“Sixty”

There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is suffering too terrible to name
You hold your child as tight as you can
And push away the unimaginable
The moments when you’re in so deep
It feels easier to just swim down…

“It’s Quiet Uptown” – sung by Angelica from Hamilton

When Philip died I couldn’t find the words to describe it. It was easier to just swim down. One year later I started a blog because I had so much to say. I am still a mother whose child has died. I have need to talk about him but I don’t know what I want to say. His name – I rarely say his name to anyone and that hurts. In the car, when I’m alone, I talk out loud to him. I say his name. I love him.

I still want to scream at the world my child has died as if the world would reach round and cover me with a big, fluffy blanket, tuck me in, stand guard. But it’s not about the world and that’s the good news. Because a world that won’t take me in its arms also won’t attack. I don’t think Philip’s death was something done to me. It is something that happened and not a day goes by that I don’t wrestle with it. “There’s a grace too powerful to name,” Angelica sings, the other side of the suffering. And I know this. How can I explain that through Philip’s death I have known grace? I would not have chosen to find it this way, but here I am.

Because of where Philip’s death brought me, what it taught me. For whatever I might give in to, I refuse to let it turn into bitterness. Sorrow, soft and quiet, yes. This might be grace. The depth of my love for Philip matches the depth of my grief. Something inside broke when he died, but that dark and terrible place has another side. There is truth in that depth, there is a way to light if I choose. Philip’s love – our love – is my light and comfort. Whatever comes and goes, love remains. So I turn to him and let myself feel that. That is the big fluffy blanket I long for.

I am lonely for love. As much as I feel Philip’s love, I want to rest my head on someone’s shoulder, be held. I am starving for it. There are times when my insides feel like they’re collapsing for want of pressing against someone I love, someone who loves me. Then I pull back — it’s easier to be alone, I think. I’ve seen too much. And I’m turning 60 next year — is it too late?

I’m reading a book called Sixty by Ian Brown, a diary of his 61st year, which I expected to laugh and commiserate with. Instead I’m horrified. Brown talks of the world having no use for the aging — but what world? Surely in his personal world his friends and family have plenty of use for him. Brown is an active guy. He bikes, hikes, skis, goes kayaking. But he talks of his aches and pains, that come with aging and maybe in part from the wear and tear of exercising. Maybe I’ve no aches and pains because I don’t exercise. This bothers me because I used to all the time, and for years now I’ve refused to move. I’m getting older and think I should take long walks, but I cannot force myself.

Brown seems to be making 60 define his life. I don’t think about it that way — I think I’ll define 60. I don’t feel so much older than those around me, including the young woman my daughter’s age whom I work with. I look good, I feel good, I have a lot of energy, all things Brown complains about. He even questions the way he dresses, while I make an art of it. That’s what scares me about the book. I work to not let the world define me. Why should age matter in terms of what the world expects of me? Yes, things change. There are adjustments coming at me that I can’t yet fathom. But to spend a year looking at my life through the lens of my age is nuts.

It’s not that I’m not aware of my age, or that I never think about it. I changed jobs three months ago. My boss is handsome. Classically tall, dark, and good-looking. He’s the kind of guy I look up on the internet so I can show my friends what he looks like and watch them swoon. The kind of guy I always considered out of my league. Two weeks ago he threw himself a fiftieth birthday bash in a house on a lake, which included fireworks that spun glittering down from the sky around us. Yes, around us. Some people ran for cover. His age, his handsomeness, makes me think I’m getting old. Sure, he is, too, but at 59, 50 feels young, and he seems to have the world by the balls. And we all know men my age are looking down the decades for women which leaves me with…

Oh, bullshit. So what if men, in fact, look for younger women? That’s about getting laid. I’ve no problem with getting laid (except for the problem of no partner), but I want something more than sex, the thing that makes the sex mean something. Not that I do anything about it. In fact, I pointedly do nothing about it, the way I stay home so much. The only guys I meet are the ones in the current TV series I’m into. And we know where those relationships lead.

Philip’s been spared the pain of this life. Yes, you say, but he also misses the beauty and wonder. Except lately those are just words to me because there’s a lot more hurt than anything else. And the constant work of trying to see the other side of the hurt is exhausting. This doesn’t mean I think he’s better off dead. Beauty and wonder come from inside. Philip had it. He was it. He took it when he died, and it’s my work to remind myself that no, he really didn’t.

