From Her View

Philip’s story isn’t one story. I have my version; Phil, his; Natalie, hers. I asked my daughter if she’d take a few minutes and write a little about what it’s been like for her.  She’s a tough kid, and she’s handled Philip’s death by coming more into life. And in this she inspires me; on my own, I would have been happy to wither away, have the wind blow me somewhere that might feel like home. But she suffers Philip’s death too, and sometimes neither of us know what to do.

“How can I live without him?” I ask her. “I was supposed to go first.”

“How can I live without him?” she asks me. “He was supposed to be here when you did.”

From Natalie:

My time spent at Rutgers was a rough patch in my life. My first semester I was unhappy there, but it didn’t compare to the tragedy that occurred on February 22nd, 2012.

A big comfort to me at school was the support of my family and close friends. I was lucky my parents were 45 minutes north, and that my boyfriend and closest friends were in New York City and Philadelphia. It was easy to see either of them on a weekend, even make just a day trip if it felt necessary. But best of all, my brother Philip lived five minutes from me. I could go to him anytime. Sometimes I would see his car when I was walking to class and it would make me smile. We ate lunch together, and I’d go to his house on the weekends. He was loving, sweet and caring. I have never known anyone like him.

When he first died, I didn’t feel it. Not really. When the police came into my dorm and said, “Is this your brother?” I knew he was gone before I looked at the picture they were handing me. When the policeman said, “He’s dead,” I started hyperventilating, shaking and crying. When I finally stopped, I felt close to nothing. I was numb. Numb throughout the wake and the funeral. Numb throughout the days afterward.

A week after he died, I went back to school. My mom came with me and helped me unpack the few things I’d taken home with me. Then she drove me to class and went home. I watched her drive away, and had a growing pain in my stomach. I had to suppress the urge to run after her. I watched her car until she was out of site, turned around and walked to class.

“It’s okay,” I thought, “I’m fine.” And I was, for like, a minute.

In class, I sat down and tried to pay attention to my food and health teacher. For the first few minutes I listened, I took notes. But after a while, I started feeling uncomfortable. What was the point? I didn’t even like this class. My brother was gone and I was sitting in the lecture hall listening to a woman talk about things I didn’t care about.

“It’s not like anyone would even notice if I wasn’t here.”

But I stayed. Until it got hot. Until I couldn’t sit still. My legs trembled. My eyes watered. There was this pressure; like the air suddenly weighed 500 pounds, pressing on my body.

What was happening?

Enough. I snapped out of it. I stood up. I left the lecture hall, walked into some empty computer lab, sat down on a chair and focused on my breathing. After about fifteen minutes, I got up and went back to class. But I couldn’t shake the feeling, not really. I managed to go to my next class, but around 5:30, something changed.

Back at my dorm, I unlocked the door and went inside.


The smell was putrid. I hated this room, where my life got turned upside down. I hated the bed I was sitting on when I found out I would never see my brother again. I hated the computer I was using and the books I was studying when the police came into my room.

Why was it all the same?

And everything that I’d been feeling all day just rose to a peak and I knew. Without thinking, I was running. Out of that room. Down the stairs. Out the door. Running. Until I reached the train station.

I could not stay at that school. The problem wasn’t the smell of my dorm or the bed or the computer or the books. The problem wasn’t Rutgers, but that Phil was no longer there. I needed to get away from there, I needed time to heal, I needed to be with my parents, I needed the comfort of home.

© 2013 Denise Smyth


Happy Birthday?

Tuesday was my mom’s birthday. Natalie and I went out to dinner with her and my dad, my brother Robert and his wife, Maria (if you’ve been reading along and are confused about “Maria,” one is my cousin and one is my sister-in-law. It’s an Italian thing.), my nephew and two nieces. My other niece is away at college in Boston. Yes, that Boston. She was in the area an hour or so before the bombs went off.

Last year, Philip hadn’t even been dead two months when my mom turned 80. That was the end of the surprise party. Birthdays are way too ironic in the face of death. We weren’t about to celebrate life after it had turned on us, and in such a vicious, impossible way.

This year, my dad kept it simple. I don’t think my mom wanted a bigger celebration. Last year we were in our separate orbits around Philip. This year, not so much. This year, I remembered that everyone had lost him. Philip was a brother, a nephew, a cousin. He was a grandchild, the second one who had died. See, I have been greedy in my grief, wanting it all, allowing no portion to anyone else. It bound me to my son, and I believed it was all that was left between us. I was not about to share. It was Natalie who had to remind me that yes, I lost my son, but she lost her brother, and that very much mattered, too.

Tuesday I didn’t need to be reminded. Tuesday I looked around the table and had a collapsible moment where I realized that these people are my family and I love them. Don’t “of course you do” me. I do not love so easily. In that moment I knew why. Because it hurts too much. It hurts. I am helplessly in love with my children; thank god for that. But Philip’s death left my heart roadkill, and when love reaches in and touches, it does not soothe.  It reminds me of its cost. I see the terrible beauty of grief, the cost of a life deeply lived. I have spent my life wanting to live deeply; did I understand what I was asking for?

I have to take it in bits and pieces.

Full disclosure #1: I’d considered writing about my mom’s birthday, but decided not to – time to get back to the narrative. But Natalie had been taking pictures that night, and she posted some on her blog. Just a few; my mom and dad, Robert, me, Natalie. It’s a happy blog; she’s a happy girl. So if you want to see what some of us look like – and give her a little more traffic while you’re at it – you can find her at .

