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

Survivor Guilt

There are times when naming things creates problems. We name something, then we think we know what it is. I mean, I’m looking at my barn-wood six-foot bench that I use as a coffee table. In this instance, I can’t even exactly name it – is it a bench, or is it a coffee table? But what is it? It’s made from painted wood. If I was a scientist I might know the molecular structure of that wood. But that still wouldn’t tell me what it is. Things have an is-ness that can’t be named. If we didn’t name everything and then assume we know all about it, we might get closer to what that is-ness is.

We name “conditions,” too – we get diagnoses and begin to treat the disorder. Conditions have symptoms attached to them, and it’s not uncommon for people to think they have a condition and manufacture the symptoms to match it. I bring this up because it was suggested to me that I have “Survivor Guilt”. My reaction was to recoil, like, oh, please, that’s something other people get. I’m way beyond that sort of thing. Because sometimes my sense of cool still gets offended. Because I have a habit of wanting to be different. Like I don’t want to do death like the rest of the world.

It makes no sense to me, this Survivor Guilt. For decades I swore I wanted to opt out of this life. Swore I hated it here, that I didn’t belong here. I felt too much pain in this world, with not much peace to offset it. So how I could I feel guilty being here when Philip was wherever it was I’d been wishing myself to be for so damn long?

But what explains the way I short circuit when I notice I’m happy? And what does it mean for me to be happy? I’ve had a problem with that word since way before Philip was even a thought. It seemed silly. “Happy?” Like jump up and down for joy, like everything is okay? My philosophy was something like if you’re happy you’re not paying attention. Unhappiness gave me an edge – I saw things the way they really were. Happy was cheap and weak. Surface living. Naive. And not cool – definitely not cool.

As for guilt – for what? Guilt requires having done something wrong by choice. I felt so wronged by life I swore it wasn’t possible to feel guilt. Life should feel guiIt because It was indifferent to my unhappiness. I didn’t consider that if I felt life was beating me up, I must’ve thought I deserved it – hence, guilt. As far as feeling guilty about Philip’s death – it had nothing to do with me. There was nothing I could have done and I don’t make believe that there was. I’m trying to live with the reality of this, not a fantasy.

I had an idea about happy the way I had an idea about guilt. Thoughts in my head about what those words meant. I didn’t allow myself to feel them, either. I pushed those feelings into the background and let unhappiness be the foreground. But that rid me of nothing. It just let me not pay attention.

A couple weekends ago Natalie and I went to a wedding in Manhattan. My cousin was getting married, and my family was spending the night in a hotel. The ceremony and reception were held in a restaurant, and while the food was delicious, the service impeccable, and the bride a thing of beauty, the place was bathed with an eerie blue light and the acoustics required conversation to be loud and strained. The “dance floor’ was a tiny square with a DJ that had  two five foot speakers and a rough, ridged rubbery floor that stopped your shoes from doing what they really wanted to do. No matter – there were too many of us crowded on to it to move very much anyway. Who cared? We were in each others’ company to celebrate. So we did.

There were people there – family – I hadn’t seen in a long time. I forgot how much loved them, how much they loved me back. How are you, they asked? And I wasn’t sure if they were asking me how I was like everyone asks of someone not seen in a while, or if it was code for how are you since Philip died. God knows I wished they would ask that of me, but they didn’t. And I acted like that was what they’re asking me by answering with a slow blink and a pointed nod and saying, “I am okay.” I was letting them off the hook and was glad to do so. I’d no interest in making anyone uncomfortable.

Except that later, returning to my seat from the dance floor, I sat alone and wished I could cry to just one of them. They were laughing and talking the way I was laughing and talking. So where was Philip in all this? Did they think I forgot him? Were any of them thinking of him? Why am I so hungry for a witness to what I suffer?

Or did I just think I needed to suffer as a testament to my love for him? And if I think I am losing him in my moments of pleasure then what’s really going on is that I feel guilty that I could laugh while he’s dead. Survivor guilt isn’t what I thought – it didn’t mean feeling like I should have died instead of Philip. I’m not so arrogant to think I know who should be dead and who shouldn’t. What it is is the way I sometimes catch my breath when I realize I like what I’m doing or I’m enjoying the people around me and I stop it all to think, how could any of this matter when my son is dead?

The idea of Philip’s death is not the reality of it. The idea of it is that he’s gone and I cannot live in peace without him. The reality is he’s around me all the time. I have a relationship with him, the kind that matters – that of the heart. That doesn’t change, and what doesn’t change is what’s real. In other words, love. If we are not here to love, what can anything matter?