© 2017 Denise Smyth

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“In Memory”

I watched “Outlander” recently. (SPOILER ALERT: if you’re planning on watching it, you might not want to read the next few paragraphs.) The protagonists are Claire and Jaime, who are deeply in love. At one point, the story jumps forward twenty years and we see Claire visiting Jamie’s grave. She’d just come from the wake of a reverend she’d known for many years. At the wake was a young man the reverend had taken in as a child and raised and who was grieving the reverend. He sat down to talk to Claire. “How do you say good-bye?” he asked. “I don’t know,” she answered.

Claire sat at the grave for a while. For twenty years she’d been missing Jaime. She talked to him, then told him she was going to say something she’s never said before. And what she said was,” Good-bye.”

Fuck that.

Philip once told me he was in the place of no good-byes. Why would anyone want to say good-bye to someone they love? It’s bad enough they’re dead. But you still love them and so can have a relationship with them. Not the one you want, but the one you have. To say “good-bye” is to cut off. I don’t believe one can really say “good-bye” to someone they love deeply. And a child? Can one really say that to their child? Because when someone you love dies, when your child dies, your life changes irrevocably. You can go back to your job and back to the gym and continue doing whatever you were doing before death paid a visit. But you’ve changed, you feel the loss hovering always in the background.

It is not your child you say good-bye to, it is not your child you let go of. What you stop resisting is the fact of what death has taken from you, all the pain that it makes you feel. Not at first, not all at once. But grief opens up spaces within us. Those spaces make us vulnerable not only to heartbreak, but to joy. Joy seems to have no place here. But the joy of the love between you and your child remains. Nothing, not even death, can take that away.

Would that I pay attention to my words.

“In Memory.” Words I want to run from. They, along with “Rest in Peace,” are some of the most devastatingly sad words I know. Last week, Thursday, February 23rd, was the fifth anniversary of Philip’s death. My brother and sister-in-law, who never forget, made a donation to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in memory of him. Those two words were on the front of the card that came to tell me. “In Memory.” No, I want to cry out. He’s not just a memory, he’s more than that. But is he? Philip is round me. He talks to me, comforts me, sends me signs every day. I try to stay there, in that grace. But then there’s the other side, the fact of sight and touch, the conversations, all the things I miss because he isn’t here the way I want him to be.

Fighting that is useless. I know this. I don’t blame anyone for Philip’s death, I don’t think “God” did this. God doesn’t meddle in people’s lives, but he sure makes a good scapegoat. I don’t fret that there’s something I could have done, if only I… There wasn’t anything I could have done. Philip’s death is something that happened to us and we are in this together. Wishing things were otherwise is a waste of time, time that could be spent in life, life that feels like forever without Philip here but will feel like a blip when I face my own death. Where did it all go, I will wonder. Am I ready? It won’t matter. Ready or not, when it’s time, it’s time. Death is the one certainty in life.

This anniversary was particularly difficult. I didn’t go to work. I spent the morning with Natalie and the rest of the day with Kirsten. But I could take no comfort, in spite of all the ways Kirsten took care of me, in spite of the fact that people reached out to say they cared. My boss, who I’ve known for two and a half weeks, reached out to me. Phil called me first thing in the morning. I could have cried. What would it be like, I wonder, if we were still together, if I had him to talk to about Philip because he is his father, because we were a family. I envy people who have each other when tragedy strikes. But we live with the choices we make, fantasies notwithstanding. Tragedies tear people apart probably as often as they bring them together.

Still, I’m lonely. I’m lonely for Philip, lonely in my grief for him. My mind goes to terrible places. It’s hard to talk about. I had a difficult childhood. For so long I wished I was dead – what other way was there to stop the pain? I tried drugs and alcohol but all that did was land me in AA. Somewhere along the line I lost any appreciation I might have had for being alive. I have not recovered. When I see my daughter, my heart springs open. She is my love. But when she’s not here, it’s almost like she doesn’t exist. When she leaves I’m back to my lonely world, the one I’ve created in my head. And Thursday, no matter who was around or who reached out, I couldn’t take it in. There was no place I wanted to be. And this is what I meant about it being hard to talk about – so often I just don’t want to be here, to be part of this. So often I feel living is hard and sorrowful more than anything else. There are people who are sick and dying and scared, and here I am, alive and well, often wishing I wouldn’t wake up in the morning. What regrets am I going to have when it’s my time to die?

