How I Practice

I’ve been getting rid of stuff. Because when there’s too much of what you have, it becomes stuff instead of what it really is. It’s not clothes, books, shoes, jewelry, fabric; it’s stuff. And when there’s too much around there’s that much more of a psychic load to carry.

But it’s a mistake to get rid of things for the sake of getting rid of them. Things have value. I don’t want to worship what I have – I just want to understand what it all means. I want to remember everything has a life cycle. If I buy something, I’m responsible for seeing it through to the end. Whether it’s become garbage because it’s useless, or it’s something I donate it because I’m overwhelmed at the thought of dragging it to consignment, I am responsible.

I this started back in November – I took every piece of clothing and every pair of shoes I owned and put them on the living room floor. Panties included. Then I picked up each piece and asked myself if I loved it – I did not ask when the last time was that I wore it. And if I didn’t love it but didn’t want to give it away, I asked myself why? Like the dark green sweater that found its way back into my drawer. It depresses me when I wear it – it feels dark and sad and I’ve enough of that inside without wearing it outside. I kept it because it was expensive, because I bought it only last year, because Natalie really liked it and part of why I bought was so she could wear it. We often share clothing (which means she borrows my stuff) and I find myself greedy to be the one who can claim ownership. But she’s the one that likes the sweater and now she’s the one who owns it.

If I can’t let go of a sweater, what am I going to do about the last letting go, the biggest one of all?

During this purging, Laura, Philip’s first serious girlfriend, came to visit with her friend, Ella. Natalie and I lived with Laura and Nadiya, her mom, for a few years before I got my own apartment. Laura wanted to come over to see my apartment, to meet Nikki, to rummage through my clothes before I gave them away. While she and Ella were here, I told them the story of the day I was packing to move, and decided not to drag along the 3,000 or so pages of emails that I’d stored under my bed (which is a story for another time). Downstairs I went with boxes full of paper, sat on the bottom of the staircase and started tearing. Two good long rips later I balked. Was I doing the right thing, was I going to need these one day, what if  I needed them to write the book I thought I was going to write before Philip died, the book about something that seemed so important and came to matter little after I discovered just what life could do to me.  That’s when I noticed a something on the on the floor. I picked it up to find it was a clothing tag from the store called Forever 21.

I saved that tag, and as I told my story, I pulled it out for dramatic effect. And since I have a habit of putting things down and forgetting where I put them, that is exactly what I did. A couple days went by, and it hit me that I remembered picking up the tag, but I didn’t remember putting down the tag. I went to the cubby in my desk where I kept it, but it wasn’t there. I tore my desk apart, looked under the couch and the bureau, picked the edges of the rug. It wasn’t anywhere. That tag was proof that Philip was around I needed it. But a few panicked minutes later I stopped – I cannot stay upset for things I can do nothing about. And if I’m practicing letting go, then what did it matter? What mattered was that it happened, and what it means to me. I still have my story to tell. Maybe without the dramatic flourish at the end, but it’s still my story.

Then came Thanksgiving at my brother’s. Late in the evening, when I got home,  I got out of my car and said, “Philip, I want something.” I opened the door to my building, and in the entry was a box of recycling with a glossy flier on top with a store announcing a 21%  off sale. 21% off?? Who has a sale for 21% off?? So I lost a tag but have a flier. For now.

The phenomena of the tag and the flier are not isolated incidents. Philip communicates with me every day, in startling ways. I have stories and stories. I am graced, for sure. I’ve no doubt he’s here, and he won’t let me forget. Still – he’s dead and it terrifies me. But…he’s here. Not his body, but his presence is clear. So I find myself choosing my words more carefully. I can’t say Philip’s gone because that’s not the truth. But he’s dead and I’m still trying to figure out what that means because it’s the end of our lives as we knew them, but it’s not the end of the story.

So why this raging grief, and what am I terrified of? Am I afraid to die? There’s a correlation between my fear of letting go and my fear of death. The less I’m attached to what or who is part of my life, the easier it will be to die. This life needs to be let go of and I can practice doing that every day. That’s not to be confused with, “Who gives a shit? I’m going to die anyway.” Because what I’m talking about takes courage. It is a conscious, meaningful decision to stop resisting what is. And the more I stop, the more I know love. Because love cannot be grasping and clinging. Which makes me question if I’ve ever truly loved, and what I really meant when I said, “I love you” to someone. Was it them I was really loving, or was it my need for them to love me?

The one true love I know is that for my children. That’s why I knew how to let them go. Let them be. And that’s why I’m in such deep communion with Philip now. What was between us in life doesn’t change with his death.

It was three years ago today – 2/01 – that I last saw my son. This is the season of his birth and his death. I find myself doing exactly what I did when he first died. Sitting on the couch, knitting and watching TV. If I have any advice for people who lose loved ones, it’s what someone told me when Philip first died: Follow whatever creative urge you have. So I knit, I write, I sew, I cook. I’m alone and quiet in my mourning because it’s time to tend to it.  Whatever letting go needs to be done around Philip’s death, I cannot yet do. When I say, “letting go” what I mean is to stop resisting what I feel. That doesn’t mean I won’t grieve any more, it does not mean it’s okay that Philip died. It just means I allow what I’m feeling to be as it is, knowing that – whether I like it or not – it will pass into something else.

