Lonely?

Natale and Me, October 2015

Natalie and Me, October 2015

Natalie and I just had portraits taken. This is my favorite. I have a portrait of Philip and me, I wanted one of me and Natalie. How happy I look – it makes me smile when I see it. And it’s genuine – I love my daughter and I am able to enjoy her. “Enjoy” is a word I thought I would never use once Philip died. But the deep and grievous wound of his death has made me vulnerable to love as well as to pain. Never have I realized how deeply I love my daughter. Or that the fact of my love for my son is what sustains me through his death, even as it brings me to my knees in grief.

Sometimes when I’m driving, I say Philip’s name. I call out to him. And I realize how little his name is actually said. And how saying it doesn’t mean he’ll answer the phone or sit across from me and chat at dinner. It reminds me that something’s gotten smaller and more lonely. His name is lost in space. I can say it, it can go out there, but I will never speak it out loud to my son again.

I used to scream Philip’s name in my car when he first died. Now when I say it it hangs thin in the air, like an empty clothesline. A reminder that there used to be a person at the other end of that name, there used to be hair and flesh and hands that had two differently shaped thumbs. I’m the only one, besides him, who noticed. He was over 6’, tall enough to for me to lay my head on his chest when I needed a moment of love and protection. Reassurance, because what could be wrong if he was all right? That’s why I didn’t worry about him. Because he was all right until he wasn’t, and worrying wouldn’t have changed anything.

I’ve been wondering if I’m lonely. Another one of those feelings I thought would feel one way when in fact it feels another. I imagined lonely as sitting with my head hanging and wishing desperately for company. I imagined it small, sad and helpless in the kind of silence no sound can disturb. But that’s not what it is. It’s quiet, for sure. It’s a longing for I-don’t-what. It’s a restlessness. It’s me hurrying home because that’s where I’ll find what I love. My daughter. My dog and my cat. And it’s where I go to do what I love – to write, to quilt, to knit. When I’m creating I feel alive.

But I have to follow the flow of my energy because there’s only so much of it. I know when I want to write or knit or sew. I also know when I’m done with it for the day, and that often leaves a space that I fill with TV. The only television I used to watch was news. Now I can’t watch the insanity we call “the world.” The grief I hold for Philip is all I can manage. So I look for series, the longer the better. I started that when Philip died. It didn’t take away the sick knot in my stomach, or that I felt raw, bloodied and beaten up, but it quieted my mind. And if I needed anything, it was relief from the damn screaming in my head.

Now there’s no more screaming, just the chattering of the monkey mind. And confusion about what it is I’m yearning for but can’t find. Whatever it is, it’s not “out there.” It’s a reckoning from within. The past informs my present too much. Growing up I felt I was in the wrong world doing the wrong things. I was drunk and directionless. I went to college, then dropped out because I wasn’t interested. I got a job in the last place I thought I’d wind up, Wall Street. For years I worked there in misery. I knew I was in trouble the day I got a $12,000 bonus and looked at it with a shrug.

It is not enough to say, “it’s a job, you’re not supposed to like it.” If that’s what you make of it, then that’s how you’ll live. It was work I was after, not some job, but I didn’t know how to find it because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was asleep. What I wanted to do, what I always wanted to do, was write – but at 18 I was incapable of making decisions that didn’t involve alcohol. I wandered into FIT (Fashion Institute) in NY because my friend went there. As if I gave  a shit about fashion. When that didn’t work out I wandered into a job on Wall Street because a friend got me an interview. I spent my free time drinking and when I decided to stop, I spent my free time in AA.

I didn’t understand what I know now. Back then, the world was the problem, as if I had nothing to do with anything. As if I was at the mercy of an implacable universe. I used to say there must be a God because this much pain can’t be random

I can’t say how I think my life should be or should have been. The doing is only the reflection of the being. If I had the presence of mind when I was a kid, I would have gone to college to study the things that called me – writing and literature. That would have led to a different life. Not necessarily better, just different. But that’s not what happened. I am where I am because of choices I made and things that have happened that I have no control over. The classroom I learn from is wherever I am.

