,” she said. “I was outside, and I was really cranky about all this. You were standing across the street, looking at the sky. You looked so peaceful, so full of serenity. I watched you a while, then I went inside. And I felt better.”

I’d say that’s one hell of a by-product.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Joie de Vivre?

I was questioning “who I am” and “what’s my nature” in my last. But look at the language – who’s the I that wants to know, and who is it she thinks she needs to know? Am I one, or am I two? More likely I’m four or eight or 73 because what what I think and what I feel seems to shift so often. So is THAT who I am, the sum of what I think and feel?

I don’t fucking know. When I’m focused, like when I’m writing, or when I’m at work, I don’t sit around pondering. I’m just doing what I’m doing. And when grief and sorrow grip me by the throat, I choke. When they loosen, I breathe easier. And the moments are as they are.

But then I’m home and gone’s the distraction between me Philip’s death, me and Natalie’s moving, me and what-all I think is wrong with me. I can’t figure out something I’m needing to know – how to live with all that’s wrong, because of course there’s something wrong. Living means suffering. Not every moment; there is nothing that’s every moment. Except if we back it up and look around at the wide world then yes, someone is suffering every moment, suffering in ways we couldn’t pretend to understand. If I take that, add to it the way life’s felt to me since I can long remember, then mix Philip’s death into it all, I find myself asking, what the fuck? Why the insistence that it’s better to be, or to have been? Sure, I can personalize it – better for me that Philip was, that Natalie is. But better for me to be? Why? And before anyone’s too appalled to keep reading, why is even asking the question enough to create revulsion and a surety that the asker is too far south of sane to be acknowledged as anything other than in deep need of help? Understand I’m not asking why it’s better to live than to commit suicide. Suicide’s not part of this equation. What I’m asking is why is it assumed that it’s better to have been than to have never been? And why, since we know we’re going to die (do we? really?) do we spend no time pondering what that means and instead equate success with how many more years medical advances give us to live? Staving off the inevitable doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.

And if we went so far as to end natural death – which seems to be the goal – what would we be left with? A planet that couldn’t sustain all of us, run by a powerful elite who’d do the choosing that life/god/nature used to do for us. If you think life’s not fair now, spend a few minutes contemplating that scenario.

This is not the post I meant to write. I started to write about the way I judge myself by the amount of friends I don’t have and the lack of  traveling and other experiences which I should, by my age, have had. At 56, I should have a better life resume. It’s an old trope, one that’s gotten worse since I put myself on Match. Match is a compilation of people advertising themselves. I’ve spent some time reading through profiles, and it’s exhausting. Who’s sailed the world, climbed mountains, eaten exotic food, taught yoga in the Andes, completed multiple triathlons (all at the same time!), while running one of the largest corporations in the world – does anyone out there breathe? Are these the things that matter – who’s done the most and with who and how many ?

That’s when I start with, “What the hell do I have to offer anyone?” This is Match.com, for Chrissake. I’m supposed to “match” the joie de vivre of every other profile, of everyone who’s just lovin’ life and wantin’ more and wantin’ some special someone to do their wantin’ with. I am not that girl. Who’d want someone who hasn’t accumulated the totally awesome experiences that everyone else my age seems to have accumulated? Reading the profiles on Match, I’m sure there’s a big fucking party going  on somewhere that I most definitely have not been invited to.

Understand this is not a Match.com thing. Match only brought it to the surface. These are some of the things I’ve suffered about for years, these are things I can’t seem to figure out. Am I supposed to change, to be gregarious and extroverted? Like that’s better than what’s so? Is any of this my nature? Do I accept, do I resist? My life is what it is. Am I seriously going to decide what I’m worth based on how many times I’ve gotten on an airplane?

Here are the facts:

I don’t have a large group of friends. I have several close friends, none who know each other. The only group I have any connection with is my writing group – and while I know it’d be good for me to get back there, I’ve gone exactly twice since Philip died. I haven’t traveled a lot. I’ve been to Italy once, I’ve been to parts of the U.S. I don’t climb mountains or jump out of airplanes. I don’t play sports, I don’t exercise regularly. I do NOT follow politics. I’d rather read in my living room than on the beach, and I’d rather write more than anything. The rest of it is story, and since I’ve yet to meet a happy ending that felt real, you can bet your ass you won’t find one here, either.

How’s that sound for a profile??

Then there’s this. I know a couple – let’s call them X and Y – who have a lot of money and who are very socially active. And I love ‘em – they’re not pretentious, nor are they boring. They’re two really good people with lives utterly different from mine. More normal, I think – and I don’t mean because I’ve lost a child and they haven’t. They just seem mostly happy, have lots of friends, have careers, have combined and separate interests and they really like each other.

So this weekend, Fourth of July. They were going to the beach, they were having a houseful of people. I mean, it’s a holiday – isn’t that what people do? Me – I woke up Friday relieved to have a whole day of nothing to do so I could putter around my apartment. Yesterday I managed to get myself out for a couple hours in the morning to sit with some friends at a table in the local Farmer’s Market. Then I spent two and a half hours with my grief counselor. Today I was supposed to have dinner with Kirsten, who’s now sick. No worries. I’ve been in all day and now I’ll be in through the night. And I can’t figure out why I feel like something’s wrong with me because I’m not with a houseful of people when that’s the exact last thing I’d want to be doing anyway.

I’ve already mentioned this, but it bears repeating. Decades ago, when I was in my 20s, I’d gone to meet my friend Gerard on St. Mark’s Place, in the health food store where he worked. He introduced me to a friend of his, and we chatted for a few minutes while waiting for Gerard to close up. After we spoke – and we weren’t speaking in any particular depth – she told me this was going to be a life of spiritual awakening for me. I was thrilled. I imagined that meant some great path to peace was going to make itself known to me and when it did, well…finally, I’d be happy, I’d walk through this world in a different way.

