Reckoning Part 1

(I am posting this in two parts as after I finished it, it seemed too long.)

Of course everything changes. Since I’m here for ten days I figured the constant would be spending early mornings in this rocking chair by the bay, thinking and writing. When I was sitting here earlier it seemed money would be the thing today.  Then it all got twisted – phone calls from both last night and this morning haven’t changed the fact that I need to deal with money but have pissed me off so I’m not sure how to begin. And it pulls in so many situations, with so many people…the bay is still here, the clouds both harmless and threatening, I’m still rocking in my chair, trying to breathe. Serenity cannot be forced.

I’ve lots of fear around money which tells me I haven’t a whole lot of faith. I don’t mean the kind of faith that says “Don’t worry, everything will be all right.” Because my definition of “all right” in any given situation might not be what is so. That doesn’t mean the outcome was wrong, just different. If I insist only my way is correct I’m in for a world of sorrow, disappointment and rage. A better definition of faith is, “I will be able to handle this and there is help to ask for if I need it.” I’d do well to stick with that when it comes to money. Of course, that also requires my willingness to admit I need help and the humility to ask for it. I prefer to do things on my own. I have an attitude of “who needs you?” born from needing to take care of myself best as I could since I was a kid. Early example: first day of Kindergarten meant all us little ones were brought to the school cafeteria and assigned to tables based on who our new teacher was to be. I walked in happy and confident and looked around at the myriad of crying kids clinging to their parents. What babies, I thought. Who cries over their parents? I took my seat at the head of the table and never looked back.

By 5-years-old I’d learned the value of “not needing,” which was really a survival skill. It’s also a hindrance as no person is an island. Insisting that’s true requires denial and self-deception. But back to money, and to start with, Alzheimer’s. My mom’s Alzheimer’s has forced my brother and I to look at her finances. My mom has always been independent . My dad died nine year ago and she’s been living in their single family home since. She has a family friend who sees to any repairs that she might need. She has a car, so she comes and goes as she pleases.  My brother and I have never been on top of her finances but there was never a need to be. She’s got Social Security and a couple of pensions from my dad. She has my uncle M (her brother) who (we thought) she could rely on who lives close by, and another decades-old friend who’s an accountant who helps her pay her bills and file her taxes.

A friend of Maria’s here at the shore has met my mom and adores her. You probably would, too. You didn’t grow up with her. She’s a friendly old lady who looks terrific for her age and that has big cachet. But not as big as it drawbacks. Last April my mom spent $800 at her hairdresser, which doesn’t include the $200 gift certificate given her as a birthday present that month. That is an outrageous amount for someone on a small fixed income. She goes to her hairdresser every Friday – for all she forgets from Alzheimer’s, that she never does. I’m sure it’s because she’s been doing it for decades. I called her hairdresser to set limits. Then there’s her nails. We found out she’d been going two – three times a week to get tips put on at $80 a pop, going home and pulling them off, forgetting she did so and going back a day or two later and doing it again. My mom’s friend M reported this to me, and told me the woman at the nail salon kept trying to talk my mom into a simple and less expensive manicure but my mom became belligerent and insisted on her tips. I went to the salon and spoke to the owner myself, then had to tell my mom no more. She didn’t believe me, insisted she didn’t pull them off, insisted she wanted her tips.

My brother and I have since had to take her car away as both her GP and Neurologist say she can no longer drive. In case we needed proof, R pulled the car out of the garage a few weeks after we took her keys away and discovered a huge dent in the driver’s side fender that went from the top of the hood to under the bumper, along with a hole in the fender. She didn’t know it was there. And when R brought the car to the body shop to appraise the damage, the mechanic asked if we also wanted to fix the dent on the passenger side, the one we we hadn’t noticed. 

We’ve hired a companion who drives my mom around and who has instructions that she is only to get a manicure and only once a week. We’ve been working with a senior advisor to set up a trust so she can get Medicaid which will pay for home care in a way that her Medicare won’t. We are working to get her the VA benefits she’s entitled to since my dad was a veteran during the Korean War. We’ve had to look into her reverse mortgage which means her crazy expensive one-family-semi-attached-home-with-a-tiny-concrete-backyard is worth a fraction of its value to her since she spent most of what it’s worth. I don’t exactly understand reverse mortgages, don’t want to. All I know is money I thought would be available to take care of her in her old age should she need it is not there. Neither is what I also thought would be both my and my brother’s inheritance.

Talking about inheriting is embarrassing. When I think about it I automatically look at it from the outside in, meaning what it is you all (whoever “you-all” might be) will think of me. That I am callous and greedy. That my mom has Alzheimer’s and I am worrying about the wrong things. It doesn’t, of course, matter what anyone thinks. It matters that I look from the inside out, at what is driving the way I react. This is a tough one – a really, really tough one – because there is a lot of pain here, pain I’ve managed to put off dealing with because I never thought I’d be in the position of having to deal with my mother in this way. I come from what people call “good genes.” My family is pretty healthy and for whatever my uncles who’ve passed have died from, no one has gotten Alzheimer’s. I just assumed one day my mom would die, my brother and I would sell the house and split the money. And not that it would be a terribly lot of money, but enough that I could finally buy something for myself somewhere that I’d actually want to live.

Next, Part 2

© 2022 Denise Smyth

Surface Dive

Self-centeredness, self-pity. Traits, I’m told, of the alcoholic. Traits, I say, of humans. But in the context of addiction, the work is to learn to live sober and these are two of the things to pay honest attention to on the road to recovery.

