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

To Sit Quietly

Natalie's Birthday

Natalie’s 21st Birthday

 

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
Blaise Pascal

In “True Detective” there’s a scene where Marty, angry with Rust’s take on things, tells him to “stop sayin’ shit like that.” Rust answers, “Given how long it’s taken for me to reconcile my nature, I can’t figure I’d forego it on your account.”

It’s things like that that fascinate me. Rust is cynical, aloof. He’s a self-proclaimed pessimist. He has no friends, and the only relatives we hear about are a mother who might or might not be alive, a father he didn’t get along with when he was alive, a daughter who died when she was two and a wife he’s divorced from because of it. He thinks existence is a mistake and the best thing we could do is stop reproducing, and so “opt out of a raw deal.”

Awful as any of that sounds, he says he’s reconciled his nature. “I know who I am,” he says. And what fascinates me is the idea of  knowing who I am and then allowing myself to be, even if I don’t look the way the world says I’m supposed to. But is that “self” knowable? Is “who I am” something other than fluid? Is “who I am” anything more than some self I’ve invented, and then judged?

Sunday we had a party for Natalie’s 21st birthday. Her birthday is actually July 4th, but she’ll be away in France so we had her party early. I made dessert, like I always do; pie, cookies and a sheet cake decorated to look like a flag. And like every day – which is something that I’d been starting to grasp right before Philip died – it wasn’t a good day or a bad day; it was a day of moments and some felt better than others.

Natalie is now (or at least, in 9 days will be) as old as Philip was when he died. Last year, when she turned 20, I spent some time feeling sick and scared because it hit me she was no longer a teenager, that she was “catching up” to him, which seemed to make him more dead. How will I feel when she turns 21, I wondered? On Sunday, I felt nothing in particular that I could connect to her birthday. Since then, whatever mood I’ve been in, whatever dark places I’ve been banging around in, I can’t connect them to Natalie’s turning 21. And I know that no matter what, Philip will always be her older brother.

At the party, I spoke to my sister-in-law J. for a while. She told me that when she was looking at cards for Natalie, she saw one with a big 21 on the cover. “I couldn’t buy it,” she said. “It didn’t feel right.” I’m sorry I didn’t tell her what it felt like not only to know she was still thinking about Philip, but that she told me about it. I told her that I just felt done; that I’m always feeling that I’d rather be where Philip is than be here, even though here is where Natalie is. I feel bad saying that, I told her. But my grief feels so much bigger than wanting to live ever could.

But is it true that I “always” feel like that? I don’t “always” feel like anything. Last week, I was asked to find a plumber for a job we’ll soon be starting (reminder: I work for a design and construction company). The job’s in an area we’ve never worked in, so we need to find subcontractors. So I googled “plumbing contractors” and that’s where I found Doodyman. In fact, what came up was not just Doodyman – it was “Doodyman to the rescue.” I was thinking, gee, poor guy, how hard to grow up with a last name like Doody, how fortunate he became a plumber – until I went to his site where there’s a Superman figure with a toilet bowl on his chest instead of an “S” and he’s talking about unclogging this and unclogging that and how he’ll make you “doody-free” and there’s even link to “The Adventures of Doodyman” and I realized, well, duh, it’s a schtick, not a last name.

I found this hilarious. I mean bent-over-belly-clutching-wiping-tears-from-my-eyes uncontrollably hilarious. I haven’t laughed like that since Philip died. And every time I told someone else I lost it again and I don’t think anyone was laughing at old Doodyman as much as they were laughing because I was.

So what was it I lost? The voice in my head. The voice that creates my-self so exquisitely that I can’t tell which came first, this terrible self that deserves what it’s being told or the secret, brutal voice that assures me my daughter can love me, my friends can care about me and I can do as well at work as I want, but when I come home and sit alone with myself there’s an ugly truth to being alive that’s always been and always will be, and if I want proof of what that is, it’s that Philip’s dead. And his death becomes real personal, the antithesis of what I wrote here.

