When We Connect (Part 3)

Last year, holiday time, Max was on my mind, seemed to be all around me. I’m not even sure what I was thinking about him – just some sense of him, along with something vaguely disturbing. Driving home on a late Friday afternoon, I heard Philip say, “Call him.” In that heart-racing-stomach-clenching moment I knew that’s what I had to do. The rest of the way home I had time to think about it. I wasn’t sure what to say…I could wish him happy holidays, tell him I was thinking about him…I could tell him I wasn’t angry, ask him what he’s been up to…but most importantly, I had to understand that I could not expect a Kumbaya moment out of this. I’d love for us to bond over my love and good will, but I couldn’t call him for that reason. No expectations, I warned myself. I’m doing this because it need be done. Period.

Good thing I warned myself. When I called, Max was withdrawn, hesitant. He didn’t say much, not when I tried to chat about what he was doing, certainly not when I told him I wasn’t mad at him, that he was part of Philip’s life and that meant something. Not sure what to do with his awkwardness, I ended the phone call as gently as I could. But I was there for it. I was there for the discomfort of the call mixed with the lightening of a load I wasn’t aware I was carrying. And even though I’d failed at getting Max to open up, I was left with the quiet excitement of being in life.

I told Natalie about it, and she said I had no idea what effect I’d had on Max. Maybe nothing now, maybe something. And if nothing now, maybe one day years from now, a more mature Max would think of this and be relieved. He was, after all, the one who found Philip, the one who felt guilty for introducing him to heroin in the first place. But as I told him when he cried to me at the wake, he didn’t stick it up Philip’s nose and he can’t spend the rest of his life feeling guilty about it.

I offered Max absolution I don’t believe I have the power to give. I am not God. But I am Philip’s mother and as such have a power I don’t often understand. Forgiveness is a tricky thing. If I truly believe you did something wrong, how can I forgive? It feels so high-handed – I’ve decided you’ve sinned and now I will absolve you. But what word is there for what that was? I was freed from a resentment that I didn’t realize was background noise. I’ve no interest in Max suffering – if I knew his suffering it would only add to mine. So if forgive is the word for what I did, then the definition has to be “freed from resentment.”

And then there are those moments – time stops and all there is is what you know. It’s not intellectual – it’s the deep wisdom within, finally, elusively, surfacing. Shattering the monkey mind, however briefly. Why can’t I live in the light of that? Maybe it’s just too bright to be constant. Maybe if it was, I’d burn.

Or maybe I’m just too afraid.

The first year after Philip’s death I was still living with Nadiya. One Sunday night I was in the first floor bathroom, Natalie was up on the third floor, the floor where we lived. Looking in the mirror, I felt a pain in my chest – it was toward the left side and for a moment, I shivered. What if I was having a heart attack? I didn’t believe I was – more likely gas. But I took the opportunity to act it out. I’d been saying how much I wanted to die…what if this really was a heart attack? I bent over and let the pain take over, let myself believe my heart was giving out. Then the shock of reality – Natalie needed me. She needed me. She was not ready for me to die. Her world would be shattered and I could not do that to her. She mattered – she was all that mattered. I stood up to a world that had shifted. Could I? Could I not? Clarity is a shock that humbles. I can’t say I never thought that I wanted to die since then – but I can say I never thought it without seeing Natalie along with it.

Then this. I’ve been watching “House.” If you’re not familiar with the show, House is a doctor in a hospital whose team diagnoses patients with puzzling illnesses. And I can’t watch a show about a hospital without envying the patients. This is an old, old habit. In my fantasy, there is relief in not having to do anything but let the staff take care of me. In fact, when I was a teenager and my friends talked of their fear of giving birth, I’d tell them, I’ll have the babies, you’ll raise them. Because that fantasy also involved a hospital – there I’d be, resting in bed, surrounded by flowers, for just a short bit of time being relieved of the burden of living.

Except that’s not where relief lies. Relief lies in realizing truths. Watching House one day, the shock of what being ill really means hit me. These people were sick. Their lives were on hold, their bodies were out of control. They were frightened. They could become disabled. They could die. And so another fantasy turned inside out, another opportunity to live in truth.

Apparently that particular truth took some kind of hold. Because the next day, outside walking, there rose a thought that was odd and strange and alien to all the things I’ve been thinking since Philip died. I say “rose” because it came from my gut, not from my head. And the thought was this: I am not ready to join him.

For a moment I had faith. Until the murmuring mind began. Are you sure? What if you have 20 years ahead of you? Can you live that long without him? Can you really make that commitment? Do you know what you’re getting into? And Philip chiming in to remind me, Mom, I am right here.

I could go on about the way I struggle with the past in the present, I could say that that’s the voice that always takes over…and maybe it is, but its motivation is something I haven’t explored, something I hadn’t even considered because I didn’t understand what it really was: Survivor Guilt.

And next time I’ll be reckoning with it.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

When We Connect (Part 2)

Grief is a spiral, not a line that goes from here to there. There is no “there,” only here. I still bristle when I hear people talk of “moving on,” though I know it’s said out of a naiveté about death. I am not nostalgic for that time in my life, when death was a concept, not an experience. I have no wish to be innocent. That’s what I love about a wide-eyed child, a nursing baby, a puppy, a kitten – their purity and innocence. Maybe why I ache for them is because it won’t last. Life will make sure of that. Whatever I’ve gone through has been inevitable, and none of it is anything I want to go through again.

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

What is it that happens when we feel the relief of connection with others? I talked about that in my last. I think what happens when we feel that close to someone is that we recognize something within ourselves. We feel our worth, our value; we feel love. To feel that love is to understand that is what we’re here for. If we can feel that through another, then we know it exists within – and so we feel connected to ourselves. But how strange is that – when I feel love, I feel connected to my-self. So who is the I, and who is the self? Am I two, or am I one? I think of the “I” as the watcher, the constant presence. It’s different from my personality, from my reactions. It is the presence that observes what I do and what I feel. Think about it. Think about the past. When you do, you’re remembering moments that occurred in time. But the “I” that is remembering is outside of time – it is always there and has always been.

