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

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When We Connect (Part 3)

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

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 When I called, Max was withdrawn, hesitant.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

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

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

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

Or maybe I’m just too afraid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And next time I’ll be reckoning with it.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Those Next Days…

If you tell me that I have to move on from grief, that I have a life to live, that I can choose to stop feeling this as if grief has no value unless I kick its ass, I’ll stop listening because all you’re telling me is you don’t get it. You’re telling me you don’t know what else to say and if you say it nicely, I appreciate the gesture; if you say it impatiently I think that maybe you’re the one who can’t deal with it.  What’s it mean to think you can’t both grieve and live? No one moves on from grief. It’s part of you, like an arm or a leg. You don’t get cured, you get different. You’re forced to live more deeply – it’s either that, or go nutty. But as life is in constant motion and change, so is grief.

There was a time grief was loud and screeching; it chewed me up, then spit me out so it could chew me up all over again. Prometheus, bound. It made the world spin too fast for me to get my footing. So I sat on my couch, month after month, and let it do what it would. But sometime between then and now I stopped resisting it. That didn’t make it go away, but it did allow me to get to know it. Pain is terribly enhanced when we resist it – we might think we’re pushing it away, but since it’s immovable all we’re doing is letting it drain our attention and energy. I didn’t know that, then. Why talk of “not resisting?” I was that grief. Until time came when I felt more. Like love for Philip and love for Natalie. Take that love and add a bit of time, and what came to be was a grief that was more a partner than a bloodsucker.

I don’t learn the things I need to learn the easy way. That’s not how it works. I no longer hold on to grief, I commune with it. It’s hard. It hurts. It still grabs me when I’m not paying attention, still brings me to tears of a sudden. It still makes my gut raw and throbbing – and it keeps me vulnerable enough not only to hurt, but to feel the deep love in my life. For that, I am grateful. So I don’t run from it or pretend I can turn it off because I will cut off no part of myself that feels. Whatever it is.

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Philip died snorting heroin. And what I found out later was he wasn’t alone. He was in his room with G, the kid who lived in the bedroom upstairs, the kid who left him there. I don’t know at what point, dead or alive. What I do know is that one year later G. himself died from an overdose.

Those days afterward – how did I survive them? How was I able to move around, to take care of things, to fall asleep? A couple days after the wake, Phil, Natalie and I had to go to Philip’s room to get his things. He lived in a house in New Brunswick near Rutgers with Max  and some other kids. And he spent a lot of time at his friend Austin’s house. Austin was urging Philip away from drugs and the tweakers he was hanging out with. And Philip was listening – he’d signed a lease and was supposed to move out at the end of the month. At the wake, Austin asked me if I wanted him to go straighten out Philip’s room. I knew the kind of mess Philip lived in. “Please,” I answered, “just don’t throw anything out.” I needed to get in and out of that bedroom quick as I could. No tears, no lingering – that was the room where he died. If I wanted to curl up with him around me I’d go to the bedroom he grew up in. The one with the rocket ship and stars that I painted on his closet door, with the plaid curtains and lampshade I made for him. The furniture I found at an estate sale, and the perfect hooked rug that was a steal at Marshall’s. I could crawl under his red denim comforter, stained with blood from the uncontrollable nose bleeds he had when he was growing up. And I’d hug his little dinosaur blanket, the one I made for him for his kindergarten nap time.

The night before I was supposed to go to Philip’s, I got a call from a furious Austin. “They robbed him. They actually went in his room and they robbed him. They took his stuff – his phone, his laptop, his Xbox. Everything was all over the place. I can’t believe they robbed him.”

A sponge can get so saturated that it can’t hold any more. The water washes right through while the sponge sits there, heavy and laden. I heard what Austin said. I understood what he meant. I knew I should be outraged. Instead I was numb, speechless. I told Austin we would be there next day and asked if he’d come meet us.

I didn’t know the kids Philip lived with. I knew Max, I knew of J., eventually came to know of G. I knew that right after Philip died, they cleared out of the house. At least for a while. J. had gone back to get something, saw a window had been broken, went into the house and saw Philip’s room had been robbed. No one else’s, just Philip’s. I spoke to J about it. “We all keep our rooms locked,” he said. “Philip’s was the only one that was open.”

