Hurt

All things children hurt. School buses, even though my kids never went on one. Mothers holding hands with their little ones. Pregnant women. Diaper commercials. People talking about their children, saying “my son” because he is alive. Maybe I can still say, “my son,” but talking of him reminds me and whoever is listening that he’s dead, makes it real and uncomfortable.

Natalie and I were out and ran into C., a woman whose son is Philip’s age and whose daughter is a year younger than Natalie. The four of them were friends. I hadn’t seen C. since Philip’s funeral. Nothing, of course, is mentioned. Our hello-hug is held a little tighter, a little longer. “How are you?” is asked with an emphasis on “are.” “I’m doing good,” is my standard reply. The inconceivable has happened, this death that shocked and grieved me, that changed me and my family forever, but even the people who were affected by it keep a psychic distance. I think in part they do it for me. I think they’re afraid if they bring it up it might remind me, might hurt me. As if I don’t already think about Philip every day, as if it doesn’t hurt me every day, as if “hurt” is the word that comes close to describing what living with his death feels like.

And I think people don’t like to talk about it because of what they might feel. It’s not contagious, I want to say. Inevitable, but not contagious. Still, it’s death and it’s taboo. Do we think if we don’t talk about it, it won’t happen to us, to those we love? Do we think it’s better not to think about it, to deal with it when it’s too late and it steam rolls over you and if you’re lucky, you’ll have someone to peel you off the floor?

Philip was a young man when he died, but he is my child. He once had that innocence, that heartbreaking vulnerability I am reminded of when I see children. And much as he lost that innocence as we all do, he had a soft and tender heart. Which is exactly what keeps me close to him now, all the love that we were, that we are.

Sometimes I feel trapped. Philip’s not coming home. I will never have children again. I broke up my family when I left Phil. I might grow old alone. Life will have its way, not my way.

Much of what I feel comes from what I think. It doesn’t seem that way – emotions are what kick my ass, make it difficult to see that I am stirring them up by the stories I tell myself about the situations I find myself in. Reality becomes personal. In other words, it’s me that’s kicking my ass.

But Philip’s death is so big. I don’t know how to think about it any more, I don’t know what to say. I avoid. Which is why, in part, I haven’t been writing. I’m in protective mode. Like an opossum, I’m playing dead. I’d been reading through 18 binders of emails Ed and I wrote to each other from 1997 through 2013, the year after Philip died. I did it because I’m working on a memoir and I wanted to see what I’d written about my kids, what I could use for my work. I didn’t think about the fact that I’d also written about my mother. Had no idea that her past cruelty could shut me down. Because it’s not past, not really. It informs much of my life – too much of my life. She is so much a part of my story and I freeze when I think about writing about her.

After Philip died I was gutted. Everything poured out of me, so many words, so desperate to write my way through this. Devastating as his death was, I was alive. My heart was broken, but open. That’s where my words came from. There’s a place I go to when I write that I can’t now access. Even now I feel like I’m stringing sentences together. I can’t find my voice, can’t find the rhythm. I’m dull and hurt and shut down and all I want to do is quilt. I make beautiful quilts to hang on my walls. I play with my fabrics. I create. But I can’t quilt 24/7 and I find myself daydreaming about what I’m making and what I want to make because it soothes me. Too often I am unhappy. I don’t want to be at work, I don’t know what to do with myself afterward. I long for the weekends so I can get lost in my fabrics. I feel helpless about writing. The fire I had turned to ash.

I don’t want to be the mother whose son has died. I wrote so much in this blog about how pointless it is to argue with reality, yet here I am doing just that. And since that is so painful I shut it down. I don’t talk about Philip’s death, don’t write about it. I tell myself I can’t live with it – but that means I’m killing myself off. Resisting reality is resisting life.

I don’t yet understand what’s happening. I can’t find my sea legs. They must be there because I’ve had them before. But whatever this psychic regression is will not last. I think I’m going to emerge from this a different writer. I may feel helpless about getting back to my work, but I’m not hopeless.

