What He’s Asking

Three years. It’s like some subway stop I got off at where everyone on the platform knows where they’re going and they’re rushing around to get there. Not me. What way do I go? Do you know what I suffer, I want to ask these busy people. Do. You. Know?? But what for? It doesn’t matter if anyone knows – it changes nothing. Philip’s faded from the world. Not my world – but the contrast between the way he’s alive to me but visible to no one is frightening. This is so fucking hard to learn, these truths. Like the fact that he’s dead to the world but that doesn’t make him not in life. That Iife isn’t what I thought and death is a bigger part of it than I understood. That there’s meaning in death, beyond some black void we and our loved ones disappear in. That people die, relationships don’t.

Thinking of these three years makes me want to tell stories, stories about the past and Philip but I can’t write to an idea of what I want to say. I have to write what’s pressing. And what’s pressing is the unseen part of my reality which maybe makes me sound crazy. Or worse, hokey. Like I’m a beaming sprite with flowers in my hair, a flowing white gown, eyes glued to heaven with a brilliant smile. I’ve heard too much New Age treacle where people find some “spiritual” solution which (a) makes everything okay and (b) is what you should be doing and if you pay enough money, someone’ll show you how.

I am grateful for all the ways Philip is around me. That doesn’t make it okay that he’s dead. And no one’s going to give me any solutions. A true spiritual path is deeply personal in its form, but universal in its content. That’s why people don’t have to experience exactly what you do in order to get what you’re saying.

And because I want so much to get it right, the invisible audience I’m writing to’s become hostile. That’s the thing about writing. If you write, you want to be read. But if you write from need, then what you need is yourself on the page. What you cultivate is your voice. I listen for myself here – but lately, too often, my voice gets lost to what feels like a Greek chorus looking down their noses with crossed arms, droning on about what I say and the way I say it because really, it isn’t ever good enough.

But those voices don’t come from “outside.” They’re in my head. “A mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master” someone said. And it’s especially masterful when I speak of that which I cannot see but I know is there. I needn’t argue with the skeptics – I’m way cynical myself. I know the way I feel when certain others talk about their version of the unseen. There’s a culture to this that I am not part of. I share what’s been my direct experience and if I’ve learned anything, spirituality isn’t linear. It’s a deepening. It’s not about “getting” somewhere. It’s about releasing what’s false to get closer to the truth. That’s something we do on our own. My way involves my son. I cannot ignore what happens – it’s these extraordinary experiences that’ve helped me put one foot in front of the other.

Like this.

Driving the 40 minutes home from work a couple weeks ago, I was headed first to Grove Pharmacy to pick up prescriptions for Pippin, my thirteen-year-old shih-tzu with the collapsed trachea who has to take three medications to deal with it. Philip’s been heavy on my mind lately. It’s no wonder – the fact of three years is sinking in, and the time-and-weather change does not help. Spring means warmth and growth and people voicing joy over it. There’s pressure to go out. I prefer the ice and snow, the dark that makes it comfortable to stay inside.

So I was driving and thinking about how old Philip would be if he was alive and I didn’t know. For a couple minutes I was blank, clinging to the steering wheel because I had to drive but stunned and shrinking from the despair of being disconnected. Was I forgetting him? Was he becoming a blur, just some part of my life that was gone while I kept going? Okay, I told myself. Think. Philip has been dead for three years. He died when he was 21 so that means he’s 24 and of course I couldn’t remember he was 24 because that number has no meaning to me. I have a sense about certain numbers. Like 21 – it’s a beginning, a social milestone, a time of youthful man/womanhood. 22 is the next step; it’s graduating from college, a time when you have many choices. 23 is wonderfully odd. 24 draws a blank, as if nothing interesting could possibly happen. Given the Chinese curse, “May you lead an interesting life,” maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

When my senses returned and the car felt steady on the road, I said, “Okay, Philip. I’d like to see 24 before I get home.” And not because I was looking for it – it doesn’t work that way. He had to show me in a way that meant something. Like the time I asked him for a sign and a few minutes later a car cut me off and I saw his initials on its license plate. Something like that. And I was thinking that I’d get a receipt with the medication I was about to pick up and receipts have numbers and it would be nice if 24 would be one of them.

I forgot about it for the rest of the drive – I was too busy listening to stories on NPR because I love stories and if I’m not telling them I want to listen to them. Once I got to the pharmacy, I stepped out of my car and a van whooshed by that had 42 on it. I looked up at the sky like Philip is any and everywhere and said, “That doesn’t count.” But by the time I got inside, asked for the medicine, chatted with the grey-haired, pony-tailed man behind the counter about how Pippin is my dog, not my child, how his name came from Lord of the Rings and finally paid for the meds, I forgot to look at what they cost.

Grove Pharmacy is not just a pharmacy, but not like the way CVS isn’t just a pharmacy. CVS is large and impersonal, and its only surprise is whatever cheap items pop up in the seasonal aisle. Grove Pharmacy is smaller, but you never know what you’ll find there. It has a candy counter where you can buy by the piece or the pound. There are Halloween costumes, lovely and unusual greeting cards, gifts for christenings and communions. There’s a small selection of interesting and well made jewelry behind glass counters, and they can pierce your ears if you like. And they play real music, like “In Your Eyes,” which I’d written about here and so hearing it reminded me of Philip and that I’d forgotten to see how much I paid for the medicine.

The pharmacist had shoved the receipt into the bag with the meds so I hurried to the car to see. And I will be damned if that medicine didn’t cost $42.24.

What I make of this is faith. Not happiness, faith. Sure, I get happy when these things happen, but happy fades like all emotions do. This is more than happy. Different than happy. And it’s profoundly challenging. “Have you asked yourself why you keep asking for signs?” Philip said. “Have you asked yourself what you do with them?”

It should be a back-and-forth, I think. He gives to me – what do I give to him? It’s pretty simple – love and faith. I’ve got the love part down. It’s the faith where I’m shaky. Faith is a leap into the void. It’s having the will to not resist what is so. Including his death. He’s asking me not to treat my life like a tragedy. I’m not done asking him to tell me how.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

The Voice in my Head

The man in the podcast I listened to today told the story of the day he got a letter from the police department. When he opened it, he saw a grainy picture of himself in his car, hands on the steering wheel, along with a $45 ticket for speeding. This was 1991, when traffic cameras weren’t as prevalent as they are now. Shocked and angry at the intrusion, along with the fact that there was no human being involved, he decided to fight back. He Xeroxed $45 and sent it in along with the ticket. A couple weeks went by, and he got another letter. In it was a Xeroxed copy of a pair of handcuffs and he laughed. There it was – human interaction. Playfulness, even. A sense of humor. So he paid the ticket and that was that.

