“Sixty”

There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is suffering too terrible to name
You hold your child as tight as you can
And push away the unimaginable
The moments when you’re in so deep
It feels easier to just swim down…

“It’s Quiet Uptown” – sung by Angelica from Hamilton

When Philip died I couldn’t find the words to describe it. It was easier to just swim down. One year later I started a blog because I had so much to say. I am still a mother whose child has died. I have need to talk about him but I don’t know what I want to say. His name – I rarely say his name to anyone and that hurts. In the car, when I’m alone, I talk out loud to him. I say his name. I love him.

I still want to scream at the world my child has died as if the world would reach round and cover me with a big, fluffy blanket, tuck me in, stand guard. But it’s not about the world and that’s the good news. Because a world that won’t take me in its arms also won’t attack. I don’t think Philip’s death was something done to me. It is something that happened and not a day goes by that I don’t wrestle with it. “There’s a grace too powerful to name,” Angelica sings, the other side of the suffering. And I know this. How can I explain that through Philip’s death I have known grace? I would not have chosen to find it this way, but here I am.

Because of where Philip’s death brought me, what it taught me. For whatever I might give in to, I refuse to let it turn into bitterness. Sorrow, soft and quiet, yes. This might be grace. The depth of my love for Philip matches the depth of my grief. Something inside broke when he died, but that dark and terrible place has another side. There is truth in that depth, there is a way to light if I choose. Philip’s love – our love – is my light and comfort. Whatever comes and goes, love remains. So I turn to him and let myself feel that. That is the big fluffy blanket I long for.

I am lonely for love. As much as I feel Philip’s love, I want to rest my head on someone’s shoulder, be held. I am starving for it. There are times when my insides feel like they’re collapsing for want of pressing against someone I love, someone who loves me. Then I pull back — it’s easier to be alone, I think. I’ve seen too much. And I’m turning 60 next year — is it too late?

I’m reading a book called Sixty by Ian Brown, a diary of his 61st year, which I expected to laugh and commiserate with. Instead I’m horrified. Brown talks of the world having no use for the aging — but what world? Surely in his personal world his friends and family have plenty of use for him. Brown is an active guy. He bikes, hikes, skis, goes kayaking. But he talks of his aches and pains, that come with aging and maybe in part from the wear and tear of exercising. Maybe I’ve no aches and pains because I don’t exercise. This bothers me because I used to all the time, and for years now I’ve refused to move. I’m getting older and think I should take long walks, but I cannot force myself.

Brown seems to be making 60 define his life. I don’t think about it that way — I think I’ll define 60. I don’t feel so much older than those around me, including the young woman my daughter’s age whom I work with. I look good, I feel good, I have a lot of energy, all things Brown complains about. He even questions the way he dresses, while I make an art of it. That’s what scares me about the book. I work to not let the world define me. Why should age matter in terms of what the world expects of me? Yes, things change. There are adjustments coming at me that I can’t yet fathom. But to spend a year looking at my life through the lens of my age is nuts.

It’s not that I’m not aware of my age, or that I never think about it. I changed jobs three months ago. My boss is handsome. Classically tall, dark, and good-looking. He’s the kind of guy I look up on the internet so I can show my friends what he looks like and watch them swoon. The kind of guy I always considered out of my league. Two weeks ago he threw himself a fiftieth birthday bash in a house on a lake, which included fireworks that spun glittering down from the sky around us. Yes, around us. Some people ran for cover. His age, his handsomeness, makes me think I’m getting old. Sure, he is, too, but at 59, 50 feels young, and he seems to have the world by the balls. And we all know men my age are looking down the decades for women which leaves me with…

Oh, bullshit. So what if men, in fact, look for younger women? That’s about getting laid. I’ve no problem with getting laid (except for the problem of no partner), but I want something more than sex, the thing that makes the sex mean something. Not that I do anything about it. In fact, I pointedly do nothing about it, the way I stay home so much. The only guys I meet are the ones in the current TV series I’m into. And we know where those relationships lead.