It is in not resisting that I will mine the riches of Philip’s death. I am coming to understand that is the way to honor him, that is the way I can see his death was not for naught. His death means what I make it to be – and he’s asking me to make it my way into life.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

01/20/91 – #3

My water broke about 1:00 in the morning, running wet and warm down my legs and pooling on the wooden floor in my bedroom. I’d gotten up because I thought I had to pee – maybe I did pee, maybe that was part of what was gushing out of me because what I didn’t know then, but is so clear now, is that this thing that was about to happen was not in my control. All I could do was go along for the shockingly painful ride. Shocking because I thought my good attitude meant it wouldn’t hurt so much.

My children were born at home which seemed to me the most reasonable way to go about it. Hospitals, doctors, nurses, fetal monitors worrying my baby’s every heartbeat – to have anyone try to manage my labor was intrusive. I was having a baby, not an operation. So when my water broke it was my midwife, Barbara, that I didn’t call. Didn’t call because I wasn’t yet in labor and saw no reason to wake her. What she said when I called her at 8 in the morning was, “I told you that if your water broke, you should call me right away. You have to come see me now.” I could go into labor any moment. She was an hour’s ride away – that meant an hour there and an hour back plus whatever time I spent with her and while I wasn’t worried that I’d be giving birth in the car, I did think my husband and I should get on the road so I could get back and make myself comfortable. “It’s time to go,” I told Phil, who was sitting at the table reading his New York Times. “When I finish my tea,” he answered, with a shake of the paper.

Being pregnant and giving birth didn’t make me nervous. It was Phil who worried that if something went wrong during birth we’d be blamed because we were having our baby at home. “When time comes, I’ll be at the hospital, pacing,” he used to joke. But it was time to go and I knew he was anxious. His way of tamping down anxiety was to try to slow down the situation. But no matter how much tea he thought he was going to drink, this baby was going to get born.

I’d had a few mild contractions during the morning, but it was on the way home from Barbara that they really started. What I thought they were going to feel like was some gentle vibration from the top of my belly to the bottom, like waves that would carry Philip down and out. Instead they were like a steel band squeezing under my belly and around my back while a mac truck was trying to ram me open. I’d fooled myself into thinking I had this together. I didn’t know that once I was in labor, my body wasn’t my own. She was doing the only job she had to: getting my baby born.

Pregnant bodies have their own intelligence. Birthing starts with hours and hours of contractions to force an opening wide enough for a baby-body to pass through, then hours of pushing to actually get it out. After the baby’s born, the placenta follows. Meanwhile, the mother’s breasts will have filled will colostrum, which the baby will eat for the first few days. It helps their immune system. Milk follows after, and will keep filling the mother’s breasts for as long as baby keeps emptying them. If I think about that, if I think about the intricacies of my pregnancy, intricacies caused by the merging of two microscopic cells, I know I was part of a miracle.

Labor was intense and painful. And the more it hurt the more scared I got until I didn’t have the pain but I was the pain and I couldn’t yell myself out of it. Even when I bit Barbara’s shoulder it didn’t help. Yet there were times I felt I was in some parallel universe, some place where I was watching what was happening to myself, checking in to remind me I was okay, to ask if I really had to yell so much. And during one particular moment of hot pain I heard the words, “There is no way out but through,”  which I wrote a bit about here.

Then it was time to push. It was not a choice. Pushing was an urge, a physical sensation impossible to ignore, an insistence I bear down with everything I’ve got. Which, at that point, wasn’t much. After some hours I thought myself physically unable to do it any more. My body said otherwise. I am not going to make it, I thought. I cannot do this. And when Philip’s head finally popped out, I gave up, too exhausted to care any more. “Push,” Barbara ordered. “I can’t,” I answered. I’d had enough. Let her pull him out. “Push,” she commanded. “Can’t,” I answered, eyes closed and resting. Truth was I wasn’t having contractions and I hadn’t any strength to push without them. Until Barbara stuck her finger up the only other available hole down there, and with one indignant push, out slid my son, a bit blue in the face, but strong and healthy and ready to nurse. He was born around 1:00 on Sunday morning, January 20th, 1991.  I do not remember the exact time. He was a true Sunday’s child, fair and wise and good and gay.

I often say I don’t know the world, but it’s not the world, it’s me that’s different. Am I anything but what I see myself to be? I had a flashback recently of November, 1990, the month I stopped working because of my pregnancy. I wanted to spend the last couple months alone with my baby. I see me in my forest green jacket and black stretch pants, walking in the chill and with a peace like I’d never known. Who was that woman? She was married and about to have her first baby, still living in Brooklyn, so damn innocent of what was to come. Not having any plans other than to be with this baby. Knowing, all the time knowing, that childhood is a small part of life and much as there were times when it was so difficult to be alone with Philip I knew it wouldn’t last. Patience, was all. I saw myself as earth mother, with my nursing, the cloth diapers I washed myself, the beans I soaked, the bread I baked. The baby food I cooked. I was going to do it right and because I was working so hard at right, things would turn out okay.