Last Thursday I cried to be where Philip was, so great was my grief. I haven’t cried in a long time. I’ve felt myself going dead these last months rather than feel anything that hurts. But I can’t cut off one part of myself without affecting the whole. I can’t keep out pain without keeping out peace.

© 2017 Denise Smyth

Patience is All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2016 Denise Smyth

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

Sometimes

Sometimes. The word sings in my mind, so heartbreaking, so poignant. It reminds me of the good that doesn’t last, of the grief that comes and goes, of the way I miss Philip more at certain times. Living is odd and hard. But sometimes it isn’t, and if something comes along and I can enjoy it, I do. I absolutely do. Like the wedding I went to a couple weekends ago, in my red Indian-styled gown with its splashes of black, golden sparkles, crisscrossed back and sheer flowing bottom. Natalie came with me, my “plus-one” as people say, wearing my crimson Free People “French Courtship Slip” with its see-through top and layers-of-lace bottom. We danced all afternoon, danced until I was tired and breathless and then we danced some more. How joyful to let myself shimmy and spin, like I’d not a care in the world. And when I danced, I didn’t. I was with Natalie – what more, in those moments, did I need?

Sometimes I think things will bother me, but they don’t. The wedding was for my friend Pete’s son. We know each other from work, and he’s become like a brother. I wondered what it would be like, watching his son get married while mine has turned to ash. Watching Pete host this celebration was seeing another side of him, was seeing his kindness in action. To be part of this wedding that meant so much to him and his family was an honor. It wasn’t about me, and for that, I am grateful.

Sometimes I have a hard time with Pippin, my sweet and aging shih-tzu. I feel guilty about my impatience. I try to think how the world is for him – his sight and his hearing is almost gone. It must be like living in a tunnel – or not, because dogs sense differently and I’m looking at this from a human perspective. He’s on three medications for his collapsed trachea, won’t walk up or down stairs, and has taken to arguing with me when I take him out for a walk. It’s not that he can’t walk, it’s that he likes to pause and then go in his own direction which, of course is different than mine. He wears a harness now, and sometimes I have to drag him where I want him to go while he digs his paws down and does his best to refuse. So I’ve been practicing breathing around this. It’s just more change. If anyone’s arguing, it’s me. Why, for God’s sake? I’m trying to call a truce here, trying to walk slower, let him wander the snaking path he chooses instead of the straight line that I’m so fond of. See, he – like all – will die, and I don’t want my last memories to be of my impatience.

Sometimes I wonder why spring seems so troubling, why I keep the blinds down, why I don’t understand the joy people have when the weather is warm and sunny. Sometimes I wonder about this need to be alone, this resistance to leaving the house. Sometimes I have my groceries delivered so I don’t have to go out.  Grief needs room and I find that room in my solitude. Don’t pity me. I have my season – while others are cranky about winter, that is when I take comfort. I spend time alone because I choose to. And I’m not really alone just because no one else is here. I am the best of company, and Philip is right by my side.

Sometimes I hear people talk about the college their son is about to start or to graduate from, or the varsity sport that they play or the way they save/spend money or whatever things sons do around their families and I stop, I make myself small, I look down and away and I hear Philip say, “Mom, I’m here.” And I think that I, too, have a relationship with my son. It’s just not one most people understand so it isn’t something I often talk about. Which is the hard part. We all have a need to be visible. To be connected. You tell me a story about your son, I tell you one about mine. Somehow I don’t think injecting stories about receipts with numbers and clouds that turn into diamonds will go over too well. But that’s what makes my relationship with Philip so precious. It’s intensely personal – it’s my story and my dead son and no one can touch it. Sometimes I’m sad because I’m silent – but sometimes, most times now, I’m grateful for what I have and my secret is not a burden but a joy.