Philip’s been spared the pain of this life. Yes, you say, but he also misses the beauty and wonder. Except lately those are just words to me because there’s a lot more hurt than anything else. And the constant work of trying to see the other side of the hurt is exhausting. This doesn’t mean I think he’s better off dead. Beauty and wonder come from inside. Philip had it. He was it. He took it when he died, and it’s my work to remind myself that no, he really didn’t.

© 2017 Denise Smyth

Forgotten

When my kids were little I used to tell them life isn’t fair, but we try to be. Life isn’t fair or unfair – it just is. We’re the ones who decide what life is by the way we think about it. We’re all going to die. What’s unfair about that? I mean, what if no one died? On the simplest level, we wouldn’t fit on the planet. Everything goes in cycles, everything changes, all things end. It’s more helpful to observe the way life is than to decide how it should be. So many people have said to me that Philip shouldn’t have died. Really? How can anyone know that? What matters “should?” That he died is my sorrow, but I can’t see the bigger picture we’re all part of. I want him to come home, but “shoulds” are not for me. He has died and I have to live with it. It’s not fair or unfair.

As for good-bye – there are things that do not have “closure.” The very idea doesn’t make sense. If the definition of closure is to bring to an end, how can you possibly have “closure” when someone you love dies? I think the yearning for closure is wanting the pain to stop. But as long as you love, you’re vulnerable to pain. Closure and acceptance are different. Acceptance is when you stop fighting what’s so – that’s all. It doesn’t mean you’re happy about it. And “moving on.” What’s that supposed to mean? I’ve said a million times, you don’t move on, you live with. I will never “move on” from Philip’s death. I don’t live in wild, crazy grief any more, but I’ve a deep, abiding sorrow. It’s quiet, and it’s always there. But that’s the other side of my love for my son. I can’t get rid of one without the other.

Facing death is our biggest challenge, and we do everything we can to avoid it. I don’t think we even realize what we do – go to the gym, stay in shape, wear the right clothes…what is it all for? It’s to prolong life, thereby avoiding death. I get just as caught up in it as anyone. Death is terrifying because we don’t know what it is. When someone we love dies it affects us deeply and irrevocably. You change a little every time. Grief doesn’t go away any more than love goes away.

Death is the last and biggest change. All the changes we go through in life can help prepare us if we stop resisting them. Every time we release an emotion, release a fear, we’re getting ready for death.

What would life be without death? What would make us stop and think and try to make sense of life if there was no death? Death shows us what’s important, time makes us forget. I have forgotten. I am too much in the world these days, too much at the whim of what’s happening instead of letting it be. My new job is a challenge. And instead of remembering I’m competent, I’m riddled with anxiety. I forget to eat because that’s what I do when I’m anxious. And if I think of eating, my throat closes down.

Such old behavior. I can’t control the work that’s thrown at me, but I can control what I eat. Not eating feels powerful – a need that I’ve turned from. And by the end of my work day, when I know I should eat something before I go home, I’ll pick on my salad or eat slow spoonfuls of yogurt. My upsets always tie into food. For years I had bulimia. On and off, but when I was on, I went full blast. When Philip died, first I whittled my 5’4″ self down to 100 lbs. And when I could no longer stand the hunger, I started eating and throwing up. Punishing myself, because when something goes wrong, that’s what I do. I did it until the violence of what I was doing to my body started to scare me. I’d shove my finger down my parted throat and strain so hard my insides felt like they were coming out the other end. I had to rid myself of what felt wrong and dirty. Until my eyes were bloodshot and my head was throbbing . Until my body felt as empty as my life did.

