On Love and Death

Cindy and I spent New Year’s Eve at her house, watching almost all of season two of “Transparent.” At 11:53 she put the TV on one of the channels that was broadcasting the ball dropping from Times Square. We were treated to the sight of – hundreds? thousands? – of people crushed together in the closed-to-traffic streets, some of whom had gotten there at 8am that morning. On top of one of the buildings in the area, the host of a news show was bleating excitedly about the ringing in of the new year. He was accompanied by several people I assume were in the entertainment industry, none of whom I recognized. Once the ball dropped, the host asked them about their take on things. Some of the responses were, “Uh, I don’t know what to say,” “It’s surreal,” “Um, I don’t know what to say,” “Unbelievable,” and “I really don’t know what to say.” The most thoughtful of them added, “It’s a chance to wipe the slate clean!”

I will never understand what drives people to stand outside in the cold for hours and hours to watch 30 seconds of a ball dropping. I will never understand why anyone would solicit opinions from a bunch of entertainers who can’t speak unless they’re scripted, and why anyone else would care what they have to say. I don’t even understand the big deal about one year passing into another, although it seems to make a great excuse for excessive drinking.

This was a bad year, a coworker said. I hope the new one will be better.

Philip died in 2012. But I do not consider that a “bad year.” The second worst thing that could happen, happened (because I have a daughter, and losing both my children is the first worst). I do count time in that way – Philip will be dead four years next month. But I can’t label swatches of time. That’s a way of holding on to pain. Even when reminiscing about “good times,” the implication is that the current time is worse and so that is also holding on to pain.

There is a freedom in not reminiscing. In not projecting. In not thinking and dwelling about a past that can’t be changed or a future that never comes. I remember Thanksgiving at Cindy’s – I had fun. I didn’t think of Philip during dinner, dessert or the endless rounds of Catchphrase played afterward. Later that night, I did. There was a flicker of guilt until I also remembered that’s what Philip wants. I know that because in life he wanted me happy and his death doesn’t change that.

When Philip first died, Phil said to me Philip would want me to be happy. “How do you know what he wants?” I snapped. “Maybe he’s lonely – maybe he’d rather me be with him.” I understand things differently now. To” be with him” has nothing to do with my body or his body. He’s with me always, teaching me love and peace even as at times his death renders me breathless. It’s the way I love him that doesn’t allow me to experience his death the way I first did – as terrifying nothingness, as proof of random viciousness and meaninglessness. Not so – death is not a punishment nor an attack. It is a fact and I cannot interpret it only as grievous without also making my love for him and joy in him meaningless. Because his death takes away neither of those things. What then is death, and what is love?

I can’t pretend to answer either of those questions but I spend a lot of time thinking about them. “I’m trying to teach you what death isn’t,” Philip told me. Because to do otherwise is to give it a reality it doesn’t have. The shock of it when we lose a loved one can’t be denied. But the love that remains long after the body has disappeared also can’t be denied and is as real and palpable as ever. Philip continues to reach out to me through both sight and vision – the difference being sight is what my eyes see, and vision what my heart knows.

As far as love – I’m starting to think that love in this world is impossible without ambivalence, and so, then, is it really love? is what we call love merely believing that the desired other is someone who can meet our needs? How else to explain the deep and unending difficulties we have in maintaining relationships? To explain how we meet that other, pledge to spend our lives with that other, only to be disappointed and disenchanted as the years roll by? How, exactly, does that “love” we feel for that other turn into hatred, as it so often does? Was it, then, really love?

I question whether I have ever truly loved anyone. The closest I have come is what I feel for my children, particularly Philip. And I do not mean that I “love” Philip more than Natalie. It’s not only about what I feel for, but what I feel from, and in feeling Philip’s love I’m learning about my own ability to love. Philip’s loss of body is also loss of ego. I define ego as that part of us which is grasping, clinging, angry, greedy, fearful – that which interferes with the peace that lies deep and often buried, interferes with our ability to love. Philip’s is a voice of patience and kindness. Mine is not, at least not as much as I’d like it to be. My experience of Philip shows me how I fall short with Natalie. Egos colliding is not a pretty sight. It is only when I can let Natalie be, when I’m not pissed because she left a dish in the sink or shut herself in her room for too long, that I experience something akin to the peace of love.

Relationships are not here to make us happy. They are here to teach. And if we learn our lessons well, happiness is certainly possible. I am not happy that Philip’s died, but I recognize our relationship is about something beyond what I thought it was when he was alive. I have chosen to try to learn what he’s teaching me instead of making my life a bloody hell because of his death. Which isn’t to say I don’t wish he was here – I miss his touch, his voice, his laugh. But I do not miss his comfort because I still have it.  “Mom, you have to find the joy,” he said. He’s trying so hard to help me – I owe it to him to try as hard as well.

© 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

Was I?

No one trains to be a parent. And I didn’t read any books about someone’s version of how to do it, their methods, their advice. I’d figure it out on my own. Like when Natalie was a baby and cried and cried and cried; I’d heard of the “Ferber Method,” where Dr. Ferber thought babies needed to be trained to fall asleep, so let ‘em cry.  As opposed to assuming they’re crying because they need something and maybe if you hold them, they’ll feel safe enough to sleep.

However.

