His Ashes

When Philip died I wanted him cremated. I thought Phil might argue – we were both raised Catholic, and from what I understood the church did not allow cremation. We married in a Catholic ceremony, had our children baptized, had them make their communion and confirmation. I did what I thought I was supposed to do for my kids as far as religion was concerned, especially because Phil was serious about it. I was not. As a child, I was let out of public school at 2:00 on Wednesdays to attend religious instruction. Even then I was no believer and decided God was something grown-ups made up to explain what they couldn’t. 

Phil would take the kids to church on Sunday. I refused to go. We had one argument about it, with him insisting I should go because what would we tell the kids if he was going but I was not? The truth, I answered. Mommy and Daddy think different things about God and it’s important to Daddy that you go to church. I don’t know that we ever actually had to have that conversation, but we were ready.

 As of 2016, the church’s guidelines on cremation changed. It was allowed, but you were not to scatter ashes or keep them at home in an urn. They should be kept in a “sacred” place, such as a church cemetery, which I’m sure one would have the privilege of paying for. At any rate, Phil did not object to cremation, so Natalie and I pored over a catalogue of urns to pick the right ones. We should not have to do this, I told her. If we are catalogue-shopping it’s supposed to be for shoes or clothes or the very best in cookware. But we all know where “shoulds” and “supposed-to’s” leave us, so we did what we had to. Natalie chose a tiny urn in a blue velvet box that could travel with her, I chose a small, elegant slate blue with a muted silver top for Phil (who did not want to be involved in the process) and the bulk of the ashes went into a large gold urn with a band of inlaid white material for me. I chose it over the floral cloisonné urn I preferred, and I am still trying to figure out why. There was a reasoning going on in my head that I can’t articulate. All I can come up with is maybe I thought what I wanted was too feminine, maybe I thought the gold was more dignified…it bothers me terribly, both as a  mother and a writer, that I cannot come up with the words to explain this, and that my choice here might have been based on a “should.”

I do know that I thought that once I actually received the urn it would look better in person and I would be happy (is that an appropriate word for my feelings regarding the container of my son’s ashes?) with my choice. I wasn’t. At the time it was low on the list of Things I Am Grieved About. I put the urn in my bedroom and put Phil’s in my living room as he said he wasn’t ready to take it. 

There were a couple times over the years when I made an effort to find an urn I’d like better. The floral cloisonné was no longer available and I couldn’t find anything else I cared for. I still have Phil’s urn as he never asked for it and at this point, I am hoping he doesn’t. Because the last year or two I was starting to feel the need to let go of my urn and Philip’s ashes but I’d like to keep the small, elegant urn in the living room as it feels like just what I need to have.

I couldn’t figure out what to do about the growing need I had to let go of Philip’s ashes. Stories about people getting rid of loved one’s ashes center around the favorite place that person had so there’s some meaning to the thing. I don’t know of any special place of Philip’s except Underground 8 – now called The Meat Locker – in Montclair and spilling ashes on the floor of a music venue isn’t something one does. That I knew of no place shamed me. If I was a better mother, we’d have had a place, a perfect place, something we shared. If we were as close as I say we were, why wasn’t there a place? I can see now how I would torture myself about this, how easily I shame myself. Plus I didn’t talk to anyone about it so it festered.

A few years ago Maria’s friend developed leukemia and within about six months of her diagnosis, she died. When I was at the shore back in June, I overheard Maria talking about taking her ashes out on her boat and scattering them in the bay. And there was my answer. Maybe Philip didn’t have a place, but I did. And not only a place, but a person. In the beginning days of this blog, when telling the story of finding out about Philip’s death, I’d written how Maria was the first person I called when I found out he died and I knew she was in her car before I hung up the phone. Who more fitting to do this with?

So on a Saturday afternoon back in July, Maria’s husband M took us out on the boat. I walked down the pier with the urn, heavily laden with his ashes, hugged in my arms round my belly. M helped me into the boat, Maria following behind in tears. All I can say about the way I felt was small. I think that speaks to powerlessness, the way, as a child, choices were not mine to make. Because while I was choosing the time and the place to let go of Philip’s remains, I had no choice that all that was left of my son was a pile of ashes.

