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


Give My Life, Live My Life

What wildness there is in grief. What unpredictability. And exhaustion. I’m tired of this crazy ride, I’m tired of missing Philip. Crying won’t bring him back, but I do it anyway. When words won’t come, tears take their place. I cry because I want my son alive, because I am helpless, because I want somebody to hang on to for a while, two strong arms and a shoulder I can tuck myself into and make believe, even for a while, that someone’s love for me is greater than this loss I don’t want to live with. And so the ugliness of grief – it creates a terrible need and then makes it impossible to meet.

My son. Sometimes I call him Philip, sometimes I call him my son. I’ve been trying more often to write “Philip.” “Philip” is older, is more independent, more of a partner. He is tall and handsome. He goes to school and pays his rent. He comes to dinner with me and even when he’s 21, he comes and lies on my couch when he’s not feeling well.

When I say, “my son,” I’m on my knees with my eyes raised to the holy heavens, begging for him to please come home. When I say, “my son” I’m lamenting more than saying – and I join the collective of all who’ve lost a child. It doesn’t make it better, that anyone else should feel this. We suffer a loneliness that can’t be touched because each of us lost our child and our special relationship and no matter who is suffering this, it’s hard to believe anyone else really gets it. Because Philip is my son and I am the one who lost him most.

I’d have given my life for my son. I’d have stalked, roared, clawed, destroyed anyone who dare try to hurt him. Because that’s what mothers do. I think I’ve been calling him “Philip” more because it hurts just a little bit less. Because claws and all I couldn’t protect my son, and if I call him Philip I know that he’s responsible for his death, too.

I don’t mean that I’m responsible in that I could have done something so he wouldn’t have died. I’m responsible for his being born, for the ways I responded to his life and now his death. At some point, the madness of grief has to give way to at least some lucidity where I can make decisions about how I feel and what I’m going to think about. I resist this. I grieve – as we all do – in the context of my life. Since I was a kid I’ve found it hard to be here and I still don’t get what’s so great about life. The way people don’t understand what I’m talking about is the way I don’t understand their ready engagement with the world. I am so angry that when I’d finally broken it down into something I could manage, when I decided that what I had to remember was I have my kids and I could build my life from there, Philip died. The nameless darkness I’ve lived with can now be called Death – and I can’t tell the grieving from the blaming.

I’m staring down the question we all come to sooner or later – how do I live in the face of death? Lately I’ve been doing that by waiting. In between time with Natalie and time at work, when I’m alone, I wait for it all to pass. I tell myself it doesn’t matter if I write or sew or cook or just lie on the couch and watch TV because sooner or later it’s all going to be gone. So what if I don’t like where I’m living? So what if don’t do laundry for weeks or if I eat sandwiches every night? So what if staying home sounds better than anything I can think to go out and do? When my turn comes I don’t think it’s going to matter where I lived or how many pillows I’ve sewn. It’s all going to fall away anyway, so what’s it really matter?

There is something Zen-like in that. To “not mind what happens” is the way to peace. But that’s not what I’m doing. I’m perverting that into defeat and a surrender to despair instead of acceptance. I’m so tired of Philip being dead, so weary of what I now carry. I know death, I want to scream; I know death. And it is not the end, it is not anything like the end. In fact, it’s endless. And relentless. You can’t reason with it, you can’t stop it, and once it’s come you can’t make it go away. You can’t call your kid any more, can’t watch him graduate from college, can’t get to know his new girlfriend or wonder if he’ll ever have kids because even though you never much liked babies, you were wild about your own and “grandma” had stopped sounding old, it just sounded like having more to love.

I’ve gone through – and am probably not done with – feeing guilty about being a mother who couldn’t protect her kid. Philip, from the second I found out he died, has asked something else of me. And when I talk like this, when I give up, I feel I’m betraying him. What am I doing with all he communicates to me? There’s a deep disconnect between my ranting at his death and the wonder at the love and protection I feel from him, that he shows me every day in tangible ways. Little things, like when I signed up for an adult ed class, walked into the high school and said, “Philip, I want to be in room 201.” Ridiculous, I knew, because class was on the first floor and I’ve been in that school enough times to know the rooms on the first floor start with 1. So while it couldn’t have been room 201, it was the next best thing: 102.

