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 When I called, Max was withdrawn, hesitant.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


Those Next Days…

If you tell me that I have to move on from grief, that I have a life to live, that I can choose to stop feeling this as if grief has no value unless I kick its ass, I’ll stop listening because all you’re telling me is you don’t get it. You’re telling me you don’t know what else to say and if you say it nicely, I appreciate the gesture; if you say it impatiently I think that maybe you’re the one who can’t deal with it.  What’s it mean to think you can’t both grieve and live? No one moves on from grief. It’s part of you, like an arm or a leg. You don’t get cured, you get different. You’re forced to live more deeply – it’s either that, or go nutty. But as life is in constant motion and change, so is grief.

There was a time grief was loud and screeching; it chewed me up, then spit me out so it could chew me up all over again. Prometheus, bound. It made the world spin too fast for me to get my footing. So I sat on my couch, month after month, and let it do what it would. But sometime between then and now I stopped resisting it. That didn’t make it go away, but it did allow me to get to know it. Pain is terribly enhanced when we resist it – we might think we’re pushing it away, but since it’s immovable all we’re doing is letting it drain our attention and energy. I didn’t know that, then. Why talk of “not resisting?” I was that grief. Until time came when I felt more. Like love for Philip and love for Natalie. Take that love and add a bit of time, and what came to be was a grief that was more a partner than a bloodsucker.

I don’t learn the things I need to learn the easy way. That’s not how it works. I no longer hold on to grief, I commune with it. It’s hard. It hurts. It still grabs me when I’m not paying attention, still brings me to tears of a sudden. It still makes my gut raw and throbbing – and it keeps me vulnerable enough not only to hurt, but to feel the deep love in my life. For that, I am grateful. So I don’t run from it or pretend I can turn it off because I will cut off no part of myself that feels. Whatever it is.


Philip died snorting heroin. And what I found out later was he wasn’t alone. He was in his room with G, the kid who lived in the bedroom upstairs, the kid who left him there. I don’t know at what point, dead or alive. What I do know is that one year later G. himself died from an overdose.

Those days afterward – how did I survive them? How was I able to move around, to take care of things, to fall asleep? A couple days after the wake, Phil, Natalie and I had to go to Philip’s room to get his things. He lived in a house in New Brunswick near Rutgers with Max  and some other kids. And he spent a lot of time at his friend Austin’s house. Austin was urging Philip away from drugs and the tweakers he was hanging out with. And Philip was listening – he’d signed a lease and was supposed to move out at the end of the month. At the wake, Austin asked me if I wanted him to go straighten out Philip’s room. I knew the kind of mess Philip lived in. “Please,” I answered, “just don’t throw anything out.” I needed to get in and out of that bedroom quick as I could. No tears, no lingering – that was the room where he died. If I wanted to curl up with him around me I’d go to the bedroom he grew up in. The one with the rocket ship and stars that I painted on his closet door, with the plaid curtains and lampshade I made for him. The furniture I found at an estate sale, and the perfect hooked rug that was a steal at Marshall’s. I could crawl under his red denim comforter, stained with blood from the uncontrollable nose bleeds he had when he was growing up. And I’d hug his little dinosaur blanket, the one I made for him for his kindergarten nap time.

The night before I was supposed to go to Philip’s, I got a call from a furious Austin. “They robbed him. They actually went in his room and they robbed him. They took his stuff – his phone, his laptop, his Xbox. Everything was all over the place. I can’t believe they robbed him.”

A sponge can get so saturated that it can’t hold any more. The water washes right through while the sponge sits there, heavy and laden. I heard what Austin said. I understood what he meant. I knew I should be outraged. Instead I was numb, speechless. I told Austin we would be there next day and asked if he’d come meet us.

I didn’t know the kids Philip lived with. I knew Max, I knew of J., eventually came to know of G. I knew that right after Philip died, they cleared out of the house. At least for a while. J. had gone back to get something, saw a window had been broken, went into the house and saw Philip’s room had been robbed. No one else’s, just Philip’s. I spoke to J about it. “We all keep our rooms locked,” he said. “Philip’s was the only one that was open.”

Uh-huh. Like someone didn’t know Philip died, like someone didn’t use this as an opportunity. This sounds like I should be furious. I am not. At first I mourned the loss of his laptop. He’d been writing poetry and I wanted to read it. Philip was gone and they took another piece of him. Thing is, what kind of person does that? What kind of way is that to live? I hadn’t the capacity for anger, and so saw it differently than I might have. Nothing they took meant anything. So I didn’t have the poems – I still had my son. Who am I to condemn them? To live a life of preying on people is its own hell. You can’t get away with anything because life doesn’t work that way. Some people don’t get that until it’s too late. If I’m angry at these kids, I turn the situation into a drama and get sidetracked from what’s real about life  They are dreams, these dramas. And either I wake up now or death’ll come and do it for me.

