Stay (Suicide, Part One)

No, I’m not going to kill myself. But I’ve been preoccupied with being dead, and since the inner eventually becomes the outer, all things suicide have been coming my way.

Natalie bought me a book about suicide for Christmas. “Stay,” by Jennifer Michael Hecht. I find the title wrenching. “Dad asked me if I bought it because I was worried you’re thinking about killing yourself,” she said. “I told him no, it’s just I know you’re interested in suicide.”

My therapist is concerned. So I asked Natalie, who, after getting annoyed about the whole thing, pointed out that she knows I once tried to kill myself and hence, my interest; that she heard about the book on NPR, which gave her the idea to buy it; that if I was going to kill myself I would have already done so, since I’ve gone through the worst thing in my life so far; and that anyway, I wouldn’t do that to her. And no, I wouldn’t.

But she’s the thread I’m hanging from. I have enough sanity to see she’s a reason not to die. But it feels impossible I’ll ever get to the part about wanting to live. Or maybe I don’t think about that for the next few-whatever. Maybe I first get through Philip’s birthday on January 20th, then February 23rd when it’ll be two years since he died. Because if I’ve learned nothing else these last two months, it’s that this year-two stuff is pretty sickening. Year one’s unreality has been replaced by year two’s finality, and where’s there to go from here?

I get a daily poem from The Writer’s Almanac, which, by the way, is connected to NPR. 95% of the time I don’t read them. But one day last week, I got two emails from the Almanac, the second one correcting the first. Maybe I should read it, I thought; maybe that poem’s trying to get my attention. It was a poem about suicide. I mentioned it to Natalie because of the book she’d given me, and she said maybe it was the same author. So I checked, and sure enough, it was.

And if that’s not enough suicide-stuff, a couple weeks ago, I got a link to a blog post about suicide. The blogger – who I think had once felt suicidal and is now really happy to be alive – decided that those who kill themselves are selfish and cowardly. I don’t argue online – I don’t usually have the energy or self-righteousness for it. But this closed-minded, cliched version of What Kind of People kill themselves incensed me enough to let the blogger know exactly what I thought, which included the fact that many who’d read the post were the ones who’d lived through a loved one’s suicide, and what kind of burden does that add to a load that’s already broken a whole bunch of people to pieces? (And the end of that story was instead of getting flipped-off, the blogger read my entire blog and left a lovely comment. Who knew??)

Since Philip died, I’ve come across people whose loved ones have killed themselves, and I don’t pretend to know what kind of hell it is to live with that. Especially if it’s your child – what ginormous excess of grief must that create? Suicide has nothing to do with the people who love you. It has to do with unfathomable loneliness, other-ness, not belonging, not seeing, not getting why you’re alive if this is what it feels; if all/most of the time, this is what it feels like. And screw feelings-aren’t-facts. Feelings are the world if that’s what you let them be.

My secret mantra has yet again become, “This won’t last forever because I will die.” Not exactly suicide, but a way of becoming one of the walking dead. I already wrote about what Philip said to me about suicide here. And I promised him I’d stop wishing myself dead. But lately, I’m not hearing anything but the battering between my ears, and I don’t know what it is I’m trying to accomplish with my little mantra. Maybe I think it’ll bring a natural death faster, and no one will blame me if that’s how I go.

I become unreachable when I’m lusting for death, which I’ve long considered the only way “out.” When I finally figured out that if I thought death was the answer, I was asking the wrong question, Philip died. And even though I remind myself that death remains the wrong answer, these last few weeks I’ve given up and given in and I see no way through. I’m not in touch with anything inside me that knows how to live, much less wants to. It seems wrong and unnatural, but life’s never much felt like a home I belonged in.

For whatever the reason, I was miserable and angry about life since I was a kid. When I turned 11, I decided the way out was to drink. By 14, I added pot to the mix. By 22, I had bulimia. For years I turned the rage I felt but never understood into a scathing diatribe against myself. I swore God took special pleasure in my unhappiness or else He’d make it go away.