I’m told life is in the living. I’m here, Philip isn’t, but I have to go on, make a life for myself. Philip wants me to be happy. I’m told I should be happy that Natalie’s going to France, I should be proud that I’ve raised a kid who’s moving out into the world. She’s also found an apartment, and chances are she’ll be moving out when she gets back. I’m not losing her, I’m told. She’s still here, she’s in my heart. Like Philip’s in my heart. Like that’s a comfort – and maybe it should be, but right now, it’s not.

I can’t be logical about Philip’s death. I do go on. I love my daughter; when I see how happy, scared and excited she is to go away, of course I can join her in that. But be proud that she’s leaving? That’s what kids do. I could be a shitty mom, I could be mom-of-the-year; kids leave. What’s to be proud of? She should be proud, for all she’s accomplished, particularly these last few years. I didn’t need her to do any of that to be “proud” of her. I love her; that she is, is enough.

Philip’s dead, Natalie’s leaving. Ed’s moved. I feel diminished and that makes being alone a tortured and terrible place to be. Alone’s where I read, where I write; where I sew, and where I cook. I can’t do what I love without alone-time. Except alone is like being with three people – the one who’s vicious and abusing, the one who feels deserving of abuse, and the one who’s sitting here writing about it. How the fuck am I supposed to sit quietly in a room with that??

The Reason (Suicide, Part 3)

“I keep one foot out the door, and that’s suicide by increments.”
Rob (played by John Cusack) in “High Fidelity”

And that, right there, is the problem. I’ve a lead foot out the door and I think it’s soldered there. There’s an uncertain fear I live with and don’t care to define. Ed’s done it for me: “You are afraid to live because you think you’ll lose Philip.” But what does it mean to live, I want to ask him; show me how. He’d only shake his head because really, what else could he do? He can’t show me how to live because life isn’t given you by someone else, and if you think it is, it isn’t yours and you’ll wind up resentful, angry and either half-alive or half-dead, depending on the way you look at such things.

I keep thinking that living means having oh-so-many friends and taking fabulous vacations and talking on my cell when when I’m not texting on my cell and Facebooking, Twittering, Instagramming and “connecting” whatever latest way the internet’s figured out how to keep us glued to each other 24/7 because God forbid we should spend too much time considering. Life. Death. Meaning. WTF. It’s exhausting. But that’s not what Ed means by living. He means taking my foot out that door, which has to do with being, not doing. That still gives me only a vague idea of what it means to be in life. And what I see when I come close to sensing what living means is that I’m afraid if I’m not shaming myself, then someone else will do it for me. Somehow, that foot out the door feels like protection.

Hecht writes, “When a person dies, he does wrenching damage to the community.”  And, as Hamlet says of suicide, “ay, there’s the rub.” He’s talking of his uncertainty that death is any kind of end; I’m talking of what happens to those left in the wreckage of a loved one’s suicide, as well as the collective impact. Living carries responsibility with it, which includes taking seriously my effect on other people. I have to tell myself this because I don’t know it. I know I love Philip and I know I love Natalie; what I don’t know is how much I matter to both of them. Nor do I seem to “get” what I mean to other people.

And I think people who kill themselves don’t get what they mean to others. I’ve heard suicide called “selfish.” That’s a cruel, shallow, ignorant and cliched way to describe someone who’s in such devastating pain that it overwhelms consideration of anyone else. For  many, it’s almost like there is no one else because it feels like no one can help and no one really cares, not really. Because it doesn’t penetrate. Because  when you look around it seems like everyone else’s figured out this thing called life while I’m some solitary freak who can’t even find any other solitary freaks to commiserate with. I mean, what is it that keeps people wanting to live? It’s got to be love, doesn’t it? For people, for art, for work that is satisfying; for nature and its mysteries. That feeling of aliveness where you’re engaged in what you’re doing or who you’re with and there you are, being.  But what if you can’t feel anything but the lack of it all, the “Why?” that has no answer?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but my experience can’t be unique. I’ve wanted to die because I couldn’t feel love from anyone out there. I mean, I could feel love toward certain people – most deeply and particularly my children – but it didn’t feel reciprocal. When they were little, in my worst moments I would tell myself that I would kill myself when Natalie turned 16, because by then she wouldn’t need me any more.  She’d be well on her way (where the hell did I think she was going?), I’d be one more thing out of her way. Dead mom? Blip in the road, a stumble with quick recovery, then back to it like I wasn’t really there in the first place.