I didn’t see life for what it was. I saw it the way I wanted it to be. I was no earth mother, beans and bread or not. I was not someone who could stay in my marriage til death did we part. I was not someone who could live in the shadow I thought I was in. I was not someone who could stay as disconnected as I felt I was.

And I was not someone whose son would live longer than she did.

If there is anything that will get me to make peace with Philip’s death, it’s if I’m afraid of mine. Every change I go through is a little death, and gives me a chance to practice for my own. I do not want to wail and mourn for myself, to be this wracked and grieved when death reaches out for me. Philip has said I might think I’m not afraid to die but what is true for me in life will be true in death. And that whatever keeps me from loving life fully keeps me from loving him fully. These are hard truths and no twisting of my mind can help me escape them.

Philip, honey – Happy Birthday. It will always be Happy-Birthday, this day. And even though it’s your day, you are the one who gives the gifts. I love you, sweetie, I miss you being here, I miss the sound of your voice, your laugh, your midnight phone calls to tell me you love me. But I’m grateful for your constant presence, for the life you’ve given me to live. You know I’m still on the fence – patience, please, until I get off it.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Enough

I’m still unsure about the world I live in, still rather stay home than do much of anything. I don’t much resist, for sure. I haven’t the strength. Or the will. Resisting life takes an energy I don’t have. I’m tumbling along and if life’s too fast for me, it simply passes right through. There is love, laughter, lightness. There is terror, grief, despair. There’s the bloody churning in my gut, always. I said, in my last, I was kind of numb. Not so now. Philip’s birthday is in a week, and next month will be three years since he died. And I don’t feel like wailing as much as I feel like I’m choking on it all.

But if I could – I would like to throw my head back and howl at the stars until I emptied out all these things I feel that I don’t want to feel, until I collapsed under that blue black sky, safe in all that darkness. Then there’d be stillness and oh, what relief. But who can remain some empty vessel? We are not made for that. Like the night turns into dawn, in that stillness, back grows my grief. Would I want it gone? I think not. It’s what I have to live with, it’s sacred space when I don’t muddy it up with things that don’t belong there. Like if I make some disappointment turn into brooding over Philip when it has nothing to do with him. Or when it seems safer to despair because that’s what I was used to way before Philip was born. So maybe that’s what I want. To clean myself out, start all over again, figure out how to grieve honestly.

But his birthday. Then his death day. And call it what you like, the hard truth is that it is his death day. It is birth and death that are opposites. Life simply is. Always, it is. Philip shows me that every day. He’s blurred the line I’ve constructed between life and death, and that forces me to contemplate what I think my body really is. It is an instrument, is all; it is a way life expresses itself through me, it is a useful tool for communication. But it is also what is so easy for my five senses to perceive – and to that end, I miss my son. That he is here is not a question. It’s his body, his hard and warm body, that’s gone. Like everyone’s body will be gone. His is gone too soon for me…but he is here and I cannot figure out what terrifies me, what this longing is, why I feel defeated. It’s an acceptance, I guess, this “defeat.” What I mean is I know in some new and strange way that Philip’s not coming home. He simply isn’t. And I am living on two levels and maybe for that I should be grateful. Maybe I can’t ever bridge the gap between them, not truly, not while I see myself as mostly a body even though I know I am more. Else how to explain the extraordinary way my son – my son – communicates with me. He is offering me, in his death, a way into life.

These months, in all their colors, fly by, and all of them lead back to Philip’s birth, Philip’s death. March icy blue and April tinged with white – months I’d rather avoid, months that reek of life anew. March is spring, April I was born. I do not like the awakening when I want to stay away and hidden. I am too vulnerable for new life.

Then May’s soft pink, June back to white, July hot yellow, August gold and red. September is golden, October glorious orange, November gray, December red. Then comes January – the time to rest, the time where it’s still safe but we’re heading toward spring and I can’t stop it. January is white and black, February dark green. Hard as these two months are, I want to stay with them, stay close to Philip’s extraordinary birth, to the tragic shock of his death. 24 years ago this black and white month I was waiting for Philip to be born and what that meant to me then stays with me now.

Sometimes I try to remember what I felt like to be pregnant, when I carried Philip, when I was first deeply in love with him. He is, of course, always with me. So let me remember the fullness of it, let me know that I loved him from the moment I knew I was pregnant and even though he wasn’t here, it was enough. And he is still here, and that has to be…enough.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Who I Am Not (Part 1- The Question)

I was listening to a podcast of “Snap Judgment” called “Identity Theft” when the host said there would be stories about people answering the question we all ask: “Who am I?” And I thought about that, how I no longer ask myself that, how angry I feel about that question. About how the first thing I think about the question is, who, exactly, is doing the asking?  Are the asker and the “I” two different beings? If someone asked me if I ever wondered who I was, I’d answer that I was the one doing the wondering.