Uh-huh. Like someone didn’t know Philip died, like someone didn’t use this as an opportunity. This sounds like I should be furious. I am not. At first I mourned the loss of his laptop. He’d been writing poetry and I wanted to read it. Philip was gone and they took another piece of him. Thing is, what kind of person does that? What kind of way is that to live? I hadn’t the capacity for anger, and so saw it differently than I might have. Nothing they took meant anything. So I didn’t have the poems – I still had my son. Who am I to condemn them? To live a life of preying on people is its own hell. You can’t get away with anything because life doesn’t work that way. Some people don’t get that until it’s too late. If I’m angry at these kids, I turn the situation into a drama and get sidetracked from what’s real about life  They are dreams, these dramas. And either I wake up now or death’ll come and do it for me.

Austin had straightened up Philip’s room again, but what I saw when I got there was a blur. I just wanted to hurry up and get rid of stuff before I started crazy screaming. I left his old bureau, got rid of a lot of his clothes (he had plenty more at home), grabbed any notebook he’d written in, took the Kindle Fire the thieves had missed. Took his sword and fencing helmets. His leather jacket and the parka I’d bought him for Christmas. But not his boots, his old, beat-up square-toed and very cool boots that were molded into the shape of his feet. Austin had been with him when he bought them, and he asked if he could have them. With love and gratitude I handed them over.

Funny how the thing that bothers me most is that I didn’t take his plaid flannel boxers. I could’ve worn them for pajamas, hung out at home in them. I could’ve cut them up and worked them into a quilt. The woman who taught me quilting had made a beautiful quilt from her boyfriend’s boxers. The odd and beautiful things that people make when inspired by love. I suppose you can make an an odd and beautiful life that way, too. Something to think about, for sure.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Who I Am Not (Part 2 – The Reunion)

I thought about continuing Part Two from my last post without mentioning Christmas. Something seemed wrong with that…but I didn’t – still don’t – know what to say. This has been the oddest Christmas since Philip died. Including the fact that I don’t know what to say, because when it comes to how I feel about Philip, I am never at a loss as to what to say.

I love Christmas. I love it because the focus is on family and loved ones, because I get to give gifts, because the streets are lit up and people say “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays.” There was a time I would’ve snarled because how the fuck am I supposed to have a Merry or a Happy with Philip dead? But now I see it’s not personal – those are expressions of love and good will, and I will take all the tenderness that’s given me.

But this year was disjointed, pieces here and there, without a narrative. I have been reluctant. And removed. I look at Philip and I don’t know what I feel. There’s something I won’t touch here. I’m detached, but not because I chose to be. Detaching with love works. This is not that. This is the relentless march of life and at times there are things it requires of me – for Christmas, it required buying, wrapping, cookies, cake, chocolate mousse. It required spending time with Cindy, it required Christmas Eve at my brother’s. It required my tree, small and sparkly and which I kept lit – mostly -24/7.

I liked being at my brother’s and I liked being at Cindy’s and I loved giving my gifts. But getting there with all that doing – I hadn’t the heart. So what so what so what, I said? That did not help. Philip is not coming home for Christmas. Or anything else. I am not done being afraid. But I was numb. I was unable to feel what it felt like not to have Philip with me on Christmas. Who can I tell? I’m not ready to talk about it.

Peace, then, to all of you. If you’re suffering and that seems impossible, I wish it for you anyway. May it help you to believe that I believe.

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But this post is part two, The Reunion. For the last ten years, my classmates from  Junior High have been getting together annually, along with our homeroom teacher, Mr. M. This I discovered when one of them, Jo Ann, found me on Facebook. Everyone’s been looking for you, she said. Who is everyone, and why were they looking for me? I have a hard time thinking anyone would remember me, much less care to see me. I remember that time as the start of my rebel years. I was already drinking, smoking and taking drugs. I had a boyfriend and I had sex. I was too cool for the smart kids in my class, but not cool enough for the badasses I wanted to hang around with. I had it coming at me both ways. I belonged nowhere.