There is a way to live that feels right. You have to pay attention to where your spirit leads, not to what the world says. The world is crazy – why on earth would you want to listen to it? I’ve listened too long and too hard and much as I begin to disengage from the false, the truth is not so easily revealed. Or maybe it is and I still can’t see it. I’ve an inner struggle that manifests in the material. Today, talking with Kirsten, I realized that much as I don’t particularly think about the future, I have a sense that this is all there is, this is where I stop, this is where I’ll be when I die, restless and lonely, wondering what it was I was asked to do but too scared to hear the question.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

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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

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

Gratitude

In AA there’s a lot of talk about gratitude. Make a gratitude list. Replace guilt with gratitude. Put some gratitude in your attitude. All I ever felt about that was resentful. Gratitude for what, exactly? And it wasn’t my circumstances so much as the way I felt. I didn’t take my first drink at 11 for nothing.

Things were difficult with my parents. But I’m not talking about abuse; I was an emotionally precocious kid with a mom and dad I felt I had to manage. At 55 I see they did the best they could; back then, it wasn’t enough.

In the nature/nurture debate, I stand on the side of both. We come into this world with what to work out, and our parents don’t always help us in the way we want them to. Sometimes we can only learn what we need through difficulty, starting with the Moms and Pops. And as far whether we carry either light or grief (or anything in between) into this world, I can speak to this because of my pregnancies. With Philip I felt the same light and ease about him as I did for all the years he was here. With Natalie, I felt a heaviness, and a stubbornness. And she and I have talked about what it is she feels she carries because there are times and ways she’s troubled that seem to just be part of her.

And she is both wonderfully and exasperatingly stubborn.

Regardless of how I got wherever I was, when I was 24 I walked into AA  and thought I found the answer. Back then, I thought there was an “answer.” A one thing I was missing that maybe could be found there. I went to meetings nearly every day for ten years. I watched people come into the rooms and get sober and get earnest and get God and I just didn’t understand why I didn’t get it, too. After two years of not drinking, a man I knew said to me, “This is the first time I’ve seen you at a meeting and you aren’t crying.” Crying has been a big part of my life. It was the only way I knew to ask for help.

I refused gratitude because something always felt wrong. I didn’t want to live and I didn’t think that was normal. I figured most people were happy to be alive but had their moments when they struggled. Not so me. Depression was my baseline; anything else was an aberration. I had a job, a nice apartment, I was making friends in AA; none of it mattered because of what I felt. No matter what I did, I was unhappy. And angry that I was following the rules but God didn’t reach his hand inside my gut and wrench that misery right out once and for all.

I didn’t consider that vomiting on a daily basis had anything to do with my state of mind. I’d started doing that when I was 22, and continued for the first three years or so after I stopped drinking.  I stopped when I met Phil, who seemed quite sane in the face of my crazy and who I didn’t think would stick around if I kept flushing all dinners he treated me to down the toilet. So I dragged myself to the city to attend the Bulimic/Anorexic stepchild-meeting of AA and got control of not only eating, but of letting the food stay in my belly once it got there.

But AA remained the main front. One day I did my fourth step. That means I “made a searching and fearless moral inventory” of myself. There isn’t any one way to do it, but at my sponsor’s suggestion I looked at all the troubled relationships of my past and wrote about them as honestly as I could. Four hours later, I’d learned something. Every relationship I wrote about was the same. I could’ve save 3 hours and 45 minutes had I just changed the names. It couldn’t be that all the people in these relationships were the asses I thought they were. I had a part in all of it, but I couldn’t yet see it.

Of course, all that did was cement the idea that there is something wrong with me.

It’s been a torturous route to gratitude, and it isn’t the fullness and peace I imagined it would be. And I would really appreciate it if someone could explain to me why so much of what matters in life is learned through suffering. Is it the curse of living in a world of opposites? I mean, how do we know except by contrast? If everything was, say, red, then we wouldn’t know not-red. If I’m “happy” all the time, how would I know that I am, except by its unhappy opposite?

Ironically enough, I’ve learned of gratitude through Philip’s death. See, I know how much worse this could have been. If he had to die, at least there was the clarity of love between us.  And I do believe I was being prepared for his death. The images of him dead, picturing myself at his wake, the terrible vulnerability I felt in him and the desperation I had to let him know that I loved him. The joke about finding him dead of an overdose.  That apology I made to him, that seemed to come from nowhere. Philip’s answer to that was, “Mom, I love you and I’m grateful for you.”