Note – it might be prudent to explain my mother’s current condition. She is fairly healthy for 90, on two medications for her memory and one for high blood pressure. She can, with difficulty, get up and down the stairs on her own, can bathe and use the bathroom on her own. She dresses herself. She is no longer allowed to drive, which is causing her great angst. She remembers things from long ago but forgets what happened two minutes ago. I have called her within a few minutes of someone else calling her and she does not remember talking to that other person. She will often call me after I’ve spoken to her to ask if I just called and what we talked about. She repeats the same questions over and over during conversations and repeats the same sentences no matter how many times you call or how often you speak to her. She is irritable. She is at a point in this disease where it is not clear what she needs, but it is clear she should have even a few hours of daily company which is why we’ve hired someone.

I am going to start by indulging in self-centeredness. My mom’s Alzheimer’s might not be about me but that’s how I come at it. My behavior does not reflect this. My rage does. I call my mom regularly, stay on top of her caregiver, am working to get her Medicaid, helping to manage her finances. All this I do with my brother R. and sister-in-law M. and I try to focus not only on the fact that I am doing for this for them, but that being in this situation has brought me close to them in ways that previously did not exist. So mom, thank you .

Overriding all is rage. “Radical Compassion” by Tara Brach has been suggested reading for me. Once in a while I’ll actually purchase something suggested, most of the time I’ll read a couple pages before it finds its place, in alphabetical order, on the “Definitely Later” Shelf. The fact that I’ve purchased a title in book form instead of as a virtual download doesn’t give it much chance of being read. I read mostly fiction on my iPad as it is easier on my aging eyes and for the last two years it’s been difficult to get me to read anything beyond historical fiction dedicated to The Tudors and the centuries prior to their reign.

But I have begun to read “Radical Compassion,” which discusses meditation by the RAIN method. If you’re as disenchanted with meditation as I am, I’d suggest you give this book a shot. RAIN stands for Recognize – Allow – Investigate – Nurture. Since I’ve only read about 50 pages of the book, if you like what I say go ahead and get it for yourself to see what the whole thing is about because I sure don’t know. I plan on reading more, but I’ve begun to work with the first few steps which are much more interesting – as well as more painful – than my usual way of meditation which involves sitting quietly and focusing on my breath. Then when I notice I’m thinking, I label my thoughts, “thinking,” and bring my attention back to my breath, and so on. I admit to never having given that enough of a chance – I’ve done it for weeks at a time, then lost interest.

As for RAIN, I’ve gone through the first few steps, using my mom’s Alzheimer’s as a starting point. Recognizing, which means simply recognizing what I’m feeling. Allowing, letting my feelings be. No judging, ignoring, wishing them away. Investigate – this is the interesting part. Brach writes specific questions regarding this stage in case you’re having trouble. I left out the Nurture part for now. But I came up with a couple realizations and lots of self-centeredness.

It’s not just that I’m enraged that my mom has Alzheimer’s and that I am powerless over this. It’s realizing what’s expected of me and I want none of it. I am trapped in this. My mom needs help and Alzheimer’s does not get better. It’s progressive and unpredictable. It can take months or years to reach full progression. It is costly and having taken a look at her finances, she doesn’t have what she needs which is yet more angst as I find myself wanting to screech My dad did not deal with this and I certainly am not going to! She needs daily attention and we do not know when this will turn into hourly attention. To that end, my brother and I are working with a Senior Advisor to get additional insurance in place for her to be able to get her the help she needs. The goal is to keep her in her house. Which, I might add, does not have a bathroom on the main floor nor space to add one. She can get up and down the stairs for now, but for how long?

R and M have been going the extra mile. They live closer and will pick her up to take her places. My brother works in Brooklyn and will at times stop by after work to see how she’s doing. I’m in New Jersey. Not so far, but travel there is through the Highways of Hell (for any who gets it: Garden State, Route 280, NJ Turnpike, Staten Island Expressway, plus two bridges thrown in) and the early morning 50 minute drive invariably turns into at least 2-1/2 hours to get home.

Sitting quietly and “investigating” brought up only the tip of what I’m experiencing. I’ve already known I want no part of this, that when I sit and think about it, I feel the anxiety. I am ashamed that these feelings will be seen by my brother and M and they will hate me for it. I am afraid this is going to go on for a long time and I will not be able to keep this pretense up. I am angry about what’s to come – the act of going to her house and dealing the decades-old accumulation of boxes and paper and what looks to me like junk that’s held on to for the sake of holding on. It is hard to breathe in that house, the house I grew up in since third grade, the house I flew out of at 22 as soon as I was able. Still I feel whatever I am saying here is at surface level. Still I must do a deeper dive if I’m to come to a real understanding of what’s driving me. But the closest I’ve come to something new is the fact that I have depended upon my mother to be the one to the blame and without her, without that, who am I?

© 2022 Denise Smyth

Prelude

I am angry, I wrote in my last. Once I had someone sigh and say, “That again?” Yes, that again. Like what, it has a term period? A date of ending, when I can check it off the calendar as done and over?

Truth is, what I have needed to do is slow down and pull apart the tentacles of my anger, to look at what it is these tentacles are clinging to. I’ve pushed aside, for later, what seems too unwieldy in order to peer more closely at those things I feel ready to contemplate. And there is nothing I am angry at that is not born from a lack of control. Nothing.