It’s a relief that question doesn’t bother me. I used to torture myself with it. Who am I? Nothing, nobody, unlovable, average-everything and so seriously troubled that I didn’t finish college and didn’t have a career so I couldn’t even say I was something. And most devastating was I couldn’t say I was a writer. I wasn’t published, I hadn’t the legitimacy. So if I’m angry when I hear that question, it’s because it implies there’s an answer that can be found – at least in part – through naming what it is I do.

Of course, for the last 24 years I could call myself a mother. But that wasn’t ever enough. I told myself I stayed home with my kids not so much out of choice but because I hated my job and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. That was true – and what I wanted to “do” was – at that point – unknowable. I believed that was why I suffered depression – I was here, but what the fuck was I supposed to do with myself? Everyone (everyone!) had a life. Work, friends, vacations, interests. Whatever I was interested in I quickly tired of. And I spent much of my time alone.

Things have changed since Philip died and what matters or doesn’t has gotten a whole hell of a lot clearer. I don’t think about “who I am.” I just am. And I won’t be for long, either. I am as temporary as everyone and thing else. I get up every day with a heart that’s cracked open which means I hurt as much as I love. Then I tend to the day. If it’s a weekday I go to work. When I get there I do what needs to be done. I am an assistant – never have I cared less what title is given to what I do. I love my job, I love the busy-ness and diversity. The people are funny and demanding and we work as a team. I love all the ways I am helpful, and that no matter how much I do in a day there are things left unfinished, which means there’s always something waiting for me next morning.

So call me an assistant, call me a mother, a writer, call me whatever you think I am because as you read what I write you are forming a picture of me. That’s what we do. We label people, and since those labels have meaning, we assign that meaning to the person we’re labeling.  To label someone implies you know something meaningful about them. But really, all you know is what they mean to you.

Like this. I dress in what I’ll call Free People du jour. I live in a very liberal town. And when I used to care about politics (which is to say I loved the argument)  I called myself a Republican. One morning I called into the Brian Lehrer show to offer the lone Republican voice on something or other. The next day I met a woman I knew outside the school our kids attended. She hurried over to me. “I heard you on the Brian Lehrer show this morning. I didn’t know you were a Republican…I mean, you don’t dress like a Republican,” she said sadly.

So she saw my clothes and made me into someone, then heard I was Republican and made me into someone else. Those words have nothing to do with me because she’s the one who gave them their meaning – as well as my meaning, by extension.

So “who I am” came to seem a pointless question. The words I longed to use to tell people who I was – a writer, a quilter, a chef, a therapist – were words that conjured up a meaning to me, words that would give me an identity and show people the me I wanted them to see. An acceptable me. No. If I want to do those things, fine. Whatever troubled me wasn’t going to get solved by calling it what it wasn’t.

Philip’s death has left me a wide open space. To be his mother is not just to be the one who gave birth to him, nursed him, took him to school, tended to his needs. Because as he grew so did what was between us. Whatever I was to him when he was five or nine or 12 or 21 changed. The lines blurred, the power shifted. If he had a need I would rise up to meet it in a way that I would only do for my child. But the rest of the time it was a dance, a lovely, lively, lilting play between us. Sometimes I led, sometimes he did. Mostly we were in step with each other, always we did love each other.

To be an assistant is to help in a way I find joyful. To be a mother is to know love. To be a writer is to sit here and work to put words on what it feels like to be alive, what it feels like to live with the death of my son. But whatever it is I am doing, it is not who I am. It’s just what I do. Who I am is part of the mystery. My work is to respond to the moment, not ask myself questions that have no answer. Who am I, why am I here – impossible distractions from reality. Because no matter who, how or why – I am. And “now what?” is up to me.

But life will out, and what I need to live more deeply will be given me. And I am not talking about a walk in nature where the play of sun among the awesomeness of the now-naked trees reveals the meaning of God. How I long for my epiphany. I’m talking about the harder stuff, like going to my junior high reunion for the first time ever, which meant the past mixed in with the present. As did the shame and the joy.

Next: The Reunion

© 2014 Denise Smyth

What I Carry

I’m in a river that’s broken through a dam, a river full of furious energy, mindless and untamed. Moving in one direction, but going too fast. I’m not fighting, I’m not even trying to get a grip. I wouldn’t know what to grab on to. I can’t think about it. At this speed, I don’t think, I just navigate past the danger. But I don’t breathe, either.

I smashed my car (no one got hurt and it didn’t get totaled). I spilled water on my computer, dropped my cellphone in the toilet. On a whim I looked online for an apartment and found one. But there’s the matter of the lease I signed for the place where I’m living, which means (so I’m told) I’m responsible for the remaining 8 months’ rent (read: $12,000). But there’s also the horrid brown water coming out my faucets and the refusal of the people responsible to respond to it. To me. That, along with several other issues, might help to break my lease, especially since my friend Cindy put her formidable lawyer shoes on and contacted the Property Manager.

