Hurt

All things children hurt. School buses, even though my kids never went on one. Mothers holding hands with their little ones. Pregnant women. Diaper commercials. People talking about their children, saying “my son” because he is alive. Maybe I can still say, “my son,” but talking of him reminds me and whoever is listening that he’s dead, makes it real and uncomfortable.

Natalie and I were out and ran into C., a woman whose son is Philip’s age and whose daughter is a year younger than Natalie. The four of them were friends. I hadn’t seen C. since Philip’s funeral. Nothing, of course, is mentioned. Our hello-hug is held a little tighter, a little longer. “How are you?” is asked with an emphasis on “are.” “I’m doing good,” is my standard reply. The inconceivable has happened, this death that shocked and grieved me, that changed me and my family forever, but even the people who were affected by it keep a psychic distance. I think in part they do it for me. I think they’re afraid if they bring it up it might remind me, might hurt me. As if I don’t already think about Philip every day, as if it doesn’t hurt me every day, as if “hurt” is the word that comes close to describing what living with his death feels like.

And I think people don’t like to talk about it because of what they might feel. It’s not contagious, I want to say. Inevitable, but not contagious. Still, it’s death and it’s taboo. Do we think if we don’t talk about it, it won’t happen to us, to those we love? Do we think it’s better not to think about it, to deal with it when it’s too late and it steam rolls over you and if you’re lucky, you’ll have someone to peel you off the floor?

Philip was a young man when he died, but he is my child. He once had that innocence, that heartbreaking vulnerability I am reminded of when I see children. And much as he lost that innocence as we all do, he had a soft and tender heart. Which is exactly what keeps me close to him now, all the love that we were, that we are.

Sometimes I feel trapped. Philip’s not coming home. I will never have children again. I broke up my family when I left Phil. I might grow old alone. Life will have its way, not my way.

Much of what I feel comes from what I think. It doesn’t seem that way – emotions are what kick my ass, make it difficult to see that I am stirring them up by the stories I tell myself about the situations I find myself in. Reality becomes personal. In other words, it’s me that’s kicking my ass.

But Philip’s death is so big. I don’t know how to think about it any more, I don’t know what to say. I avoid. Which is why, in part, I haven’t been writing. I’m in protective mode. Like an opossum, I’m playing dead. I’d been reading through 18 binders of emails Ed and I wrote to each other from 1997 through 2013, the year after Philip died. I did it because I’m working on a memoir and I wanted to see what I’d written about my kids, what I could use for my work. I didn’t think about the fact that I’d also written about my mother. Had no idea that her past cruelty could shut me down. Because it’s not past, not really. It informs much of my life – too much of my life. She is so much a part of my story and I freeze when I think about writing about her.

After Philip died I was gutted. Everything poured out of me, so many words, so desperate to write my way through this. Devastating as his death was, I was alive. My heart was broken, but open. That’s where my words came from. There’s a place I go to when I write that I can’t now access. Even now I feel like I’m stringing sentences together. I can’t find my voice, can’t find the rhythm. I’m dull and hurt and shut down and all I want to do is quilt. I make beautiful quilts to hang on my walls. I play with my fabrics. I create. But I can’t quilt 24/7 and I find myself daydreaming about what I’m making and what I want to make because it soothes me. Too often I am unhappy. I don’t want to be at work, I don’t know what to do with myself afterward. I long for the weekends so I can get lost in my fabrics. I feel helpless about writing. The fire I had turned to ash.

I don’t want to be the mother whose son has died. I wrote so much in this blog about how pointless it is to argue with reality, yet here I am doing just that. And since that is so painful I shut it down. I don’t talk about Philip’s death, don’t write about it. I tell myself I can’t live with it – but that means I’m killing myself off. Resisting reality is resisting life.

I don’t yet understand what’s happening. I can’t find my sea legs. They must be there because I’ve had them before. But whatever this psychic regression is will not last. I think I’m going to emerge from this a different writer. I may feel helpless about getting back to my work, but I’m not hopeless.