I am angry at the weather, the heat and lack of rain. I am angry that Trump is. I am angry that I – literally – do not know what to do when it’s my choice. Work and obligations aside, most of what I want to do is read, with maybe some TV on the weekends. That doesn’t much hold my interest, either, although I’m pretty happy with Succession. I don’t want to go out and meet people, there’s nowhere in particular I want to go, and I’m frustrated and angry that I am not someone who can say, “Hey, I’d like to ____ and then go find someone to do this mysterious activity with me.

I could go on. But I’m going to get to the one thing that angers me the most – my mom has Alzheimer’s and where to start with that? I will thank you all for your sympathy in advance. Direct it at her. While my part in this story can’t be unique, I don’t think it follows the usual trajectory in terms of feelings. But what do I know? Maybe posting this will show me different.

No matter what we’re suffering, our personalities, experiences, and habitual ways of dealing with things will surface and color our reactions, if not our actual actions. Sometimes we have the forethought to understand we might feel like saying, “fuck this” and then walking away, but something more rational takes over, sees the implications of such action, and maybe tries to do better.

Like me.

I don’t think I’ve ever really sat here and took a good, deep look at the relationship I have with my mother, who I see her as and who I see myself as in this context. In fact, a few years ago I decided I wanted to turn my blog into a memoir. During the writing it hit me how much a part of my story my mother is. There was an incident that occurred a few days after Philip died that I wanted to write and I went dumb. There I was, writing the most excruciating account, day by day, of what I felt like losing Philip, but I could not figure out how to describe an incident that concerned my mother. It was after that that I gave up the memoir, started writing much less in my blog. That is not the whole and complete reason for my withdrawal from writing. It is, perhaps, a tentacle.

Mom and I are oil and water, which I can pretty much say about my whole family. Yes, I am that one. I’d always felt on the outside but refused to think too deeply about why. I come from a large Italian family where every Sunday was spent at Grandma’s. My mom was the only girl out of seven siblings, which placed a unique burden on her when time came to helping with chores or taking care of the little ones. Two of her brothers were younger than she and she was often responsible for them. My mom’s 90, and there is one of them she still feels responsible for. In fact, in younger days when my dad was alive, the family joke was that if my dad was lying in the road and Uncle M was across the street, my mom would walk over my dad to get to my Uncle. Wasn’t any funnier then than it is now.

I used to think that maybe I felt odd because I was the only daughter of the only daughter. When Sunday dinners came around, My family would have to get to my grandparents’ extra early because my mom had to help my grandma get dinner ready. Soon as I was able, I had to do my part, whether it was putting glasses on the table or running downstairs to the club – where the men would gather and play cards while the women cooked – to get the men to come upstairs for dinner. 

Another reason I may have felt odd was because I wanted to drink. When I was 7 or 8 I asked my mom if I could have one of the cordials in that glass that just so cute. My mom said yes but my dad overheard and forbade it. I hated him then, but by 3 or so years later I figured out how to get some myself.  My grandparents made wine in the cellar, and while everyone (except the kids) drank, it was obvious that my grandfather was alcoholic. 25 Years in this county and he did not speak one word of English – only his native Italian. Many a time he’d be escorted into bed or another room, happily singing drunken tunes. Once, during dinner, there was a commotion during desert as my grandmother began hitting my grandfather over the head. Turns out he’d poured wine into his coffee cup and was blowing on it as if it was coffee because my grandmother had given him stern orders not to have wine at the table.

My grandmother lived in a two story house in Brooklyn on the top floor. The bottom, as I mentioned, was the club where my dad, my uncles and their friends hung out. On the second floor lived my Aunt J., Uncle G., Cousin R. and Cousin Maria, who is exactly two years older than I am and the sister of my heart.

I have lived very much outside the lives of the family I grew up with. Most of my uncles stayed in Brooklyn, cousins scattered to NJ, Long Island, Staten Island. My brother and sister-in-law moved to Staten Island, and I wound up in NJ with my immediate family when Philip was 7 and Natalie 5. I kept in touch with my cousin Maria on and off throughout the years – and if you’re a follower you might remember Maria was the first person I called when I found out Philip died. For the last two years I’ve worked for her and her husband, and they have graciously allowed me to escape to their shore home when I need to.

This has been a short but necessary background – next, Alzheimer’s

© 2022 Denise Smyth

I Have What I Give

Tuesday morning two men were standing next to my car discussing the parking situation, and I joined in. I live in a garden apartment and you need a pass to park overnight on the street. Each apartment is allowed one pass. The complex hired a towing company that randomly comes to check cars, and your car will get towed if you don’t have a pass hanging from your rear view mirror. One of the men was complaining that he came home late one night, couldn’t find a parking spot, noticed there were cars without passes, mentioning a red Volkswagen that was there every night. He’d called the towing company, who said they were too busy to come. So he parked around the corner and wound up getting a ticket because next day it was alternate side of the street parking and he didn’t know.

“You mean we can call the towing company ourselves? “ I asked.

“Of course,” he answered.

So I could call the towing company if I notice anyone without a pass, which I never do because I’d never thought to look. I could go out late, take Zoe for a walk, check for passes and get the sons of bitches who don’t belong there towed. And I had it in for that shiny red Volkswagen – I’d been seeing that car a lot lately, parked near mine. I was going after it.

