01/20/91 – #4

Today is Philip’s birthday. He would have been 25. Time has ceased for him in that way, and it has changed for me, too. I’m much more conscious that the only time it ever is, is now. That’s become a kind of meditation for me, this focusing on the present. Trying to stay focused on now does not leave Philip behind. He died nearly four years ago. I don’t think a lot about that time. He is here, now, and that has to be enough, like it or not.

But last night I was full of the night I gave birth to him. He was born at home on a cold January night. At one point – probably after I bit her shoulder – my midwife took me outside, arm around me, holding me up when I’d get a contraction. The frosty air, the dark, the quiet – she knew I needed a change from my bright apartment with its hospital pads spread on my bed and placenta bowl empty and waiting.

I thought my good attitude and fearlessness about giving birth would ease the pain. It did not. I yelled. I wailed. Part of me then rose up somewhere, was watching this, and I knew it was going to be okay. But I gave myself permission to scream. Those contractions were long and dark and hard and brought me unwillingly to a place I call terror. At the height of one of them I heard the words that would eventually bring Philip and me full circle – “There’s no way out but through.”

Those are not words of comfort. Reality rarely is. I was being asked – no, told – to bear a pain I thought impossible to bear. I was at its mercy, and merciful it was not. But after it was over I had Philip, sweet baby boy, this child I loved when he was just a thought. How graced was I?

Those words came to me after he died, too. And if there was no other reason to have experienced his birth for exactly what it was, hearing those words would have been enough. They brought me full circle. I think of them often. I am more willing to get through. I have to – I’m still in relationship with Philip, and like any relationship, it needs to be tended to. Like any relationship, the more I am present to it the more I see it for what it is. A couple years ago Philip asked me if I knew what responsibility was. I didn’t want to know what he was getting at. I was a wreck then, and if he expected me to take responsibility for our relationship, I couldn’t. I did what I could, and if I could sum it up in one word, it would be “cried.” I didn’t know how many tears I had. In my mind I was hanging on to him for dear life. His presence was palpable, but I was too caught up in grief and terror to even utter the word “responsibility.”

“You know, you are his mother,” Ed reminded me once. That was too much. I was his mother, but I couldn’t act like one. Of course I couldn’t. I wasn’t ready, didn’t think I ever would be.

My sense of Philip has shifted. I am learning how to breathe with him. He’s come into play in the choices I make. I want him to see me do well. It’s my gift to him. And this can only happen because his death did not stop our relationship. When he first died, I took a drive, trying to figure out how to kill myself. Then I heard him: “Mom, it doesn’t work that way. You have to find the joy.”

I believe him. Death is not the answer. And as for joy, maybe it will come, but for now, it’s peace that I’m after. I want Philip to know that. I want him to know that I am doing well exactly the way I want Natalie to know I’m doing well. That’s what my children need – a mother who is present. Philip will get no less from me because he’s died. And I know not what death is except for the fact that it means a particular body will no longer be present. I don’t believe that just because you die you get to go to a better place. Or if you’re a “bad” person, a worse place. I just have this idea that whatever you’re working out you will keep on working out.

Early on I talked about being in a grief group, and being asked to write a letter from our loved to us. I sat and listened to Philip, and he ended the letter with a most lovely line: “Mom, I love you. I’m in the place of no good-byes so we can talk whenever we want.”

The place of no good-byes – if I have to think of him in a place, then let that be the one.

© 2016 Denise Smyth

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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

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

01/20/91 – #3

My water broke about 1:00 in the morning, running wet and warm down my legs and pooling on the wooden floor in my bedroom. I’d gotten up because I thought I had to pee – maybe I did pee, maybe that was part of what was gushing out of me because what I didn’t know then, but is so clear now, is that this thing that was about to happen was not in my control. All I could do was go along for the shockingly painful ride. Shocking because I thought my good attitude meant it wouldn’t hurt so much.

My children were born at home which seemed to me the most reasonable way to go about it. Hospitals, doctors, nurses, fetal monitors worrying my baby’s every heartbeat – to have anyone try to manage my labor was intrusive. I was having a baby, not an operation. So when my water broke it was my midwife, Barbara, that I didn’t call. Didn’t call because I wasn’t yet in labor and saw no reason to wake her. What she said when I called her at 8 in the morning was, “I told you that if your water broke, you should call me right away. You have to come see me now.” I could go into labor any moment. She was an hour’s ride away – that meant an hour there and an hour back plus whatever time I spent with her and while I wasn’t worried that I’d be giving birth in the car, I did think my husband and I should get on the road so I could get back and make myself comfortable. “It’s time to go,” I told Phil, who was sitting at the table reading his New York Times. “When I finish my tea,” he answered, with a shake of the paper.