Natalie would wake up at all hours of the night to nurse. By the time she was five months old, I was exhausted. One night when she woke up at midnight, I decided that’s it. I’d let her cry. Screw it. I needed to sleep. Like I could sleep during the three hours she screamed bloody hell. Three hours before I ran to pick her up and nurse her. She latched on between the shaking and muffled sobbing; she sucked my breast like it was the breath she was breathing. By that point my milk was irrelevant. She was hungry for me. For what, I asked myself, for what? For what did I do that? I don’t think babies (or children, or adults) should be left to cry – it’s not natural. If they’re crying, they need something. Natalie’s needs were my needs. By the time I picked her up,  I craved her as much as she craved me. Bottom line – I wanted babies, and babies need attention. I wanted to nurse them, and that meant extra attention. And when I gave my kids what I knew they needed, we all felt better.

But when my kids got older, my instincts got confused. There were things I wasn’t clear about, things I wasn’t sure how to handle. My mind was telling me to interfere with this or try to stop that, but my heart didn’t agree and it’s like I was a trio – mind, heart and the one who had to decide between. Most of the time I went with my heart because it felt right, but maybe I was too scared to choose any other way, scared that Philip would be mad at me. So was I, then, looking out for him?

When Philip was 16, he wanted to go to an all day concert some hours away. Phil and I weren’t crazy about some of the kids he was hanging out with at the time. He’d gone the year before, but it was with a kid we trusted and his dad, who’d agreed to take them and spend the day. Not so this year. Someone was driving there, someone driving back. The details were vague, and Phil and I knew there’d be drinking and drugs at this thing. Phil refused to let him go, and Philip was furious. I’d never seen him so angry – and I knew that if it was me alone, I would have let him go. I stood there wide-eyed and twisted while Phil and Philip fought it out. I don’t know how Phil did it – I do not know how he was able to hold his ground. He was protecting his son. All I was was terrified, and that is what I’m talking about – was I looking out for him, or protecting myself from his anger?

Phil and I found out Philip had been smoking pot when he was sixteen. We took him straight to a drug counselor, which might sound dramatic except that I’m an addict and thought I could fix him before he turned into one. She sat with the three of us, then with Philip alone. Afterward she said, “This isn’t a kid with a problem.”  And at that point, he wasn’t. We bought a couple of drug tests, tested him a few months later, he was clean.

Philip was a kid with his feet in two worlds and he died with his foot in the wrong one. This is something I’ve been deeply ashamed about. Phil and I are decent people. We lived in good neighborhood, were surrounded by families whose kids were smart and active. Philip was intelligent, kind and sensitive. He got into one fight in his entire school career, and that was because he was picked on. In high school, he joined the fencing team and began to hang around with good kids, kids interested in school and their future. So how did he also wind up hanging around with kids who were more interested in drugs than in school? And while he wasn’t acting badly, he wasn’t working as hard as he could in school, only wore t-shirts that were black, and refused any shoes except his black high-top Converse.

Was there something I was supposed to do about that? Was I – really – looking out for him?

When my kids were growing up, there was a family who lived across the street from us for a while. The dad was a doctor, and I’m not sure what the mom was, but she worked full time. They had two kids – Ethan, who was a year older than Philip, and Julie, who was a few years older than him. Ethan was polite. He was allowed to play with Philip, but he wasn’t allowed to come into our house. It wasn’t personal – it was just a rule, and I figured that the parents wanted to be able to see exactly what he was doing. So he’d ring the bell and wait outside for Philip to come and play. Once I asked the mom if Julie could baby-sit for my kids. No, she said; she’s not allowed to work, she has to pay attention to her homework.

I was impressed. It seemed to me that these people knew exactly who they were and what they expected from their children. It also seemed to me that they were going to get it. I took clarity for certitude. Because I was so often unclear – how was I supposed to force Philip to use the brains he had when he slacked off? How was I supposed to force him to hang around  with kids I thought would be better for him? I couldn’t lock him in his room, I couldn’t forbid him to stay away from people. I blamed myself for the choices he made that were poor. Of course, I took no credit for all the good in him.

This is part of the ongoing conversation I have with myself about Philip’s death. Fortunately, it’s a small part. Regret and guilt are inevitable, but they are as much a part of the story as I make them be. And I do not much make them be. Philip has died but I have not. Nor has Natalie. And “died” doesn’t mean gone. It means change, change I don’t want but change that is so. I can ask myself if I was looking out for Philip, and the way I answer that is the way I feel about it all. If I want to wallow, I will answer no. If I want to find peace, I will say of course I was. He is my son and my love and so yes – of course I was.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Lonely?

Natale and Me, October 2015

Natalie and Me, October 2015

Natalie and I just had portraits taken. This is my favorite. I have a portrait of Philip and me, I wanted one of me and Natalie. How happy I look – it makes me smile when I see it. And it’s genuine – I love my daughter and I am able to enjoy her. “Enjoy” is a word I thought I would never use once Philip died. But the deep and grievous wound of his death has made me vulnerable to love as well as to pain. Never have I realized how deeply I love my daughter. Or that the fact of my love for my son is what sustains me through his death, even as it brings me to my knees in grief.

Sometimes when I’m driving, I say Philip’s name. I call out to him. And I realize how little his name is actually said. And how saying it doesn’t mean he’ll answer the phone or sit across from me and chat at dinner. It reminds me that something’s gotten smaller and more lonely. His name is lost in space. I can say it, it can go out there, but I will never speak it out loud to my son again.

I used to scream Philip’s name in my car when he first died. Now when I say it it hangs thin in the air, like an empty clothesline. A reminder that there used to be a person at the other end of that name, there used to be hair and flesh and hands that had two differently shaped thumbs. I’m the only one, besides him, who noticed. He was over 6’, tall enough to for me to lay my head on his chest when I needed a moment of love and protection. Reassurance, because what could be wrong if he was all right? That’s why I didn’t worry about him. Because he was all right until he wasn’t, and worrying wouldn’t have changed anything.