© 2016 Denise Smyth

The Bridge

“But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey

I am between those lands and I feel like nothing’s happening but maybe something is going on and I need to be patient. I am missing Philip and that missing is tinged with hopelessness. He is not coming home. I am a mother whose child has died. It’s been sickening me again – whatever’s spinning around my gut makes its way to my chest and arms and just for a moment I think I’m going to fall down, that I can’t bear this.

But then there’s Philip, all around me, always all around me. I just have to pay attention. There isn’t a day that goes by that he isn’t nudging me. How graced am I? And how my life has opened up since he died. I left the hellish job I was at, and now work at a place I like to go to (most of the time). I have more people in my life than I had before. I finally started to write, and to stay with it. So many years – decades – I had fits and starts with writing. And years that I wanted to start a blog but was afraid. What could I possibly have to say? And if I had something to say, what made me think I could write it in a way that would make anyone want to read it?

Philip said, “let me be the voice in your head.” Because his is the voice of love. He would never talk to me the way I talk to myself, the way I learned from my mother. My mother, who cannot help who she is. I grew up nursing on her rages instead of her love. Witness to her preference for my brother, her disdain for me. And so hurt, angry and helpless as I was – as any child would be – I took my first drink at 11 and thought I found what I was looking for. Something to make me feel nothing because I’d rather feel nothing than feel what it felt like to be alive.

I have been remembering more often to replace that voice with Philip’s. I bought prayer beads to help. Not because I want to pray with them, but because they help me pay attention. They are beautiful copper beads flecked with gold, and have silver tassels They feel cool and weighty in my hands. I carry them around and every time I touch them I think, “Let Philip be the voice in my head.”

But that bridge Wilder talks of – I can’t find it. My heart’s not open. Back and forth I go between the fact that Philip’s died and the fact of how he lets me know he’s still here. What does his death mean in my life, what besides loss in a way I have never known? May I never know it again.

It’s such an odd way to live, this between-ness.  So much thinking going on here, so much “assessment” of my situation. Where does it get me? At the moment it feels easier to let it all go and just suffer. Then I can’t feel the love that comes at me from many different directions. Feeling it is also giving it – and what are we here for, if not to learn that?

How do I stop reacting like the small hurt child I was? I needed to be loved – I am never going to get what I needed back then, so it’s up to me to find what I need now. All I have to do, really, is look to my life, look to the people who matter, and let myself take it all in. And I take that little child I was and imagine myself at three, with my too-short bangs, wavy brown hair, big hazel eyes, pale yellow chiffon party dress, black patent leather shoes, finger in my mouth, being held by Philip. I imagine it because that is what it means to know love. That is what he’s trying to give me.

Love is not like the things of this world. It is not a transaction. It doesn’t get won, it doesn’t get lost. And it’s not diminished by giving. If I give it, I have it. It starts with me. With my ability to recognize that life is best lived in love. When do I feel peace? When I’m with love. Like I am with Natalie and Philip. With Ed. With the women in my life, old and new. With the quilts I’ve made and the cakes I’ve baked. These are works of love.

I am not speaking of what passes for “falling in love” which involves a significant other and in time is often revealed to be something very different. The love I’m speaking of is a state of being. And we desire to express that love. We think we need an object. We don’t. It’s true that people, animals, beaches and sunsets inspire us. Objects can loosen our sore and jaded hearts and let love through the cracks. If we can feel it, then we have it. But I have to ask – where does love go when nothing inspires me? When I feel alone? When nothing matters and I sit on my couch, look at Philip’s portrait and cry for want of him. It’s not love that’s moved, it’s me.

The bridge is love. That simple. So why is it so hard? I have two ways of thinking about Philip. One feels like I lean back in his love, one feels like I look ahead and see him gone. Lately I’m transfixed by what’s ahead, which means I’m imagining all the ways it stuns me that Philip won’t be here. Not in the way I want him to. Lately I’m blowing off his attention and retreating into what it feels like to have had him yanked from me, put into a navy blue suit in a coffin, then sent to a crematorium to spend two hours in a cremation container at 900 degrees so that he could be returned to me as a bunch of grey ash and bone fragments.