© 2016 Denise Smyth

The Bridge

“But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey

I am between those lands and I feel like nothing’s happening but maybe something is going on and I need to be patient. I am missing Philip and that missing is tinged with hopelessness. He is not coming home. I am a mother whose child has died. It’s been sickening me again – whatever’s spinning around my gut makes its way to my chest and arms and just for a moment I think I’m going to fall down, that I can’t bear this.

But then there’s Philip, all around me, always all around me. I just have to pay attention. There isn’t a day that goes by that he isn’t nudging me. How graced am I? And how my life has opened up since he died. I left the hellish job I was at, and now work at a place I like to go to (most of the time). I have more people in my life than I had before. I finally started to write, and to stay with it. So many years – decades – I had fits and starts with writing. And years that I wanted to start a blog but was afraid. What could I possibly have to say? And if I had something to say, what made me think I could write it in a way that would make anyone want to read it?

Philip said, “let me be the voice in your head.” Because his is the voice of love. He would never talk to me the way I talk to myself, the way I learned from my mother. My mother, who cannot help who she is. I grew up nursing on her rages instead of her love. Witness to her preference for my brother, her disdain for me. And so hurt, angry and helpless as I was – as any child would be – I took my first drink at 11 and thought I found what I was looking for. Something to make me feel nothing because I’d rather feel nothing than feel what it felt like to be alive.

I have been remembering more often to replace that voice with Philip’s. I bought prayer beads to help. Not because I want to pray with them, but because they help me pay attention. They are beautiful copper beads flecked with gold, and have silver tassels They feel cool and weighty in my hands. I carry them around and every time I touch them I think, “Let Philip be the voice in my head.”

But that bridge Wilder talks of – I can’t find it. My heart’s not open. Back and forth I go between the fact that Philip’s died and the fact of how he lets me know he’s still here. What does his death mean in my life, what besides loss in a way I have never known? May I never know it again.

It’s such an odd way to live, this between-ness.  So much thinking going on here, so much “assessment” of my situation. Where does it get me? At the moment it feels easier to let it all go and just suffer. Then I can’t feel the love that comes at me from many different directions. Feeling it is also giving it – and what are we here for, if not to learn that?

How do I stop reacting like the small hurt child I was? I needed to be loved – I am never going to get what I needed back then, so it’s up to me to find what I need now. All I have to do, really, is look to my life, look to the people who matter, and let myself take it all in. And I take that little child I was and imagine myself at three, with my too-short bangs, wavy brown hair, big hazel eyes, pale yellow chiffon party dress, black patent leather shoes, finger in my mouth, being held by Philip. I imagine it because that is what it means to know love. That is what he’s trying to give me.

Love is not like the things of this world. It is not a transaction. It doesn’t get won, it doesn’t get lost. And it’s not diminished by giving. If I give it, I have it. It starts with me. With my ability to recognize that life is best lived in love. When do I feel peace? When I’m with love. Like I am with Natalie and Philip. With Ed. With the women in my life, old and new. With the quilts I’ve made and the cakes I’ve baked. These are works of love.

I am not speaking of what passes for “falling in love” which involves a significant other and in time is often revealed to be something very different. The love I’m speaking of is a state of being. And we desire to express that love. We think we need an object. We don’t. It’s true that people, animals, beaches and sunsets inspire us. Objects can loosen our sore and jaded hearts and let love through the cracks. If we can feel it, then we have it. But I have to ask – where does love go when nothing inspires me? When I feel alone? When nothing matters and I sit on my couch, look at Philip’s portrait and cry for want of him. It’s not love that’s moved, it’s me.

