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

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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

“It’s just one story”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?”

“Light vs. dark.”

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

“Yeah. You’re right about that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2014 Denise Smyth

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