I Think of You

  • “I close my eyes I think of you
    I take a step, I think of you
    I catch my breath, I think of you
    I cannot rest, I think of you”
    “Looking Out” by Brandi Carlisle

She is, of course singing of a romantic relationship. I wrote once about that, about how people are always singing about romantic love – no one wants to touch the real grief that’s the other side of deep love. No one wants to sing about that kind of loss. So while Romantic Love’s what these lyrics are about, ask any parent who’s lost a child if they don’t resonate.

Tonight I feel Rutgers, New Brunswick. I’m there with Natalie, buying books for her next term. Philip knows we’re in the bookstore, comes to say hello. I am so happy to see him – Do you need anything, I ask? No, I’m good he answers. We chat a while, then he leaves. It was always okay when he left because we were okay. No thought of never seeing him again.

I’m selfish. I’m so wrapped up in Philip’s loss and Philip’s words that I forget things. I forgot to say something to Dale, about Brandon’s birthday. And today is one year since Amy Marie died and I know that Dee is suffering. And to all of you, who I’ve forgotten to say things to – know that I’m full of words. I’m not managing myself well.

So this is just to say I’m sorry for all of us who are suffering the loss of our precious children. I’m sorry if I’ve missed anything about Lucia, Dale, Tersia, Dave, Susan, Susan B., Mira, Daphne, Ed, Joyce, Afichereader, Deanna, Dakota, Anna, Joyce, Melissa, Toni, Elizabeth’s Mom, Graham’s Mom – and you who I haven’t mentioned, you who just care and let me know.  This is a pause to take a breath and bow our heads. They were here with us. Can we figure out how to make something of that?

© 2014 Denise Smyth

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Every Story

Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
“Landslide” by Stevie Nicks

Where does anyone turn to answer those questions? Because I’ve a sickening feeling about the season my life’s turned into, the one about moving on without Philip. I don’t mean “moving on” as in “getting over it.” I mean life is motion and where life goes, so go I. And I don’t mean – really – “without” Philip. I’ve said much about the way he communicates with me. But I’m facing his death, the loss of his physical presence, and I’m weak in the knees once more.

I am in need of spirit, and I’m still asking myself how to find it, though I know the answer is within, not without. I’ve done enough searching to know I’m not going to find it through a go-to guru – Louise Hay, Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra and Madonna and her Kabbalah included. Don’t ask me what any of them are talking about – that they’re on TV giving the rest of us their version of spirituality is enough for me not to listen. My big turn-off to New Age “spiritualism” came after reading something or other Louise-Hay which had me walking around “affirming” over and over what I thought I wanted and having a pit in my stomach while I was doing it. Whatever I wanted wasn’t happening, and trying to convince myself that it was, wasn’t working. Then I saw Ms. Hay on a talk show. It took a few minutes of her one-size-fits-all earnestness to realize no one thing works for everyone, but when some one thing works for someone, they sure like to tell the rest of us about it.

I’ve found some sense in Eckhart Tolle’s writing. When I first saw “A New Earth” in my friend Rebecca’s yoga studio, I thought, “Another book about saving the earth? Most of us can’t even save ourselves, never mind the environment.” And while I’d jumped on the green-is-better bandwagon way before it became chic and expensive to do so, I was sick of the moral indignation that made people care more about the air quality than they did each other.

But a few years ago, when my normal depression had spiked into crisis-mode, my friend Melanie told me Eckhart Tolle was a spiritualist, not an environmentalist, so I bought “A New Earth” on CD and drove around listening to it. It made a whole lot of sense. But I didn’t come upon Tolle in a vacuum. For years I searched for some sort of spirituality through AA, A Course in Miracles and Buddhism – to name a few. Then came the years of not searching for anything at all because it was too damn hard to find something when I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for.

But the stopping was just as important as the searching. I wasn’t grasping for something any more. I wasn’t at peace, either. Tolle came into the spiritual silence I’d been in, and what he was saying was an amalgam of all that I’d practiced before, in language I could understand.

Of course, considering him a teacher made it easy to go right back into the unconscious I was trying to wake up from. Yeah, yeah, yeah, live in the now, present moment, the past is gone, life doesn’t end, etc., etc. So I’m sure I’ve already heard Tolle say, “Every story ultimately fails.” But when I heard it the other day, I stopped the CD to think about it. I’ve been thinking about it for days now, and taking what comfort I can from it. Which isn’t much at the moment, but there’s something there that feels like truth, and no matter how hard a truth is, accepting it is better than arguing with it.

That every story fails is hard to hear, but it’s not a negative assertion. Stories “fail” because they involve form, and all forms are temporary,  are disintegrating even as they’re existing. That includes “thought” forms. Meaning, like, say I think of myself as a really important artist and I create all these wonderful paintings that everyone agrees are phenomenal and then one day I wake up blind. My thought of myself as an artist takes a terrible blow – who the hell am I now? My story as important artist ends and I have to make up a new one. Or not make up one at all, and just try to be. Because every time a form dissolves – whether it’s physical or mental – it leaves an opening to God.