When I was 21, I sat in my parents’ bathtub at 4:00 in the morning while they were away for the weekend, drinking and hacking away at my wrists with a razor blade. I thought I was making progress when the blood started spraying, but that’s when I heard the phone ringing. I guess I wanted to live more than I wanted to die because I answered it. It was my soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, Chris. Earlier that night, I’d left him at a party, drunk and angry that he hadn’t given me any of the Quaaludes he’d already passed out from taking. What he later told me was that he’d woken up out of his stupor and knew something was wrong when he couldn’t find me. He came over and wanted to take me to the emergency room. I refused, so he wrapped a towel around my wrist and went to a 24-hour drugstore for some butterfly bandages. When he was done patching me up, I sat in the bathroom watching him clean the blood from the walls around the tub.  On his knees, he tossed his long Jesus-hair back over his shoulders and never said a word while he worked. I longed to lay my head on his long, narrow back while he rinsed that bloody rag. I wanted him to love me as much as he wanted to save me, but when he stood and turned to me he was the Chris I knew again, his ever-increasing remoteness further justified.

After that, I went to therapy. I still didn’t want to live, but I was embarrassed by my failed attempt and by what I considered my cowardliness because I knew I wouldn’t do it again. By 24 I went to AA and I stopped drinking. By 30, I married Phil, which went a long way toward stabilizing my violent moodiness. I relied on his steadiness, but it offered no insight into how to build a life that I could enjoy. I’d stopped drinking and vomiting and had even given God a shot, but I wasn’t happy. I was living in a long, gray corridor called depression.  Wanting to die was my default position, the only way to permanently right what was wrong. I got it together for everyone else; I loved my kids and took care of my family, but the life I was living didn’t seem to include me.  I was bored staying home with the kids, unhappy being married, despondent because I had no career, resentful that being a wife meant having sex when the only touch I didn’t object to was that of my children. I was waiting my life out. I thought about swallowing pills but had no idea how to get them. Sleep was the only peace I knew, and the nights I was particularly despondent I’d crawl under the covers, pull them up to my chin and curl up to say my adult version of the prayer my mother taught me as a kid:

Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
I  pray to die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

But the Lord wasn’t listening, so I kept a package of razorblades in my kitchen drawer. I might’ve been too scared to use them, but they were my version of hope.

Next: Suicide, Part Two

© 2014 Denise Smyth

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WTF?

Fuck art. It’s time for a rant, because really, I’m exhausted. Not for lack of sleep. For my mind tripping over my broken heart to figure this out or make meaning or whatever the hell it is my mind is trying to do while it’s continually screaming Philip is dead Philip is dead Philip is dead dead dead.

WTF? What’s today? I don’t know but it’s the Aftermath. The Christmas quiet which I used to wind down with my family, wrappings gone, bows saved, boxes still under the tree like we could open our presents all over again. My family, of which 1/4  is dead, 1/4 I’m separated from, and 1/4 is beginning to leave on her life’s adventure. And I am paralyzed because there’s nothing in me to be adventurous, there’s nothing in me that wants to go out and do anything. WTF kind of life is this? I can’t carry Philip’s death. It’s too goddamn heavy and I don’t know what to do. I miss him, I goddamn miss him. What does anyone do? What do you say to yourself, what do you do with your time when you’re suffering? I wrote a post called “What I do” about that, but there’s more. There’s food, there’s not eating, or eating and vomiting, and torturing myself that I’m going to get fat and fretting about it all the time and for shit’s sake I’m 55 and I’ve got adolescent eating problems. I am exhausted.

Somebody told me that Joseph Campbell said – big paraphrase coming here – that it’s not meaning that people are searching for, it’s the feeling of being alive. WTF? So I’m doing it wrong again? I thought I was trying to make some damn meaning out of all of this and be on my merry way to some peace, which is another idea I have the way I had an idea about forgiveness. Because I keep thinking I want peace which, in my idea, feels not like life but like tolerance of life, which is feeling very fucking empty right about now. Is that what I really want? A life that’s “tolerable?” Any wonder why I’m waiting to die? Why do people want to live, I asked my therapist? What’s with the wanting?

