“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

“Hand to God”

A couple Sundays ago Kirsten took me to see a play, “Hand to God.” It was set mostly in a church rec room, and had five characters. Seven if you count the puppets. Three were teenagers – Jason, Jessica and Timothy, – one was the pastor of the church, the other was Margery, Jason’s newly-widowed mom, who was supposed to be teaching the kids puppetry. Jason was there because Mom insisted, Timothy was there while his Mom went to twelve step meetings, and Jessica was there because, well, she was “more into Balinese shadow puppetry,” but she’ll take what she can get.

But the real star of the show was Tyrone, Jason’s evil demon hand puppet. Jason steadily loses control over him – Tyrone even shows up in Jason’s bed after he takes him off one night. “He’s making me do bad things,” Jason tells Margery. Jason is a shy, troubled kid, and Tyrone becomes his mouthpiece. If Jason’s thinking it, Tyrone’s saying it. And if you’re thinking anything with a puppet or two is silly, it’s not so funny when Tyrone bites a bloody chunk of Timothy’s ear off. Or when, in desperation to be rid of him, Jason starts hacking Tyrone – in other words, his hand – with a hammer, and accidentally smashes his mother’s while he’s at it.

To paraphrase Tyrone – “self-hatred’s a bitch.”

Anger and lust drive the play. The pastor wants to sleep with Margery, who rebuffs him. Timothy also wants to sleep with Margery, who doesn’t rebuff him. Jason is smitten with Jessica, and Tyrone lets her know in his vulgar way. And before the show is over, Jessica’s puppet will have dirty puppet sex with Tyrone.

Two weeks later I’m still thinking about that play. That’s what happens with art, when you see yourself in it. Jason’s overwhelmed by his rage at Margery for being a shitty wife and mother. I’ve lived overwhelmed by rage, and my version of hammer-smashing my hand was drinking, vomiting and refusing to take care of myself, some of which I talked about here and here.

 There’s so many levels of disturbing in “Hand to God” that it’s hard to parse – not the least being the tragic hilarity of it all. Everyone – with the possible exception of Jessica – was unhappy and none of them knew what to do about it. And when the play was over, there wasn’t any resolution. Margery and Jason can bond over their mutually bloodied hands, but that won’t fix the history between them. And in spite of his viciousness, I felt like I lost something when Tryone was killed off before the end of the play, when there was nothing but the “real” characters left. But after the lights went out and the players disappeared, a spotlight shone above the stage, and there was Tyrone. Miss me? he asked; C’mon. You know you did.

What’s up with that? I couldn’t be the only one glad to see him. Tyrone the Terrorist was seductive and exciting. He was the best thing in a play filled with terrific. But I want to know why. I want to know why I’m so drawn to the dark side. “I don’t think I liked the play so much,” Kirsten said. “I really didn’t like what Jason did to his hand.” It bothered her – she has a limit to how far down she’ll go. Where’s my limit? What am I looking for in that dark? I believe that’s where I’ll find something real. Something raw and primal and so far down I can scream until I exhaust myself numb.

“You have to learn to like the light,” Philip tells me. He doesn’t say “love” – that’s too much right now. I’m drawn to gray days, to rain and thunder, to storms which don’t happen often enough. Melanie told me there’s a word for that – pluviophile. Lover of rain. I don’t think there’s anything to learn from lightness. I’ve been watching a lot of TV series, a lot of movies, and it’s making the way I experience life clearer. Entertainment is either a black or light image to me. When I hear “chick flick,” I think Waste of Time. When I hear drama, I’m seduced. I want the treachery – give me “Pulp Fiction,” “American History X,” “True Detective,” “Requiem For A Dream.” Let something besides my own morbid thoughts bring me to that darkness because if I see it outside of me I won’t be so alone with it – and maybe somewhere in that depravity I can figure out how to live with grief and death.

In “True Detective,” Rust says that with humans, “nature made a tragic misstep in evolution.” I thought about why someone would say that. And what I thought was how hard it is to be here, even if you get through without a major tragedy. First off, we live knowing we’re going to die, and since we don’t know what happens when we do, it’s terrifying. And it’s not only our own death we have to deal with. People we love will die, which can be a worse thing to suffer than any nightmare we might have had about dying ourselves. Then there’s the fact that we need each other, yet it’s so hard to get along. Especially when we’re wanting to be right more than we’re wanting to be loved. The world’s like a big refracting mirror. Our personal arguments are reflected in larger social arguments, which are reflected in even larger political arguments, which often culminate in the most massive, monstrous argument of all – war. If we take a look at what’s going on around us, it’s clear that as a species, we’re insane.