And guess what? Life kept on going. People brushed their teeth and straightened their ties and chose the right shoes to match their outfits and I did not understand. I knew there was so much more going on, things that arent’ seen and so feel lost. They are not lost. We who lose those we love walk differently. We cannot live in the world the same way, though we seem to. We are not even sure we want to be part of this world, but the reality is we are. So we have to find a way to bridge the gap. Or we can live in rage and hate, in despair, for what was “done” to us, when really, nothing at all was done to us. People’s dying is not done to us. What to do with that? To think about death we must move beyond vanity. Because all the money we make, all the things we buy, all the exercise we do and all the botox we shoot is not going to change the fact of death. We will die and if we’ve any hope of leaving this world without rage and fear, now is the time to work toward that. Philip once told me that I might think I want to die, but I am not ready. The way I live is the way I will die – if I live in fear, so will I die. There’s no magic that will make dying okay if living never felt the same. And I have much to do to make living feel the same.

© 2016 Denise Smyth

Patience is All

And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
― Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

I don’t know what’s going on with me. Besides feeling like I “can’t” write, I don’t want to go out. Yet after I rush home – from work, from the salon, from Whole Foods – I don’t want to be where I am. My heart is not open. I cannot access what’s essential. And I have this dreaded feeling again – or maybe not again, there are differences – this dreaded feeling of being a mother who’s lost her child. And anything I can “do” about this has nothing to do with action, but with the way I am with my grief.

It’s been suggested that I take a break from reading the emails I’ve packed in my binders. I have read from 1996 through summer of 2002. Eleven years to go. It’s not a race, much as I’m greedy in wanting to read it all. Philip and Natalie are in those pages, and it’s all real. There’s me going to college part time, on fire to learn. Writing to Ed about Shakespeare and poetry and myth. I wanted so much then – to exercise my intellect which I’d felt rotting in my head for lack of stimulation. I went for long walks and craved solitude. What happened to me? Now, If I’m not at work, if I’m not with someone – and I mostly am not – I’m sad. I don’t want to go out, much less go for a walk. I have more solitude than I know what to do with.

I think I’m lonely, which is hard and embarrassing to admit. I say “I think” because my idea of what loneliness is is that you sit around and wish there were people around to fill the hole. I don’t feel it that way. But maybe feeling sad, longing for something I can’t put words on, feeling restless and unsure, maybe that’s what lonely is. Lonely is a terrible secret I carry. It feels like a character flaw instead of a result of choices I’ve made.

I still have trouble connecting the dots between what I do and what I feel and I don’t think I appreciate what immersing myself in the past has done to me. I am overwhelmed and when there’s that much pain I shut it down. Go stupid. I’ve flatlined and I don’t know what I can do to change this.

I cannot figure out what to do with myself. I read, I write when I can, I get lost in TV. I will go somewhere if I’m invited, but on my own I just give up. Maybe because I’m trying with my head instead of my heart and there are some things that all the thinking about in the world won’t fix. But nothing calls out to me, I’ve no desire to be anywhere. Though that’s not entirely true. Kirsten and I have dinner most every Sunday, and during those hours I know pleasure.

In an effort to get myself up and out, I signed up for a series of four meditation classes held at Van Vleck House and Gardens in Montclair. Van Vleck is a nonprofit that used to be a private estate. The house looks like an Italian villa, with its cement pillars and lovely arched windows. The grounds are beautifully landscaped, with a large garden out back beyond the stone patio. Van Vleck hosts community events, and is open to the public, free of charge, year round.

Yet soon as I commit to anything, I don’t want to do it. I couldn’t force myself to go to the first class. I went to the second, but left there with a bad feeling. No, I went with a bad feeling and the class could do nothing to assuage that. John, the instructor, talked to us about meditation and then talked us through meditation. His rich voice resonates and relaxes – it was made for this. John is also my grief counselor. Once when I went to see him he did a meditation with me. I closed my eyes and went where his voice took me. When it was over I thought it had lasted for about 15 minutes. No, he said. It’d been 45.