In the years following Philip’s death I began to see what was important. I understood – no, I knew – that whatever it was, I could put space between me and it. Like if I took a new job, my real work was not Excel spreadsheets and vendor payments. It was the way I treated what I was doing. Every situation is an opportunity to make meaning, to learn how to love. And what are we here for if not to learn how to love? How, exactly, does Excel teach love? It doesn’t. It’s what I make of it. If I remember that what I’m doing matters to my boss, if I work to give him what he needs, if I do it with care and respect, that, right there, is love. Because love is not merely a feeling, it’s a state of being.

But I’ve been panicking a lot, feeling like what I do isn’t good enough, waiting to be exposed. Drama, drama, drama. I can’t seem to get myself out of it. Then I go home and hibernate. I don’t know how to make a life I could enjoy. I would say the biggest reason is the nasty, nattering voice in my head that I goddamn can’t stop listening to.

The anxiety I feel at work turns into helplessness when I go home. I want to move but the thought overwhelms me. I want to be inside but I think I should be out. Sometimes it’s like I’m just waiting to die because what’s it for, anyway. I have forgotten. When Philip died I was plunged into a life I couldn’t scramble out of. Eventually I began to work with the void and understood why it’s called “fertile.” But my heart’s closed along the way. Along with that writing’s been tough. I can’t write when I’m shut down.

More on that later…

© 2017 Denise Smyth

“In Memory”

I watched “Outlander” recently. (SPOILER ALERT: if you’re planning on watching it, you might not want to read the next few paragraphs.) The protagonists are Claire and Jaime, who are deeply in love. At one point, the story jumps forward twenty years and we see Claire visiting Jamie’s grave. She’d just come from the wake of a reverend she’d known for many years. At the wake was a young man the reverend had taken in as a child and raised and who was grieving the reverend. He sat down to talk to Claire. “How do you say good-bye?” he asked. “I don’t know,” she answered.

Claire sat at the grave for a while. For twenty years she’d been missing Jaime. She talked to him, then told him she was going to say something she’s never said before. And what she said was,” Good-bye.”

Fuck that.

Philip once told me he was in the place of no good-byes. Why would anyone want to say good-bye to someone they love? It’s bad enough they’re dead. But you still love them and so can have a relationship with them. Not the one you want, but the one you have. To say “good-bye” is to cut off. I don’t believe one can really say “good-bye” to someone they love deeply. And a child? Can one really say that to their child? Because when someone you love dies, when your child dies, your life changes irrevocably. You can go back to your job and back to the gym and continue doing whatever you were doing before death paid a visit. But you’ve changed, you feel the loss hovering always in the background.

It is not your child you say good-bye to, it is not your child you let go of. What you stop resisting is the fact of what death has taken from you, all the pain that it makes you feel. Not at first, not all at once. But grief opens up spaces within us. Those spaces make us vulnerable not only to heartbreak, but to joy. Joy seems to have no place here. But the joy of the love between you and your child remains. Nothing, not even death, can take that away.

Would that I pay attention to my words.

“In Memory.” Words I want to run from. They, along with “Rest in Peace,” are some of the most devastatingly sad words I know. Last week, Thursday, February 23rd, was the fifth anniversary of Philip’s death. My brother and sister-in-law, who never forget, made a donation to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in memory of him. Those two words were on the front of the card that came to tell me. “In Memory.” No, I want to cry out. He’s not just a memory, he’s more than that. But is he? Philip is round me. He talks to me, comforts me, sends me signs every day. I try to stay there, in that grace. But then there’s the other side, the fact of sight and touch, the conversations, all the things I miss because he isn’t here the way I want him to be.

Fighting that is useless. I know this. I don’t blame anyone for Philip’s death, I don’t think “God” did this. God doesn’t meddle in people’s lives, but he sure makes a good scapegoat. I don’t fret that there’s something I could have done, if only I… There wasn’t anything I could have done. Philip’s death is something that happened to us and we are in this together. Wishing things were otherwise is a waste of time, time that could be spent in life, life that feels like forever without Philip here but will feel like a blip when I face my own death. Where did it all go, I will wonder. Am I ready? It won’t matter. Ready or not, when it’s time, it’s time. Death is the one certainty in life.