I’ve been wondering if I’m lonely. Another one of those feelings I thought would feel one way when in fact it feels another. I imagined lonely as sitting with my head hanging and wishing desperately for company. I imagined it small, sad and helpless in the kind of silence no sound can disturb. But that’s not what it is. It’s quiet, for sure. It’s a longing for I-don’t-what. It’s a restlessness. It’s me hurrying home because that’s where I’ll find what I love. My daughter. My dog and my cat. And it’s where I go to do what I love – to write, to quilt, to knit. When I’m creating I feel alive.

But I have to follow the flow of my energy because there’s only so much of it. I know when I want to write or knit or sew. I also know when I’m done with it for the day, and that often leaves a space that I fill with TV. The only television I used to watch was news. Now I can’t watch the insanity we call “the world.” The grief I hold for Philip is all I can manage. So I look for series, the longer the better. I started that when Philip died. It didn’t take away the sick knot in my stomach, or that I felt raw, bloodied and beaten up, but it quieted my mind. And if I needed anything, it was relief from the damn screaming in my head.

Now there’s no more screaming, just the chattering of the monkey mind. And confusion about what it is I’m yearning for but can’t find. Whatever it is, it’s not “out there.” It’s a reckoning from within. The past informs my present too much. Growing up I felt I was in the wrong world doing the wrong things. I was drunk and directionless. I went to college, then dropped out because I wasn’t interested. I got a job in the last place I thought I’d wind up, Wall Street. For years I worked there in misery. I knew I was in trouble the day I got a $12,000 bonus and looked at it with a shrug.

It is not enough to say, “it’s a job, you’re not supposed to like it.” If that’s what you make of it, then that’s how you’ll live. It was work I was after, not some job, but I didn’t know how to find it because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was asleep. What I wanted to do, what I always wanted to do, was write – but at 18 I was incapable of making decisions that didn’t involve alcohol. I wandered into FIT (Fashion Institute) in NY because my friend went there. As if I gave  a shit about fashion. When that didn’t work out I wandered into a job on Wall Street because a friend got me an interview. I spent my free time drinking and when I decided to stop, I spent my free time in AA.

I didn’t understand what I know now. Back then, the world was the problem, as if I had nothing to do with anything. As if I was at the mercy of an implacable universe. I used to say there must be a God because this much pain can’t be random

I can’t say how I think my life should be or should have been. The doing is only the reflection of the being. If I had the presence of mind when I was a kid, I would have gone to college to study the things that called me – writing and literature. That would have led to a different life. Not necessarily better, just different. But that’s not what happened. I am where I am because of choices I made and things that have happened that I have no control over. The classroom I learn from is wherever I am.

There is a way to live that feels right. You have to pay attention to where your spirit leads, not to what the world says. The world is crazy – why on earth would you want to listen to it? I’ve listened too long and too hard and much as I begin to disengage from the false, the truth is not so easily revealed. Or maybe it is and I still can’t see it. I’ve an inner struggle that manifests in the material. Today, talking with Kirsten, I realized that much as I don’t particularly think about the future, I have a sense that this is all there is, this is where I stop, this is where I’ll be when I die, restless and lonely, wondering what it was I was asked to do but too scared to hear the question.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

For a Reason?

“Acceptance of the unacceptable is the greatest source of grace in this world.”
                        Eckhart Tolle

When Philip died, it didn’t occur to me to follow anyone’s prescription about how to grieve. The same when I was pregnant – I admit to buying “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” but I only read a couple chapters. I had already done some serious research on giving birth, including interviewing midwives and doctors. WTEWYE seemed to skim the surface. I wanted to understand the process of giving birth because I’d decided to have my babies at home. Death and birth need be aided by others, but the hospital doesn’t seem the place for either. I am grateful for the medical community, but it often interferes when it should simply facilitate. Death and birth are as intensely personal as they are widely universal. The question before me was, How do I want to do this?

Back then, I couldn’t exactly say why I wanted to home birth, except it felt right and authentic. Through giving birth I was learning to trust the body that I’d been waging war with for years. I was sad and moody even as a kid and I took it out on my body. As if my body was the problem. Bodies are not the problem. Bodies are tools – while we are in them, they are expressions of life. They are the receptors through which we feel and experience. But to blame my body for what I was feeling was akin to blaming my pen for my inability to write when it ran out of ink.

I grew up in rage and depression at what I couldn’t articulate but now understand was a lack of love and compassion. And what can a child do with rage and depression? Certainly not reason about it. My particular way was to drink. Which I started to do when I was 11. Pot and pills followed soon after, then bulimia in my early 20s. All in a rage against my body because it was making me feel. And when getting high didn’t work, I tried a serious but flawed attempt to kill myself. That I didn’t succeed was not a moment of revelation. It was a defeat because I knew I wouldn’t try it again – I wasn’t about to become a joke, someone whose version of a cry for help was inventing new and futile ways to kill herself. I failed. I was embarrassed and beaten.

So I went to therapy, stopped drinking. Eventually tried to deal with the bulimia, something that proved a far harder challenge than drugs and alcohol. I could grasp the concept of not taking the first drink. What was the formula for an eating disorder? Don’t take the first compulsive bite? Exactly which one was that? Sometimes, in my confusion, I’d opt for eliminating all all bites and I’d go days without eating.

But the body, restored to its rightful place, is a point of power. It’s where we access the richness of our inner life. It’s where we learn what true connection means and how it goes beyond the point of physical. Philip did not start as a body – he started as a longing. I wanted a child and so was graced with him. His birth was a continuation of the relationship I’d begun to form with him when I recognized that I wanted him. And grievous as his death is, we are still in relationship. It is hampered only by my inability to get my body out of my way.

