When We Connect (Part 3)

Last year, holiday time, Max was on my mind, seemed to be all around me. I’m not even sure what I was thinking about him – just some sense of him, along with something vaguely disturbing. Driving home on a late Friday afternoon, I heard Philip say, “Call him.” In that heart-racing-stomach-clenching moment I knew that’s what I had to do. The rest of the way home I had time to think about it. I wasn’t sure what to say…I could wish him happy holidays, tell him I was thinking about him…I could tell him I wasn’t angry, ask him what he’s been up to…but most importantly, I had to understand that I could not expect a Kumbaya moment out of this. I’d love for us to bond over my love and good will, but I couldn’t call him for that reason. No expectations, I warned myself. I’m doing this because it need be done. Period.

Good thing I warned myself. When I called, Max was withdrawn, hesitant. He didn’t say much, not when I tried to chat about what he was doing, certainly not when I told him I wasn’t mad at him, that he was part of Philip’s life and that meant something. Not sure what to do with his awkwardness, I ended the phone call as gently as I could. But I was there for it. I was there for the discomfort of the call mixed with the lightening of a load I wasn’t aware I was carrying. And even though I’d failed at getting Max to open up, I was left with the quiet excitement of being in life.

I told Natalie about it, and she said I had no idea what effect I’d had on Max. Maybe nothing now, maybe something. And if nothing now, maybe one day years from now, a more mature Max would think of this and be relieved. He was, after all, the one who found Philip, the one who felt guilty for introducing him to heroin in the first place. But as I told him when he cried to me at the wake, he didn’t stick it up Philip’s nose and he can’t spend the rest of his life feeling guilty about it.

I offered Max absolution I don’t believe I have the power to give. I am not God. But I am Philip’s mother and as such have a power I don’t often understand. Forgiveness is a tricky thing. If I truly believe you did something wrong, how can I forgive? It feels so high-handed – I’ve decided you’ve sinned and now I will absolve you. But what word is there for what that was? I was freed from a resentment that I didn’t realize was background noise. I’ve no interest in Max suffering – if I knew his suffering it would only add to mine. So if forgive is the word for what I did, then the definition has to be “freed from resentment.”

And then there are those moments – time stops and all there is is what you know. It’s not intellectual – it’s the deep wisdom within, finally, elusively, surfacing. Shattering the monkey mind, however briefly. Why can’t I live in the light of that? Maybe it’s just too bright to be constant. Maybe if it was, I’d burn.

Or maybe I’m just too afraid.

The first year after Philip’s death I was still living with Nadiya. One Sunday night I was in the first floor bathroom, Natalie was up on the third floor, the floor where we lived. Looking in the mirror, I felt a pain in my chest – it was toward the left side and for a moment, I shivered. What if I was having a heart attack? I didn’t believe I was – more likely gas. But I took the opportunity to act it out. I’d been saying how much I wanted to die…what if this really was a heart attack? I bent over and let the pain take over, let myself believe my heart was giving out. Then the shock of reality – Natalie needed me. She needed me. She was not ready for me to die. Her world would be shattered and I could not do that to her. She mattered – she was all that mattered. I stood up to a world that had shifted. Could I? Could I not? Clarity is a shock that humbles. I can’t say I never thought that I wanted to die since then – but I can say I never thought it without seeing Natalie along with it.

Then this. I’ve been watching “House.” If you’re not familiar with the show, House is a doctor in a hospital whose team diagnoses patients with puzzling illnesses. And I can’t watch a show about a hospital without envying the patients. This is an old, old habit. In my fantasy, there is relief in not having to do anything but let the staff take care of me. In fact, when I was a teenager and my friends talked of their fear of giving birth, I’d tell them, I’ll have the babies, you’ll raise them. Because that fantasy also involved a hospital – there I’d be, resting in bed, surrounded by flowers, for just a short bit of time being relieved of the burden of living.

Except that’s not where relief lies. Relief lies in realizing truths. Watching House one day, the shock of what being ill really means hit me. These people were sick. Their lives were on hold, their bodies were out of control. They were frightened. They could become disabled. They could die. And so another fantasy turned inside out, another opportunity to live in truth.

Apparently that particular truth took some kind of hold. Because the next day, outside walking, there rose a thought that was odd and strange and alien to all the things I’ve been thinking since Philip died. I say “rose” because it came from my gut, not from my head. And the thought was this: I am not ready to join him.

For a moment I had faith. Until the murmuring mind began. Are you sure? What if you have 20 years ahead of you? Can you live that long without him? Can you really make that commitment? Do you know what you’re getting into? And Philip chiming in to remind me, Mom, I am right here.

I could go on about the way I struggle with the past in the present, I could say that that’s the voice that always takes over…and maybe it is, but its motivation is something I haven’t explored, something I hadn’t even considered because I didn’t understand what it really was: Survivor Guilt.

And next time I’ll be reckoning with it.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

When We Connect (Part 2)

Grief is a spiral, not a line that goes from here to there. There is no “there,” only here. I still bristle when I hear people talk of “moving on,” though I know it’s said out of a naiveté about death. I am not nostalgic for that time in my life, when death was a concept, not an experience. I have no wish to be innocent. That’s what I love about a wide-eyed child, a nursing baby, a puppy, a kitten – their purity and innocence. Maybe why I ache for them is because it won’t last. Life will make sure of that. Whatever I’ve gone through has been inevitable, and none of it is anything I want to go through again.