Austin had straightened up Philip’s room again, but what I saw when I got there was a blur. I just wanted to hurry up and get rid of stuff before I started crazy screaming. I left his old bureau, got rid of a lot of his clothes (he had plenty more at home), grabbed any notebook he’d written in, took the Kindle Fire the thieves had missed. Took his sword and fencing helmets. His leather jacket and the parka I’d bought him for Christmas. But not his boots, his old, beat-up square-toed and very cool boots that were molded into the shape of his feet. Austin had been with him when he bought them, and he asked if he could have them. With love and gratitude I handed them over.

Funny how the thing that bothers me most is that I didn’t take his plaid flannel boxers. I could’ve worn them for pajamas, hung out at home in them. I could’ve cut them up and worked them into a quilt. The woman who taught me quilting had made a beautiful quilt from her boyfriend’s boxers. The odd and beautiful things that people make when inspired by love. I suppose you can make an an odd and beautiful life that way, too. Something to think about, for sure.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

It’s Over

“While you were lookin’ for your landslide
I was lookin’ out for you
I was lookin’ out for you
Someone’s lookin’ out for you”

Brandi Carlisle

That’s all it took to wreck me, because I’m like that with music again – I can’t listen to it because it touches deeply and anything that touches deeply hurts and twists into something to do with Philip. And I hear these words as an accusation. She knew what she was doing, but where was I? Was I looking out for Philip? Was does that even mean? Something was going on and I wasn’t paying attention. And maybe I never paid the right kind of attention. Sure I love, I adore, my children. But maybe love is not enough – sometimes saying “no” is required and I am not good at that. I was afraid to be in conflict with Philip because I might lose him. I have never understood that anger isn’t the end.

I thought that I never asked myself if I could have done something that would have kept Philip alive. I mean, I don’t go back to the days and weeks and months leading up to his death and wonder what I could have done differently. I don’t wonder why I didn’t take seriously all the times I saw Philip dead, that I never thought I was having a premonition. Even if I thought that, what could I have done? I can just see myself trying to convince Philip that he was going to die so he should…what? Be careful? Not go out for a while? Come live with me until the coast was clear? How bizarre would that have been? I used to wish I was psychic. But being psychic doesn’t mean you can preclude things. It doesn’t make you God, doesn’t mean you get to orchestrate your portion as if it’s separate from the whole. It’s a responsibility – maybe you can know or sense what’s coming, but I would not wish to know the crisis that was heading my way. If I’m grateful for anything, it’s that the way Philip, Death and I had a relationship since he was little is something I can piece together as I look back, not something I saw as foreboding when it was happening.

When Philip died I felt responsible – not for some particular thing I did or didn’t do, but because I am his mother and I didn’t protect him. It matters not how he died – this is what a parent feels. And when Phil showed Philip’s autopsy to a doctor and was told that it’s not likely that Philip died from the amount of drugs in his system, that he probably had something like an undetected  heart condition, well, that made me feel worse. He came from my body – could I not make a child that was whole and healthy?  I did everything right when I was pregnant – I ate well, exercised, gained the right amount of weight. I had home birth because I would not deliver myself into the hands of a hospital staff I didn’t know or trust and who might interfere with a process they were taught to see as a health hazard. I nursed Philip for a year and a half, made his food when he started eating. I didn’t feed him meat because I see it as cruel and unnecessary, never gave him milk because it’s a myth that that’s something children need. They’re not calves, for God’s sake. What did I do any of that for? So he would grow strong and healthy. So he wouldn’t die. Isn’t that why we do the things we do for our children – so they won’t die? And if, after all that, his body was inadequate, how could it not be my fault?

I really like to say I don’t bother myself about what I did or didn’t do for Philip, because it makes no sense to do that. I know what I’m supposed to do. I’m supposed to figure out how to live with his death because to argue about it is crazy. It’s a terrible struggle enough without torturing myself about the past. Except that’s where grief’s led me. Back to the bitter, hopeless tears, to the helpless horror, to the inability (real or imagined) to say what this is and the goddamn rage and loneliness that comes from that. If I can’t say it, then what is left?

I think I skipped a step. Yes, the work is living with Philip’s death. But I haven’t finished with the part about if I’d done something different. And not in any particular moment, but in the way that I was Philip’s mother. I’m full of self-loathing because of the ways I stood back, the ways I didn’t say no, the ways I wasn’t strict either because it’s not in my nature or because the older Philip got, the less right I felt I had to tell him what he couldn’t do. But did I give that right up too easily?

People die for all kinds of reasons. There isn’t one story for each “kind” of death. Getting shot doesn’t mean you’re a criminal, getting cancer doesn’t mean you didn’t take care of yourself, snorting too much heroin doesn’t mean your mother wasn’t good enough. But that’s my mythology: the mother who meant well but let it slip away because she felt helpless. And my touchstone was the family across the street from us with the mother who was strict, had rules, and was not going to let her children get away from her. Her son and daughter were smart, polite, respectful and always – even in their jeans – carefully dressed. No weird and menacing black t-shirts, no Converse so worn their soles were split. I am so sure that these children grew into responsible young adults with serious interests and quiet, envious careers. Because that’s what their mother insisted.

