Covid 19 – Addiction Part Four

I work for a design and construction firm. I’ve been called back to work because we received a PPP loan from the government which requires 75% of it be spent on payroll. I haven’t much work to do – the only construction job we have right now is a restaurant in NYC which is still closed down because of the virus. So I work part-time, do what I have to do and go home, while getting full-time pay. For the eight-week duration of the loan, that is. After that, if there’s no work, I’ll either get my hours cut or go back on unemployment. I prefer unemployment.

It’s complicated. I don’t like going to my job, yet I only half-heartedly look for different work. My boss told us all that if we didn’t want to come back, if we preferred to stay on unemployment (with its extra $600 on top of the weekly pay) that would be fine. Be honest, he said. In a perfect world I would’ve say bye-bye. But I was scared. Not coming back would mean I officially had no job and what does a Covid-19 job market look like? And much as I say if my hours are cut I’d prefer unemployment, if time comes we’ll see. Unemployment doesn’t last forever and I need income. Steady income. So for now I put up with it – and don’t think I don’t know how fortunate I am. So far quarantine has not affected me financially and for that I am grateful.

Anywhere I work I’ll have to put up with people. I have a fantasy that I go to a new job where everyone smiles and the boss is kind and I can spend the rest of my working life there because I never, ever want to look for another job again. But people are hard for me. My boss is the most difficult and demanding one I’ve ever had. Never a kind word but he knows how to harp on mistakes. I am not used to this. My bosses have always loved me. Or at least acknowledged I’m good at what I do. This one tells me he appreciates my loyalty but wishes I were more efficient. I’m as good as I can be. My memory isn’t as sharp as it used to be but I’m organized enough to find whatever it is he’s looking for. But he still mourns the woman I replaced three years ago. She was not his work-wife, but his work-mother, telling him when he could go vacation and whether or not he could buy that computer he’s had his eye on. Not my job – I am mother to two and that is enough for me.

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Smoking weed got boring in a way alcohol never did. Alcohol brought me to a point where it felt good to be alive. Of course, I’d quickly drink past that to the point where I didn’t know what it felt like to be alive. If I drank around people I enjoyed them. If I drank by by myself I didn’t need them. Then the hangover, which justified lying in bed for hours which is where I preferred to be, alone and away from a world I couldn’t tolerate. Weed didn’t have the same drama. I was altered – reserved, withdrawn, occupying a space that could contain only me. When I got home from work I was mostly in for the night because I didn’t know what to do with myself. Weed both ensured I stayed there and made it tolerable. I lived – I live – with my daughter but in certain ways I feel like I don’t. We are together separately. We are not – nor should we be – like a couple who figures out how to get along together on a daily basis. Instead, we figure out how to meet in our separateness. N is a 26-year-old woman who is trying to work out what she wants to be doing with her life while she has one foot out the door, a foot I am still paying for.

By last July I got bored with smoking. No big deal, no big commitment, no light bulb turned on. Just a shrug and enough with the disappointing highs. What I needed, I thought, was a spiritual solution. Not a come-to-Jesus moment, either. A spiritual solution like when Philip died. “Solution” isn’t exactly the right word because it sounds so final. When Philip died I didn’t turn to God and beg for mercy. Nor did I blame God – S/he wasn’t part of the equation. When Philip died I was forced into a grief that blew me up and scattered me into pieces I still can’t find. Maybe that’s why I’ve taken to jigsaw puzzles. The satisfaction, the intimacy. The miracle of each piece. Taking each one and putting it where it belongs, the hopelessness when it seems impossible to get these things to fit. Until suddenly they do. Over and over the impossible comes into meaningful form. Until the thrill of finishing still leaves something missing because while it seems that I’ve finished there is more that I’m wanting.

Philip’s dying put me in sacred space. The spiritual “solution” I mentioned simply meant I was alive to what was happening. I made meaning in my grief. His death forced me to live as I never had before. It was that or die and how could I die when I had another child to tend to? I’d taken the risk of having children. One was dead but one was very much alive and I had a responsibility to her. It was through Philip I found awareness.