Being pregnant and giving birth didn’t make me nervous. It was Phil who worried that if something went wrong during birth we’d be blamed because we were having our baby at home. “When time comes, I’ll be at the hospital, pacing,” he used to joke. But it was time to go and I knew he was anxious. His way of tamping down anxiety was to try to slow down the situation. But no matter how much tea he thought he was going to drink, this baby was going to get born.

I’d had a few mild contractions during the morning, but it was on the way home from Barbara that they really started. What I thought they were going to feel like was some gentle vibration from the top of my belly to the bottom, like waves that would carry Philip down and out. Instead they were like a steel band squeezing under my belly and around my back while a mac truck was trying to ram me open. I’d fooled myself into thinking I had this together. I didn’t know that once I was in labor, my body wasn’t my own. She was doing the only job she had to: getting my baby born.

Pregnant bodies have their own intelligence. Birthing starts with hours and hours of contractions to force an opening wide enough for a baby-body to pass through, then hours of pushing to actually get it out. After the baby’s born, the placenta follows. Meanwhile, the mother’s breasts will have filled will colostrum, which the baby will eat for the first few days. It helps their immune system. Milk follows after, and will keep filling the mother’s breasts for as long as baby keeps emptying them. If I think about that, if I think about the intricacies of my pregnancy, intricacies caused by the merging of two microscopic cells, I know I was part of a miracle.

Labor was intense and painful. And the more it hurt the more scared I got until I didn’t have the pain but I was the pain and I couldn’t yell myself out of it. Even when I bit Barbara’s shoulder it didn’t help. Yet there were times I felt I was in some parallel universe, some place where I was watching what was happening to myself, checking in to remind me I was okay, to ask if I really had to yell so much. And during one particular moment of hot pain I heard the words, “There is no way out but through,”  which I wrote a bit about here.

Then it was time to push. It was not a choice. Pushing was an urge, a physical sensation impossible to ignore, an insistence I bear down with everything I’ve got. Which, at that point, wasn’t much. After some hours I thought myself physically unable to do it any more. My body said otherwise. I am not going to make it, I thought. I cannot do this. And when Philip’s head finally popped out, I gave up, too exhausted to care any more. “Push,” Barbara ordered. “I can’t,” I answered. I’d had enough. Let her pull him out. “Push,” she commanded. “Can’t,” I answered, eyes closed and resting. Truth was I wasn’t having contractions and I hadn’t any strength to push without them. Until Barbara stuck her finger up the only other available hole down there, and with one indignant push, out slid my son, a bit blue in the face, but strong and healthy and ready to nurse. He was born around 1:00 on Sunday morning, January 20th, 1991.  I do not remember the exact time. He was a true Sunday’s child, fair and wise and good and gay.

I often say I don’t know the world, but it’s not the world, it’s me that’s different. Am I anything but what I see myself to be? I had a flashback recently of November, 1990, the month I stopped working because of my pregnancy. I wanted to spend the last couple months alone with my baby. I see me in my forest green jacket and black stretch pants, walking in the chill and with a peace like I’d never known. Who was that woman? She was married and about to have her first baby, still living in Brooklyn, so damn innocent of what was to come. Not having any plans other than to be with this baby. Knowing, all the time knowing, that childhood is a small part of life and much as there were times when it was so difficult to be alone with Philip I knew it wouldn’t last. Patience, was all. I saw myself as earth mother, with my nursing, the cloth diapers I washed myself, the beans I soaked, the bread I baked. The baby food I cooked. I was going to do it right and because I was working so hard at right, things would turn out okay.

I didn’t see life for what it was. I saw it the way I wanted it to be. I was no earth mother, beans and bread or not. I was not someone who could stay in my marriage til death did we part. I was not someone who could live in the shadow I thought I was in. I was not someone who could stay as disconnected as I felt I was.

And I was not someone whose son would live longer than she did.

If there is anything that will get me to make peace with Philip’s death, it’s if I’m afraid of mine. Every change I go through is a little death, and gives me a chance to practice for my own. I do not want to wail and mourn for myself, to be this wracked and grieved when death reaches out for me. Philip has said I might think I’m not afraid to die but what is true for me in life will be true in death. And that whatever keeps me from loving life fully keeps me from loving him fully. These are hard truths and no twisting of my mind can help me escape them.