Sometimes I notice that Natalie is so little part of this blog. She is the one who teaches me about living while Philip teaches me about death. They are not separate. “Mom,” Philip said, “You have to look to Natalie for life – else all that I say will mean nothing.” But life in the wake of his death is tattered and confusing. Yet sometimes I think if I approached it with the intensity I approach death, what a wonderful world it could be.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Who I Am Not (Part 2 – The Reunion)

I thought about continuing Part Two from my last post without mentioning Christmas. Something seemed wrong with that…but I didn’t – still don’t – know what to say. This has been the oddest Christmas since Philip died. Including the fact that I don’t know what to say, because when it comes to how I feel about Philip, I am never at a loss as to what to say.

I love Christmas. I love it because the focus is on family and loved ones, because I get to give gifts, because the streets are lit up and people say “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays.” There was a time I would’ve snarled because how the fuck am I supposed to have a Merry or a Happy with Philip dead? But now I see it’s not personal – those are expressions of love and good will, and I will take all the tenderness that’s given me.

But this year was disjointed, pieces here and there, without a narrative. I have been reluctant. And removed. I look at Philip and I don’t know what I feel. There’s something I won’t touch here. I’m detached, but not because I chose to be. Detaching with love works. This is not that. This is the relentless march of life and at times there are things it requires of me – for Christmas, it required buying, wrapping, cookies, cake, chocolate mousse. It required spending time with Cindy, it required Christmas Eve at my brother’s. It required my tree, small and sparkly and which I kept lit – mostly -24/7.

I liked being at my brother’s and I liked being at Cindy’s and I loved giving my gifts. But getting there with all that doing – I hadn’t the heart. So what so what so what, I said? That did not help. Philip is not coming home for Christmas. Or anything else. I am not done being afraid. But I was numb. I was unable to feel what it felt like not to have Philip with me on Christmas. Who can I tell? I’m not ready to talk about it.

Peace, then, to all of you. If you’re suffering and that seems impossible, I wish it for you anyway. May it help you to believe that I believe.

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

But this post is part two, The Reunion. For the last ten years, my classmates from  Junior High have been getting together annually, along with our homeroom teacher, Mr. M. This I discovered when one of them, Jo Ann, found me on Facebook. Everyone’s been looking for you, she said. Who is everyone, and why were they looking for me? I have a hard time thinking anyone would remember me, much less care to see me. I remember that time as the start of my rebel years. I was already drinking, smoking and taking drugs. I had a boyfriend and I had sex. I was too cool for the smart kids in my class, but not cool enough for the badasses I wanted to hang around with. I had it coming at me both ways. I belonged nowhere.

I decided to go, which for me was a walk on the wild side. My first reaction to any invitation is no thank you. Especially an invitation I considered dangerous: facing an unhappy past with people I couldn’t possibly know any longer, who I hardly remember knowing when I was actually in class with them. What if they thought about me the way I thought about me? Unhappy, distant, angry. By all accounts, I’m aging well, so the way I look was one less thing to worry about. And at that point, it was the one thing I brought to the table. I mean, if they didn’t like me, at least they wouldn’t say what the hell happened to her?? when they saw me.

But the fun of going was that no one, other than Jo Ann and Mr. M., knew I was going to be there. I arrived before most, and as people walked in, they tried to guess who I was. What shock and joy on their faces when they realized it was me. And I wondered why, all those years ago, I held myself back from them. Because it was more important to stand alone than be part of. I thought that was power. All it really was was lonely.

Reunions are perception shifters. You not only see your classmates differently, what you think you are is also shaken up. The biggest shock to me was that people liked me. They didn’t see the addict, the miserable girl, the condescending bitch I thought I was. “You were nice,” someone said to me, and while I once said “nice” is the laziest word in the English language because it tells you nothing, I was grateful that I was remembered as other than bitch.

The evening was a mix of past confusing present, and never more so than when Mr. M. reminded people that I had been Arista Leader. Artista was an honor society, and every year the boy and girl with the highest academic achievements were chosen as leaders. I’d forgotten, like I’d forgotten so much of what I achieved before I got to high school and determined to be mediocre. In sixth grade, I was Valedictorian. There was year I scored the highest in the district in the City-Wides in math, and the year when I scored so high in reading, my teacher refused to tell me my grade until she could figure out a grand way of announcing it.