In class, we sat and meditated, then we walked around the garden and meditated. Afterward, people talked about their experience. They were grateful, they felt good. I didn’t understand. They talked of how lovely the garden smelled, while I’d  noticed an odor when we first went out, something animal and vaguely skunky. Those who walked outside barefoot – like I did – talked of smooth grass and cool, earthy patches of dirt. I went into that garden careful and unsure, afraid of squishing bugs or stepping in anything the birds might’ve left behind.  The people that spoke in class seemed from another world.  What could I say to make this real for me, I wondered? What would I really, really want to say?

I didn’t know. How is it that even if I’m sitting and thinking, even if I have time to form sentences before I have to say them, I cannot know what I want to say? It seemed wrong not to abide in the spirit of peace and love that room was hell bent on creating. Wrapped in grief and anxiety, I was angry that I felt an outsider, and ashamed that someone might notice.

Maybe patience is all. And kindness. I’ve not been very kind to myself. I talk to myself the way my mother talked to me, abusive and humiliating. It’s a deep groove that I only entrench myself in when I let her wash over me. The only power she has is what I give her. And I don’t mean my mother who’s out there in the world. I am slowly learning how to handle her, and at 83, she has become careful with me. I mean the mother I’ve internalized. Her voice is relentless.

Seems time to recognize the way I talk to myself and change the conversation.

© 2016 Denise Smyth

Mother’s Day, 2016 – Come Home

“Rebirth itself is merely a dawning on your mind of what is already in it.”

                                                                      A Course In Miracles, T-6.I.7:2

Mother’s Day comes while I’m still transitioning into spring, in the midst of blooming Dogwoods, Cherry Trees and wildly growing grass tamed by lawn mowers. None of this fools me. The life spring brings is as temporary as winter’s corpses, but it feels way less comfortable or familiar. I love the quiet of winter, the promise of snow, the dark and cozy it brings. It was so before Philip died, and has a certain ironic truth to it now. There’s no end to it – as soon as life takes form it’s dying; as soon as something dies, life is taking shape again.

The things whose beauty I marvel at – the bursts of May flowers, the Apple Blossoms, Cherry Blossoms, Dogwoods and Magnolias, the hot pink and wildly purple Rhododendron  – gone in a few weeks, their blossoms scattered while we’re left with months of green and heat. Or fall, when trees show their true magnificence as leaves go rust and red and deeply, beautifully golden…but all-too-soon they’re swept into huge lawn bags and carted away as so much nuisance.

Ruffling though some papers, I found something I’d written on Mother’s Day, 2002. Philip was 11, Natalie nearly 9. I was worn out. I wrote, “Today I want to leave…I think I need my eyes peeled back…I am worn with managing my children’s lives…Today I want to be jolted…I want to live life as if it mattered…as if my-self were not the center but the radiator…What if I felt useful?”

So there, on Mother’s Day, with all the taking-care-of I did for my children, I was not feeling useful. I was not understanding that even though they were growing up and away they needed me, and they needed me much.

I also wrote that I would like to write them each a poem. “To Natalie I would say, you are my heart. To Philip I would ask that he forgive me – it is hard and angry too often.”

What was hard and angry, and why don’t I remember?

I met Ed in 1996 when I went back to college to get the degree I still didn’t finish. He was my Professor, my mentor, and now my dearest friend. We started emailing and I have most of those emails in various binders. 18, to be exact, with one missing and one destroyed for reasons I won’t get into now.

I emailed Ed my life. What happened and what I felt about it. Reams of it, I have. And his thoughtful, insightful and beautifully written replies. I can go back to May, 2002, and find out exactly what was going on. I took a quick look, and right there, two days after Mother’s Day, 2002, I wrote an email to Ed, subject line, “My Son.”

How fucking grateful am I? I didn’t read that email, though. I decided, particularly with the memoir in mind, that I would start with 1996 and make my way through. There are stories there, things about my children that I don’t remember, but are right there on the page for me to re-live. Like when Natalie was four and Philip six. They shared a bedroom, and sometimes at night, after putting them to bed, she would cry and I would go to her. One night when she was sobbing, as I made my way to their room, I heard Philip say, “Natalie, why are you crying? I love you.” “No you don’t.” she answered. “I’m going away.”