And I use “God” to mean whatever it is you might think is divine in life. Whatever you think is more than you are, whatever force you think there is in this world. The Divine needs space and attention, and we can’t give it that if we’re only concerned with accumulating forms that we think will show both us and the world who we are.

But stories can have truth and beauty, and that doesn’t change when the ending does. And what I mean by story is what we tell ourselves about our lives, instead of living them – the stories about the way things are or were or should be, about what any of it means. Like, So-and-So walked right past me yesterday without saying a word – she’s such a shit. Or, So-and-So walked right past me yesterday – I’m such a shit.

Maybe So-and-So didn’t see me. Maybe So-and-So is suffering and preoccupied. Maybe So-and-So really can’t stand me. What does any of that have to do with me?

And ultimately, both So-and-So and I are going to die. Where’s my story then?

There’s nothing “wrong” with form – it’s our attachments that hurt us. We can enjoy the world of form – through it, we can sense the deeper joy and beauty that is as much a part of life as the terrible grief it seems easier to feel. How many times did I wear that dress before I tore it where it can’t be fixed? How many places did that car take me before it was too old and worn to do so any more? How many days, months, years, how many hours did I take joy and pleasure in  Philip before he died?

But it wasn’t enough. Philip is my child. In my story, he goes on to find work he loves and a woman he loves and they have kids and Natalie and her partner have kids and even though I’m alone I’ll always have somewhere to go and maybe I’ll let everyone else cook Christmas dinner while I sit by the tree and play with my grandkids.

But Philip went and died and half my story is gone and I feel like half of me has gone along with it. What he’s left me is that opening to the spiritual, which I can define as simply learning to see things differently. This is where it gets hard. Really hard. Because the stories we tell are to invent a self. That’s why when one of them disappears it can cause a crisis. And while in so many ways I understand this, where the fuck does that leave me with Philip? In essence, the work is no different: How do I live in the face of loss without feeling diminished?

The short answer is, one breath at a time. And while some part of me knows that, some other – bigger – part of me sees that as just words on a page.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

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Philip at 6

Philip at 6

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I always sent Philip a text right after midnight to say Happy Birthday, so here I am. I don’t remember how it was last year, that first birthday. It was a Sunday, and Natalie took me horseback riding. It was a surprise; she knows I love to ride, and I hadn’t, not since the last vacation the four of us took together.

It wasn’t so much his birthday; it was the days following. I’ve found that’s when grief starts kicking my ass, in the aftermath. This year I’ve been walking in a white cloud of Philip. Walking along with pregnant-me, my belly full of him. Sitting with me on my bed, nursing him in wonder and stroking his soft, downy head. And seeing my 21-year-old son watching me, ever reminding me those moments are mine and not even his death can take that away from me.

I found this picture of Philip right after he died and I couldn’t bear it. You know why it’s so hard for you to look at this picture, he asked? Because you see the joy in me and you think you’ll never find it in you. I came from you, mom; if I have it, so do you. I do? Could I ever radiate, knowing what I know of death and loss and grief? I feel old in ways that are exhausting; I feel dirty next to his bright innocence. And guilty, that I now know what neither of us could, that he was only years away from the train wreck his life would end in.

I took today off because I think I would go crazy if I had to sit at work and pretend this is a day like any other. Birthday number two and I’ve not figured out how to mark it. What special thing there is to do. It seems it would be comforting to have a ritual, but I can’t think what that would be. Maybe I’m not to live a life of tradition; maybe I’m to learn to take it as it comes. Kirsten is making dinner for Natalie and me. Will you do this every year, I want to ask her? Can I count on you to always be here?

Let us enjoy our dinner tonight, let that be enough for now. Let me learn one by one that people love me, let me hold what I learn in my heart.

And let me, as Philip has asked, learn to find the joy.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

A Few Photos…

I added a few more photos. The third one down, of Philip and Natalie, is part of the same portrait session as the other two. The rest are at the end. See, he was here; he really was. Do I get to the part where I look and smile because of what he means to me? You all should know, you who’ve lost those you love most. And I thank you all for caring.

Just some things to know…

You should know that Natalie and Philip were enrolled at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, freshman and junior respectively, and that Natalie was really unhappy there. Not in the oh-she’ll-be-fine-in-a-month way, either. She was in the middle of her second term, and planning to transfer. Still, it was difficult for her to be there, which meant many tearful (for her) and heartbreaking (for me) phone calls.

You should know that I was separated from my husband, Phil, and living on the top floor of my friend Nadiya’s house; that Phil and I get along well; that he lives in the house that we own. That Natalie lived with me when she wasn’t at school, simply because I’m home more often than Phil, and I have a better wardrobe than he does. That Philip did not live on campus, but rented a house nearby with some friends. That when he did come home, he stayed with Phil.

© 2013 Denise Smyth