People die, relationships don’t. I am fortunate that Philip was with me then as he is now. His presence was my spiritual solution. By grace of that connection, by the grief of his bodily loss, was I able to be in touch with a power far greater than myself. Not something I called God. Not something that had the form of woman or man. But a power, which I chose to call Life. Life is my higher power, the fact of what is. For years after Philip died I felt an expression of that power, saw it in all that was happening around me. Caught it by writing what I saw. What I experienced. Until something happened. Something big but not tangible. Not an event that made me withdraw. It was more gradual than that. Outwardly, I started to write less. That was the biggest sign. And I can’t remember if I started smoking weed to deal with this or I started smoking weed before and thus came to feel like this but certainly this lethargic state’s cause and effect is entwined with weed.

To be continued

© 2020 Denise Smyth

Covid 19 – Addiction Part Two

I was laid off on 03/20 so this is my seventh week of Covid quarantine. It’s 68 degrees today and I should go out. Except quarantine is a rare time to stop shoulding myself. At the moment I prefer to write.

Weather’s often on my mind. For most people, sun is good, rain is bad. Neither is true – the weather is what it is and we either enjoy it or we don’t. I understand people’s spirits lifting as the weather gets warmer. Mine don’t. I am comforted by rain. I am comforted by fall and winter with their early darkness and chill. It’s a time that doesn’t expect me to go outside. It’s a time when no one is watching. It breaks the tedium of mostly sunny days. Spring approaches and the boundary begins to dissipate, expectations rise. There is nothing I can do but not resist it. Trees and flowers begin to bloom, the lawnmowers come out, more people are running and walking. Everywhere I look something is growing. And I am reminded once again that Philip has died and he will never grow, he will never change. He did, once. He was my bud, my flower and he bloomed and died. The way these flowers will bloom and die, the way one day nothing will be what seems to be now.

Here is what Philip said to me as a little boy: “Like I’m heaven and all the people are flowers. Then I fall down in the clouds and I have a flower for a parachute to fall to the ground and come home.”

Would that he could.

We lived in Brooklyn when Philip was born I hadn’t been drinking for eight years. I had been going to AA all that time, but a few months after he was born I stopped. It wasn’t an actual decision I made, I just found it difficult to drag him to meetings that I was bored at anyway.  I didn’t go one day which turned into the next day and then the next and then it was nearly thirty years. Wanting to drink wasn’t an issue. By that point most of friends were in AA so I was surrounded. I never thought about drinking. I raised my children sober for which I am grateful.

We moved to Montclair in September 1998. The kids were in school, I wasn’t working, so I decided to go back to AA. I went on and off for a few years, made a few friends, even got a sponsor, Crazy Z. She was a tall woman in her sixties with spiky heels, always red lipstick, heavily lined eyes and blonde, curly hair that nearly reached down to the butt of her skin tight pants. She was willing to meet me for coffee once a week and listen to anything I had to say. Truth is, it was hard to find what to say because as much as she gave her attention to me I didn’t feel connected to her and if I’m not connected to someone I struggle with words.

Same with AA. I met a friend who I’m still close to today. As far as the rest of it, I was uncomfortable in meetings, I didn’t know how to meet people, I am terrified of approaching anyone, and I found meetings boring. I had no patience for all the literature that was read at the beginning of each meeting (the steps are on the wall, we can see them), my focus was on the crazies who I had nothing in common with and holding hands and saying a prayer at the end of each meeting? Not for me. I belong to AA in the sense that I’m alcoholic and don’t drink anymore, but that’s not why I was going. I wanted to make friends, I wanted for feel like there was a group I belonged. It wasn’t working. So I stopped.

There are no words for losing a child which is why I started this blog. As a writer, as a mother, I had to get try find some to wrap words around it, to keep from spinning around in the spiral of grief. I used to say the words to describe Philip’s death weren’t yet invented. I’ve used the words grief and trauma and horror and nightmare and despair – none of them lived up to what I felt like. So I did the best I could to write my life with out my son.

When Philip died I drank. I’d been sober nearly thirty years by then. I did not care. There’s a saying that “there’s nothing worse than a head full of AA and belly full of beer.” Yes there is. A dead son. I drank with no remorse, with only a deep relief that there’d be a break in the torment. For months I drank, keeping Vanilla Vodka In my closet. I hate Vodka but I drank it because it did the job quickly and I was hoping the vanilla would make it taste better. It didn’t.

