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

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01/20/91 – #3

My water broke about 1:00 in the morning, running wet and warm down my legs and pooling on the wooden floor in my bedroom. I’d gotten up because I thought I had to pee – maybe I did pee, maybe that was part of what was gushing out of me because what I didn’t know then, but is so clear now, is that this thing that was about to happen was not in my control. All I could do was go along for the shockingly painful ride. Shocking because I thought my good attitude meant it wouldn’t hurt so much.

My children were born at home which seemed to me the most reasonable way to go about it. Hospitals, doctors, nurses, fetal monitors worrying my baby’s every heartbeat – to have anyone try to manage my labor was intrusive. I was having a baby, not an operation. So when my water broke it was my midwife, Barbara, that I didn’t call. Didn’t call because I wasn’t yet in labor and saw no reason to wake her. What she said when I called her at 8 in the morning was, “I told you that if your water broke, you should call me right away. You have to come see me now.” I could go into labor any moment. She was an hour’s ride away – that meant an hour there and an hour back plus whatever time I spent with her and while I wasn’t worried that I’d be giving birth in the car, I did think my husband and I should get on the road so I could get back and make myself comfortable. “It’s time to go,” I told Phil, who was sitting at the table reading his New York Times. “When I finish my tea,” he answered, with a shake of the paper.

Being pregnant and giving birth didn’t make me nervous. It was Phil who worried that if something went wrong during birth we’d be blamed because we were having our baby at home. “When time comes, I’ll be at the hospital, pacing,” he used to joke. But it was time to go and I knew he was anxious. His way of tamping down anxiety was to try to slow down the situation. But no matter how much tea he thought he was going to drink, this baby was going to get born.

I’d had a few mild contractions during the morning, but it was on the way home from Barbara that they really started. What I thought they were going to feel like was some gentle vibration from the top of my belly to the bottom, like waves that would carry Philip down and out. Instead they were like a steel band squeezing under my belly and around my back while a mac truck was trying to ram me open. I’d fooled myself into thinking I had this together. I didn’t know that once I was in labor, my body wasn’t my own. She was doing the only job she had to: getting my baby born.

Pregnant bodies have their own intelligence. Birthing starts with hours and hours of contractions to force an opening wide enough for a baby-body to pass through, then hours of pushing to actually get it out. After the baby’s born, the placenta follows. Meanwhile, the mother’s breasts will have filled will colostrum, which the baby will eat for the first few days. It helps their immune system. Milk follows after, and will keep filling the mother’s breasts for as long as baby keeps emptying them. If I think about that, if I think about the intricacies of my pregnancy, intricacies caused by the merging of two microscopic cells, I know I was part of a miracle.

Labor was intense and painful. And the more it hurt the more scared I got until I didn’t have the pain but I was the pain and I couldn’t yell myself out of it. Even when I bit Barbara’s shoulder it didn’t help. Yet there were times I felt I was in some parallel universe, some place where I was watching what was happening to myself, checking in to remind me I was okay, to ask if I really had to yell so much. And during one particular moment of hot pain I heard the words, “There is no way out but through,”  which I wrote a bit about here.

Then it was time to push. It was not a choice. Pushing was an urge, a physical sensation impossible to ignore, an insistence I bear down with everything I’ve got. Which, at that point, wasn’t much. After some hours I thought myself physically unable to do it any more. My body said otherwise. I am not going to make it, I thought. I cannot do this. And when Philip’s head finally popped out, I gave up, too exhausted to care any more. “Push,” Barbara ordered. “I can’t,” I answered. I’d had enough. Let her pull him out. “Push,” she commanded. “Can’t,” I answered, eyes closed and resting. Truth was I wasn’t having contractions and I hadn’t any strength to push without them. Until Barbara stuck her finger up the only other available hole down there, and with one indignant push, out slid my son, a bit blue in the face, but strong and healthy and ready to nurse. He was born around 1:00 on Sunday morning, January 20th, 1991.  I do not remember the exact time. He was a true Sunday’s child, fair and wise and good and gay.

I often say I don’t know the world, but it’s not the world, it’s me that’s different. Am I anything but what I see myself to be? I had a flashback recently of November, 1990, the month I stopped working because of my pregnancy. I wanted to spend the last couple months alone with my baby. I see me in my forest green jacket and black stretch pants, walking in the chill and with a peace like I’d never known. Who was that woman? She was married and about to have her first baby, still living in Brooklyn, so damn innocent of what was to come. Not having any plans other than to be with this baby. Knowing, all the time knowing, that childhood is a small part of life and much as there were times when it was so difficult to be alone with Philip I knew it wouldn’t last. Patience, was all. I saw myself as earth mother, with my nursing, the cloth diapers I washed myself, the beans I soaked, the bread I baked. The baby food I cooked. I was going to do it right and because I was working so hard at right, things would turn out okay.

I didn’t see life for what it was. I saw it the way I wanted it to be. I was no earth mother, beans and bread or not. I was not someone who could stay in my marriage til death did we part. I was not someone who could live in the shadow I thought I was in. I was not someone who could stay as disconnected as I felt I was.