We deal with our tragedies in the context of the way we live, which means crisis brings out the past. So when Rust says we are mistakes of nature, that’s what his life has brought him to. What do I bring to my suffering? Philip’s death is my Sisyphus. The shock of it hurled me back to some personal, primitive beginning that I thought was long gone. But that’s the thing – life isn’t linear. It’s now, it’s all happening now. I brought the grief of a lifetime to Philip’s death. I’m torn and twisted and it’s hard to untangle the grief from the drama. When Philip said, “Don’t make my death into something it isn’t,” he meant don’t bring the past into this. And much as I’m talking about the void I’m attracted to, Philip’s in a light so profound I can only pray to have a glimpse of it. That’s the light that burns the past out of us, the light that leads to the Divine. And burning “the past out of us” has nothing to do with forgetting. I’m talking about a psychic past where we react based on the self we’ve created and so stay stuck in our stories. To burn the past out is to bring a freshness and wonder to whatever is now, including death and grief. And that doesn’t mean happy – it means clarity.

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?

There’s so much I don’t understand. There are people who, after their child has died, reach a point where they find life more precious than ever. Is it because they loved life before, and so now appreciate its brevity the more? When I was a kid, I loved music. My parents gave me a transistor radio in a brown leather case that went wherever I did. When my mom would get mad at me, she’d take my radio away. She took a piece of me with it. “Didn’t you want music even more, when your radio was gone?” my therapist asked. So loss of something makes you want it more. But how’s that supposed to translate? Philip’s death has made me want his life more, not mine.

More, next…

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Save yourself: write now, tomorrow, or whenever

I thought this was too good not to share. “One needs to grieve almost to death before they can live again.” Yes, one does.

Willower.org

LifeSaver Image ©Empire331 | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

Words that delivered

In her memoir, Lucky, Alice Sebold said, “No one can pull anyone back from anywhere. You save yourself or you remain unsaved.”

It is true.

You have to save yourself (no one can pull you back from this place). You have to trust yourself. You have to be the expert on you, and your grief.

In my case, after the sudden death of my son, I withdrew, cocooned from the world, and ignored those who told me to do otherwise. I was the expert on my grief. This was my way.

I let myself die. Almost die. One needs to grieve to almost death before they can live again. And then, after days of almost dying, of starvation, I took a bite of a sandwich. A sip of something hot. Then wrote down a memory. Then almost died again.

There was no…

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Every Story

Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
“Landslide” by Stevie Nicks

Where does anyone turn to answer those questions? Because I’ve a sickening feeling about the season my life’s turned into, the one about moving on without Philip. I don’t mean “moving on” as in “getting over it.” I mean life is motion and where life goes, so go I. And I don’t mean – really – “without” Philip. I’ve said much about the way he communicates with me. But I’m facing his death, the loss of his physical presence, and I’m weak in the knees once more.

I am in need of spirit, and I’m still asking myself how to find it, though I know the answer is within, not without. I’ve done enough searching to know I’m not going to find it through a go-to guru – Louise Hay, Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra and Madonna and her Kabbalah included. Don’t ask me what any of them are talking about – that they’re on TV giving the rest of us their version of spirituality is enough for me not to listen. My big turn-off to New Age “spiritualism” came after reading something or other Louise-Hay which had me walking around “affirming” over and over what I thought I wanted and having a pit in my stomach while I was doing it. Whatever I wanted wasn’t happening, and trying to convince myself that it was, wasn’t working. Then I saw Ms. Hay on a talk show. It took a few minutes of her one-size-fits-all earnestness to realize no one thing works for everyone, but when some one thing works for someone, they sure like to tell the rest of us about it.

I’ve found some sense in Eckhart Tolle’s writing. When I first saw “A New Earth” in my friend Rebecca’s yoga studio, I thought, “Another book about saving the earth? Most of us can’t even save ourselves, never mind the environment.” And while I’d jumped on the green-is-better bandwagon way before it became chic and expensive to do so, I was sick of the moral indignation that made people care more about the air quality than they did each other.