To go to a hospital to give birth would be to give away the inherent power of my body. Women have been taught that we can’t trust our bodies, that our bodies cannot function as they are meant to. That somehow our prodding, probing and technology know better than we, ourselves, can know. That the pain of childbirth has no value and that we are unable to bear what women have borne always. We have been separated from our natural functions.

Like menstruating. There came a point as a young woman where I began to wonder where women’s disgust of their periods came from. Fertility is a power. Much as I wasn’t sure I wanted to have children, the idea that I had the power to do so made me feel sorry for men and what they would never know. My body could give life. I was part of the mystery. And much as I spent decades wishing I was dead, which really meant I wished I could stop feeling the terrible things I felt, some part of me recognized the sanctity of being able to give birth.

In the spirit of beginning to respect what my body could do, I stopped using “sanitary” napkins  – was my blood dirty? I bought cloth menstrual pads which I washed myself, watching the blood run over my hands as I rinsed my cloths before putting them in my “moon bowl,” where they sat until I washed them. I loved having my period. It was the mark of my fertility, and it is through that fertility that I came to know the two who I love best in this world.

And birth control. In my early twenties, I briefly went on the pill. Like everyone else I knew, I wanted the freedom to fuck. But something felt wrong about manipulating my cycle so I went off it.  Any method of birth control that I could use involved pills, diaphragms, iuds – all too invasive. I didn’t trust my understanding of my cycle enough to risk what was then called “the rhythm method” – so it was up to my partner and a condom.

When Philip died I ran to no manual about grief. By that point I’d stopped looking for something outside myself to tell me how to feel, to tell me what I was supposed to “do” to be happy. I was not in control of my feelings, but I could figure out how to handle them, and what I’d figured out and written about here countless times is that my credo became, Accept it, leave it, or change it. What else could ever be done, in any situation? The simple answer was also the most profound. Thing is, leaving or changing a situation might be difficult but felt doable. But “accept?” Years of hearing AA’s platitudes about acceptance made me bristle to even hear the word. I thought it mean lying in the road and letting a mac truck roll over me. And since all anything can ever mean is the meaning I give it, I couldn’t “accept” because I couldn’t understand.

What brought this all to mind is something I read on the internet, something, as one blogger wrote, “is making the rounds.” It had to do with the notion that everything happens for a reason, and the grieving author’s anger at people who spout that platitude. And I do understand that anger – what is such a trite expression in the face of losing a child? Is that supposed to comfort? What reason could anyone possibly come up with that would make this okay?

But then I got the idea that here we are again – angry, and doing with grief what the world does with everything: it’s us against them. The victims that have been forced to grief and the enemies who want to look away. It’s exhausting. This anger perpetuates grief, even as it feels good to have somewhere to direct our anger besides the seeming randomness of the universe.

We are all going to die. The timing is not up to us. Since death is as birth is, how do we live with it?

People are frightened. People spend lifetimes avoiding death even though they are always creeping toward it. People don’t know what to say when it comes anywhere near them. If someone says, “Everything happens for a reason” it simply means they don’t understand. It’s not you they’re trying to reason with, it’s themselves. So why would I insist people have to be what I want them to be, say what I want them to say? Yet how that stings when we feel we are being strangled by our grief, how that cuts us off when what we need is love and connection. There is no loneliness like the loneliness that comes from losing someone beloved.

Maybe it’s easy for me to look at this because I haven’t anyone who’s said anything like that to me. I’ve been told to “move on” which of course isn’t possible – but it was said in the spirit of kindness and that is what matters. The worst thing anyone said to me that first year was, “Uh, here we go” when I brought up Philip’s death in what I thought was the right context. I was both incredulous and angry for a long time after. Now, what matter? What people say tells you much about them, but nothing about you. People speak from fear, from anger, from ignorance –  we all do it and we don’t realize it. And when people continue to say hurtful things it is good and right to absent them from our lives. Sometimes we can’t, and so we have to draw a line in their condition. But sometimes we don’t, because sometimes we just want someone to target.

Last week I was alone in my office. In walked a client to pick up some paperwork. Noticing the picture of Philip on my desk, he asked with a smile, “Is that your son?” It is, said. And then I told him he died. “I am so sorry,” he answered; and he stayed and talked with me for a while. He listened to what I had to say. He has children of his own, and at one point his eyes teared up. That’s what we want, isn’t it? People to let us speak of the unspeakable, to be unafraid to hear what we’re saying.

Whether or not you think everything happens for a reason – the point is everything that happens, happens. It’s not about reason, but about meaning. Searching for a reason perpetuates grief because there is no satisfactory reason. The only meaning can come from what we make it to be. Loss is. To live in a body is to experience loss, in all its forms. No one escapes grief, no one escapes death. It’s not personal and it’s not done “to” us. It happens. And when it does, it changes us forever. We live with it every day, and we have choice how to do so. Not at first – depending on who we are, not for a long time. I lived underwater so long after Philip died, I don’t know how I didn’t suffocate. Searching for reasons would not have helped – the opposite, in fact, because asking why is an impossible question, designed to distract and thus prolong the worst aspects of our grief. There is never an acceptable answer. Death is its own reason.

Rather than looking for reasons, I ask myself how I can live with what is to me both a tragedy and a blessing. Philip is dead. I will one day join him, and when I do it will seem like life went by quickly. But since I’m here, how is it I want to be in the world? How do I walk with an open heart as I long to do? How do I stop hiding myself away because there’s something nagging at me that I won’t face – it’s an ancient darkness I carry and it’s going to take some strength to lay it down.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Let It Go

Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
go,
to let it go.

