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.

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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

Choosing

After 15 years of living in a house, Natalie and I have to think apartment-style. We are overstocked with groceries we have to eat through and shampoo and conditioner we have to wash through. It’s Costco and its coupons that’s turned me into a hoarder. Excess disappears into the nooks and crannies of a house. Here – what am I to do with the 50 or so vintage chenille bedspreads I’ve collected to cut up and make into pillows? I could sew for the next 20 years and still not run out of fabric.

I’m swirling in the chaos of the newly-relocated; there’s nowhere for my eye to rest. And I’m still not done moving. This week, Natalie will pick up the last of what’s left at Nadiya’s. Except for the dozens of books I bravely decided to get rid of. What am I supposed to do with them in the short time I’ve left to decide? Have I ever considered that each thing I buy needs a place, that I am responsible for where it goes and where it winds up when I’m done with it?

At home, I’m taking out the photographs, taking out the urns. I found out urns came in different sizes when the funeral director handed me a catalog full of them. You can put all your ashes in a big one, or distribute them among varying styles. You can put some in mini-urns to give to family and friends. They even sell necklaces with charms to put them in so you can carry them with you all the time. Natalie and I sat browsing the catalog one day to choose. Is this fucking crazy, I asked? We’re picking out urns like we’d be picking out our next pair of skinny jeans. I wanted the large rose Cloisonné since I’m all about flowers, but decided to try something different, gold with a band of Mother-of-Pearl inlay. Phil couldn’t deal with looking, so I chose a smaller, more masculine-looking one for him; a rich, deep blue with a matted, etched silver top and bottom. Natalie chose a tiny one similar in style to Phil’s; charcoal gray shot through  gold, with a matte coppery-gold top and bottom.

Phil hasn’t taken his so I’ve given it a place here. Natalie’s is in its velvet box in a drawer. Me? I should have gone with the rose Cloisonne.

There used to be a commercial where a decent if neurotic-looking woman was speaking into the camera with desperate earnestness about all the reasons you shouldn’t smoke. By the time we realize she’s speaking to her kid, the camera pans back and we see the kid’s just a quizzical babe in a high chair, more interested in sticking his fingers up his nose than anything his mom had to say. The message, of course, was to start planting those seeds early and all will be well.

I did that. I am an addict. I told my kids the things I was supposed to tell them about smoking, drugs and alcohol and the science that says alcoholism can be passed along in your genes.  I thought my loving attention would be enough to stay addiction’s hand. I drank because life was unbearable. I thought all I had to do to keep that from happening to my kids was to remove the misery factor. Happy kids don’t drink or do drugs, right? And they certainly don’t die before their parents do.

When Philip was maybe 16, Phil and I found out he was smoking both pot and cigarettes. I was more surprised by the cigarettes than the pot. Who does that any more, especially without a job to afford it? As far as the cigarettes, Phil and I talked to him and he promised he’d stop. Then I got a call from a friend. I was uptown, she said; I saw Philip smoking and I thought you should know. When he came home that day, I told him I knew he was smoking and where he was when he was doing it. He shrank. How do you know, he asked? Because I know, I answered; there are more things I know about you than you realize.

Which wasn’t true, of course. I was trying to strike the fear of God into him. Or of Me, which really wasn’t necessary.  Philip wasn’t a sullen, rebellious kid; he didn’t want to risk my anger, much less my disappointment. I never knew how much he needed me.

And as far as the pot, a week after we found out about it, the three of us sat down with a therapist whose specialty was addiction. The following week, two home drug tests arrived in the mail and Philip was seeing the therapist by himself. It took one visit for her to tell us this was not a kid with a problem. Still, we did one random drug test on him a couple weeks later. It was negative. We kept the second one in a drawer as a threat.

Ed says I feel tremendously guilty. My therapist says the same. Since I do not believe I could’ve done anything differently, I don’t see why they should say that. I mean, a different mom might have grabbed Philip by that long, curly hair she so lovingly encouraged him to grow and not let go until she knew he was safe. Until she knew he stopped hanging around with the kids she didn’t want him hanging around with. Until she got him so interested in books and music and ideas that his mind would have been full of the richness of life instead of being fucked by drugs. But I am not that mom. I am this mom and I did the best I could so what do I have to be guilty about?

See, what I don’t understand is all this talk about what a good mother I am. Philip was sweet and funny and responsible and if you met him, he’d shake your hand and look you in the eye. That didn’t come from nowhere, I’m told. But if I’m to take credit and comfort for the loving face he presented to the world, where does my responsibility lie for the drugs and the alcohol and the poor choices he made that led to his death? I am not God is another thing I’m told. Fair enough. But I am his Mother. Wasn’t my job to teach him enough to choose better? This is the knot I can’t untie, this is where my thinking twists and turns and wraps around itself because no matter my love for him or his for me it wasn’t enough to set him on a path that would have kept him here.