In my last I wrote about how I never tried to drink normally. This time I did. At least when I was out. For the first time in decades I ordered drinks in restaurants.  I announced to my daughter that I was going to start drinking again. I felt both guilty and free. Guilty because everyone knew I’d sworn off and what if someone in AA saw me, and free because too bad if they did. I told myself I could have two and that would be fine because I was in control. Besides, I would not get drunk in front of people.  I used to order hard liquor to get drunk quickly even though I couldn’t stand the taste. This time around I ordered the “specials” which were usually sweet. I’d question the waiter to find which one had the highest liquor content. But after my I went home to Vanilla Vodka.

One night I went to Vinny’s in Bloomfield for Italian with my friend E. He always brings a bottle of with him (Montclair/Bloomfield restaurants are mainly BYOB). He  pours himself less than half a glass, savors it, shows me the proper way to drink it. And when he’s done, he has enough to take home. But we were out during my liberation from all things sober, so this time we got two glasses for the wine. Two smallish glasses. E pours some in mine and my heart sinks. There’s no way this is going to get me where I want to be. I slowly drink the wine before the food comes, he pours a second which was to become my last. And what’s happening during dinner is my attention is divided. I am listening to E yet absorbed by the wine. I’m tuning in to my body to see if the wine has any effect. I’m trying to decide the proper space between sips. I’m nervous that he won’t pour the second one. He did, but after that he poured no more and I was afraid to ask.

To be continued

© 2020 Denise Smyth

29

Philip would have been 29 today. I’ve read the posts I’ve written in the past on his birthdays. How thoughtful of me. For all the times I called grief a spiral, I thought things like his birthdays, or the anniversaries of his death, would be more linear, with me gaining some sort of cumulative wisdom along the way. This is not true. This, today, right now, nearly seven years later, is the worst-most-hopeless I have been in a long time.

I hate being alive. I HATE IT. This is more than just a today’s-Philip’s-birthday-I-have-the-blues rant. This is about an impossible loneliness I am inadequate to remedy. This is me, me everyday waiting and watching and hoping that this night, this night when I fall asleep, my nightly prayer will ring true:

Now I lay me down to sleep

I pray the lord my soul to keep

I pray to die before I wake

I pray the lord my soul to take.

I don’t want to fall ill, I don’t want to contract some nightmarish disease or even an ordinary one.I just want to to sleep and not wake up. And stop with the twisted horror or pity on your face. If it’s there, you don’t know. Your desire to live and ability to enjoy yourself is just as alien to me as my craving for nihilism is to you.

It’s no one’s fault. I am severely unequipped  to handle life on life’s terms. I think I once thought I was, but now it seems that was arrogance. It’s more than the fact that Philip has died. Phil, my ex, has lost him too – and look how he’s doing. A LOT of friends, interests, a lovely home, a long-time partner, his daughter who adores him. I am happy for him, and grateful that Natalie has one parent who can show her how it’s done.

I think I suffer from mental illness. I stopped therapy over the summer – it’d been 40 years plus countless medications and still I don’t want to get out of the bed in the morning. I still can’t sustain a relationship. Not even with K, a person so much more loving, wise, smart and compassionate than anyone I could have imagined. But I managed to push her away and eight months later I am still mourning. And what am I doing to help my daughter? She lives in the this crappy little apartment with me but I do nothing to help her get on the right track, simply smiling and nodding while I watch her life spin more out of control.

I tried AA these last four months. But the problem is I bring myself there, with all my resistances and self-doubts and isolationist tendencies and I don’t pick up the phone to call anyone so I might as well stay home and watch TV where I at least don’t have to hold hands and say meaningless prayers during the end credits. There are people in AA who would be more than willing to talk to me. But I have to make the first call and when I think about doing so, the phone becomes unreasonably heavy and I cannot lift it. No one more than me realizes  how much I get in the way of myself but if I’m to be relied upon to help myself out I’m just going to drown.

