An Ordinary Miracle (Part One)

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2013 Denise Smyth

A Smidgen

Here’s how it started.

Right after Philip died, I’d managed to drag my battered self into my car to drive wherever. I’m not sure how I got anywhere I was going if Natalie wasn’t driving me because I did more staring than looking – that is, when I wasn’t hunched over the steering wheel howling, my son…my son…my son… so that even the air around me reeked of grief. But I managed to stop at red and go on green and not run anyone over while I was at it, so I’d say there was an angel or two hanging around with me. Because it seemed to me that I wasn’t really in the world, but aware that I could still cause consequences in the world. Like running over a kid in the street and putting that kid’s parents in the same hell as me.

Misery loves company? Oh, I think not. Please, God, give it all to me, I’d think; I can’t feel any worse, so just give me everyone else’s grief and let them go on in peace. Arrogant, if you will, but I meant it in the best way possible.

So I was driving and thinking over and over, I want I a sign, Philip; I want a sign, I want a sign. I was desperate and crazed and when I stopped for a light and saw the license plate in front of me, the chill that blew through my body must’ve lowered my temp a degree or so and it was that that caught my attention before I really saw what I was looking at. The plate read, “PWS201T.”

Philip’s full name is Philip William Smyth. His birthday is the 20th**, and he died when he was 21. Hence, 201. And he was born on 1/20, which is 201 mixed up. I sat there in a haze of holy shit.

(“T” means nothing; I mean, Tuesday was the last day he was alive and Thursday I found out he’d died, but that seems a stretch.)

What do I make of this? Connection. My yearning for a spiritual path is about connection. And I might cry out, “God” much as the next lapsed Catholic, but I don’t call “God” what I’m looking for simply because the word’s been so personalized it’s become polarizing. My God, your God, their God, no-such-thing-as-God. Like someone knows better than the next person about this thing they call God. Whoever said man made God in his own image was right.

But there’s something I’m wanting to know, and maybe I can’t put words on it but I’ll know it when I see it. And I knew what I was seeing. Besides the fact that Philip died when he was 21, the 21st was the last day he was alive. The last text I sent him was at 11:02. My phone extension at the job I left when he died was 201. It was April 20th** when I started to work a day a week for Cindy. Her office is on the 20th floor, her suite number is 2010, her parking spot is #21 and the address of the garage she uses is 1120. I wrote my 21st post on this blog on May 21st. I found my apartment on July 21st and I got the interview for my new job on August 21st.

And I’ll be damned if I don’t get nudged by Philip every day, several times a day. I’ll be thinking of him and hitting a low, or listening to him with love and gratitude, or worried and unsure about what the fuck next and 21 or 201 will catch my eye. I don’t look for it – if I walk around looking, I don’t see, and it wouldn’t mean as much. Because I look with my mind, but I see with my heart. If nine times out of ten when something catches my eye, if when I happen to glance up or down or over or around and there it is, it means something. And the simplest thing it means is that Philip is dead but our relationship is very much alive.

So here are some of my stories:

I talked about going to Key Biscayne last year with my cousin; a gift from her, to get me away. Like I didn’t take myself with me. When we got to the airport, I looked at the flight number on the boarding pass. Four digits that meant nothing. Couldn’t you have made it some version of 201, I asked my son? Flight number on the way home:  2110.

Phil and I had a thing for David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks.” The night Philip was born, while I was in our bedroom with my midwife, wailing and whimpering because how the hell was I supposed to split open wide enough to push what felt like a bowling ball out between my legs, Phil was watching Agent Cooper being seduced by Audrey and dreaming of Bob and Midgets and the One-Armed Man. Thus my son was ever associated with “Twin Peaks.”

A couple months after Philip died, I was looking through Netflix Instant Watch to see what next series I could get lost in, and there it was. “Twin Peaks” is odd and bizarre and wicked and I wanted to find a world that trumped what had now become my own odd and bizarre and wicked. Of course, why I thought watching a show that starts with a guy finding a  dead teenaged girl washed up on shore would be a good thing is a question I still cannot answer.

However. Turned out Laura Palmer – said dead teenaged girl – died the same day I found out Philip died – February 23rd.  Turned out both of them had a thing for cocaine. Turned out the population of the town as written on the “Welcome To” billboard in the intro is 51,201. Turned out upon further investigation the population was originally supposed to be 5,120.

When my dad was in the hospital, the room numbers in the CICU ward went from 201 to 210. When it was time to see him, the nurse led us past 201 and headed toward the end. Maybe 210, I thought. No – he was in 209. Okay.

Once in the room, the nurse asked everyone to step back from the bed. The hospital beds had built in digital scales to weigh bedridden patients, and she didn’t want anyone touching the bed and skewing his weight. So we all backed it up and she pressed the button and the thing did its calculating and when it was done, turned out my dad’s weight was 201 lbs.

First Mother’s Day: Driving, thinking, trying not to cry because Natalie’s in the car with me. I noticed the license plate in front of me: PWS. I got a chill, and a second of clouded vision; then I noticed a car passing me on the left. Its  license plate read 2ND LIFE.

Second Mother’s Day: I went to the movies with Kirsten, before having dinner with my daughter. Halfway through the film, I thought, “Philip, it’s Mother’s Day. Can you please give me a sign?” Turned out one of the characters went to a motel. Turned out the room number she stayed in was 201.