Philip, honey – Happy Birthday. It will always be Happy-Birthday, this day. And even though it’s your day, you are the one who gives the gifts. I love you, sweetie, I miss you being here, I miss the sound of your voice, your laugh, your midnight phone calls to tell me you love me. But I’m grateful for your constant presence, for the life you’ve given me to live. You know I’m still on the fence – patience, please, until I get off it.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

It’s Over

“While you were lookin’ for your landslide
I was lookin’ out for you
I was lookin’ out for you
Someone’s lookin’ out for you”

Brandi Carlisle

That’s all it took to wreck me, because I’m like that with music again – I can’t listen to it because it touches deeply and anything that touches deeply hurts and twists into something to do with Philip. And I hear these words as an accusation. She knew what she was doing, but where was I? Was I looking out for Philip? Was does that even mean? Something was going on and I wasn’t paying attention. And maybe I never paid the right kind of attention. Sure I love, I adore, my children. But maybe love is not enough – sometimes saying “no” is required and I am not good at that. I was afraid to be in conflict with Philip because I might lose him. I have never understood that anger isn’t the end.

I thought that I never asked myself if I could have done something that would have kept Philip alive. I mean, I don’t go back to the days and weeks and months leading up to his death and wonder what I could have done differently. I don’t wonder why I didn’t take seriously all the times I saw Philip dead, that I never thought I was having a premonition. Even if I thought that, what could I have done? I can just see myself trying to convince Philip that he was going to die so he should…what? Be careful? Not go out for a while? Come live with me until the coast was clear? How bizarre would that have been? I used to wish I was psychic. But being psychic doesn’t mean you can preclude things. It doesn’t make you God, doesn’t mean you get to orchestrate your portion as if it’s separate from the whole. It’s a responsibility – maybe you can know or sense what’s coming, but I would not wish to know the crisis that was heading my way. If I’m grateful for anything, it’s that the way Philip, Death and I had a relationship since he was little is something I can piece together as I look back, not something I saw as foreboding when it was happening.

When Philip died I felt responsible – not for some particular thing I did or didn’t do, but because I am his mother and I didn’t protect him. It matters not how he died – this is what a parent feels. And when Phil showed Philip’s autopsy to a doctor and was told that it’s not likely that Philip died from the amount of drugs in his system, that he probably had something like an undetected  heart condition, well, that made me feel worse. He came from my body – could I not make a child that was whole and healthy?  I did everything right when I was pregnant – I ate well, exercised, gained the right amount of weight. I had home birth because I would not deliver myself into the hands of a hospital staff I didn’t know or trust and who might interfere with a process they were taught to see as a health hazard. I nursed Philip for a year and a half, made his food when he started eating. I didn’t feed him meat because I see it as cruel and unnecessary, never gave him milk because it’s a myth that that’s something children need. They’re not calves, for God’s sake. What did I do any of that for? So he would grow strong and healthy. So he wouldn’t die. Isn’t that why we do the things we do for our children – so they won’t die? And if, after all that, his body was inadequate, how could it not be my fault?

I really like to say I don’t bother myself about what I did or didn’t do for Philip, because it makes no sense to do that. I know what I’m supposed to do. I’m supposed to figure out how to live with his death because to argue about it is crazy. It’s a terrible struggle enough without torturing myself about the past. Except that’s where grief’s led me. Back to the bitter, hopeless tears, to the helpless horror, to the inability (real or imagined) to say what this is and the goddamn rage and loneliness that comes from that. If I can’t say it, then what is left?

I think I skipped a step. Yes, the work is living with Philip’s death. But I haven’t finished with the part about if I’d done something different. And not in any particular moment, but in the way that I was Philip’s mother. I’m full of self-loathing because of the ways I stood back, the ways I didn’t say no, the ways I wasn’t strict either because it’s not in my nature or because the older Philip got, the less right I felt I had to tell him what he couldn’t do. But did I give that right up too easily?

People die for all kinds of reasons. There isn’t one story for each “kind” of death. Getting shot doesn’t mean you’re a criminal, getting cancer doesn’t mean you didn’t take care of yourself, snorting too much heroin doesn’t mean your mother wasn’t good enough. But that’s my mythology: the mother who meant well but let it slip away because she felt helpless. And my touchstone was the family across the street from us with the mother who was strict, had rules, and was not going to let her children get away from her. Her son and daughter were smart, polite, respectful and always – even in their jeans – carefully dressed. No weird and menacing black t-shirts, no Converse so worn their soles were split. I am so sure that these children grew into responsible young adults with serious interests and quiet, envious careers. Because that’s what their mother insisted.