As a human being I am subject to rules and conventions. As a spiritual being I have an aspect that’s timeless and changeless, where the laws of this world do not apply. It’s up to me how to integrate these two. It’s up to me to take that spiritual dimension as seriously as I take my humanity.

I’ve had moments that are breaks with the world as I see it. A truth is realized, there’s a shift in perception. And a shift in perception of the world is a relief. Those moments connect me to life and do not necessarily require the presence of another. The question, then, is do I trust enough to take the risk of belief? My ego is not so keen on truth.

I have a niece who died from brain cancer. I wrote a bit about it here. Nicole was only four years old. She’d developed a rare cancer that at the time had only been seen in 60 children in the country, all of whom died. The doctors tried an experimental protocol with her – remove the tumor, then four months of chemo followed by a bone marrow transplant. Three months later the cancer was back. In another three months she was dead.

After that, trying to find some perspective about death, I started to read “Who Dies” by Stephen Levine. I did not consider that one day I would be in the same position as my brother – I was simply trying to understand. At the time, I lived in a large five-room apartment in Brooklyn. This particular day I was in the back of the apartment, in my bedroom, reading Levine. Outside my bedroom was the hall that led to the kitchen, where my mom, who had come to visit, was cooking. Philip, then four, and Natalie, about one-and-a-half, were in the living room watching TV.

It was a winter evening; such a lovely word for the transition between day and night. There’s a mental winding down, a break from the day’s madness. Lying on my bed reading, I could hear the vegetables being chopped, the furious boiling of the water as it waited impatiently for the pasta. The sounds of being taken care of – for just a while I could be the child, waiting for my mother to have dinner ready.

In his book, Levine has a Tibetan meditation on the process of dying. You imagine yourself dying, imagine your body dissolving. So I laid on my back, closed my eyes and relaxed, let go of my body until it no longer felt like pretending. That’s when I started to panic. I was too deep in the darkness to come out of it. All I could think of was my kids. Who was going to raise my kids? My husband would work it out, but no one would love and tend to them like me. Wait, stop – I can’t die yet. They’re going to grow up – I’m not going to see them grow up. This can’t be happening. Except it seemed to yes, really be happening and I could not control it. They were slipping away too quickly and my arms were not long enough to reach them.

Yet in an instant there was a shift. I took a breath and let go. What was happening to me was happening. No point arguing. My children would be fine. My time had come and they were no longer my responsibility. My work was to take the risk of letting all that I knew go, because there was no other way. And I did and I knew peace – the peace of being with what is so. The great and willing leap into the darkness. Swiftly it came, and swiftly it went.

When I have to die, that is the way I want to go. The practice is here, now. The non-resistance of the circumstances of my life. Accept it, leave it, or change it. I recognized that moment of peace, and I have had many since. But swiftly they come and swiftly they go. That great peace of just being. Of breathing. And that is the way to deal with Philip’s death…but that is a darkness I’m still arguing with.

Next, Part 3.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

When We Connect (Part 1)

“There are no rules for friendship. It must be left to itself. We cannot force it any more than love.”
William Hazlitt (1778-1830) British essayist.

A song I’ve recently listened to ends with the line, “There’s nothing in this world that’s holier than friendship.” I disagree. Try to define friendship. There’s a certain general meaning to it, but we each experience it differently. Some people are comfortable calling even casual acquaintances “friends.” What’s holy about that? Some people accumulate friends to fill a hole that only grows larger as they try to stuff it. Many try to be friends with the rich and powerful because it feels good to say you know someone who most of us have only heard of. And there are people like me, who are touchy and careful and scared to use that word. What if I call someone my friend and they don’t like me? I can only call you my friend if I am sure.

I’m going to use the word “soul” here, even though using that word other than in the context of, say, “food,” gives me the creepy crawlies. But it expresses a concept that I have no other word for. So when I say “soul” I’m referring to that holy, sacred, untouchable and often inaccessible place we experience inside ourselves. Simply put, it’s our better nature revealed.

Monday night I went to my writing group at Nancy’s house. We usually start with her reading something that’s caught her attention, a thing of the spirit. That night she read us someone’s take on what he called, “soul friends.” I had a conversation with Philip about something akin to this. Mom, he said, I know you don’t like the term “soul mate” but I have to use it. He told me that people have the mistaken idea that soul mates are romantic relationships, that they last forever. That can be so, but not always. A soul mate is someone who moves you deeply, challenges you, changes you in ways unexpected. And it’s not only through kindness and wisdom. You can have that connection with someone who moves you deeply, then hurts you terribly. It is the quality of the connection that determines the soul of it.

These relationships aren’t made. They are recognized. And that recognition reveals truths. The person in this world I am closest to, who knows me best, is Ed. I met Ed when I was about 40 and had gone back to college. He was my English professor for a Shakespeare class. He started the class sternly. He told the young men to remove their baseball caps. He went over the syllabus, laid out the rules. He talked about missing classes and missing assignments. Shit, I thought, this guy is serious. The he picked up Romeo and Juliet, walked out from behind his desk, gave a small, knowing smile and said, “Now. Let’s read some Shakespeare.”

That was my moment of recognition. I knew he was the teacher I’d been waiting for. Understand this had nothing to do with sex – it could sound like the older-professor-young-adoring-student thing, but that is a caricature of what I have with Ed. What I was after was his mind, his wisdom. I worked hard in that class, and continued to take classes with him. Our relationship developed over the years. It was simple and intimate. Ed knew who he was, and somehow, he knew who I was, too. He lived in Bloomfield, and when I moved from New York to Montclair I was a ten minute drive away. We began to spend more time together. I was restless and unhappy, but when I spent time with him my pieces all fit together. I used to joke that I wanted to move in with him. And I practically did, when Philip died. I’d spend long days with Ed and his wife, Franny. I’d sleep there, get up early to go home and walk my dogs, then go right back to his house. He was my home.