Sitting in the waiting room while Natalie had a doctor’s appointment, I was on the brink. Tipping over, about to go down. Then I heard my son. “Mom, there are signs here,” he said. Okay. First thing I did was look to my left. There was a magazine rack. I looked up the row and at the top saw a magazine called, “201 Family.”

This is just a smidgen of all the things I wrote down until I stopped writing them all down because it’s too much and too often and I no longer have to write everything down to remind myself it really happened.

And it’s not only about numbers. More on that next.

**My birthday is April 20th; Philip’s is January 20th, Nicole’s is March 20th, and Gerard’s – who I’ve mentioned and will talk more about – is October 20th (as in, 10/20).  Three I love deeply, and who left this world just way too quickly.

10/19/13 Update – I don’t normally change a blog post after the fact, but I have to add: I was re-reading this post tonight and I realized that I posted it on September 21st. And I swear to God I didn’t know it when I did it.

Just sayin’

© 2013 Denise Smyth

No Way Out

I’m on a crying jag; I’ve a lot going on, and it keeps hitting me that Philip has died. I can’t even say, “is dead.” And people are kind, and that makes me cry even more. Yesterday I wrote to Lucia, Elizabeth Blue’s mom, “And I am overwhelmed at the moment; Lucia, I miss him so. Sometimes I feel like I’m being slowly strangled. I try to remind myself that the moment when I face death I’m going to think it all went so quickly, so let me love my son where he is and my daughter where she is. None of us are here forever. But when I miss him like this, that’s exactly what it feels like. “ And in the worst possible sense.

Which brings me back to Elizabeth Blue’s incredibly prescient and powerful, “Bird’s Nest.” In part:

“Five days ago I watched two birds mate.
Yesterday I watched as they began
in unison
to build their nest.

Today it occurs to me
that I will be gone
by the time they lay eggs
and the eggs make way
for the new life
within them.

Today it occurs to me that I will be gone
The lines between body and land have blurred
and the land will miss my body.
Perhaps it will be lonely
I think it will weep.
I think it will miss me
more than my mind or body
could miss it,”

Reading that poem is like watching Elizabeth discovering something, and what a something.  Nature has much to teach us, if we pay attention. How often we don’t because we’re so busy thinking, as if thinking is going to solve our problem when it mostly is our problem. The mind, it is said, is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.

Elizabeth recognized that maybe the world needs us more than we need it. How different from raging at death because this goddamn world gets to go on while we or those we love do not.  But what is the world, if we are not there to witness is? A world of form requires our recognition. It’s such a big place, this world, such an overwhelming place. And the terror of death is that we’re leaving it behind, and it still gets to be, while we turn to dust. Or does it?

Life is relentless. Death isn’t enough to stop it, but it’s more than enough to wreck those of us who are here to witness it. This is what I mean: maybe death is forcing us to confront just what we think Life is. Forcing us, because we don’t like to think about death. And if we don’t think about death we will become shallow and brittle because nothing will matter except what we look like, what we have, whatever is external to us, whatever draws us farther from ourselves.

I am aching, aching for Philip. Try telling that part of me that, “Death isn’t enough to stop it.” But there’s another part of me that’s struggling with faith and acceptance and the certainty that there’s something else going on, stuggling to understand it and articulate it in a meaningful way.  And there is my constant communication with Philip, who is there for me in a very real way, and who’s been teaching me things always.

I was never afraid of childbirth. In high school I’d  tell my friends, “I’ll have the babies, but you have to raise them.” Back then, I didn’t much like kids, couldn’t imagine even liking my own. But labor seemed like an act of bravery, a jump into the void; confronting the uncontrollable, wondering if I’d come out the other side.

When I was pregnant, I felt the same (about labor – not kids). My kids were born at home with no doctors telling me what to do, no fetal monitors strapped around me, no someone I didn’t trust directing me. I was searching for authenticity through my femininity, and what could be more feminine than giving birth? I wanted to deliver my child with the help of a midwife who trusted that my body could do what it was supposed to, and who knew what to do if it didn’t. I wanted a woman to help me give birth, one who had borne  a child of her own. Barbara, my midwife, turned out to be that person.

Since attitude is supposed to affect experience, I thought my good one meant labor wouldn’t hurt too much. I might’ve gone in blind, but at least I went bravely. Labor was ferociously, savagely painful; I was scared. I let loose with moaning and yelling and pleading for Barbara not to leave me. Of course she didn’t leave me. Even when I bit her. I wasn’t in control of what my body was doing, how it was doing it, or the pain I felt. I couldn’t say, “Could we just take a break and rest for a few minutes please?” Labor is the relentless force of Life as it takes shape, and in those terrible moments I realized there was no way out but through.

That’s what Philip taught me during his birth, and what he’s trying to teach me through his death. Thing is, when labor ended my son was born, the pain was gone, and every second of it was worth it. What of Philip’s death, then? What kind of “end” could there be; what do I get to hold in my arms, what will ever make me say this pain was worth it? I’ve been told now it’s me that’s being born. It’s not enough. I feel less than I ever was without him here because he took a part of me with him when he went.

He brought me full circle, this child of mine. See, I understand why women choose not to feel that pain. But had I chosen differently, I would not have had his guidance then, and I wouldn’t have been able to see that he’s helping me now. Because I do see it, even if I don’t always accept it.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

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