I have changed since Philip died. I have become more friendly. I smile more. I’m interested. In you. I think that happiness is a gift we give to others. My happiness is more about you than me, but if I can share it with you it’s because it is inside of me. I can somewhat handle happy in a more controlled environment. Like work. I’m all about helping, I’m cheerful, calm and steady. When I see a call coming in from someone I don’t want to talk to, I might sigh and roll my eyes but when I answer I am pleasant and helpful. And I’m okay with that until I hear my co-workers talking about their kids who are in college or have graduated from college and are flying off to new jobs and new marriages and I am reminded I will never dance at Philip’s wedding and that I can’t share with them the relationship I have with him now.

What do we owe the dead? Nothing, I would argue. They are past owing. To owe is to be obligated to – but if I believe I can’t be happy without Philip here, then I must think I owe him my grief. And my guilt. As if that’s anything he would want.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

When We Connect (Part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next, Part 3.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

On Trust, Love and Death

Dee over at Always Remembering Amy wrote a post about trusting life that got me thinking. First a word about her. She is amazingly kind and compassionate – and she’s a giver. I love and admire this woman whom I’ve never met and probably never will. She knitted a prayer shawl for me, which I cherish; and when Pippin died she sent me a condolence card. She breaks my heart for her suffering. I wish I could take it from her but it’s not up to me to say what people should go through. I am not God.

I’ve never trusted life. I’ve lived in deep argument with it, like it was something outside myself, a dark and implacable presence hovering over me. Philip died when I was finally learning how to make peace with it. How to make peace with myself. The argument was being absorbed by a slow and steady knowing. When I stopped resisting I felt full and calm. Like I’d been an outline of a character in a coloring book that someone – that I – finally filled in.

That’s what Philip wants from me. That’s the work he meant I needed to keep doing when I heard him say, “Mom, you gotta go deeper.”

Life is benign – in that, I trust. I don’t think it “does” things to me because that implies I’m the center of the universe. I am not singled out – it’s not personal. Awful, horrible, terrible things happen to people all the time. Some of them we cause, some of them just are. Our worst tragedies involve death; but since death is an absolute, we need to find a way to reckon with it. I can say Philip shouldn’t have died, but who am I to say what should happen and when? Of course, that doesn’t change the fact of my grief. The way I think about his death creates the way I feel about his death. Sometimes I make it worse by telling myself I will never get out from under this. That is my monkey mind dancing in the graveyard. There is a difference between the stories I tell myself about Philip’s death and just feeling what it feels like to have lost him that way.

None of this means I think I don’t have trials ahead of me. “Trial” doesn’t nearly get at the depth of what I deal with every day because my son – my son – has died. Never have I known this kind of desolation. And I’m not safe from having more of it. I have a daughter – it is entirely possible that she, too, can die before me. Yet I don’t worry about Natalie – it’s not in my nature to do so, and Philip’s death hasn’t changed that. I am simply saying it because it’s true. If you think death is something you need to be shielded from, you will one day find there is no protection from it. So maybe we have to stop looking at it as the tragedy we feel it is.

We are all going to die. Every single one of us. How do we live in the face of that? You can spend your life worrying about it, you can try to acquire power, money, friends and possessions to avoid it, you can make every day count because of it.

Or, like me, you can be confused and unsure how to live with it and maybe make a hobby of withdrawing. At least for some of the time. I do well at work, am able to enjoy other people. I laugh when something’s funny. I love. But I also feel deeply alone and grieved and just don’t know what to do with myself. I mean that literally. I don’t know what it is I want to do when I have time to myself. I write, I knit, I mourn. But I’m restless and unhappy. I have a sense there’s some next step and I can’t see what that is or what it is that’s holding me back.

I need stay present to Philip’s death, which means not to resist it. It means gratitude for the connection I have with him, for his loving presence and the way it manifests every day. Except it’s difficult to remain there when a whole chunk of me feels gone, when I feel so deeply and irrevocably alone. When I feel like I need but I don’t know what I’m looking for. Maybe it’s because when I am not in the presence of someone I love, I lose all connection to them. Funny how I can remain connected to Philip who’s gone and died, but feel so distant from Natalie the minute she walks out the door. Every time I see her there’s a shock of love, a relief from my thoughts. You’d think I didn’t see her often, but I live with her. We spend a good amount of time together. She is who got me through the worst of Philip’s death, tending to me until I could begin again to tend to her.

There is only one thing that needs to change for me if I really want to find some peace. And that is my relationship to my thoughts. I am not my thoughts, I am the thinker of those thoughts. I can learn to recognize the background noise in my head and dismiss it, I can look at the stories I tell myself and change them. It’s believing the clamor in my head that keeps me bound and helpless.