We rode in silence into the bay until M stopped the boat where he thought it appropriate. Is this okay, he asked? I nodded my approval, but really, what about this was okay? The ashes were in a huge, thick, unwieldy plastic bag inside the urn. I took care in pulling the bag out, in making sure the ashes went into the gently lapping water and not onto the boat or blown back in my face. If you’ve never seen them, cremation ashes are gray and fine and powdery and they left a trail as the boat, motor off, bobbed along with the water. When it was finally done I looked up and nodded. The boat started up again and as we swung around, the ashes trailed along on top of the water and Maria and I waved our good-byes.

I thought I was okay but by the time I woke up on Sunday morning I was not. The world was hostile and I was without words. There was too much life around me. Three of Maria’s grandkids, 11, 16 and 18, were also at the house that weekend. And where Maria and her grandkids are, drama reigns. That means life is loud and evident, that meant there was no room for me. So while I originally planned – as I always do when I’m here for the weekend – to go straight to work from here on Monday morning, I quickly packed and headed home as soon as I finished my coffee. And once I got there, I went into my dark bedroom, got under my covers and cried for the rest of the day.

That’s what was needed. I am not, and even then was not, sorry for what I’d done. I wasn’t prepared for my reaction but how does anyone prepare for a possible adverse reaction? I do not know what that means, never did. I can’t predict when I’ll be overcome. When Philip’s birthday or death day rolls around I don’t necessarily go into a funk. That’s more likely to happen afterward, when spring rolls around, because January, his birth month, and February, his death month, at least make me feel his presence. Every spring I lose him again as time is relentless and that’s the season things start coming to life, but not Philip. Never, not ever, Philip.

© 2022 Denise Smyth

What it Takes?

I started this blog a year after Philip died. I was as raw as I’d ever been – no, more raw then I’d ever been. I spent years trying to put words on what I felt like. There was no other way to survive. I wrote that there weren’t words to describe what I was feeling because the usual words – grief, despair, agony, etc. – were words I’d used before and what I was feeling was beyond any of that. So I strung words together best I could and made whatever sense I could.

Over the years, grief’s hold on me lessened, old habits of depression felt normal, life felt hard and unmanageable. Writing no longer interested me, quilting did. That’s where my creativity took me for a few years until I lost interest in that, too. I’d write posts here and there but not much else. I started watching a lot of TV and just didn’t care too much about anything except Natalie. A couple years ago, as I mentioned in my last, I started reading about the Tudors. Kings and queens fascinate me, Game of Thrones had ended, reading finally gripped me the way it did when I was younger and would not go anywhere without a book. I still watch TV here and there but it’s reading that I’m mostly caught up in.

Still, not much creative output. It just seemed easier to let it all go and wait. For what? I’ll leave it there for now.

I am at the Jersey Shore at my cousin Maria’s house and will be here until Labor Day. So much to say about this, but not now. When I’m here I usually go for a walk first thing in the morning, around 6:30 or so. When I’m back I make coffee and sit outside to drink it. Her house is on the bay, her backyard spa-like. There are multiple places to sit or lounge, a dock with her boat and jet-skis, a pool and a jacuzzi and her big, beautiful, long-haired German Shepard to keep me company. Last night he slept with me, the only male I’ve had in my bed for a decade.

When I sat taking it all in this morning my mind was going its un-merry way. I’m 64 now, and I can say that physically I’ve had a good 63 years but things have started going wrong and I hate it. How unfair, I was thinking, that we are born into bodies that take up way too much time distracting us from what really matters, yet distract us they do. Whether we’re young and insist on basing success upon physicality or older and doing the same but with the bitterness of our aches and pains, what’s the fucking point if we have to constantly deal with our bodies?

Somehow, I caught myself. Is this what I want to be thinking about? Am I even thinking, or is this just mind-meandering, an updated version of former, similar unhappiness? And I remembered earlier years of writing this blog, when I certainly had a lot to be unhappy about. But there was a quality there that stood in sharp contrast to what I’d just been doing. Of course I was inconsolably, desperately, unhappy. But I was somehow with it, open to it, and willing to put words on it. It was not work to do so. I was too devastated by Philip’s death to be anything else.

For years I have been unable to be in that place. It’d been suggested to me I was having a “dark night of the soul,” that I would come out of it. Just words, I thought, because it’s been years of it. A matter of will? How does one will oneself to care? I don’t know how to explain how I got there any more than I know how to explain why today I’m able to sit with this, why or how I’ve been able to write these last few posts. I coast along, not forcing a particular direction. That’s what I’ve been feeling like for years and not caring to do otherwise. I’m not saying I’ve made a big change, some willful decision, but – for this moment, at least – I am wanting to think about what is going on. With me and Maria, my mom and Alzheimer’s, my extended family, my addictions, my solitude and most of all, my children.