This anniversary was particularly difficult. I didn’t go to work. I spent the morning with Natalie and the rest of the day with Kirsten. But I could take no comfort, in spite of all the ways Kirsten took care of me, in spite of the fact that people reached out to say they cared. My boss, who I’ve known for two and a half weeks, reached out to me. Phil called me first thing in the morning. I could have cried. What would it be like, I wonder, if we were still together, if I had him to talk to about Philip because he is his father, because we were a family. I envy people who have each other when tragedy strikes. But we live with the choices we make, fantasies notwithstanding. Tragedies tear people apart probably as often as they bring them together.

Still, I’m lonely. I’m lonely for Philip, lonely in my grief for him. My mind goes to terrible places. It’s hard to talk about. I had a difficult childhood. For so long I wished I was dead – what other way was there to stop the pain? I tried drugs and alcohol but all that did was land me in AA. Somewhere along the line I lost any appreciation I might have had for being alive. I have not recovered. When I see my daughter, my heart springs open. She is my love. But when she’s not here, it’s almost like she doesn’t exist. When she leaves I’m back to my lonely world, the one I’ve created in my head. And Thursday, no matter who was around or who reached out, I couldn’t take it in. There was no place I wanted to be. And this is what I meant about it being hard to talk about – so often I just don’t want to be here, to be part of this. So often I feel living is hard and sorrowful more than anything else. There are people who are sick and dying and scared, and here I am, alive and well, often wishing I wouldn’t wake up in the morning. What regrets am I going to have when it’s my time to die?

Last Thursday I cried to be where Philip was, so great was my grief. I haven’t cried in a long time. I’ve felt myself going dead these last months rather than feel anything that hurts. But I can’t cut off one part of myself without affecting the whole. I can’t keep out pain without keeping out peace.

© 2017 Denise Smyth

The Leap

“Leap and the net will appear.”
John Burroughs

Philip’s phone line is still active. For $10 a month we get to call his phone and hear his voicemail voice. The automated  lady announces him, so all he says is his name, “Phil Smyth.” It doesn’t even sound like him. He’d started calling himself “Phil.” But he will ever be Philip to me.

His mailbox is full. I called Verizon once. “My son has died,” I cried. “I want to hear his messages.” The woman was kind. You need his phone, she told me. Call back when you have it and we’ll change the password so you can get into his phone and retrieve his messages.

I talked to Phil about it. He thought I was nuts, was reluctant to give me the phone, I didn’t push it. But now I want it. I want to do this. I want to read his texts, I want to hear what messages people left him. I don’t care if it tears me apart. These last months I’ve been so removed, so out of touch with what I feel about Philip that I’d like to be ripped open. I’d like to see if there’s something more to me than this surface life I feel I’m living.

I’ve talked about grief being a spiral, not a straight line where you start to get “better” and continue along. Grief expands and contracts, triggered by memory, triggered by love. And I’ve spiraled to the outer edges, to a place where I no longer try to make sense of Philip’s death or my life. I’m not stepping back, I make things too real, get too caught up. I am not steady. Tune into me and I’m comforted. Say something contrary and I make myself small as I can. Less of a moving target, less of me to feel pain.

I don’t write much because I have nothing to say. At least, that’s what I feel like. What am I to talk about? Can I keep telling you about Philip? I make no sense of his death now. I cry, I’m angry, I’m disconnected. Disconnected is the worst. I’d rather weep until my eyeballs fall out than be disconnected. Didn’t I say I wanted to make meaning, that what anything  meant was up to me? Didn’t I write reams about “Accept it, Leave it, Change it?” Wasn’t I in touch with the grace that is the other side of death? At least for a moment? Didn’t I believe?