Then there was M. A writer, a poet. Someone I got to know through email, which is a story for another time. We had so much to say to each other, we were so easy together. He, too, felt like home and I fell deeply in love with him. At the time, he was my heart. That was my breakout relationship – because of him, I was catapulted out of whatever it was that bound me. I became a sexual being, I started to like myself because I saw myself through his eyes. When he left I was wrenched, but the gifts I’d discovered remained.

And, of course, my son. It is comforting to say that: my son. It reminds me how much a part of me he is – my son. He is unquestionably my soul mate. When I put my life together, look at it more as a whole, I see the unexplainable experiences I’ve had with Philip. Starting with the time I woke up in the middle of the night to hear the words, “You’re pregnant.” Next day I found out I was. And these things I’m talking about are too real for me to doubt my connection to him. When he was here, I felt how much he loved me and I do not easily feel love from the way I feel love for. He watched me, he paid attention. Such comfort I took from him. I didn’t have to call him or see him, I just had to think of him to feel the way he protected me. Kinda like the way it is now.

Philip is teaching me about death – and no one person has wrenched my soul as he did when he died. I saw Truth in all it harsh and terrible glory. But this theme of death was there from an early age. In the month Philip was to turn two, his grandfather died. I decided to take him to the wake. He has to know death, I thought. He shouldn’t be afraid of it. Getting ready for the wake, in my kitchen at our apartment in Brooklyn, I got down on my knees, took Philip by the shoulders, and said, “Philip, we’re going to see Grandpa Bill. He’s going to be lying down and he’s not going to get up. Is that okay with you?” I wasn’t sure how much he understood. But a little bit later, after I dressed him, then stood him on the kitchen table to fuss with his outfit, I said, “Philip, do you know where Grandpa Bill is?” With no thought or hesitation, he raised his arm, pointed to the ceiling, and said, “In the light.”

After Philip died, I went to the bedroom in the house he lived in to clean it out. I grabbed some of his notebooks to take home. Months later, when I felt ready to look at them, I found an essay he had started. His assignment must have been to write about childhood memories. He wrote a paragraph describing the apartment we lived in, then he wrote this: “When I was four, my parents took me to my grandpa’s funeral. At first I was scared, but then I saw everybody laughing and I felt better.”

He was not four. He was not yet two. But he remembered.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Let It Be

When Philip was in high school, he was in the CGI program – Civics and Government Institute. Part of the core curriculum focused on learning how government worked. They’d do things like enact congress – the kids would write bills, present them, have them voted on. It wasn’t a program the kids tested into. If you were interested you applied, and as long as there was enough room, you were accepted.

At the end of the year there was a CGI dinner for the kids and their families. There would be a guest speaker, along with a question-and-answer period after the presentation. The year Philip was a senior the speaker was Andrew Rosenthal, editor of the New York Times editorial page.

I’m going to inject some politics, mostly for background. There was a time I was intensely political, followed the news and argued about it. Until I began to realize that the arguing was about being right and I was never right enough in spite of how certain I was that my “opponent” was wrong. Until I realized how deeply personal these national and global arguments really were. Take a position, identify with it and it becomes part of who I am. I can’t be wrong then, because if I am, I don’t exist. No matter how much worse than ever in history we think things are, how much more vindictive and out of control we insist the “other” side is, the fact is that we’ve been having the same argument over and over again forever. The content changes, but the form is the same. We write off most of the rest of the world because we’re so sure our side has it right.

And I think that when time comes to die, we will be comforted by how much we loved, not how much we were right.

The CGI dinner is not supposed to be political – it’s a family affair. Unfortunately, no one told Andrew Rosenthal. Obama had just been elected president, and a supremely smug Rosenthal started by telling us about his love affair with the new president, then went on to bash John McCain, made a sexist joke about Sarah Palin, disparaged Republicans in congress and then Republicans in general. He was playing to an audience of which I’d say 90% agreed with him. And you’ve probably figured out by now that I was part of the unpopular 10%.

Listening to Rosenthal, I was fuming. I leaned over to say something to my husband,  who replied, “You can’t be mad.” Really? Well, I was mad. That’s when I looked over at Philip’s table to see he was watching me with a smile. He put his hand flat out, palm down, about eye level and slowly lowered it. Smiling back, I mimicked him – his attention took the edge off.

If we’re lucky, we meet people in our lives who know us in ways most others don’t. They see us, they get us. And having felt invisible for so much of my life, I’ve been touched and grateful for those few who I’ve felt that connection with. Philip was one of them. It’s not because he’s my son – we can love our children like no other, but the connection I’m talking about isn’t a given with them. That kind of connection is a mystery. It’s either there or it isn’t, and when it’s there, we recognize it.

When I’m in the mood, I sit down and take dictation from Philip. It’s not odd or weird or seance-y. It doesn’t require candles or incense. It started as an exercise given to me from a grief group for parents I was part of after Philip died. I wrote about it here. And here’s a little story. After doing that exercise, I thought it might be something I should do on my own, but for a while, I didn’t. I felt confused about it – I didn’t know how to start. One day I was driving and thinking about it. How do I do this, Philip, I asked? Do I write a sentence, then listen for your response? Do I just sit and listen for you? Do I ask a question? As I was thinking, I stopped for a red light. I looked at the license plate on the car in front of me. Besides whatever numbers were on it, the letters there read, ASK.

So I had my start. One day when I was writing and listening, Philip started telling me about soulmates. Mom, he said, I know how much you dislike that term, but I need to use it. He went on to explain that people have the wrong idea about soulmates – they tend to think of them as romantic relationships, but that’s not necessarily what they are. A soulmate is someone who causes a deep and disruptive shift in your consciousness. And it’s not always in a kind and gentle way. I can think of three people who’ve caused that kind of disruption. One was the teacher I’d been looking for all of my life, and we are still close and dear friends. One opened me up by causing me what I thought at the time was the worst pain of my life. And then there’s Philip, this child I’m connected to like no other.