I believed this.

“We are all members of society,” Hecht writes, “and these connections are to be honored.” She says suicide creates more suicide. So I think about this. I think about the way Philip died – it was an accident. And I think of what I went through when I first learned of it, what I’m going through now. I was tortured; it didn’t matter that there wasn’t anything I could’ve done. I’m his mother – I was supposed to protect him. I was sick at the thought that there was a moment when he knew he was going to die, and he was alone and terrified but he had to let go. No way, I’m told; because of the heroin he went out in a blaze of bliss. I’m not so sure, but there isn’t anything I can do about it.

But as devastating as Philip’s death is, what if he’d chosen to killed himself? The things I hold on to are that he was a happy kid, that we were close, that there wasn’t anything unsaid between us. That I’ve nothing to feel guilty about unless I choose to make it so. But look at what his dying has done to me, to his father, to his sister – to all who knew him. The shocking, mindless blow of it. Do I think my own death would be any less shattering? What worse thing for Natalie than to live with a mother who’s not only dead, but dead by her own hand? So she not only gets to suffer my death, she gets to spend her life wondering why she wasn’t enough for me to live for.

And if I would do such a thing, in what meaningful way would I have loved her?

A few months ago, in my bathroom, I got a pain in my chest. It wasn’t about my heart – more like indigestion. But it caused me to bend over, and I closed my eyes, and made believe it was my heart. I might be dying, I thought. My heart might be shutting down and I might just keel over and Natalie’s upstairs, my God Natalie’s upstairs, I can’t leave her now, she’ll freak. She needs me to stay with her – I don’t want to leave her. So there was a crack in the atmosphere and I got it…but where’d it go? Do people live in full knowledge that they matter, they very much matter, to those who love them?

And so I have reason to Stay. But I’m missing the part about wanting to. I’m more attached to Philip’s death than Natalie’s life.

Next: What Philip says about that.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Stay (Suicide, Part One)

No, I’m not going to kill myself. But I’ve been preoccupied with being dead, and since the inner eventually becomes the outer, all things suicide have been coming my way.

Natalie bought me a book about suicide for Christmas. “Stay,” by Jennifer Michael Hecht. I find the title wrenching. “Dad asked me if I bought it because I was worried you’re thinking about killing yourself,” she said. “I told him no, it’s just I know you’re interested in suicide.”

My therapist is concerned. So I asked Natalie, who, after getting annoyed about the whole thing, pointed out that she knows I once tried to kill myself and hence, my interest; that she heard about the book on NPR, which gave her the idea to buy it; that if I was going to kill myself I would have already done so, since I’ve gone through the worst thing in my life so far; and that anyway, I wouldn’t do that to her. And no, I wouldn’t.

But she’s the thread I’m hanging from. I have enough sanity to see she’s a reason not to die. But it feels impossible I’ll ever get to the part about wanting to live. Or maybe I don’t think about that for the next few-whatever. Maybe I first get through Philip’s birthday on January 20th, then February 23rd when it’ll be two years since he died. Because if I’ve learned nothing else these last two months, it’s that this year-two stuff is pretty sickening. Year one’s unreality has been replaced by year two’s finality, and where’s there to go from here?

I get a daily poem from The Writer’s Almanac, which, by the way, is connected to NPR. 95% of the time I don’t read them. But one day last week, I got two emails from the Almanac, the second one correcting the first. Maybe I should read it, I thought; maybe that poem’s trying to get my attention. It was a poem about suicide. I mentioned it to Natalie because of the book she’d given me, and she said maybe it was the same author. So I checked, and sure enough, it was.

And if that’s not enough suicide-stuff, a couple weeks ago, I got a link to a blog post about suicide. The blogger – who I think had once felt suicidal and is now really happy to be alive – decided that those who kill themselves are selfish and cowardly. I don’t argue online – I don’t usually have the energy or self-righteousness for it. But this closed-minded, cliched version of What Kind of People kill themselves incensed me enough to let the blogger know exactly what I thought, which included the fact that many who’d read the post were the ones who’d lived through a loved one’s suicide, and what kind of burden does that add to a load that’s already broken a whole bunch of people to pieces? (And the end of that story was instead of getting flipped-off, the blogger read my entire blog and left a lovely comment. Who knew??)