But being reminded of Arista didn’t make me feel proud. I felt ashamed. We were all in the SP (Special Progress) class, reserved for the smartest of the smart. And my classmates were now doctors, lawyers, nurses, production assistants – and me, an administrative assistant. What had I done? Sure, I had kids – but anybody can have kids. And I couldn’t even keep one of them alive. How’s THAT for an achievement?

So much for not questioning “who I am.” Because that questioning was the conversation going on in my head. Until it got too painful and I started to talk. Turning to the half of the table where Mr. M. sat. I told them how troubled I’d been in Junior High, how I’d already started drinking and taking drugs. No one knew. I told them that life felt difficult for a long time. I talked about Philip, about some of what it felt like living with his death. I did not cry. I was telling my story. I was trying to connect.

Talking tamed the beast, at least for a bit. But not enough to get me to talk to the handsome man at the head of the table, the boy who’d been Arista leader with me. “Don’t you know all the guys were crazy about you?” I’d been asked earlier. No I did not. In Junior High I tensed when someone attracted me and only looked at them when I was sure they weren’t looking at me. They were looking at the pretty girls, the ones who nailed their outfits daily, whose boobs could fill out more than a training bra and whose butts were bumps, not bulges. When it comes to men, that’s the shame I cannot tame.

Shame is exhausting. And sad – so very sad. How much of my life has been lost in shame? How much care and comfort have I rejected because I was so ashamed to need? I thought if I let myself feel how much I needed I’d be swept away screaming, and who would want to come near me then?

I still weep for what I carry, wishing someone would appear and ask if I’m okay. No, I would say. I am not. And the best thing is that when I came from a day where I’ve had to listen to how John’s kid was a varsity golfer, Mary’s kid was accepted into Columbia, and Bob’s kid was auditioning for a Broadway play while my kid’s a bunch of ashes is in various jars around my house , I can say, “Today was hard,” and two strong arms would pull me close. No one can take this grief from me – I don’t want anyone to take it from me. I just want to come home to someone who cares.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Joie de Vivre?

I was questioning “who I am” and “what’s my nature” in my last. But look at the language – who’s the I that wants to know, and who is it she thinks she needs to know? Am I one, or am I two? More likely I’m four or eight or 73 because what what I think and what I feel seems to shift so often. So is THAT who I am, the sum of what I think and feel?

I don’t fucking know. When I’m focused, like when I’m writing, or when I’m at work, I don’t sit around pondering. I’m just doing what I’m doing. And when grief and sorrow grip me by the throat, I choke. When they loosen, I breathe easier. And the moments are as they are.

But then I’m home and gone’s the distraction between me Philip’s death, me and Natalie’s moving, me and what-all I think is wrong with me. I can’t figure out something I’m needing to know – how to live with all that’s wrong, because of course there’s something wrong. Living means suffering. Not every moment; there is nothing that’s every moment. Except if we back it up and look around at the wide world then yes, someone is suffering every moment, suffering in ways we couldn’t pretend to understand. If I take that, add to it the way life’s felt to me since I can long remember, then mix Philip’s death into it all, I find myself asking, what the fuck? Why the insistence that it’s better to be, or to have been? Sure, I can personalize it – better for me that Philip was, that Natalie is. But better for me to be? Why? And before anyone’s too appalled to keep reading, why is even asking the question enough to create revulsion and a surety that the asker is too far south of sane to be acknowledged as anything other than in deep need of help? Understand I’m not asking why it’s better to live than to commit suicide. Suicide’s not part of this equation. What I’m asking is why is it assumed that it’s better to have been than to have never been? And why, since we know we’re going to die (do we? really?) do we spend no time pondering what that means and instead equate success with how many more years medical advances give us to live? Staving off the inevitable doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.

And if we went so far as to end natural death – which seems to be the goal – what would we be left with? A planet that couldn’t sustain all of us, run by a powerful elite who’d do the choosing that life/god/nature used to do for us. If you think life’s not fair now, spend a few minutes contemplating that scenario.