All this, about a woman I never even met. But she haunts me, this fairy-tale Mother. She lurks around the dark and slimy mess I think my life’s become. Which is crazy and irrational because my daughter adores me, there are people who love me, my job is a dream and I am finally writing and taking the risk of pushing the “publish” button when Im done.

It’s over. Philip’s childhood is over, and I had all of it. Whatever kind of “mom” I was, he died loving me and he is right here protecting me. That’s the reality of now, not the story I tell of the kind of mother I was. It’s time to end that one, for sure. I am a writer; why can’t I do this? Because endings are hard. It’s why this post has taken weeks to write. I don’t know how to end it any more than I know how to end that story.

Why can’t I just say, It’s over?

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Is it Better?

I miss my son.

I am still shocked, and part of me feels like a dying tree, oozing sap and rotting away. When work is over and no friends are around, it’s just me and my grief. How am I supposed to do this? Is there some sort of answer to that? I can’t look to the world for it – the world is insane. Grasping , needing and killing to get what it wants. And what it wants is Power. What’s done in the name of power is psychotic. It’s never enough, there’s always more power to want. More ways to be right, to prove that you exist. But there’s no real satisfaction in being right. It’s like an addiction – because being satisfied with being right just once is no more possible than an addict’s first snort being his last.

Except when it kills him.

In “True Detective,” Marty asks Rust if he’s Christian. “No,” he says. “Well what are ya?” Rust doesn’t want to have this conversation, but he answers, “I’m a Realist. But in philosophical terms, I’m a Pessimist.”

I’ve never heard of Pessimism as a philosophy. So I did a little research, read Thomas Ligotti’s, “The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.” And one of the things he wrote about was the question of why it’s assumed that it’s better to be here than to not. I imagine you can’t get much traction with that because most people take it for granted that it’s better to be. Of course it is, right? But why, exactly? Forget my suffering. What about those women – those girls – that were rounded up by some terrorist organization in Iraq to be given to men so they can marry them or rape them or subject them to any degradation they choose?  Or people whose families became collateral damage in a war they neither wanted nor started? Or all the hungry kids, the abused kids – all over the world there is suffering I cannot even imagine. So is it better – is it always better – to be? We can’t answer that since we don’t know what it is to “not be.” We don’t if it’s better. Or worse. Or just the same. We just know we’re terrified of it.

And Pessimism isn’t Hamlet’s, “To be or not to be.” Hamlet was contemplating suicide. Pessimism is about coming into being at all. I thought about it for a while, until I circled back to the fact that while I found Pessimism fascinating, it wasn’t some kind of answer. No matter how much I debate it, I’m here. Whether’s it’s better to be here or not is irrelevant. I’m here and Philip’s dead, so now what?

Living. I’m as hung up on what that means as I am about death. And I’m not feeling good about either of them. “Mom, you have to work it out where you are,” Philip said. Which sucked the juice out of the fantasy of wanting to die – whatever I’ve been angry, depressed and twisted about for most of my life is my life. When I’m sitting here writing, this is my life. When I get up to pee then that will be my life. Life is not some separate path or some thing Out There that I’ll get to one of these days. Out There is the fantasy of the future, which only ever comes as now. Life is what it is. Every breath is life lived and it is one of these same, ordinary breaths that are going to be our last.

When Natalie was a  freshman at Rutgers, she was miserable. It was more than being homesick. It was misery. I was trying to help her get through that first year, at the end of which she could transfer. Accept it, leave it or change it, I told her. So she stayed. She applied to other colleges. But it wasn’t enough. She was torn and I wanted to help. We talked a lot. She’d often go visit her boyfriend in New York on weekends, then come home to Montclair on Sunday evening so I could drive her back to Rutgers. I loved my Sunday nights in the car with her. For 45 minutes we’d talk and talk and once we talked so much I missed the exit.

Two weeks before Philip died, we were talking about death. “You know everything won’t be here one day. Everything. One day this car won’t be here. This highway – it won’t be here, either.” I hesitated before I added, “I won’t be here,” because I didn’t want to scare her. But I’m going to die like everyone else and not talking about it won’t change that.