So why the struggle? Philip’s death purified that connection. He’s not in his body, he’s no longer an ego, he can’t disappoint, he doesn’t argue, he’s nothing but love. I’m closer to him than ever. He’s around me in ways that weren’t possible while he was alive. I am amazed and grateful for what he reveals to me. Why can’t I let that fill me more? I’ve written much about the ways I now experience him. Why can’t I let it all seep in, fill the holes and cracks I still suffer from his death? I’ve been flatlining lately, wanting to keep to myself, but so unhappy while I do so. Looking at Philip’s picture, the only feeling I can identify is resignation, defeat. He’s really – truly – not coming home and his loving presence gets lost from wanting to see him.

It just sounds so terrible to say Philip died. My stomach and chest still tighten to even think that. I’m still in the aftermath of his death, still experiencing the shockwaves. Still sometimes feel like I’m dreaming – like there’s something about this I’m supposed to grasp but I can’t. I still hold my breath – and if there’s something to “do” about this, maybe that’s it. Remember to breathe, send that breath to my chest, let it open my heart. Slow it down, let it be.

Since he’s really – truly – not coming home, maybe I can try to let it be.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

There Must Be

“There must be another way.”

(NB – on 5/29 I updated the links to A Course in Miracles, as I’d mistakenly put the wrong ones.)

And so began the birth of A Course In Miracles, the origin of which is as fascinating as the course itself. I won’t go into it because out of context it can be an eye-roller. I read the story of how it came to be as I was reading the Course itself – and though skeptical, I decided it didn’t matter where it came from or how it got here. It spoke Truth to me and that’s what mattered. And I’m talking about the serious Course in Miracles, not the watered-down Marianne Williamson version. I think she’s helped bring the Course to the attention of many; but I also think to begin to understand what it’s saying, one needs to turn to the Foundation For Inner Peace for help.

The Course is combination of three books – the text, the workbook and a manual for teachers. The workbook has a lesson a day for a year – I did it, but it took me much longer. Some lessons I lingered on, some days I skipped. If the purpose of the Course can be summed up in one sentence, “There must be a better way” is it.

If the Course taught me nothing else – and it taught me much – I came to understand that it is the way I look at things that creates my feelings, my very life. When something happens, it’s a fact – I perceive that fact and make a story. Like this: I’m driving to work, I hit the curb, my tire goes flat. I’m furious. I’m going to be late for work, I have to call AAA, I have to wait for them for God knows how long. I want to blame someone but there’s no one to blame so I blame myself for being a shitty driver, I blame the town for making the street so narrow.

So is the truth of this is that it’s a calamity? If I look at it from AAA’s view, it’s not a problem – it’s their job. If I look at it from my boss’ view, he knows I’ll be a late for work and he’ll go back to what he’s doing. I can sit and fume, but for what?? If a flat tire is inherently a calamity, then it must be a calamity for all. So if there must be another way to see this, what can that be?

I have a flat tire. I am not helpless. If I have to wait I can read or listen to the radio or sit and pay attention to where I’m at. I have discovered that when I give my full attention to whatever it is, I become interested. When I make room to breathe, the anxiety dissipates. And it’s not theoretical – I know what it’s like to sit and wait for AAA and I have spent the time enjoying it.

So you start with the small things to see how it feels and you come to see that that is the way. Then your kid dies and it all goes out the window because all you can think is Really? See this differently? Are you FUCKING KIDDING ME??

A  miracle, simply put, is a shift in perception. A Course In Miracles recognizes no difference in the degree of difficulty of that shift. But it takes major practice and willingness to see that other way. I say I want to feel better – is that so? When I think of my son dead, I have to wonder how much “better” I really want to feel. I am not talking about anything like “moving on” (the mantra of the unconscious and uninitiated) or forgetting. I am talking about my ability – my willingness – to join with life in the face of this most torturous death.

To see Philip’s death differently is to separate my riven heart from my shrieking mind, the mind that takes haunted voices from a troubled past and lets them speak of that which they know nothing about. My heart needs to put words on what this is because my heart doesn’t lie. I just need some quiet and patience to listen. And I’m not doing this alone. When Philip said, “Let me be the voice in your head” he was asking me to let him help me see things differently because that is the answer to the question, what can I do?

For months after Philip died I relived the moment I found out – the phone call telling me Phil had come, the knowing without another word being said, screaming down the stairs, crawling on the floor; My son, my son, my son my son. Over and over I would think about how I flew down those stairs, making myself sick and dizzy until one day I heard Philip: Mom, you don’t have to do that. Of course I didn’t. All I was doing was jackhammering my already raw and bloodied heart. So there was one, clear thing I could do. When I found myself on those stairs, I brought myself back to where I was, gave my attention to my surroundings. I tried to stop telling that story because my stories take me from life, which is only ever happening in the present.

What I’ve never been able to reconcile about “living in the present” is that Philip lived and died in the past, so am I supposed to forget?? But I think I’m starting to understand. It’s the past that’s gone, not my son. The past is memories of moments in time, and every moment in time becomes but a memory. Every word I write was a thought in my head a moment ago. Every moment is new until it isn’t. The future comes only as the present. And while Philip’s death can make my my life seem too long, when time comes to die I’m going to feel like it all went really, really fast.

Turning to the present from the dream of past doesn’t mean I leave Philip. He is not here as I want him to be and he’s not going to give me the future I had in mind. Such is my sorrow. But he is my love, my heart, my guide, my muse. He is here and he makes himself known. There are times I rest in that knowing…and there are times when it just isn’t enough. And too often lately it really isn’t enough. Next time I’ll talk a bit about why.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

What He’s Asking

Three years. It’s like some subway stop I got off at where everyone on the platform knows where they’re going and they’re rushing around to get there. Not me. What way do I go? Do you know what I suffer, I want to ask these busy people. Do. You. Know?? But what for? It doesn’t matter if anyone knows – it changes nothing. Philip’s faded from the world. Not my world – but the contrast between the way he’s alive to me but visible to no one is frightening. This is so fucking hard to learn, these truths. Like the fact that he’s dead to the world but that doesn’t make him not in life. That Iife isn’t what I thought and death is a bigger part of it than I understood. That there’s meaning in death, beyond some black void we and our loved ones disappear in. That people die, relationships don’t.