I am a mother whose son has died. Every day I feel that. I don’t think about it in any useful way. I feel about it, feelings that shift with the wind. Diminished. Resigned. Angry. Bitter. Despair. Helpless. Disconnected. Then I look at his portrait for a while and know how deeply I love him and I weep.

I start a new job tomorrow. During the interview I told them Philip died. I don’t know why I said it – what did that have to do with the job? It didn’t. It had to do with me. That he died is an essential fact of my life and if I’m going to spend time with people, they have to know. That’s why I told them.

I decided months ago it was time for a new job. What angst over my resume, in spite of the fact that I had two friends willing to help. I can’t do it, I thought. Because I don’t know how to write about myself, because I don’t have a degree, because I think the world is my enemy and anyone interviewing me will shake their head and dismiss me. Because that’s the way my crazy brain works even though none of that’s true. And I have a resume – it just needed to be updated. Back in 2011 when I was looking for a job, I paid someone $500 to write my resume. She also wrote my LinkedIn profile, several cover letters, went over job-hunting strategies. I’ll put it in her hands again, I thought. Let her do what I can’t.

When I called her I found out she doesn’t update resumes. She takes you through the whole spiel for $1500. When I told her that was too expensive, she referred me to someone who charges less. For a mere $700 I could have a new resume.

I actually considered it. I wanted to pay to get this burden off me. She’ll make look good, I thought. I need someone to make me look good because I am not good at all.

God I’m sick of myself. At least, that side of myself. Not sick enough to be rid of it, though.

For several months I had anxiety about my resume. I’ll do it over Thanksgiving weekend, I said. I didn’t. I’ll do it over Christmas vacation, I said. The pressure was on. Work was getting difficult and with the new year coming I wanted to make a new start. I might  have been anxious about the resume, but the need to leave was stronger. Finally, I did it.

During my Christmas vacation I went to Kirsten’s house. Why don’t you google resumes, she suggested. Duh. So I googled exactly what I am – Construction Administrative Assistant. And there it was – a whole resume full of bullet points that said what I did more elegantly than I could have on my own. With Kirsten’s help I wrote my resume, wrote a cover letter and found a job ad on Craig’s List for an Administrative Assistant for a construction company.

After months of agonizing over all this, here’s what happened: Sunday I send the resume. Monday I get the call. Tuesday I get the interview. Wednesday I get the job.

Am I not blessed? How do I not get this?

Lately I’ve turned Philip’s death into a weapon against myself. I am damaged goods. I am angry I have to be this mom. I’m resentful because life goes on and it doesn’t care about Philip’s death. And that is not about grief as much as it’s about the way I have of talking to myself when I’m not vigilant. Let me be the voice in your head, Philip tells me. And if I did, none of this is what I’d be hearing.

I need to hold close the fact that everything passes. Life is in motion, ever changing. Every change is a little death. It’s also a chance to let go, to leap into the great unknown. One day I will pass, too, take the greatest leap of all. And when my time comes will I feel I wasted it in apathy, in anger? My life with Philip is forever changed – we will never be the way we were, but we are something different. His presence is as strong as ever – when I pay attention. You’d think I’d pay attention because that’s when I feel closest to him, this child that I need as much as I need air and food and water.

I no longer can live with his body, but I certainly can live in his love.

© 2017 Denise Smyth

Hurt

All things children hurt. School buses, even though my kids never went on one. Mothers holding hands with their little ones. Pregnant women. Diaper commercials. People talking about their children, saying “my son” because he is alive. Maybe I can still say, “my son,” but talking of him reminds me and whoever is listening that he’s dead, makes it real and uncomfortable.