I decided to go, which for me was a walk on the wild side. My first reaction to any invitation is no thank you. Especially an invitation I considered dangerous: facing an unhappy past with people I couldn’t possibly know any longer, who I hardly remember knowing when I was actually in class with them. What if they thought about me the way I thought about me? Unhappy, distant, angry. By all accounts, I’m aging well, so the way I look was one less thing to worry about. And at that point, it was the one thing I brought to the table. I mean, if they didn’t like me, at least they wouldn’t say what the hell happened to her?? when they saw me.

But the fun of going was that no one, other than Jo Ann and Mr. M., knew I was going to be there. I arrived before most, and as people walked in, they tried to guess who I was. What shock and joy on their faces when they realized it was me. And I wondered why, all those years ago, I held myself back from them. Because it was more important to stand alone than be part of. I thought that was power. All it really was was lonely.

Reunions are perception shifters. You not only see your classmates differently, what you think you are is also shaken up. The biggest shock to me was that people liked me. They didn’t see the addict, the miserable girl, the condescending bitch I thought I was. “You were nice,” someone said to me, and while I once said “nice” is the laziest word in the English language because it tells you nothing, I was grateful that I was remembered as other than bitch.

The evening was a mix of past confusing present, and never more so than when Mr. M. reminded people that I had been Arista Leader. Artista was an honor society, and every year the boy and girl with the highest academic achievements were chosen as leaders. I’d forgotten, like I’d forgotten so much of what I achieved before I got to high school and determined to be mediocre. In sixth grade, I was Valedictorian. There was year I scored the highest in the district in the City-Wides in math, and the year when I scored so high in reading, my teacher refused to tell me my grade until she could figure out a grand way of announcing it.

But being reminded of Arista didn’t make me feel proud. I felt ashamed. We were all in the SP (Special Progress) class, reserved for the smartest of the smart. And my classmates were now doctors, lawyers, nurses, production assistants – and me, an administrative assistant. What had I done? Sure, I had kids – but anybody can have kids. And I couldn’t even keep one of them alive. How’s THAT for an achievement?

So much for not questioning “who I am.” Because that questioning was the conversation going on in my head. Until it got too painful and I started to talk. Turning to the half of the table where Mr. M. sat. I told them how troubled I’d been in Junior High, how I’d already started drinking and taking drugs. No one knew. I told them that life felt difficult for a long time. I talked about Philip, about some of what it felt like living with his death. I did not cry. I was telling my story. I was trying to connect.

Talking tamed the beast, at least for a bit. But not enough to get me to talk to the handsome man at the head of the table, the boy who’d been Arista leader with me. “Don’t you know all the guys were crazy about you?” I’d been asked earlier. No I did not. In Junior High I tensed when someone attracted me and only looked at them when I was sure they weren’t looking at me. They were looking at the pretty girls, the ones who nailed their outfits daily, whose boobs could fill out more than a training bra and whose butts were bumps, not bulges. When it comes to men, that’s the shame I cannot tame.

Shame is exhausting. And sad – so very sad. How much of my life has been lost in shame? How much care and comfort have I rejected because I was so ashamed to need? I thought if I let myself feel how much I needed I’d be swept away screaming, and who would want to come near me then?

I still weep for what I carry, wishing someone would appear and ask if I’m okay. No, I would say. I am not. And the best thing is that when I came from a day where I’ve had to listen to how John’s kid was a varsity golfer, Mary’s kid was accepted into Columbia, and Bob’s kid was auditioning for a Broadway play while my kid’s a bunch of ashes is in various jars around my house , I can say, “Today was hard,” and two strong arms would pull me close. No one can take this grief from me – I don’t want anyone to take it from me. I just want to come home to someone who cares.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

What About Sex?