There is such satisfaction in watching somebody else get blamed and take the consequences. Because if s/he got punished, I was absolved. And that’s what we do in this world, we blame others so that we can momentarily feel better about ourselves.

The Mississippi House wants to allow prisoners to be executed by a firing squad if lethal injection is too expensive. Sounds barbaric, no? Because even if we think the death penalty is the right way to deal with the worst of the worst, we think it should be hidden. The process is medicalized to hide the violent act that it is.

But I bet if Mississippi had a firing squad and invited the public, it would be standing room only.

No, I didn’t go checking cars for passes and I didn’t call the towing company. I might feel mean but I don’t act it. But every time I saw that bright little car I wanted vengeance. Except when I saw it today. Because the culprit who was driving turned out to be a human being, one who smiled at me when she made a u-turn near where I was walking Zoe. And when I walked past her as she parked, I decided to lie.

“Excuse me,” I said when she got out of the car. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

She swept the pageboy-bangs out of her eyes and said, sure. I asked her if she lived here. She said she had since February. I asked her if she had a parking pass and she didn’t know what I was talking about. I told her about the man wanting to have her car towed, and how I thought that was mean-spirited because at that moment I did think it was mean-spirited. I told her the rules, no parking without a pass between 9:00pm – 6:00am, and that if you got towed, it cost about $500 to get your car back. None of this had been explained to her. How she missed the large white signs with serious red lettering that are all over the complex and that explain all this, I do not know. She told me that last week she saw five cars get towed and she’d had no idea why. I didn’t know why her car wasn’t number six but I didn’t ask.

Me having her car towed would have been an act of quiet violence. Imagine waking up for work, not seeing your car and getting a little dizzy because you were sure where you parked it but maybe there was something you were missing. Maybe if you thought back and thought hard you could remember something that would tell you exactly where your car was.

You call the police, find out your car’s been towed because of something that management never warned you about. You have to get yourself to the towing company, pay the fine and try to come back to world but you can’t because you’re confused and angry and impotent and on top of it, you’re late for work.

Why can’t I remember the phantoms I get angry at – like other drivers – are people. Why is it always that other people are traffic? Why can’t I remember it feels better to be kind? The paradox is I have what I give. When I’m angry I’m the one who suffers. The driver in front of me who’s going 45 in a 50mph zone is oblivious to the rage I feel because I want to go faster. It doesn’t matter that it’s a speed limit, not a minimum speed. Nor does it matter that I’m rushing for rushing’s shake, not because I’m late for anything.

But when I’m kind I am soothed. Like when I stop to let someone turn in front of me because the traffic’s heavy. I see the tension leave their face as they wave in thanks. Their gratitude and relief are my own.

I miss Philip’s little kindnesses. When he was a kid he’d call because Sandy had no money to get home and no parent who would come to the rescue. Or because Mark didn’t realize he didn’t have enough money to pay for the dessert he ordered at the cafe they hung out in. I gave Philip money to take care of them because it pained me that there were kids out there whose parents were absent. But once I reminded him he was being generous with my money and like it or not, he couldn’t save the world.

I didn’t trust these kids that I didn’t know. Maybe this is how they live, taking advantage when they could. Maybe they were laughing because they got over on me and Philip. But maybe that’s just the way I look at things. Maybe Philip’s way was something for me to think about – if someone’s in need, you help. Was that it? Or did he just want them to like him? Or did he like the power of coming to the rescue? Or all of the above? And I was about to say that I’ll never know, but that’s not true. If it’s that important to me I can still talk to him about it. Not in the way I want to, but in the way that is so.

There was a price I paid to be a dependable mom, and I paid it gladly. I was the one who got called when someone needed to be picked up or dropped off. I was the one Philip called when he needed to be at the airport at 5:00 in the morning to fly to a fencing meet. I was the one who took the kids to Six Flags every year, who took 12-year-old Natalie and three of her friends to Disneyland and then to Santa Monica, the other parents asking, Are you sure you want to do this?

I was sure. It was my deep need I was trying to fill by taking care of what my children needed. It was my longing to be taken care of that made me so quick to care for them. It was my wanting to be loved that made me love them so hard.

And it was my need to find my way home that made me want to be home for them.

© 2016 Denise Smyth

Is it Better?

I miss my son.

I am still shocked, and part of me feels like a dying tree, oozing sap and rotting away. When work is over and no friends are around, it’s just me and my grief. How am I supposed to do this? Is there some sort of answer to that? I can’t look to the world for it – the world is insane. Grasping , needing and killing to get what it wants. And what it wants is Power. What’s done in the name of power is psychotic. It’s never enough, there’s always more power to want. More ways to be right, to prove that you exist. But there’s no real satisfaction in being right. It’s like an addiction – because being satisfied with being right just once is no more possible than an addict’s first snort being his last.

Except when it kills him.

In “True Detective,” Marty asks Rust if he’s Christian. “No,” he says. “Well what are ya?” Rust doesn’t want to have this conversation, but he answers, “I’m a Realist. But in philosophical terms, I’m a Pessimist.”