But a few years ago, when my normal depression had spiked into crisis-mode, my friend Melanie told me Eckhart Tolle was a spiritualist, not an environmentalist, so I bought “A New Earth” on CD and drove around listening to it. It made a whole lot of sense. But I didn’t come upon Tolle in a vacuum. For years I searched for some sort of spirituality through AA, A Course in Miracles and Buddhism – to name a few. Then came the years of not searching for anything at all because it was too damn hard to find something when I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for.

But the stopping was just as important as the searching. I wasn’t grasping for something any more. I wasn’t at peace, either. Tolle came into the spiritual silence I’d been in, and what he was saying was an amalgam of all that I’d practiced before, in language I could understand.

Of course, considering him a teacher made it easy to go right back into the unconscious I was trying to wake up from. Yeah, yeah, yeah, live in the now, present moment, the past is gone, life doesn’t end, etc., etc. So I’m sure I’ve already heard Tolle say, “Every story ultimately fails.” But when I heard it the other day, I stopped the CD to think about it. I’ve been thinking about it for days now, and taking what comfort I can from it. Which isn’t much at the moment, but there’s something there that feels like truth, and no matter how hard a truth is, accepting it is better than arguing with it.

That every story fails is hard to hear, but it’s not a negative assertion. Stories “fail” because they involve form, and all forms are temporary,  are disintegrating even as they’re existing. That includes “thought” forms. Meaning, like, say I think of myself as a really important artist and I create all these wonderful paintings that everyone agrees are phenomenal and then one day I wake up blind. My thought of myself as an artist takes a terrible blow – who the hell am I now? My story as important artist ends and I have to make up a new one. Or not make up one at all, and just try to be. Because every time a form dissolves – whether it’s physical or mental – it leaves an opening to God.

And I use “God” to mean whatever it is you might think is divine in life. Whatever you think is more than you are, whatever force you think there is in this world. The Divine needs space and attention, and we can’t give it that if we’re only concerned with accumulating forms that we think will show both us and the world who we are.

But stories can have truth and beauty, and that doesn’t change when the ending does. And what I mean by story is what we tell ourselves about our lives, instead of living them – the stories about the way things are or were or should be, about what any of it means. Like, So-and-So walked right past me yesterday without saying a word – she’s such a shit. Or, So-and-So walked right past me yesterday – I’m such a shit.

Maybe So-and-So didn’t see me. Maybe So-and-So is suffering and preoccupied. Maybe So-and-So really can’t stand me. What does any of that have to do with me?

And ultimately, both So-and-So and I are going to die. Where’s my story then?

There’s nothing “wrong” with form – it’s our attachments that hurt us. We can enjoy the world of form – through it, we can sense the deeper joy and beauty that is as much a part of life as the terrible grief it seems easier to feel. How many times did I wear that dress before I tore it where it can’t be fixed? How many places did that car take me before it was too old and worn to do so any more? How many days, months, years, how many hours did I take joy and pleasure in  Philip before he died?

But it wasn’t enough. Philip is my child. In my story, he goes on to find work he loves and a woman he loves and they have kids and Natalie and her partner have kids and even though I’m alone I’ll always have somewhere to go and maybe I’ll let everyone else cook Christmas dinner while I sit by the tree and play with my grandkids.

But Philip went and died and half my story is gone and I feel like half of me has gone along with it. What he’s left me is that opening to the spiritual, which I can define as simply learning to see things differently. This is where it gets hard. Really hard. Because the stories we tell are to invent a self. That’s why when one of them disappears it can cause a crisis. And while in so many ways I understand this, where the fuck does that leave me with Philip? In essence, the work is no different: How do I live in the face of loss without feeling diminished?

The short answer is, one breath at a time. And while some part of me knows that, some other – bigger – part of me sees that as just words on a page.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

1/20/91 ~ 2/23/12

It’s no exaggeration to say that I knew the worst moments of my life on February 23rd, 2012. One of the first things I thought when Phil told me Philip had died was, “Right now, this very second, there are people all over the world who are feeling like I am right now. And if it is possible to feel like this, what is the point of being alive?”

Many of you know exactly what I’m talking about. And all of you are helping me, every day, to find some “point.” You have shown me love and so taught me gratitude. Because without love, without connection, there is no point.

I thought that instead of writing something today, I’d scan a bunch of pictures of Philip and post them, but that didn’t feel right. For  reasons I can’t yet figure out, posting that last picture of Philip and Natalie sent me spinning into despair. Then I thought I’d post some quotes from an anthology  I have of writers and poets on losing a child. Except I read so much of that book today that I started to drown in it all, which meant I wasn’t breathing and the world was turning into the color of death.