Philip used to come in my bed sometimes, lay with me before he went back to his bed to sleep. One night he came in while I was burning incense. He snuggled up to me and said, “Mom, you know what that smells like?”

“What?” I asked him.

“That smells like flowers from heaven.”

“Really?” I asked him, both startled and pleased.

“Yes. Like I’m in heaven and all the people are flowers. Then I fall through the clouds and I have a flower for a parachute to fall to the ground and come home.”

Philip, honey – I know you’re around. But if you find that flower, if you fall through those clouds, if you parachute to the ground, could you please – please- come home.

© 2016 Denise Smyth

I Have What I Give

Tuesday morning two men were standing next to my car discussing the parking situation, and I joined in. I live in a garden apartment and you need a pass to park overnight on the street. Each apartment is allowed one pass. The complex hired a towing company that randomly comes to check cars, and your car will get towed if you don’t have a pass hanging from your rear view mirror. One of the men was complaining that he came home late one night, couldn’t find a parking spot, noticed there were cars without passes, mentioning a red Volkswagen that was there every night. He’d called the towing company, who said they were too busy to come. So he parked around the corner and wound up getting a ticket because next day it was alternate side of the street parking and he didn’t know.

“You mean we can call the towing company ourselves? “ I asked.

“Of course,” he answered.

So I could call the towing company if I notice anyone without a pass, which I never do because I’d never thought to look. I could go out late, take Zoe for a walk, check for passes and get the sons of bitches who don’t belong there towed. And I had it in for that shiny red Volkswagen – I’d been seeing that car a lot lately, parked near mine. I was going after it.

There is such satisfaction in watching somebody else get blamed and take the consequences. Because if s/he got punished, I was absolved. And that’s what we do in this world, we blame others so that we can momentarily feel better about ourselves.

The Mississippi House wants to allow prisoners to be executed by a firing squad if lethal injection is too expensive. Sounds barbaric, no? Because even if we think the death penalty is the right way to deal with the worst of the worst, we think it should be hidden. The process is medicalized to hide the violent act that it is.

But I bet if Mississippi had a firing squad and invited the public, it would be standing room only.

No, I didn’t go checking cars for passes and I didn’t call the towing company. I might feel mean but I don’t act it. But every time I saw that bright little car I wanted vengeance. Except when I saw it today. Because the culprit who was driving turned out to be a human being, one who smiled at me when she made a u-turn near where I was walking Zoe. And when I walked past her as she parked, I decided to lie.

“Excuse me,” I said when she got out of the car. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

She swept the pageboy-bangs out of her eyes and said, sure. I asked her if she lived here. She said she had since February. I asked her if she had a parking pass and she didn’t know what I was talking about. I told her about the man wanting to have her car towed, and how I thought that was mean-spirited because at that moment I did think it was mean-spirited. I told her the rules, no parking without a pass between 9:00pm – 6:00am, and that if you got towed, it cost about $500 to get your car back. None of this had been explained to her. How she missed the large white signs with serious red lettering that are all over the complex and that explain all this, I do not know. She told me that last week she saw five cars get towed and she’d had no idea why. I didn’t know why her car wasn’t number six but I didn’t ask.

Me having her car towed would have been an act of quiet violence. Imagine waking up for work, not seeing your car and getting a little dizzy because you were sure where you parked it but maybe there was something you were missing. Maybe if you thought back and thought hard you could remember something that would tell you exactly where your car was.

You call the police, find out your car’s been towed because of something that management never warned you about. You have to get yourself to the towing company, pay the fine and try to come back to world but you can’t because you’re confused and angry and impotent and on top of it, you’re late for work.

Why can’t I remember the phantoms I get angry at – like other drivers – are people. Why is it always that other people are traffic? Why can’t I remember it feels better to be kind? The paradox is I have what I give. When I’m angry I’m the one who suffers. The driver in front of me who’s going 45 in a 50mph zone is oblivious to the rage I feel because I want to go faster. It doesn’t matter that it’s a speed limit, not a minimum speed. Nor does it matter that I’m rushing for rushing’s shake, not because I’m late for anything.