Natalie and I were out and ran into C., a woman whose son is Philip’s age and whose daughter is a year younger than Natalie. The four of them were friends. I hadn’t seen C. since Philip’s funeral. Nothing, of course, is mentioned. Our hello-hug is held a little tighter, a little longer. “How are you?” is asked with an emphasis on “are.” “I’m doing good,” is my standard reply. The inconceivable has happened, this death that shocked and grieved me, that changed me and my family forever, but even the people who were affected by it keep a psychic distance. I think in part they do it for me. I think they’re afraid if they bring it up it might remind me, might hurt me. As if I don’t already think about Philip every day, as if it doesn’t hurt me every day, as if “hurt” is the word that comes close to describing what living with his death feels like.

And I think people don’t like to talk about it because of what they might feel. It’s not contagious, I want to say. Inevitable, but not contagious. Still, it’s death and it’s taboo. Do we think if we don’t talk about it, it won’t happen to us, to those we love? Do we think it’s better not to think about it, to deal with it when it’s too late and it steam rolls over you and if you’re lucky, you’ll have someone to peel you off the floor?

Philip was a young man when he died, but he is my child. He once had that innocence, that heartbreaking vulnerability I am reminded of when I see children. And much as he lost that innocence as we all do, he had a soft and tender heart. Which is exactly what keeps me close to him now, all the love that we were, that we are.

Sometimes I feel trapped. Philip’s not coming home. I will never have children again. I broke up my family when I left Phil. I might grow old alone. Life will have its way, not my way.

Much of what I feel comes from what I think. It doesn’t seem that way – emotions are what kick my ass, make it difficult to see that I am stirring them up by the stories I tell myself about the situations I find myself in. Reality becomes personal. In other words, it’s me that’s kicking my ass.

But Philip’s death is so big. I don’t know how to think about it any more, I don’t know what to say. I avoid. Which is why, in part, I haven’t been writing. I’m in protective mode. Like an opossum, I’m playing dead. I’d been reading through 18 binders of emails Ed and I wrote to each other from 1997 through 2013, the year after Philip died. I did it because I’m working on a memoir and I wanted to see what I’d written about my kids, what I could use for my work. I didn’t think about the fact that I’d also written about my mother. Had no idea that her past cruelty could shut me down. Because it’s not past, not really. It informs much of my life – too much of my life. She is so much a part of my story and I freeze when I think about writing about her.

After Philip died I was gutted. Everything poured out of me, so many words, so desperate to write my way through this. Devastating as his death was, I was alive. My heart was broken, but open. That’s where my words came from. There’s a place I go to when I write that I can’t now access. Even now I feel like I’m stringing sentences together. I can’t find my voice, can’t find the rhythm. I’m dull and hurt and shut down and all I want to do is quilt. I make beautiful quilts to hang on my walls. I play with my fabrics. I create. But I can’t quilt 24/7 and I find myself daydreaming about what I’m making and what I want to make because it soothes me. Too often I am unhappy. I don’t want to be at work, I don’t know what to do with myself afterward. I long for the weekends so I can get lost in my fabrics. I feel helpless about writing. The fire I had turned to ash.

I don’t want to be the mother whose son has died. I wrote so much in this blog about how pointless it is to argue with reality, yet here I am doing just that. And since that is so painful I shut it down. I don’t talk about Philip’s death, don’t write about it. I tell myself I can’t live with it – but that means I’m killing myself off. Resisting reality is resisting life.

I don’t yet understand what’s happening. I can’t find my sea legs. They must be there because I’ve had them before. But whatever this psychic regression is will not last. I think I’m going to emerge from this a different writer. I may feel helpless about getting back to my work, but I’m not hopeless.

© 2016 Denise Smyth

01/20/91 – #4

Today is Philip’s birthday. He would have been 25. Time has ceased for him in that way, and it has changed for me, too. I’m much more conscious that the only time it ever is, is now. That’s become a kind of meditation for me, this focusing on the present. Trying to stay focused on now does not leave Philip behind. He died nearly four years ago. I don’t think a lot about that time. He is here, now, and that has to be enough, like it or not.