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

What is it that happens when we feel the relief of connection with others? I talked about that in my last. I think what happens when we feel that close to someone is that we recognize something within ourselves. We feel our worth, our value; we feel love. To feel that love is to understand that is what we’re here for. If we can feel that through another, then we know it exists within – and so we feel connected to ourselves. But how strange is that – when I feel love, I feel connected to my-self. So who is the I, and who is the self? Am I two, or am I one? I think of the “I” as the watcher, the constant presence. It’s different from my personality, from my reactions. It is the presence that observes what I do and what I feel. Think about it. Think about the past. When you do, you’re remembering moments that occurred in time. But the “I” that is remembering is outside of time – it is always there and has always been.

As a human being I am subject to rules and conventions. As a spiritual being I have an aspect that’s timeless and changeless, where the laws of this world do not apply. It’s up to me how to integrate these two. It’s up to me to take that spiritual dimension as seriously as I take my humanity.

I’ve had moments that are breaks with the world as I see it. A truth is realized, there’s a shift in perception. And a shift in perception of the world is a relief. Those moments connect me to life and do not necessarily require the presence of another. The question, then, is do I trust enough to take the risk of belief? My ego is not so keen on truth.

I have a niece who died from brain cancer. I wrote a bit about it here. Nicole was only four years old. She’d developed a rare cancer that at the time had only been seen in 60 children in the country, all of whom died. The doctors tried an experimental protocol with her – remove the tumor, then four months of chemo followed by a bone marrow transplant. Three months later the cancer was back. In another three months she was dead.

After that, trying to find some perspective about death, I started to read “Who Dies” by Stephen Levine. I did not consider that one day I would be in the same position as my brother – I was simply trying to understand. At the time, I lived in a large five-room apartment in Brooklyn. This particular day I was in the back of the apartment, in my bedroom, reading Levine. Outside my bedroom was the hall that led to the kitchen, where my mom, who had come to visit, was cooking. Philip, then four, and Natalie, about one-and-a-half, were in the living room watching TV.

It was a winter evening; such a lovely word for the transition between day and night. There’s a mental winding down, a break from the day’s madness. Lying on my bed reading, I could hear the vegetables being chopped, the furious boiling of the water as it waited impatiently for the pasta. The sounds of being taken care of – for just a while I could be the child, waiting for my mother to have dinner ready.

In his book, Levine has a Tibetan meditation on the process of dying. You imagine yourself dying, imagine your body dissolving. So I laid on my back, closed my eyes and relaxed, let go of my body until it no longer felt like pretending. That’s when I started to panic. I was too deep in the darkness to come out of it. All I could think of was my kids. Who was going to raise my kids? My husband would work it out, but no one would love and tend to them like me. Wait, stop – I can’t die yet. They’re going to grow up – I’m not going to see them grow up. This can’t be happening. Except it seemed to yes, really be happening and I could not control it. They were slipping away too quickly and my arms were not long enough to reach them.

Yet in an instant there was a shift. I took a breath and let go. What was happening to me was happening. No point arguing. My children would be fine. My time had come and they were no longer my responsibility. My work was to take the risk of letting all that I knew go, because there was no other way. And I did and I knew peace – the peace of being with what is so. The great and willing leap into the darkness. Swiftly it came, and swiftly it went.

When I have to die, that is the way I want to go. The practice is here, now. The non-resistance of the circumstances of my life. Accept it, leave it, or change it. I recognized that moment of peace, and I have had many since. But swiftly they come and swiftly they go. That great peace of just being. Of breathing. And that is the way to deal with Philip’s death…but that is a darkness I’m still arguing with.

Next, Part 3.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

When We Connect (Part 1)

“There are no rules for friendship. It must be left to itself. We cannot force it any more than love.”
William Hazlitt (1778-1830) British essayist.

A song I’ve recently listened to ends with the line, “There’s nothing in this world that’s holier than friendship.” I disagree. Try to define friendship. There’s a certain general meaning to it, but we each experience it differently. Some people are comfortable calling even casual acquaintances “friends.” What’s holy about that? Some people accumulate friends to fill a hole that only grows larger as they try to stuff it. Many try to be friends with the rich and powerful because it feels good to say you know someone who most of us have only heard of. And there are people like me, who are touchy and careful and scared to use that word. What if I call someone my friend and they don’t like me? I can only call you my friend if I am sure.

I’m going to use the word “soul” here, even though using that word other than in the context of, say, “food,” gives me the creepy crawlies. But it expresses a concept that I have no other word for. So when I say “soul” I’m referring to that holy, sacred, untouchable and often inaccessible place we experience inside ourselves. Simply put, it’s our better nature revealed.

Monday night I went to my writing group at Nancy’s house. We usually start with her reading something that’s caught her attention, a thing of the spirit. That night she read us someone’s take on what he called, “soul friends.” I had a conversation with Philip about something akin to this. Mom, he said, I know you don’t like the term “soul mate” but I have to use it. He told me that people have the mistaken idea that soul mates are romantic relationships, that they last forever. That can be so, but not always. A soul mate is someone who moves you deeply, challenges you, changes you in ways unexpected. And it’s not only through kindness and wisdom. You can have that connection with someone who moves you deeply, then hurts you terribly. It is the quality of the connection that determines the soul of it.

These relationships aren’t made. They are recognized. And that recognition reveals truths. The person in this world I am closest to, who knows me best, is Ed. I met Ed when I was about 40 and had gone back to college. He was my English professor for a Shakespeare class. He started the class sternly. He told the young men to remove their baseball caps. He went over the syllabus, laid out the rules. He talked about missing classes and missing assignments. Shit, I thought, this guy is serious. The he picked up Romeo and Juliet, walked out from behind his desk, gave a small, knowing smile and said, “Now. Let’s read some Shakespeare.”