There’s one change I want to note. In my early 40s I decided to go on antidepressants. I’d been in therapy for 20 years at that point, sober for about 17 and still depressed. I’d had several therapists suggest medication but I’d wanted to get to the bottom of my misery without chemicals. Finally I thought, “what the hell” and started seeing a psychiatrist. That led to over 20 years of trying this med and that med and settling on Wellbutrin for about 14 years. At some point that wasn’t working, so my doctor tried adding this other med and that other med and when, in 2010, I had a meltdown, my mood-managers got together and decided an anti-anxiety medicine was in order. By then I was hooked on thinking some kind of drug has to help me and when I was prescribed Gabapentin I thought I hit the jackpot.

Gabapentin made me feel good about being alive. It was not subtle, like an anti-depressant. Its effects could be felt within a short time of taking it. But I am an addict. So if a bit of something shifts my mood enough that I feel good about being alive, then more of it must make me feel even better about being alive.  It was prescribed, so it was okay. I managed to get my initial dose raised about as high as it could be, then started taking none on one day so I could take extra another day. I talked about this to no one. Eventually Gabapentin worked against me. I was irritable, forgetful and nervous and fearful of everything. I was also trapped because I saw no way to stop taking it. 

Except I did. I’m not sure when except that it was months and months ago. Sometimes I wish I paid more attention – if you know anything about AA, anniversaries are a deal. People might say, “the person who woke up the earliest is the one with the most sobriety” but I believe few really feel that way. I was as caught up in year count as anyone else – had I not started drinking when Philip died, next year would’ve been 40 years, people would’ve admired me and I’d have eaten it up. But I also know the emptiness of that – needing that kind of recognition and approval does not fill the hole that demands it.

I still see no clear cut path as to how I was able to stop using something I swore I couldn’t live without. If I’d asked for help – as I did when I went to AA  – then the steps would be obvious. But this I did mostly by myself. I began to ask Philip to help me as – and again, I will not get into this now – he is very much with me and it is he who I turn to for help every day. Between the two of us I managed to stop by tapering off. I did not involve my psychiatrist. The only medical professional I turned to was S, the Physician’s Assistant who works in my office and who is my practitioner. When I was down to taking the bare minimum before actually, finally stopping it altogether, I was not feeling well. Not emotionally or mentally, but physically. Weak, tired, fatigued – not the kind of symptoms I could find while trolling the internet for “Gabapentin Withdrawal.” My PA suggested I might need to stay on one or two pills a day. I refused. The weeks went on, the symptoms went away. It was over.

Next went Abilify, which was supposed to enhance Wellbulltrin. That was easy, I did not feel any different. And finally, Wellbutrin. For both of these I spoke to my psychiatrist as to how best to taper off. I am well aware one does not just stop taking antidepressants on a whim. I received my instructions, bid her good-bye, told my PA what I was doing and that if I needed her, I’d let her know.

I am now off all of it, and have had no repercussions. I tapered off the Wellbutrin more quickly than advised because through each stage I had no adverse reactions and because sometimes I know my own body better than somebody else. Again – I wish I kept track of when I did it, again I can say it was sometime this year. So I’ll leave it that 2022 was the year I stopped taking prescription medication designed to make me emotionally and mentally “better.”

I’ve written all this because I assume it is an aspect of why I have the ability I’d believed I’d lost to sit and think about the life I experience. And for all the decades of trying to deal with my life through alcohol and drugs, both legal and illegal, the only organic way I have of doing that, of attempting to take myself seriously and at least try to find meaning, is writing. And that requires removing whatever blocks my process.

NB – This is my story, my experience of working with a psychiatrist and the medications I was prescribed. It is no one else’s and I am certainly not recommending anyone flush their medications down the toilet. I am not a doctor, I have not even done any amateur research into this topic. I do know there are levels of depression and psychosis and when someone needs help, my only suggestion would be to find a doctor you trust to help. I consider myself fortunate that I was able to leave behind Wellbutrin so easily. And whatever I’m going through now is not something medication, prescribed or otherwise, can “cure.”

© 2022 Denise Smyth

Time

They must’ve told you – someone, somewhere, many someones in multiple some-wheres, how, “Time heals all wounds.” And you probably had to find out for yourself that it doesn’t. I wrote about this once, somewhere in this blog. The priest at Philip’s wake told us so and I was grateful. There is no comfort, particularly at the nadir of one’s grief, to think, in time this will go away or one day I won’t feel so bad, I will be able to manage this. When Philip died I existed in a dimension called Grief and the idea that time would heal it meant…what? That it would be okay, that I would be okay? That there was somehow going to be something called Life as Usual?