I’m only just realizing the depth of the guilt that’s been running my life. It’s hitting me now how deeply ashamed I feel that Philip’s dead whenever I see a mom and her son doing whatever everyday things a mom and son might do. And if this was your story and you were telling it to me, I’d tell you just how much you didn’t have to feel that way because I’d see it so clearly. But to see it about myself – not so much. It’s going to take faith to see that life means something and discipline to stop my monkey mind when it says otherwise. Faith and discipline, both of which turned to ashes when Philip did. Thing is, how come I believe Philip’s spirit doesn’t lie in those ashes, yet not believe that mine doesn’t, either?

© 2013 Denise Smyth

Maybe God, Maybe Not

When I joined AA I had pretty low opinion of God, if I had one at all. He wasn’t much of a factor in my life. If He created me, He must’ve gotten interrupted by a phone call or needed a bathroom break so that when He got back to it, He forgot what He was doing and left a piece out. If He existed, why wasn’t I happy? It didn’t seem fair that I walked around wanting to die while every day millions of others actually did.

God made no difference in my life, but drinking did. Why waste time on my knees when The Answer was limitless, close and affordable? And fast. If there was a God, He took too long, what with all those people he had to care for. So I took care of myself, starting with Boone’s Farm Apple Wine when I was 12 (those days I could take my 12-year-old-self into the liquor store and buy what I wanted) then graduating to rum, vodka or gin (mixed with soda so it wouldn’t taste so bad), pot, quaaludes, amphetamines and whatever I could find in any bathroom I entered that had a medicine cabinet.

God was a nonstarter until January, 1983, age 24, when I took my beaten self to an AA meeting. Instead of finding smoky basements filled with the old and the wet-brained, I found a group called Young Winners* and met people my own age. Younger, even. The group met on Friday nights, which made sense because Friday was drink-your-ass-off night. After the meeting, we’d go out to a diner. I didn’t do God and I didn’t do diners but I was doin’ what I was told because I believed it would make me better.

AA gave me the idea that maybe it was God that I was missing. I thought if I changed His name to Higher Power, it would change the way I thought about Him. Except HP As I Understood Him was still pretty much as distant and pissed off as my parents used to be. I was told prayer was talking to HP, and meditation was listening, so I tried both but I still felt like the only one I was talking to was myself. I was told not to worry, to “believe that we believe.” After a couple years, that’s exactly what I did. Praying got me nowhere so I let everyone else believe and concerned myself with keeping sober and trying to find the right group or the right book that would lead me to some version of a Benevolent Being just right for me.

What I didn’t know was that I was looking for something Out There that only existed in here. The connection I wanted was with  myself which sounded like some platitude until I understood what it meant. I thought I had a connection to my-self, a worthless, shameful self I devised and despised and so when I wasn’t drinking to destroy that self, I tried to do it by vomiting or starving myself (name me one addict who has only one addiction). I didn’t know that the “self” I hated was born and nurtured from the voices in my head which, powerful as they were, were just, well, voices, and since they were in my head not only could I choose not to listen to them, I could make them say something else. Something nice, even, weird and uncomfortable as that felt.

Which brings me back to Simple Isn’t Easy, but at least it’s clear and sensible. And revelatory.

Feeling more connected to a self that I was starting to like let me feel more connected to my kids. I was never as close to Philip as I was when he died. I might’ve tormented myself when my kids were growing up, but I didn’t torment them. My heart hurt for loving them and for not being able to feel how much they loved me back. And when I would tell Ed that in a show of love, Philip did this or Natalie did that, he’d say, “Why do you act so surprised every time you realize how much your kids love you?”

In the couple years before he died, Philip grew more tender than I’d ever seen him. Or maybe I just noticed it more because once he left to live on his own, he no longer had to come if I called, but he did. He’d often get in touch with me in the middle of the night to tell me he loved me. One night he called and said, “Mom, you fascinate me.” What the?? I was living on the top floor of my friend’s house ‘cause I couldn’t afford an apartment, I hated my job, I was manless and restless and still wondering what meaningful thing I could do when I got up in the morning, so what the hell was so fascinating?

“Because you’re growing up,” he said. “And I’m growing up. And we’re doing it together.” `

To which I said nothing because he’d taken my breath away.

The year before Philip died I found myself desperate to tell him I loved him. He was sweet and vulnerable and I didn’t know what I meant by that except I felt a hole in him that I was trying to stuff with my love. I told him that when I was a kid I was struck by the idea that an inch was such a tiny thing, but if you divided it, it became infinity. “I am that inch,” I told him, “and inside this body, my love for you is infinite.”