And for whatever reason, I am beginning to understand what it means to “carry Philip’s spirit” into the world. I hate the phrase – it reeks of desperation and I’ve never understood what it meant. How could I? I am grieved and mourning and when I’m alone I can’t help but to just be. Whatever that is. I’ve not hidden how I felt since Philip died. Early on, I’d tell anyone and everyone. Salespeople, cashiers, the gas attendant; someone help me, please help me. I needed kindness. I needed to feel contact, which was impossible. I couldn’t make some effort to carry Philip’s spirit into the world. What I was carrying was crushing me as it was.

Two years and nine months later there’s been a shift. What I carry now, along with my sorrow, is Philip. Like when I was pregnant. For the first three months the only people that knew I was pregnant were my brother-and-sister-in-law and my parents. I said, as many do, that there was most chance of miscarriage during the first three months. I didn’t want to share the joy of pregnancy with anyone who I wouldn’t also want to share the anguish of a miscarriage with. But that wasn’t the all of it. It wasn’t even most of it. What I wanted was quiet time with my son. It would be a rare and short time that I didn’t have to share him with the world. He would always be part of me psychically, mentally, emotionally – but this was the only time he’d be part of me physically. He was my secret joy, he was love in a way I hadn’t known it. Once everyone knew it would be both a celebration and an intrusion.

And so it is now, in reverse. When Philip first died, I couldn’t stop telling people. Now I’m mostly quiet. It hurts. Not always, but often. It was after Philip came into the world that I wanted to share him. This is my son, I would say. Now I can’t, not in the same way. The other night someone asked how many children I had. I have two, I said; but my son died. “I shouldn’t have asked,” the woman said. “Of course you should have,” I answered. “It’s just that death is hard to talk about.” An invitation, for sure – but not one that was answered.

My relationship with Philip is constant and private. He’s too much a part of me to ever be gone. I know this – at least when grief doesn’t overwhelm. And as far as his spirit – I am kinder, more friendly. I am curious about people. I’m not so afraid of them any more. That is Philip, with his grace and ease. “Mom, I like my life” he once said, with a sincerity that stung because I could not say the same. To live with him guiding me is to live gently, is to let life be. And then things happen, then I meet the right people, without even trying.

Like this.

When I’d decided to look online for apartments, I sent emails to different realtors, who emailed back wanting to make appointments. I chose M. M. showed me two apartments that I really liked, one of which I wanted to live in. When I realized I couldn’t just break my lease, I started to flip. Not as bad as last year, which I wrote about here. And M. is one of the reasons for that. Besides her calm and her humor, she’s smart. When I realized I was most likely going to lose the apartment, I started babbling to her about last year and how hard it was and everything was too expensive and no one would take my dogs and she interrupted with, “Okay. But it’s not last year. It’s now.” When I cried because I had to turn that apartment down, she sent me a link to the Rolling Stones, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” When I called her up to tell her the various scenarios that could take place if I could break my lease in two months or four months or not at all, she said, “But we can only deal with reality. Reality is now. And now you have a lease and you’re starting the process to see if you can get out of it early. That’s what we have to work with.”

And really, it’s no surprise. It’s no surprise I chose the Realtor who’d say the things to me that I should be saying to myself. It’s no surprise that as I was driving and thinking Philip is the face of love is the face of love I passed police van #201, then got cut off by a car whose license plate had Philip’s initials. Yet much as I can rattle off the hundreds of times he’s let me know he’s around, I still spend so much of my down-time under the covers, waiting. Just waiting. Philip is asking me to live differently. He is offering me things to think about. He is suggesting that maybe I can try – just a little – to walk in the world the way it is, instead of being seduced by the misery of the underworld. He is asking me to have some faith.

I am grateful for what I have with Philip. That the bond we had in life is even clearer in his death. That he’s teaching me life isn’t what I thought it was, and neither is death. But my God –  I miss him, I miss him, I miss him and there is something too terrible about his death to bear.

But let me share some joy. Here is Nikki, five months old:

Nikki, five months old

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Give My Life, Live My Life

What wildness there is in grief. What unpredictability. And exhaustion. I’m tired of this crazy ride, I’m tired of missing Philip. Crying won’t bring him back, but I do it anyway. When words won’t come, tears take their place. I cry because I want my son alive, because I am helpless, because I want somebody to hang on to for a while, two strong arms and a shoulder I can tuck myself into and make believe, even for a while, that someone’s love for me is greater than this loss I don’t want to live with. And so the ugliness of grief – it creates a terrible need and then makes it impossible to meet.

My son. Sometimes I call him Philip, sometimes I call him my son. I’ve been trying more often to write “Philip.” “Philip” is older, is more independent, more of a partner. He is tall and handsome. He goes to school and pays his rent. He comes to dinner with me and even when he’s 21, he comes and lies on my couch when he’s not feeling well.

When I say, “my son,” I’m on my knees with my eyes raised to the holy heavens, begging for him to please come home. When I say, “my son” I’m lamenting more than saying – and I join the collective of all who’ve lost a child. It doesn’t make it better, that anyone else should feel this. We suffer a loneliness that can’t be touched because each of us lost our child and our special relationship and no matter who is suffering this, it’s hard to believe anyone else really gets it. Because Philip is my son and I am the one who lost him most.