I haven’t much to say. It’s quiet time now. But I wanted to mark this day somehow, so here it is. And I’ll end with just one quote, which pretty much sums it up:

“I love the boy with the utmost love of which my soul is capable, and he is taken from me…yet, in the agony of my spirit in surrendering such a treasure, I feel a thousand times richer than if I had never possessed it.” ~ William Wordsworth

RIP Philip – my love, my heart, my son.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

What fierceness to say, “I will never accept this.” What comfort is mixed up in that, knowing I’ve taken a stand. What despair is at the core of it, because not to accept what is, is a form of insanity. I can be as angry as I want, but that won’t change what is so. When I carry around anger about something I can do nothing about, it’s because I think anger is going to get me what I want. Why else remain angry? Why else tell myself the story of what happened so that I wind up the victim? What happens when I realize that I’ve taken some fact of my life, an event that happened in time, and told myself an unhappy story around it? Then I see how I keep alive the ghost of  the past and so miss my life, which is only ever happening now. Not in the past, not in the future. Now. But the voice in my head insists otherwise.

And if I think my anger isn’t an attempt to get something I want, I can think about the way I feel about letting it go. It’s  like if I’m not mad, then I’m saying something’s okay when it isn’t, and what an outrage that is. If I’m not mad, that person/institution/whatever gets away with “it.” How humiliating for me; if I’m not mad, I’ve lost.

Except that isn’t it, not at all. If I’ve let go that anger, it’s peace to me. It’s freedom. It’s not my job to see that someone doesn’t get away with something, as if anyone “gets away” with anything. An unconscious life is its own prison. Truth will out, with no help from me.

A year ago fall, the first fall after Philip died, I went outside one brilliant morning to walk the dogs. I lived in Montclair, known for its massive, shaggy trees. Four years I’d been living on that particular block, walking past one particular tree, and that morning I witnessed its transformation. The sun lit that tree and it shimmered red and gold; it was glass on fire, and if it could have  made a sound, it would’ve been celestial. This was shock and awe, I thought, as I stood staring up at it. Are you seeing this, a man yelled to me, from across the street? I couldn’t take my eyes off it to answer.

If I could live in that light, I thought, if I could just not move and stay right here, I will be all right and it will all have been worth it. Which is right about when my mind rushed in and reminded me that I’d caught a moment that would be gone in another, and I’d probably never see another one like it. Ever. What was the point, then? What was the point of having my breath taken away only to have it return with its disappointments and hopelessness?

It wasn’t enough because in some fundamentally human way it’s never enough; it’s the grasping, needy edge of ego that wants to want more than it wants to have. No having is ever enough, not when having something becomes essential to our identity.  If our reality is based on having, then that reality must be false. What can we possibly have that won’t turn into something else? After it disappoints us, first. Where’s the reality then?

It’s easy to see what I’m talking about if you look at the objects that once seemed so necessary to a happy existence. I had to have those pants and make it two pair, since that’s safer. In case one wears out or something. Or that car or house or earrings or lover or body size or whatever external thing will confirm the reality of me as I perceive myself. It’s not that hard to see the objects I’m attached to and begin to move away from their power. And of course we all need things – I’m talking about the attachment to those things, to the way they become part of our identity, the way we feel diminished we lose something, when it breaks, when it gets gone like all and everything eventually will.

But what happens when I think about attachment and loss in terms of relationships, of actual people? I’m 55. I have years behind of me of people – of romantic relationships, in particular – that I believed I had to have or I couldn’t go on. But their time passed, too; and from this view, I see what I wanted from them, how much of what I called “love” was grasping and clinging; how the wanting, in the end, drove me more than the having.

But then your kid goes and dies and you wonder where the hell you’ve been all your life because there isn’t anything that feels more real than the grief of losing them and the contemplation of living the rest of your life (we talking 20, 30 years? You fucking kidding me?) without them. What of all I’ve just written, I think? What of attachment, of wanting, of having, of disappointment, of anger? I am speaking of my child now, not the two pair of jeans I finally tossed into the giveaway pile. How now?