A couple weeks after I left home and moved into Nadiya’s, I had to stop at my house before I went to work. I’d forgotten some essential article of clothing that God forbid should cause a wardrobe crisis. It was August, 2009. Philip was a freshman on his way to Rutgers, living his last couple of weeks at home. Natalie was 16, and splitting her time between me and Phil. Up the stairs I went to my (former) bedroom, and saw Philip’s bedroom door was open. Philip’s bedroom door was never open when he was asleep. Curious, I stuck my head in to find he was not at all asleep, what with the girl he had in bed with him. He rose up in surprise, half-naked (top half, thank God), and I was all, “Oh-my-God-I-am-so-sorry-I’ll-get-what-I-need-and-get-out-of here.” Back in the car, when I finally stopped laughing my ass off, I sent him some funny text about protecting himself, and ended it with, “And you’d better be good to her or I’ll kick your ass.” I knew he’d show it to her; I didn’t know who she was or what she meant to him, but just in case she was going to be sticking around, I wanted to mitigate the weirdness that was now between us. If she meant something to him, then she meant to me, too.

That night Philip and I were meeting for dinner, and I’d already decided not to bring it up. What was there to say, really? He was 18, and I knew he was responsible. But he brought it up, and I appreciated his candor.

So what about sex? When Philip and Natalie were teenagers, Phil used to tell them not to have sex until they got married. That wasn’t anything I’d ever say, but I didn’t mind him saying it.  Somebody should tell them to wait, I thought, and since I was sixteen the first time I allowed a guy into my sacred space, I wasn’t sure I was the one to do it.

Besides, I didn’t really know what I thought about them having sex. When they were younger, I had the conversation about the mechanics of it – me trying to explain while they tried to squirm away. But what about the heart of it? I didn’t talk to them about that, I didn’t tell them that you wait for someone you care for and who cares for you, someone who’ll not only be there in the morning for breakfast, but will stick around and help clean up. That sex will bring you the hottest and holiest pleasure you’ll have in your life and if you’re going to make yourself vulnerable to someone that way, it had better be someone you trust.

So while Phil did the forbidding, I began to have the other conversations about sex. The kind you have in a moving car. The last such conversation I remember having with Philip was when he was 17 and I realized the bandana he was wearing around his neck was hiding a hickey. He and Natalie laughed when I noticed it and went into my feigned horror-and-surprise mode: “Is that a hickey, oh my God you have a hickey why did you let yourself get a hickey summer hickeys are harder to hide blah blah blah.”

I admit to having had a guilty pleasure at the sight of that mottled blotch. It was an animal pride that my good-looking, 6′ 1” tall son was marked with desire. Desire makes the world go round. It’s biological; if our bodies didn’t meet to fuck, there’d be no little bodies to grow and do the same. Which isn’t what I said to Philip. Later that night we were in the car and he was captive behind the steering wheel.  “Philip,” I said, “we have to talk about sex.” His response was to reach for the radio, mine was to slap his hand away. I told him hickeys were ugly and disrespectful to X (his girlfriend). Why should you wear your business on your neck for everyone to see? What are you telling people about X? He agreed to no more hickeys. “And I want to remind you that sex makes babies, so if you’re having sex you better think about how you’re going to raise the kid.”

Which was my not-so-subtle way of reminding him that abortion is not a form of birth control.

I’ve been wanting to write about this for a while, but wondering why this particular incident, why now? There’s ego involved, for sure. Look at me, I want to say; look at the kind of mom I am. I mean, how cool am I?? My response to finding Philip and a girl in his bed was just me being me. But then I took that response and added it to the list of things that made me a cool mom, like my long streaked hair, skinny jeans and Free People wardrobe. Like the fact that my kids not only loved me, they liked me, were proud of me, had no problem being seen in public with me. And I am embarrassed at the pleasure I took when my daughter announced that the word around school was that I was a MILF. In fact, I’m so embarrassed by my reaction that I’m leaving it as an acronym. If you don’t know what it means, it’s easy enough to find out.

What did I want my kids to see when they looked at me? The important stuff, they knew. They knew I loved them, that I’d happily take Philip to the airport at 5:30 in the morning, then wait for him in the terminal when he got back. That I’d drive Natalie back and forth to Rutgers in New Brunswick as many times as she needed. That being sick always meant pajamas on the couch, fluffy pillows, comfy blankets, lots of fluids, and an indispensable mom who appeared just when the soup was needed, the juice glass was empty or a sweaty head needed some stroking.