Eckhart Tolle says it simply: “The more you make your thoughts and beliefs into your identity, the more cut off you are from the spiritual dimension within yourself.”

© 2015 Denise Smyth

The Loop

Natalie’s birthday is the Fourth of July – she was born around 9:00pm, when the fireworks start, so I always say she came out with a bang. And that she did – she burst out and tore me open so my midwife had to stitch me up. What different births I had for these two who were born at home – Philip my winter child, Natalie, my summer. With Philip, labor was slow and steady, the pain mounting and tormenting. With Natalie the pain reached its peak quickly, stayed there longer. With Philip I couldn’t sit, with Natalie I couldn’t stand. With Philip my water broke before I went into labor. With Natalie, at nearly nine centimeters dilated, my water was intact. I can break your water and you’ll have your baby, my midwife told me. I was on my couch and thought I wanted to stay there; with Philip I wanted to be in my bed. Do it, I told her; I’m staying right here. So she did and then I panicked – I have to be in my bed, I have to, I told them. “Them” being my midwife, my friend Marilyn, my sister-in-law Ann, my husband. So Marilyn and Ann each took hold of an arm to walk me to my bed. I had a contraction on the way and would have collapsed but for them. Get her to the bed before this baby’s born on the floor, my midwife ordered.

When I started pushing Philip there was a period of relief from the pain; with Natalie it was relentless. When Philip’s head finally popped out, my contractions stopped and I had no energy to push. With Natalie my midwife told me to stop pushing but I couldn’t – hence she exploded into the world and then into my arms.

With Natalie, I needed stitches. With Philip, I didn’t.

I’d never known physical pain like the pain of childbirth. Nature makes sure we don’t remember it – we might know it’s awful, but we can’t re-feel it.  If we could, there’d be a whole lot less babies born. But that pain was nothing compared to the psychic pain of Philip’s death, which also – mercifully – can’t be remembered, at least not at that all-consuming, eviscerating zenith. I don’t know how I bore it. I can say the same about childbirth, but at the end of it, there was my baby. It’s been suggested that going through Philip’s death can become my own birth. I don’t disagree with that…but it doesn’t comfort. I’m certainly not the same as I was. But I’m not at peace, and it’s hard to imagine I will ever really feel okay. It felt hard enough to be here before he died. Three-and-a-half years later, I’m still mixing up grief with the deep unhappiness I had before. I have not learned how to get out of my own way.

Phil had a party at the house for Natalie on her birthday. My mom was there, my in-laws, a few of Phil’s friends, a few of Natalie’s. It’s what we do every year. This year, while I was there, I wandered into Philip’s room for a while. His two bureaus are now Natalie’s and are at my apartment – other than that, his room is as he left it. It needs to be cleaned up, it needs to be gone through. I looked through some things, touched his books, wondered what it would take to sort each thing piece by piece, to make decisions about what to get rid of. Three-and-a-half years later and I can’t imagine spending the time it would take to do that, nor can I imagine Phil making those decisions without me.

I don’t think I said a word about Philip that day. Except when I told Phil that I missed him. “Miss him” falls far short of what I really mean. There was a time I’d be upset because no one talked about Philip. Now I don’t know what I would say. I don’t even want to say. No amount of talking is going to bring him back, and I struggle to find the words for the magnitude of this. My silences both hurt and comfort. I still feel different, still don’t understand the world the way others do. I still sometimes want to say, Do you know my son died?? Yet I’m also glad not to talk about it, to hold this close and keep watch.

I’ve been in Philip’s room since he’s died, but this last time hit me hard. I’m stuck – life seems to have a sameness that’s difficult to bear. I look at Philip’s picture and see that “sameness.” He will never get older, never look any different. The rest of it – of life – is up to me. Lately I haven’t the heart for it. I do what I have to do, but enjoying myself isn’t easy. I read, I write, I knit – but I lose my concentration awfully fast, even if I’m trying to watch a movie or a show. I don’t want to go anywhere, can’t think of anything I’d want to do. I see Kirsten most Sundays and that’s one of the few things I look forward to. As well as when I spend time with Natalie. I feel better when she’s around, but she has a life of her own. And I’m grateful it’s a happy one.