Or the bigger things, the things he gives me to think about. Like last week, on my way home after work, when the drive went from annoying to unbearable. I’m obsessively crazy about getting home, watching the cars on the highway more than the road itself to see if there’s an opening to get ahead. I strategize, I maneuver. I’m aggressive and treat each car like its sole reason for being in proximity to me is to keep me from getting where I want to go. It doesn’t matter that I see how crazy I am, or that I’m rushing home to spend a night alone, a night where I’ll dive under the covers in despair about Philip. I just want to get where I’m going. And on that day while I was thinking that I can’t do this any more but I’m helpless to do otherwise, I heard Philip. “Swerve, mom,” he said. “Just swerve.”

That’s all he had to say and I could breathe again. Philip was asking me if I could go gently, gracefully, from one lane to another when there was room to do so. I felt the breath that would allow me to do that, breath that would create the room I was desperate for. It’s holding my breath that makes me feel trapped. And then I understood what Philip was really telling me. That there are things I will come up against all the time, things that will not move and that I can’t barrel my way through. I can’t control any of that. But I can breathe and go round them, because that is the part that’s up to me.

I still don’t know what death is. I just keep learning what it isn’t. It’s life that’s harder than any of it. And the hardest question of all is that I said I’d give my life for Philip – why, then, won’t I live it for him?

© 2014 Denise Smyth

What for?

I’ve been working on a post about gratitude, which is sounding more like a post on ingratitude. But I wanted to take a time out to say I found an apartment last week. The rent is less than the apartment I lost,  I can bring my dogs, the location is great. It’s unoccupied, so they gave me the keys on Friday and I’ve been moving some stuff in. Wednesday the movers come, and then it will officially be Home.

It all fell into place beautifully. People help me. Life helps me. I see it, and I work to accept it. I don’t know how to ask, and when I do, I am ashamed. I don’t know what that’s about, but I’ve been like this forever. I’m too tired to think about it.

And I don’t mean physically. I mean I am tired of what I feel because my son is dead. The move is exciting; I’ve been running around packing, organizing, making arrangements. Natalie and I are working together, talking colors and painting and how to put what where and what we need to fill the empty spaces. Then I go home, home to silences filled with my son’s death. My son. He is my son, and I can’t have you meet him. He is my son and he isn’t here. And I can talk to you all about this but when I am out in the world I feel shame. Is there something about me that made my son dead? I have never had anyone say anything stupid to me about Philip’s death. All people have done is care. But I can’t work this shame out, I can’t help but put my head down when I see families, when I see mothers and their sons. It’s not that I think there was something I could have done; it’s just a sense of, “well, of course, I mean – what did you think?”

Who the hell’s voice is that?

Philip’s answer to that is, “Mom, don’t make my death into something it isn’t.” His death is not about me. I am not to use it to justify old habits of despair and unwillingness, to return to thinking I want to die because what I want is not to feel. I have said I want to grieve honestly; there is nothing honest about mixing up Philip’s death with the the things I had to deal with while he was alive.

Still – the other day I wrote to Stephanie, “I just sort of sink and shrug because what for, if your child can die?”

I think maybe feeling his death so keenly has something to do with moving, starting this different life with Natalie and that makes Philip more gone.  August 1st, 2009, I left my home to move in with Nadiya. Philip was there to help me. We were both making changes:  me to a new home, he to his freshman year at college. Exactly four years later we should have again been moving on together: He as a Graduate of Rutgers, me to my new apartment with my daughter. But I’m moving on without him, away from the house where he came to visit, away from the room I grieved in and wept in and slept in and tucked myself away in to mourn the incomprehensible. My therapist asked if I feel guilty because I am happy and excited to move, and how could I allow anything like “happy” because Philip is gone? Maybe I am, but it doesn’t feel that way. It feels more like helplessness and despair because of what is. Life goes, I’m going with it, my son isn’t coming with me and my heart is hurting for loving him so much.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

Day 3, and So On

I hate this. I goddamn hate that my son is dead and that you’ll say so very sympathetically, “Of course you do” but you don’t know. You think I’m brave and I’m doing great and hey, I’m writing a blog and maybe it’s what’s keeping me sane, but what do I do when I’m done with my story? Day One and Day Two (parts one, two, three and four) and now Day Three, and then what? What if I run out of things to say? Because I certainly won’t run out of things to feel. It’s my silences I don’t know how to live with.