And I was not someone whose son would live longer than she did.

If there is anything that will get me to make peace with Philip’s death, it’s if I’m afraid of mine. Every change I go through is a little death, and gives me a chance to practice for my own. I do not want to wail and mourn for myself, to be this wracked and grieved when death reaches out for me. Philip has said I might think I’m not afraid to die but what is true for me in life will be true in death. And that whatever keeps me from loving life fully keeps me from loving him fully. These are hard truths and no twisting of my mind can help me escape them.

Philip, honey – Happy Birthday. It will always be Happy-Birthday, this day. And even though it’s your day, you are the one who gives the gifts. I love you, sweetie, I miss you being here, I miss the sound of your voice, your laugh, your midnight phone calls to tell me you love me. But I’m grateful for your constant presence, for the life you’ve given me to live. You know I’m still on the fence – patience, please, until I get off it.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

It’s Over

“While you were lookin’ for your landslide
I was lookin’ out for you
I was lookin’ out for you
Someone’s lookin’ out for you”

Brandi Carlisle

That’s all it took to wreck me, because I’m like that with music again – I can’t listen to it because it touches deeply and anything that touches deeply hurts and twists into something to do with Philip. And I hear these words as an accusation. She knew what she was doing, but where was I? Was I looking out for Philip? Was does that even mean? Something was going on and I wasn’t paying attention. And maybe I never paid the right kind of attention. Sure I love, I adore, my children. But maybe love is not enough – sometimes saying “no” is required and I am not good at that. I was afraid to be in conflict with Philip because I might lose him. I have never understood that anger isn’t the end.

I thought that I never asked myself if I could have done something that would have kept Philip alive. I mean, I don’t go back to the days and weeks and months leading up to his death and wonder what I could have done differently. I don’t wonder why I didn’t take seriously all the times I saw Philip dead, that I never thought I was having a premonition. Even if I thought that, what could I have done? I can just see myself trying to convince Philip that he was going to die so he should…what? Be careful? Not go out for a while? Come live with me until the coast was clear? How bizarre would that have been? I used to wish I was psychic. But being psychic doesn’t mean you can preclude things. It doesn’t make you God, doesn’t mean you get to orchestrate your portion as if it’s separate from the whole. It’s a responsibility – maybe you can know or sense what’s coming, but I would not wish to know the crisis that was heading my way. If I’m grateful for anything, it’s that the way Philip, Death and I had a relationship since he was little is something I can piece together as I look back, not something I saw as foreboding when it was happening.

When Philip died I felt responsible – not for some particular thing I did or didn’t do, but because I am his mother and I didn’t protect him. It matters not how he died – this is what a parent feels. And when Phil showed Philip’s autopsy to a doctor and was told that it’s not likely that Philip died from the amount of drugs in his system, that he probably had something like an undetected  heart condition, well, that made me feel worse. He came from my body – could I not make a child that was whole and healthy?  I did everything right when I was pregnant – I ate well, exercised, gained the right amount of weight. I had home birth because I would not deliver myself into the hands of a hospital staff I didn’t know or trust and who might interfere with a process they were taught to see as a health hazard. I nursed Philip for a year and a half, made his food when he started eating. I didn’t feed him meat because I see it as cruel and unnecessary, never gave him milk because it’s a myth that that’s something children need. They’re not calves, for God’s sake. What did I do any of that for? So he would grow strong and healthy. So he wouldn’t die. Isn’t that why we do the things we do for our children – so they won’t die? And if, after all that, his body was inadequate, how could it not be my fault?

I really like to say I don’t bother myself about what I did or didn’t do for Philip, because it makes no sense to do that. I know what I’m supposed to do. I’m supposed to figure out how to live with his death because to argue about it is crazy. It’s a terrible struggle enough without torturing myself about the past. Except that’s where grief’s led me. Back to the bitter, hopeless tears, to the helpless horror, to the inability (real or imagined) to say what this is and the goddamn rage and loneliness that comes from that. If I can’t say it, then what is left?

I think I skipped a step. Yes, the work is living with Philip’s death. But I haven’t finished with the part about if I’d done something different. And not in any particular moment, but in the way that I was Philip’s mother. I’m full of self-loathing because of the ways I stood back, the ways I didn’t say no, the ways I wasn’t strict either because it’s not in my nature or because the older Philip got, the less right I felt I had to tell him what he couldn’t do. But did I give that right up too easily?

People die for all kinds of reasons. There isn’t one story for each “kind” of death. Getting shot doesn’t mean you’re a criminal, getting cancer doesn’t mean you didn’t take care of yourself, snorting too much heroin doesn’t mean your mother wasn’t good enough. But that’s my mythology: the mother who meant well but let it slip away because she felt helpless. And my touchstone was the family across the street from us with the mother who was strict, had rules, and was not going to let her children get away from her. Her son and daughter were smart, polite, respectful and always – even in their jeans – carefully dressed. No weird and menacing black t-shirts, no Converse so worn their soles were split. I am so sure that these children grew into responsible young adults with serious interests and quiet, envious careers. Because that’s what their mother insisted.