This is not the post I meant to write. I started to write about the way I judge myself by the amount of friends I don’t have and the lack of  traveling and other experiences which I should, by my age, have had. At 56, I should have a better life resume. It’s an old trope, one that’s gotten worse since I put myself on Match. Match is a compilation of people advertising themselves. I’ve spent some time reading through profiles, and it’s exhausting. Who’s sailed the world, climbed mountains, eaten exotic food, taught yoga in the Andes, completed multiple triathlons (all at the same time!), while running one of the largest corporations in the world – does anyone out there breathe? Are these the things that matter – who’s done the most and with who and how many ?

That’s when I start with, “What the hell do I have to offer anyone?” This is Match.com, for Chrissake. I’m supposed to “match” the joie de vivre of every other profile, of everyone who’s just lovin’ life and wantin’ more and wantin’ some special someone to do their wantin’ with. I am not that girl. Who’d want someone who hasn’t accumulated the totally awesome experiences that everyone else my age seems to have accumulated? Reading the profiles on Match, I’m sure there’s a big fucking party going  on somewhere that I most definitely have not been invited to.

Understand this is not a Match.com thing. Match only brought it to the surface. These are some of the things I’ve suffered about for years, these are things I can’t seem to figure out. Am I supposed to change, to be gregarious and extroverted? Like that’s better than what’s so? Is any of this my nature? Do I accept, do I resist? My life is what it is. Am I seriously going to decide what I’m worth based on how many times I’ve gotten on an airplane?

Here are the facts:

I don’t have a large group of friends. I have several close friends, none who know each other. The only group I have any connection with is my writing group – and while I know it’d be good for me to get back there, I’ve gone exactly twice since Philip died. I haven’t traveled a lot. I’ve been to Italy once, I’ve been to parts of the U.S. I don’t climb mountains or jump out of airplanes. I don’t play sports, I don’t exercise regularly. I do NOT follow politics. I’d rather read in my living room than on the beach, and I’d rather write more than anything. The rest of it is story, and since I’ve yet to meet a happy ending that felt real, you can bet your ass you won’t find one here, either.

How’s that sound for a profile??

Then there’s this. I know a couple – let’s call them X and Y – who have a lot of money and who are very socially active. And I love ‘em – they’re not pretentious, nor are they boring. They’re two really good people with lives utterly different from mine. More normal, I think – and I don’t mean because I’ve lost a child and they haven’t. They just seem mostly happy, have lots of friends, have careers, have combined and separate interests and they really like each other.

So this weekend, Fourth of July. They were going to the beach, they were having a houseful of people. I mean, it’s a holiday – isn’t that what people do? Me – I woke up Friday relieved to have a whole day of nothing to do so I could putter around my apartment. Yesterday I managed to get myself out for a couple hours in the morning to sit with some friends at a table in the local Farmer’s Market. Then I spent two and a half hours with my grief counselor. Today I was supposed to have dinner with Kirsten, who’s now sick. No worries. I’ve been in all day and now I’ll be in through the night. And I can’t figure out why I feel like something’s wrong with me because I’m not with a houseful of people when that’s the exact last thing I’d want to be doing anyway.

I’ve already mentioned this, but it bears repeating. Decades ago, when I was in my 20s, I’d gone to meet my friend Gerard on St. Mark’s Place, in the health food store where he worked. He introduced me to a friend of his, and we chatted for a few minutes while waiting for Gerard to close up. After we spoke – and we weren’t speaking in any particular depth – she told me this was going to be a life of spiritual awakening for me. I was thrilled. I imagined that meant some great path to peace was going to make itself known to me and when it did, well…finally, I’d be happy, I’d walk through this world in a different way.

So time has come, and yes – I do walk through the world in a different way. The big secret is it’s not about being happy. It’s about facing death. And far worse than facing my own, is facing Philip’s. This is what I lose sight of when I’m wondering about all the parties that I’m not invited to, or why I don’t want to hang out at the beach, or what’s the exact number of friends I have or what the word “friend” really means. Truth is I have the same distaste as Phillip Lopate for what he calls, “…the spectacle of joie de vivre, the knack of knowing how to live…the stylization of this private condition into a bullying social ritual.”

I’m getting damn sick of my own song. Maybe instead of questioning my worth based on my age and the amount of things I’ve not done, I’ll question what I could possibly want from someone at any age who still thinks those are things that matter.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

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