But last night I was full of the night I gave birth to him. He was born at home on a cold January night. At one point – probably after I bit her shoulder – my midwife took me outside, arm around me, holding me up when I’d get a contraction. The frosty air, the dark, the quiet – she knew I needed a change from my bright apartment with its hospital pads spread on my bed and placenta bowl empty and waiting.

I thought my good attitude and fearlessness about giving birth would ease the pain. It did not. I yelled. I wailed. Part of me then rose up somewhere, was watching this, and I knew it was going to be okay. But I gave myself permission to scream. Those contractions were long and dark and hard and brought me unwillingly to a place I call terror. At the height of one of them I heard the words that would eventually bring Philip and me full circle – “There’s no way out but through.”

Those are not words of comfort. Reality rarely is. I was being asked – no, told – to bear a pain I thought impossible to bear. I was at its mercy, and merciful it was not. But after it was over I had Philip, sweet baby boy, this child I loved when he was just a thought. How graced was I?

Those words came to me after he died, too. And if there was no other reason to have experienced his birth for exactly what it was, hearing those words would have been enough. They brought me full circle. I think of them often. I am more willing to get through. I have to – I’m still in relationship with Philip, and like any relationship, it needs to be tended to. Like any relationship, the more I am present to it the more I see it for what it is. A couple years ago Philip asked me if I knew what responsibility was. I didn’t want to know what he was getting at. I was a wreck then, and if he expected me to take responsibility for our relationship, I couldn’t. I did what I could, and if I could sum it up in one word, it would be “cried.” I didn’t know how many tears I had. In my mind I was hanging on to him for dear life. His presence was palpable, but I was too caught up in grief and terror to even utter the word “responsibility.”

“You know, you are his mother,” Ed reminded me once. That was too much. I was his mother, but I couldn’t act like one. Of course I couldn’t. I wasn’t ready, didn’t think I ever would be.

My sense of Philip has shifted. I am learning how to breathe with him. He’s come into play in the choices I make. I want him to see me do well. It’s my gift to him. And this can only happen because his death did not stop our relationship. When he first died, I took a drive, trying to figure out how to kill myself. Then I heard him: “Mom, it doesn’t work that way. You have to find the joy.”

I believe him. Death is not the answer. And as for joy, maybe it will come, but for now, it’s peace that I’m after. I want Philip to know that. I want him to know that I am doing well exactly the way I want Natalie to know I’m doing well. That’s what my children need – a mother who is present. Philip will get no less from me because he’s died. And I know not what death is except for the fact that it means a particular body will no longer be present. I don’t believe that just because you die you get to go to a better place. Or if you’re a “bad” person, a worse place. I just have this idea that whatever you’re working out you will keep on working out.

Early on I talked about being in a grief group, and being asked to write a letter from our loved to us. I sat and listened to Philip, and he ended the letter with a most lovely line: “Mom, I love you. I’m in the place of no good-byes so we can talk whenever we want.”

The place of no good-byes – if I have to think of him in a place, then let that be the one.

© 2016 Denise Smyth

Things of the Spirit

You’d think that Philip’s death would make the holidays miserable for me – a reminder that my family is no longer intact, is not the way I ever thought it would be. That the unthinkable has happened. But the light of Christmas is as much a part of me as grief is. So I go back and forth between the warmth I feel this time of year and the chill I get when it hits me again that Philip has died. It strangles me sometimes – looking at his picture, knowing he was here, knowing he isn’t coming home. Knowing I can’t do anything about it, that talking about it can make me feel even more helpless because it changes nothing. Things of the spirit need come first, I remind myself. But why is the path to peace so hard?

When I was a kid we had big Christmas celebrations. Christmas Eve was the best. We gathered at my grandmother’s house, my mother’s mother. My mom had six brothers, and some-but-not-all had kids. Plus my uncles had lots of friends who’d stop by. There was an uncle who’d dress up as Santa, me always guessing which uncle it was, proud of myself for recognizing he wasn’t the real Santa. The real Santa was too busy running around in his sleigh to stop and visit grandma’s.