I’ve never heard of Pessimism as a philosophy. So I did a little research, read Thomas Ligotti’s, “The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.” And one of the things he wrote about was the question of why it’s assumed that it’s better to be here than to not. I imagine you can’t get much traction with that because most people take it for granted that it’s better to be. Of course it is, right? But why, exactly? Forget my suffering. What about those women – those girls – that were rounded up by some terrorist organization in Iraq to be given to men so they can marry them or rape them or subject them to any degradation they choose?  Or people whose families became collateral damage in a war they neither wanted nor started? Or all the hungry kids, the abused kids – all over the world there is suffering I cannot even imagine. So is it better – is it always better – to be? We can’t answer that since we don’t know what it is to “not be.” We don’t if it’s better. Or worse. Or just the same. We just know we’re terrified of it.

And Pessimism isn’t Hamlet’s, “To be or not to be.” Hamlet was contemplating suicide. Pessimism is about coming into being at all. I thought about it for a while, until I circled back to the fact that while I found Pessimism fascinating, it wasn’t some kind of answer. No matter how much I debate it, I’m here. Whether’s it’s better to be here or not is irrelevant. I’m here and Philip’s dead, so now what?

Living. I’m as hung up on what that means as I am about death. And I’m not feeling good about either of them. “Mom, you have to work it out where you are,” Philip said. Which sucked the juice out of the fantasy of wanting to die – whatever I’ve been angry, depressed and twisted about for most of my life is my life. When I’m sitting here writing, this is my life. When I get up to pee then that will be my life. Life is not some separate path or some thing Out There that I’ll get to one of these days. Out There is the fantasy of the future, which only ever comes as now. Life is what it is. Every breath is life lived and it is one of these same, ordinary breaths that are going to be our last.

When Natalie was a  freshman at Rutgers, she was miserable. It was more than being homesick. It was misery. I was trying to help her get through that first year, at the end of which she could transfer. Accept it, leave it or change it, I told her. So she stayed. She applied to other colleges. But it wasn’t enough. She was torn and I wanted to help. We talked a lot. She’d often go visit her boyfriend in New York on weekends, then come home to Montclair on Sunday evening so I could drive her back to Rutgers. I loved my Sunday nights in the car with her. For 45 minutes we’d talk and talk and once we talked so much I missed the exit.

Two weeks before Philip died, we were talking about death. “You know everything won’t be here one day. Everything. One day this car won’t be here. This highway – it won’t be here, either.” I hesitated before I added, “I won’t be here,” because I didn’t want to scare her. But I’m going to die like everyone else and not talking about it won’t change that.

I told her that I didn’t think death was the end. “I don’t know what happens, but something’s left. Whatever you want to call it. Call it soul, call it energy. But something is animating my body – and when my body dies, that something remains.” I also told her that I had no idea what happened with that soul, that energy. I wasn’t talking reincarnation, I wasn’t talking heaven. I believe there is more than we see, but what that is I can’t say.

“Of course,” I added, “If anything happened to you or Philip, all bets are off.”

And this was around the time Natalie said to her boyfriend, “I am afraid my brother’s going to die.”

Philip’s death forces me to think about what life and death are. And this is what he said to me a while ago: “Mom, I’m trying to teach you what death isn’t. But you have to look to Natalie for life. If you don’t, nothing I say will mean anything.”

And all along I thought what he meant was all the signs, the messages, and the guidance were proof that death isn’t the end, that he’s around and always will be. But that’s only part of it. He’s also trying to get it through my head that death isn’t an answer to the way I feel. Because in spite of what I know and what I’ve experienced, when I’m grieved and terrified I think that death has got to be the answer. I am back to crying every day for Philip. I’m trapped because there are too many moments when I think that I just can’t do this – but I’m here and I have to and that’s when I get to thinking death must be a way out. And I’m reminded of when I was in labor, when I had that same terror because the pain was too much and there was nothing I could do – and a voice in my head said, “There’s no way out but through.”

People thought I was crazy for having my babies at home when I could go to the hospital and have the pain of it all relieved in some  chemical way. Had I done that, I would have missed that voice. And that’s the voice that’s brought me full circle and made every scream and exhausting push worth all of it.

So to all of you who have lost a child, to you who’ve lost a deeply loved one, what is life for you? And for you who have other children to look to, what do you see? What I see when I look at Natalie is complicated. She is not the girl who came home from Rutgers. Two-and-a-half years later she is a light and a joy. Her life is full of what she wants. She vibrates – when Natalie is in a room, you know it. I have loved watching her come alive. But watching her also puts distance between us. She is happy, I am not. She is full of life, I am dispirited. It seems so easy for her, this thing called life. I think I’m angry, I think I’m envious. I think I’m dejected because I tamp my anger down so hard it’s exhausting. I can’t deal with it; I’m angry that Philip’s dead, that Natalie’s moving out, that people think it’s okay to be here and I don’t.

And I’m angry that I don’t even know if that’s true.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

“Hand to God”

A couple Sundays ago Kirsten took me to see a play, “Hand to God.” It was set mostly in a church rec room, and had five characters. Seven if you count the puppets. Three were teenagers – Jason, Jessica and Timothy, – one was the pastor of the church, the other was Margery, Jason’s newly-widowed mom, who was supposed to be teaching the kids puppetry. Jason was there because Mom insisted, Timothy was there while his Mom went to twelve step meetings, and Jessica was there because, well, she was “more into Balinese shadow puppetry,” but she’ll take what she can get.