The naiveté. The shallowness. Even if said from a loving heart with all the kindness, concern and worry that comes from the helpless onlooker who truly cares for you. This month it is ten and a half years since Philip died. Since my son died. I had a therapist ask me why I called him “my son.” He is, after all, his own person, not my possession. He has a life apart from me. Except he no longer has a life – at least on this earth – apart from me. I have two children. And calling them “my child” is an acknowledgment of the bond that can be between me and them and no other. I need that. I need to know that what was and is between us is special, real, everlasting. If calling Philip “my son” soothes me that way I’ll skip the analysis of where he ends and I begin because I dare anyone with a dead child to try to figure that one out.

Then there was Phil, seeing my grief-hysteria weeks after Philip died. “Denise,” he said, “You gotta stop. Philip wouldn’t want this – he wants you to be happy.”

I turned on him. “How do you know?” I demanded. “How do you know what he wants? Maybe he’s missing me. Maybe he’s lonely. Maybe he wishes I could go keep him company!”

Phil blinked slowly. “You are really sick,” he said softly. Which fits in pretty much with the way I view myself. If thoughts wear grooves in our brains based on usage, then, “There is something wrong with me” is my Grand Canyon.

But how did he know what Philip “wanted?” We know nothing about the dead. But when it suits us we make proclamations?

I did, though, have an experience to counter this. Driving one night, not long after this exchange, I was thinking that I was going to kill myself. I once tried – and obviously failed – when I was 21. This, too, is for another post, but throughout my life I thought the only way out of the prison of my brain and the repetitive negative thinking was death. So it was natural for me to be thinking in the face of Philip’s death, “I’m done. I don’t know how yet, but I am done.”

That’s when I heard Philip. He’s behind my right shoulder, he speaks into my right ear. “Mom,” he said, “It doesn’t work that way. You have to find the joy.” And in that instant, it occurred to me that I took the responsibility of having two children, one who died, but one who was very much alive and needed me. And I saw myself standing next to Philip looking toward Natalie, but now unable to reach her. The grief was just as intense. That’s when I knew things were as they were and I must deal with them in that way. Natalie needed me. That was all there was to know.

I also understood at that moment that suicide was not a solution. It was a continuation of what I was trying to escape. If I believed death was like going to sleep and never waking up, then suicide made sense. Philip was teaching me something different. He was telling me the way out is to find the joy. I can tell you that ten years on, I have not found the joy. I still circle back to “There is something wrong with me.” I watch people, I watch the things they do and what they enjoy and what keeps them going and I still feel the odd one. My greatest pleasure is reading, which I do for hours on end daily. Today I started to write – something I have not been able to do for years even though it is one of the things I have loved to do and it was certainly what kept me going during the earlier years when Philip died. 

I have been, I am, so angry.

But back to where I started this post. Time does have a part to play. Its passage changes things. I no longer cry for hours on end every day. The constant knot in my stomach is gone. Philip is not on my mind 24/7. I can laugh. I can hold a job. I can eat. No more drinking, no more bulimia. Outwardly, no one would be able to tell I suffered such a tragic loss, that my world is upended, that I will never be the same in ways I can only accept. And that maybe I shouldn’t accept, but I do.

I have a picture of Philip from when he was maybe 5 or 6. If I can figure out how to post it under photos I’ll put it there. He’s wearing an orange pullover with a collar. His right arm is leaning on a table, bent at the elbow, his face is leaning into his hand. He’s not looking at the camera but a bit to the right, a smile on his closed mouth, his far away thoughts giving him secret pleasure. If I look, I can just make out his left hand resting on the table, clutching a small dinosaur. He is angelic. Months ago I made that picture the background on my phone and it still unsettles me to see the beauty of that innocence. It still brings me to tears, still makes me stop what I’m doing and give pause. And I would like to say I smile to see my little boy so happy and so at peace, but mostly my heart twists into something unnatural because of what I have lost and my inability to find adequate words to share this with so that maybe someone can…help? Understand? What do I want? There isn’t any help, and from those who can understand – unfortunately, there are far too many who do – I cannot take comfort. 