It’s Friday, and I am at my parents’ house in Brooklyn. Philip is all around, pictures of when he was 2 and 4 and 14 and 17 and 18 and 20. He’s kissing his cousin, sitting with his grandma, sitting on a rock in Wyoming during the last vacation we’d taken as a family. And he’s in my old bedroom, on the bureau, he and Nicole, two dead grandbabies with a place of their own. And if I sound angry that my mom did that, I’m not. I’m angry that such a thing should be necessary.

I’m here to visit my dad in the hospital, where he was taken for arrhythmia on Monday, and where we briefly thought he might die. What do people think about when they’re not thinking about death? It’s most of what I think about, no matter whatever else it seems I might be thinking about. Fill it up, regular; do you know my son is dead? Three veggie burgers and a chicken Panini; do you know my son is dead? What time should we meet for dinner; you didn’t forget my son is dead?

I don’t want to be in this hospital, this Bizarre Hotel where the NICU is opposite the birthing center and which I suppose might be viewed as perfectly normal, but it’s a normal I don’t want to be reminded of. Philip and Natalie were perfectly healthy babies who were the result of perfectly healthy pregnancies and had perfectly healthy births, right in my very own home – but who knew that babies who aren’t sick or hurting didn’t necessarily grow up to be adults who aren’t sick and hurting? If they managed to grow up at all, that is.

I’m at the hospital with my mom, and my Aunt Joan and her granddaughter, Andrea. The two of them flew in from North Carolina Thursday night. I picked them up from the airport, drove them to my parents’ house and slept there with them. Natalie’s working in the city. When she’s done, she’ll take the train here, to the hospital. Tonight we’ll drive home.

But I want to go home now. I want to be in my TV room on the couch, the same couch I’d tucked myself into when I found out Philip died, and where I’d spent most of the next year because to move off it was to take my attention away from my grief and I refused to take my attention off my grief.

No. That’s not it. It wasn’t possible to take my attention off my grief. It was intolerable. People thought it would be good for me to go out, get my mind off it. Even now I want to throw my head back and cackle like a crazy hyena at the absurdity of such a sentiment. You can be forgiven if you say such a thing because you don’t know what else to say, but if you really believe what you’re saying, then naiveté is the color of your world.

Never mind. Either way, there’s deep ignorance involved to suggest there’s such a thing as getting my mind off what Philip’s death felt like, and today I am in no mood to be charitable about any of it. The damn stupidity of suggesting I could take my mind off it, like getting some fresh air would do anything other than remind me that Philip couldn’t breathe it. What was I supposed to do, pluck my mind out of my head, lay it down on my pillow, tell it, “I’ll be back a little later, when you’ve calmed down?” As if that would have mattered, as if without a mind to think about it, my body wouldn’t still have been folding in on itself in its shock and disbelief that This Is My Reality, not some episode of ER where I could shake my head and think, “Wow. Sucks to be them.”

Maybe there’s truth to that. If emotion truly is the body’s response to what the mind’s thinking, “taking my mind off it” might’ve given me some relief. Except it’s delusional to think there was another response to Philip’s death besides the one I was having, that spending my time figuring out how not to think about my son being dead was somehow going to help me live through it. Why not just tell me to go get drunk about it? That would have been just as productive as any other way to not think about it. I mean, isn’t this what I got sober for? So I could fully feel what something like this feels like?


If, in fact, “getting my mind off it” was valid advice, it didn’t matter. No one can tell anyone else how to grieve. The one thing that made any sense to me was when my friend Debbie, who works with the bereaved, told me to follow any creative impulse I had. Which led to months and months of me sitting on my couch and knitting, and to consider writing the book, “How Knitting Saved My Life.”

You’d think it would’ve taken something heroic for me to make it through that night. The magnitude of my loss seemed to demand heroism to survive it. But I’m no fireman running into a burning, crumbling tower. They were the brave ones, the ones the word “heroism” was meant for. Me – I had no choice in this. This was life. Wait – no. This was death. Happens every second of every day and sooner or later everyone has to deal with it. Just so happens now it was my turn.