                           –Mary Oliver

Let it go. Not Philip – that isn’t possible, even if I wanted it so. Just let go the rage, the grief, the despair, the emotional flailing because my child has died. My child has died. The most shocking words I have ever said.

The way I better understand this is to say, “no resistance.” “Let it go” sounds like make it go away, make these things we think we owe our dead disappear. That’s not what it means. To not resist is to let it be. Let the grief be. I’ve reached a point where I can think about what that means. Grief isn’t going to go away, nor is anger. When I resist them, it’s like holding on to fiery coals and what happens to hands that cling to fire? They burn. And they burn. And then they burn some more. They won’t stop burning until the hands begin to loosen. The fire doesn’t go away. But the hands, while still hurt, begin to heal, even as they remain forever scarred.

The source of salvation in this world is letting go. To stop resisting what is. I’ve spent my life looking for an answer when it was there in front of me all the time. Salvation comes not from without, but within. It took Philip’s death to catapult me into this wisdom that I was dancing around with before he died.

Letting go is work. It’s not something done once, but once you really do it, there’s no turning back. You forever know the grace of letting go, you know what it feels like, you know it’s a decision in your power to make. When Philip died I said a cosmic fuck you. I didn’t want to know what was then my credo: Accept it, leave it, or change it. The only workable alternative was impossible. Accept it? In my hellish grief, I misunderstood what that meant. Accept it didn’t mean it was okay. It meant grieving but not fighting. It is possible to grieve without fighting. That doesn’t mean I don’t love Philip. And in letting go of the fight, I am free to live in his love.

The month before Philip died I was debating whether to take a Shakespeare class at the local adult school. While I love Shakespeare, it’s difficult to read on my own. It’s in class that the work comes alive. I was ambivalent, and as Philip told me, ambivalence is not nothing. For a month I carried the brochure around, longing but stopping. Until I finally decided to stop stopping and went online to register. The class was full, the fact of which knocked me off my feet and sent me spinning into some fantastical universe. The chattering in my head was unbearable until I finally listened to what that voice was saying:  You’re not good enough, you’re not smart enough, this is Montclair for God’s sake, filled with intellectuals, did you really think they’d let you into their club??

Notice that the voice was saying “you,” not “I.”  What, who, was this voice that drove me into such darkness, such hatred? It didn’t matter. All that mattered was I got it. The only reason I didn’t get into that class was because it took me a month to make a decision. It wasn’t personal. It wasn’t about me. The class was filled. Period.

I let it go –  I took a big, deep breath and let it go. The knot in my stomach didn’t go away, the ground didn’t immediately return to steady me, but there was space around all of I. I saw it was my thoughts that created my reality. I was excited. This was the work and I was doing it. So simple, so profound. And it didn’t mean I wouldn’t come up against something like this again, it just meant I could choose not to get caught in it.

So I looked at the brochure and took note of the date class started. Monday, February 27th. Let me see what I’ll be doing on that day, I thought. Maybe something better will come along.

I couldn’t know that what I’d be doing was giving my son’s eulogy.

Heaven and hell converged that night, and for a long time hell won. Philip’s words to me were never forgotten: Mom, you gotta go deeper. I knew he was right. I didn’t care. He was dead and that’s all that mattered. What I refused to realize was that the greatest teaching in this world would come from from his death. Of course I couldn’t realize – death consumes, strangles, destroys everything in its wake. But it is not for nothing that the phoenix rose from the ashes, its youth renewed, ready for another cycle.

I’m trying to teach you what death isn’t, Philip told me. It isn’t the end – there is no “end.” Not to what matters. Bodies are temporary. Death is change. Change is always uncomfortable because it’s the death of what was. I’m looking for the courage to jump into the void of change. I know what it feels like. I’ve done it. It’s what to do with Philip’s death. Holding my grief is not going to bring him back. Letting it go isn’t a betrayal. And yes, it leaves me vulnerable. To pain as well as to love. But still there’s that knot, past pain tangled up with Philip’s death and I am yet scared to really let go. To fully embrace my son exactly as he is. Still there’s something so terrible about him dying, and something that feels familiar about this sorrow.

At the end of Philip’s eulogy I asked, “Can I love this child of mine without attachment?” In other words, can I love him and not cling to my wretched grief? Even then I knew letting go was the answer, much as it was impossible to do so. Now I do it in bits and pieces as I hold him close to my heart. Because holding onto him feels better than those fiery coals.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Something Bigger

Free will and fate. I believe in both. I also believe in karma. Some of this is contradictory, but I’m willing to hold that contradiction because there’s a mystery to life that I cannot know. It’s like I’m standing in front of a gorgeous painting five miles high and ten miles wide but all I can see is the little part in front of me. Out of context, it might not make sense. It doesn’t fully convey what the painter meant. But just because I can’t see the whole of it doesn’t mean it isn’t there, doesn’t mean there isn’t meaning that I can’t grasp.

We all make choices. But there are only a limited amount of choices we can make. It is not true that you can “be” anything you want to be. When I was a kid I desperately wanted to be a singer. I can’t sing. I cursed God for yet another thing He withheld from me. It’s not an option for me to be a rock star or to be president. It’s not an option for me to own a mansion or manage a baseball team. But within life, I have my own choices and those choices create the circumstances where I experience life.

Every moment is where I experience life.