Today I am waiting for call from a woman I’d asked to be my sponsor. She’s busy with work and with other women she helps and said she’d know for sure by today if she’ll be able to work with me. I don’t think I’ve ever given AA a fair shot. AA’s idea of God isn’t mine and the closest I can come to “turning my will over” is to stop resisting what is so. Aside from my language objections, there must be some sage advice the program has to offer me if I can hear it through the right person and I am desperate enough to want that. But what if she doesn’t call? Everything is the final straw with me; everything brings me to the brink and the hopeless tears don’t stop. I’m scared. What if she doesn’t call? Find someone else, you say. You don’t understand. This is just more confirmation of how alone I am and of my inability to connect. What’s the point of being alive with this much loneliness? What’s the point when I don’t want to go out, and when I am out, all I want to do is get back home and hide? What’s the fucking point?

K called and asked if I wanted to meet her for lunch today in Brooklyn, just get out and not spend this day alone. I almost said yes, but at my peril. She can see me as a friend, she can take care of me today and then let me go home tonight. I am not there. I want to see her because I want to hold her and cry with her and I want her to soothe me in bed tonight. And all this knowledge does is make me more lonely and grieved. Makes me more want to stop waking up because I cannot tolerate all this pain, all this only-pain. This is not something that just-passes. Oh, the intensity of it, sure. But not the the dull ache of everyday’s WTF am I here for and when is this going to end. I hear plenty of people grateful to have one more day, I hear plenty of people in AA claiming to have a life they never thought they could. And I am alienated further. My son is dead, my daughter grows distant, I’ve barely any friends. I am alone. What else is there to say? I am in trouble, and from what I can see, this time through’s not the way out.

Holidays, 2019

Memory’s a tricky thing. Unreliable. But it’s what we rely on to tell our stories and who are we without our stories? On January 1st I felt like shit. It had everything to do with the crash and burn of the holidays. Plus having to celebrate without Philip. But that’s not how I’m remembering the holidays of the past seven years, since he died. I’m pretty sure I would say I felt okay around Christmas because it meant I’d being see family and friends. It’s a warm time of year. It soothes the pain of loss because there’s more people around. It’s the season of love.

Is that true? I wrote a post on Christmas Day 2015 which pretty much said that, so I have felt that way. But so many of us struggle this time of year because we think we’re supposed to feel something we don’t. I haven’t recorded every Christmas of the past seven years so I’m not sure what they were like for me. Of course, since I drank when Philip died and started smoking weed sometime after that, I’ve not had a completely sober holiday experience in a good long while. So I want to write about what this has been like.

I have been overwhelmed and resistant. I bought and wrapped everyone’s presents, made six kinds of cookies, chocolate mousse, caramel cake. I even brought my baking stuff to the city to bake with my friend Cindy, who moved there last year. She insisted and I resisted but in the end it was the best thing I could’ve done. Natalie came along and working with the two of them around instead of in my lonely, cramped kitchen turned out to be the best day of the season.

This is the first year I didn’t put up a tree and I am still glad for it. Natalie usually buys our tree, but the thought of dragging my decorations from the garage to my apartment then dealing with a mess of pine needles that I’d be sweeping up until August made me cringe. Even now I’m balking at having to bring my wrapping material down to the garage but I have nowhere to leave it other than my living room.

So how else was this holiday season? The doing was nearly intolerable. I had to hold my hand every step of the way to try to soothe my ragged self. I wanted to see my family, I even looked forward to the drive to Staten Island from New Jersey to my brother’s house on Christmas Eve. It was all the steps in between that got me. I can’t remember ever being this anxious and edgy.  The grief – the goddamn lonely grief. There are a lot of adjectives I can attach to “grief” but “lonely” is the most potent. I ache with a loneliness that cries out, what is this all for? I ache with a loneliness that makes me want to vomit, which I’m no stranger to, which I’ve given in to a couple times these last few weeks, which I have not done for a long, long time. I am still searching for ways to cope.

I love winter, I say. But do I? It’s hard enough for me to go out. The cold biting at me makes it worse. And January/February are feeling like a long void which spring is not going to relieve. January is Philip’s birthday, February is when he died. In the past I’ve felt safe in these months, like the joy of his birth and the tragedy of his death brought me closer to him. Today all I’m feeling is scared. Today I’m feeling like I have to go it alone. I am his mother. How can anything, anyone possibly help? Of course other people have lost children. But it’s not like having a support group where we can all meet and “identify” with each other’s helplessness and so maybe get through it together. It doesn’t work that way with death. People have lost children, but they haven’t lost Philip. And I say that knowing so many people feel the loss of him, too – but each mother and child relationship is unique. My grief can’t be shared, it can only be held. And it is the loneliest place to be.