Then the chief of police who was in charge of traffic cams at that time came on the podcast. He insisted that in spite of all the angry hate mail he received about the cameras, he did the right thing. Less people died, he said. Less people died.

Since when did the Chief of Police become God? Did he really know when it was the right time for anyone to die? Do I mean people should drive recklessly, plowing down anyone in their way? Of course I don’t. There are ways to figure out how to reduce speeding without violating people’s space. We are being watched in ways we don’t even know and those who are watching feel their power enhanced. Because they’re in on the secret, and we’re not. And they get to decide what it is they want to do with what they think they’re seeing. All in the name, of course, of saving lives. Because that’s what most of us spend our lives doing – avoiding death, as if we could. And at what cost?

See, death doesn’t give a shit about traffic cams or medical breakthroughs or gym memberships that in the end make for really good-looking corpses. Maybe. Of course you do what you can to keep your body healthy – you take care of it the way you take care of anyone or anything you care about. But you also understand that this body is a temporary means of communication and if you think only of how much you can bench press without also preparing for the inevitable, you will never have enough. Your body will never be tone enough, your clothes won’t keep you happy, your house will never be the way you think it should. There is always something more to want until death stops you in your tracks, which it will. Whether it’s yours or – worse, if you ask me – that of someone you love.

Death teaches us about life. Death adds dimension to life. You can’t take death seriously without also wondering what it is you’re here for. And that is what drives you to make meaning, to ask what it is to live fully, to go beyond the world’s definition of what you should be doing and what is important. And the question is not, why am I here if I’m going to die? That is a great and terrible distraction. The real question is, what do I do with this life that I’m given, because no matter what the why of it, the fact is I am here. Asking “why?” is living in some unknown past that prevents me from living, which is the the thing I claim I’m trying to figure out how to do.

What the hell would life be without death? Unimpeded growth is destructive. All you have to do is look at cancer to see that truth. We each die that others may live. By being born we agree to die. Listening to that police chief made me think how selfish I am, how selfish we all are – I mean the hubris, deciding I shouldn’t die and my son shouldn’t die when all of us are going to die so who are we to say when? If it was up to us we would never say “now” and we would become a malignant cancer on the planet.

These are hard, hard truths. But experiencing them – not talking about them, experiencing them, makes it easier to live with Philip’s death. I wrote about Krishnamurti saying, “I don’t mind what happens.” Five words that tell you how to live. But right there is the struggle – how does one “not mind what happens” when your child dies?

I think you don’t go directly there. I think you practice – I think you make it your life’s work. You start with the small things. Every day annoyances. What if you didn’t get pissed off about having to wash those damn dishes that keep getting dirty? What if you waited on the grocery store line without resentment? Or sat calmly in a traffic jam? To be angry at what is so is insane. It doesn’t change the situation, it just makes you miserable. You lose your humanity. If I’m waiting on line and I’m pissed, I’m forgetting that I am one of all these people who are creating that line. I’m forgetting that all these people are just like me. And I’m forgetting how to breathe.

I have been holding my breath about Philip’s death. I know that now because I breathe more. I resist less. Dedicating my life to grief is a false position. Grief is and will always be part of my life. I am grateful for what it’s taught me. Philip will always be part of my life – he is my guide, my muse, my love. And right now, this moment, I am able to breathe. I write this blog because it gives me room to breathe.

I used to pick at myself all the time – pimples, scabs, the suntan peeling off my body.  The more I picked, the longer the wound took to heal. So it makes sense that I would pick at my grief like festering scab. What else to do with this wild and gnarly feeling? But all the picking and hair pulling and determination to not ever be okay has changed into something else. Now I nurse my wound. And to do that, I spend a lot of time alone. I am hurt and tender but I want to take care instead of make worse.

I can’t say how I got here. I think it has to with do having lived through and with Philip’s death my way. I felt a wild thing for a long time, loose and crazy and holding it together only because of Natalie. To even consider letting go of the way I felt was inconceivable -I was what I felt, and I thought my own death was the only solution. Besides, it was a betrayal. And all through this, I was listening to Philip urging me to life but shaking my head a huge NO. But because I let myself be as I needed to be, what is so began to change. Not the fact of Philip’s death, but the way I perceive his death. And the way I was true to my grief is the way I need be true what’s been changing about it. If you asked me three years ago, two years ago – hell, one year ago if these words would ever come out of my mouth I would have been deeply offended. It is an act of faith to not resist change. I thought I would lose Philip if I got up off my knees. But now I feel closer to him than ever. I am graced to have the contact I do with him. His death is an opening to light much as it’s driven me to the deepest dark I’ve ever known. This doesn’t mean I still don’t get scared, that I don’t despair when I stop and think of the years to come without him here the way I want him to be. But I am so tired of hurting that I can’t spend time thinking thoughts that make me miserable. “Let me be the voice in your head,” says Philip.

“Let me be the voice in your head.”

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Always Been So

So I crashed. Friday. Cried my makeup off on the way home from work. Felt something more than the dull edge of anger. Alone and overwhelmed, I took two-instead-of-one of what the doctor’d given me for when I can’t sleep. And so Friday night passed, and here I am.

Yesterday I woke up to a cold, sunny Saturday morning and I gave up. That is another thing I can do nothing about. I want clouds, and much as I know what trouble it is to let external factors make my mood, weather is a tough one. I was glad to find there’s a word to describe something about me: Pluviophile. Lover of rain. It’s not an “idea.” I have a physical, emotional reaction to sun, especially at certain times. Like Saturday mornings. That’s got to be something learned, since what matter Saturday or Tuesday? I think it’s the fact of having a whole day to do as I wish, and wishing I could do whatever that is in the comfort of if not a full-blown storm, at least a good amount of cloud cover.

But then today – it’s snowing and I am at peace.

So I crashed. Friday. Like I could see the outline of Philip’s body with the deep, dark space behind it. I think it matters that I see that void – that suggests there’s something there, something more than I am aware of, and in that deep dark lies possibility. I find comfort in that.

But it’s more complicated than Philip’s death, than that most terrible loss which magnifies all other losses. Along the way to February 23rd there was something else going on, something about a man, and even though most of it was in my head, it was the reason for the particular flavor these last few days have had.

I’d like to get the idea of needing or not needing a man out of the way before I go on. Ideas become part of the culture and begin to get mindlessly repeated because it’s easier to be mindless than thoughtful. And the idea that a woman shouldn’t need a man is another one of those things. By that standard, each of us shouldn’t need any of us. But we do need each other, even if it’s not for the reasons we think. Relationships are not here to make us happy – they are created to teach us. If we’re happy with them, so much the better. But happiness is not the endgame here.