The bridge is love. That simple. So why is it so hard? I have two ways of thinking about Philip. One feels like I lean back in his love, one feels like I look ahead and see him gone. Lately I’m transfixed by what’s ahead, which means I’m imagining all the ways it stuns me that Philip won’t be here. Not in the way I want him to. Lately I’m blowing off his attention and retreating into what it feels like to have had him yanked from me, put into a navy blue suit in a coffin, then sent to a crematorium to spend two hours in a cremation container at 900 degrees so that he could be returned to me as a bunch of grey ash and bone fragments.

And guess what? Life kept on going. People brushed their teeth and straightened their ties and chose the right shoes to match their outfits and I did not understand. I knew there was so much more going on, things that arent’ seen and so feel lost. They are not lost. We who lose those we love walk differently. We cannot live in the world the same way, though we seem to. We are not even sure we want to be part of this world, but the reality is we are. So we have to find a way to bridge the gap. Or we can live in rage and hate, in despair, for what was “done” to us, when really, nothing at all was done to us. People’s dying is not done to us. What to do with that? To think about death we must move beyond vanity. Because all the money we make, all the things we buy, all the exercise we do and all the botox we shoot is not going to change the fact of death. We will die and if we’ve any hope of leaving this world without rage and fear, now is the time to work toward that. Philip once told me that I might think I want to die, but I am not ready. The way I live is the way I will die – if I live in fear, so will I die. There’s no magic that will make dying okay if living never felt the same. And I have much to do to make living feel the same.

© 2016 Denise Smyth

Patience is All

And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
― Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

I don’t know what’s going on with me. Besides feeling like I “can’t” write, I don’t want to go out. Yet after I rush home – from work, from the salon, from Whole Foods – I don’t want to be where I am. My heart is not open. I cannot access what’s essential. And I have this dreaded feeling again – or maybe not again, there are differences – this dreaded feeling of being a mother who’s lost her child. And anything I can “do” about this has nothing to do with action, but with the way I am with my grief.

It’s been suggested that I take a break from reading the emails I’ve packed in my binders. I have read from 1996 through summer of 2002. Eleven years to go. It’s not a race, much as I’m greedy in wanting to read it all. Philip and Natalie are in those pages, and it’s all real. There’s me going to college part time, on fire to learn. Writing to Ed about Shakespeare and poetry and myth. I wanted so much then – to exercise my intellect which I’d felt rotting in my head for lack of stimulation. I went for long walks and craved solitude. What happened to me? Now, If I’m not at work, if I’m not with someone – and I mostly am not – I’m sad. I don’t want to go out, much less go for a walk. I have more solitude than I know what to do with.

I think I’m lonely, which is hard and embarrassing to admit. I say “I think” because my idea of what loneliness is is that you sit around and wish there were people around to fill the hole. I don’t feel it that way. But maybe feeling sad, longing for something I can’t put words on, feeling restless and unsure, maybe that’s what lonely is. Lonely is a terrible secret I carry. It feels like a character flaw instead of a result of choices I’ve made.

I still have trouble connecting the dots between what I do and what I feel and I don’t think I appreciate what immersing myself in the past has done to me. I am overwhelmed and when there’s that much pain I shut it down. Go stupid. I’ve flatlined and I don’t know what I can do to change this.

I cannot figure out what to do with myself. I read, I write when I can, I get lost in TV. I will go somewhere if I’m invited, but on my own I just give up. Maybe because I’m trying with my head instead of my heart and there are some things that all the thinking about in the world won’t fix. But nothing calls out to me, I’ve no desire to be anywhere. Though that’s not entirely true. Kirsten and I have dinner most every Sunday, and during those hours I know pleasure.

In an effort to get myself up and out, I signed up for a series of four meditation classes held at Van Vleck House and Gardens in Montclair. Van Vleck is a nonprofit that used to be a private estate. The house looks like an Italian villa, with its cement pillars and lovely arched windows. The grounds are beautifully landscaped, with a large garden out back beyond the stone patio. Van Vleck hosts community events, and is open to the public, free of charge, year round.