But when I’m kind I am soothed. Like when I stop to let someone turn in front of me because the traffic’s heavy. I see the tension leave their face as they wave in thanks. Their gratitude and relief are my own.

I miss Philip’s little kindnesses. When he was a kid he’d call because Sandy had no money to get home and no parent who would come to the rescue. Or because Mark didn’t realize he didn’t have enough money to pay for the dessert he ordered at the cafe they hung out in. I gave Philip money to take care of them because it pained me that there were kids out there whose parents were absent. But once I reminded him he was being generous with my money and like it or not, he couldn’t save the world.

I didn’t trust these kids that I didn’t know. Maybe this is how they live, taking advantage when they could. Maybe they were laughing because they got over on me and Philip. But maybe that’s just the way I look at things. Maybe Philip’s way was something for me to think about – if someone’s in need, you help. Was that it? Or did he just want them to like him? Or did he like the power of coming to the rescue? Or all of the above? And I was about to say that I’ll never know, but that’s not true. If it’s that important to me I can still talk to him about it. Not in the way I want to, but in the way that is so.

There was a price I paid to be a dependable mom, and I paid it gladly. I was the one who got called when someone needed to be picked up or dropped off. I was the one Philip called when he needed to be at the airport at 5:00 in the morning to fly to a fencing meet. I was the one who took the kids to Six Flags every year, who took 12-year-old Natalie and three of her friends to Disneyland and then to Santa Monica, the other parents asking, Are you sure you want to do this?

I was sure. It was my deep need I was trying to fill by taking care of what my children needed. It was my longing to be taken care of that made me so quick to care for them. It was my wanting to be loved that made me love them so hard.

And it was my need to find my way home that made me want to be home for them.

© 2016 Denise Smyth

02/23/16

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty look, repeats his words,
Remembers me of his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.

                                          William Shakespeare

Today is four years since Philip died. I’ve spent most of the day watching TV. It’s how I escape. I get lost in others’ lives and loves. I watch people and their families and believe that’s how life should be. I think how alone I am with my broken family. I won’t stay alone – Kirsten will make dinner for me as she’s done the last few years. I wonder if she knows how much it means. How much I need that.

It’s been hard to post. I’m finally working on my memoir. I took a class and it’s got me writing. That’s where my energy’s been, when I have it, when I don’t cry because I’m watching Downton Abbey and Edith’s lost her love while Mary’s married hers. Lately I feel my sadness most through others.

Starting the memoir means reliving it all. What timing. There’s no soothing me – I’ve too many edges. I’d like to curl up in a ball and let this pass. But it’s better to share it with Kirsten. I will be comforted despite myself.

It’s raining, and I am glad for that. Loneliness is easier under its misty blanket.

For a long time I’ve struggled against writing this memoir. I wanted to do it, but I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. I still think writers are an anointed crowd I can’t belong to. But it’s not about any of that drama – it’s about the writing. And I am once again fascinated by my story, wanting to get it right on the page. That’s what’s difficult about posting. Posting’s about what’s going on now, and I am needing to write about what happened before. I want to be someone different – I want to be someone who can work on a memoir and work on a blog. I don’t yet know that I can.

I miss my son. He’s gripped my heart today. It’s nearly 4:00. I think of how innocent I was four years ago – I would have been leaving work, going to therapy, going home to watch Lost while Philip lay dead in his room. How the seconds of that other life were ticking away. How my life will feel forever divided.

I am not without peace. I know Philip’s around. But today is four years since he left and I’ve a bucket of tears I refuse to cry. It’s so different now. I used to tell any and everyone that my son died. I wanted the world to understand what this was to me. Now I know the world doesn’t care, but I’ve a lot of people who do. Now I know this grief is mine. And I need to write it more than talk it.

© 2016 Denise Smyth

01/20/91 – #4

Today is Philip’s birthday. He would have been 25. Time has ceased for him in that way, and it has changed for me, too. I’m much more conscious that the only time it ever is, is now. That’s become a kind of meditation for me, this focusing on the present. Trying to stay focused on now does not leave Philip behind. He died nearly four years ago. I don’t think a lot about that time. He is here, now, and that has to be enough, like it or not.