© 2020 Denise Smyth

Mine to Lose

I need a spiritual solution. And I don’t mean in a come-to-Jesus kind of way because while I believe in the miracle of Him, it’s not a help in my day-to-day.

I recently went to a meditation class. I think I’m more drawn to the idea of Eastern philosophy than the actual practice of it. I will say that when I went into the class I was feeling blue, and teared up when I was asked (as were all the participants) to say a bit about why I was there. But I did felt calm at the end of it. Of course, the whole time I was supposed to be meditating and paying attention to my breath, I was thinking about how I actually finally wrote a blog post and WTF did I write and all the things I needed to do at work and how many of the Christmas gifts I bought I should return because I overdid as usual and yeah, all the things people who meditate struggle with. Except when it was over people were truly moved by their experience and I was thinking, well, it was okay but what the heck did I miss? I didn’t go somewhere deep and mystical. Did you ever have that, when you’re in a group of people all experiencing the same thing and you feel like everyone gets it except you but you act like you do because surely there must be something wrong with you if you didn’t?

I truly want to feel better. So often I feel both wounded and empty. My comfort in my grief – if it can be called comfort – was finding the place inside where I could write from. It’s not so easy to find my way any more. Where did that disappear to? It can’t be that I lost it, it must be that I’m too closed down to access it, right? I’m still the person who wrote those 140 posts here, right? I can’t have changed into someone thoughtless, wordless…right?

’Tis the season, though. The time that makes things harder for so many. While grieving Philip, I’ve taken comfort these last years during the holidays, from buying gifts to share to knowing I’d be with friends and family, as if the glow that’s Christmas could actually warm my heart instead of break it. Not so this year, and a lot of this has to do with K. We were together last year and now we’re not. I bet that sounds almost romantic. It isn’t. Because the truth of it is I was already pulling away from her. Whether or not I spent Christmas day with her is something I can’t remember. I know I did not spend Christmas Eve with her because I dared not invite her to join in with my family because she was my partner and while everyone knew I was with a woman, no one approved. At least, my mother disapproved. She hung up the phone angry and disgusted when I told her, then called my brother sobbing, And when I’d told my brother about K, I was met with a tepid “that’s okay,” but he let me know he was sure glad it wasn’t one of his daughters bringing him such news.

Telling my family might’ve sounded like I got the worst of it out of the way but it wasn’t. Next would’ve required being clear that where I was invited, K was invited. I never got that far. K has a big, sprawling, welcoming family who saw each other often, but not me. My family met on holidays and when last Christmas Eve rolled around – the holiday I always spend at my brother’s –  I said nothing. K and I didn’t even discuss it. We just continued like it was any old visit without her to my family. And while I’m not saying this is why we broke up, there is never any exact “why” to a break up. There are the million dings and dints to the thing that’s whole until it’s whole no longer and it breaks and cracks into pieces that can be mended or shards that splinter irrevocably and it is looking to me like right now, for her, there is no going back.

And I’m left asking myself if it was worth it. Because all those people that I was so concerned about have had their holidays the way they wanted, spent with the people they wanted to spend them with and I am here pining for what had only been mine to lose.

© 2019 Denise Smyth

Impossible

I close my eyes I think of you
I take a step I think of you
I catch my breath I think of you
I cannot rest I think of you
                                  “Looking Out” by Brandi Carlile

“I know the darkness pulls on you/but it’s just a point of view,” she sings in the same song. Which is the  conversation I had with John, my grief counselor, a couple days ago, a conversation which isn’t new to me. The unbroken un-ease I live with comes first from the way I think about things, from the voice in my head. I can be forgiven for the reasons why I think life is impossible, but it’s my responsibility to step back from the facts and see if I can talk to myself differently about them.

I know it’s the way I think that makes it feel impossible to deal with the utter loss of Philip’s death. Not that I can flip a switch and just think about it with more acceptance and less despair. But the way I think informs the way I feel. And these last months I’ve felt a new kind of worse – resigned and despairing. Mostly quiet about it, except when I can get myself to write some. This has to do with work. I’m having more than a hard time there, and when things are this difficult my grief for Philip swells.