I’ve talked of grief being a spiral, but lately it feels like a loop. Same thing, different day. And life’s been like a loop, too. I don’t remember feeling like this, not in a long time, and not since Philip died. That brings me to connection, which – in my last post – I said I’d be writing about, but haven’t yet. Feeling close and connected to others starts with feeling that way toward myself. Without that, I’m like a shirt that’s been mis-buttoned, each side missing the point. That’s why pleasure is absent, why the things that have sustained me through Philip’s death seem lost. I’m all body and no soul and to identify most with something so temporary leaves me restless and unhappy. As with all things I don’t want to feel, I ask, “What am I supposed to do with this?” Is there some action I’m supposed to take? Go out, exercise, call someone, take a trip, meditate? Wait, be patient, it’ll pass? I swear I’m missing some part that I can’t blame on Philip’s death, easy as that would be.

I just remembered something that I’d like to share here – it might be hard to come by, but even I can recognize joy when I see/hear it. Hope it makes you feel the same: Some joy to share

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Good Morning?

Ed has told me many times to go for the embarrassment. There is gold there, he says. And I am embarrassed about what I’m going to write, but I need to talk about it.

I work in a small office and all of us are around the same age. All of us have children around the same age. And for most of us, all those children are alive.

I can’t help but ache when I overhear my coworkers’ conversations about their sons. Of course I do. How grateful I am to have a daughter; I am that much less lonely. I love her deeply, and that love comforts. But one child cannot take the place of another. And when I hear talk of sons, my gut is like a magnet that pulls me in and away because I’m reminded it’s too sad of a world without Philip.

A couple weeks ago, Roger, Jack and Maggie’s son, came to work with us for a few weeks, until his summer internship started. Roger’s about 20 years old, tall and thin, just a touch of adolescence awkwardness left – a chest that still needs to fill out, calves that are thin and haven’t fully taken shape. Philip had just been past that stage, had come fully into his body. I remember his ascent into manhood, the shock of a hairy calf showing out from summer shorts that reminded me my child was no longer a child except in my heart.

I am an assistant. I do what I’m asked, and sometimes – rare times – there are personal things Jack and Maggie need done. I’ve been asked to do things for Roger. Cancel his gym reservation, try, and try, and then try again, to change his plane reservations during a time it was impossible to do so. And sometimes I have been resentful. I am doing things for this young man, this son, that I can never do for my own.

Watching Jack and Maggie tend to Roger when I can no longer do that for Philip – well, the loss of Philip’s physical presence overwhelmed in ways it hadn’t for a long time. I was reminded of the deep, deep bond that is family, the same bond that I know I still have with Philip – but to witness it in the flesh was devastating. I was back to crying in the bathroom, crying off the makeup I’d so carefully applied in the morning. It got so I had to heave myself out of bed from the psychic weight I was carrying.

And then this, because when I am in a state of loss, I know exactly how to turn the world against me:

Jack and Maggie are wealthy. They are also kind and unpretentious. But what I do in those dark and creepy places in my mind is equate all they have and all they give their children with their inherent goodness. Because I have less, I become less. That Philip died becomes a testimony to my inability to be a good mother and I feel shamed and cheapened.

Of course I know better. I’m at a point where I’ve never wanted less. I need to keep it simple. But this isn’t about mortgages and bank accounts. This is about having a dead son to whom I can give nothing. This is about me equating fiscal worth with spiritual worth which I thought I was long past, but apparently am not.

My co-worker Sandy works in the office next to mine. He’s there when I arrive, and every morning I stick my head in and say, “Good morning.” It took me a while to be able to do that – I’ve long wondered what was so good about morning when it’s the dark of night I crave. No matter. “Good morning” wasn’t about me. It was a gesture that felt good to make.

There are two desks in Sandy’s office, and Roger’s been sitting at one of them. The first few mornings I saw him there I walked past without a word. I could not speak because my stomach somehow made its way into my throat. I would’ve been ashamed except I was too busy feeling lost and invisible.

There’s not much of a happy ending here. But there was coming to reality. There was me finally able to speak to this young man, to make him into a person and not just a son. To “good morning” him every day because it felt better to do that than not. To create space to breathe where I was holding my breath. But how much grief in that space, how much sorrow.

I’m better, but still thrown. Grief’s like the ocean – the waves come in, the tide goes out. Sometimes it’s a gentle wave and I keep my sea legs, sometimes it’s tidal and knocks me out. And thank God sometimes the tide’s so far out I think I can bear this. These couple weeks were a knockout, for sure, and the psychic shift lingers. Could I have responded differently? Could I have said, oh, I am sad, I miss my son, I want him here because I need his hug and just let myself be? Where does that racket in my head come from, and how do I make it shut up?

I could start by listening to Philip, which I forget to do when I’m that low, the time when I need to listen most. “Let me be the voice in your head,” he says. Let me be the voice in your head.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

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