That night I sat on my couch like a wild thing caught in a trap, scrunched in a fetal position, knees bent, toes clenched, hands fisted, chewing on my thumbnails and staring at nothing, wanting someone to come and help me, embarrassed and afraid that they would. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to be. For two hours I sat in an ungodly silence broken only by my on-and-off sobbing and heaving. It should have been storming outside; the rain should have been pelting, the thunder ferocious, the lightning dazzling, the trees snapping and cracking from its impact. At the very least someone in the house besides me should be making maybe a sob or a moan.  And when the silence of that huge and implacable house provoked the racket in my brain into a simply unbearable frenzy, I grabbed my phone, went to my bedroom, shut the door and called Janine.

Janine is my friend from Brooklyn; we’d met one morning when we’d taken our kids to the same park on 79th Street and Shore Road. Philip was around 4; Janine’s son Jake was a few months older. There’s no good that can come from an unexpected phone call at 4:00 in the morning, which is maybe why she didn’t pick up the first time around. I chose her to call because if you’re going to give someone a 4am call, it’s got to be someone who’s going to start screaming right along with you.

Because that’s what we do, we women. We moan when our children come into the world, wail if they leave it before we do.  Our lives then become Life Sentences, as we’re condemned to carry on without those we carried into this world. What are we to do, we ask? We are a society of do-ers. What use is it to just be? Where’s the value in that? If we don’t have something to show for our time spent, what the hell are we worth? That’s why we have such a hard time with the elderly; theirs is a time to be, but the rest of us are so busy doing that we whiz on by while they watch with rheumy eyes, eyes that probably have lots to teach us if we’d just slow down and pay attention for a bit.

How ill-equipped are we to deal with death, then? The original moment when the immovable object meets the irresistible force. My body was screaming for action while my mind understood it wouldn’t matter. I wanted this feeling out of my body. One night, during the relentless progression of Nicole’s cancer, Robert went to South Beach on Father Capodano Boulevard in Staten Island and screamed. I picture him, head thrown back, maybe shaking his fists, maybe stamping his feet, howling his anguish to that dark and endless universe, the only place that could contain it.  And maybe he screamed until he was sure he had not one more drop of rage to exhaust, only to find that all it took was one night’s sleep – and not even a good one, at that – to revive his rage, but not his spirit.

Animals caught in traps have been known to chew off a limb to escape. I was that animal, but short of ingesting my entire body, there was no escape. Where would I escape to, anyway? I wanted to escape what I knew. I cursed Eve for biting into that goddamned apple. The Tree of Knowledge; the tree of consciousness, the part where we woke up and began to know things like loss and grief and death, things that I was quite clear I did not want to know about. Not where my children are concerned. Most unequivocally, especially, assuredly where my children are concerned.

But here’s the thing. There’s only grief because there’s love. That’s what it means to live in a world of opposites. Once we decide “good,” we’ve automatically created “bad.” Once there’s birth, there’s death. Once we love a child, we grieve if we lose that child. If I intend to make meaning, then I have to pay attention to what I say. “I do not want this grief,” I say. But I love my son; I want to love my son. What am I meaning, then? That I wish I had no kids so that I didn’t have to know this formerly unspeakable thing that is kicking the damn shit out of me? But you don’t know the unspeakable without having the mad, deep love that is its cause, and I would have rather had Philip for a while than not have had him at all.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

Next Time

I don’t exactly know what happened next. I remember bits and pieces.  Maybe I can talk to Phil about it one day.  Maybe he can fill in the gaps, give me his version. When he’s ready. It seems important, much as it can’t really matter. I mean, what of it? If we disagree, we get a do-over? I get to figure out how I could’ve stopped this, changed this, given us the happily-ever-after that required nothing other than our two children living longer than we would?