As to whether or not I need a man – fact is, I would feel better with the right man. I know this not because I sit around wishing I had a partner. I do not. It’s been a long time since I’ve been involved with a man. And never have I more understood how fleeting “happy” is since Philip died. Not because I was so fucking happy while he was alive. I wasn’t. I wasn’t aiming for it, either. I was asking myself how I could be at peace with being alive since I’d spent most of my life at war. “Happy” is an emotion that comes and goes like any other. Peace is something else, something deeper, something that isn’t given or taken away. It’s something you realize is there once you allow all the grasping to fall away.

Relationships provoke feelings that are already part of us. If I find joy in being with a man, then that joy is part of me, man or no man. But that’s an idea that means nothing if it’s not experienced. I met a man recently. I was deeply attracted to him, and it has been years since I’ve been deeply attracted to anyone. We talked, we texted. Something, I thought, is going on here. He is kind, thoughtful and attentive. I took what I thought was happening between us and made him into something he wasn’t. But during that time, there was light. There was possibility. Excitement. There was, I thought, comfort.

Of course, there was also reality.

He wasn’t seeing what I was. So out went another light as I headed into the anniversary of the worst day of my life. It’s no wonder I found myself either numb or cursing. Loss – even of something imaginary – overwhelms. After suffering Philip’s death I thought nothing could ever bother me again – turns out I’m so vulnerable that things can bother me more. But it’s that vulnerability that makes me transparent enough that it all passes through. I can’t hold pain – and now I know I don’t want to. Feeling it and holding it are two different things. It’s what the Buddha meant when he said pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.

I am okay. No matter what, I am going to be okay. Philip knows that, and from that knowingness comes my own. There is no real separation from him. I was trying to say that in my last, when I wrote that it isn’t true that if I’m not at peace then neither is Philip. It’s his peace that grants me my own. Separation is created by the body, this wonderful, heartbreaking, temporary way we experience each other. But the true connection is always so. And it’s not caused by doing; it’s the not-doing that allows what isn’t essential to fall away and reveal what’s always been so. Philip and I have always been so. Ask any parent if they can imagine a life without their child. They can’t, because once you have a child, the relationship has always been so.

And if that sounds inexplicable, it is. It’s part of the mystery. And I don’t need it explained, all I need is to know.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

What I Carry

I’m in a river that’s broken through a dam, a river full of furious energy, mindless and untamed. Moving in one direction, but going too fast. I’m not fighting, I’m not even trying to get a grip. I wouldn’t know what to grab on to. I can’t think about it. At this speed, I don’t think, I just navigate past the danger. But I don’t breathe, either.

I smashed my car (no one got hurt and it didn’t get totaled). I spilled water on my computer, dropped my cellphone in the toilet. On a whim I looked online for an apartment and found one. But there’s the matter of the lease I signed for the place where I’m living, which means (so I’m told) I’m responsible for the remaining 8 months’ rent (read: $12,000). But there’s also the horrid brown water coming out my faucets and the refusal of the people responsible to respond to it. To me. That, along with several other issues, might help to break my lease, especially since my friend Cindy put her formidable lawyer shoes on and contacted the Property Manager.

And for whatever reason, I am beginning to understand what it means to “carry Philip’s spirit” into the world. I hate the phrase – it reeks of desperation and I’ve never understood what it meant. How could I? I am grieved and mourning and when I’m alone I can’t help but to just be. Whatever that is. I’ve not hidden how I felt since Philip died. Early on, I’d tell anyone and everyone. Salespeople, cashiers, the gas attendant; someone help me, please help me. I needed kindness. I needed to feel contact, which was impossible. I couldn’t make some effort to carry Philip’s spirit into the world. What I was carrying was crushing me as it was.

Two years and nine months later there’s been a shift. What I carry now, along with my sorrow, is Philip. Like when I was pregnant. For the first three months the only people that knew I was pregnant were my brother-and-sister-in-law and my parents. I said, as many do, that there was most chance of miscarriage during the first three months. I didn’t want to share the joy of pregnancy with anyone who I wouldn’t also want to share the anguish of a miscarriage with. But that wasn’t the all of it. It wasn’t even most of it. What I wanted was quiet time with my son. It would be a rare and short time that I didn’t have to share him with the world. He would always be part of me psychically, mentally, emotionally – but this was the only time he’d be part of me physically. He was my secret joy, he was love in a way I hadn’t known it. Once everyone knew it would be both a celebration and an intrusion.

And so it is now, in reverse. When Philip first died, I couldn’t stop telling people. Now I’m mostly quiet. It hurts. Not always, but often. It was after Philip came into the world that I wanted to share him. This is my son, I would say. Now I can’t, not in the same way. The other night someone asked how many children I had. I have two, I said; but my son died. “I shouldn’t have asked,” the woman said. “Of course you should have,” I answered. “It’s just that death is hard to talk about.” An invitation, for sure – but not one that was answered.

My relationship with Philip is constant and private. He’s too much a part of me to ever be gone. I know this – at least when grief doesn’t overwhelm. And as far as his spirit – I am kinder, more friendly. I am curious about people. I’m not so afraid of them any more. That is Philip, with his grace and ease. “Mom, I like my life” he once said, with a sincerity that stung because I could not say the same. To live with him guiding me is to live gently, is to let life be. And then things happen, then I meet the right people, without even trying.

Like this.

When I’d decided to look online for apartments, I sent emails to different realtors, who emailed back wanting to make appointments. I chose M. M. showed me two apartments that I really liked, one of which I wanted to live in. When I realized I couldn’t just break my lease, I started to flip. Not as bad as last year, which I wrote about here. And M. is one of the reasons for that. Besides her calm and her humor, she’s smart. When I realized I was most likely going to lose the apartment, I started babbling to her about last year and how hard it was and everything was too expensive and no one would take my dogs and she interrupted with, “Okay. But it’s not last year. It’s now.” When I cried because I had to turn that apartment down, she sent me a link to the Rolling Stones, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” When I called her up to tell her the various scenarios that could take place if I could break my lease in two months or four months or not at all, she said, “But we can only deal with reality. Reality is now. And now you have a lease and you’re starting the process to see if you can get out of it early. That’s what we have to work with.”

And really, it’s no surprise. It’s no surprise I chose the Realtor who’d say the things to me that I should be saying to myself. It’s no surprise that as I was driving and thinking Philip is the face of love is the face of love I passed police van #201, then got cut off by a car whose license plate had Philip’s initials. Yet much as I can rattle off the hundreds of times he’s let me know he’s around, I still spend so much of my down-time under the covers, waiting. Just waiting. Philip is asking me to live differently. He is offering me things to think about. He is suggesting that maybe I can try – just a little – to walk in the world the way it is, instead of being seduced by the misery of the underworld. He is asking me to have some faith.