But the real star of the show was Tyrone, Jason’s evil demon hand puppet. Jason steadily loses control over him – Tyrone even shows up in Jason’s bed after he takes him off one night. “He’s making me do bad things,” Jason tells Margery. Jason is a shy, troubled kid, and Tyrone becomes his mouthpiece. If Jason’s thinking it, Tyrone’s saying it. And if you’re thinking anything with a puppet or two is silly, it’s not so funny when Tyrone bites a bloody chunk of Timothy’s ear off. Or when, in desperation to be rid of him, Jason starts hacking Tyrone – in other words, his hand – with a hammer, and accidentally smashes his mother’s while he’s at it.

To paraphrase Tyrone – “self-hatred’s a bitch.”

Anger and lust drive the play. The pastor wants to sleep with Margery, who rebuffs him. Timothy also wants to sleep with Margery, who doesn’t rebuff him. Jason is smitten with Jessica, and Tyrone lets her know in his vulgar way. And before the show is over, Jessica’s puppet will have dirty puppet sex with Tyrone.

Two weeks later I’m still thinking about that play. That’s what happens with art, when you see yourself in it. Jason’s overwhelmed by his rage at Margery for being a shitty wife and mother. I’ve lived overwhelmed by rage, and my version of hammer-smashing my hand was drinking, vomiting and refusing to take care of myself, some of which I talked about here and here.

 There’s so many levels of disturbing in “Hand to God” that it’s hard to parse – not the least being the tragic hilarity of it all. Everyone – with the possible exception of Jessica – was unhappy and none of them knew what to do about it. And when the play was over, there wasn’t any resolution. Margery and Jason can bond over their mutually bloodied hands, but that won’t fix the history between them. And in spite of his viciousness, I felt like I lost something when Tryone was killed off before the end of the play, when there was nothing but the “real” characters left. But after the lights went out and the players disappeared, a spotlight shone above the stage, and there was Tyrone. Miss me? he asked; C’mon. You know you did.

What’s up with that? I couldn’t be the only one glad to see him. Tyrone the Terrorist was seductive and exciting. He was the best thing in a play filled with terrific. But I want to know why. I want to know why I’m so drawn to the dark side. “I don’t think I liked the play so much,” Kirsten said. “I really didn’t like what Jason did to his hand.” It bothered her – she has a limit to how far down she’ll go. Where’s my limit? What am I looking for in that dark? I believe that’s where I’ll find something real. Something raw and primal and so far down I can scream until I exhaust myself numb.

“You have to learn to like the light,” Philip tells me. He doesn’t say “love” – that’s too much right now. I’m drawn to gray days, to rain and thunder, to storms which don’t happen often enough. Melanie told me there’s a word for that – pluviophile. Lover of rain. I don’t think there’s anything to learn from lightness. I’ve been watching a lot of TV series, a lot of movies, and it’s making the way I experience life clearer. Entertainment is either a black or light image to me. When I hear “chick flick,” I think Waste of Time. When I hear drama, I’m seduced. I want the treachery – give me “Pulp Fiction,” “American History X,” “True Detective,” “Requiem For A Dream.” Let something besides my own morbid thoughts bring me to that darkness because if I see it outside of me I won’t be so alone with it – and maybe somewhere in that depravity I can figure out how to live with grief and death.

In “True Detective,” Rust says that with humans, “nature made a tragic misstep in evolution.” I thought about why someone would say that. And what I thought was how hard it is to be here, even if you get through without a major tragedy. First off, we live knowing we’re going to die, and since we don’t know what happens when we do, it’s terrifying. And it’s not only our own death we have to deal with. People we love will die, which can be a worse thing to suffer than any nightmare we might have had about dying ourselves. Then there’s the fact that we need each other, yet it’s so hard to get along. Especially when we’re wanting to be right more than we’re wanting to be loved. The world’s like a big refracting mirror. Our personal arguments are reflected in larger social arguments, which are reflected in even larger political arguments, which often culminate in the most massive, monstrous argument of all – war. If we take a look at what’s going on around us, it’s clear that as a species, we’re insane.

We deal with our tragedies in the context of the way we live, which means crisis brings out the past. So when Rust says we are mistakes of nature, that’s what his life has brought him to. What do I bring to my suffering? Philip’s death is my Sisyphus. The shock of it hurled me back to some personal, primitive beginning that I thought was long gone. But that’s the thing – life isn’t linear. It’s now, it’s all happening now. I brought the grief of a lifetime to Philip’s death. I’m torn and twisted and it’s hard to untangle the grief from the drama. When Philip said, “Don’t make my death into something it isn’t,” he meant don’t bring the past into this. And much as I’m talking about the void I’m attracted to, Philip’s in a light so profound I can only pray to have a glimpse of it. That’s the light that burns the past out of us, the light that leads to the Divine. And burning “the past out of us” has nothing to do with forgetting. I’m talking about a psychic past where we react based on the self we’ve created and so stay stuck in our stories. To burn the past out is to bring a freshness and wonder to whatever is now, including death and grief. And that doesn’t mean happy – it means clarity.

So on the one hand, I say I need the dark to understand death. On the other, I say it’s light that leads to transcendence. Do I even know what the hell I believe?

There’s so much I don’t understand. There are people who, after their child has died, reach a point where they find life more precious than ever. Is it because they loved life before, and so now appreciate its brevity the more? When I was a kid, I loved music. My parents gave me a transistor radio in a brown leather case that went wherever I did. When my mom would get mad at me, she’d take my radio away. She took a piece of me with it. “Didn’t you want music even more, when your radio was gone?” my therapist asked. So loss of something makes you want it more. But how’s that supposed to translate? Philip’s death has made me want his life more, not mine.