I believe in fate. Philip died because he snorted heroin but that isn’t the whole of it. Looking back at the way death touched both our lives, from the two-year-old who told me his dead grandpa was “in the light” to the way I kept seeing him dead in the months leading up to his death…and looking at what his death has done to me, it’s hard not to see a sort of “supposed to” as part of this. It does not feel entirely wrong that he’s dead, no matter how much I don’t want to accept it.

But there’s something bigger, more pressing, more to the point, because my circumstances are not the point. The way I think about them is. Whatever it is, the question is, What purpose does this serve? Take my job. I’m an administrative assistant, I’m the office manager. But that’s not who I am. It’s not what I do that matters, it’s how I am. Every day’s interactions are a chance to be present or to go to sleep. And I work for someone who is challenges me in this. The difficulty I have in responding to him shows me my real work which is way more important than what I get paid to do.

Last week my boss, Jack, was out of the office and called because needed something from me quickly. His abruptness unnerved me, and here’s where the present dissolved into the past, which means I went to sleep. I became the kid with the forbidding parents who couldn’t do anything right. I panicked because I didn’t think I could find what he needed, and after I did, I told him, “I’m afraid of you.” A few minutes later he called me back. “Look,” he said. “I don’t want you to be afraid of me, I want you to help me.”

Is this someone to be afraid of? I think not. But it’s not about him. It’s about the way my being is affected by him and how I’m going to work through it. It is the working through the difficulties in life, the being-ness that’s there when I do, that matters. A lot of that requires letting go of what I’m resisting to move more fully into life. And it is that letting go that I need practice because one day there will be a final letting go, and if I can’t let go of my boss’ impatience what makes me think I’ll be able to let go for the big one?

Death has lessons to teach us, and not morbid ones. Every time we stop resisting the circumstances of our lives, it prepares us that much more for death. And why not practice for that inevitable moment? Anything you want to do well takes practice. So why not practice what matters? A life lived without contemplating death is a shallow life. It’s made of up desire and accumulation of not only objects, but of people. None of which are real or sustaining, but a way of avoiding. I don’t want to avoid the fact of death, but neither do I want to continually feel like I don’t know how to live. Whatever I’ve come to understand since Philip died, the tangible ways he lets me know he’s around, doesn’t change the fact that I feel I like I lost a limb. Like I’m searching for something but I don’t know what it is. That there are times this still feels like a horror – did he really die, this child of mine? Will I really grow old without him?

Have I not yet learned that life is not predictable and any breath can be my last?

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Survivor Guilt

There are times when naming things creates problems. We name something, then we think we know what it is. I mean, I’m looking at my barn-wood six-foot bench that I use as a coffee table. In this instance, I can’t even exactly name it – is it a bench, or is it a coffee table? But what is it? It’s made from painted wood. If I was a scientist I might know the molecular structure of that wood. But that still wouldn’t tell me what it is. Things have an is-ness that can’t be named. If we didn’t name everything and then assume we know all about it, we might get closer to what that is-ness is.

We name “conditions,” too – we get diagnoses and begin to treat the disorder. Conditions have symptoms attached to them, and it’s not uncommon for people to think they have a condition and manufacture the symptoms to match it. I bring this up because it was suggested to me that I have “Survivor Guilt”. My reaction was to recoil, like, oh, please, that’s something other people get. I’m way beyond that sort of thing. Because sometimes my sense of cool still gets offended. Because I have a habit of wanting to be different. Like I don’t want to do death like the rest of the world.

It makes no sense to me, this Survivor Guilt. For decades I swore I wanted to opt out of this life. Swore I hated it here, that I didn’t belong here. I felt too much pain in this world, with not much peace to offset it. So how I could I feel guilty being here when Philip was wherever it was I’d been wishing myself to be for so damn long?

But what explains the way I short circuit when I notice I’m happy? And what does it mean for me to be happy? I’ve had a problem with that word since way before Philip was even a thought. It seemed silly. “Happy?” Like jump up and down for joy, like everything is okay? My philosophy was something like if you’re happy you’re not paying attention. Unhappiness gave me an edge – I saw things the way they really were. Happy was cheap and weak. Surface living. Naive. And not cool – definitely not cool.

As for guilt – for what? Guilt requires having done something wrong by choice. I felt so wronged by life I swore it wasn’t possible to feel guilt. Life should feel guiIt because It was indifferent to my unhappiness. I didn’t consider that if I felt life was beating me up, I must’ve thought I deserved it – hence, guilt. As far as feeling guilty about Philip’s death – it had nothing to do with me. There was nothing I could have done and I don’t make believe that there was. I’m trying to live with the reality of this, not a fantasy.

I had an idea about happy the way I had an idea about guilt. Thoughts in my head about what those words meant. I didn’t allow myself to feel them, either. I pushed those feelings into the background and let unhappiness be the foreground. But that rid me of nothing. It just let me not pay attention.

A couple weekends ago Natalie and I went to a wedding in Manhattan. My cousin was getting married, and my family was spending the night in a hotel. The ceremony and reception were held in a restaurant, and while the food was delicious, the service impeccable, and the bride a thing of beauty, the place was bathed with an eerie blue light and the acoustics required conversation to be loud and strained. The “dance floor’ was a tiny square with a DJ that had  two five foot speakers and a rough, ridged rubbery floor that stopped your shoes from doing what they really wanted to do. No matter – there were too many of us crowded on to it to move very much anyway. Who cared? We were in each others’ company to celebrate. So we did.

There were people there – family – I hadn’t seen in a long time. I forgot how much loved them, how much they loved me back. How are you, they asked? And I wasn’t sure if they were asking me how I was like everyone asks of someone not seen in a while, or if it was code for how are you since Philip died. God knows I wished they would ask that of me, but they didn’t. And I acted like that was what they’re asking me by answering with a slow blink and a pointed nod and saying, “I am okay.” I was letting them off the hook and was glad to do so. I’d no interest in making anyone uncomfortable.

