What I Know

I haven’t talked about this part of the story because it’s fucking hard to write. Harder than screaming down the stairs and pulling my hair and drowning in my cousin’s coat and all of it because that was about me. This is about Philip and what I know and what I imagine and I’m skittish as a cat about what it sounds like. This part’s focal point involves heroin, which is so Requiem For A Dream-ish that maybe it leaves nothing but Jennifer Connelly on her hands and knees and Jared Leto’s gruesome, festering, amputated arm as your tableau vivant.

This is what I know:  The night of February 21st, 2012, in celebration of the unfortunately-named Fat Tuesday, Philip went to a party. Last thing Natalia said to him was, “Don’t do anything stupid.” He did. Last thing he said back was, “I’ll call you in the morning.” He didn’t. At the party, he drank. Back home, he went into his room, locked the door, snorted some heroin. Wednesday he didn’t show up for lunch with Natalie. Thursday night, Max,* a housemate and Philip’s friend since elementary school, asked another housemate if he’d seen Philip, that Philip’s car was in the yard and hadn’t been moved in a while. The two of them went to his room, found it locked, broke into it, and saw him lying on the floor. Max started yelling, one of them called 911. The operator asked them to touch him, check his pulse, but Max was yelling and saying he couldn’t; he told me he tried to touch Philip with his foot, that he was freaked out.

‘’He was my friend since I was a kid,” he told me; “He was my best friend, and I found  him. How am I supposed to live with that?” So at the wake, when Max cried and said to me, “It’s my fault, I’m the one who brought it into the house, I’m the one who gave it to him,” I answered, “Look, you didn’t shove it up his nose. You can’t spend the rest of your life feeling guilty about it.”

A week later, raw as if my skin’d been peeled off with a razor, maybe I was thinking Max should feel guilty. I called him up to ask him why he didn’t tell the cops where he got the heroin. I’d get in trouble, he answered.  Well maybe if you told them, I answered, some next kid wouldn’t have to find his best friend dead and some next kid’s mother, father and sister wouldn’t have to spend the rest of their lives suffering about it. And if you don’t, I added, you get to spend the rest of your living with it.

I didn’t consider what I was really asking, that ratting on a heroin dealer isn’t like turning in the creep on the corner selling $2 joints, that we’re talking some serious Sopranos-type shit here. I saw Max, a couple months later, working behind the counter of a convenience store with narrow aisles lined with canned Vienna Sausage and 3.5 ounce containers of Bumblebee Chunk Tuna,  the counter crammed with Tic-Tacs and Tastykake Honey Buns and where there was always at least one customer doing some serious Lottery Ticket Buying. How are you, he asked. How do you think I am, I answered. And in case you’re wondering, when I got to back my car and sat gripping the steering wheel like a Mac truck was coming at me, thinking how Max had started the whole heroin thing and wondering if Philip’d be alive if he hadn’t, I did not wish that it had been Max instead. I thought about it, wondered why I didn’t wish it. I didn’t wish it because that’s a fantasy, and fantasies are dangerous. If I fantasize I’m living in a world that doesn’t exist, trying to solve a problem where it can’t be solved. I didn’t wish it because Philip is my child, dead or alive, and dead or alive I have a relationship with him. His death turned our relationship into sacred space, and thoughts of vengeance don’t belong there. I can’t get lost in whys and wishes. What would wishing Max dead mean? Only that I was furious and not doing the work that is required a parent do when she loses her child.

My son is dead and that’s forced me into a reality I do not want, but is what’s been given me. I can want it to be different, but it’s delusional to think that I can orchestrate one part of Life and not all of it. I don’t want the responsibility of all of it, and besides, it’s not an option. The only sane option is the one that feels like it’s driving me crazy: Philip has died, and how the bloody hell am I to live with it?

*NB: Natalia notwithstanding, I do not use real names when it comes to Philip’s friends.

© 2013 Denise Smyth


What I Do

Years and years ago, suffering the rage, hurt and frustration of the inexplicable dissolution of what I saw as a promising relationship (in other words, the jerk dumped me), I called my friend Gerard, who told me to get into bed, get under the covers and tuck myself into a fetal position.

Next morning, I called him to say that it didn’t help, didn’t change anything, didn’t make me feel better.

“It wasn’t supposed to make you feel better,” he answered. “It was supposed to make you feel safe while you suffered.”

