“In Memory”

I watched “Outlander” recently. (SPOILER ALERT: if you’re planning on watching it, you might not want to read the next few paragraphs.) The protagonists are Claire and Jaime, who are deeply in love. At one point, the story jumps forward twenty years and we see Claire visiting Jamie’s grave. She’d just come from the wake of a reverend she’d known for many years. At the wake was a young man the reverend had taken in as a child and raised and who was grieving the reverend. He sat down to talk to Claire. “How do you say good-bye?” he asked. “I don’t know,” she answered.

Claire sat at the grave for a while. For twenty years she’d been missing Jaime. She talked to him, then told him she was going to say something she’s never said before. And what she said was,” Good-bye.”

Fuck that.

Philip once told me he was in the place of no good-byes. Why would anyone want to say good-bye to someone they love? It’s bad enough they’re dead. But you still love them and so can have a relationship with them. Not the one you want, but the one you have. To say “good-bye” is to cut off. I don’t believe one can really say “good-bye” to someone they love deeply. And a child? Can one really say that to their child? Because when someone you love dies, when your child dies, your life changes irrevocably. You can go back to your job and back to the gym and continue doing whatever you were doing before death paid a visit. But you’ve changed, you feel the loss hovering always in the background.

It is not your child you say good-bye to, it is not your child you let go of. What you stop resisting is the fact of what death has taken from you, all the pain that it makes you feel. Not at first, not all at once. But grief opens up spaces within us. Those spaces make us vulnerable not only to heartbreak, but to joy. Joy seems to have no place here. But the joy of the love between you and your child remains. Nothing, not even death, can take that away.

Would that I pay attention to my words.

“In Memory.” Words I want to run from. They, along with “Rest in Peace,” are some of the most devastatingly sad words I know. Last week, Thursday, February 23rd, was the fifth anniversary of Philip’s death. My brother and sister-in-law, who never forget, made a donation to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in memory of him. Those two words were on the front of the card that came to tell me. “In Memory.” No, I want to cry out. He’s not just a memory, he’s more than that. But is he? Philip is round me. He talks to me, comforts me, sends me signs every day. I try to stay there, in that grace. But then there’s the other side, the fact of sight and touch, the conversations, all the things I miss because he isn’t here the way I want him to be.

Fighting that is useless. I know this. I don’t blame anyone for Philip’s death, I don’t think “God” did this. God doesn’t meddle in people’s lives, but he sure makes a good scapegoat. I don’t fret that there’s something I could have done, if only I… There wasn’t anything I could have done. Philip’s death is something that happened to us and we are in this together. Wishing things were otherwise is a waste of time, time that could be spent in life, life that feels like forever without Philip here but will feel like a blip when I face my own death. Where did it all go, I will wonder. Am I ready? It won’t matter. Ready or not, when it’s time, it’s time. Death is the one certainty in life.

This anniversary was particularly difficult. I didn’t go to work. I spent the morning with Natalie and the rest of the day with Kirsten. But I could take no comfort, in spite of all the ways Kirsten took care of me, in spite of the fact that people reached out to say they cared. My boss, who I’ve known for two and a half weeks, reached out to me. Phil called me first thing in the morning. I could have cried. What would it be like, I wonder, if we were still together, if I had him to talk to about Philip because he is his father, because we were a family. I envy people who have each other when tragedy strikes. But we live with the choices we make, fantasies notwithstanding. Tragedies tear people apart probably as often as they bring them together.

Still, I’m lonely. I’m lonely for Philip, lonely in my grief for him. My mind goes to terrible places. It’s hard to talk about. I had a difficult childhood. For so long I wished I was dead – what other way was there to stop the pain? I tried drugs and alcohol but all that did was land me in AA. Somewhere along the line I lost any appreciation I might have had for being alive. I have not recovered. When I see my daughter, my heart springs open. She is my love. But when she’s not here, it’s almost like she doesn’t exist. When she leaves I’m back to my lonely world, the one I’ve created in my head. And Thursday, no matter who was around or who reached out, I couldn’t take it in. There was no place I wanted to be. And this is what I meant about it being hard to talk about – so often I just don’t want to be here, to be part of this. So often I feel living is hard and sorrowful more than anything else. There are people who are sick and dying and scared, and here I am, alive and well, often wishing I wouldn’t wake up in the morning. What regrets am I going to have when it’s my time to die?