So time has come, and yes – I do walk through the world in a different way. The big secret is it’s not about being happy. It’s about facing death. And far worse than facing my own, is facing Philip’s. This is what I lose sight of when I’m wondering about all the parties that I’m not invited to, or why I don’t want to hang out at the beach, or what’s the exact number of friends I have or what the word “friend” really means. Truth is I have the same distaste as Phillip Lopate for what he calls, “…the spectacle of joie de vivre, the knack of knowing how to live…the stylization of this private condition into a bullying social ritual.”

I’m getting damn sick of my own song. Maybe instead of questioning my worth based on my age and the amount of things I’ve not done, I’ll question what I could possibly want from someone at any age who still thinks those are things that matter.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

It’s Not Personal

“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
Marcus Aurelius

My friend Harriet has MS. She developed it late in life – in her 50s.  She uses a walker on wheels to get around the house, a scooter when she goes outside. She lives alone, but sometimes she needs help – and she says she’s finally learned to accept it. Funny how that isn’t a loss of power, but a claiming of power. Because it’s saying this is the situation I’m in, what resources will I use to deal with it? Harriet lives with depth and grace because of acceptance – or what I’m more comfortable calling it: non-resistance. Non-resistance is breathing. It’s, “Okay. This is where I find myself. How do I work it?” Instead of, “Oh my God how could this happen to me and what the fuck am I supposed to do now?!?!?!

Which might’ve been Harriet’s initial reaction, and who wouldn’t? Krishnamurti, probably. But let’s talk the rest of us.

At dinner one night, Harriet told me: “Someone asked, if you could take a magic pill that would allow you to walk again, would you take it? I said, I’d have to know more. If the pill erased my whole MS experience and all I’ve learned from it, I’d say No…but if I could be who I am now with all my memories intact, I’d say Sure.”

Which is pretty much saying, “No,” because she can’t have one without the other. It’s an impossible question, but it sure is provocative.

Decades ago I read W. W. Jacobs’ short horror story/parable, “The Monkey’s Paw.” It’s something I’ve thought about from time to time, and – like so many other things that have struck me over the years – it’s become more layered and meaningful since Philip died. Its particular content heightens its message. If you’ve not read it, in short, it’s about an old couple and their son who are given a monkey’s paw that has the power to grant three wishes. They have, the father claims, everything they want, and they are not selfish, greedy people. This isn’t a story about punishing the wicked.

They don’t exactly believe there’s any truth to it, but I suppose like any of us, they kinda sorta wished there was. The son jokingly suggests the father wish for 200 pounds, just enough money to pay off the house. He does. Next day, a man shows up at their house. Their son, he’s sorry to tell them, got caught in the machinery at the factory where he worked  and has died. The firm is sorry, and while they claim no responsibility, as compensation they’ve sent the old couple 200 lbs.

After ten torturous days, the mother realizes there are two wishes left. She hysterically insists the father wish the son alive. He doesn’t want to – he’d seen the boy’s mangled body and can’t imagine what it would look like ten dead days later. But he gives in – and in a short while, they hear knocking on the door. The mother runs to the door and as she’s desperately trying to unbolt it, the father frantically searches for the paw and undoes his last wish just as his wife flings the door open.

The first wish was for what they wanted. The second was to undo the consequence of the first. The third was to undo the worse consequence of the second. And in the end, they’re worse off than they were before.

What’s this say about fate, about destiny? About accepting what is? I think there’s a massive picture that we don’t see, and within this play of form, yes, we have choice. But there’s a difference between magic and choice. Magic is trying to wish away what is and being miserable because we can’t. Choice is the way we deal with what’s so. And it’s in choosing that we create our reality.

We can’t necessarily make our life situations what we want them to be. We can move toward what we feel called to do, and we can stay present to the reality of it. But we’ve not the power to bend situations to our will because that’s what we think will make us happy. We’ve not the power to bring our dead children to life. And dare we drag them from where their destiny, their choices, led them – do we really think we know what’s best? What would we risk with our own monkey’s paw? I want my son here. I want him to come home. I want his physicality, not just his whispers in my ear. But is something as sacred as life and death up to me? Do I really want that responsibility? I hurt. I think I’m not going to be able to bear what I feel about Philip dying, I think life’s too long without him. But do I really know what’s best for him right now? Is it for him I want him here, or for me?

And here’s the truth, terrible as it is. Death is not personal. We all die. It’s not a punishment. It’s not inflicted on us by some judgmental Being. It’s not about “good” or “bad.” The only punishing is what we do to each other, what we do to ourselves. Death is, the way birth is. And what would be, then, without death? If we didn’t die we’d become a monstrous cancer on a planet that couldn’t sustain us – couldn’t fit us – and we would destroy it. It’s death that allows life to be.

I’m different since Philip died. Closer to the bone. I’m kinder, more helpful. I smile at strangers. I listen harder. I make people laugh, and then I laugh with them. I have no drama in my life, and I feel loved. All of this is the other side of my raging grief. If I was asked what Harriet was asked – provocative as it is – I wouldn’t answer. It’s an impossible question because it can’t happen. Do I wish Philip was here, alive – Christ, of course I do. But he isn’t and he’s not going to be. I don’t care what you call it – fate, destiny, an accident – it doesn’t matter. I don’t have control over Philip’s death. I can only choose how to live with it.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Previous Older Entries Next Newer Entries