But I want details. All I have of my son is my story; sorrowful as it might be, I want it all. I want to know what time Phil came over, how long we sat on the landing, if I started to cry right away. I want to know how he knew the New Brunswick police were driving Natalie home, if he spoke to her before he came to me.  I want to know exactly what the police said when he answered the door, what he said back, how he felt. Shock, disbelief, grief – of course I know this. But I want to know where he felt it in his body, how he experienced it. Because if he tells me how he felt, maybe I won’t be so alone. Maybe he can help me find the words I need to find my way home. I don’t know any other way; I have faith in words. I believe that if I can say it the way I need to, I will be well. I believe that what haunts me are the stories I don’t yet know how to tell.

The loss of a child is not so easily shared. Phil and I went to a parents’ bereavement group a few months after Philip died. I am not unused to support groups – years of AA taught me that when a problem seems bigger than you are, finding people who’ve dealt with it can help. Not so this. At least with alcoholism, the path to healing has some sort of shape – if you’re a drunk and you want to start living, you have to stop drinking.

But how am I to find my way on this path? In AA we talked about drinking vodka and drinking wine and the stupid things we did and the dangerous things we did and how we almost died from embarrassment and how we almost died. We talked about what we felt like. We identified. And in our sameness lay our hope and our help.

What was I supposed to identify with here? Maybe I am a mother and you are a mother and I lost a son and you lost a son, but you didn’t lose Philip; you didn’t lose my son. Your “identification” was not what I wanted. It changed nothing. Besides, you couldn’t possibly understand. For you to understand, I’d have to be able to explain what I felt like and I couldn’t. I could not say it to anyone because I didn’t have the words. I could say “grief” and “despair” and “desperation” but that wasn’t what I really meant. Those were ordinary words, words I’d used before. Losing Philip was nothing like anything before. I’d have to invent a language to tell you. And this loss of language unmoored me; I was slipping, slipping away, gone to a place where I could see you and hear you, but you didn’t make any sense.

Ground Control, there’s something wrong. Something terribly fucking wrong.

I started this post intending to continue my narrative. Next time. I’m still skittish from the last piece of it; I’m touchy and sore and I’ve spent the last few days wondering if I’m crazy for doing this. If you’ve found your way here through Facebook, you know I wrote that I’m in a new version of surreal. I’ve stopped telling everyone, including the cashiers where I shop and the telemarketers who somehow breach the do-not-call barrier, what happened. I shower regularly, change my clothes daily. I even put makeup on again. But my heart is broken, a chunk of me is gone, I wake up every day wondering, what now? and I feel kind of crazy to be functioning like a normal person when I’m anything but. I’m small and too scared and I want my son. Sometimes I wonder who is the parent and who is the child, because I cry to Philip, help me, please help me; please come home, please don’t be gone, I miss you and love you and what am I going to do without you, Philip? What am I going to do?

© 2013 Denise Smyth

A Pause (during which, Life Goes On)

I am going to pause for a second; that was a tough one.

As I wrote elsewhere, I’d like to say that I’ve given a solemn affirmative to the universe and have agreed to soldier on. Maybe I have, maybe I am; maybe I just expect that if that’s true, I should feel differently than I do. Better, more peaceful. It’s a process, I’m told; it’s a progression. God save us from our “processes” and “progressions.”

But it’s like this. Like today. Walking around the early Sunday quiet of Whole Foods, with its gorgeously arranged produce. It’s the peppers that take my breath away – the God-given reds and yellows and oranges. Not so much the greens – I find their waxy dullness unappetizing. Clenched against despair amidst all that abundance, I ask, what for? I mean, what the fuck? I see Philip, standing, looking at me, in the black leather jacket I’d given him, the one I’m now wearing, the one that makes me look like biker-chick. I see him, beautiful boy, in his navy blue suit, laid out in a coffin.

My son, in a coffin. In what universe does life make sense?

Or like yesterday, at The Boathouse in Central Park, overlooking the water. The simple joy and relief of spring written on faces, underlying conversations. Everyone, I think, feels it. Everyone but me. But what do I know? I’m in a city of millions. How many of us are being looked at as if we’re the lucky ones? I’m sitting down with three friends to a brunch that will cost $140, one that I won’t even have to pay for. But I don’t celebrate spring. It scares me. I see no hope in the cycle of life, where everything dies and everything is born. It’s all moving too quickly, moving without Philip. Wait, stop, I want to cry out; give me a moment to breathe; just a moment, please.