Last Thursday I cried to be where Philip was, so great was my grief. I haven’t cried in a long time. I’ve felt myself going dead these last months rather than feel anything that hurts. But I can’t cut off one part of myself without affecting the whole. I can’t keep out pain without keeping out peace.

© 2017 Denise Smyth

On Love and Death

Cindy and I spent New Year’s Eve at her house, watching almost all of season two of “Transparent.” At 11:53 she put the TV on one of the channels that was broadcasting the ball dropping from Times Square. We were treated to the sight of – hundreds? thousands? – of people crushed together in the closed-to-traffic streets, some of whom had gotten there at 8am that morning. On top of one of the buildings in the area, the host of a news show was bleating excitedly about the ringing in of the new year. He was accompanied by several people I assume were in the entertainment industry, none of whom I recognized. Once the ball dropped, the host asked them about their take on things. Some of the responses were, “Uh, I don’t know what to say,” “It’s surreal,” “Um, I don’t know what to say,” “Unbelievable,” and “I really don’t know what to say.” The most thoughtful of them added, “It’s a chance to wipe the slate clean!”

I will never understand what drives people to stand outside in the cold for hours and hours to watch 30 seconds of a ball dropping. I will never understand why anyone would solicit opinions from a bunch of entertainers who can’t speak unless they’re scripted, and why anyone else would care what they have to say. I don’t even understand the big deal about one year passing into another, although it seems to make a great excuse for excessive drinking.

This was a bad year, a coworker said. I hope the new one will be better.

Philip died in 2012. But I do not consider that a “bad year.” The second worst thing that could happen, happened (because I have a daughter, and losing both my children is the first worst). I do count time in that way – Philip will be dead four years next month. But I can’t label swatches of time. That’s a way of holding on to pain. Even when reminiscing about “good times,” the implication is that the current time is worse and so that is also holding on to pain.

There is a freedom in not reminiscing. In not projecting. In not thinking and dwelling about a past that can’t be changed or a future that never comes. I remember Thanksgiving at Cindy’s – I had fun. I didn’t think of Philip during dinner, dessert or the endless rounds of Catchphrase played afterward. Later that night, I did. There was a flicker of guilt until I also remembered that’s what Philip wants. I know that because in life he wanted me happy and his death doesn’t change that.

When Philip first died, Phil said to me Philip would want me to be happy. “How do you know what he wants?” I snapped. “Maybe he’s lonely – maybe he’d rather me be with him.” I understand things differently now. To” be with him” has nothing to do with my body or his body. He’s with me always, teaching me love and peace even as at times his death renders me breathless. It’s the way I love him that doesn’t allow me to experience his death the way I first did – as terrifying nothingness, as proof of random viciousness and meaninglessness. Not so – death is not a punishment nor an attack. It is a fact and I cannot interpret it only as grievous without also making my love for him and joy in him meaningless. Because his death takes away neither of those things. What then is death, and what is love?

I can’t pretend to answer either of those questions but I spend a lot of time thinking about them. “I’m trying to teach you what death isn’t,” Philip told me. Because to do otherwise is to give it a reality it doesn’t have. The shock of it when we lose a loved one can’t be denied. But the love that remains long after the body has disappeared also can’t be denied and is as real and palpable as ever. Philip continues to reach out to me through both sight and vision – the difference being sight is what my eyes see, and vision what my heart knows.

As far as love – I’m starting to think that love in this world is impossible without ambivalence, and so, then, is it really love? is what we call love merely believing that the desired other is someone who can meet our needs? How else to explain the deep and unending difficulties we have in maintaining relationships? To explain how we meet that other, pledge to spend our lives with that other, only to be disappointed and disenchanted as the years roll by? How, exactly, does that “love” we feel for that other turn into hatred, as it so often does? Was it, then, really love?

I question whether I have ever truly loved anyone. The closest I have come is what I feel for my children, particularly Philip. And I do not mean that I “love” Philip more than Natalie. It’s not only about what I feel for, but what I feel from, and in feeling Philip’s love I’m learning about my own ability to love. Philip’s loss of body is also loss of ego. I define ego as that part of us which is grasping, clinging, angry, greedy, fearful – that which interferes with the peace that lies deep and often buried, interferes with our ability to love. Philip’s is a voice of patience and kindness. Mine is not, at least not as much as I’d like it to be. My experience of Philip shows me how I fall short with Natalie. Egos colliding is not a pretty sight. It is only when I can let Natalie be, when I’m not pissed because she left a dish in the sink or shut herself in her room for too long, that I experience something akin to the peace of love.