That was my moment of recognition. I knew he was the teacher I’d been waiting for. Understand this had nothing to do with sex – it could sound like the older-professor-young-adoring-student thing, but that is a caricature of what I have with Ed. What I was after was his mind, his wisdom. I worked hard in that class, and continued to take classes with him. Our relationship developed over the years. It was simple and intimate. Ed knew who he was, and somehow, he knew who I was, too. He lived in Bloomfield, and when I moved from New York to Montclair I was a ten minute drive away. We began to spend more time together. I was restless and unhappy, but when I spent time with him my pieces all fit together. I used to joke that I wanted to move in with him. And I practically did, when Philip died. I’d spend long days with Ed and his wife, Franny. I’d sleep there, get up early to go home and walk my dogs, then go right back to his house. He was my home.

Then there was M. A writer, a poet. Someone I got to know through email, which is a story for another time. We had so much to say to each other, we were so easy together. He, too, felt like home and I fell deeply in love with him. At the time, he was my heart. That was my breakout relationship – because of him, I was catapulted out of whatever it was that bound me. I became a sexual being, I started to like myself because I saw myself through his eyes. When he left I was wrenched, but the gifts I’d discovered remained.

And, of course, my son. It is comforting to say that: my son. It reminds me how much a part of me he is – my son. He is unquestionably my soul mate. When I put my life together, look at it more as a whole, I see the unexplainable experiences I’ve had with Philip. Starting with the time I woke up in the middle of the night to hear the words, “You’re pregnant.” Next day I found out I was. And these things I’m talking about are too real for me to doubt my connection to him. When he was here, I felt how much he loved me and I do not easily feel love from the way I feel love for. He watched me, he paid attention. Such comfort I took from him. I didn’t have to call him or see him, I just had to think of him to feel the way he protected me. Kinda like the way it is now.

Philip is teaching me about death – and no one person has wrenched my soul as he did when he died. I saw Truth in all it harsh and terrible glory. But this theme of death was there from an early age. In the month Philip was to turn two, his grandfather died. I decided to take him to the wake. He has to know death, I thought. He shouldn’t be afraid of it. Getting ready for the wake, in my kitchen at our apartment in Brooklyn, I got down on my knees, took Philip by the shoulders, and said, “Philip, we’re going to see Grandpa Bill. He’s going to be lying down and he’s not going to get up. Is that okay with you?” I wasn’t sure how much he understood. But a little bit later, after I dressed him, then stood him on the kitchen table to fuss with his outfit, I said, “Philip, do you know where Grandpa Bill is?” With no thought or hesitation, he raised his arm, pointed to the ceiling, and said, “In the light.”

After Philip died, I went to the bedroom in the house he lived in to clean it out. I grabbed some of his notebooks to take home. Months later, when I felt ready to look at them, I found an essay he had started. His assignment must have been to write about childhood memories. He wrote a paragraph describing the apartment we lived in, then he wrote this: “When I was four, my parents took me to my grandpa’s funeral. At first I was scared, but then I saw everybody laughing and I felt better.”

He was not four. He was not yet two. But he remembered.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

On Trust, Love and Death

Dee over at Always Remembering Amy wrote a post about trusting life that got me thinking. First a word about her. She is amazingly kind and compassionate – and she’s a giver. I love and admire this woman whom I’ve never met and probably never will. She knitted a prayer shawl for me, which I cherish; and when Pippin died she sent me a condolence card. She breaks my heart for her suffering. I wish I could take it from her but it’s not up to me to say what people should go through. I am not God.

I’ve never trusted life. I’ve lived in deep argument with it, like it was something outside myself, a dark and implacable presence hovering over me. Philip died when I was finally learning how to make peace with it. How to make peace with myself. The argument was being absorbed by a slow and steady knowing. When I stopped resisting I felt full and calm. Like I’d been an outline of a character in a coloring book that someone – that I – finally filled in.

That’s what Philip wants from me. That’s the work he meant I needed to keep doing when I heard him say, “Mom, you gotta go deeper.”

Life is benign – in that, I trust. I don’t think it “does” things to me because that implies I’m the center of the universe. I am not singled out – it’s not personal. Awful, horrible, terrible things happen to people all the time. Some of them we cause, some of them just are. Our worst tragedies involve death; but since death is an absolute, we need to find a way to reckon with it. I can say Philip shouldn’t have died, but who am I to say what should happen and when? Of course, that doesn’t change the fact of my grief. The way I think about his death creates the way I feel about his death. Sometimes I make it worse by telling myself I will never get out from under this. That is my monkey mind dancing in the graveyard. There is a difference between the stories I tell myself about Philip’s death and just feeling what it feels like to have lost him that way.

None of this means I think I don’t have trials ahead of me. “Trial” doesn’t nearly get at the depth of what I deal with every day because my son – my son – has died. Never have I known this kind of desolation. And I’m not safe from having more of it. I have a daughter – it is entirely possible that she, too, can die before me. Yet I don’t worry about Natalie – it’s not in my nature to do so, and Philip’s death hasn’t changed that. I am simply saying it because it’s true. If you think death is something you need to be shielded from, you will one day find there is no protection from it. So maybe we have to stop looking at it as the tragedy we feel it is.

We are all going to die. Every single one of us. How do we live in the face of that? You can spend your life worrying about it, you can try to acquire power, money, friends and possessions to avoid it, you can make every day count because of it.

Or, like me, you can be confused and unsure how to live with it and maybe make a hobby of withdrawing. At least for some of the time. I do well at work, am able to enjoy other people. I laugh when something’s funny. I love. But I also feel deeply alone and grieved and just don’t know what to do with myself. I mean that literally. I don’t know what it is I want to do when I have time to myself. I write, I knit, I mourn. But I’m restless and unhappy. I have a sense there’s some next step and I can’t see what that is or what it is that’s holding me back.