And so dawned an ugly truth – I couldn’t make myself stop hurting; the best I could do was make myself comfortable while it lasted. Something to this day I haven’t learned. The making-myself-comfortable part, that is. As if life isn’t difficult enough in what it asks of us – and I mean, think about it. We’re the only creatures on the planet who walk around knowing we’re going to die. No wonder all animals are Buddhists. It’s pretty easy to live in the moment when you can’t conceive that it might be your last.

Or your kid’s.

I have a particular penchant for exacerbating whatever life throws at me by treating it as a deliberate and deserved punishment for my personal version of Original Sin. It takes a certain amount of hubris to believe I’m singled out among others for life’s Divine Retribution. Not that I’ve seen it that way. I’ve called it Humility.

My reaction to Philip’s death was no different, except in magnitude. He and Natalie were what I’d done right in life. I was separated, man-less, unable to live on my own except for Nadiya’s generosity, 53 and still with a job and not a career. Living the cliché of not-knowing- what-I-wanted-to-be-when-I grew-up. I wasn’t particularly focused or directed when it came to work. I didn’t have a degree, didn’t like what I did, couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do, yet I considered work one of the things that most mattered. It’s what you do when you get up in the morning. Sure, I thought I wanted to write a book. But I live in Montclair. Throw a rock and you’ll hit someone who wants to write a book.

My kids, though. They were right. They were great, in fact. Not because they were brilliant and popular and extraordinarily talented. Around here, I seem to be one of the few moms without a singularly gifted, award-winning child. But oh, my kids; my own personal joy-toys. Two human beings who couldn’t help but make the rest of us better for having known them.  I was proud of them for being, not for doing.

I twisted Philip’s death into something I had coming to me. I’d reached a point where I’d finally stopped looking over my shoulder to see what might be coming at me, and BAM!! Life got to sneak up and whack me. The obvious question is, why did life have it in for me? I had no answer other than That’s The Way It Is. The other obvious question is, what about Phil? Philip was his kid, too. What did he do wrong?

Looking at it from that view, the question was absurd. I knew better than that. Life wasn’t out to “get” me. It is unnatural and catastrophic that my child died; but Death is not a punishment – it’s a fact. So what do I do with this? What do I do with the life that’s given me?

What does anyone do about trauma? I’ve talked to enough bereaved parents, enough people who’ve suffered other tragedies. I’ve listened to their stories and asked for the details. Yet I’ve never asked, “What do you do when you feel like this? What do you do when trauma hits? Do you try to take care of yourself? How the hell did you do that?”

I mean, literally; what do you do??

I know what I do. I get mean. Real mean. To myself, that is. I hate. I hate Life, this uncontrollable force with a will of its own. I hate dawn, that first loosening of night’s hold on the sky, the moment I’m reminded of the sun’s relentless presence. And I hate me most of all. I wish myself dead because what I mean is I want to stop feeling. I tell myself I am helpless, worthless. And when I’m told not to be so hard on myself, I actually respond, “What do you mean?” because talking to myself that way is a habit so old it’s more like instinct. I don’t know what taking care of myself means. Take a bath? I always take baths. They’re warm and soothing and I crave them. So, take a bath. Hug myself, do a mental backrub. Sink into the warmth and let my body relax.

I think not.

I couldn’t bear to think those thoughts, never mind to actually do any of that. I couldn’t do anything that might make my body relax. That’s the physicality of grief. Emotion is the body’s response to what the mind is thinking; and thinking, knowing, that Philip was dead caused such violent emotional plummeting that all I could do was tuck myself into the corner of my couch and make myself into a taut little ball. Hold on for the goddamn bloody ride. Pull myself further and further in, like if I made myself small enough there’d be less of me to feel.

Living without Philip is now my work. Not figuring out my job or “career” or being man-less or how much money I make.  Those are the details. There isn’t one answer to how I’m supposed to integrate the loss of my son into my life. It’s not the kind of work that ever gets finished. One year and two months later, I still don’t know what it looks like, and I am still as scared as all fucking hell.

© 2013 Denise Smyth


I was playing around with some photos, and without realizing it, I published the page. I had a little more to say about them, but since they’re up, here they are, for now; there aren’t many, but the first is a portrait of Philip taken six months before he died. He is my angel…is it that one, or the last, when he was so little, that breaks my heart more?  There is no “more,” I guess. It’s all of a piece.

© 2013 Denise Smyth