Thinking of these three years makes me want to tell stories, stories about the past and Philip but I can’t write to an idea of what I want to say. I have to write what’s pressing. And what’s pressing is the unseen part of my reality which maybe makes me sound crazy. Or worse, hokey. Like I’m a beaming sprite with flowers in my hair, a flowing white gown, eyes glued to heaven with a brilliant smile. I’ve heard too much New Age treacle where people find some “spiritual” solution which (a) makes everything okay and (b) is what you should be doing and if you pay enough money, someone’ll show you how.

I am grateful for all the ways Philip is around me. That doesn’t make it okay that he’s dead. And no one’s going to give me any solutions. A true spiritual path is deeply personal in its form, but universal in its content. That’s why people don’t have to experience exactly what you do in order to get what you’re saying.

And because I want so much to get it right, the invisible audience I’m writing to’s become hostile. That’s the thing about writing. If you write, you want to be read. But if you write from need, then what you need is yourself on the page. What you cultivate is your voice. I listen for myself here – but lately, too often, my voice gets lost to what feels like a Greek chorus looking down their noses with crossed arms, droning on about what I say and the way I say it because really, it isn’t ever good enough.

But those voices don’t come from “outside.” They’re in my head. “A mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master” someone said. And it’s especially masterful when I speak of that which I cannot see but I know is there. I needn’t argue with the skeptics – I’m way cynical myself. I know the way I feel when certain others talk about their version of the unseen. There’s a culture to this that I am not part of. I share what’s been my direct experience and if I’ve learned anything, spirituality isn’t linear. It’s a deepening. It’s not about “getting” somewhere. It’s about releasing what’s false to get closer to the truth. That’s something we do on our own. My way involves my son. I cannot ignore what happens – it’s these extraordinary experiences that’ve helped me put one foot in front of the other.

Like this.

Driving the 40 minutes home from work a couple weeks ago, I was headed first to Grove Pharmacy to pick up prescriptions for Pippin, my thirteen-year-old shih-tzu with the collapsed trachea who has to take three medications to deal with it. Philip’s been heavy on my mind lately. It’s no wonder – the fact of three years is sinking in, and the time-and-weather change does not help. Spring means warmth and growth and people voicing joy over it. There’s pressure to go out. I prefer the ice and snow, the dark that makes it comfortable to stay inside.

So I was driving and thinking about how old Philip would be if he was alive and I didn’t know. For a couple minutes I was blank, clinging to the steering wheel because I had to drive but stunned and shrinking from the despair of being disconnected. Was I forgetting him? Was he becoming a blur, just some part of my life that was gone while I kept going? Okay, I told myself. Think. Philip has been dead for three years. He died when he was 21 so that means he’s 24 and of course I couldn’t remember he was 24 because that number has no meaning to me. I have a sense about certain numbers. Like 21 – it’s a beginning, a social milestone, a time of youthful man/womanhood. 22 is the next step; it’s graduating from college, a time when you have many choices. 23 is wonderfully odd. 24 draws a blank, as if nothing interesting could possibly happen. Given the Chinese curse, “May you lead an interesting life,” maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

When my senses returned and the car felt steady on the road, I said, “Okay, Philip. I’d like to see 24 before I get home.” And not because I was looking for it – it doesn’t work that way. He had to show me in a way that meant something. Like the time I asked him for a sign and a few minutes later a car cut me off and I saw his initials on its license plate. Something like that. And I was thinking that I’d get a receipt with the medication I was about to pick up and receipts have numbers and it would be nice if 24 would be one of them.

I forgot about it for the rest of the drive – I was too busy listening to stories on NPR because I love stories and if I’m not telling them I want to listen to them. Once I got to the pharmacy, I stepped out of my car and a van whooshed by that had 42 on it. I looked up at the sky like Philip is any and everywhere and said, “That doesn’t count.” But by the time I got inside, asked for the medicine, chatted with the grey-haired, pony-tailed man behind the counter about how Pippin is my dog, not my child, how his name came from Lord of the Rings and finally paid for the meds, I forgot to look at what they cost.

Grove Pharmacy is not just a pharmacy, but not like the way CVS isn’t just a pharmacy. CVS is large and impersonal, and its only surprise is whatever cheap items pop up in the seasonal aisle. Grove Pharmacy is smaller, but you never know what you’ll find there. It has a candy counter where you can buy by the piece or the pound. There are Halloween costumes, lovely and unusual greeting cards, gifts for christenings and communions. There’s a small selection of interesting and well made jewelry behind glass counters, and they can pierce your ears if you like. And they play real music, like “In Your Eyes,” which I’d written about here and so hearing it reminded me of Philip and that I’d forgotten to see how much I paid for the medicine.

The pharmacist had shoved the receipt into the bag with the meds so I hurried to the car to see. And I will be damned if that medicine didn’t cost $42.24.

What I make of this is faith. Not happiness, faith. Sure, I get happy when these things happen, but happy fades like all emotions do. This is more than happy. Different than happy. And it’s profoundly challenging. “Have you asked yourself why you keep asking for signs?” Philip said. “Have you asked yourself what you do with them?”

It should be a back-and-forth, I think. He gives to me – what do I give to him? It’s pretty simple – love and faith. I’ve got the love part down. It’s the faith where I’m shaky. Faith is a leap into the void. It’s having the will to not resist what is so. Including his death. He’s asking me not to treat my life like a tragedy. I’m not done asking him to tell me how.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

The Voice in my Head

The man in the podcast I listened to today told the story of the day he got a letter from the police department. When he opened it, he saw a grainy picture of himself in his car, hands on the steering wheel, along with a $45 ticket for speeding. This was 1991, when traffic cameras weren’t as prevalent as they are now. Shocked and angry at the intrusion, along with the fact that there was no human being involved, he decided to fight back. He Xeroxed $45 and sent it in along with the ticket. A couple weeks went by, and he got another letter. In it was a Xeroxed copy of a pair of handcuffs and he laughed. There it was – human interaction. Playfulness, even. A sense of humor. So he paid the ticket and that was that.