I need stay present to Philip’s death, which means not to resist it. It means gratitude for the connection I have with him, for his loving presence and the way it manifests every day. Except it’s difficult to remain there when a whole chunk of me feels gone, when I feel so deeply and irrevocably alone. When I feel like I need but I don’t know what I’m looking for. Maybe it’s because when I am not in the presence of someone I love, I lose all connection to them. Funny how I can remain connected to Philip who’s gone and died, but feel so distant from Natalie the minute she walks out the door. Every time I see her there’s a shock of love, a relief from my thoughts. You’d think I didn’t see her often, but I live with her. We spend a good amount of time together. She is who got me through the worst of Philip’s death, tending to me until I could begin again to tend to her.

There is only one thing that needs to change for me if I really want to find some peace. And that is my relationship to my thoughts. I am not my thoughts, I am the thinker of those thoughts. I can learn to recognize the background noise in my head and dismiss it, I can look at the stories I tell myself and change them. It’s believing the clamor in my head that keeps me bound and helpless.

Eckhart Tolle says it simply: “The more you make your thoughts and beliefs into your identity, the more cut off you are from the spiritual dimension within yourself.”

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Let It Be

When Philip was in high school, he was in the CGI program – Civics and Government Institute. Part of the core curriculum focused on learning how government worked. They’d do things like enact congress – the kids would write bills, present them, have them voted on. It wasn’t a program the kids tested into. If you were interested you applied, and as long as there was enough room, you were accepted.

At the end of the year there was a CGI dinner for the kids and their families. There would be a guest speaker, along with a question-and-answer period after the presentation. The year Philip was a senior the speaker was Andrew Rosenthal, editor of the New York Times editorial page.

I’m going to inject some politics, mostly for background. There was a time I was intensely political, followed the news and argued about it. Until I began to realize that the arguing was about being right and I was never right enough in spite of how certain I was that my “opponent” was wrong. Until I realized how deeply personal these national and global arguments really were. Take a position, identify with it and it becomes part of who I am. I can’t be wrong then, because if I am, I don’t exist. No matter how much worse than ever in history we think things are, how much more vindictive and out of control we insist the “other” side is, the fact is that we’ve been having the same argument over and over again forever. The content changes, but the form is the same. We write off most of the rest of the world because we’re so sure our side has it right.

And I think that when time comes to die, we will be comforted by how much we loved, not how much we were right.

The CGI dinner is not supposed to be political – it’s a family affair. Unfortunately, no one told Andrew Rosenthal. Obama had just been elected president, and a supremely smug Rosenthal started by telling us about his love affair with the new president, then went on to bash John McCain, made a sexist joke about Sarah Palin, disparaged Republicans in congress and then Republicans in general. He was playing to an audience of which I’d say 90% agreed with him. And you’ve probably figured out by now that I was part of the unpopular 10%.

Listening to Rosenthal, I was fuming. I leaned over to say something to my husband,  who replied, “You can’t be mad.” Really? Well, I was mad. That’s when I looked over at Philip’s table to see he was watching me with a smile. He put his hand flat out, palm down, about eye level and slowly lowered it. Smiling back, I mimicked him – his attention took the edge off.

If we’re lucky, we meet people in our lives who know us in ways most others don’t. They see us, they get us. And having felt invisible for so much of my life, I’ve been touched and grateful for those few who I’ve felt that connection with. Philip was one of them. It’s not because he’s my son – we can love our children like no other, but the connection I’m talking about isn’t a given with them. That kind of connection is a mystery. It’s either there or it isn’t, and when it’s there, we recognize it.

When I’m in the mood, I sit down and take dictation from Philip. It’s not odd or weird or seance-y. It doesn’t require candles or incense. It started as an exercise given to me from a grief group for parents I was part of after Philip died. I wrote about it here. And here’s a little story. After doing that exercise, I thought it might be something I should do on my own, but for a while, I didn’t. I felt confused about it – I didn’t know how to start. One day I was driving and thinking about it. How do I do this, Philip, I asked? Do I write a sentence, then listen for your response? Do I just sit and listen for you? Do I ask a question? As I was thinking, I stopped for a red light. I looked at the license plate on the car in front of me. Besides whatever numbers were on it, the letters there read, ASK.

So I had my start. One day when I was writing and listening, Philip started telling me about soulmates. Mom, he said, I know how much you dislike that term, but I need to use it. He went on to explain that people have the wrong idea about soulmates – they tend to think of them as romantic relationships, but that’s not necessarily what they are. A soulmate is someone who causes a deep and disruptive shift in your consciousness. And it’s not always in a kind and gentle way. I can think of three people who’ve caused that kind of disruption. One was the teacher I’d been looking for all of my life, and we are still close and dear friends. One opened me up by causing me what I thought at the time was the worst pain of my life. And then there’s Philip, this child I’m connected to like no other.

So why the struggle? Philip’s death purified that connection. He’s not in his body, he’s no longer an ego, he can’t disappoint, he doesn’t argue, he’s nothing but love. I’m closer to him than ever. He’s around me in ways that weren’t possible while he was alive. I am amazed and grateful for what he reveals to me. Why can’t I let that fill me more? I’ve written much about the ways I now experience him. Why can’t I let it all seep in, fill the holes and cracks I still suffer from his death? I’ve been flatlining lately, wanting to keep to myself, but so unhappy while I do so. Looking at Philip’s picture, the only feeling I can identify is resignation, defeat. He’s really – truly – not coming home and his loving presence gets lost from wanting to see him.