I told her that I didn’t think death was the end. “I don’t know what happens, but something’s left. Whatever you want to call it. Call it soul, call it energy. But something is animating my body – and when my body dies, that something remains.” I also told her that I had no idea what happened with that soul, that energy. I wasn’t talking reincarnation, I wasn’t talking heaven. I believe there is more than we see, but what that is I can’t say.

“Of course,” I added, “If anything happened to you or Philip, all bets are off.”

And this was around the time Natalie said to her boyfriend, “I am afraid my brother’s going to die.”

Philip’s death forces me to think about what life and death are. And this is what he said to me a while ago: “Mom, I’m trying to teach you what death isn’t. But you have to look to Natalie for life. If you don’t, nothing I say will mean anything.”

And all along I thought what he meant was all the signs, the messages, and the guidance were proof that death isn’t the end, that he’s around and always will be. But that’s only part of it. He’s also trying to get it through my head that death isn’t an answer to the way I feel. Because in spite of what I know and what I’ve experienced, when I’m grieved and terrified I think that death has got to be the answer. I am back to crying every day for Philip. I’m trapped because there are too many moments when I think that I just can’t do this – but I’m here and I have to and that’s when I get to thinking death must be a way out. And I’m reminded of when I was in labor, when I had that same terror because the pain was too much and there was nothing I could do – and a voice in my head said, “There’s no way out but through.”

People thought I was crazy for having my babies at home when I could go to the hospital and have the pain of it all relieved in some  chemical way. Had I done that, I would have missed that voice. And that’s the voice that’s brought me full circle and made every scream and exhausting push worth all of it.

So to all of you who have lost a child, to you who’ve lost a deeply loved one, what is life for you? And for you who have other children to look to, what do you see? What I see when I look at Natalie is complicated. She is not the girl who came home from Rutgers. Two-and-a-half years later she is a light and a joy. Her life is full of what she wants. She vibrates – when Natalie is in a room, you know it. I have loved watching her come alive. But watching her also puts distance between us. She is happy, I am not. She is full of life, I am dispirited. It seems so easy for her, this thing called life. I think I’m angry, I think I’m envious. I think I’m dejected because I tamp my anger down so hard it’s exhausting. I can’t deal with it; I’m angry that Philip’s dead, that Natalie’s moving out, that people think it’s okay to be here and I don’t.

And I’m angry that I don’t even know if that’s true.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

An Ordinary Miracle (Part One)

A month or two ago, Kirsten and I went to see a one-night showing of a movie about addiction. Part of it involved a mom talking about losing her son to heroin, at which point Kirsten leant over and whispered, “Are you okay?”

I was. I felt nothing, at least nothing discernible.

Yesterday, she and I went to see “Gravity,” whose title had more weight in it than any of the particularly-long 91 minutes that followed. Yet in the few moments of the gorgeously-lipped, enviously rip-thighed Sandra Bullock telling the oh-so-manly-and-charming George Clooney how her kid died, I cried right along with her. Maybe it was because the first and last time I sat in an IMAX theater wearing those goofy glasses was when Philip was seven and Natalie five and we’d first moved to Montclair and I raced into the city with them one evening after school to meet Phil to see whatever IMAX sensation was playing on the Upper East Side. Or maybe it was because yesterday I was weary of this, all of it, of every day dealing with Philip dead and not coming home and the ambivalence of wanting to be wherever the hell he is coupled with not wanting to leave Natalie and not being entirely sure that I won’t wonder how fast it was Death came when I’m actually staring into its dark and infinitely deadly eyes.

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I’ve had a secret habit of wanting approval in ways that ran my life. Secret, that is, to me. I never looked at the way I felt around anyone who had authority, how hard I tried to be the good girl while my guts seethed with resentment and rebellion because it wasn’t me giving the orders. For Chrissake, I’m not a child, but I spent a good portion of my adult life feeling like one; feeling odd and left out, lost in confusion and wondering where my life was, could somebody out there please help me find it?

But when I got pregnant, I knew exactly what to do, which included having my baby at home. Approval? Ha. None available, from the doctors I called for help, down to my mom, who cried, “I didn’t raise you this way!” Even Phil wasn’t entirely on board, and took to telling people he’d be at the hospital, pacing, if anyone needed him.

To give birth at home, I needed a back-up doctor who’d agree to meet me at the hospital if something went wrong . Barbara, my midwife, wouldn’t see me until I found one. And I had to find one since I’d already disowned my Colorless, Cheerless, Clueless no-matter-that-he’s-really-Handsome OBGYN, Dr. Fuster, for being the pompous jerk that he was.