But last night I was full of the night I gave birth to him. He was born at home on a cold January night. At one point – probably after I bit her shoulder – my midwife took me outside, arm around me, holding me up when I’d get a contraction. The frosty air, the dark, the quiet – she knew I needed a change from my bright apartment with its hospital pads spread on my bed and placenta bowl empty and waiting.

I thought my good attitude and fearlessness about giving birth would ease the pain. It did not. I yelled. I wailed. Part of me then rose up somewhere, was watching this, and I knew it was going to be okay. But I gave myself permission to scream. Those contractions were long and dark and hard and brought me unwillingly to a place I call terror. At the height of one of them I heard the words that would eventually bring Philip and me full circle – “There’s no way out but through.”

Those are not words of comfort. Reality rarely is. I was being asked – no, told – to bear a pain I thought impossible to bear. I was at its mercy, and merciful it was not. But after it was over I had Philip, sweet baby boy, this child I loved when he was just a thought. How graced was I?

Those words came to me after he died, too. And if there was no other reason to have experienced his birth for exactly what it was, hearing those words would have been enough. They brought me full circle. I think of them often. I am more willing to get through. I have to – I’m still in relationship with Philip, and like any relationship, it needs to be tended to. Like any relationship, the more I am present to it the more I see it for what it is. A couple years ago Philip asked me if I knew what responsibility was. I didn’t want to know what he was getting at. I was a wreck then, and if he expected me to take responsibility for our relationship, I couldn’t. I did what I could, and if I could sum it up in one word, it would be “cried.” I didn’t know how many tears I had. In my mind I was hanging on to him for dear life. His presence was palpable, but I was too caught up in grief and terror to even utter the word “responsibility.”

“You know, you are his mother,” Ed reminded me once. That was too much. I was his mother, but I couldn’t act like one. Of course I couldn’t. I wasn’t ready, didn’t think I ever would be.

My sense of Philip has shifted. I am learning how to breathe with him. He’s come into play in the choices I make. I want him to see me do well. It’s my gift to him. And this can only happen because his death did not stop our relationship. When he first died, I took a drive, trying to figure out how to kill myself. Then I heard him: “Mom, it doesn’t work that way. You have to find the joy.”

I believe him. Death is not the answer. And as for joy, maybe it will come, but for now, it’s peace that I’m after. I want Philip to know that. I want him to know that I am doing well exactly the way I want Natalie to know I’m doing well. That’s what my children need – a mother who is present. Philip will get no less from me because he’s died. And I know not what death is except for the fact that it means a particular body will no longer be present. I don’t believe that just because you die you get to go to a better place. Or if you’re a “bad” person, a worse place. I just have this idea that whatever you’re working out you will keep on working out.

Early on I talked about being in a grief group, and being asked to write a letter from our loved to us. I sat and listened to Philip, and he ended the letter with a most lovely line: “Mom, I love you. I’m in the place of no good-byes so we can talk whenever we want.”

The place of no good-byes – if I have to think of him in a place, then let that be the one.

© 2016 Denise Smyth

On Love and Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2016 Denise Smyth

Things of the Spirit

You’d think that Philip’s death would make the holidays miserable for me – a reminder that my family is no longer intact, is not the way I ever thought it would be. That the unthinkable has happened. But the light of Christmas is as much a part of me as grief is. So I go back and forth between the warmth I feel this time of year and the chill I get when it hits me again that Philip has died. It strangles me sometimes – looking at his picture, knowing he was here, knowing he isn’t coming home. Knowing I can’t do anything about it, that talking about it can make me feel even more helpless because it changes nothing. Things of the spirit need come first, I remind myself. But why is the path to peace so hard?

When I was a kid we had big Christmas celebrations. Christmas Eve was the best. We gathered at my grandmother’s house, my mother’s mother. My mom had six brothers, and some-but-not-all had kids. Plus my uncles had lots of friends who’d stop by. There was an uncle who’d dress up as Santa, me always guessing which uncle it was, proud of myself for recognizing he wasn’t the real Santa. The real Santa was too busy running around in his sleigh to stop and visit grandma’s.