Then the chief of police who was in charge of traffic cams at that time came on the podcast. He insisted that in spite of all the angry hate mail he received about the cameras, he did the right thing. Less people died, he said. Less people died.

Since when did the Chief of Police become God? Did he really know when it was the right time for anyone to die? Do I mean people should drive recklessly, plowing down anyone in their way? Of course I don’t. There are ways to figure out how to reduce speeding without violating people’s space. We are being watched in ways we don’t even know and those who are watching feel their power enhanced. Because they’re in on the secret, and we’re not. And they get to decide what it is they want to do with what they think they’re seeing. All in the name, of course, of saving lives. Because that’s what most of us spend our lives doing – avoiding death, as if we could. And at what cost?

See, death doesn’t give a shit about traffic cams or medical breakthroughs or gym memberships that in the end make for really good-looking corpses. Maybe. Of course you do what you can to keep your body healthy – you take care of it the way you take care of anyone or anything you care about. But you also understand that this body is a temporary means of communication and if you think only of how much you can bench press without also preparing for the inevitable, you will never have enough. Your body will never be tone enough, your clothes won’t keep you happy, your house will never be the way you think it should. There is always something more to want until death stops you in your tracks, which it will. Whether it’s yours or – worse, if you ask me – that of someone you love.

Death teaches us about life. Death adds dimension to life. You can’t take death seriously without also wondering what it is you’re here for. And that is what drives you to make meaning, to ask what it is to live fully, to go beyond the world’s definition of what you should be doing and what is important. And the question is not, why am I here if I’m going to die? That is a great and terrible distraction. The real question is, what do I do with this life that I’m given, because no matter what the why of it, the fact is I am here. Asking “why?” is living in some unknown past that prevents me from living, which is the the thing I claim I’m trying to figure out how to do.

What the hell would life be without death? Unimpeded growth is destructive. All you have to do is look at cancer to see that truth. We each die that others may live. By being born we agree to die. Listening to that police chief made me think how selfish I am, how selfish we all are – I mean the hubris, deciding I shouldn’t die and my son shouldn’t die when all of us are going to die so who are we to say when? If it was up to us we would never say “now” and we would become a malignant cancer on the planet.

These are hard, hard truths. But experiencing them – not talking about them, experiencing them, makes it easier to live with Philip’s death. I wrote about Krishnamurti saying, “I don’t mind what happens.” Five words that tell you how to live. But right there is the struggle – how does one “not mind what happens” when your child dies?

I think you don’t go directly there. I think you practice – I think you make it your life’s work. You start with the small things. Every day annoyances. What if you didn’t get pissed off about having to wash those damn dishes that keep getting dirty? What if you waited on the grocery store line without resentment? Or sat calmly in a traffic jam? To be angry at what is so is insane. It doesn’t change the situation, it just makes you miserable. You lose your humanity. If I’m waiting on line and I’m pissed, I’m forgetting that I am one of all these people who are creating that line. I’m forgetting that all these people are just like me. And I’m forgetting how to breathe.

I have been holding my breath about Philip’s death. I know that now because I breathe more. I resist less. Dedicating my life to grief is a false position. Grief is and will always be part of my life. I am grateful for what it’s taught me. Philip will always be part of my life – he is my guide, my muse, my love. And right now, this moment, I am able to breathe. I write this blog because it gives me room to breathe.

I used to pick at myself all the time – pimples, scabs, the suntan peeling off my body.  The more I picked, the longer the wound took to heal. So it makes sense that I would pick at my grief like festering scab. What else to do with this wild and gnarly feeling? But all the picking and hair pulling and determination to not ever be okay has changed into something else. Now I nurse my wound. And to do that, I spend a lot of time alone. I am hurt and tender but I want to take care instead of make worse.

I can’t say how I got here. I think it has to with do having lived through and with Philip’s death my way. I felt a wild thing for a long time, loose and crazy and holding it together only because of Natalie. To even consider letting go of the way I felt was inconceivable -I was what I felt, and I thought my own death was the only solution. Besides, it was a betrayal. And all through this, I was listening to Philip urging me to life but shaking my head a huge NO. But because I let myself be as I needed to be, what is so began to change. Not the fact of Philip’s death, but the way I perceive his death. And the way I was true to my grief is the way I need be true what’s been changing about it. If you asked me three years ago, two years ago – hell, one year ago if these words would ever come out of my mouth I would have been deeply offended. It is an act of faith to not resist change. I thought I would lose Philip if I got up off my knees. But now I feel closer to him than ever. I am graced to have the contact I do with him. His death is an opening to light much as it’s driven me to the deepest dark I’ve ever known. This doesn’t mean I still don’t get scared, that I don’t despair when I stop and think of the years to come without him here the way I want him to be. But I am so tired of hurting that I can’t spend time thinking thoughts that make me miserable. “Let me be the voice in your head,” says Philip.

“Let me be the voice in your head.”

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Always Been So

So I crashed. Friday. Cried my makeup off on the way home from work. Felt something more than the dull edge of anger. Alone and overwhelmed, I took two-instead-of-one of what the doctor’d given me for when I can’t sleep. And so Friday night passed, and here I am.

Yesterday I woke up to a cold, sunny Saturday morning and I gave up. That is another thing I can do nothing about. I want clouds, and much as I know what trouble it is to let external factors make my mood, weather is a tough one. I was glad to find there’s a word to describe something about me: Pluviophile. Lover of rain. It’s not an “idea.” I have a physical, emotional reaction to sun, especially at certain times. Like Saturday mornings. That’s got to be something learned, since what matter Saturday or Tuesday? I think it’s the fact of having a whole day to do as I wish, and wishing I could do whatever that is in the comfort of if not a full-blown storm, at least a good amount of cloud cover.