More, next…

© 2014 Denise Smyth

What I Write

Lividity is when someone dies and the blood pools in their body based on the position they’re in. The skin turns dark. Philip was dead in his room for two days. He was lying on his back when his friends found him. One of the things I tortured myself about for months was thinking about what his body looked like, how all the blood had pooled on the back of it. I wished I’d never heard of lividity.

I knew that body wasn’t Philip any longer but it didn’t matter. I cried to think he was alone in his room for two days, to think that maybe he realized he was going to die and he was frightened; to think of him being handled by other people, put in a body bag, lying in the morgue. And now – I can look at it like he’s left this world and doesn’t get to live his life. Or I can look at it like he’s woken from this dream and so is spared the grief.

I’m grateful I wasn’t the one who found Philip. I used to wonder why we never see what a dead body really looks like, why the guy at the funeral parlor fixes them up first. You know what? Thank God. If I had to look at Philip in a coffin, better he looked like himself than what he looked like when his friends found him.

I thought about this because of an essay I read, which I’m linking to here.

My last post was a link, and I was about to end this one the same way. That’s not like me – and not that there’s anything wrong with linking. These two posts are just that good. But two in a row, plus not posting for two weeks, had me wondering, “What’s up with that?”

I started a ten-week writing class in January. It was hard to work on the assignments, as well as blog. Not because I didn’t have the time. Time doesn’t equal energy – I can only write for so long. And going from essay to blog post and back again was no easy transition. That would’ve been enough to deal with without my increasing frustration with the class. I had some real problems with V., the teacher. But that’s not the point. The point was I waited nine weeks to tell her what was going on. I acted like a resentful child, pleading sick when I didn’t want to go, until I went as far as I don’t want to write that assignment, and you can’t make me. And it’s not like I didn’t see what I was doing. I was paralyzed all the same.

Sometimes I think that since Philip died, what the hell else could bother me? Sometimes I think things bother me more because my emotional immune system is whacked. One thing’s for sure – his dying doesn’t give me a free pass. The things I was trying to work out before he died still have to be worked out. Like what went on in that writing class.

I’ve written about the way we take a situation – a set of facts – and turn it into a story where we’re writer, producer, executive director, star and victim. So if we see what we’re doing, we can stop, right? It’s that simple, but it isn’t easy. Some of my stories are old as I am, have a life and momentum of their own. It’s beyond thinking – my body gets involved. In fact, I’m not exactly aware of what I’m thinking because I’m consumed with reacting, wrung out and twisted and so terrified that I’m confused about what’s really going on or what to say about it.

So with V. I turned the problems I was having with her into she didn’t like me, wasn’t paying attention to me, wasn’t giving me what I needed. Blaming her rather than taking responsibility. Continuing the class with some secret hope that next time would be different, walking away pissed off and disappointed when it wasn’t. But why would it be? It was my version of “Ground Hog Day ” – doing the same thing over and over and thinking it’d turn out differently.

It didn’t help that I started class by announcing I wanted to use the assignments to write about something other than Philip. Did I forget who I was, who I am? That was a ridiculous and unrealistic pressure to put on myself because I do not want to write about something other than Philip. And what I write isn’t about “Philip.” It’s about me. What his death has done to me, what it feels like to live in the aftermath. This is hard, hard stuff. Writing’s a way I abide it. When I can abide it at all.

When writing is an assignment, it becomes a “have-to.” And it’s fine to say as a writer, I should be able to finish something when I have word count or a deadline. But I’m not living in a world of word counts or deadlines. I’m living in a world without. I don’t recognize it, I don’t like it, I don’t want it. When I’m with my daughter, when I’m at work, when I see Kirsten or Harriet, when I write – I crystalize. I feel it all, all of it. But then I’m driving or walking the dogs or sitting on the couch alone and it’s like trying to stand up in a rowboat during a monsoon.

It took nine weeks – as well as conversations with Ed, Kirsten and my daughter – for me to get the nerve to tell V. I wasn’t going to the last class.  “I’m like a child,” I told Natalie, who tilted her head and stared at me with a face full of  are-you-kidding-me?  “What do I say?”

“How about that class isn’t helping you?” she answered.

Result? V. and I talked about what was going on, and while I still didn’t go to the last class, I was out of the drama around it. In other words, I realized V. was not my mother.

And as far as what I write about, V said writers write about what they can’t stop talking about. I’d say we write about what we want to keep talking about but have to stop talking about because nobody wants to listen. So we write for others to read because we need that connection. I’m not saying “nobody” wants to listen to me about Philip. But it’d be impossible for anyone to listen to all I need to say, as impossible as it would be for me to keep talking. My throat would be scorched from the all of it.

It’s not for me to say, “I’m not going to write about Philip.” This is my need. For now, the writing is writing me.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Door Number Three?

A couple things happened this past week which don’t particularly seem related but are if only because there’s either the familiar, self-destructive way to deal with them or the way that I can say lots of really smart things about, but seem unable to actually do.

These couple things are also about writing; what it is I’m doing here writing this blog where I take pause and look at the sorrow of my son having died and what all that means because it’s not only changed whatever I thought the future was going to be, it’s changed the way I see the past. And it’s forced me into constant reckoning with the fact that there only, ever is Now.

I work this out here because we’ve all an ancient need to tell and to hear our stories, and we live in a time where we’ve got virtual communities to do so.