I’d have given my life for my son. I’d have stalked, roared, clawed, destroyed anyone who dare try to hurt him. Because that’s what mothers do. I think I’ve been calling him “Philip” more because it hurts just a little bit less. Because claws and all I couldn’t protect my son, and if I call him Philip I know that he’s responsible for his death, too.

I don’t mean that I’m responsible in that I could have done something so he wouldn’t have died. I’m responsible for his being born, for the ways I responded to his life and now his death. At some point, the madness of grief has to give way to at least some lucidity where I can make decisions about how I feel and what I’m going to think about. I resist this. I grieve – as we all do – in the context of my life. Since I was a kid I’ve found it hard to be here and I still don’t get what’s so great about life. The way people don’t understand what I’m talking about is the way I don’t understand their ready engagement with the world. I am so angry that when I’d finally broken it down into something I could manage, when I decided that what I had to remember was I have my kids and I could build my life from there, Philip died. The nameless darkness I’ve lived with can now be called Death – and I can’t tell the grieving from the blaming.

I’m staring down the question we all come to sooner or later – how do I live in the face of death? Lately I’ve been doing that by waiting. In between time with Natalie and time at work, when I’m alone, I wait for it all to pass. I tell myself it doesn’t matter if I write or sew or cook or just lie on the couch and watch TV because sooner or later it’s all going to be gone. So what if I don’t like where I’m living? So what if don’t do laundry for weeks or if I eat sandwiches every night? So what if staying home sounds better than anything I can think to go out and do? When my turn comes I don’t think it’s going to matter where I lived or how many pillows I’ve sewn. It’s all going to fall away anyway, so what’s it really matter?

There is something Zen-like in that. To “not mind what happens” is the way to peace. But that’s not what I’m doing. I’m perverting that into defeat and a surrender to despair instead of acceptance. I’m so tired of Philip being dead, so weary of what I now carry. I know death, I want to scream; I know death. And it is not the end, it is not anything like the end. In fact, it’s endless. And relentless. You can’t reason with it, you can’t stop it, and once it’s come you can’t make it go away. You can’t call your kid any more, can’t watch him graduate from college, can’t get to know his new girlfriend or wonder if he’ll ever have kids because even though you never much liked babies, you were wild about your own and “grandma” had stopped sounding old, it just sounded like having more to love.

I’ve gone through – and am probably not done with – feeing guilty about being a mother who couldn’t protect her kid. Philip, from the second I found out he died, has asked something else of me. And when I talk like this, when I give up, I feel I’m betraying him. What am I doing with all he communicates to me? There’s a deep disconnect between my ranting at his death and the wonder at the love and protection I feel from him, that he shows me every day in tangible ways. Little things, like when I signed up for an adult ed class, walked into the high school and said, “Philip, I want to be in room 201.” Ridiculous, I knew, because class was on the first floor and I’ve been in that school enough times to know the rooms on the first floor start with 1. So while it couldn’t have been room 201, it was the next best thing: 102.

Or the bigger things, the things he gives me to think about. Like last week, on my way home after work, when the drive went from annoying to unbearable. I’m obsessively crazy about getting home, watching the cars on the highway more than the road itself to see if there’s an opening to get ahead. I strategize, I maneuver. I’m aggressive and treat each car like its sole reason for being in proximity to me is to keep me from getting where I want to go. It doesn’t matter that I see how crazy I am, or that I’m rushing home to spend a night alone, a night where I’ll dive under the covers in despair about Philip. I just want to get where I’m going. And on that day while I was thinking that I can’t do this any more but I’m helpless to do otherwise, I heard Philip. “Swerve, mom,” he said. “Just swerve.”

That’s all he had to say and I could breathe again. Philip was asking me if I could go gently, gracefully, from one lane to another when there was room to do so. I felt the breath that would allow me to do that, breath that would create the room I was desperate for. It’s holding my breath that makes me feel trapped. And then I understood what Philip was really telling me. That there are things I will come up against all the time, things that will not move and that I can’t barrel my way through. I can’t control any of that. But I can breathe and go round them, because that is the part that’s up to me.

I still don’t know what death is. I just keep learning what it isn’t. It’s life that’s harder than any of it. And the hardest question of all is that I said I’d give my life for Philip – why, then, won’t I live it for him?

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Is it Better?

I miss my son.

I am still shocked, and part of me feels like a dying tree, oozing sap and rotting away. When work is over and no friends are around, it’s just me and my grief. How am I supposed to do this? Is there some sort of answer to that? I can’t look to the world for it – the world is insane. Grasping , needing and killing to get what it wants. And what it wants is Power. What’s done in the name of power is psychotic. It’s never enough, there’s always more power to want. More ways to be right, to prove that you exist. But there’s no real satisfaction in being right. It’s like an addiction – because being satisfied with being right just once is no more possible than an addict’s first snort being his last.