Relationships are not here to make us happy. They are here to teach. And if we learn our lessons well, happiness is certainly possible. I am not happy that Philip’s died, but I recognize our relationship is about something beyond what I thought it was when he was alive. I have chosen to try to learn what he’s teaching me instead of making my life a bloody hell because of his death. Which isn’t to say I don’t wish he was here – I miss his touch, his voice, his laugh. But I do not miss his comfort because I still have it.  “Mom, you have to find the joy,” he said. He’s trying so hard to help me – I owe it to him to try as hard as well.

© 2016 Denise Smyth

For a Reason?

“Acceptance of the unacceptable is the greatest source of grace in this world.”
                        Eckhart Tolle

When Philip died, it didn’t occur to me to follow anyone’s prescription about how to grieve. The same when I was pregnant – I admit to buying “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” but I only read a couple chapters. I had already done some serious research on giving birth, including interviewing midwives and doctors. WTEWYE seemed to skim the surface. I wanted to understand the process of giving birth because I’d decided to have my babies at home. Death and birth need be aided by others, but the hospital doesn’t seem the place for either. I am grateful for the medical community, but it often interferes when it should simply facilitate. Death and birth are as intensely personal as they are widely universal. The question before me was, How do I want to do this?

Back then, I couldn’t exactly say why I wanted to home birth, except it felt right and authentic. Through giving birth I was learning to trust the body that I’d been waging war with for years. I was sad and moody even as a kid and I took it out on my body. As if my body was the problem. Bodies are not the problem. Bodies are tools – while we are in them, they are expressions of life. They are the receptors through which we feel and experience. But to blame my body for what I was feeling was akin to blaming my pen for my inability to write when it ran out of ink.

I grew up in rage and depression at what I couldn’t articulate but now understand was a lack of love and compassion. And what can a child do with rage and depression? Certainly not reason about it. My particular way was to drink. Which I started to do when I was 11. Pot and pills followed soon after, then bulimia in my early 20s. All in a rage against my body because it was making me feel. And when getting high didn’t work, I tried a serious but flawed attempt to kill myself. That I didn’t succeed was not a moment of revelation. It was a defeat because I knew I wouldn’t try it again – I wasn’t about to become a joke, someone whose version of a cry for help was inventing new and futile ways to kill herself. I failed. I was embarrassed and beaten.

So I went to therapy, stopped drinking. Eventually tried to deal with the bulimia, something that proved a far harder challenge than drugs and alcohol. I could grasp the concept of not taking the first drink. What was the formula for an eating disorder? Don’t take the first compulsive bite? Exactly which one was that? Sometimes, in my confusion, I’d opt for eliminating all all bites and I’d go days without eating.

But the body, restored to its rightful place, is a point of power. It’s where we access the richness of our inner life. It’s where we learn what true connection means and how it goes beyond the point of physical. Philip did not start as a body – he started as a longing. I wanted a child and so was graced with him. His birth was a continuation of the relationship I’d begun to form with him when I recognized that I wanted him. And grievous as his death is, we are still in relationship. It is hampered only by my inability to get my body out of my way.

To go to a hospital to give birth would be to give away the inherent power of my body. Women have been taught that we can’t trust our bodies, that our bodies cannot function as they are meant to. That somehow our prodding, probing and technology know better than we, ourselves, can know. That the pain of childbirth has no value and that we are unable to bear what women have borne always. We have been separated from our natural functions.

Like menstruating. There came a point as a young woman where I began to wonder where women’s disgust of their periods came from. Fertility is a power. Much as I wasn’t sure I wanted to have children, the idea that I had the power to do so made me feel sorry for men and what they would never know. My body could give life. I was part of the mystery. And much as I spent decades wishing I was dead, which really meant I wished I could stop feeling the terrible things I felt, some part of me recognized the sanctity of being able to give birth.

In the spirit of beginning to respect what my body could do, I stopped using “sanitary” napkins  – was my blood dirty? I bought cloth menstrual pads which I washed myself, watching the blood run over my hands as I rinsed my cloths before putting them in my “moon bowl,” where they sat until I washed them. I loved having my period. It was the mark of my fertility, and it is through that fertility that I came to know the two who I love best in this world.

