WTF?

Fuck art. It’s time for a rant, because really, I’m exhausted. Not for lack of sleep. For my mind tripping over my broken heart to figure this out or make meaning or whatever the hell it is my mind is trying to do while it’s continually screaming Philip is dead Philip is dead Philip is dead dead dead.

WTF? What’s today? I don’t know but it’s the Aftermath. The Christmas quiet which I used to wind down with my family, wrappings gone, bows saved, boxes still under the tree like we could open our presents all over again. My family, of which 1/4  is dead, 1/4 I’m separated from, and 1/4 is beginning to leave on her life’s adventure. And I am paralyzed because there’s nothing in me to be adventurous, there’s nothing in me that wants to go out and do anything. WTF kind of life is this? I can’t carry Philip’s death. It’s too goddamn heavy and I don’t know what to do. I miss him, I goddamn miss him. What does anyone do? What do you say to yourself, what do you do with your time when you’re suffering? I wrote a post called “What I do” about that, but there’s more. There’s food, there’s not eating, or eating and vomiting, and torturing myself that I’m going to get fat and fretting about it all the time and for shit’s sake I’m 55 and I’ve got adolescent eating problems. I am exhausted.

Somebody told me that Joseph Campbell said – big paraphrase coming here – that it’s not meaning that people are searching for, it’s the feeling of being alive. WTF? So I’m doing it wrong again? I thought I was trying to make some damn meaning out of all of this and be on my merry way to some peace, which is another idea I have the way I had an idea about forgiveness. Because I keep thinking I want peace which, in my idea, feels not like life but like tolerance of life, which is feeling very fucking empty right about now. Is that what I really want? A life that’s “tolerable?” Any wonder why I’m waiting to die? Why do people want to live, I asked my therapist? What’s with the wanting?

Why do you want Philip to live, she shot back? Which brings up a whole shitstorm of questions like, WTF is life, really; what is it when I can hear my son and read his signs and feel his nudges which would mean (there’s that word again) that life can’t possibly be about a body so it must more be about connection.

There it is. I don’t feel connected to anyone right now, not myself, not Philip, whose eyes I feel watching me even as I write this. And I don’t mean “eyes” as in those of a body but I am restricted to language to talk about what’s going on and “eyes” watching me conjures up what I’m feeling. I feel his watching, his patience. I feel him waiting for me to calm the fuck down and begin again. So, what then? Am I connected, or am I not?

Maybe when it comes to Philip, I’m never completely disconnected. There’s some thread that at the moment is stretched to breaking even though I know it won’t. But it’s not enough. There are people here, people with flesh and hair and body fluids that leak from all different places; people that take up the same space as me and to need to be paid attention to.  There’s Natalie, for starters, who I sometimes feel like I’m watching through the long end of a telescope. She’s there; she must be. But I can’t take in that I matter to her or anyone else and it’s that profound loneliness that’s dogged me since before Philip was born and is unfathomably murky now. But there is no one to hug me. There is not one person I can sink into.What’s it matter? echoes the hollowed out place my heart’s supposed to be, and where not coincidentally Philip asked me to place that diamond. Light it up, mom; see what’s really there. But I think it’s a big, fat nothing. I think it’s loss upon loss with more loss to come because what else is life anyway? Being ready for the loss. As if you could be, even when you know it’s coming. (Tersia, Lucia – are you reading this?) In “No Chance,” Lou Reed sings of not having a chance to say good-bye to his friend who died: “There are things we wish we knew and in fact we never do / But I wish I’d known that you were gonna die.”

Really? ‘Cause I don’t. I dreamt of Philip maybe three times since he died. In one dream he was telling me he needed some fencing gear, and that he needed socks. “If you did your laundry, you’d have socks,” I’d thought, much to my surprise because I knew that on Sunday, he was going to die. I was sorry to have thought that about the socks, and it was awful to tell him yes, we’d go get his fencing stuff even though I knew he’d be dead before he could use it, and there was nothing I could do about it. Just keep acting normal until it happened. So no, I don’t wish I knew he was going to die.  Something had been driving me those last months, something that made me choke on my love for him and make my twisted way into his heart to let him know how much I did.

So WTF? What’m I supposed to do? Nothing’s working here. I don’t want to knit or sew or read or cook or watch TV. I don’t even want to drink, which sometimes I think I do, but which I know won’t help ‘cause I’ll wake up worse. A pill, maybe. A big, fat pill – or several small ones – so I can go to sleep, which is my version of peace. It won’t make me connected to myself, but it’ll sure make me forget that I’m not.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

What He Meant

I’d like to say something interesting about the mad crazy start of the holiday season a whole two-and-a-half months before Christmas, but I don’t know what that would be except for the usual grousing. There was a time I thought since the six or so weeks between Thanksgiving and when the Christmas decorations came down were mostly absorbed by Christmas, I spent 1/12th of the year (generously rounded down) in some alternate universe where life revolved around garland, gifts, tiny, twinkling lights and how many different kinds of cookies I could bake. Now the time frame’s shifted to 2 1/2 months, and I’m not feeling so generous. Over 1/6th of our time is spent absorbed in the holidays or trying to avoid them.