A couple weeks ago I started a short term writing class about how to publish personal essays, which I thought would be easy since I’ve a got a blog full of them. Except it doesn’t work like that.  After reading aloud the couple pieces I’d brought in, the woman who’s running the class said – and in the gentlest way possible – that what I’ve written doesn’t work in the way I’ve written it and this should go here and that should go there and the rest of it isn’t necessary and on and on until I felt like she was taking what I’d written and making it into something I wasn’t trying to say. But the worst thing about it was that I didn’t hear it. I thought it worked, exactly as I’d written it. That I can’t hear what I’m writing is beyond dismaying.

And into the mix came a cryptic email from a long-time long-distance friend X who I haven’t heard from in a month and a half or so and who wrote that she’s “been reading my blogs” and decided that “Natalie must feel like not only did her brother die, but her mother has as well. She must be very lonely;” and that she’s an “innocent victim of my grief.  Why else would she want to spend more time at Phil’s.”

And, she says, her only reason for saying this is because she’s worried about Natalie, who I’m not sure she’s ever even met and if she did, it was when Natalie was a wee bit of a thing. Because had she met her, the last thing she’d call my scrappy, in-your-face, don’t-mess-with-me daughter is a victim of anything.

But reading that shook me up and began an obsessive chain of thinking that echoed back through the years of when I didn’t know better. The years spent locked in relationships (not only romantic ones) where I swore I was the victim and the closest I got to seeing what my part was was to say, well, I must have a part ‘cause it takes two but I’ll be damned if I know what it is because she is so doing that to me.

Obsessiveness and writing don’t work for me, in spite of my writing teacher suggesting the reason I keep writing about Philip is because I’m obsessed. I see “obsessed” as blinding and shortsighted which maybe isn’t at all how she meant it, but that’s how I took it and so twice in one week I decided I was the victim of a world that I always knew I didn’t belong in.

I’m not obsessed with Philip. When he first died, and for at least that first year – that’s obsessed. What the hell else would I be? And for that year, I – who at the time of his death was 150 pages into what I saw as a hot and sexy memoir – was not able to write a word because the grief-obsession duo made everything move too quickly to capture in words and drained me of both the will and energy to do so.

So now I feel like the contestant in Monty Hall’s Let’s Make A Deal who has to choose between Door Number One or Door Number Two or Door Number Three, except that what’s behind them is no secret to me. Behind Door Number One is angst and depression because I am what I write and if I can’t make a goddamn essay with the thousands of words that I’ve already written, then what the fuck am I here for? Behind Door Number Two is self-righteous victimhood and insecurity because how dare she and who the fuck does she think she is but maybe she’s right and what kind of mother am I, what kind of person with my goddamn tale of woe and what’s wrong with me that I still haven’t gotten with the program?

Then there’s Door Number Three, which is where truth lies and you’d think it’d be easy to walk through that door, but it isn’t. It hasn’t the obsessive seduction of tearing X apart and stomping through her bloody remains, or of watching myself whither away because the Teacher likes everyone but me and I can’t write and I can’t live without my son and life’s a big suck ball so why can’t I please just fucking die.

Behind Door Number Three lies the meaning of “it takes two.” Because first there’s the fact of what happens, and then there’s the way I choose to look at it. And that is how one creates a life.

A blog post is not, in fact, an essay. There’s the possibility of it turning into one, but it’s hard. I can choose to try to do that, or I can work on an essay instead of a blog post. I can choose to put my energy into what it takes to get published now, or I can continue to learn about it and try to make it happen later on. That’s all; there isn’t any drama here. There’s figuring out what I want to do, then figuring out how to get it done.

And this situation with X, which is too perfect: here I am suffering a death I consider way more tragic than my own, and what I thought was her loving hand was really holding a knife. And when I tell this story like that, I can get my goddamn ego stroked because no one should treat a grieving mother like that and how much better am I ’cause I’d never, ever do such a thing. And there was a time that would have satisfied me, but at the price of having to repeat my sad story until it grew flimsy and full of holes, but then sure enough along would come another injustice and I could start all over again.

But how about I change the story. How about I say…nothing happened. It’s a fact, of course, that X wrote those things. But what’s that change about me or my life? If I think it matters that much and I attack back, then I must think I’m small and weak and that someone’s words can threaten me, can change something fundamental about me.

What if I changed the story to understand that X is in her own pain, because people don’t lash out if they’re not. And if that’s true, why do I want to make it worse with a counterattack? Contrary to the laws of this world, we have what we give. If I shoot poison at her, I have that poison, which comes from an ever-replenishing well where the more I give, the more I have.

AA talks about detaching with love. Whatever, I used to think. Not so much any more. And I mean love as in keeping an open heart. I’m not saying I have to send flowers to X and tell her what she said didn’t matter and everything’s all Kumbaya. I’m way too human for that, and the fact is, it does hurt. Detaching with love means seeing this friendship has been fraught with difficulty and if I don’t like the way I’m treated, I end it. But I keep my heart open because when it shuts down in response to the pain I blame someone else for, all it does is shut that pain deep inside of it. That’s what the light’s about, the diamond Philip offered me. That’s the light that burns through the suffering and transmutes it first into something bearable and eventually to the joy that’s its other side.

And I am working on it, because no one feels the deadliness of my anger more than I do.

© 2013 Denise Smyth