Mom, Philip says, when you think of me, you think of me in a long dark tunnel. It isn’t that way. Think of me in the light you saw in that tree, only infinitely brighter, and you’re closer to the truth. The truth? That’s what I’m trying to figure out here. Truth doesn’t change – in the world, it’s relative. But in stark reality, it’s unchangeable. Else it wouldn’t be Truth. So how to think about these truths in terms of Philip? When is “having” enough, and what do I mean by that? In essence, I have not lost Philip. In fact, I’ve never felt closer to him or more certain that he’s around than I do now. I ask, he answers. He leads, I follow. He talks, I listen. And all any of that requires is turning my attention to him.

I dreamt of Philip a couple weeks ago – twice in one night. In the first, he was running up the stairs, “Philip!” I called. He came down smiling. “Why didn’t you tell me??” I asked, in shock. “I wanted to surprise you,” he said. In the next, again, I saw him. This time he looked confused. “Philip,” I said, “Where have you been? I thought you were dead!” “I’m not,” he said. “But where were you for two years?” “I don’t know,” he answered. “But I saw you in the coffin,” I said. “I know,” he said. “But I got up afterward.”

I’m no interpreter of dreams. So I went to the source. What was that about? I asked Philip. I’m trying to get your attention, he answered. Because for these last few whatever, I’ve been thinking about him instead of listening to him. I’ve been looking at a world where dead means dark, stark silence instead of seeing the startling ways he lets me know he’s around. It’s time to start working, he said to me. I’m here, but you’ve got to do the work.

If I’ve jumped around here, I’ve no doubt I’ll be sorting it out as I go on. Yesterday was two years since the last day Philip was alive. Today was the day he lay dead in his room, and no one knew. Tomorrow was the day we found out, the day on his death certificate, the “official” day he died. These two years seem to have passed quickly. I’m grateful. Because I’d rather wrestle with my grief as it is now, instead of as it was then. It’s not gone, for sure, but at least it’s different.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Too Rare, Too Quickly

                      “…Curse only
the fact that such days are too rare
and pass too quickly.”
Grace Bauer from “Nowhere All at Once

That’s from a poem we read Wednesday night in my writing class, in anticipation of yet another snow day here in NJ. I’m about the only one I know who’s loving this weather. I look for its excuses to stay inside; I look for it the way others look for spring. I resent spring’s incessant blooming, its insistence that I be outside. What all am I supposed to do out there? Inside, there are curtains to sew, movies to watch, books to read, words to write. And stillness to inhabit, because all the sewing, watching, reading and even writing are not going to teach me how to live with Philip’s death if I can’t spend some time still and silent.

Natalie and I live on the top floor of a two-story garden apartment. Our unit is part of a brick building set back from the sidewalk in a small u-shape. When I look out my living room window, the bottom of the U is to my left, and I face the side of the U opposite mine.  In the center lawn is a large, wide evergreen; on Thursday, its trunk was disappearing under the same snow it gracefully shook from its branches, with some help from the passing wind. Snow was coming off the roof in delicate powder-puff bursts, which weren’t at all delicate when I stood underneath them – then they were a chill hail of icy needles aimed at my upturned face. Not unpleasant, really, unless I stood long enough for the chill to take hold. Because if it did, it’d work its way under my skin and I wouldn’t be rid of it easily.

By 1:00 I’d come inside for the fifth time. I was restless and uneasy and kept going outside to breathe icy air, to make sure the snow was as real as I wanted it to be. It was up to my knees and I didn’t want it to stop. I was all-too-happy to fall asleep the night before, knowing I’d wake up to that snow. But there it was and I watched and waited but for what, I didn’t know. The flakes kept shrinking and growing and I dreaded their cessation, afraid they were going to stop before I heard what they had to say; if I didn’t hurry up and get their message, it could be for-ever until they came again

“The universe is talking to you,” Ed says, every time I tell him some new way Philip’s let me know he’s around; “What more do you want?” I could be flip and say, “I want my son not-dead,” but that’s not what I say. That feels false, and I don’t mean because I don’t want Philip here. I mean that’s a glib, thoughtless response, designed to cut Ed off and leave myself alone and misunderstood. Why do I tell Ed these things, why tell anyone, if I’m going to diminish them to prove that grief trumps all. And what then? I win?