It just sounds so terrible to say Philip died. My stomach and chest still tighten to even think that. I’m still in the aftermath of his death, still experiencing the shockwaves. Still sometimes feel like I’m dreaming – like there’s something about this I’m supposed to grasp but I can’t. I still hold my breath – and if there’s something to “do” about this, maybe that’s it. Remember to breathe, send that breath to my chest, let it open my heart. Slow it down, let it be.

Since he’s really – truly – not coming home, maybe I can try to let it be.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

The Loop

Natalie’s birthday is the Fourth of July – she was born around 9:00pm, when the fireworks start, so I always say she came out with a bang. And that she did – she burst out and tore me open so my midwife had to stitch me up. What different births I had for these two who were born at home – Philip my winter child, Natalie, my summer. With Philip, labor was slow and steady, the pain mounting and tormenting. With Natalie the pain reached its peak quickly, stayed there longer. With Philip I couldn’t sit, with Natalie I couldn’t stand. With Philip my water broke before I went into labor. With Natalie, at nearly nine centimeters dilated, my water was intact. I can break your water and you’ll have your baby, my midwife told me. I was on my couch and thought I wanted to stay there; with Philip I wanted to be in my bed. Do it, I told her; I’m staying right here. So she did and then I panicked – I have to be in my bed, I have to, I told them. “Them” being my midwife, my friend Marilyn, my sister-in-law Ann, my husband. So Marilyn and Ann each took hold of an arm to walk me to my bed. I had a contraction on the way and would have collapsed but for them. Get her to the bed before this baby’s born on the floor, my midwife ordered.

When I started pushing Philip there was a period of relief from the pain; with Natalie it was relentless. When Philip’s head finally popped out, my contractions stopped and I had no energy to push. With Natalie my midwife told me to stop pushing but I couldn’t – hence she exploded into the world and then into my arms.

With Natalie, I needed stitches. With Philip, I didn’t.

I’d never known physical pain like the pain of childbirth. Nature makes sure we don’t remember it – we might know it’s awful, but we can’t re-feel it.  If we could, there’d be a whole lot less babies born. But that pain was nothing compared to the psychic pain of Philip’s death, which also – mercifully – can’t be remembered, at least not at that all-consuming, eviscerating zenith. I don’t know how I bore it. I can say the same about childbirth, but at the end of it, there was my baby. It’s been suggested that going through Philip’s death can become my own birth. I don’t disagree with that…but it doesn’t comfort. I’m certainly not the same as I was. But I’m not at peace, and it’s hard to imagine I will ever really feel okay. It felt hard enough to be here before he died. Three-and-a-half years later, I’m still mixing up grief with the deep unhappiness I had before. I have not learned how to get out of my own way.

Phil had a party at the house for Natalie on her birthday. My mom was there, my in-laws, a few of Phil’s friends, a few of Natalie’s. It’s what we do every year. This year, while I was there, I wandered into Philip’s room for a while. His two bureaus are now Natalie’s and are at my apartment – other than that, his room is as he left it. It needs to be cleaned up, it needs to be gone through. I looked through some things, touched his books, wondered what it would take to sort each thing piece by piece, to make decisions about what to get rid of. Three-and-a-half years later and I can’t imagine spending the time it would take to do that, nor can I imagine Phil making those decisions without me.

I don’t think I said a word about Philip that day. Except when I told Phil that I missed him. “Miss him” falls far short of what I really mean. There was a time I’d be upset because no one talked about Philip. Now I don’t know what I would say. I don’t even want to say. No amount of talking is going to bring him back, and I struggle to find the words for the magnitude of this. My silences both hurt and comfort. I still feel different, still don’t understand the world the way others do. I still sometimes want to say, Do you know my son died?? Yet I’m also glad not to talk about it, to hold this close and keep watch.

I’ve been in Philip’s room since he’s died, but this last time hit me hard. I’m stuck – life seems to have a sameness that’s difficult to bear. I look at Philip’s picture and see that “sameness.” He will never get older, never look any different. The rest of it – of life – is up to me. Lately I haven’t the heart for it. I do what I have to do, but enjoying myself isn’t easy. I read, I write, I knit – but I lose my concentration awfully fast, even if I’m trying to watch a movie or a show. I don’t want to go anywhere, can’t think of anything I’d want to do. I see Kirsten most Sundays and that’s one of the few things I look forward to. As well as when I spend time with Natalie. I feel better when she’s around, but she has a life of her own. And I’m grateful it’s a happy one.

I’ve talked of grief being a spiral, but lately it feels like a loop. Same thing, different day. And life’s been like a loop, too. I don’t remember feeling like this, not in a long time, and not since Philip died. That brings me to connection, which – in my last post – I said I’d be writing about, but haven’t yet. Feeling close and connected to others starts with feeling that way toward myself. Without that, I’m like a shirt that’s been mis-buttoned, each side missing the point. That’s why pleasure is absent, why the things that have sustained me through Philip’s death seem lost. I’m all body and no soul and to identify most with something so temporary leaves me restless and unhappy. As with all things I don’t want to feel, I ask, “What am I supposed to do with this?” Is there some action I’m supposed to take? Go out, exercise, call someone, take a trip, meditate? Wait, be patient, it’ll pass? I swear I’m missing some part that I can’t blame on Philip’s death, easy as that would be.

I just remembered something that I’d like to share here – it might be hard to come by, but even I can recognize joy when I see/hear it. Hope it makes you feel the same: Some joy to share

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Good Morning?

Ed has told me many times to go for the embarrassment. There is gold there, he says. And I am embarrassed about what I’m going to write, but I need to talk about it.

I work in a small office and all of us are around the same age. All of us have children around the same age. And for most of us, all those children are alive.

I can’t help but ache when I overhear my coworkers’ conversations about their sons. Of course I do. How grateful I am to have a daughter; I am that much less lonely. I love her deeply, and that love comforts. But one child cannot take the place of another. And when I hear talk of sons, my gut is like a magnet that pulls me in and away because I’m reminded it’s too sad of a world without Philip.