Why do you want Philip to live, she shot back? Which brings up a whole shitstorm of questions like, WTF is life, really; what is it when I can hear my son and read his signs and feel his nudges which would mean (there’s that word again) that life can’t possibly be about a body so it must more be about connection.

There it is. I don’t feel connected to anyone right now, not myself, not Philip, whose eyes I feel watching me even as I write this. And I don’t mean “eyes” as in those of a body but I am restricted to language to talk about what’s going on and “eyes” watching me conjures up what I’m feeling. I feel his watching, his patience. I feel him waiting for me to calm the fuck down and begin again. So, what then? Am I connected, or am I not?

Maybe when it comes to Philip, I’m never completely disconnected. There’s some thread that at the moment is stretched to breaking even though I know it won’t. But it’s not enough. There are people here, people with flesh and hair and body fluids that leak from all different places; people that take up the same space as me and to need to be paid attention to.  There’s Natalie, for starters, who I sometimes feel like I’m watching through the long end of a telescope. She’s there; she must be. But I can’t take in that I matter to her or anyone else and it’s that profound loneliness that’s dogged me since before Philip was born and is unfathomably murky now. But there is no one to hug me. There is not one person I can sink into.What’s it matter? echoes the hollowed out place my heart’s supposed to be, and where not coincidentally Philip asked me to place that diamond. Light it up, mom; see what’s really there. But I think it’s a big, fat nothing. I think it’s loss upon loss with more loss to come because what else is life anyway? Being ready for the loss. As if you could be, even when you know it’s coming. (Tersia, Lucia – are you reading this?) In “No Chance,” Lou Reed sings of not having a chance to say good-bye to his friend who died: “There are things we wish we knew and in fact we never do / But I wish I’d known that you were gonna die.”

Really? ‘Cause I don’t. I dreamt of Philip maybe three times since he died. In one dream he was telling me he needed some fencing gear, and that he needed socks. “If you did your laundry, you’d have socks,” I’d thought, much to my surprise because I knew that on Sunday, he was going to die. I was sorry to have thought that about the socks, and it was awful to tell him yes, we’d go get his fencing stuff even though I knew he’d be dead before he could use it, and there was nothing I could do about it. Just keep acting normal until it happened. So no, I don’t wish I knew he was going to die.  Something had been driving me those last months, something that made me choke on my love for him and make my twisted way into his heart to let him know how much I did.

So WTF? What’m I supposed to do? Nothing’s working here. I don’t want to knit or sew or read or cook or watch TV. I don’t even want to drink, which sometimes I think I do, but which I know won’t help ‘cause I’ll wake up worse. A pill, maybe. A big, fat pill – or several small ones – so I can go to sleep, which is my version of peace. It won’t make me connected to myself, but it’ll sure make me forget that I’m not.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

Nothing Good or Bad?

I was asked to guest post by Becki Duckworth at http://isurvivedamurderattackmyfamilydidnt.com/ Becki’s story is brutal; you can read about it here.

And you can find my next post here.

I wish all of you peace on this day after Christmas. I find it’s not the “day” that’s hard as much as the aftermath, when I’ve survived to find yet again that life goes on and I’m just not sure how I’m supposed to go along with it.

It’s Time

I’m not so sure about choice. I don’t mean like what boots best go with my jeans or whether I want scrambled or over-easy. I mean choice about the way I feel or the way I think or even – which seems the most controllable – the way I act.

I don’t have much choice about what I think, but I can choose to look at it and distance myself from it, or dive into its darkly deep and believe it’s the truth of it all. And lately I’m bad as I’ve been, nursing my secrets as gently, carefully and constantly as I did my kids when they needed me.