But what about physical-me? The last few years of Philip’s life, it got real important that my kids should think I was attractive, that I was sexy and pretty and cool enough for their friends to invite me to hang (they did), and even cooler when, of course, I didn’t. I just wanted to be noticed. I thought if their friends liked me, my kids’d like me more, too.

What’s up with that? Is it so obvious that I don’t see it ‘cause I’m looking a little too deep? What’s up with wanting to be seen as sexy, with wanting Philip to know that’s how I was seen? The “obvious” answer – I’m getting older, I’m afraid  I can’t be desired, I don’t want to be a juice-less hag – that’s all surface. For decades I was uncomfortable in my body whether my clothes were on or off. And if I go down that road now, this post is going to take too long of a  diversion. For now, suffice to say that at 52 I was waking up sexually. For years I was all baggy jeans, shapeless tees and outfits that didn’t seem to work because I dressed around hiding my ass.  But the more I bloomed, the tighter my clothes clung. With some help from a padded bra, my curves were out there for y’all to see.

No small part of this is the yin yang of male/female energy. The longing to be whole, which we can’t be, not in body, and if that’s where we place our longing, we’ll not only get fucked, we’ll be fucked. Because we’ll fuck selfishly, desperately, insatiably – through our hungry mind instead of our open heart. Always feeling that something is missing, often blaming our partner, believing what we’re looking for is about our body and not our being.

That last year of Philip’s life another shift was taking place between us. The night he came over, a year before he died, the night I said, “When they find you dead of an overdose, they’ll blame me,” the shift was palpable. We stood on the third floor landing where I was living, me asking him not to do drugs; him saying he wouldn’t, me knowing I couldn’t protect him from his choices. And so another shrinking of my mother-ness, another growth of his other-ness. Philip needed room to grow and I gave him all.  As paradoxical it sounds, every step back brought us closer.

I wasn’t afraid of these psychic shifts because I trusted what was between Philip and me. He told me we were “growing up together,” and it’s only now I’m beginning to see what he meant. As he became independent so did I, freer than ever of that formerly-unshakable feeling that I couldn’t be happy because there was something wrong with me. And part of what I counted on was his love and support which existed beyond his physical presence. I didn’t have to see him, or even speak to him, to know he was there.

Kinda sorta like what he’s asking me to do now.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

My Secret

I ended my last post with what was to be next. Instead, I digress.

 *******************

 AA says you’re only as sick as your secrets. The light’s supposed to shine away the dark. Because it’s always there, the light. It’s a matter of if you see it.

Secrets are built into addiction. It’s a matter of survival. “Addiction” becomes this thing you are, not this thing you have. It’s a force, and it wants to survive. It’s not supposed to be able to thrive in the light. So where does the light come from? Just from telling the secret? What exactly happens when you say the thing you think you are or think you have? With all the AA I’ve absorbed, you’d think I’d know.

I have bulimia and anorexia. I don’t mean I had bulimia and anorexia. I mean I have bulimia and anorexia. That’s been my response to Philip dying. At first I wouldn’t eat. For months after Philip died I picked at food. I was drained. A bag of bones my clothes hung on. It wasn’t so much a choice; the food wouldn’t go down. Anxiety was a tsunami in my belly. If anything went in, it would have been blown back out.

In the mess of days after Philip died, people wanted to feed me. “Are you hungry? Can I get you something to eat?” they’d ask. I could only shake my head. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t do normal. I couldn’t pay attention to anyone because they weren’t in my world. In my world the only answer was, “I will never eat again; I will starve myself to where my son is.”

David Foster Wallace, himself a sober addict when he died, wrote about benign and malignant addictions. “Many addictions, from exercise to letter-writing, are pretty benign.” He then adds, “…  something is malignantly addictive if (1) it causes real problems for the addict, and (2) it offers itself as relief from the very problems it causes.” And so round and round I go.