Except that later, returning to my seat from the dance floor, I sat alone and wished I could cry to just one of them. They were laughing and talking the way I was laughing and talking. So where was Philip in all this? Did they think I forgot him? Were any of them thinking of him? Why am I so hungry for a witness to what I suffer?

Or did I just think I needed to suffer as a testament to my love for him? And if I think I am losing him in my moments of pleasure then what’s really going on is that I feel guilty that I could laugh while he’s dead. Survivor guilt isn’t what I thought – it didn’t mean feeling like I should have died instead of Philip. I’m not so arrogant to think I know who should be dead and who shouldn’t. What it is is the way I sometimes catch my breath when I realize I like what I’m doing or I’m enjoying the people around me and I stop it all to think, how could any of this matter when my son is dead?

The idea of Philip’s death is not the reality of it. The idea of it is that he’s gone and I cannot live in peace without him. The reality is he’s around me all the time. I have a relationship with him, the kind that matters – that of the heart. That doesn’t change, and what doesn’t change is what’s real. In other words, love. If we are not here to love, what can anything matter?

I have changed since Philip died. I have become more friendly. I smile more. I’m interested. In you. I think that happiness is a gift we give to others. My happiness is more about you than me, but if I can share it with you it’s because it is inside of me. I can somewhat handle happy in a more controlled environment. Like work. I’m all about helping, I’m cheerful, calm and steady. When I see a call coming in from someone I don’t want to talk to, I might sigh and roll my eyes but when I answer I am pleasant and helpful. And I’m okay with that until I hear my co-workers talking about their kids who are in college or have graduated from college and are flying off to new jobs and new marriages and I am reminded I will never dance at Philip’s wedding and that I can’t share with them the relationship I have with him now.

What do we owe the dead? Nothing, I would argue. They are past owing. To owe is to be obligated to – but if I believe I can’t be happy without Philip here, then I must think I owe him my grief. And my guilt. As if that’s anything he would want.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

When We Connect (Part 3)

Last year, holiday time, Max was on my mind, seemed to be all around me. I’m not even sure what I was thinking about him – just some sense of him, along with something vaguely disturbing. Driving home on a late Friday afternoon, I heard Philip say, “Call him.” In that heart-racing-stomach-clenching moment I knew that’s what I had to do. The rest of the way home I had time to think about it. I wasn’t sure what to say…I could wish him happy holidays, tell him I was thinking about him…I could tell him I wasn’t angry, ask him what he’s been up to…but most importantly, I had to understand that I could not expect a Kumbaya moment out of this. I’d love for us to bond over my love and good will, but I couldn’t call him for that reason. No expectations, I warned myself. I’m doing this because it need be done. Period.

Good thing I warned myself. When I called, Max was withdrawn, hesitant. He didn’t say much, not when I tried to chat about what he was doing, certainly not when I told him I wasn’t mad at him, that he was part of Philip’s life and that meant something. Not sure what to do with his awkwardness, I ended the phone call as gently as I could. But I was there for it. I was there for the discomfort of the call mixed with the lightening of a load I wasn’t aware I was carrying. And even though I’d failed at getting Max to open up, I was left with the quiet excitement of being in life.

I told Natalie about it, and she said I had no idea what effect I’d had on Max. Maybe nothing now, maybe something. And if nothing now, maybe one day years from now, a more mature Max would think of this and be relieved. He was, after all, the one who found Philip, the one who felt guilty for introducing him to heroin in the first place. But as I told him when he cried to me at the wake, he didn’t stick it up Philip’s nose and he can’t spend the rest of his life feeling guilty about it.

I offered Max absolution I don’t believe I have the power to give. I am not God. But I am Philip’s mother and as such have a power I don’t often understand. Forgiveness is a tricky thing. If I truly believe you did something wrong, how can I forgive? It feels so high-handed – I’ve decided you’ve sinned and now I will absolve you. But what word is there for what that was? I was freed from a resentment that I didn’t realize was background noise. I’ve no interest in Max suffering – if I knew his suffering it would only add to mine. So if forgive is the word for what I did, then the definition has to be “freed from resentment.”

And then there are those moments – time stops and all there is is what you know. It’s not intellectual – it’s the deep wisdom within, finally, elusively, surfacing. Shattering the monkey mind, however briefly. Why can’t I live in the light of that? Maybe it’s just too bright to be constant. Maybe if it was, I’d burn.

Or maybe I’m just too afraid.

The first year after Philip’s death I was still living with Nadiya. One Sunday night I was in the first floor bathroom, Natalie was up on the third floor, the floor where we lived. Looking in the mirror, I felt a pain in my chest – it was toward the left side and for a moment, I shivered. What if I was having a heart attack? I didn’t believe I was – more likely gas. But I took the opportunity to act it out. I’d been saying how much I wanted to die…what if this really was a heart attack? I bent over and let the pain take over, let myself believe my heart was giving out. Then the shock of reality – Natalie needed me. She needed me. She was not ready for me to die. Her world would be shattered and I could not do that to her. She mattered – she was all that mattered. I stood up to a world that had shifted. Could I? Could I not? Clarity is a shock that humbles. I can’t say I never thought that I wanted to die since then – but I can say I never thought it without seeing Natalie along with it.