I am grateful for what I have with Philip. That the bond we had in life is even clearer in his death. That he’s teaching me life isn’t what I thought it was, and neither is death. But my God –  I miss him, I miss him, I miss him and there is something too terrible about his death to bear.

But let me share some joy. Here is Nikki, five months old:

Nikki, five months old

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Year Three

Year three. I laugh. I’m happy at work. I eat more. I’m kinder, I smile at strangers. I take pleasure in being helpful. I go out more than I used to. I don’t always notice the perpetual knot in my stomach. I’m sewing again. I signed up for a class on Macbeth and another at a local craft store. I don’t wake up every morning and wish I hadn’t.

But I still wake up lots of mornings and think, “Again.” I might go out more, but not a lot. I feel odd and different. I’m alone in a way I didn’t know possible, and I know too many people know what I mean. I often feel like I can’t do this, but I don’t know what that means because I do, in fact, do this. I buy too many clothes because every time there’s a box at my door with my name on it, I think it’ll save me.

And I still cry in the grocery store, like when a song I wouldn’t normally pay too much attention to comes over the sound system and the singer is so earnest when she sings, “Because of you…” but I don’t hear the rest of it because whatever she’s singing couldn’t possibly mirror what I think/feel when I hear those three little words. And I still won’t let it comfort me that when I got out of that grocery store, the car parked across from mine had Philip’s initials and the year he was born on its license plate and was next to another car with his initials and the day he died.

Year three, and I still spend a lot of time alone. Grief’s my companion and I can’t get to know it if I don’t spend time with it. How shall I mourn? What is it to live with this shocking truth I’ve come to know? And what of my secret? That I know the yin-yang of grief means there is joy and beauty that’s as terrible as this anguish. To even think such a thing feels like a betrayal. And I don’t have to be told that it’s not – I’m not talking rational here. Philip does not want me unhappy. “Mom, you don’t have to choose,” he said. But that remains a thought, not an experience. When I go too long without thinking of him, I panic. When Philip was alive, I learned I wasn’t going to lose him. That the more I let go, the longer our bond. That hasn’t changed – I haven’t lost him, except for the way that I want him.

But how blessed am I? Philip is all around me. He talks to me, guides me, makes his presence known in ways that still make me twitch and blurt “fuck” because that’s how amazing he is. But Year Three, and I still ask myself, what I do with all that? His presence is a given. I don’t “look” for him – he is the one who makes himself known. But what do I do with that? I see sign after sign after sign and then I disconnect, go home and have a good cry. Because grief trumps all.

Year three and I’m still struggling with language. I’m struggling to write about truths without sounding trite and cliched because they sound like those things people say without really thinking about what they’re saying. Anything said over and over loses its power to move us, to tell us something we don’t already know. To say things like “you don’t get more than you can handle” or “everything’s a lesson” is infuriating when things start to get real, like they do when someone you love dies. Especially when that someone is your child.

But the saying is necessary. That’s why writers write. Good writers will make you pause and consider, rethink what you thought you already figured out. I want to be that writer because how the hell else am I going to figure this out?

Year three and there’s still that one thing that’s always been easy. It’s easy for me not to ask why – it doesn’t matter and it doesn’t help. It’s never the why, it’s the what-I-do-with-what’s-so. “Why” might have a time and a place, but Philip’s death isn’t it. “Why” keeps me rooted in an ugly world where I judge and condemn and assume that I know what should and shouldn’t be – it keeps Philip’s death real personal, as if it was something done to me and if it was done to me, then something’s done it and might do it again. But there is no “something,” not in that way. Of course more crises can come. That’s life. But it’s not personal, there’s nothing out there doing stuff to me. We each have our share. So what do I do with mine?

To be in the world, but not of the world – that’s what Philip’s trying to teach me. And I see the simplicity of it. If I take seriously all the signals he sends every day in the most startling ways, then I am beginning to see things a little differently. If I pay attention to what he is now and stop looking back and forth to what we were and what I thought we’d be, then I can breathe a little. If I stop trying to make sense of a world that is essentially senseless and look to my experiences to teach me what’s so, then I am taking real responsibility for creating my own world – something I’ve never done. I’ve watched most of my life, like it’s a movie. I’ve waited for life to give me something it can’t. I’ve let it happen and taken my sorrows as defeat. My choice – I have a choice. And when I finally had the nerve to choose differently, Philip died and I thought the world was making some hideous cosmic joke. “Mom, you gotta to go deeper,” Philip said. But this grief, this grief; it’s this dark where I go deeper, and I know that’s not what he meant.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Depth and Breadth

“Not everyone will understand your journey. That’s fine. It’s not their journey to make sense of. It’s yours.”

I don’t know who wrote that  – it’s the way Dee over at MourningAmyMarie started her last post. I commented on it, and when I started going on and on I cut it short because I realized I wasn’t commenting, I was posting. So thank you, Dee, because while I’ve got several posts started, this is the one I didn’t know I needed to write.

One of the things Dee wrote about was “The chirpy, self promoting, thoughtless stuff that gets posted” on Facebook. Facebook is a phenomenon I don’t pretend to understand. I have a Facebook page, and I’ve come to see its value. People from my past have gotten in touch with me through it, and they’re people I’ve been happy to hear from. And ironically enough, in the middle of writing this, someone from my JHS found me and wrote, “so many people have been looking for you.” I am too stunned by the thought that anyone remembers me – much less is looking for me – to say anything more at the moment.

Since my blog is connected to Facebook, it’s a way of letting people know when I’ve posted. I don’t use it to stay in touch otherwise – I’d rather email. But the way I am about Facebook is a reflection of the way I am in life, as it is for all of us. There are people who update others with pictures of where they’ve been or what they’ve been doing, and their friends do the same. If they weren’t doing it on Facebook, they’d be doing it some other way. It’s a broad and ongoing conversation, and it’s no mystery to me what’s bothered me about it. It’s another something everyone’s involved in that I don’t  much want to be a part of. Yet sometimes it feels like a rejection rather than a choice.

Of course, there’s a nasty, voyeuristic side to Facebook. People say awful things about each other and to each other and are glad to have an audience to play to. People will follow up on others who’ve hurt them and become outraged to see them doing well – in effect, allowing those people to hurt them more. A Facebook picture might paint a thousand words, but we are the artist. We decide what kind of lives the people in those pictures are living based on what itch we need to scratch, and we scratch and scratch and wonder why the damn scab won’t go away.