I looked out my window for hours on Thursday, looking for something in the brooding silence of the storm. But then it stopped and the sidewalks and walkways were snow-blown into 18”-wide perfectly-edged mini corridors. The snow I’d trudged through earlier that day had been tamed into something more manageable.  But I wanted more; the world wasn’t yet white enough. The bushes were still visible, and that tree looked no more covered than a woman in a sheer lace top. Why can’t we abide the quiet? Why the rush to order, to busy-ness; the hurry to get back to what’s familiar, to what we think life should be? The way it is is the way it’s supposed to be. How do I know? Because that’s the way it is. Complain about the snow, the rain, the cold – each serves its own purpose. How much more peaceful to recognize that than to insist that life’s not fitting the story we want it to.

And if I really think life’s the way it’s supposed to be, then I need to accept that Philip’s not here the way I want him to be, to respect the way the universe is talking to me through him. I need to move past the stamping-my-feet phase of my grief and see what it means to live in its depths, always with Philip guiding me. “In life,” Philip says to me, “you said the more you let go, the longer our bond became. Nothing’s changed, Mom. And whatever you’re afraid of isn’t binding us any tighter. It’s just causing you to miss what it is I’m trying to tell you.”

Try some happy, Mom, Natalie says. So here’s some 24 hours of it. Enjoy.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

What About Sex?

A couple weeks after I left home and moved into Nadiya’s, I had to stop at my house before I went to work. I’d forgotten some essential article of clothing that God forbid should cause a wardrobe crisis. It was August, 2009. Philip was a freshman on his way to Rutgers, living his last couple of weeks at home. Natalie was 16, and splitting her time between me and Phil. Up the stairs I went to my (former) bedroom, and saw Philip’s bedroom door was open. Philip’s bedroom door was never open when he was asleep. Curious, I stuck my head in to find he was not at all asleep, what with the girl he had in bed with him. He rose up in surprise, half-naked (top half, thank God), and I was all, “Oh-my-God-I-am-so-sorry-I’ll-get-what-I-need-and-get-out-of here.” Back in the car, when I finally stopped laughing my ass off, I sent him some funny text about protecting himself, and ended it with, “And you’d better be good to her or I’ll kick your ass.” I knew he’d show it to her; I didn’t know who she was or what she meant to him, but just in case she was going to be sticking around, I wanted to mitigate the weirdness that was now between us. If she meant something to him, then she meant to me, too.

That night Philip and I were meeting for dinner, and I’d already decided not to bring it up. What was there to say, really? He was 18, and I knew he was responsible. But he brought it up, and I appreciated his candor.

So what about sex? When Philip and Natalie were teenagers, Phil used to tell them not to have sex until they got married. That wasn’t anything I’d ever say, but I didn’t mind him saying it.  Somebody should tell them to wait, I thought, and since I was sixteen the first time I allowed a guy into my sacred space, I wasn’t sure I was the one to do it.

Besides, I didn’t really know what I thought about them having sex. When they were younger, I had the conversation about the mechanics of it – me trying to explain while they tried to squirm away. But what about the heart of it? I didn’t talk to them about that, I didn’t tell them that you wait for someone you care for and who cares for you, someone who’ll not only be there in the morning for breakfast, but will stick around and help clean up. That sex will bring you the hottest and holiest pleasure you’ll have in your life and if you’re going to make yourself vulnerable to someone that way, it had better be someone you trust.

So while Phil did the forbidding, I began to have the other conversations about sex. The kind you have in a moving car. The last such conversation I remember having with Philip was when he was 17 and I realized the bandana he was wearing around his neck was hiding a hickey. He and Natalie laughed when I noticed it and went into my feigned horror-and-surprise mode: “Is that a hickey, oh my God you have a hickey why did you let yourself get a hickey summer hickeys are harder to hide blah blah blah.”

I admit to having had a guilty pleasure at the sight of that mottled blotch. It was an animal pride that my good-looking, 6′ 1” tall son was marked with desire. Desire makes the world go round. It’s biological; if our bodies didn’t meet to fuck, there’d be no little bodies to grow and do the same. Which isn’t what I said to Philip. Later that night we were in the car and he was captive behind the steering wheel.  “Philip,” I said, “we have to talk about sex.” His response was to reach for the radio, mine was to slap his hand away. I told him hickeys were ugly and disrespectful to X (his girlfriend). Why should you wear your business on your neck for everyone to see? What are you telling people about X? He agreed to no more hickeys. “And I want to remind you that sex makes babies, so if you’re having sex you better think about how you’re going to raise the kid.”

Which was my not-so-subtle way of reminding him that abortion is not a form of birth control.