Except when it kills him.

In “True Detective,” Marty asks Rust if he’s Christian. “No,” he says. “Well what are ya?” Rust doesn’t want to have this conversation, but he answers, “I’m a Realist. But in philosophical terms, I’m a Pessimist.”

I’ve never heard of Pessimism as a philosophy. So I did a little research, read Thomas Ligotti’s, “The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.” And one of the things he wrote about was the question of why it’s assumed that it’s better to be here than to not. I imagine you can’t get much traction with that because most people take it for granted that it’s better to be. Of course it is, right? But why, exactly? Forget my suffering. What about those women – those girls – that were rounded up by some terrorist organization in Iraq to be given to men so they can marry them or rape them or subject them to any degradation they choose?  Or people whose families became collateral damage in a war they neither wanted nor started? Or all the hungry kids, the abused kids – all over the world there is suffering I cannot even imagine. So is it better – is it always better – to be? We can’t answer that since we don’t know what it is to “not be.” We don’t if it’s better. Or worse. Or just the same. We just know we’re terrified of it.

And Pessimism isn’t Hamlet’s, “To be or not to be.” Hamlet was contemplating suicide. Pessimism is about coming into being at all. I thought about it for a while, until I circled back to the fact that while I found Pessimism fascinating, it wasn’t some kind of answer. No matter how much I debate it, I’m here. Whether’s it’s better to be here or not is irrelevant. I’m here and Philip’s dead, so now what?

Living. I’m as hung up on what that means as I am about death. And I’m not feeling good about either of them. “Mom, you have to work it out where you are,” Philip said. Which sucked the juice out of the fantasy of wanting to die – whatever I’ve been angry, depressed and twisted about for most of my life is my life. When I’m sitting here writing, this is my life. When I get up to pee then that will be my life. Life is not some separate path or some thing Out There that I’ll get to one of these days. Out There is the fantasy of the future, which only ever comes as now. Life is what it is. Every breath is life lived and it is one of these same, ordinary breaths that are going to be our last.

When Natalie was a  freshman at Rutgers, she was miserable. It was more than being homesick. It was misery. I was trying to help her get through that first year, at the end of which she could transfer. Accept it, leave it or change it, I told her. So she stayed. She applied to other colleges. But it wasn’t enough. She was torn and I wanted to help. We talked a lot. She’d often go visit her boyfriend in New York on weekends, then come home to Montclair on Sunday evening so I could drive her back to Rutgers. I loved my Sunday nights in the car with her. For 45 minutes we’d talk and talk and once we talked so much I missed the exit.

Two weeks before Philip died, we were talking about death. “You know everything won’t be here one day. Everything. One day this car won’t be here. This highway – it won’t be here, either.” I hesitated before I added, “I won’t be here,” because I didn’t want to scare her. But I’m going to die like everyone else and not talking about it won’t change that.

I told her that I didn’t think death was the end. “I don’t know what happens, but something’s left. Whatever you want to call it. Call it soul, call it energy. But something is animating my body – and when my body dies, that something remains.” I also told her that I had no idea what happened with that soul, that energy. I wasn’t talking reincarnation, I wasn’t talking heaven. I believe there is more than we see, but what that is I can’t say.

“Of course,” I added, “If anything happened to you or Philip, all bets are off.”

And this was around the time Natalie said to her boyfriend, “I am afraid my brother’s going to die.”

Philip’s death forces me to think about what life and death are. And this is what he said to me a while ago: “Mom, I’m trying to teach you what death isn’t. But you have to look to Natalie for life. If you don’t, nothing I say will mean anything.”

And all along I thought what he meant was all the signs, the messages, and the guidance were proof that death isn’t the end, that he’s around and always will be. But that’s only part of it. He’s also trying to get it through my head that death isn’t an answer to the way I feel. Because in spite of what I know and what I’ve experienced, when I’m grieved and terrified I think that death has got to be the answer. I am back to crying every day for Philip. I’m trapped because there are too many moments when I think that I just can’t do this – but I’m here and I have to and that’s when I get to thinking death must be a way out. And I’m reminded of when I was in labor, when I had that same terror because the pain was too much and there was nothing I could do – and a voice in my head said, “There’s no way out but through.”

People thought I was crazy for having my babies at home when I could go to the hospital and have the pain of it all relieved in some  chemical way. Had I done that, I would have missed that voice. And that’s the voice that’s brought me full circle and made every scream and exhausting push worth all of it.

So to all of you who have lost a child, to you who’ve lost a deeply loved one, what is life for you? And for you who have other children to look to, what do you see? What I see when I look at Natalie is complicated. She is not the girl who came home from Rutgers. Two-and-a-half years later she is a light and a joy. Her life is full of what she wants. She vibrates – when Natalie is in a room, you know it. I have loved watching her come alive. But watching her also puts distance between us. She is happy, I am not. She is full of life, I am dispirited. It seems so easy for her, this thing called life. I think I’m angry, I think I’m envious. I think I’m dejected because I tamp my anger down so hard it’s exhausting. I can’t deal with it; I’m angry that Philip’s dead, that Natalie’s moving out, that people think it’s okay to be here and I don’t.