As I wrote to Dee, Facebook exposes the ugly underbelly of our collective condition. It’s not that we’re any worse than we ever were, it’s that now it’s in full view. I’ve heard about things posted on Facebook and wondered what made someone – in such a traumatic moment – even think to snap a picture? One of the worst I’d heard about was someone taking a picture of her dead child and posting it…and I’m sure that that’s not only true, but that it’s been done more than once. Is there anything we can imagine that’s not been photographed and made public? So maybe we are worse, because now we have a platform for all of it and we’re in a hurry to be the one who gets there first.

Blogging is another sort of conversation; more depth than breadth, and one I’m more comfortable with. I’m not going to understand the need to post pictures and updates any more than others might not understand my need to write a blog so intensely personal. We each have our way of wanting to be visible.

I write my blog because I’m still stunned and grasping for words to wrap around Philip’s death. It’s the only thing I know to do. There isn’t anything worse than losing a child. Take my arms, my legs, my sight, my life – not my child. But here I am. And whatever hurt before about “the world” only hurts more. I’ve said I can’t change the world, I can only change my mind about the world. I can think people cruel, stupid, vicious, angry, even evil – but what it comes down to is we’re unconscious. All of us – and either we’re trying to wake up or not. When we’re unconscious we’re driven by wanting and needing, without asking what it’s for. And it’s not either/or – waking up is a process. Jesus and Buddha were there. The rest of us have to do the work.

Which is what Philip’s asking me to do. It’s what his death is for – so I try to tune out “the world” and deal with what’s going on with me, in light of his death. I’ve talked many times about what I heard Philip say the moment I found out he was dead: “Mom, you gotta go deeper.”

When Philip first died, Phil said he wanted to carry his spirit into the world. What’s that even mean, I thought? That sounded like a plan. It was hard enough to breathe, never mind decide what my life was going to be. And I wanted no part of any plan because plans involved future, and I was determined there wouldn’t be one for me, not without Philip. But here I am, writing this blog. When I started it, I said part of the reason was to carry Philip’s spirit into the world. I don’t believe that. I don’t even like the phrase. When I wrote that I was trying to justify why I needed so badly to write all this. It was easier to say I wanted to carry Philip’s spirit into the world than to say I needed you to read what I’m writing.

And I’m not saying I’m not keeping Philip’s spirit alive, but it’s more of a by-product than a goal, which makes it no less valuable. I’m writing for me, and if you get a sense of who Philip is through what I say, it’s because he is my muse and he’s helping me get to the truth that I’m trying so hard to recognize.

I don’t consider this blog a legacy for Philip, or for me. Much as it hurts to know Philip will live on for no one else the way he lives on with me, that’s not going to matter to me when I die. It’s now that I need to make matter, because now is where my experience is. I’m not concerned about being remembered after my death, because the only thing that’s going to matter when I die is what’s essential. And I don’t know what that is, but I bet it’s not the boxes of photos in my attic or the binders full of my writing. I know Natalie will always remember me. People who love me will remember me the way people who love Philip will remember him. Then one day they won’t because we’ll have faded into time. That’s the truth of life going on. However long I am or am not remembered after I die changes nothing.

There was an evening last week where gray, saturated clouds crowded the sky and trees danced frantically in a whirring wind. I took my dogs for a walk because if a storm was coming, I wanted to be part of it. When I reached the corner, I stopped and looked up. Philip, where are you? I asked. I’m right here, mom, he answered, like he always does. Do the clouds have something to say to me? Just watch, he said. So I watched for a while, watched one tiny puff of white cloud holding its own among the gray, and there it was again – Light vs. Dark, the unending story. And he wanted me to think about that vast, unknowable space that we can’t live without. There would be nothing if there was no space because where could anything be? But what’s it mean, I asked him? What is this? Think about it mom, he said. Just keep thinking.

Next day I saw my neighbor, a woman I haven’t spoken to often, but who’s easy to approach and quick to ask how you are. Our dogs sniffed around while we talked about the garden apartments we live in, and I was surprised to hear her say she wanted to move, that there were things about the place that were troubling her. I’d like to move back to Montclair, I told her. But here I am for now, so I try to make my apartment what I want it to be, because that’s what matters most about this place. She looked at me a moment. “You know, I saw you the other day,” she said. “I was outside, and I was really cranky about all this. You were standing across the street, looking at the sky. You looked so peaceful, so full of serenity. I watched you a while, then I went inside. And I felt better.”

I’d say that’s one hell of a by-product.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Joie de Vivre?

I was questioning “who I am” and “what’s my nature” in my last. But look at the language – who’s the I that wants to know, and who is it she thinks she needs to know? Am I one, or am I two? More likely I’m four or eight or 73 because what what I think and what I feel seems to shift so often. So is THAT who I am, the sum of what I think and feel?

I don’t fucking know. When I’m focused, like when I’m writing, or when I’m at work, I don’t sit around pondering. I’m just doing what I’m doing. And when grief and sorrow grip me by the throat, I choke. When they loosen, I breathe easier. And the moments are as they are.

But then I’m home and gone’s the distraction between me Philip’s death, me and Natalie’s moving, me and what-all I think is wrong with me. I can’t figure out something I’m needing to know – how to live with all that’s wrong, because of course there’s something wrong. Living means suffering. Not every moment; there is nothing that’s every moment. Except if we back it up and look around at the wide world then yes, someone is suffering every moment, suffering in ways we couldn’t pretend to understand. If I take that, add to it the way life’s felt to me since I can long remember, then mix Philip’s death into it all, I find myself asking, what the fuck? Why the insistence that it’s better to be, or to have been? Sure, I can personalize it – better for me that Philip was, that Natalie is. But better for me to be? Why? And before anyone’s too appalled to keep reading, why is even asking the question enough to create revulsion and a surety that the asker is too far south of sane to be acknowledged as anything other than in deep need of help? Understand I’m not asking why it’s better to live than to commit suicide. Suicide’s not part of this equation. What I’m asking is why is it assumed that it’s better to have been than to have never been? And why, since we know we’re going to die (do we? really?) do we spend no time pondering what that means and instead equate success with how many more years medical advances give us to live? Staving off the inevitable doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.

And if we went so far as to end natural death – which seems to be the goal – what would we be left with? A planet that couldn’t sustain all of us, run by a powerful elite who’d do the choosing that life/god/nature used to do for us. If you think life’s not fair now, spend a few minutes contemplating that scenario.

This is not the post I meant to write. I started to write about the way I judge myself by the amount of friends I don’t have and the lack of  traveling and other experiences which I should, by my age, have had. At 56, I should have a better life resume. It’s an old trope, one that’s gotten worse since I put myself on Match. Match is a compilation of people advertising themselves. I’ve spent some time reading through profiles, and it’s exhausting. Who’s sailed the world, climbed mountains, eaten exotic food, taught yoga in the Andes, completed multiple triathlons (all at the same time!), while running one of the largest corporations in the world – does anyone out there breathe? Are these the things that matter – who’s done the most and with who and how many ?