Yet soon as I commit to anything, I don’t want to do it. I couldn’t force myself to go to the first class. I went to the second, but left there with a bad feeling. No, I went with a bad feeling and the class could do nothing to assuage that. John, the instructor, talked to us about meditation and then talked us through meditation. His rich voice resonates and relaxes – it was made for this. John is also my grief counselor. Once when I went to see him he did a meditation with me. I closed my eyes and went where his voice took me. When it was over I thought it had lasted for about 15 minutes. No, he said. It’d been 45.

In class, we sat and meditated, then we walked around the garden and meditated. Afterward, people talked about their experience. They were grateful, they felt good. I didn’t understand. They talked of how lovely the garden smelled, while I’d  noticed an odor when we first went out, something animal and vaguely skunky. Those who walked outside barefoot – like I did – talked of smooth grass and cool, earthy patches of dirt. I went into that garden careful and unsure, afraid of squishing bugs or stepping in anything the birds might’ve left behind.  The people that spoke in class seemed from another world.  What could I say to make this real for me, I wondered? What would I really, really want to say?

I didn’t know. How is it that even if I’m sitting and thinking, even if I have time to form sentences before I have to say them, I cannot know what I want to say? It seemed wrong not to abide in the spirit of peace and love that room was hell bent on creating. Wrapped in grief and anxiety, I was angry that I felt an outsider, and ashamed that someone might notice.

Maybe patience is all. And kindness. I’ve not been very kind to myself. I talk to myself the way my mother talked to me, abusive and humiliating. It’s a deep groove that I only entrench myself in when I let her wash over me. The only power she has is what I give her. And I don’t mean my mother who’s out there in the world. I am slowly learning how to handle her, and at 83, she has become careful with me. I mean the mother I’ve internalized. Her voice is relentless.

Seems time to recognize the way I talk to myself and change the conversation.

© 2016 Denise Smyth

02/23/16

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty look, repeats his words,
Remembers me of his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.

                                          William Shakespeare

Today is four years since Philip died. I’ve spent most of the day watching TV. It’s how I escape. I get lost in others’ lives and loves. I watch people and their families and believe that’s how life should be. I think how alone I am with my broken family. I won’t stay alone – Kirsten will make dinner for me as she’s done the last few years. I wonder if she knows how much it means. How much I need that.

It’s been hard to post. I’m finally working on my memoir. I took a class and it’s got me writing. That’s where my energy’s been, when I have it, when I don’t cry because I’m watching Downton Abbey and Edith’s lost her love while Mary’s married hers. Lately I feel my sadness most through others.

Starting the memoir means reliving it all. What timing. There’s no soothing me – I’ve too many edges. I’d like to curl up in a ball and let this pass. But it’s better to share it with Kirsten. I will be comforted despite myself.

It’s raining, and I am glad for that. Loneliness is easier under its misty blanket.

For a long time I’ve struggled against writing this memoir. I wanted to do it, but I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. I still think writers are an anointed crowd I can’t belong to. But it’s not about any of that drama – it’s about the writing. And I am once again fascinated by my story, wanting to get it right on the page. That’s what’s difficult about posting. Posting’s about what’s going on now, and I am needing to write about what happened before. I want to be someone different – I want to be someone who can work on a memoir and work on a blog. I don’t yet know that I can.

I miss my son. He’s gripped my heart today. It’s nearly 4:00. I think of how innocent I was four years ago – I would have been leaving work, going to therapy, going home to watch Lost while Philip lay dead in his room. How the seconds of that other life were ticking away. How my life will feel forever divided.

I am not without peace. I know Philip’s around. But today is four years since he left and I’ve a bucket of tears I refuse to cry. It’s so different now. I used to tell any and everyone that my son died. I wanted the world to understand what this was to me. Now I know the world doesn’t care, but I’ve a lot of people who do. Now I know this grief is mine. And I need to write it more than talk it.

© 2016 Denise Smyth

Things of the Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Lonely?

Natale and Me, October 2015

Natalie and Me, October 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2015 Denise Smyth

For a Reason?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2015 Denise Smyth

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