And birth control. In my early twenties, I briefly went on the pill. Like everyone else I knew, I wanted the freedom to fuck. But something felt wrong about manipulating my cycle so I went off it.  Any method of birth control that I could use involved pills, diaphragms, iuds – all too invasive. I didn’t trust my understanding of my cycle enough to risk what was then called “the rhythm method” – so it was up to my partner and a condom.

When Philip died I ran to no manual about grief. By that point I’d stopped looking for something outside myself to tell me how to feel, to tell me what I was supposed to “do” to be happy. I was not in control of my feelings, but I could figure out how to handle them, and what I’d figured out and written about here countless times is that my credo became, Accept it, leave it, or change it. What else could ever be done, in any situation? The simple answer was also the most profound. Thing is, leaving or changing a situation might be difficult but felt doable. But “accept?” Years of hearing AA’s platitudes about acceptance made me bristle to even hear the word. I thought it mean lying in the road and letting a mac truck roll over me. And since all anything can ever mean is the meaning I give it, I couldn’t “accept” because I couldn’t understand.

What brought this all to mind is something I read on the internet, something, as one blogger wrote, “is making the rounds.” It had to do with the notion that everything happens for a reason, and the grieving author’s anger at people who spout that platitude. And I do understand that anger – what is such a trite expression in the face of losing a child? Is that supposed to comfort? What reason could anyone possibly come up with that would make this okay?

But then I got the idea that here we are again – angry, and doing with grief what the world does with everything: it’s us against them. The victims that have been forced to grief and the enemies who want to look away. It’s exhausting. This anger perpetuates grief, even as it feels good to have somewhere to direct our anger besides the seeming randomness of the universe.

We are all going to die. The timing is not up to us. Since death is as birth is, how do we live with it?

People are frightened. People spend lifetimes avoiding death even though they are always creeping toward it. People don’t know what to say when it comes anywhere near them. If someone says, “Everything happens for a reason” it simply means they don’t understand. It’s not you they’re trying to reason with, it’s themselves. So why would I insist people have to be what I want them to be, say what I want them to say? Yet how that stings when we feel we are being strangled by our grief, how that cuts us off when what we need is love and connection. There is no loneliness like the loneliness that comes from losing someone beloved.

Maybe it’s easy for me to look at this because I haven’t anyone who’s said anything like that to me. I’ve been told to “move on” which of course isn’t possible – but it was said in the spirit of kindness and that is what matters. The worst thing anyone said to me that first year was, “Uh, here we go” when I brought up Philip’s death in what I thought was the right context. I was both incredulous and angry for a long time after. Now, what matter? What people say tells you much about them, but nothing about you. People speak from fear, from anger, from ignorance –  we all do it and we don’t realize it. And when people continue to say hurtful things it is good and right to absent them from our lives. Sometimes we can’t, and so we have to draw a line in their condition. But sometimes we don’t, because sometimes we just want someone to target.

Last week I was alone in my office. In walked a client to pick up some paperwork. Noticing the picture of Philip on my desk, he asked with a smile, “Is that your son?” It is, said. And then I told him he died. “I am so sorry,” he answered; and he stayed and talked with me for a while. He listened to what I had to say. He has children of his own, and at one point his eyes teared up. That’s what we want, isn’t it? People to let us speak of the unspeakable, to be unafraid to hear what we’re saying.

Whether or not you think everything happens for a reason – the point is everything that happens, happens. It’s not about reason, but about meaning. Searching for a reason perpetuates grief because there is no satisfactory reason. The only meaning can come from what we make it to be. Loss is. To live in a body is to experience loss, in all its forms. No one escapes grief, no one escapes death. It’s not personal and it’s not done “to” us. It happens. And when it does, it changes us forever. We live with it every day, and we have choice how to do so. Not at first – depending on who we are, not for a long time. I lived underwater so long after Philip died, I don’t know how I didn’t suffocate. Searching for reasons would not have helped – the opposite, in fact, because asking why is an impossible question, designed to distract and thus prolong the worst aspects of our grief. There is never an acceptable answer. Death is its own reason.

Rather than looking for reasons, I ask myself how I can live with what is to me both a tragedy and a blessing. Philip is dead. I will one day join him, and when I do it will seem like life went by quickly. But since I’m here, how is it I want to be in the world? How do I walk with an open heart as I long to do? How do I stop hiding myself away because there’s something nagging at me that I won’t face – it’s an ancient darkness I carry and it’s going to take some strength to lay it down.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Let It Go

Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
go,
to let it go.