And I’m angry that I don’t even know if that’s true.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

What Matters?

Brookdale Park July 2014

Brookdale Park

“Nothing worth knowing can be understood with the mind. Everything valuable has to enter you through a different opening.”
Woody Allen in “Manhattan”

Friday night I went to the dog park in Brookdale Park, a couple minutes drive from my apartment. Since it’s a couple minutes I could walk it, except the last time I did, I thought Zoe was going to burst a valve with the way she was panting. Both she and Pippin are shih-tzus – with their pushed-in faces, they don’t breathe so well when it’s warm. But I happened to meet someone I knew who gave us a ride home, which is, in itself, an entirely different post.

Brookdale Park is large and lovely, with fields and winding paths lined with trees. There’s an order to it, which my mind finds soothing – but there’s something else in me that’s restless for the mystery and terror of a wild, tangled forest. It’s hard to find a place in the park that isn’t there by design. But I found an elvish clearing with trees that stood apart from each other, their graceful tops meeting to form a lacy canopy. Watching from the path, in light that had just faded from late afternoon to early evening, I saw a fairy circle in the middle of the clearing. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a sprite flit by.

During summer, the park sometimes has Friday evening concerts. They’re held on the field where Philip used to play soccer. The field’s lost its power to overwhelm. Sometimes I visit a place full of Philip until I wring out every last drop of him. I’m grieved enough without physical reminders whacking me back to a time that can’t be. So it wasn’t the fact of the field that pissed me off about the concert that was being held there – it was the intrusion of crowds and happy music. Collective pleasure’s always been hard to abide, and never more since Philip died. But Friday night was irresistible Motown Night, so I wandered over in spite of myself and sat on the rough and itchy grass to listen.

People come to these shows to enjoy themselves. When Philip and Natalie were little, I sometimes did the same. A couple of chairs and a blanket, a warm night, my kids wandering around with everyone else’s kids. And me wondering why the hell I didn’t feel like I belonged, what it was I needed to feel the carefree ease I believed everyone else was feeling. They sat with their friends and kids and food and coolers full of whatever (supposedly non-alcoholic) thing they were drinking. That was the club I was supposed to join when we moved to Montclair, when I left the sprawling, intellectually vacuous part of Brooklyn I lived in. Montclair was supposed to be the place. The one where I’d raise my kids and meet the friends I’d have for life. But wherever I went, there I was – and it wasn’t the place that isolated me, it was the way I thought about it.

You’d think I would have felt worse on Friday, me being alone with my dogs, no one I knew in sight, sitting with memories of past summers and soccer games – but it wasn’t like that. Sure I felt separate, alone in ways I couldn’t have known before Philip died. What felt different had to do with judgment. We are all, each of us, judging everything, all the time. It’s what we do – and maybe one of the kindest things we can do for ourselves and each other is step back from those judgments and understand they are intensely personal, and therefore, not entirely true. I can’t say I wasn’t “judging” as much as I wasn’t minding whatever I was seeing. Particularly about myself – I might’ve been alone, but at least I didn’t feel freakish.

It’s not like I’ve come to some great acceptance. I’m just talking about Friday night. I’m talking about the glitter on the performers’ lapels, the dancing, the lone food tent with zeppoles and sausage-and-pepper heroes, the people who stopped to talk to me about my dogs, my gladiator sandals that drew surreptitious glances, the woman next to me who looked really neat with her flares and flannel shirt and her blanket stitched with moons and stars. It was clear her oh-so-casual “look” was deliberately chosen, like the careful way I choose whatever I’m wearing, even if it’s jeans and tees. And that’s very different from the way other people’s clothes seemed to have carelessly chosen them. But what’s it matter? What’s it matter what any of us wore or what our hair looked like or how old we were? I’d like to say I thought it didn’t matter because I realized it’s our relationships that matter, and that sounds like a deep and lofty thing to think. But what did I know of the relationships between the hundreds of people in their separate groups around their separate blankets with their separate dramas? In the end, is that the thing that really matters?

Friday night I was super-aware that we were all going to die and in the face of that, I wanted to understand what was real in the moment-to-moment shifting of my perception. If my heart seized and I realized death had me by the hand, whatever it was that mattered wasn’t going to have a damn thing to do with gladiator sandals or moon blankets. What was it, then? I watched and listened and sang and smiled, but I could not see what mattered. Maybe I couldn’t see it because was right in front of me, the way my nose was right in front of me and I couldn’t see that, either. But there was a bitty opening and some sort of knowing tried to make its way in. Stay with it Mom, Philip said; don’t make it into something. But I tried to grasp it with words and it slipped away.

There are things I can’t yet put words on. I might never have the deep attention and humility it would take to do so. And there are things I cannot put words on because if I do, I’ll move from possibility to ideas. Ideas return me to my mind, where I’m not going to find what I’m looking for – because when it comes to ideas, there isn’t a single one I’m going to take with me when I die.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

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