All this, about a woman I never even met. But she haunts me, this fairy-tale Mother. She lurks around the dark and slimy mess I think my life’s become. Which is crazy and irrational because my daughter adores me, there are people who love me, my job is a dream and I am finally writing and taking the risk of pushing the “publish” button when Im done.

It’s over. Philip’s childhood is over, and I had all of it. Whatever kind of “mom” I was, he died loving me and he is right here protecting me. That’s the reality of now, not the story I tell of the kind of mother I was. It’s time to end that one, for sure. I am a writer; why can’t I do this? Because endings are hard. It’s why this post has taken weeks to write. I don’t know how to end it any more than I know how to end that story.

Why can’t I just say, It’s over?

© 2014 Denise Smyth

No Way Out

I’m on a crying jag; I’ve a lot going on, and it keeps hitting me that Philip has died. I can’t even say, “is dead.” And people are kind, and that makes me cry even more. Yesterday I wrote to Lucia, Elizabeth Blue’s mom, “And I am overwhelmed at the moment; Lucia, I miss him so. Sometimes I feel like I’m being slowly strangled. I try to remind myself that the moment when I face death I’m going to think it all went so quickly, so let me love my son where he is and my daughter where she is. None of us are here forever. But when I miss him like this, that’s exactly what it feels like. “ And in the worst possible sense.

Which brings me back to Elizabeth Blue’s incredibly prescient and powerful, “Bird’s Nest.” In part:

“Five days ago I watched two birds mate.
Yesterday I watched as they began
in unison
to build their nest.

Today it occurs to me
that I will be gone
by the time they lay eggs
and the eggs make way
for the new life
within them.

Today it occurs to me that I will be gone
The lines between body and land have blurred
and the land will miss my body.
Perhaps it will be lonely
I think it will weep.
I think it will miss me
more than my mind or body
could miss it,”

Reading that poem is like watching Elizabeth discovering something, and what a something.  Nature has much to teach us, if we pay attention. How often we don’t because we’re so busy thinking, as if thinking is going to solve our problem when it mostly is our problem. The mind, it is said, is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.

Elizabeth recognized that maybe the world needs us more than we need it. How different from raging at death because this goddamn world gets to go on while we or those we love do not.  But what is the world, if we are not there to witness is? A world of form requires our recognition. It’s such a big place, this world, such an overwhelming place. And the terror of death is that we’re leaving it behind, and it still gets to be, while we turn to dust. Or does it?

Life is relentless. Death isn’t enough to stop it, but it’s more than enough to wreck those of us who are here to witness it. This is what I mean: maybe death is forcing us to confront just what we think Life is. Forcing us, because we don’t like to think about death. And if we don’t think about death we will become shallow and brittle because nothing will matter except what we look like, what we have, whatever is external to us, whatever draws us farther from ourselves.

I am aching, aching for Philip. Try telling that part of me that, “Death isn’t enough to stop it.” But there’s another part of me that’s struggling with faith and acceptance and the certainty that there’s something else going on, stuggling to understand it and articulate it in a meaningful way.  And there is my constant communication with Philip, who is there for me in a very real way, and who’s been teaching me things always.

I was never afraid of childbirth. In high school I’d  tell my friends, “I’ll have the babies, but you have to raise them.” Back then, I didn’t much like kids, couldn’t imagine even liking my own. But labor seemed like an act of bravery, a jump into the void; confronting the uncontrollable, wondering if I’d come out the other side.

When I was pregnant, I felt the same (about labor – not kids). My kids were born at home with no doctors telling me what to do, no fetal monitors strapped around me, no someone I didn’t trust directing me. I was searching for authenticity through my femininity, and what could be more feminine than giving birth? I wanted to deliver my child with the help of a midwife who trusted that my body could do what it was supposed to, and who knew what to do if it didn’t. I wanted a woman to help me give birth, one who had borne  a child of her own. Barbara, my midwife, turned out to be that person.

Since attitude is supposed to affect experience, I thought my good one meant labor wouldn’t hurt too much. I might’ve gone in blind, but at least I went bravely. Labor was ferociously, savagely painful; I was scared. I let loose with moaning and yelling and pleading for Barbara not to leave me. Of course she didn’t leave me. Even when I bit her. I wasn’t in control of what my body was doing, how it was doing it, or the pain I felt. I couldn’t say, “Could we just take a break and rest for a few minutes please?” Labor is the relentless force of Life as it takes shape, and in those terrible moments I realized there was no way out but through.

That’s what Philip taught me during his birth, and what he’s trying to teach me through his death. Thing is, when labor ended my son was born, the pain was gone, and every second of it was worth it. What of Philip’s death, then? What kind of “end” could there be; what do I get to hold in my arms, what will ever make me say this pain was worth it? I’ve been told now it’s me that’s being born. It’s not enough. I feel less than I ever was without him here because he took a part of me with him when he went.

He brought me full circle, this child of mine. See, I understand why women choose not to feel that pain. But had I chosen differently, I would not have had his guidance then, and I wouldn’t have been able to see that he’s helping me now. Because I do see it, even if I don’t always accept it.

© 2013 Denise Smyth