                           –Mary Oliver

Let it go. Not Philip – that isn’t possible, even if I wanted it so. Just let go the rage, the grief, the despair, the emotional flailing because my child has died. My child has died. The most shocking words I have ever said.

The way I better understand this is to say, “no resistance.” “Let it go” sounds like make it go away, make these things we think we owe our dead disappear. That’s not what it means. To not resist is to let it be. Let the grief be. I’ve reached a point where I can think about what that means. Grief isn’t going to go away, nor is anger. When I resist them, it’s like holding on to fiery coals and what happens to hands that cling to fire? They burn. And they burn. And then they burn some more. They won’t stop burning until the hands begin to loosen. The fire doesn’t go away. But the hands, while still hurt, begin to heal, even as they remain forever scarred.

The source of salvation in this world is letting go. To stop resisting what is. I’ve spent my life looking for an answer when it was there in front of me all the time. Salvation comes not from without, but within. It took Philip’s death to catapult me into this wisdom that I was dancing around with before he died.

Letting go is work. It’s not something done once, but once you really do it, there’s no turning back. You forever know the grace of letting go, you know what it feels like, you know it’s a decision in your power to make. When Philip died I said a cosmic fuck you. I didn’t want to know what was then my credo: Accept it, leave it, or change it. The only workable alternative was impossible. Accept it? In my hellish grief, I misunderstood what that meant. Accept it didn’t mean it was okay. It meant grieving but not fighting. It is possible to grieve without fighting. That doesn’t mean I don’t love Philip. And in letting go of the fight, I am free to live in his love.

The month before Philip died I was debating whether to take a Shakespeare class at the local adult school. While I love Shakespeare, it’s difficult to read on my own. It’s in class that the work comes alive. I was ambivalent, and as Philip told me, ambivalence is not nothing. For a month I carried the brochure around, longing but stopping. Until I finally decided to stop stopping and went online to register. The class was full, the fact of which knocked me off my feet and sent me spinning into some fantastical universe. The chattering in my head was unbearable until I finally listened to what that voice was saying:  You’re not good enough, you’re not smart enough, this is Montclair for God’s sake, filled with intellectuals, did you really think they’d let you into their club??

Notice that the voice was saying “you,” not “I.”  What, who, was this voice that drove me into such darkness, such hatred? It didn’t matter. All that mattered was I got it. The only reason I didn’t get into that class was because it took me a month to make a decision. It wasn’t personal. It wasn’t about me. The class was filled. Period.

I let it go –  I took a big, deep breath and let it go. The knot in my stomach didn’t go away, the ground didn’t immediately return to steady me, but there was space around all of I. I saw it was my thoughts that created my reality. I was excited. This was the work and I was doing it. So simple, so profound. And it didn’t mean I wouldn’t come up against something like this again, it just meant I could choose not to get caught in it.

So I looked at the brochure and took note of the date class started. Monday, February 27th. Let me see what I’ll be doing on that day, I thought. Maybe something better will come along.

I couldn’t know that what I’d be doing was giving my son’s eulogy.

Heaven and hell converged that night, and for a long time hell won. Philip’s words to me were never forgotten: Mom, you gotta go deeper. I knew he was right. I didn’t care. He was dead and that’s all that mattered. What I refused to realize was that the greatest teaching in this world would come from from his death. Of course I couldn’t realize – death consumes, strangles, destroys everything in its wake. But it is not for nothing that the phoenix rose from the ashes, its youth renewed, ready for another cycle.

I’m trying to teach you what death isn’t, Philip told me. It isn’t the end – there is no “end.” Not to what matters. Bodies are temporary. Death is change. Change is always uncomfortable because it’s the death of what was. I’m looking for the courage to jump into the void of change. I know what it feels like. I’ve done it. It’s what to do with Philip’s death. Holding my grief is not going to bring him back. Letting it go isn’t a betrayal. And yes, it leaves me vulnerable. To pain as well as to love. But still there’s that knot, past pain tangled up with Philip’s death and I am yet scared to really let go. To fully embrace my son exactly as he is. Still there’s something so terrible about him dying, and something that feels familiar about this sorrow.

At the end of Philip’s eulogy I asked, “Can I love this child of mine without attachment?” In other words, can I love him and not cling to my wretched grief? Even then I knew letting go was the answer, much as it was impossible to do so. Now I do it in bits and pieces as I hold him close to my heart. Because holding onto him feels better than those fiery coals.

© 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

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

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