A couple weeks ago, Roger, Jack and Maggie’s son, came to work with us for a few weeks, until his summer internship started. Roger’s about 20 years old, tall and thin, just a touch of adolescence awkwardness left – a chest that still needs to fill out, calves that are thin and haven’t fully taken shape. Philip had just been past that stage, had come fully into his body. I remember his ascent into manhood, the shock of a hairy calf showing out from summer shorts that reminded me my child was no longer a child except in my heart.

I am an assistant. I do what I’m asked, and sometimes – rare times – there are personal things Jack and Maggie need done. I’ve been asked to do things for Roger. Cancel his gym reservation, try, and try, and then try again, to change his plane reservations during a time it was impossible to do so. And sometimes I have been resentful. I am doing things for this young man, this son, that I can never do for my own.

Watching Jack and Maggie tend to Roger when I can no longer do that for Philip – well, the loss of Philip’s physical presence overwhelmed in ways it hadn’t for a long time. I was reminded of the deep, deep bond that is family, the same bond that I know I still have with Philip – but to witness it in the flesh was devastating. I was back to crying in the bathroom, crying off the makeup I’d so carefully applied in the morning. It got so I had to heave myself out of bed from the psychic weight I was carrying.

And then this, because when I am in a state of loss, I know exactly how to turn the world against me:

Jack and Maggie are wealthy. They are also kind and unpretentious. But what I do in those dark and creepy places in my mind is equate all they have and all they give their children with their inherent goodness. Because I have less, I become less. That Philip died becomes a testimony to my inability to be a good mother and I feel shamed and cheapened.

Of course I know better. I’m at a point where I’ve never wanted less. I need to keep it simple. But this isn’t about mortgages and bank accounts. This is about having a dead son to whom I can give nothing. This is about me equating fiscal worth with spiritual worth which I thought I was long past, but apparently am not.

My co-worker Sandy works in the office next to mine. He’s there when I arrive, and every morning I stick my head in and say, “Good morning.” It took me a while to be able to do that – I’ve long wondered what was so good about morning when it’s the dark of night I crave. No matter. “Good morning” wasn’t about me. It was a gesture that felt good to make.

There are two desks in Sandy’s office, and Roger’s been sitting at one of them. The first few mornings I saw him there I walked past without a word. I could not speak because my stomach somehow made its way into my throat. I would’ve been ashamed except I was too busy feeling lost and invisible.

There’s not much of a happy ending here. But there was coming to reality. There was me finally able to speak to this young man, to make him into a person and not just a son. To “good morning” him every day because it felt better to do that than not. To create space to breathe where I was holding my breath. But how much grief in that space, how much sorrow.

I’m better, but still thrown. Grief’s like the ocean – the waves come in, the tide goes out. Sometimes it’s a gentle wave and I keep my sea legs, sometimes it’s tidal and knocks me out. And thank God sometimes the tide’s so far out I think I can bear this. These couple weeks were a knockout, for sure, and the psychic shift lingers. Could I have responded differently? Could I have said, oh, I am sad, I miss my son, I want him here because I need his hug and just let myself be? Where does that racket in my head come from, and how do I make it shut up?

I could start by listening to Philip, which I forget to do when I’m that low, the time when I need to listen most. “Let me be the voice in your head,” he says. Let me be the voice in your head.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

There Must Be

“There must be another way.”

(NB – on 5/29 I updated the links to A Course in Miracles, as I’d mistakenly put the wrong ones.)

And so began the birth of A Course In Miracles, the origin of which is as fascinating as the course itself. I won’t go into it because out of context it can be an eye-roller. I read the story of how it came to be as I was reading the Course itself – and though skeptical, I decided it didn’t matter where it came from or how it got here. It spoke Truth to me and that’s what mattered. And I’m talking about the serious Course in Miracles, not the watered-down Marianne Williamson version. I think she’s helped bring the Course to the attention of many; but I also think to begin to understand what it’s saying, one needs to turn to the Foundation For Inner Peace for help.

The Course is combination of three books – the text, the workbook and a manual for teachers. The workbook has a lesson a day for a year – I did it, but it took me much longer. Some lessons I lingered on, some days I skipped. If the purpose of the Course can be summed up in one sentence, “There must be a better way” is it.

If the Course taught me nothing else – and it taught me much – I came to understand that it is the way I look at things that creates my feelings, my very life. When something happens, it’s a fact – I perceive that fact and make a story. Like this: I’m driving to work, I hit the curb, my tire goes flat. I’m furious. I’m going to be late for work, I have to call AAA, I have to wait for them for God knows how long. I want to blame someone but there’s no one to blame so I blame myself for being a shitty driver, I blame the town for making the street so narrow.

So is the truth of this is that it’s a calamity? If I look at it from AAA’s view, it’s not a problem – it’s their job. If I look at it from my boss’ view, he knows I’ll be a late for work and he’ll go back to what he’s doing. I can sit and fume, but for what?? If a flat tire is inherently a calamity, then it must be a calamity for all. So if there must be another way to see this, what can that be?

I have a flat tire. I am not helpless. If I have to wait I can read or listen to the radio or sit and pay attention to where I’m at. I have discovered that when I give my full attention to whatever it is, I become interested. When I make room to breathe, the anxiety dissipates. And it’s not theoretical – I know what it’s like to sit and wait for AAA and I have spent the time enjoying it.

So you start with the small things to see how it feels and you come to see that that is the way. Then your kid dies and it all goes out the window because all you can think is Really? See this differently? Are you FUCKING KIDDING ME??