But then today – it’s snowing and I am at peace.

So I crashed. Friday. Like I could see the outline of Philip’s body with the deep, dark space behind it. I think it matters that I see that void – that suggests there’s something there, something more than I am aware of, and in that deep dark lies possibility. I find comfort in that.

But it’s more complicated than Philip’s death, than that most terrible loss which magnifies all other losses. Along the way to February 23rd there was something else going on, something about a man, and even though most of it was in my head, it was the reason for the particular flavor these last few days have had.

I’d like to get the idea of needing or not needing a man out of the way before I go on. Ideas become part of the culture and begin to get mindlessly repeated because it’s easier to be mindless than thoughtful. And the idea that a woman shouldn’t need a man is another one of those things. By that standard, each of us shouldn’t need any of us. But we do need each other, even if it’s not for the reasons we think. Relationships are not here to make us happy – they are created to teach us. If we’re happy with them, so much the better. But happiness is not the endgame here.

As to whether or not I need a man – fact is, I would feel better with the right man. I know this not because I sit around wishing I had a partner. I do not. It’s been a long time since I’ve been involved with a man. And never have I more understood how fleeting “happy” is since Philip died. Not because I was so fucking happy while he was alive. I wasn’t. I wasn’t aiming for it, either. I was asking myself how I could be at peace with being alive since I’d spent most of my life at war. “Happy” is an emotion that comes and goes like any other. Peace is something else, something deeper, something that isn’t given or taken away. It’s something you realize is there once you allow all the grasping to fall away.

Relationships provoke feelings that are already part of us. If I find joy in being with a man, then that joy is part of me, man or no man. But that’s an idea that means nothing if it’s not experienced. I met a man recently. I was deeply attracted to him, and it has been years since I’ve been deeply attracted to anyone. We talked, we texted. Something, I thought, is going on here. He is kind, thoughtful and attentive. I took what I thought was happening between us and made him into something he wasn’t. But during that time, there was light. There was possibility. Excitement. There was, I thought, comfort.

Of course, there was also reality.

He wasn’t seeing what I was. So out went another light as I headed into the anniversary of the worst day of my life. It’s no wonder I found myself either numb or cursing. Loss – even of something imaginary – overwhelms. After suffering Philip’s death I thought nothing could ever bother me again – turns out I’m so vulnerable that things can bother me more. But it’s that vulnerability that makes me transparent enough that it all passes through. I can’t hold pain – and now I know I don’t want to. Feeling it and holding it are two different things. It’s what the Buddha meant when he said pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.

I am okay. No matter what, I am going to be okay. Philip knows that, and from that knowingness comes my own. There is no real separation from him. I was trying to say that in my last, when I wrote that it isn’t true that if I’m not at peace then neither is Philip. It’s his peace that grants me my own. Separation is created by the body, this wonderful, heartbreaking, temporary way we experience each other. But the true connection is always so. And it’s not caused by doing; it’s the not-doing that allows what isn’t essential to fall away and reveal what’s always been so. Philip and I have always been so. Ask any parent if they can imagine a life without their child. They can’t, because once you have a child, the relationship has always been so.

And if that sounds inexplicable, it is. It’s part of the mystery. And I don’t need it explained, all I need is to know.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Three Years

Today is three years since Philip died. Since we found out he died, because he really died on 2/22 but since they found him on 2/23, that’s the day that’s on the birth certificate, the day it became real and true and official. These things matter, like I have to get it clear in my mind, I have to understand, and somehow I think these details will help me. Like I have to explain this to everyone because if I’m honest about all of it – the way it happened, the way I feel about it – then I have something to hold on to. All these thousands of words I write, these deeply personal words I publish, both bind me to my son and keep me grounded.

Three years, and I think I should have something wise and profound to say, something special to honor my son. But I’ve somewhat disconnected – I think a psyche can only take so much at a time. Grief, for now, is no fierce burning. It’s turned me into something aloof, distant. Lately, what I feel most, when I feel anything I can clarify, is anger. I noticed it because I’ve found myself saying ugly things at every day annoyances, and I am too easily annoyed. The dirty dishes, the unmade bed, the sick dog who needs his medicine and has to be carried up and down the stairs. It was the vulgarity I spewed that shook me up – it wasn’t anything I’m used to saying. Oh, I thought; I’m angry. And if there’s one thing I can’t take feeling, it’s anger. Because what do you do with such fury? How do you contain it? If I let my anger bleed out even a little I fear where it will take me. Philip isn’t coming home. I want him here. I can’t do anything about it and after three years I do know this is so. It seems more so than ever. I’m helpless to do anything about it. I am so angry that if I feel it I’m afraid it will suck me back to three years ago, to what it felt like to hear those three little words that chewed me up and spit out into some void that sometimes I think I’m still falling down into: “They found him.”

They found him. How the fuck am I supposed to live with that?

Well, I do live with that. I can live with that. Because in certain ways time has collapsed. What is time, anyway? It’s pain, for sure, because if there’s one thing pain needs, it’s time. If I think back to what happened or forward to a life where I grow old and Philip doesn’t, I will go crazy. But right now I can live with this. I don’t want to have to, but it is my reality. What does it mean to say three years? We’ve made up these things we call days and months and years. We give them names and think that gives us some control. We number hours and decide what should happen within those hours. We group them for convenience, we dole them out, we covet them. They feel longer when we’re anxious and shorter with our pleasures. So when I say time has collapsed what I mean is that in many ways I’m just paying attention. To Natalie, to work, to writing and knitting. To closely following whatever creative urge I have because creating lies outside of time.