I think I’m depressed, which is not the same as sad. Sad is being protective of my mournful heart. Depressed is anger I won’t feel; it’s me crying and hopeless and lying on the couch and not writing and doing all sorts of things with food that sooner or later I’ll have to talk about. “You have to take care of yourself,” my therapist tells me. “That’s why you feel like this. You’re angry; and you think you’re angry at yourself, but I think you’re angry at Philip.”

I’m not going to argue, but if I am angry at him, I don’t feel it. I’ve said before that Philip was involved with something bigger than he was and he didn’t get out of it before it got him. Look, I know addiction. I know the pull of alcohol, the craving for drugs, the sheer insistence that being Out of Mind and so Disconnected From Body has got to be better than this. So what I see is my child vulnerable, and how can I be angry at him for his weakness?

I know emotions don’t always make sense. Look at how angry I am at myself because Philip died – what the hell sense does that make? I’ve conflicting emotions all the time – what would be so strange about being grieved that Philip died, as well as angry at him because he did?

But what is it I value? I think I value suffering. I think I value being apart-from, living in a world I won’t let touch me. Which is what I mean about choice. Am I really choosing this? I’m not talking about Philip dying or how-of-course I’m grieved and somewhat unmoored. I’m talking about the particular way I’m suffering and the way it’s so easy to sacrifice myself to it. The way I can’t stay connected – to Philip, to Natalie, to Ed, to you all, to writing – which only means I can’t stay connected to my-self. And so I’m asking again; is this a choice I’m making??

Last week, I had another of my extraordinaries. A week ago Friday, actually. I’d been so down and withdrawn that maybe I scared myself, but whatever it was, something nudged me into getting in touch with Harriet, who I love very much and who’s seriously good for my soul.

We decided to have dinner at her apartment on Friday, which meant me picking up Greek food from the tiny Greek takeout in town. I went there to order, and while I waited, went next door to my dry cleaner to pick up some pants I’d had hemmed. My dry cleaner – whose name, after all these years, I still don’t know – is always happy to see me, but this time all her big smile did was make me burst into tears and when she came round the counter to hug me, it hit me how long it’d been since someone did.

Back outside, I sat at one of the small, curbside tables the Greeks put out when the weather allows, closed my eyes and tried to relax, listening, as always, for Philip. When I opened my eyes I looked up, and caught the sun lighting up some cotton-ball clouds into shades of golden red. Look at the clouds, Philip said. Watch.

So I stared, trying hard to make cloud shapes that looked like Philip. Am I going to see you, I asked? Am I going to see your fencing sword so I know for sure it’s you??

Just look and don’t try to see, he said; and what immediately popped up was a wolf’s head. Which I stared at and which appeared to be moving because clouds really are moving and because if you stare hard enough at anything it’ll seem to start moving. And this wolf had its mouth open, sometimes looking snarly and sometimes not. Then I saw a hand appear in front of its head, palm up. And then something swirling on this hand, something trying to take shape. Are you giving me something, I asked Philip? Are you giving me a gift?

And yes he was, because the thing swirled itself into a huge, red diamond shot through with light, perfectly balanced in the palm of this hand and I asked, are you giving me a diamond and he said yes, I am. You always say I’m the light. Now I’m giving you the light and I want you to take this diamond and put it in the dark spot where your heart is, because it’s time, mom. It’s time. And before I could fully grasp the thing he was telling me, a car pulled into the spot in front of me and had his initials on its license plate.

I swore I wasn’t going to tell this story. But I did. First to Harriet, and then to Ed. Ed’s the most realistic man I know but has yet to shrug off anything I tell him Philip says because Ed can hear its wisdom. Do you know what this story means, he asked and yes, I thought I did except for the part I missed. It’s that part that Ed said was the reason I wouldn’t tell this story, because if I did, I’d be committed to what it meant. Because what Ed heard was Philip asking me to be his mother because he is not my father and I cannot depend on him as if he was, and  the reason I refuse to live my life is that I insist the only way I can “keep” Philip is by going all helpless-little-girl-I-need-you on him and I’m afraid if I grow the fuck up my son will vanish and take his diamonds and license plates and 21s with him and then he will have left me twice.