Whether or not I want to think about the holidays doesn’t matter. I feel them. It’d be easy to say this time of year makes me sad or depressed, but it’s more complicated. I’d add trapped because grief and holiday-cheer is a toxic mix and I can’t avoid either; and scared, because so much of what surrounds Philip’s death is fear. I’ve been told it’s because I’m afraid of my own death. I won’t argue something I’m not sure about, but Philip’s death affects my life so deeply that I’m not sure at all sure which state I’d prefer.

Part of what’s so terrifying is I didn’t know just how awful life could feel and what’s to stop it from throwing something else at me? I’m told the worst thing that could happen to me, happened. No, it’s the second worst. First worst would be both my kids dead. And there isn’t any amount of money or any sort of insurance policy that’s going to keep me safe from what I fear most. I’m alive, I’m at risk.

During the last holidays I shared with my son, I was still sorting things out. It was the third holiday season since I’d left my husband. The first year, we kept things the same – Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve at my parents’, Christmas day at our house. The following year began the separation. We’d alternate Thanksgiving with the kids, and I got to go first. Phil declined to join us on Christmas Eve, but Christmas remained the same, with me going to Phil’s early in the morning to open the gifts I’d bought and wrapped and delivered Santa-like the week before.

But that next and last Christmas was the final split. It was Phil’s turn to have the kids on Thanksgiving. Christmas Eve they’d be with me, since that was the big day for my family, and Christmas Day they’d be with Phil and his family at the house like always, except I wouldn’t be there, even though Phil, last minute, invited me.

If you ever have to get divorced, may it be from someone like my husband.

That last year was the year to begin new Traditions. That last year I was spending Thanksgiving at my cousin Maria’s, where I went the night before to help with the cooking, and then sleep over. This will be our new tradition, I announced, thinking how the following year the kids would come and join me because Maria’s home could sleep the three of us and then some.

That last year was the first year I put up a tree. I got the idea that the kids should sleep with me at Nadiya’s on Christmas Eve, open presents in the morning, then go to Phil’s after breakfast. This will be our new Tradition, I announced.

And that last Christmas morning, when the three of us emerged from the discarded wrapping paper and tissue and bows and ribbons to have some breakfast, Nadiya was already in the kitchen with her son and daughter, and we all ate breakfast together. This will be our new Tradition, I announced.

But last year, I was busted. And I will not be using the T word any time soon.

I’m coming unhinged because there’s a cruel chill in this holiday air, and it’s blowing away whatever sanity I’d been hanging onto.  I’m lonely in the way only the death of someone you love can leave you, in a way that has nothing to do with how many bodies are around because the strange thing is, I mostly want to be alone anyway. Except for Natalie, who’s around when she’s not slipping away to friends and college and work; to secret texting and ceaseless facebooking  and to instagram, picturegram and every other -gram that comes along to replace the one created the day before.  And to her dad, whose house she’s decided to sleep at once a week and which I believe will turn into two or three times. I envy the whole family she’ll be sharing the holidays with, my half and the half I left when I left my husband; I envy the joyful juiciness of her life whose only momentum is forward while I’m spiraling down, not down as in lost but down as in deeper, which isn’t at all the way I imagined deeper would be. It was supposed to be a state of peace and wisdom, and its cost was merely willingness.

But there’s nothing “merely” about willingness, which is mostly acquired when the life you’re living feels like it’s taking place in one of those rooms whose two opposite walls are moving toward each other with you stuck in the middle and you’re screaming and screaming because you know you’re not only going to be crushed to death, but it’s going to happen in a  hideously, slowly way. If you were told willingness would set you free, you might take the risk of jumping into the void, or you still might hold out, preferring to hear the sound of your own, right screaming than to trust in something you couldn’t see.

I see the tentacles of my grief wrapped around Philip and Natalie and Phil because I desperately want to be taken care of and I think it’s my need that keeps them circling me. Who am I to them if I’m not broken? Who am I to me if I’m not broken? I haven’t the nerve or the will to jump into the next void, which isn’t about any sort of letting go of grief (why do people say shit like that??) but about leaving behind the need to use my grief.

And that’s what Philip meant when he said, “Mom, it’s time.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

What I’ll Accept

“Accept whatever comes to you woven in the pattern of your destiny, for what could more aptly fit your needs?”
—–Marcus Aurelius

I’m still trying to write Part Two because I wrote Part One and I already posted something in-between, but I can’t quite get there because this is the story that wants to come out, and really, it can be An Ordinary Miracle in its own right.

And I’m wanting to write this because for whatever reason it was that came over me, I seized a box of photos from when my kids were little and so many years away from losing the innocence that’s their birthright, tore through them and picked out the cutest of the cute and took them to my therapist to show her.

“Here,” I said as I walked in. “Look. I don’t know why, but I had to show you.”