That’s when I start with, “What the hell do I have to offer anyone?” This is Match.com, for Chrissake. I’m supposed to “match” the joie de vivre of every other profile, of everyone who’s just lovin’ life and wantin’ more and wantin’ some special someone to do their wantin’ with. I am not that girl. Who’d want someone who hasn’t accumulated the totally awesome experiences that everyone else my age seems to have accumulated? Reading the profiles on Match, I’m sure there’s a big fucking party going  on somewhere that I most definitely have not been invited to.

Understand this is not a Match.com thing. Match only brought it to the surface. These are some of the things I’ve suffered about for years, these are things I can’t seem to figure out. Am I supposed to change, to be gregarious and extroverted? Like that’s better than what’s so? Is any of this my nature? Do I accept, do I resist? My life is what it is. Am I seriously going to decide what I’m worth based on how many times I’ve gotten on an airplane?

Here are the facts:

I don’t have a large group of friends. I have several close friends, none who know each other. The only group I have any connection with is my writing group – and while I know it’d be good for me to get back there, I’ve gone exactly twice since Philip died. I haven’t traveled a lot. I’ve been to Italy once, I’ve been to parts of the U.S. I don’t climb mountains or jump out of airplanes. I don’t play sports, I don’t exercise regularly. I do NOT follow politics. I’d rather read in my living room than on the beach, and I’d rather write more than anything. The rest of it is story, and since I’ve yet to meet a happy ending that felt real, you can bet your ass you won’t find one here, either.

How’s that sound for a profile??

Then there’s this. I know a couple – let’s call them X and Y – who have a lot of money and who are very socially active. And I love ‘em – they’re not pretentious, nor are they boring. They’re two really good people with lives utterly different from mine. More normal, I think – and I don’t mean because I’ve lost a child and they haven’t. They just seem mostly happy, have lots of friends, have careers, have combined and separate interests and they really like each other.

So this weekend, Fourth of July. They were going to the beach, they were having a houseful of people. I mean, it’s a holiday – isn’t that what people do? Me – I woke up Friday relieved to have a whole day of nothing to do so I could putter around my apartment. Yesterday I managed to get myself out for a couple hours in the morning to sit with some friends at a table in the local Farmer’s Market. Then I spent two and a half hours with my grief counselor. Today I was supposed to have dinner with Kirsten, who’s now sick. No worries. I’ve been in all day and now I’ll be in through the night. And I can’t figure out why I feel like something’s wrong with me because I’m not with a houseful of people when that’s the exact last thing I’d want to be doing anyway.

I’ve already mentioned this, but it bears repeating. Decades ago, when I was in my 20s, I’d gone to meet my friend Gerard on St. Mark’s Place, in the health food store where he worked. He introduced me to a friend of his, and we chatted for a few minutes while waiting for Gerard to close up. After we spoke – and we weren’t speaking in any particular depth – she told me this was going to be a life of spiritual awakening for me. I was thrilled. I imagined that meant some great path to peace was going to make itself known to me and when it did, well…finally, I’d be happy, I’d walk through this world in a different way.

So time has come, and yes – I do walk through the world in a different way. The big secret is it’s not about being happy. It’s about facing death. And far worse than facing my own, is facing Philip’s. This is what I lose sight of when I’m wondering about all the parties that I’m not invited to, or why I don’t want to hang out at the beach, or what’s the exact number of friends I have or what the word “friend” really means. Truth is I have the same distaste as Phillip Lopate for what he calls, “…the spectacle of joie de vivre, the knack of knowing how to live…the stylization of this private condition into a bullying social ritual.”

I’m getting damn sick of my own song. Maybe instead of questioning my worth based on my age and the amount of things I’ve not done, I’ll question what I could possibly want from someone at any age who still thinks those are things that matter.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

It’s Not Personal

“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
Marcus Aurelius

My friend Harriet has MS. She developed it late in life – in her 50s.  She uses a walker on wheels to get around the house, a scooter when she goes outside. She lives alone, but sometimes she needs help – and she says she’s finally learned to accept it. Funny how that isn’t a loss of power, but a claiming of power. Because it’s saying this is the situation I’m in, what resources will I use to deal with it? Harriet lives with depth and grace because of acceptance – or what I’m more comfortable calling it: non-resistance. Non-resistance is breathing. It’s, “Okay. This is where I find myself. How do I work it?” Instead of, “Oh my God how could this happen to me and what the fuck am I supposed to do now?!?!?!

Which might’ve been Harriet’s initial reaction, and who wouldn’t? Krishnamurti, probably. But let’s talk the rest of us.

At dinner one night, Harriet told me: “Someone asked, if you could take a magic pill that would allow you to walk again, would you take it? I said, I’d have to know more. If the pill erased my whole MS experience and all I’ve learned from it, I’d say No…but if I could be who I am now with all my memories intact, I’d say Sure.”

Which is pretty much saying, “No,” because she can’t have one without the other. It’s an impossible question, but it sure is provocative.

Decades ago I read W. W. Jacobs’ short horror story/parable, “The Monkey’s Paw.” It’s something I’ve thought about from time to time, and – like so many other things that have struck me over the years – it’s become more layered and meaningful since Philip died. Its particular content heightens its message. If you’ve not read it, in short, it’s about an old couple and their son who are given a monkey’s paw that has the power to grant three wishes. They have, the father claims, everything they want, and they are not selfish, greedy people. This isn’t a story about punishing the wicked.

They don’t exactly believe there’s any truth to it, but I suppose like any of us, they kinda sorta wished there was. The son jokingly suggests the father wish for 200 pounds, just enough money to pay off the house. He does. Next day, a man shows up at their house. Their son, he’s sorry to tell them, got caught in the machinery at the factory where he worked  and has died. The firm is sorry, and while they claim no responsibility, as compensation they’ve sent the old couple 200 lbs.

After ten torturous days, the mother realizes there are two wishes left. She hysterically insists the father wish the son alive. He doesn’t want to – he’d seen the boy’s mangled body and can’t imagine what it would look like ten dead days later. But he gives in – and in a short while, they hear knocking on the door. The mother runs to the door and as she’s desperately trying to unbolt it, the father frantically searches for the paw and undoes his last wish just as his wife flings the door open.

The first wish was for what they wanted. The second was to undo the consequence of the first. The third was to undo the worse consequence of the second. And in the end, they’re worse off than they were before.