It’s closing in on me; Philip saying, “it’s time,” and all the things he’s said before. Asking me what it means to be his mother, what it means to be responsible, what do I think it feels like to him to have to watch the way I suffer. Not that I suffer, but the way that I suffer. The way I bring it on and lose myself and refuse to take what’s offered me.

Like that diamond, the one that’s supposed to be in my heart.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

An Ordinary Miracle (Part One)

A month or two ago, Kirsten and I went to see a one-night showing of a movie about addiction. Part of it involved a mom talking about losing her son to heroin, at which point Kirsten leant over and whispered, “Are you okay?”

I was. I felt nothing, at least nothing discernible.

Yesterday, she and I went to see “Gravity,” whose title had more weight in it than any of the particularly-long 91 minutes that followed. Yet in the few moments of the gorgeously-lipped, enviously rip-thighed Sandra Bullock telling the oh-so-manly-and-charming George Clooney how her kid died, I cried right along with her. Maybe it was because the first and last time I sat in an IMAX theater wearing those goofy glasses was when Philip was seven and Natalie five and we’d first moved to Montclair and I raced into the city with them one evening after school to meet Phil to see whatever IMAX sensation was playing on the Upper East Side. Or maybe it was because yesterday I was weary of this, all of it, of every day dealing with Philip dead and not coming home and the ambivalence of wanting to be wherever the hell he is coupled with not wanting to leave Natalie and not being entirely sure that I won’t wonder how fast it was Death came when I’m actually staring into its dark and infinitely deadly eyes.

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

I’ve had a secret habit of wanting approval in ways that ran my life. Secret, that is, to me. I never looked at the way I felt around anyone who had authority, how hard I tried to be the good girl while my guts seethed with resentment and rebellion because it wasn’t me giving the orders. For Chrissake, I’m not a child, but I spent a good portion of my adult life feeling like one; feeling odd and left out, lost in confusion and wondering where my life was, could somebody out there please help me find it?

But when I got pregnant, I knew exactly what to do, which included having my baby at home. Approval? Ha. None available, from the doctors I called for help, down to my mom, who cried, “I didn’t raise you this way!” Even Phil wasn’t entirely on board, and took to telling people he’d be at the hospital, pacing, if anyone needed him.

To give birth at home, I needed a back-up doctor who’d agree to meet me at the hospital if something went wrong . Barbara, my midwife, wouldn’t see me until I found one. And I had to find one since I’d already disowned my Colorless, Cheerless, Clueless no-matter-that-he’s-really-Handsome OBGYN, Dr. Fuster, for being the pompous jerk that he was.

Before what wound up being my last appointment with Dr. Fuster, I’d shaved my legs. It was pap-smear time, and any woman who’s ever had a pap smear knows what it’s like to spread your legs unwillingly and not look while someone you see once a year fiddles around down there, poking and probing until s/he climaxes by shoving that cold, hard speculum up your bajingo to crank it open and stick a friggin’ foot-long Q-tip into the holiest of holies.

I shaved my legs as defense. Then did some serious moisturizing. If Fuster expected me to drop my drawers and hoist my feet into his stirrups, at least he’d have a creamy set of legs to part. Except I outed myself by nicking my leg and so had to band-aid it because as anyone who’s ever shaved anything anywhere knows, even the tiniest of razor-cuts especially like to bleed.

“What’s that?” asked said CCCH OBGYN as he prepared to examine me. “I cut myself shaving,” I answered, surprised that he noticed. “I mean, can’t get a pap smear without shavin’ my legs.”

Since that’s what’s known as self-deprecating humor and since I was already gowned, stirrupped and vulnerable, a chuckle would’ve been, well, nice. But CCCH OBGYN looked down at me over his glasses and said, “We are not in the habit of counting the hairs on our patient’s legs.”