There should be a word for the kind of loneliness you’re left with when someone you love more than life – or maybe you love life because of them, or maybe you’re not so sure what you feel about life, but you do know they’re what makes it bearable – when that one you love is all of a sudden dead. Just…dead. One minute they’re here, then they’re not, and one year, eight months and three days later you still can’t believe it and no matter how much good you know they’ve helped you see even though they’re dead,  you just don’t see how you’re going to go on much more without them.

Signs” notwithstanding.

We moved to Montclair when Philip was seven and Natalie five. Phil and I had been looking for a house in nearby Verona, which was somewhat less expensive. But our realtor’s office was in Montclair and the more we drove through it, the more Montclair’s funky, artsy, hipster, stately atmosphere started to feel like home, and I began to wonder why we were driving away from the place I wanted to live instead of toward it.

So Phil and I decided to expand our search into Montclair, and two weeks later I did something I hadn’t once thought to do during the five months we’d been on the hunt. I opened the real estate section of The New York Times on Saturday morning and saw a “Cozy and Charming” house for Sale by Owner in Montclair at a price that made me think there must be something wrong with it. There were built-in corner cabinets in the dining room and I don’t know why that’s what they mentioned in the ad instead of the the huge backyard with the deck and the patio and the stand of six cedar trees that stood guard over the large plot of grass just beyond them. But corner cabinets worked for me. I’m a sucker for aged and charming and “built-in” anything.

I made an appointment to see it on Sunday. Even if “Cozy and Charming” turned out to be “Cramped and Confined,” at least we’d spend some time in Montclair.

So next day we went to see it with Philip, but without Natalie, who hated car rides and asked if she could stay with Grandma, promising she’d come to NJ when we bought a house and were really going to live there.

Montclair is a lovely, hilly, hip and shaggy-tree town. It has lots of parks and a 408-acre reservation that spans three towns. It has movie theaters that show Manhattan-movies and restaurants and shops that make weekend parking impossible. It has a museum and a university, an uptown, a downtown and even a town in the middle. There’s the diversity of the not-so-mini-mansion-rich and lower-east side poor. And it’s filled with artists and writers and journalists and actors. High-level creatives, the kind of people I imagined had something I didn’t but living among them felt right even if I wound up keeping mostly to myself anyway.

When we pulled up in front of the house, I did what I always did – got out of the car, looked up and down the block, stood for a moment and asked, How do I feel?? To my surprise, the answer was good. Like, really good. Like, I think I could wake up and come outside and be really-glad-I-live-here good.

You already know the end of the story – we bought the house. But more importantly, we bought a home.

I suspect most of the house-buying-and-selling-thing is a transaction of the kind Nadiya had to suffer. Where the realtors swoop in, take the soul out of the house and hussle you out the back door when the buyer’s coming in the front. So the people who are making one of the biggest decisions they’ll ever make in their lives don’t get to meet each other until maybe it’s all said and done. I don’t know how it got to be like that, but welcome to Real Estate 2013. Me? I got lucky. I got Sam and Gina.

Sam and Gina raised their two kids in that house, but with a third on the way, they needed more room. They didn’t want to leave as much as they felt they had to. But it was the home they’d spent years creating and no matter how many realtors called begging to sell it for them, they said no, we want to try to sell this ourselves.

(And as I found out later, one of those realtors was mine, who called Sam and Gina and said, “I know a couple this house is perfect for – and I can get them to pay you $25,000 more for it!”)

The house was smaller than what I’d imagined for us, but its advertised Charm-and-Cozy actually was Charm-and-Cozy. The yard was lovely, with a wooden swing set in one corner and and a shed that looked straight out of a farmhouse with red siding and white trim in the other. And when a bunny leapt past me as I stood outside contemplating all this, I knew this was my  house.

And I suspect Sam and Gina thought the same when, sitting at their dining room table making our offer, the French Doors slid open and Philip walked in. He’d been in the yard playing with their five-year-old daughter. “Excuse me,” he said, addressing himself to Gina. “But the little girl went into the barn and I don’t know if she’s supposed to.”

No, she wasn’t supposed to, since what Philip meant by “the barn” was the shed in the corner with the lawn mower and paint cans and garden tools and bug spray and pretty much every parent’s toxic nightmare all stashed into one spot. Sam ran out to get her while Gina gushed her thanks to Philip. And on the way home in the car, I turned to Philip and said, “You know, if we get that house, it’s because of you.”

Which I did and do believe. Because when Sam called us that night to congratulate us, he also let us know they turned down a higher offer because Gina was firm that the house needed to have children, and I knew it was Philip she had on her mind.

I’m not immune to the what-ifs, but thank God I don’t take them seriously. It’s crossed my mind that, well, what-if we didn’t buy that house, what-if we’d moved to Verona instead, what-if we’d chosen a different school for Philip to go to. Except more than that is the way my past has been woven, the way one story overlaps with another and how I can’t unravel one thread without unraveling it all. And Philip has been so much a part of whatever’s recognizably mystical in my life that even though I hate that I have to accept that he’s dead, I’m willing to accept he’s not gone.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

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