© 2022 Denise Smyth

Covid 19 – Addiction Part 5

Covid-19 or not, there are people looking to hire. Sometimes I’ll send out a resume. The job has to be fairly close so the drive isn’t long, salary somewhat close to mine because much as I bitch about work I’m paid well for what I do, no insistence on Powerpoint or advanced proficiency in Word and Excel because I’m more basic proficiency when it comes to those. Go learn Power Point, everyone says. It’s easy. Sure. Easy. I spent over $300 taking advanced Word and Excel classes. The Adult School I went to does not allow handouts, so we were being taught complicated formulas without notes to refer back to. Plus nothing we learned is anything I needed to use when I was working and when it comes to software, use it or lose it. I could’ve taken that money and bought a lovely pair of shoes and at least I’d have had something to show for it.

But I do need a job. My boss hired me back after initially laying me off due to Covid, but business didn’t pick up so its back to unemployment and serious job hunting. This feels surreal. In part I feel protected because with unemployment I’ll have about three more months of income. But that’s it – the reality is I need a job and I am terrified. The idea of presenting myself to someone…who would want me? What do I have to offer? This year my age has come into play. I am 62. I have long felt that my age doesn’t matter – I look younger than I am, I’m in good health, I have a lot of energy. But faced with job hunting I feel old. Who wants to hire someone close to retirement age? What I know is that all of this is a racket in my head that I should ignore and just look for a job. My heart and my head are at war.

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

July 2019. I was suffering the loss of my girlfriend and tired of smoking weed. So I stopped. And there it was – the space in my life I didn’t know how to fill, still don’t know how to. Over and over I told myself it was up to me, but I couldn’t come up with what I wanted to do. I was lonely and grieving the end of a relationship and all I did was sit around hating myself because there was  a whole world out there and I couldn’t join in. I was living in a world I didn’t belong in and I didn’t know how to be okay with my life. I told myself to travel, take yoga classes, go for a walk, call someone , figure out how to get out there and do it. I was – I am – paralyzed.

Before my lay off, I had a long talk with my boss. He told me his history of drinking and how he got himself under control. How every three months or so he and his girlfriend call up their friends, get in an Uber, go to the city and have a blast. Most of the time when I’m listening to someone I’m deciding who is living the better life and I am always the loser. Not that I need to go have a “blast” but just the idea of wanting to do something and having enough friends to do it with. I am never part of a crowd. I don’t have a group – I have a friend here and a friend there and no matter how many here-and-theres it is never enough. I am lonely but I don’t reach out.

AA seemed a solution. It’s a spiritual program and people make friends there. People love it there. People are always talking about their gratitude about being sober and of all the friends they’ve made along the way. If I say that like it’s a bad thing, I don’t mean it that way. It’s more of a foreign thing. I don’t get how to become part of it. Maybe it’s more accurate to say I don’t want to do the things to be more part of it. I could join a group, take a commitment, go to their business meeting, call people. Now that there are Zoom meetings instead of live meetings it makes it even harder. I resist.

I went back to AA last September. In March the pandemic hit. Much as I’ve been faithfully Zooming in on meetings through it all, I never stop wondering what I’m doing there. I try to pay attention but I don’t feel like these people do. At least the ones who are sharing. I’m often in meetings of upward of 50 people, and maybe 15 of them share in any given meeting. Surely there are people who feel disconnected, who are uncomfortable with others’ depiction of how God works in their lives because much as AA teaches to find your own conception of a higher power, most people buy the one where God’s directing your life and you have to sit back and accept the ride. I actually don’t have too much argument about that. At least the acceptance part. I don’t believe in a God that’s involved in the minutiae of my life, but I do believe life is a force greater than me. I can’t control it, I can only stop resisting it.

And that includes Philip’s death. Lately I feel crushed when I think of him – how in the world am I supposed to go on when he will never again come through my door? It’s been seven-and-a-half years and I am still deeply lonely for him. I yearn for him. So how do I hold my grief yet try to live? The loneliness in living is coupled with my grief and what I need to learn is how to hold two things together. Grieving him yet learning to live. It’s not a betrayal but it feels like one. I thought I was past this but grief is a spiral, not a straight line. As is life. I still struggle with wanting to live. It feels easier to give in to the grief, to let it suck the life out of me…is this an excuse? Do I use his death as a reason not to live? My grief is real, yet is it honest?