What’s this say about fate, about destiny? About accepting what is? I think there’s a massive picture that we don’t see, and within this play of form, yes, we have choice. But there’s a difference between magic and choice. Magic is trying to wish away what is and being miserable because we can’t. Choice is the way we deal with what’s so. And it’s in choosing that we create our reality.

We can’t necessarily make our life situations what we want them to be. We can move toward what we feel called to do, and we can stay present to the reality of it. But we’ve not the power to bend situations to our will because that’s what we think will make us happy. We’ve not the power to bring our dead children to life. And dare we drag them from where their destiny, their choices, led them – do we really think we know what’s best? What would we risk with our own monkey’s paw? I want my son here. I want him to come home. I want his physicality, not just his whispers in my ear. But is something as sacred as life and death up to me? Do I really want that responsibility? I hurt. I think I’m not going to be able to bear what I feel about Philip dying, I think life’s too long without him. But do I really know what’s best for him right now? Is it for him I want him here, or for me?

And here’s the truth, terrible as it is. Death is not personal. We all die. It’s not a punishment. It’s not inflicted on us by some judgmental Being. It’s not about “good” or “bad.” The only punishing is what we do to each other, what we do to ourselves. Death is, the way birth is. And what would be, then, without death? If we didn’t die we’d become a monstrous cancer on a planet that couldn’t sustain us – couldn’t fit us – and we would destroy it. It’s death that allows life to be.

I’m different since Philip died. Closer to the bone. I’m kinder, more helpful. I smile at strangers. I listen harder. I make people laugh, and then I laugh with them. I have no drama in my life, and I feel loved. All of this is the other side of my raging grief. If I was asked what Harriet was asked – provocative as it is – I wouldn’t answer. It’s an impossible question because it can’t happen. Do I wish Philip was here, alive – Christ, of course I do. But he isn’t and he’s not going to be. I don’t care what you call it – fate, destiny, an accident – it doesn’t matter. I don’t have control over Philip’s death. I can only choose how to live with it.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

“It’s just one story”

(Spoiler Alert: In case anyone’s watching or planning to watch “True Detective,” I’m writing about the final scene.)

I’ve watched “True Detective” three times. When I finished the post before my last (“Hand to God”), I was up to my second viewing of the final episode. I knew what was going to happen, but I didn’t remember the all of it. And what struck me was the final conversation between Rust and Marty, because this is what I’d written in that post:

“So on the one hand, I say I need the dark to understand death. On the other, I say it’s light that leads to transcendence. Do I even know what the hell I believe?”

I’ve mentioned “True Detective” several times now; if you haven’t been reading along, Rust and Marty are two detectives trying to solve a macabre murder. Rust is the dark one. The fact that his two-year-old daughter was hit by a car and died is a huge part of what drives him.

The final scene in “True Detective” takes place at night, outside the hospital where Rust and Marty had been taken after being attacked by the suspect they’d been pursuing. Marty was already released, Rust was in a wheelchair. He’d sustained more serious injuries, was in a coma for a while. As Marty pushes Rust in the wheelchair, Rust talks about what we’d call a near-death experience, but not quite like the ones most of us heard about, the ones with the white light. He says he went somewhere dark, and in the deeper-dark he knew his daughter was there; he could feel her love. In that place, he said, there was nothing but that love. And even if you haven’t watched any of “True Detective,” if you’ve read the bit I wrote about it or watched any of the scenes I linked to, you’ll know Rust is not a sentimental guy. Hell, in eight episodes his one and only smile was a smug one.

Rust says that he wanted to stay in that love, and so he let go. That’s quite the opposite of near-death experiences I’ve read about, where people say they didn’t want to “come back,” but they knew they had to. Rust had no such dilemma. He let go, but he woke up. “I’m not supposed to be here,” he cried.

So Rust is crying in his wheelchair, and Marty looks up at the sky, at all the stars. Marty reminds Rust that Rust once told him that when he lived in Alaska, he used to look at the stars and make up stories. Tell me a story, Marty says.

“…I was thinkin’. It’s just one story. The oldest,” Rust answers.

“What’s that?”

“Light vs. dark.”

Marty looks up at the sky again. “Well, I know we ain’t in Alaska, but it appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory.”

“Yeah. You’re right about that.”

But then a minute later, this is what Rust says, the last lines of the show:

“You’re lookin’ at it wrong. The sky thing…Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light’s winning.”

Light and dark – there it is. Rust found something in that deep-dark that allowed him some light. It was Love. Because if Love is real, is tangible, there’s a reason to live. I don’t consider that a ride-off-into-the-sunset moment. It was a transcendent moment, which is no guarantee of what any next moment will be. But each moment like that is a star twinkling in the blueblack night. If you’ve ever looked deeply into a sky lit with stars, you know the beauty that comes from the interplay of dark and light.

Years ago, when I first joined AA, I met Maria. We shared the same sponsor and vied for her attention like two children. It was part of the friction between us, but I had no friends except the ones I was making in AA. I needed her.  Maria was short and dense with a long, serious face, wildly curly black hair and eyes that warned you away, like there was something inside she was keeping watch on. I used to think she was mean. But maybe she was watching the hurt that she’d been trying to drink away, maybe she was protecting that hurt because if your pain runs your life, what are you without it? And if that pain’s lived holding hands with alcohol, what kind of monster does it turn into without it?

One day Maria told me she’d seen God. What do you mean, I asked – you saw Him, like He was a person? Yes, she said, I saw Him. He’d come to her in a vision of robes and glory. I didn’t know if I believed her. I imagined such a thing was possible, but talking about it made it sound loopy. I wanted to ask Maria, “Then what could ever be wrong for you? If you saw God, if you knew He existed, what could your sorrows be?”

I didn’t ask because I didn’t want her to think I doubted her. Truth is I was envious. Why’d God visit her and not me? I’d stopped drinking and was trying to “turn my will and life over to the care of God” like everyone around me. It wasn’t working. But if I had a vision, I would finally be once-and-forever all right because I’d know something I hadn’t known before. If God revealed Himself to me I could believe there was something beyond this deeply disturbing world. But where was He, and why should I want to live in a world that even He refused to inhabit?

There isn’t – for most of us – a single epiphany that causes a big enough shift that world settles down forever. That we settle down forever, because the world is the world and it isn’t going to change. If you want to change the world, change your mind about the world. That’s the way to peace. I’ve had moments of transcendence, and never more so than since Philip died – not the least of it being the way he communicates with me. Two years of it and I’m still sometimes shocked. Philip’s wise in ways I didn’t have access to when he was alive. To be this close with him in death is pure grace. But what do I do with it? I know these daily signs are nudges from him telling me to wake up to life. He told me a long time ago that signs are pointers to the truth. At some point they’re not necessary. But he knows I’m too hurt and shaky to do without for now.