Is the phrase, “Life goes on” supposed to comfort? Because it doesn’t.

On the way home from the city, a song I like very much is on the radio. He loves her. He wants her. She is the “resolution,” he sings, “of all the fruitless searches.” All he has to do is look in her eyes and he’s complete. I used to believe that could happen. And I think I’m so loving to hear this song until my throat starts to close and my chest starts filling up with air that’s going in but not out until I can’t contain it any more and it blasts out a bunch of tears and I’m bent over, hands covering my face, shaking, shaking because if I can’t contain my weeping I can at least contain the pitiful sounds that accompany it. Cindy, my angel of a friend, is driving. I don’t want to make her feel any more helpless than she already does at my unexpected meltdown.

I think I’m crying because I see Philip’s face, and I imagine a woman looking into his eyes and feeling like that about him. He deserves that kind of love; he will never know it. But I’m probably crying for myself more than for him; crying because I believe the singer has truly, deeply found his happily ever after, and I am doomed to live with clawed fingers continually digging at my sore and bloodied heart.

Truth is, pop culture songs about love are mostly about infatuation. What does real love have to do with 90% of the stuff that goes on between couples? And why is it that people are always singing about the pain of romantic love? Ask anyone who’s lost a child about the kind of pain that’s the other side of deep love. It isn’t any wonder, not really, that no one wants to sing about that kind of pain. We don’t even want to talk about it, much less raise our voices in harmony about it.

And I’ve also paused to talk about the drug thing, because while it changes nothing about the way I think about Philip…well, that’s not entirely true. I think him vulnerable in a way I hadn’t before, and myself helpless in ways I hadn’t considered. But if you don’t know Philip, and you hear he died from an overdose, you might get a picture of him that is wrong, or at least superficial and one-dimensional. And while it’s none of my business what you think about him or me or anyone else, I am talking about my child and I do care.

Before Philip died, I probably would’ve thought that a kid that died from an overdose was a kid that was already going down the tubes. That drugs had taken over, that drugs were what this kid’s life had been reduced to. And I say this with so much empathy, because I have suffered addiction and I know its heartache and destruction.

But that wasn’t Philip. He didn’t grow up a troubled kid. Phil and I didn’t have the normal adolescent problems with him that we expected we’d have, that any parent expects to have. Philip was just easy. My dear friend Ed (and Ed is my dearest, closest friend – my mentor, my teacher, my advisor. Let me say this now so I don’t have to keep repeating myself every time I mention him) once told me that I didn’t have to mother Philip, I just had to love him. When I said Philip was a light, I meant it. He was kind, loving and responsible. Generous. People were drawn to him. I was stunned at how many showed up at his wake. And friend after friend after friend came over to me and to Phil to say the same thing: “He took care of me.”

When Philip died, he’d been seeing a young woman for about a month and a half. She was a senior in high school, he was a junior in college. I assume it was their age difference that made him go to her father and ask permission to date her. I mean, who does that??

Philip does. That’s who.

I’ll talk more about him in the days and weeks to come. I wanted to say this much because I am his mother and I am feeling very protective right now. And there’s something else.

Weeks after Philip died, when the autopsy came, Phil took it to a friend of his, a doctor, to look at. After he went over it, he said to Phil that given Philip’s age, weight, physical condition (he was a fencer) and the amount of drugs in his system, it was unlikely that this was an overdose. Something else had to be wrong – probably his heart, probably an undetectable condition. And he said that it’s easier for a medical examiner to say “overdose” when drugs are involved than to dig any deeper.

Phil found comfort in this – and I don’t blame him. Who the hell wants to think their kid died from something that could’ve been prevented? Much less from drugs – heroin, which still makes me shudder – which no matter how you cut it, casts an ugly pall over so short a life, and can make you wonder how well you knew the child who first taught you what it truly meant to love.

I’ll never know if there’s any truth to this. Whether there is or isn’t, drugs are a part of this. If not the cause, then a contributing factor. If Philip had a heart defect, his drug use shortened what might have already been a compromised life span. And at some level, this is all a distraction from the essential fact of his death how helpless I am to change it.

© 2013 Denise Smyth