Before what wound up being my last appointment with Dr. Fuster, I’d shaved my legs. It was pap-smear time, and any woman who’s ever had a pap smear knows what it’s like to spread your legs unwillingly and not look while someone you see once a year fiddles around down there, poking and probing until s/he climaxes by shoving that cold, hard speculum up your bajingo to crank it open and stick a friggin’ foot-long Q-tip into the holiest of holies.

I shaved my legs as defense. Then did some serious moisturizing. If Fuster expected me to drop my drawers and hoist my feet into his stirrups, at least he’d have a creamy set of legs to part. Except I outed myself by nicking my leg and so had to band-aid it because as anyone who’s ever shaved anything anywhere knows, even the tiniest of razor-cuts especially like to bleed.

“What’s that?” asked said CCCH OBGYN as he prepared to examine me. “I cut myself shaving,” I answered, surprised that he noticed. “I mean, can’t get a pap smear without shavin’ my legs.”

Since that’s what’s known as self-deprecating humor and since I was already gowned, stirrupped and vulnerable, a chuckle would’ve been, well, nice. But CCCH OBGYN looked down at me over his glasses and said, “We are not in the habit of counting the hairs on our patient’s legs.”

Afterward, fully clothed in his office and with a desk between us, I asked Dr. Fuster what he thought about home birth with a midwife, to which he replied, “Midwives are stupid. If it was up to me, I wouldn’t let them in my hospital.”

Well. I didn’t know Maimonides Medical Center decided to rename itself “The Fuster Center of Hubris and Stupid-Midwife-Control.” I was never again going to take the risk of shaving even one more hair for Dr. Fuster, never mind thinking of him as my back-up doctor.

So I called around to various obstetricians. As soon as I told the receptionist what the appointment was for, I got an incredulous, you’re-not-seriously-asking-me-this, “Um, uh, No.” The one doctor whose receptionist said, “Sure, no problem” was confused and unprepared when I told him what I wanted. “I don’t believe in home birth,” he said. “I’ve seen too many dead and mangled babies.”

I didn’t ask him how his rate of dead and mangled babies compared to that of Barbara’s 20-years-without-a-single-fatality one. How is it that a midwife can go 20 years with that kind of record? Maybe it was her standard of care and attention vs. his? I didn’t ask because I was too embarrassed by his lack of approval to spit out another word. So embarrassed, in fact, that I paid the $50 co-pay even though he could’ve said that to me over the phone and let me be humiliated in the comfort of my home.

So I left his office and called Stephanie from the nearest pay-phone and cried. But by the time I got home, I was over it. I was more than two months pregnant at that point and hadn’t yet been examined. My options were to give it up and go to the birthing center in NYC where I’d have a comfy room, music, tea, candles and a midwife who I could pretend was in charge even though every hour she had to walk out of that room and report to the doctors at the hospital who were monitoring her, one of them (I kid you not) being He of the dead-and-mangled-babies. Or I could figure something else out.

Which I did, by calling  the midwives at DWS Medical Center who said of course they’d be my backup – I had to see them twice during my pregnancy and if something went wrong when I was laboring at home, I’d be admitted to the hospital under their care.

Being pregnant was the most normal thing I’d done in my life. I didn’t have to ask what to do. I wasn’t worried because I didn’t get examined until my third month. I wasn’t worried that my baby wasn’t “developing properly,” that because I was thirty-something I supposedly had a higher risk of having a child with Down’s Syndrome and was told that I just might want to have an amniocentesis. Because then what – I could abort mission? Like my “imperfect” baby wouldn’t deserve to live because I didn’t want to deal? I wanted to have a kid. Was I in, or was I out?

And I’m not talking the politics of abortion. I’m talking my Very Own Personal Experience. I’m talking the moment I heard, “You’re pregnant” I was in a relationship I chose to be in, one I was responsible for in an extraordinarily unique way. And non-religious as I was, that moment put me in the presence of an ordinary miracle. And I finally felt the gratitude I’d heard so much about.

See, being one with life growing within changes you as impossibly as living on in the presence of its death.

To reiterate. The first time in my life I chose with surety and clarity and said fuck it, I’m doing this thing the way I want to – no confusion here – involved Philip.

Stories don’t unfold in a linear way any more than writing does. This story was necessary background for the next, which is a continuation of what I’d written about signs, and how I said I wanted to talk about the other ways I know Philip is around. And that’s what I’ll talk about next.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

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