Since Philip died, I’ve come across people whose loved ones have killed themselves, and I don’t pretend to know what kind of hell it is to live with that. Especially if it’s your child – what ginormous excess of grief must that create? Suicide has nothing to do with the people who love you. It has to do with unfathomable loneliness, other-ness, not belonging, not seeing, not getting why you’re alive if this is what it feels; if all/most of the time, this is what it feels like. And screw feelings-aren’t-facts. Feelings are the world if that’s what you let them be.

My secret mantra has yet again become, “This won’t last forever because I will die.” Not exactly suicide, but a way of becoming one of the walking dead. I already wrote about what Philip said to me about suicide here. And I promised him I’d stop wishing myself dead. But lately, I’m not hearing anything but the battering between my ears, and I don’t know what it is I’m trying to accomplish with my little mantra. Maybe I think it’ll bring a natural death faster, and no one will blame me if that’s how I go.

I become unreachable when I’m lusting for death, which I’ve long considered the only way “out.” When I finally figured out that if I thought death was the answer, I was asking the wrong question, Philip died. And even though I remind myself that death remains the wrong answer, these last few weeks I’ve given up and given in and I see no way through. I’m not in touch with anything inside me that knows how to live, much less wants to. It seems wrong and unnatural, but life’s never much felt like a home I belonged in.

For whatever the reason, I was miserable and angry about life since I was a kid. When I turned 11, I decided the way out was to drink. By 14, I added pot to the mix. By 22, I had bulimia. For years I turned the rage I felt but never understood into a scathing diatribe against myself. I swore God took special pleasure in my unhappiness or else He’d make it go away.

When I was 21, I sat in my parents’ bathtub at 4:00 in the morning while they were away for the weekend, drinking and hacking away at my wrists with a razor blade. I thought I was making progress when the blood started spraying, but that’s when I heard the phone ringing. I guess I wanted to live more than I wanted to die because I answered it. It was my soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, Chris. Earlier that night, I’d left him at a party, drunk and angry that he hadn’t given me any of the Quaaludes he’d already passed out from taking. What he later told me was that he’d woken up out of his stupor and knew something was wrong when he couldn’t find me. He came over and wanted to take me to the emergency room. I refused, so he wrapped a towel around my wrist and went to a 24-hour drugstore for some butterfly bandages. When he was done patching me up, I sat in the bathroom watching him clean the blood from the walls around the tub.  On his knees, he tossed his long Jesus-hair back over his shoulders and never said a word while he worked. I longed to lay my head on his long, narrow back while he rinsed that bloody rag. I wanted him to love me as much as he wanted to save me, but when he stood and turned to me he was the Chris I knew again, his ever-increasing remoteness further justified.

After that, I went to therapy. I still didn’t want to live, but I was embarrassed by my failed attempt and by what I considered my cowardliness because I knew I wouldn’t do it again. By 24 I went to AA and I stopped drinking. By 30, I married Phil, which went a long way toward stabilizing my violent moodiness. I relied on his steadiness, but it offered no insight into how to build a life that I could enjoy. I’d stopped drinking and vomiting and had even given God a shot, but I wasn’t happy. I was living in a long, gray corridor called depression.  Wanting to die was my default position, the only way to permanently right what was wrong. I got it together for everyone else; I loved my kids and took care of my family, but the life I was living didn’t seem to include me.  I was bored staying home with the kids, unhappy being married, despondent because I had no career, resentful that being a wife meant having sex when the only touch I didn’t object to was that of my children. I was waiting my life out. I thought about swallowing pills but had no idea how to get them. Sleep was the only peace I knew, and the nights I was particularly despondent I’d crawl under the covers, pull them up to my chin and curl up to say my adult version of the prayer my mother taught me as a kid:

Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
I  pray to die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

But the Lord wasn’t listening, so I kept a package of razorblades in my kitchen drawer. I might’ve been too scared to use them, but they were my version of hope.

Next: Suicide, Part Two

© 2014 Denise Smyth

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