I’ve never had a job this difficult or stressful. I’ve never had a job that got me crying at my desk. There’s too much work, there’s too much I have to figure out on my own and not enough time to do that because things need to be done, not just thought about. Which makes it impossible to feel efficient. I scramble every day to keep up and am miserable because of it. We’ve hired a part-time bookkeeper to help, but she comes in in the evening, when her day job is done. Three nights a week I stay until 7 – 8:00 to train her, which is a riot because I’m training her yet she makes more per hour than I do. And if we have a problem – say there’s an issue with the software we use, or a question about a bill that needs to get paid – she can’t take care of it because the phone calls to resolve these things need to be made between 9-5, when she’s not there.

This salary issue is upsetting me more than I’ve cared to admit, because if I admit it, I have to do something about it. I’m not making enough and I’m not being an adult about it. I should talk to C, my boss. I’m terrified. It feels impossible. Because while on the one hand I think I’m worth more, on the other I’m sure C will not agree. How do I know this? Do I have a crystal ball? The only way to know is to ask.

But maybe the biggest challenge is that I don’t feel connected to anyone there. C & J own the firm, S is an interior designer, JR an architect. Whether or not it’s true – and it probably isn’t – I don’t think they see me. C is a designer, and well-known for what he does. His heart – like mine – lies in his creativity. His job – unlike mine – pays him for it. My job is full of problems that need to be solved, and some of those things I don’t care about and don’t want to know about. Not a day goes by where something doesn’t go wrong, something isn’t problematic. One thing piled on another, then another. It’s like slowly sinking into quicksand. Like I’m going down and I’m not coming back up. It’s that hard to breathe.

How melodramatic of me. I can’t shake it. I’ve no sense of humor about this, no perspective. I feel overwhelmed and inadequate. Like a child who can’t live up to her parents’ expectations. How ridiculous am I? It’s only a job, for Chrissake. A difficult job. I’m not at fault here – it is what it is, and if, after four months, I feel unsure if I can handle it, if I even want to handle it, then I should look for another job.

Which feels impossible. When I was looking to leave my last job, it took me months to get up the nerve to write my resume and finally send it out. This was the first job I applied for and I got it three days after I sent my resume. You’d think that might tell me something. But the voice in my head says I got lucky and it won’t happen again.

Once again I have a hard time with music. I play LCD Soundsystem incessantly because all four of their CDs make me want to dance. And I do. But today I decided to listen to Brandi Carlile and it broke me down. And in that sad and vulnerable place all things work rushed at me. And all the loss – my marriage, my house, my son. What now? I ask. Philip died and I am different. It’s this terrible secret I carry and I want the world to mourn with me. I want the impossible.

Here is some of what Carlile sings that wrecks me – and if you heard her sing it, you’d really know why:

“But the last thing I think of when I close my eyes/And the first thing on my mind when I arise/It is a day and you’re not really in my life.”

“I lay this suitcase on my chest so I can feel somebody’s weight/And I lay you to rest just to feel a give and take.”

“When you feel like giving in and the coming of the end/Like your heart could break in two, someone loves you.”

“How I miss you and I just want to kiss you/And I’m gonna love you till my dying day.”

“Where are you now?/Do you let me down?/Do you make me grieve for you?”

“And you, you are in my dreams/You’re underneath my skin,/How am I so weak…I can’t have you, but I have dreams.”

“Say it’s over, say I’m dreaming/Say I’m better than you left me…Learn to let it bend before it breaks.”

“If you were my boat in the deep blue sea/I probably sink you down/I know I should have thanked you for carrying me/But for you I would happily drown.”

“And you know that you’re alone/You’re not a child anymore/But you’re still scared.”

The worst is when she sings, “I was looking out for you/I was looking out for you/Someone’s looking out for you.” I wrote about this years ago (Did I really say that? When I talk about Philip’s death, is it now years ago?) when I remembered these killer words – did I look out for him? I didn’t worry, didn’t think anything was wrong. Did I not guide him enough when he was growing up? And now Natalie. Today I was overwhelmed, today I laid on the couch and cried into my pillow. It’s been a long time since I did that. Am I taking the right care of her? Is there something I’m supposed to “do” to make sure she’s okay? I take care of her, but is it enough? Is loving her enough?

Loving her is all, impossible as it feels to see – to really see – the truth of this.

© 2017 Denise Smyth

“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

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