Full disclosure #2: Natalie told me that the reason my gravatar is my picture is because it’s my Facebook picture and it’s somehow linked to everything else I do online. So in case you think you know what I look like, that is my face dressed up for a gala that was five years ago.

Just sayin’

© 2013 Denise Smyth

“Is this your brother?” (Day 2, Part 1)

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012 – Philip still hadn’t called me back. I still didn’t think anything of it. I figured I was on his mental to-do list. But I wanted to talk to him, so by afternoon I called and this time, I left him a message: “Well, I know you’re not dead in a ditch ‘cause someone would’ve called me by now. Call me.”

He was not in a ditch; at least I got that right.

Later that night, home, alone, I turned on “Lost.” It’s available on instant-watch through Netflix. I didn’t much like “Lost,” but I’d been watching it with Natalie during the summer. When she left for Rutgers and watched a few episodes without me, I figured I’d let it go. But I was afraid something really good and mind-blowing would happen and I would miss the Big Point after all the hours I’d spent watching this crap. We were, after all, up to season six. And much as I swore I’d never forget what scene I was watching when I got The Call, forget I did. Juliet and Michael were on the beach, I remember, but that narrows it down to exactly nothing. It’s Lost, for God’s sake. Everyone is always on the beach.

But the first time the phone rang, it was not The Call. It was Natalie. When I answered, she was choked and panicked and saying, “Mom, mom.” Since she often called choked and panicked and saying, “Mom, mom,” I did what I always do.

“Natalie. Natalie. Breathe.”

“But mom…”

“Natalie. Take a breath. I can’t understand you when you’re like this. Take a breath and tell me what happened.”

Nothing unusual about the silence that followed. Nothing unusual, either, in the abrupt change in her voice when she said, “Mom, I have to go.”

“Oh no you don’t. You’re not hanging up like this. Tell me what happened.”

Mom. I have to go.”

“Okay, okay. But call me back and let me know what’s going on.”

On my end, I thought her roommate walked in or someone started pounding on the door and that she would head for the nearest empty hall, stairway, bathroom or closet, wherever she could find somewhere to talk to me in private. It’s happened before. Uncontrollable weeping gets controllable real fast when you’re afraid one of your peers might catch you doing it.

On her end, she hung up, holding the photocopy of Philip that the four policemen who were standing in her room had given her when she opened the door and found them standing there. “Is this your brother?” they’d asked. A question harmless enough, except when it isn’t. Except when you realize it’s a question you’ve heard your entire life but you probably weren’t going to be hearing very often any more. And since she realized I didn’t know, she figured she’d give me a few more minutes peace before I woke to the nightmare that would become my new reality.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

What the hell?? (Day 1)

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012 – Sometime around 4:00 in the afternoon, while I was at work, Natalie called. “Mom,” she said, “Philip was supposed to meet me for lunch, but he didn’t show. What the hell??” “Oh,” I answered, “That’s weird. Well, you call him and I’ll call him and whoever hears from him first’ll tell him to call the other one.”

“What if he’s dead?”

I laughed. He’s not dead, I told her. She is a worrier; I am not. At least when it comes to my kids. I am the only parent I know who handed over the car keys and didn’t then picture my children splattered all over the road. Money, getting fat, dying without a significant other – these are the things I sometimes torture myself about. But my kids – I have faith in them, in their well-being. That might sound odd, worrying about the small stuff, but not my kids, who are the Big Stuff. Like, the REALLY Big Stuff. The Biggest Stuff EVER. But it’s not odd, not at all. It is precisely because of their Big-ness that I do not worry. I wouldn’t know how to picture my life without them, any more than I could picture my life without air, without the sun or the moon or the stars. All of which are always there, whether I can see them or not.

Whether I can see them or not.

I see no irony in this, in spite of what happened. Worrying prevents nothing. It just makes you miserable before the inevitable.

Besides, it’s Philip we’re talking about. My calm, well-adjusted, feet-on-the-floor, happy kid. Why I thought “calm” or “well-adjusted” or “feet-on-the-floor” or “happy” equaled “not dead” is probably because I was none of those things, most particularly when I was his age. And if I could survive my adolescence, which was dangerously unhappy, and included what I consider to be a serious attempt at suicide, then of course he could. He would.

Assumption is not a mistake I will easily make again. But I was living in my final 30 hours of assuming that that (and we all think we’re immune to those thats, reality to the contrary) is Something That Happens to Other People.

I hung up with Natalie and called my son. I knew enough not to leave a message.  Natalie, in particular, gets irritated with the time it takes to listen to a voicemail asking her to call me when the “Missed Call – Mom” message pretty much says the same thing.

She has a point.

I didn’t think anything when Philip didn’t call back. I called him again that night. Still no answer. At 11:02 I sent him a text. I know it was 11:02 because it’s still in my phone with all of our other texts from the last few months. The ones I hadn’t deleted, that is. I delete old texts because I first owned a computer when hard drives were measured in MGs, and deleting was what I did to make room. Besides, it seemed cleaner or something not to have stuff hanging around.

I no longer think like that.

Anyway, the text read, “Hey. Where are you? Call me or something.”

See, my world was still intact. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make a sound? If you’re child is dead and you don’t know it, does the world still make sense?

© 2013 Denise Smyth