Afterward, fully clothed in his office and with a desk between us, I asked Dr. Fuster what he thought about home birth with a midwife, to which he replied, “Midwives are stupid. If it was up to me, I wouldn’t let them in my hospital.”

Well. I didn’t know Maimonides Medical Center decided to rename itself “The Fuster Center of Hubris and Stupid-Midwife-Control.” I was never again going to take the risk of shaving even one more hair for Dr. Fuster, never mind thinking of him as my back-up doctor.

So I called around to various obstetricians. As soon as I told the receptionist what the appointment was for, I got an incredulous, you’re-not-seriously-asking-me-this, “Um, uh, No.” The one doctor whose receptionist said, “Sure, no problem” was confused and unprepared when I told him what I wanted. “I don’t believe in home birth,” he said. “I’ve seen too many dead and mangled babies.”

I didn’t ask him how his rate of dead and mangled babies compared to that of Barbara’s 20-years-without-a-single-fatality one. How is it that a midwife can go 20 years with that kind of record? Maybe it was her standard of care and attention vs. his? I didn’t ask because I was too embarrassed by his lack of approval to spit out another word. So embarrassed, in fact, that I paid the $50 co-pay even though he could’ve said that to me over the phone and let me be humiliated in the comfort of my home.

So I left his office and called Stephanie from the nearest pay-phone and cried. But by the time I got home, I was over it. I was more than two months pregnant at that point and hadn’t yet been examined. My options were to give it up and go to the birthing center in NYC where I’d have a comfy room, music, tea, candles and a midwife who I could pretend was in charge even though every hour she had to walk out of that room and report to the doctors at the hospital who were monitoring her, one of them (I kid you not) being He of the dead-and-mangled-babies. Or I could figure something else out.

Which I did, by calling  the midwives at DWS Medical Center who said of course they’d be my backup – I had to see them twice during my pregnancy and if something went wrong when I was laboring at home, I’d be admitted to the hospital under their care.

Being pregnant was the most normal thing I’d done in my life. I didn’t have to ask what to do. I wasn’t worried because I didn’t get examined until my third month. I wasn’t worried that my baby wasn’t “developing properly,” that because I was thirty-something I supposedly had a higher risk of having a child with Down’s Syndrome and was told that I just might want to have an amniocentesis. Because then what – I could abort mission? Like my “imperfect” baby wouldn’t deserve to live because I didn’t want to deal? I wanted to have a kid. Was I in, or was I out?

And I’m not talking the politics of abortion. I’m talking my Very Own Personal Experience. I’m talking the moment I heard, “You’re pregnant” I was in a relationship I chose to be in, one I was responsible for in an extraordinarily unique way. And non-religious as I was, that moment put me in the presence of an ordinary miracle. And I finally felt the gratitude I’d heard so much about.

See, being one with life growing within changes you as impossibly as living on in the presence of its death.

To reiterate. The first time in my life I chose with surety and clarity and said fuck it, I’m doing this thing the way I want to – no confusion here – involved Philip.

Stories don’t unfold in a linear way any more than writing does. This story was necessary background for the next, which is a continuation of what I’d written about signs, and how I said I wanted to talk about the other ways I know Philip is around. And that’s what I’ll talk about next.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

I Disagree

Today I’m wishing to be a poet. Today I’m wishing I could write elevated language; like what I want to say I just can’t get to in simple sentences. Because I’m trying to say what I feel when I look to my left and see Philip’s headshot on my desk, to the right and see the portrait of me, him and Natalie. The helplessness, frustration and continual shock of those moments caught in time, that this child of mine is to live in my memory but not in the flesh. I want to say it in such gorgeous language it’ll pierce your heart the way mine is; I want to give shape to our shared humanity. Because I’m standing out here in a way that feels alone in the way that only Death can leave you, and that’s not where I’m wanting to be.