A  miracle, simply put, is a shift in perception. A Course In Miracles recognizes no difference in the degree of difficulty of that shift. But it takes major practice and willingness to see that other way. I say I want to feel better – is that so? When I think of my son dead, I have to wonder how much “better” I really want to feel. I am not talking about anything like “moving on” (the mantra of the unconscious and uninitiated) or forgetting. I am talking about my ability – my willingness – to join with life in the face of this most torturous death.

To see Philip’s death differently is to separate my riven heart from my shrieking mind, the mind that takes haunted voices from a troubled past and lets them speak of that which they know nothing about. My heart needs to put words on what this is because my heart doesn’t lie. I just need some quiet and patience to listen. And I’m not doing this alone. When Philip said, “Let me be the voice in your head” he was asking me to let him help me see things differently because that is the answer to the question, what can I do?

For months after Philip died I relived the moment I found out – the phone call telling me Phil had come, the knowing without another word being said, screaming down the stairs, crawling on the floor; My son, my son, my son my son. Over and over I would think about how I flew down those stairs, making myself sick and dizzy until one day I heard Philip: Mom, you don’t have to do that. Of course I didn’t. All I was doing was jackhammering my already raw and bloodied heart. So there was one, clear thing I could do. When I found myself on those stairs, I brought myself back to where I was, gave my attention to my surroundings. I tried to stop telling that story because my stories take me from life, which is only ever happening in the present.

What I’ve never been able to reconcile about “living in the present” is that Philip lived and died in the past, so am I supposed to forget?? But I think I’m starting to understand. It’s the past that’s gone, not my son. The past is memories of moments in time, and every moment in time becomes but a memory. Every word I write was a thought in my head a moment ago. Every moment is new until it isn’t. The future comes only as the present. And while Philip’s death can make my my life seem too long, when time comes to die I’m going to feel like it all went really, really fast.

Turning to the present from the dream of past doesn’t mean I leave Philip. He is not here as I want him to be and he’s not going to give me the future I had in mind. Such is my sorrow. But he is my love, my heart, my guide, my muse. He is here and he makes himself known. There are times I rest in that knowing…and there are times when it just isn’t enough. And too often lately it really isn’t enough. Next time I’ll talk a bit about why.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Just Like That

SPOILER ALERT – If you’re considering watching “Six Feet Under” do not read on. This is mostly about the ending and you do not want to read this unless you already watched it or you didn’t and you don’t care. I’m warning you away from this post because the show is just that good.

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I just finished watching “Six Feet Under,” a show I probably couldn’t have watched any sooner since Philip died and which didn’t upset me for the reasons I thought it might, but did upset me for others.

Death is profoundly fascinating. It’s taken Philip away in body – but it’s also made us closer, changed our relationship. Which doesn’t mean I wouldn’t rather this whole fucking thing didn’t happen. It just means that it has and I can’t change it. And since I can’t change it, I’m damn grateful for what’s between Philip and me. Still, I wasn’t sure how smart it would be to watch a show that starts every episode with someone dying. From three-week-old babies to toddlers to teens to whole families. We’re all going to die and SFU doesn’t shy from it.

It wasn’t those deaths that got to me. It was the way the show ended. It was five seasons of getting to know these characters, watching their craziness. And wanting them to change, to come to some recognition of the way they participate in their own dramas. Mostly, it didn’t happen. As a viewer, it was clear to me what they were doing “wrong” and how they should change. Especially Ruth, the mom. She was controlling and reactive and her daughter wanted to get away from her which is so not like Natalie that I wanted to take Ruth and shake her awake. This is how you do it, I wanted tell her. You don’t yell, you don’t threaten, you don’t manipulate. You talk to your kids because they’re people and their job isn’t to behave in a certain way so that you feel better.

The setting of SFU is a family funeral home in California. The dad, Nathaniel, who ran the place, has died. Nate, David and Claire are the grown children. David is gay and Keith is his partner. They adopt two kids and wind up making it work. Claire is the youngest, still in high school, a high strung and talented photographer. Nate is the oldest and only involved in the funeral business because the family needed his help after their dad died. We watch him in one unhappy marriage where his wife wound up disappearing until she turned up dead, then in another unhappy marriage to Brenda, his pregnant wife who he cheated on, then died right after the deed was done. Nate had a condition called AVM. It has to do with blood vessels in the brain. He was operated on during the show, and if you’re tuned into illness, you might have kept that AVM in the back of your mind. Or if you’re like me, you assumed it showed up as part of the drama and when it was gone, it was gone. So when the AVM returned and Nate woke up after a second operation, I thought all was well. It wasn’t. He never left the hospital. He lived long enough to tell Brenda their marriage was over, so she got to live with the fact that he cheated on her and was leaving her and didn’t give her the chance to try to talk him out of it.

It pissed me off that Nate found yet another woman he thought was going to save him, that he died and left both her and his wife to clean up his mess. Still, I was shocked and unsettled when David, who was dozing off in the hospital room with him after the operation, woke to the sound of flatlining and just like that, Nate was gone.

Just. Like. That.

So the end. A fitting, disturbing, perfect ending. We got to see how, years later, each of the main characters died. Keith had a job as security guard for an armored truck. He was in the back, opened the door to get out and two guys shot him. Dead. Just like that. David lived to be an old man, until one day he keeled over. Ruth had been lying sick in the hospital when she died, her long red-now-white hair fanned around her like a dying bush. Brenda was an old woman, sitting at home, talking to her brother, when she fell back dead against the couch. And Claire, Claire who lived longer than any of them, who lived to 102, was lying on her death bed, looking scared, looking through rheumy eyes at the photos on the wall, a lifetime of photos, of memories, all past and gone, she on her way to joining all she’d lost.