I love giving gifts. I’ve baked dozens of cookies, an apple cake, a caramel cake and chocolate mousse. Christmas Eve I went to my brother’s house with Natalie. Christmas Day Natalie will be with her dad, and I’ll be at Cindy’s where we’ll eat leftovers and watch movies. I don’t have a lot of friends, but I am blessed with the ones I do have.

I prefer fall and winter, even though I get cold easily. At work, where my co-workers think it’s too warm inside and so open windows, I wait for them to go to the bathroom and quickly close them. I have coats for varying temperatures and have finally figured out that scarves and hats actually work. Still, I adore winter, though I balk when it gets here because that means it’s leaving. Its coming means the days begin to get longer. Dusk at 4:30 is still too late for me. I want the short days, I want an excuse to stay inside. Winter is cozy and comforting. As are evening and night.

Philip was born in the winter, and he died in the winter – still, that’s when I feel safe. His birthday brings me close to him, and the day he died, closer still. Closer because his death was an explosion, making him larger than life. It took him away, yet I feel him near. How to explain that? The only thing to say is love. Because no matter what’s gone, our love remains. My time with him can’t be taken away and even though he’s died, he hasn’t become what I feared – only a memory. Memories are static, and what I have with Philip feels much too alive. For that I am grateful. I have suffered grievously for having lost him. Now I am grateful for having had him, for what I still have with him.

And for knowing that whatever I suffer I do not suffer alone. Who is simply “happy” to be alive? Who doesn’t feel the terrible sadness conjured up by a supposed season of peace? A sadness more profound because, as a child, in my innocence, I believed there was a special kind of magic around Christmas. The Santa Claus dreams of then can form a cruel contrast  to the reality of now. Those childhood years may have been short, but the impression they left is endless.

Where is hope, then? Not in things of this world, for sure. For this is a world we come to in order to die. Hope lies not in imagining the world as I think it ought to be. It lies in my ability to see it differently, an ability that Philip’s death has honed. That everything dies is no longer an abstraction but a hard truth. I can hold my breath and curse God if I choose. Or not. I choose not. What has God to do with this world? If I believed in the vengeful God of my childhood, I’d say everything. But even as a kid that God made no sense to me. I never understood being told that “God loved us so much he sacrificed his only son for us.” What does that even mean? How do I benefit from God’s dead son? And how could I love a father who had one special son who he then killed for my sake? Why did one son get to be special, and not another? And if He killed his special son, when was He coming for me?

The first time I heard, “Man made God in his own image” I knew I’d learned something profound. And freeing. The vengeful, tyrannical God of the Old Testament was a choice. Which didn’t mean I invented a kinder one or that I chose to be an atheist. I’d mixed up God with my parents too deeply to switch to a godhead more friendly, and I wasn’t arrogant enough to be certain there was nothing beyond what my senses showed me. There was too much mystery to life for me to presume I had an answer.

I saw the absence of God in the world as proof that He didn’t exist. The problem right there presents itself as one of language – “He” didn’t exist, as if God had a sex, a gender, a form, was a being the way I was a being, only mightier. Then one day I read, “We say, ‘God is’ and we cease to speak,” and I thought that was as close to an answer as I’d ever get. Because when it comes to things of the spirit, it’s the open-ended answers that come closest to the truth.

It might sound odd for me to be loving Christmas given all I’ve just said. I don’t see it that way. I see Jesus the way I see Bhudda – a being more enlightened than the rest of us who walked this world for a while. It’s the religion man made around him that I object to. The seed of Christmas is love and now’s when I have a chance to express it in ways that I don’t during the rest of the year. It cuts both ways, this love, filling me up for what I have while making me keenly aware of what I’ve lost. When I say, “Merry Christmas” what I mean is much love to you and yours. And that’s what I wish for all of you – love, and whatever peace you can find.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Was I?

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

However.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Previous Older Entries Next Newer Entries