He was 21, and he knew gratitude. When I was 21, I sat in a bathtub  and hacked at my wrists with a razor. Yet he is dead, and I am not. Am I the only one who finds this bizarre?

I am grateful that much as Philip’s dead, he’s not gone. He’s not here the way I want him to be, but he’s here in the way I need him. I’m blessed to feel him, to hear him enough to write down what he’s trying to teach me. I’m grateful for the people he’s brought into my life since he died, and for forcing me to feel the heart I didn’t know I had.  He is my muse. And I am grateful that he cracked me wide open because something had to jolt me into the reality I’ve spent my life trying to avoid.

But gratitude is a place I visit, not the home that I yearn for. I’m still struggling with things I’ve struggled with long before Philip died, before he was even born, things that seem insurmountable now that he’s gone. And if my life felt hard more than good when he was alive, it feels impossible to cope with now. Philip’s trying to teach me how to do that. Then you shouldn’t have left me, I tell him; you shouldn’t be gone.

© 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

Next Time

I don’t exactly know what happened next. I remember bits and pieces.  Maybe I can talk to Phil about it one day.  Maybe he can fill in the gaps, give me his version. When he’s ready. It seems important, much as it can’t really matter. I mean, what of it? If we disagree, we get a do-over? I get to figure out how I could’ve stopped this, changed this, given us the happily-ever-after that required nothing other than our two children living longer than we would?

But I want details. All I have of my son is my story; sorrowful as it might be, I want it all. I want to know what time Phil came over, how long we sat on the landing, if I started to cry right away. I want to know how he knew the New Brunswick police were driving Natalie home, if he spoke to her before he came to me.  I want to know exactly what the police said when he answered the door, what he said back, how he felt. Shock, disbelief, grief – of course I know this. But I want to know where he felt it in his body, how he experienced it. Because if he tells me how he felt, maybe I won’t be so alone. Maybe he can help me find the words I need to find my way home. I don’t know any other way; I have faith in words. I believe that if I can say it the way I need to, I will be well. I believe that what haunts me are the stories I don’t yet know how to tell.

The loss of a child is not so easily shared. Phil and I went to a parents’ bereavement group a few months after Philip died. I am not unused to support groups – years of AA taught me that when a problem seems bigger than you are, finding people who’ve dealt with it can help. Not so this. At least with alcoholism, the path to healing has some sort of shape – if you’re a drunk and you want to start living, you have to stop drinking.

But how am I to find my way on this path? In AA we talked about drinking vodka and drinking wine and the stupid things we did and the dangerous things we did and how we almost died from embarrassment and how we almost died. We talked about what we felt like. We identified. And in our sameness lay our hope and our help.

What was I supposed to identify with here? Maybe I am a mother and you are a mother and I lost a son and you lost a son, but you didn’t lose Philip; you didn’t lose my son. Your “identification” was not what I wanted. It changed nothing. Besides, you couldn’t possibly understand. For you to understand, I’d have to be able to explain what I felt like and I couldn’t. I could not say it to anyone because I didn’t have the words. I could say “grief” and “despair” and “desperation” but that wasn’t what I really meant. Those were ordinary words, words I’d used before. Losing Philip was nothing like anything before. I’d have to invent a language to tell you. And this loss of language unmoored me; I was slipping, slipping away, gone to a place where I could see you and hear you, but you didn’t make any sense.

Ground Control, there’s something wrong. Something terribly fucking wrong.

I started this post intending to continue my narrative. Next time. I’m still skittish from the last piece of it; I’m touchy and sore and I’ve spent the last few days wondering if I’m crazy for doing this. If you’ve found your way here through Facebook, you know I wrote that I’m in a new version of surreal. I’ve stopped telling everyone, including the cashiers where I shop and the telemarketers who somehow breach the do-not-call barrier, what happened. I shower regularly, change my clothes daily. I even put makeup on again. But my heart is broken, a chunk of me is gone, I wake up every day wondering, what now? and I feel kind of crazy to be functioning like a normal person when I’m anything but. I’m small and too scared and I want my son. Sometimes I wonder who is the parent and who is the child, because I cry to Philip, help me, please help me; please come home, please don’t be gone, I miss you and love you and what am I going to do without you, Philip? What am I going to do?

© 2013 Denise Smyth