The end of the last episode was a race through time. And connecting the lives of these characters to their deaths was frightening and unsettling. So much drama, so much anger and tears and dysfunction and then they’re all dead. What was it for? What is life for when one day, just like that, you’re dead?  How disturbing to watch all that Keith and David went through to make a family, to pull it together, then BAM – Keith’s murdered and David and the kids have to live with it. For always. And the rest of them – after all that craziness, just like that, they’re gone. For days this left me disturbed. Because the only answer to “What is it for if we’re going to die” is to live well. And I don’t know how to do that.

The thing that makes it easier for me to accept Philip’s death, the thing that makes it so easy to communicate with him now, is the clarity that was between us while he was here. I said everything I had to say to him when I could. No regrets, no wishing I said or did something different. To have that clarity is to live well.

But I don’t know how to translate that into the bigger picture. Living well is not about the doing. It’s about the being. Philip and I did not do great things together. It’s the way we were together that lives on. Doing is pointless if it doesn’t come from being. Sounds like it should be the most natural thing in the world, but it isn’t. It’s the cause of so much unhappiness, this doing for the sake of doing, for the sake of winning, for the quest to be right, for wanting have the best and the most. Which we never will because wanting is a habit that having cannot satisfy.

I watched that last episode a second time before I wrote this. And what knocked me over was the scene that took place around the dinner table, where everyone was reminiscing about Nate and laughing at things he’d done when he was alive and that’s just it, when he was alive because his absence was the biggest presence in the room. Remembering him made him more gone. But forgetting was not only impossible, it wasn’t a consideration.

“Motherhood is the loneliest thing in the world,” Ruth said after her son died. Because the shock of a child dying leaves you in a place where you’re untouchable at a time when touch has never been needed more. You’re tumbling in your grief, hair flying and arms flailing and screaming screaming screaming but no one can hear. They were here, these precious children – how the fuck could they be gone, just like that?

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Sometimes

Sometimes. The word sings in my mind, so heartbreaking, so poignant. It reminds me of the good that doesn’t last, of the grief that comes and goes, of the way I miss Philip more at certain times. Living is odd and hard. But sometimes it isn’t, and if something comes along and I can enjoy it, I do. I absolutely do. Like the wedding I went to a couple weekends ago, in my red Indian-styled gown with its splashes of black, golden sparkles, crisscrossed back and sheer flowing bottom. Natalie came with me, my “plus-one” as people say, wearing my crimson Free People “French Courtship Slip” with its see-through top and layers-of-lace bottom. We danced all afternoon, danced until I was tired and breathless and then we danced some more. How joyful to let myself shimmy and spin, like I’d not a care in the world. And when I danced, I didn’t. I was with Natalie – what more, in those moments, did I need?

Sometimes I think things will bother me, but they don’t. The wedding was for my friend Pete’s son. We know each other from work, and he’s become like a brother. I wondered what it would be like, watching his son get married while mine has turned to ash. Watching Pete host this celebration was seeing another side of him, was seeing his kindness in action. To be part of this wedding that meant so much to him and his family was an honor. It wasn’t about me, and for that, I am grateful.

Sometimes I have a hard time with Pippin, my sweet and aging shih-tzu. I feel guilty about my impatience. I try to think how the world is for him – his sight and his hearing is almost gone. It must be like living in a tunnel – or not, because dogs sense differently and I’m looking at this from a human perspective. He’s on three medications for his collapsed trachea, won’t walk up or down stairs, and has taken to arguing with me when I take him out for a walk. It’s not that he can’t walk, it’s that he likes to pause and then go in his own direction which, of course is different than mine. He wears a harness now, and sometimes I have to drag him where I want him to go while he digs his paws down and does his best to refuse. So I’ve been practicing breathing around this. It’s just more change. If anyone’s arguing, it’s me. Why, for God’s sake? I’m trying to call a truce here, trying to walk slower, let him wander the snaking path he chooses instead of the straight line that I’m so fond of. See, he – like all – will die, and I don’t want my last memories to be of my impatience.

Sometimes I wonder why spring seems so troubling, why I keep the blinds down, why I don’t understand the joy people have when the weather is warm and sunny. Sometimes I wonder about this need to be alone, this resistance to leaving the house. Sometimes I have my groceries delivered so I don’t have to go out.  Grief needs room and I find that room in my solitude. Don’t pity me. I have my season – while others are cranky about winter, that is when I take comfort. I spend time alone because I choose to. And I’m not really alone just because no one else is here. I am the best of company, and Philip is right by my side.

Sometimes I hear people talk about the college their son is about to start or to graduate from, or the varsity sport that they play or the way they save/spend money or whatever things sons do around their families and I stop, I make myself small, I look down and away and I hear Philip say, “Mom, I’m here.” And I think that I, too, have a relationship with my son. It’s just not one most people understand so it isn’t something I often talk about. Which is the hard part. We all have a need to be visible. To be connected. You tell me a story about your son, I tell you one about mine. Somehow I don’t think injecting stories about receipts with numbers and clouds that turn into diamonds will go over too well. But that’s what makes my relationship with Philip so precious. It’s intensely personal – it’s my story and my dead son and no one can touch it. Sometimes I’m sad because I’m silent – but sometimes, most times now, I’m grateful for what I have and my secret is not a burden but a joy.

Sometimes I notice that Natalie is so little part of this blog. She is the one who teaches me about living while Philip teaches me about death. They are not separate. “Mom,” Philip said, “You have to look to Natalie for life – else all that I say will mean nothing.” But life in the wake of his death is tattered and confusing. Yet sometimes I think if I approached it with the intensity I approach death, what a wonderful world it could be.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

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