I’ve been wanting to write about this for a while, but wondering why this particular incident, why now? There’s ego involved, for sure. Look at me, I want to say; look at the kind of mom I am. I mean, how cool am I?? My response to finding Philip and a girl in his bed was just me being me. But then I took that response and added it to the list of things that made me a cool mom, like my long streaked hair, skinny jeans and Free People wardrobe. Like the fact that my kids not only loved me, they liked me, were proud of me, had no problem being seen in public with me. And I am embarrassed at the pleasure I took when my daughter announced that the word around school was that I was a MILF. In fact, I’m so embarrassed by my reaction that I’m leaving it as an acronym. If you don’t know what it means, it’s easy enough to find out.

What did I want my kids to see when they looked at me? The important stuff, they knew. They knew I loved them, that I’d happily take Philip to the airport at 5:30 in the morning, then wait for him in the terminal when he got back. That I’d drive Natalie back and forth to Rutgers in New Brunswick as many times as she needed. That being sick always meant pajamas on the couch, fluffy pillows, comfy blankets, lots of fluids, and an indispensable mom who appeared just when the soup was needed, the juice glass was empty or a sweaty head needed some stroking.

But what about physical-me? The last few years of Philip’s life, it got real important that my kids should think I was attractive, that I was sexy and pretty and cool enough for their friends to invite me to hang (they did), and even cooler when, of course, I didn’t. I just wanted to be noticed. I thought if their friends liked me, my kids’d like me more, too.

What’s up with that? Is it so obvious that I don’t see it ‘cause I’m looking a little too deep? What’s up with wanting to be seen as sexy, with wanting Philip to know that’s how I was seen? The “obvious” answer – I’m getting older, I’m afraid  I can’t be desired, I don’t want to be a juice-less hag – that’s all surface. For decades I was uncomfortable in my body whether my clothes were on or off. And if I go down that road now, this post is going to take too long of a  diversion. For now, suffice to say that at 52 I was waking up sexually. For years I was all baggy jeans, shapeless tees and outfits that didn’t seem to work because I dressed around hiding my ass.  But the more I bloomed, the tighter my clothes clung. With some help from a padded bra, my curves were out there for y’all to see.

No small part of this is the yin yang of male/female energy. The longing to be whole, which we can’t be, not in body, and if that’s where we place our longing, we’ll not only get fucked, we’ll be fucked. Because we’ll fuck selfishly, desperately, insatiably – through our hungry mind instead of our open heart. Always feeling that something is missing, often blaming our partner, believing what we’re looking for is about our body and not our being.

That last year of Philip’s life another shift was taking place between us. The night he came over, a year before he died, the night I said, “When they find you dead of an overdose, they’ll blame me,” the shift was palpable. We stood on the third floor landing where I was living, me asking him not to do drugs; him saying he wouldn’t, me knowing I couldn’t protect him from his choices. And so another shrinking of my mother-ness, another growth of his other-ness. Philip needed room to grow and I gave him all.  As paradoxical it sounds, every step back brought us closer.

I wasn’t afraid of these psychic shifts because I trusted what was between Philip and me. He told me we were “growing up together,” and it’s only now I’m beginning to see what he meant. As he became independent so did I, freer than ever of that formerly-unshakable feeling that I couldn’t be happy because there was something wrong with me. And part of what I counted on was his love and support which existed beyond his physical presence. I didn’t have to see him, or even speak to him, to know he was there.

Kinda sorta like what he’s asking me to do now.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Sobbing and Useless (Suicide, Part Two)

Naturally the first (and as yet only) chapter of Jennifer Michael Hecht’s “Stay” that I’ve read is “Suffering and Happiness.” Because as anyone who’s tried to delve into what they suffer knows, lots of people have lots of things to say about the suffering/joy thing. I will not ask the one question that haunts: why? I mean, why the fuck does one have to suffer to know joy? Hell, I can even answer that in my own way – but it doesn’t satisfy, not really. But suffering transmuted can liberate me from believing that I must suffer. Can show me, if I’m honest, what my part is in what I feel. Like everyone, I suffer within the context of my life, and Philip is now the focal point of that suffering. But as I’ve said, he’s told me not to make his death into something it isn’t. I have to get my head out my ass first.

And what I mean by “suffering in the context of my life” is that Philip’s death is of a part of the rest of it. A really simple way to understand that is if you’ve generally been okay with being alive you’ll probably wrestle with your child’s death differently than if you’ve spent most of your life thinking you and those around you would be better off with no-you. I mean, one of the reasons I used to think it’d better if I died was because my insurance policy would pay for my kids’ college.