I’m not a big reader of poetry. I don’t always have the patience, don’t always understand what I’m reading. But when a poem moves me, I stay moved. Like Stephen Crane’s, “In the Desert,” which I already wrote about. Like Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan.” Talk about gorgeous language, about language painting a living, trembling picture. Like Jane Kenyon’s, “Having it Out With Melancholy,” – depression elevated to art. Tell me there isn’t something in it that won’t have you saying, “Yes, yes.” Or anything by Louise Gluck.

My friend Ed is a poet. We met when I was 36. Philip was three and Natalie just turned one, and I decided to go to college and get the degree I’d never gotten back when everyone else I knew did. I still don’t have it, but I have Ed.

Ed is an English Professor, and he was teaching the Shakespeare class I’d signed up for. It was somewhere around the first minute he started speaking when I thought, “This is the teacher I’ve been looking for.” Bam. Sometimes you just recognize someone even if you’ve never met them before. And nearly twenty years later, I can tell you he’s saved my life. My emotional, spiritual, psychic life. The life underneath the busyness of what it looks like we’re doing when what we’re really trying to do is hang on for another day.

Last week Ed was talking to me about John Keats. Ed is a serious man, Keats is a serious poet. “Have you seen the sketch of Keats on his deathbed by Joseph Severn?” he asked. “Go look at it.” So I looked at this beautiful boy, 25 and dying, caught in a moment of rest and peace, and then I emailed Ed. Did you know he died the same day as Philip, I asked; did you know the year was 1821? 18-21?? I did not, he answered. Then, a few days later, this, from Ed:

Sonnet: A Poet, A Boy

He died the day the poet John Keats died,
whose tormented lungs finally gave way.
He was twenty-five, superbly alive,
inventing language to preserve the day,
the instant of the living human heart.
With words he seized a handful of water–
impossible, I know–but his great art
achieved this, as he, dying, grew gaunter.
The other one was an older child,
twenty-one on the day he lost his heart.
He was–I knew him–clever, loving, mild–
but becoming lost had become his art.
Two beautiful males share the same death date–
a poet, a boy, who rushed to his fate.

And I am collapsed again because that boy – my boy – “rushed to his fate.” It’s all our fates, no? To die? It’s a fact we don’t face until we’re forced to. Philip was racing to his death unaware and it is precisely his vulnerability that’s killing me. I’ve been asked if I’m angry at him for taking the drugs that killed him; I’m not. He didn’t know. Yes, he made poor choices but he wasn’t able to do otherwise. Like all the poor choices I’ve made – and I’m talking serious shit, alcohol-drugs-anorexia-bulimia shit. I couldn’t choose otherwise until I was ready, and I happened to live until I was.

You can’t not love the light because he’s died, Ed says. But I’ve always preferred the night, the gloaming and the gray. Yet sometimes, at a certain time of day, when that light hits the trees in a certain way, I think he’s right. But other times, like when its harshness wakes me from a dreamless sleep to remind me once again of what I’ve lost, I disagree. And even though I know Ed knows better than me, for tonight – I disagree.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

Year Two

Last Saturday I was out with Natalie at a local Arts and Crafts Fair. We ran into G., a woman I know from a former job. She’s  also the mom of Natalie’s friend. G. is, in a word, rich.

What’s that mean, to me? Nothing simple, for sure. It’s too easy to say envy, jealousy. What does it mean to envy or be jealous? It’s in my reactions to the world that I learn how to live in it.

There is something exotic and fascinating about That Much Money, but I don’t envy G. In fact, never have I more not wanted to be anyone else or have what anyone else has since Philip died. What I want is Philip here and Natalie safe and sound along with him. I love Philip too much to want to be anything other than his mother. Any wanting for what I don’t have means I lose Philip. Because in order for me to know and love and have had 21 years of Philip, my life had to be exactly as it was.