I go to meetings because I am trying to find something that eludes me. I drank because it made me feel better. By the third drink there was a “click” – I was home. Life was okay. I could talk to people, I could connect, temporary as it was. That’s what I ‘m looking for – that “click.” There are people in meetings who have clearly clicked. Their earnestness fascinates me. How did they get there? How are they not consumed by their darkness? Am I that unique that it can’t be me? That can’t be so, yet here I am stuck and waiting, waiting for my click.

Covid 19 – Addiction Part Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued

© 2020 Denise Smyth

29

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

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

Now I lay me down to sleep

I pray the lord my soul to keep

I pray to die before I wake

I pray the lord my soul to take.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holidays, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2020 Denise Smyth

Mine to Lose

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2019 Denise Smyth

Do I?

Of all the many moments that stand out for me in Game of Thrones, one is the scene where Theon Greyjoy goes home to the Iron Islands after ten years and is confronted by his father Balon and sister Yara. When Theon is shocked that his father considers Yara his heir instead of him, Balon Greyjoy says of his daughter, “She knows who she is.” That simple – she knows who she is. What I would give give for that clarity. For that power, for surely that’s where power resides.

A few years ago I stopped writing. Something snapped, in spite of everything, in spite of the countless times I’ve written grief is a spiral, as it – as life – actually is, I’m still disappointed when the linear evades me.

When the agony, terror and sheer shock of Philip’s death forced me to action, it was writing I turned to. How else to map my heart which was so much more than broken? A heart breaks when a lover leaves. What words are there for when a child dies? And in the years after, during the time I wrote my blog most intensely, it seemed that I broke through something I’d tried my whole life to break through. A nearly unendurable pain, made tolerable by the words I could put on it. Until I couldn’t anymore, until the pain of Philip’s death got mixed up with the pain of life prior to his death and I found myself back down the rabbit hole, silent and dark and full of things too murky to describe but painful all the same.

I am 61. When I say it like that it’s with the addendum, “Enough, already.” But those decades seem to belong to someone else. Surely 61 brings with it its own wisdom? I should know better. Age is a given, wisdom isn’t. And whatever wisdom I once felt I had earned has slipped beneath the layers of anxiety I’m more aware of than anything. Loss is all, is what I think. It obliterates whatever realities come between as it’s felt more keenly than any of it. And what brings it all up is suffering is the loss of my girlfriend which I can only blame on myself. For nearly a year and a half we were together, and for a year and a half I was ambivalent. I don’t know how I feel about you, I kept saying. I don’t know how I feel. Until she had enough and who could blame her? We need to take a break, she said. Of course she was right. And of course that’s all it took to explode my ambivalence into shards and now that the break has officially become a break up I’ve only come to love her more, while she has come to trust me less.

I miss her. Every day I miss her and it’s been months. I’m tired of loss and my coping mechanism is to give up. When I am alone I tell myself to give up, let nothing matter, wait until it’s all over. I don’t like being here. I don’t know what to do with myself so I spend lots of time watching TV, the fantasy that is other people’s lives which are so much better than mine. Can’t someone give me a script? Of course not. I have to write my own.

I’m lonely and it has nothing to do with people and everything to do with grief. Recently I went back to AA meetings. I did it because I was smoking weed at night so I didn’t have to listen to the voices in my head, didn’t have to miss K so much. I’m an addict. When Philip died, after nearly 30 years sober I tried drinking again and that didn’t work. I drank mostly at alone and tried a few times to drink with friends. I am not a social drinker. Put a drink in my hand and all I’m thinking about is the next one. I might be trying to hold a conversation with you but I’m not all there and I want to drink until I’m really not all there.

So I stopped drinking and started smoking weed. It seemed more manageable. No hangover, no sloppy drunkenness, But I drank mostly alone at night and the same with weed. Getting high was not a social event. It was in place of a social event. I went back to AA because besides needing to stop smoking I need to be around people. My life has been Ground Hog Day. Get up, go to work, come home, smoke weed, watch TV, go to sleep. All the while feeling like shit about myself for what I’m doing and what I’m not doing.

I think I’m supposed to be a different way. I think I’m supposed to like museums and opera. I think I’m supposed to pay more attention to politics, have a more interesting job, be a more interesting person. How could anyone like me, never mind love me. But K loved me and Philip loved me. One I pushed away and one died. So how will I choose to live with loss? Do I really give up? Do I really just wait to die? Do I try to make meaning out of loss, so I see that I can live in the face of it?

Maybe starting to write is the beginning of the answer.

© 2019 Denise Smyth

Impossible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2017 Denise Smyth

Previous Older Entries