And a few months before he died, I sent him a text that read, “I am sorry for any time I was ever angry at you or made you feel bad about yourself.”

There was something between us, me and my son. Something relaxed and familiar and right. Something like we fit together, and all it ever was was easy. And that is why on the landing, when I finally stopped crawling and screaming and gave Phil a moment of space to say what he had to say, and what he had to say was, “They found him…” I didn’t hear the rest of the sentence because what I heard was Philip, and what he said was, “Mom, you gotta go deeper.” In the hot, swirling, sinking, stinking mess my world had become, I heard my son and I knew what he meant but all I could think was, fuck you, are you fucking kidding me, is this some fucking cosmic joke? and it occurred to me that right then, right that very second, there were people all over the world who were finding out their children were dead and they were feeling exactly what I was feeling and if it was possible to feel like this, what was the point of being alive?

Accept it, leave it, change it. Somebody, anybody – please, tell me; are there any other options? Because these are not going to work for me this time; these are most definitely not going to work.

*I’m not sure if anonymity only applies to people, but just in case, this was not the real name of the meeting.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

Simple Isn’t Easy

One day Krishnamurti told his followers he was going to tell them his secret. I can imagine the excitement rippling through the crowd, the expected relief, the gratitude that they must be his Very Special Followers since they were the ones present at this much-unexpected announcement. I imagine many of them thought their journey was over, that once they knew this secret, their suffering would end. And I expect it would, if they could really understand what he said. Because what he said was, “I don’t mind what happens.”

Truth is simple. That doesn’t make it easy.

I already said that Natalie was unhappy at school. She was a freshman at Rutgers in New Brunswick, the same college where Philip was a junior. This wasn’t a matter of oh-she’ll-be-fine-in-a-couple-of-months. In February of 2012, she was in the middle of her second semester, and I was still talking her off the ledge. She was working on transferring, and I was trying to encourage her to hang in and just finish the semester.

Conventional wisdom says “Going away to college is good for them.” CW isn’t always – if ever – wisdom. CW easily turns into something she said so he said so everyone says but not many give much thought to what they’re saying. Some kids do well at college, some don’t. There’s more than one way to live a life, and SAT brilliance coupled with a $60,000-a-year Ivy League education doesn’t mean you or your kid are going to have the fantasy future you think it promises. If you have a future at all, that is.  But it sure is fun to tell your friends about it. Even more fun than telling them about your last raise or your new Mercedes or any of those other things that make us really proud to be us until we need the next proud thing because the first proud thing is well, just so yesterday.

Philip took easily to living away, but Natalie did not. Many of my conversations with her were to remind her that there were three options in any situation: Accept it, leave it or change it. She was trying to change it by applying to other colleges; but on the way to leaving Rutgers, all she could do was accept that she was there for the short term. To do that is to take responsibility for your life, for what you’re feeling and how you’re thinking. Blame your circumstances all you want, all you’ll get is more suffering. Which isn’t to say you “accept” any kind of crap that’s thrown at you. You recognize it’s crap and figure out how to clean it up and stay out of its way once you do. And not once; it’s never once. It’s the work of a life, the work that matters most, the work that every degree in the world isn’t going to ensure you’ll have mastered.

Not to suggest this is any sort of easy. See, I’d been grappling with How to Live forever. The first time I drank I was 11, which is just to say how early I was unhappy, how early I was looking to escape. At 24 I joined AA, but nearly 30 years later I still didn’t get what was so great about life, why after 30 years of therapy and 10 of antidepressants I still didn’t want to be here. But I’d spent the year-and-a-half or so before Philip died listening to Eckhart Tolle CDs whenever I drove anywhere – and often, to listen was the reason I got in the car in the first place. Accept it, leave it or change became my credo because it gave me a way to think about a given situation instead of reacting to it.

And I paid attention to the 24/7 film festival that was going on in my head, which was mostly playing reruns. Stories of vengeance, hate, anger, victimhood, all of which I wrote, produced, directed and starred in. Worst of all, I believed them, and my emotions acted accordingly. It wasn’t the situation that was causing the feelings; it was the endless, looping, dog-chasing-its-tail stories that kept my gut churning.

So I stopped. I became a spectator instead of a participant, stopped the show when I didn’t like it. Simple, but not easy. But the work was to stay here, in the present. Not in the past that was gone or in a future that never came except as the now.

When Philip was little, I used to tell him that I was going to paint on his wall, “Be here now.” I was so busy noticing he wasn’t present that I didn’t get that I wasn’t either.

Accept it, leave it, change it. This was the work I was doing at the moment of impact, the moment I crashed and burned on the landing.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

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