I am so damn angry. And I’ve a habit of punishing myself when I suffer loss, which I wrote about here. In the past, it was about The Guy. The one who always turned out to be a jerk, because, of course, it was his fault. All I wanted was to be loved. I lived for these guys, yearned for them, dressed for them, got on my knees for them; why the fuck couldn’t they love my need away? So I’d leave them, depressed and angry, and start the Food Games. Months of barely eating until my body couldn’t take it any more, at which point I went to war with it. Hunger was a betrayal, forcing me to eat when all I wanted to do was die. I’d sneak into delis and grocery stores, head down, walking as close to the shelves as I could, as embarrassed by my hunger as by my cartful of cookies and cupcakes and chips. I’d start eating in the car, and once I was home, tore through that food until I felt like a blimp about to burst. Then into the bathroom to hurl it all back at the universe. And soon as I got hungry again, I did it all over. Buying more food at different stores. At my worst, binging eight or nine times a day. At my worst, all 5’4” of me weighting 98 lbs., and counting down.

It was my mind that drove me crazy, and my body that I punished.

So what happened? At 28, I met my husband and it hit me it was either him, or my crazy. I chose him. I got help. I settled down. I learned how to eat, how to listen to my body. I stabilized at 125 lbs. The more I let myself eat, the less food was an “issue.” I got married, had kids. And to my wonder and surprise, after Philip was born, I lost more than my pregnancy pounds. I weighed in at 118, where I stayed for the next 20 years.

The blow of Philip’s death blasted me into a suffering I was helpless to deal with, so I turned to food. Same pattern – I went from barely eating, to vomiting. Back and forth, back and forth. Down to 102 lbs., obsessed with staying there. Telling no one; not anyone, for longer than I can remember. Until the day I told Kirsten, told Rose, who is sweet and lovely and who I’ve yet – but hope – to meet. Finally, I told my therapist. And most importantly, I told Natalie, because I would never have taken the risk that she’d find this out through a blog instead of directly from me.

I’ve been throwing out weight and height to make a point, to make the picture clear. To make myself see what I am doing, to shake myself into some semblance of caring for myself. Because much as I’m taking the steps to do what’s right, it’s coming from “I have to,” not, “I want to.” The have-to is because of Natalie; I love her enough to understand she needs me right where I am. It’s all for her; I don’t know how I ever let it get to be for me, too.

Here’s where I stand: I have stopped throwing up. I am afraid to eat, even though I do. I do not weigh myself. I am probably somewhere between 110 − 115 lbs. I am told I am too thin. I do not believe that. When I look in the mirror I don’t see what you do.

And I’m exhausted; I’m tired of worrying about food, tired of it always being on my mind, tired of the voices in my head  that don’t even sound like voices, just sound like normal thoughts. Normal? Here’s a sample: “Oh, are you going to eat that for lunch? That’s too heavy. You better not eat breakfast. Eat some grapes and drink some Vitamin Water. Don’t finish what you’re eating. It’s good to leave food on your plate. What are you going to eat for dinner? You ate lunch, after all, you can’t eat too much for dinner. And don’t eat too late. What? You’re eating popcorn at 10:00 at night? I don’t care if it’s fat-free; that’s bad. Very bad. Bad, bad, bad.”

This isn’t the end; it’s just all I can say for now.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

The Reason (Suicide, Part 3)

“I keep one foot out the door, and that’s suicide by increments.”
Rob (played by John Cusack) in “High Fidelity”

And that, right there, is the problem. I’ve a lead foot out the door and I think it’s soldered there. There’s an uncertain fear I live with and don’t care to define. Ed’s done it for me: “You are afraid to live because you think you’ll lose Philip.” But what does it mean to live, I want to ask him; show me how. He’d only shake his head because really, what else could he do? He can’t show me how to live because life isn’t given you by someone else, and if you think it is, it isn’t yours and you’ll wind up resentful, angry and either half-alive or half-dead, depending on the way you look at such things.