I love giving gifts. I’ve baked dozens of cookies, an apple cake, a caramel cake and chocolate mousse. Christmas Eve I went to my brother’s house with Natalie. Christmas Day Natalie will be with her dad, and I’ll be at Cindy’s where we’ll eat leftovers and watch movies. I don’t have a lot of friends, but I am blessed with the ones I do have.

I prefer fall and winter, even though I get cold easily. At work, where my co-workers think it’s too warm inside and so open windows, I wait for them to go to the bathroom and quickly close them. I have coats for varying temperatures and have finally figured out that scarves and hats actually work. Still, I adore winter, though I balk when it gets here because that means it’s leaving. Its coming means the days begin to get longer. Dusk at 4:30 is still too late for me. I want the short days, I want an excuse to stay inside. Winter is cozy and comforting. As are evening and night.

Philip was born in the winter, and he died in the winter – still, that’s when I feel safe. His birthday brings me close to him, and the day he died, closer still. Closer because his death was an explosion, making him larger than life. It took him away, yet I feel him near. How to explain that? The only thing to say is love. Because no matter what’s gone, our love remains. My time with him can’t be taken away and even though he’s died, he hasn’t become what I feared – only a memory. Memories are static, and what I have with Philip feels much too alive. For that I am grateful. I have suffered grievously for having lost him. Now I am grateful for having had him, for what I still have with him.

And for knowing that whatever I suffer I do not suffer alone. Who is simply “happy” to be alive? Who doesn’t feel the terrible sadness conjured up by a supposed season of peace? A sadness more profound because, as a child, in my innocence, I believed there was a special kind of magic around Christmas. The Santa Claus dreams of then can form a cruel contrast  to the reality of now. Those childhood years may have been short, but the impression they left is endless.

Where is hope, then? Not in things of this world, for sure. For this is a world we come to in order to die. Hope lies not in imagining the world as I think it ought to be. It lies in my ability to see it differently, an ability that Philip’s death has honed. That everything dies is no longer an abstraction but a hard truth. I can hold my breath and curse God if I choose. Or not. I choose not. What has God to do with this world? If I believed in the vengeful God of my childhood, I’d say everything. But even as a kid that God made no sense to me. I never understood being told that “God loved us so much he sacrificed his only son for us.” What does that even mean? How do I benefit from God’s dead son? And how could I love a father who had one special son who he then killed for my sake? Why did one son get to be special, and not another? And if He killed his special son, when was He coming for me?

The first time I heard, “Man made God in his own image” I knew I’d learned something profound. And freeing. The vengeful, tyrannical God of the Old Testament was a choice. Which didn’t mean I invented a kinder one or that I chose to be an atheist. I’d mixed up God with my parents too deeply to switch to a godhead more friendly, and I wasn’t arrogant enough to be certain there was nothing beyond what my senses showed me. There was too much mystery to life for me to presume I had an answer.

I saw the absence of God in the world as proof that He didn’t exist. The problem right there presents itself as one of language – “He” didn’t exist, as if God had a sex, a gender, a form, was a being the way I was a being, only mightier. Then one day I read, “We say, ‘God is’ and we cease to speak,” and I thought that was as close to an answer as I’d ever get. Because when it comes to things of the spirit, it’s the open-ended answers that come closest to the truth.

It might sound odd for me to be loving Christmas given all I’ve just said. I don’t see it that way. I see Jesus the way I see Bhudda – a being more enlightened than the rest of us who walked this world for a while. It’s the religion man made around him that I object to. The seed of Christmas is love and now’s when I have a chance to express it in ways that I don’t during the rest of the year. It cuts both ways, this love, filling me up for what I have while making me keenly aware of what I’ve lost. When I say, “Merry Christmas” what I mean is much love to you and yours. And that’s what I wish for all of you – love, and whatever peace you can find.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

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