Think I had some of those self-esteem issues we hear talk about?

My cousin Maria remembers that when I was a kid I always loved gray days. They make me feel safe, I told her. Nothing’s changed. I’m looking out my window now, where the sun’s breaking through the clouds that just yesterday were full of rain. I’ve a pit in my stomach; they always leave, the clouds. Always. There’s more sun-time than cloud-time and it doesn’t seem fair. What I feel good about is temporary, leaves too quickly. What keeps me twisted is reliable. And that’s pretty much how life’s felt.

I don’t much like Hecht’s poem, “No Hemlock Rock (don’t kill yourself); there’s a certain silliness to some of it and I’m not sure what she’s trying to do:

Don’t kill yourself. Don’t kill yourself.
Don’t. Eat a donut, be a blown nut.
That is, if you’re going to kill yourself,
stand on a street corner rhyming
seizure with Indonesia, and wreck it with
racket. Allow medical terms.
Rave and fail. Be an absurd living ghost,
if necessary, but don’t kill yourself.

I guess she’s saying be crazy, do anything, anything at all except kill yourself; but those words have nothing to do with me because I’m hurting and and it’s too much effort to go out and get a donut and I don’t even know what it means to be a blown nut.

But “Stay” is something else. When two of Hecht’s close friends killed themselves, she wrote an open essay letter on a blog that she writes for.  “Life has always been too hard to bear, for a lot of people, a lot of the time,” she wrote. “It’s awful. But it isn’t too hard to bear, it’s only almost too hard to bear.” She tells us to sob and be useless because “Sobbing and useless is million times better than dead. A billion times.” She calls those who want to kill themselves but don’t, heroes.

I’m no hero. I didn’t kill myself out of fear; nothing heroic about it. And before I start going on about how cowardly I am that I didn’t, I’m going to switch gears. I have to start seeing things differently. I’m not into heroics, so I’ll just say I have some level of sanity or I’d’ve thrown myself drunk in front of one of our Montclair rail crossings.

But how crazy am I to be touch with Philip daily and yet want to die because he did? What is it about the dark that attracts me? Philip told me that he is my teacher where he is, and Natalie’s my teacher where she is. He’s here to show me what death isn’t; she is showing me what life is. But it’s Philip I listen for and yearn for and learn from; I don’t learn from Natalie. She’s intense and blooming and instead of learning that from her, I sit on the sidelines because I can’t have that. Too late, don’t know how.

How complicated is this all? Philip was my first born, and extraordinary to me. The first thing I’d done right; and when I saw the beautiful child he grew into, all the more proof of what I was worth. He was my light. Funny thing is, there were times I thought I was paying way more attention to Natalie than to Philip; but my children needed what they needed, and Natalie needed more. Philip was my steady. Lights don’t go out, I said when he died; they just don’t. “I didn’t go out, mom,” he says. “Have a little faith.”

See, I can bow my head every day in gratitude when he lets me know he’s near. But what good is it if I don’t learn to live. If I want to work with what he’s trying to teach me, then I have to be willing to follow Natalie’s lead.

Hecht quotes Ann Sexton: “I don’t want to live…Now listen, life is lovely, but I Can’t Live It. I can’t even explain…if you knew how it Felt. To be alive, yes, alive, but not be able to live it…I am like a stone that lives…locked outside of all that’s real…I wish, or think I wish, that I were dying of something for then I could be brave…to [be] behind a wall watching everyone fit in where I can’t…to live but to not reach or to reach wrong…to do it all wrong…I’m not a part. I’m not a member. I’m frozen.”

I know this. I know every word of this. I’ve said it all, down to wishing I was dying so I could be brave. So I am not alone. But this is what else I know: It does not have to be this way. I don’t have to be this way. I haven’t figured out what that means yet. But this is only part two.

Next: Suicide, Part Three

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Nothing Good or Bad?

I was asked to guest post by Becki Duckworth at http://isurvivedamurderattackmyfamilydidnt.com/ Becki’s story is brutal; you can read about it here.

And you can find my next post here.

I wish all of you peace on this day after Christmas. I find it’s not the “day” that’s hard as much as the aftermath, when I’ve survived to find yet again that life goes on and I’m just not sure how I’m supposed to go along with it.

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