And I can’t imagine a scenario where I would have done something differently so he wouldn’t have died. There’s the day I could’ve lost him, the day I wrote about in The Story. That would have been disastrous. That would have left me a hollowed-out wreck of a human being. But when Philip died, he was out of the house and mostly on his own. He seemed okay – but he’d gotten mixed up in something bigger than he was, and I’ll never know if the heroin was cut or if his body was compromised or if it was a straight-up overdose. Doesn’t matter. He died, but our relationship didn’t.

So – Saturday. G., who I last saw at Philip’s wake, asked how I was. I’m okay, I answered. Good, good, she said, nodding firmly, as she turned to Natalie. Which is right about when I split, like those people who have NDEs and feel like they’re up high watching what’s going on below them, which, of course, includes themselves. I understood that to G, being “okay” and soldiering on was what mattered. I wasn’t so sure I agreed, but I’m not so sure about a lot of things any more. I stood there doing the work of talking and listening while wondering who the fuck am I because what I am is not okay but I can talk and listen and be at this A&C Fair while my son is dead. My son is dead. And there is some profound crisis I’m in that I don’t know how to write about and that I certainly didn’t want to talk to G. about but it’s some next – what? Phase? Stage? I’m so changed I don’t know what call things, how to say what this is. But if I had to give it a name, I’d call it, “Year Two.”

G. has 5 kids. She told me about the daughter who’s graduated and works in D.C., about the one – Natalie’s friend – who’s been traveling all over the world, about the three kids that are still at home…I don’t know if what came up can be called “envy” or “jealousy,” but I do know the ghosts of guilt and shame were involved, at least for the few minutes I stood there trying to listen. Because she gave her children experiences I wasn’t able to. A lot of what bugged me about money, I told myself, was not about the things it could buy, but about the experiences it could offer. And with the exquisite antenna I had to to find things to make myself miserable about, the ways I couldn’t broaden my kids’ world because I didn’t have enough money became endless.

My kids grew up in a neighborhood with families that were pretty well-off. The people that lived around us vacationed several times a year, did endless home renovations; they had high-end cars, full-time nannies,  and money for college tuition for the expensive colleges that their childrens’ expensive tutors ensured they’d get into. And lest you think otherwise, I had some damn good neighbors. It’s just that I’d moved into a world that was different from the fantasy I’d had about it. I went to the suburbs thinking my kids would be out running up and down the block with a horde of other kids whose parents moved and thought the same. I had to get with the program. Who had time to run around? After school meant sports like soccer because my town’s big on soccer and one mom on my block told me Philip had to play soccer because, well, all the kids played soccer but what did I know of soccer? I came from Brooklyn. We played softball. And even that wasn’t something Philip particularly liked to do.

And summer? The school year hadn’t ended when the exodus to summer sleep-away camp began. Which made me feel like I was doing something awfully wrong because I wouldn’t have sent Philip and Natalie away for two months even if money had nothing to do with it. Life lasted longer than childhood. I wanted my kids around while I could have them.

Which was prescient on my part. Philip’s life lasted longer than childhood, but not by much.

Now, I knew enough to tell myself that whatever I thought I couldn’t give my kids because of money wasn’t what really  mattered. It nagged at me anyway.  I felt a little different, a little inadequate, a bit of a nobody. And “a little” was enough to make me feel like my kids deserved more than I could give them.

You know what? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how many vacations we went on or the size of our house or that Philip didn’t want to play baseball or soccer and that when he did, he wasn’t very good at it. The things that used to nag at me even though I told myself they didn’t matter, really didn’t matter.

What matters is the poem that Philip wrote in second grade, where he said that out of all of his friends, I was his best. What matters is giving birth to him exactly the way I wanted to, and the months of nursing him when all the world was his eyes locked with mine. What matters are the stories I haven’t told yet, the things I remember because even if it was just for a moment there was nothing but the truth of love between us, moments that even his dying can’t take away.

To elevate another cliche to the status of truth, all the money in the world can’t buy what matters. And yes – I had to learn it the hard way.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

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