Then this. I’ve been watching “House.” If you’re not familiar with the show, House is a doctor in a hospital whose team diagnoses patients with puzzling illnesses. And I can’t watch a show about a hospital without envying the patients. This is an old, old habit. In my fantasy, there is relief in not having to do anything but let the staff take care of me. In fact, when I was a teenager and my friends talked of their fear of giving birth, I’d tell them, I’ll have the babies, you’ll raise them. Because that fantasy also involved a hospital – there I’d be, resting in bed, surrounded by flowers, for just a short bit of time being relieved of the burden of living.

Except that’s not where relief lies. Relief lies in realizing truths. Watching House one day, the shock of what being ill really means hit me. These people were sick. Their lives were on hold, their bodies were out of control. They were frightened. They could become disabled. They could die. And so another fantasy turned inside out, another opportunity to live in truth.

Apparently that particular truth took some kind of hold. Because the next day, outside walking, there rose a thought that was odd and strange and alien to all the things I’ve been thinking since Philip died. I say “rose” because it came from my gut, not from my head. And the thought was this: I am not ready to join him.

For a moment I had faith. Until the murmuring mind began. Are you sure? What if you have 20 years ahead of you? Can you live that long without him? Can you really make that commitment? Do you know what you’re getting into? And Philip chiming in to remind me, Mom, I am right here.

I could go on about the way I struggle with the past in the present, I could say that that’s the voice that always takes over…and maybe it is, but its motivation is something I haven’t explored, something I hadn’t even considered because I didn’t understand what it really was: Survivor Guilt.

And next time I’ll be reckoning with it.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

When We Connect (Part 2)

Grief is a spiral, not a line that goes from here to there. There is no “there,” only here. I still bristle when I hear people talk of “moving on,” though I know it’s said out of a naiveté about death. I am not nostalgic for that time in my life, when death was a concept, not an experience. I have no wish to be innocent. That’s what I love about a wide-eyed child, a nursing baby, a puppy, a kitten – their purity and innocence. Maybe why I ache for them is because it won’t last. Life will make sure of that. Whatever I’ve gone through has been inevitable, and none of it is anything I want to go through again.

*****************************

What is it that happens when we feel the relief of connection with others? I talked about that in my last. I think what happens when we feel that close to someone is that we recognize something within ourselves. We feel our worth, our value; we feel love. To feel that love is to understand that is what we’re here for. If we can feel that through another, then we know it exists within – and so we feel connected to ourselves. But how strange is that – when I feel love, I feel connected to my-self. So who is the I, and who is the self? Am I two, or am I one? I think of the “I” as the watcher, the constant presence. It’s different from my personality, from my reactions. It is the presence that observes what I do and what I feel. Think about it. Think about the past. When you do, you’re remembering moments that occurred in time. But the “I” that is remembering is outside of time – it is always there and has always been.

As a human being I am subject to rules and conventions. As a spiritual being I have an aspect that’s timeless and changeless, where the laws of this world do not apply. It’s up to me how to integrate these two. It’s up to me to take that spiritual dimension as seriously as I take my humanity.

I’ve had moments that are breaks with the world as I see it. A truth is realized, there’s a shift in perception. And a shift in perception of the world is a relief. Those moments connect me to life and do not necessarily require the presence of another. The question, then, is do I trust enough to take the risk of belief? My ego is not so keen on truth.

I have a niece who died from brain cancer. I wrote a bit about it here. Nicole was only four years old. She’d developed a rare cancer that at the time had only been seen in 60 children in the country, all of whom died. The doctors tried an experimental protocol with her – remove the tumor, then four months of chemo followed by a bone marrow transplant. Three months later the cancer was back. In another three months she was dead.

After that, trying to find some perspective about death, I started to read “Who Dies” by Stephen Levine. I did not consider that one day I would be in the same position as my brother – I was simply trying to understand. At the time, I lived in a large five-room apartment in Brooklyn. This particular day I was in the back of the apartment, in my bedroom, reading Levine. Outside my bedroom was the hall that led to the kitchen, where my mom, who had come to visit, was cooking. Philip, then four, and Natalie, about one-and-a-half, were in the living room watching TV.

It was a winter evening; such a lovely word for the transition between day and night. There’s a mental winding down, a break from the day’s madness. Lying on my bed reading, I could hear the vegetables being chopped, the furious boiling of the water as it waited impatiently for the pasta. The sounds of being taken care of – for just a while I could be the child, waiting for my mother to have dinner ready.

In his book, Levine has a Tibetan meditation on the process of dying. You imagine yourself dying, imagine your body dissolving. So I laid on my back, closed my eyes and relaxed, let go of my body until it no longer felt like pretending. That’s when I started to panic. I was too deep in the darkness to come out of it. All I could think of was my kids. Who was going to raise my kids? My husband would work it out, but no one would love and tend to them like me. Wait, stop – I can’t die yet. They’re going to grow up – I’m not going to see them grow up. This can’t be happening. Except it seemed to yes, really be happening and I could not control it. They were slipping away too quickly and my arms were not long enough to reach them.

Yet in an instant there was a shift. I took a breath and let go. What was happening to me was happening. No point arguing. My children would be fine. My time had come and they were no longer my responsibility. My work was to take the risk of letting all that I knew go, because there was no other way. And I did and I knew peace – the peace of being with what is so. The great and willing leap into the darkness. Swiftly it came, and swiftly it went.

When I have to die, that is the way I want to go. The practice is here, now. The non-resistance of the circumstances of my life. Accept it, leave it, or change it. I recognized that moment of peace, and I have had many since. But swiftly they come and swiftly they go. That great peace of just being. Of breathing. And that is the way to deal with Philip’s death…but that is a darkness I’m still arguing with.

Next, Part 3.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Previous Older Entries Next Newer Entries