Grief isn’t heartless. Grief is a teacher. Grief is the way into my heart. For that I am grateful. I am not someone who has loved life. I am not someone who has understood why anyone would want to be here. But never have I felt more alive than I do now. That’s Philip’s gift to me. What is the point of his death if I die, too? And how hard is this to grasp because if I choose to live I still don’t understand I’m not betraying him and I’m not losing him. But the pull to life is strong. The only betrayal would be to resist it, to make the fact that I’m grieving become a role. If I’m playing a role than I’m bound by fantasy. I don’t mean to say I’m not grieving – I’m saying that grieving is as fluid as everything else in life. I can’t say I experience his death the way I did three years ago, as if the intensity of it has to remain or I don’t truly love him. When someone asks how I am, part of me wants to say I’m broken because then they will care, then they won’t forget Philip. But those aren’t the right words. There is no brief conversation that’s going to let anyone know how I “am.” So I say, “I’m okay” and am content to leave it at that. Because after three years, the need to say how truly terrible this is is ebbing. When I need to talk about it, I come here and write it.

Three years, and still Philip is close. I’ve been told more than once that he can’t rest in peace until I, too, am at peace. That he can’t be free until he knows I’m okay. I disagree. He knows I’m okay – I’m the one who has to get it.  And I don’t think this is about “resting.” I think it’s about living, which is beyond the impermanence of a body. When it comes to these things, I’m willing to trust my own experience more than someone else’s, which is a triumph not only for me, but for Philip as well. I can’t make sweeping generalizations about the dead. I can only say what I know about Philip. That he’s kind and he’s patient, and he’s not worried that what he’s trying to show me is still, in many ways, eluding me. It’s his faith I rely on when I can’t find my own.

Many years ago I was told that this was going to be a very spiritual life for me. Wow, I thought; how cool is this? Visions of softly winding roads lit with a sun I’d finally enjoy passed before me. Who knew instead of a blessing it would feel like a curse? Still – it’s my life and my path and if it meant Philip would only be here for 21 years I’d still rather that, than not to have known him at all.

So mourn him I will – argue, I won’t.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

The Lasts

It’s February again, the month of lasts. Last time I saw Philip, last time I spoke to him, hugged him, texted him, left him a voicemail. Last time I told him I loved him and listened as he said it back. The deeper I move into February, the more I withdraw. I am alone in ways that only death can teach. There is something about life and death that no one can give to me. It can only be realized because it was always there. Thing is, I can’t reach it. I can’t define it. I hurt terribly about it because something is missing. Something more than just Philip. The hole he left only grows larger because that is where life is. And like it or not, I am being sucked swirling down into that deep. There is no way to resist. Except to keep my eyes closed and refuse what he wants me to see.

February. It’s different, as everything is always different. I know, every day I know, it’s February. I am walking apart, taking one careful step after another. I can’t see where I’m going, I only know I walk with death. This is not a bad thing; it’s not a good thing. It’s just what’s so and I would like to get to know death. It is, after all, my constant companion. I want to keep it close. Anything that has to do with Philip I want to keep close. I need solitude. Natalie’s moved back – she is all the company I need right now because I love her so. I keep to myself much as I can, spend whole weekends in my apartment. I consider it a victory If I park my car on Friday and don’t move it until Monday.

And why, I wonder, is that so hard to understand? This is my life and I’ve lived it enough to know what I need. I created Philip’s birth and now I’ll create the way to live in his death. Three years is nothing. It’s as though he just died, yet it’s like I’ve not seen him in forever. What is time? It’s perception, is all. My 24 hours are not the same as yours. I’m not talking about clock time. I’m talking about psychological time – past, present, future. All that’s real about time is that it’s always now. So can I, for now, live with Philip’s death? Yes. I can and I do. I show up for work, I show up for my daughter. And in my alone time I write, I knit, I sew. Creativity is a call to life. I am not sitting and crying, I’m sitting and knitting. If I did sit and cry, then that would be what I needed to do. I bristle when I’m told I shouldn’t be alone. And I think anyone who tells me I should be doing anything other than what I am is afraid of getting burned by the fire of this mad grief. Because death is exactly what we try to avoid every day, and who wants to see it in the eyes of a mourning mother.

When Philip and Natalie were little, I’d bought a book on numerology. I’ve always been fascinated by the unseen, by wanting to commune with something I knew was there but couldn’t quite grasp. So I read maybe half – because really, there wasn’t a book that could give me what I was looking for – and put it down after I went through the exercises that would tell me what my own personal number was. The result was that 2 was going to be an important number for me. 2? What’s with 2? Give me complicated 3 or sexy 9, but 2? 2 had no personality, meant nothing to me. Besides, it was an even number. How much more boring can you get?

Philip was found lying on the floor of his room on 2/23, which is the official day of his death. But we know that he really died on 2/22. I’d say 2 got real important. It took his death to connect me to the unseen. His death is both a blessing and a curse. I am closer to Philip now than I ever was. It is not his body I need, much as it’s what I want. Why do we cling so hard to these bodies that are only temporary? I wonder that I don’t let myself be more comforted by Philip’s presence, by the way he nudges me, helps me, all the time. It’s merely his body that’s gone, and if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t know the things I now do. I live on two planes. The one where my bare feet feel the cold floor, where I pick up dog shit, shop for distraction, spend too much time fretting over what to wear. Then there’s the plane where I feel loved and tended to, where I know what matters, where I see how fleeting this all is and that’s okay because it’s what is so and to argue about it is pointless. To be in touch with what’s beyond what I can see is to be graced.

February. I don’t want it to end. I know it’s a construct, but I feel safe here. I feel close to my son because this is the month he  died and so offered me an opening to the Divine. This is the month I excuse myself from obligations I don’t much tend to anyway. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s that I haven’t the energy. Going to work is about all the going-out, all the interruption from my real work, that I can take. I need the calm and quiet of my home. This must be what seedlings go through before they sprout. They live in the deep dark until the day they poke their tiny heads out – then they are fragile things, growing roots underneath as they reach for the sun. Some of them make it, some of them don’t. Me? Resist though I do, I know something that is difficult to say. I think I’m going to make it – and Philip wouldn’t have it any other way.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

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