I keep thinking that living means having oh-so-many friends and taking fabulous vacations and talking on my cell when when I’m not texting on my cell and Facebooking, Twittering, Instagramming and “connecting” whatever latest way the internet’s figured out how to keep us glued to each other 24/7 because God forbid we should spend too much time considering. Life. Death. Meaning. WTF. It’s exhausting. But that’s not what Ed means by living. He means taking my foot out that door, which has to do with being, not doing. That still gives me only a vague idea of what it means to be in life. And what I see when I come close to sensing what living means is that I’m afraid if I’m not shaming myself, then someone else will do it for me. Somehow, that foot out the door feels like protection.

Hecht writes, “When a person dies, he does wrenching damage to the community.”  And, as Hamlet says of suicide, “ay, there’s the rub.” He’s talking of his uncertainty that death is any kind of end; I’m talking of what happens to those left in the wreckage of a loved one’s suicide, as well as the collective impact. Living carries responsibility with it, which includes taking seriously my effect on other people. I have to tell myself this because I don’t know it. I know I love Philip and I know I love Natalie; what I don’t know is how much I matter to both of them. Nor do I seem to “get” what I mean to other people.

And I think people who kill themselves don’t get what they mean to others. I’ve heard suicide called “selfish.” That’s a cruel, shallow, ignorant and cliched way to describe someone who’s in such devastating pain that it overwhelms consideration of anyone else. For  many, it’s almost like there is no one else because it feels like no one can help and no one really cares, not really. Because it doesn’t penetrate. Because  when you look around it seems like everyone else’s figured out this thing called life while I’m some solitary freak who can’t even find any other solitary freaks to commiserate with. I mean, what is it that keeps people wanting to live? It’s got to be love, doesn’t it? For people, for art, for work that is satisfying; for nature and its mysteries. That feeling of aliveness where you’re engaged in what you’re doing or who you’re with and there you are, being.  But what if you can’t feel anything but the lack of it all, the “Why?” that has no answer?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but my experience can’t be unique. I’ve wanted to die because I couldn’t feel love from anyone out there. I mean, I could feel love toward certain people – most deeply and particularly my children – but it didn’t feel reciprocal. When they were little, in my worst moments I would tell myself that I would kill myself when Natalie turned 16, because by then she wouldn’t need me any more.  She’d be well on her way (where the hell did I think she was going?), I’d be one more thing out of her way. Dead mom? Blip in the road, a stumble with quick recovery, then back to it like I wasn’t really there in the first place.

I believed this.

“We are all members of society,” Hecht writes, “and these connections are to be honored.” She says suicide creates more suicide. So I think about this. I think about the way Philip died – it was an accident. And I think of what I went through when I first learned of it, what I’m going through now. I was tortured; it didn’t matter that there wasn’t anything I could’ve done. I’m his mother – I was supposed to protect him. I was sick at the thought that there was a moment when he knew he was going to die, and he was alone and terrified but he had to let go. No way, I’m told; because of the heroin he went out in a blaze of bliss. I’m not so sure, but there isn’t anything I can do about it.

But as devastating as Philip’s death is, what if he’d chosen to killed himself? The things I hold on to are that he was a happy kid, that we were close, that there wasn’t anything unsaid between us. That I’ve nothing to feel guilty about unless I choose to make it so. But look at what his dying has done to me, to his father, to his sister – to all who knew him. The shocking, mindless blow of it. Do I think my own death would be any less shattering? What worse thing for Natalie than to live with a mother who’s not only dead, but dead by her own hand? So she not only gets to suffer my death, she gets to spend her life wondering why she wasn’t enough for me to live for.

And if I would do such a thing, in what meaningful way would I have loved her?

A few months ago, in my bathroom, I got a pain in my chest. It wasn’t about my heart – more like indigestion. But it caused me to bend over, and I closed my eyes, and made believe it was my heart. I might be dying, I thought. My heart might be shutting down and I might just keel over and Natalie’s upstairs, my God Natalie’s upstairs, I can’t leave her now, she’ll freak. She needs me to stay with her – I don’t want to leave her. So there was a crack in the atmosphere and I got it…but where’d it go? Do people live in full knowledge that they matter, they very much matter, to those who love them?

And so I have reason to Stay. But I’m missing the part about wanting to. I’m more attached to Philip’s death than Natalie’s life.

Next: What Philip says about that.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

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