Never have I felt as loved as I do since Philip died. A broken heart means I’m as vulnerable to love as to grief. But my dark still has a lot more territory. I know that sometimes life’s irredeemable, sometimes people die sad and broken. So I have to ask myself what do I make of I’ve been given and what’s been taken? Will I die treating my life like a tragedy?

© 2014 Denise Smyth

“Hand to God”

A couple Sundays ago Kirsten took me to see a play, “Hand to God.” It was set mostly in a church rec room, and had five characters. Seven if you count the puppets. Three were teenagers – Jason, Jessica and Timothy, – one was the pastor of the church, the other was Margery, Jason’s newly-widowed mom, who was supposed to be teaching the kids puppetry. Jason was there because Mom insisted, Timothy was there while his Mom went to twelve step meetings, and Jessica was there because, well, she was “more into Balinese shadow puppetry,” but she’ll take what she can get.

But the real star of the show was Tyrone, Jason’s evil demon hand puppet. Jason steadily loses control over him – Tyrone even shows up in Jason’s bed after he takes him off one night. “He’s making me do bad things,” Jason tells Margery. Jason is a shy, troubled kid, and Tyrone becomes his mouthpiece. If Jason’s thinking it, Tyrone’s saying it. And if you’re thinking anything with a puppet or two is silly, it’s not so funny when Tyrone bites a bloody chunk of Timothy’s ear off. Or when, in desperation to be rid of him, Jason starts hacking Tyrone – in other words, his hand – with a hammer, and accidentally smashes his mother’s while he’s at it.

To paraphrase Tyrone – “self-hatred’s a bitch.”

Anger and lust drive the play. The pastor wants to sleep with Margery, who rebuffs him. Timothy also wants to sleep with Margery, who doesn’t rebuff him. Jason is smitten with Jessica, and Tyrone lets her know in his vulgar way. And before the show is over, Jessica’s puppet will have dirty puppet sex with Tyrone.

Two weeks later I’m still thinking about that play. That’s what happens with art, when you see yourself in it. Jason’s overwhelmed by his rage at Margery for being a shitty wife and mother. I’ve lived overwhelmed by rage, and my version of hammer-smashing my hand was drinking, vomiting and refusing to take care of myself, some of which I talked about here and here.

 There’s so many levels of disturbing in “Hand to God” that it’s hard to parse – not the least being the tragic hilarity of it all. Everyone – with the possible exception of Jessica – was unhappy and none of them knew what to do about it. And when the play was over, there wasn’t any resolution. Margery and Jason can bond over their mutually bloodied hands, but that won’t fix the history between them. And in spite of his viciousness, I felt like I lost something when Tryone was killed off before the end of the play, when there was nothing but the “real” characters left. But after the lights went out and the players disappeared, a spotlight shone above the stage, and there was Tyrone. Miss me? he asked; C’mon. You know you did.

What’s up with that? I couldn’t be the only one glad to see him. Tyrone the Terrorist was seductive and exciting. He was the best thing in a play filled with terrific. But I want to know why. I want to know why I’m so drawn to the dark side. “I don’t think I liked the play so much,” Kirsten said. “I really didn’t like what Jason did to his hand.” It bothered her – she has a limit to how far down she’ll go. Where’s my limit? What am I looking for in that dark? I believe that’s where I’ll find something real. Something raw and primal and so far down I can scream until I exhaust myself numb.

“You have to learn to like the light,” Philip tells me. He doesn’t say “love” – that’s too much right now. I’m drawn to gray days, to rain and thunder, to storms which don’t happen often enough. Melanie told me there’s a word for that – pluviophile. Lover of rain. I don’t think there’s anything to learn from lightness. I’ve been watching a lot of TV series, a lot of movies, and it’s making the way I experience life clearer. Entertainment is either a black or light image to me. When I hear “chick flick,” I think Waste of Time. When I hear drama, I’m seduced. I want the treachery – give me “Pulp Fiction,” “American History X,” “True Detective,” “Requiem For A Dream.” Let something besides my own morbid thoughts bring me to that darkness because if I see it outside of me I won’t be so alone with it – and maybe somewhere in that depravity I can figure out how to live with grief and death.

In “True Detective,” Rust says that with humans, “nature made a tragic misstep in evolution.” I thought about why someone would say that. And what I thought was how hard it is to be here, even if you get through without a major tragedy. First off, we live knowing we’re going to die, and since we don’t know what happens when we do, it’s terrifying. And it’s not only our own death we have to deal with. People we love will die, which can be a worse thing to suffer than any nightmare we might have had about dying ourselves. Then there’s the fact that we need each other, yet it’s so hard to get along. Especially when we’re wanting to be right more than we’re wanting to be loved. The world’s like a big refracting mirror. Our personal arguments are reflected in larger social arguments, which are reflected in even larger political arguments, which often culminate in the most massive, monstrous argument of all – war. If we take a look at what’s going on around us, it’s clear that as a species, we’re insane.

We deal with our tragedies in the context of the way we live, which means crisis brings out the past. So when Rust says we are mistakes of nature, that’s what his life has brought him to. What do I bring to my suffering? Philip’s death is my Sisyphus. The shock of it hurled me back to some personal, primitive beginning that I thought was long gone. But that’s the thing – life isn’t linear. It’s now, it’s all happening now. I brought the grief of a lifetime to Philip’s death. I’m torn and twisted and it’s hard to untangle the grief from the drama. When Philip said, “Don’t make my death into something it isn’t,” he meant don’t bring the past into this. And much as I’m talking about the void I’m attracted to, Philip’s in a light so profound I can only pray to have a glimpse of it. That’s the light that burns the past out of us, the light that leads to the Divine. And burning “the past out of us” has nothing to do with forgetting. I’m talking about a psychic past where we react based on the self we’ve created and so stay stuck in our stories. To burn the past out is to bring a freshness and wonder to whatever is now, including death and grief. And that doesn’t mean happy – it means clarity.

So on the one hand, I say I need the dark to understand death. On the other, I say it’s light that leads to transcendence. Do I even know what the hell I believe?

There’s so much I don’t understand. There are people who, after their child has died, reach a point where they find life more precious than ever. Is it because they loved life before, and so now appreciate its brevity the more? When I was a kid, I loved music. My parents gave me a transistor radio in a brown leather case that went wherever I did. When my mom would get mad at me, she’d take my radio away. She took a piece of me with it. “Didn’t you want music even more, when your radio was gone?” my therapist asked. So loss of something makes you want it more. But how’s that supposed to translate? Philip’s death has made me want his life more, not mine.

More, next…

© 2014 Denise Smyth

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