All this, about a woman I never even met. But she haunts me, this fairy-tale Mother. She lurks around the dark and slimy mess I think my life’s become. Which is crazy and irrational because my daughter adores me, there are people who love me, my job is a dream and I am finally writing and taking the risk of pushing the “publish” button when Im done.

It’s over. Philip’s childhood is over, and I had all of it. Whatever kind of “mom” I was, he died loving me and he is right here protecting me. That’s the reality of now, not the story I tell of the kind of mother I was. It’s time to end that one, for sure. I am a writer; why can’t I do this? Because endings are hard. It’s why this post has taken weeks to write. I don’t know how to end it any more than I know how to end that story.

Why can’t I just say, It’s over?

© 2014 Denise Smyth

The Reason (Suicide, Part 3)

“I keep one foot out the door, and that’s suicide by increments.”
Rob (played by John Cusack) in “High Fidelity”

And that, right there, is the problem. I’ve a lead foot out the door and I think it’s soldered there. There’s an uncertain fear I live with and don’t care to define. Ed’s done it for me: “You are afraid to live because you think you’ll lose Philip.” But what does it mean to live, I want to ask him; show me how. He’d only shake his head because really, what else could he do? He can’t show me how to live because life isn’t given you by someone else, and if you think it is, it isn’t yours and you’ll wind up resentful, angry and either half-alive or half-dead, depending on the way you look at such things.

I keep thinking that living means having oh-so-many friends and taking fabulous vacations and talking on my cell when when I’m not texting on my cell and Facebooking, Twittering, Instagramming and “connecting” whatever latest way the internet’s figured out how to keep us glued to each other 24/7 because God forbid we should spend too much time considering. Life. Death. Meaning. WTF. It’s exhausting. But that’s not what Ed means by living. He means taking my foot out that door, which has to do with being, not doing. That still gives me only a vague idea of what it means to be in life. And what I see when I come close to sensing what living means is that I’m afraid if I’m not shaming myself, then someone else will do it for me. Somehow, that foot out the door feels like protection.

Hecht writes, “When a person dies, he does wrenching damage to the community.”  And, as Hamlet says of suicide, “ay, there’s the rub.” He’s talking of his uncertainty that death is any kind of end; I’m talking of what happens to those left in the wreckage of a loved one’s suicide, as well as the collective impact. Living carries responsibility with it, which includes taking seriously my effect on other people. I have to tell myself this because I don’t know it. I know I love Philip and I know I love Natalie; what I don’t know is how much I matter to both of them. Nor do I seem to “get” what I mean to other people.

And I think people who kill themselves don’t get what they mean to others. I’ve heard suicide called “selfish.” That’s a cruel, shallow, ignorant and cliched way to describe someone who’s in such devastating pain that it overwhelms consideration of anyone else. For  many, it’s almost like there is no one else because it feels like no one can help and no one really cares, not really. Because it doesn’t penetrate. Because  when you look around it seems like everyone else’s figured out this thing called life while I’m some solitary freak who can’t even find any other solitary freaks to commiserate with. I mean, what is it that keeps people wanting to live? It’s got to be love, doesn’t it? For people, for art, for work that is satisfying; for nature and its mysteries. That feeling of aliveness where you’re engaged in what you’re doing or who you’re with and there you are, being.  But what if you can’t feel anything but the lack of it all, the “Why?” that has no answer?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but my experience can’t be unique. I’ve wanted to die because I couldn’t feel love from anyone out there. I mean, I could feel love toward certain people – most deeply and particularly my children – but it didn’t feel reciprocal. When they were little, in my worst moments I would tell myself that I would kill myself when Natalie turned 16, because by then she wouldn’t need me any more.  She’d be well on her way (where the hell did I think she was going?), I’d be one more thing out of her way. Dead mom? Blip in the road, a stumble with quick recovery, then back to it like I wasn’t really there in the first place.

I believed this.

“We are all members of society,” Hecht writes, “and these connections are to be honored.” She says suicide creates more suicide. So I think about this. I think about the way Philip died – it was an accident. And I think of what I went through when I first learned of it, what I’m going through now. I was tortured; it didn’t matter that there wasn’t anything I could’ve done. I’m his mother – I was supposed to protect him. I was sick at the thought that there was a moment when he knew he was going to die, and he was alone and terrified but he had to let go. No way, I’m told; because of the heroin he went out in a blaze of bliss. I’m not so sure, but there isn’t anything I can do about it.

But as devastating as Philip’s death is, what if he’d chosen to killed himself? The things I hold on to are that he was a happy kid, that we were close, that there wasn’t anything unsaid between us. That I’ve nothing to feel guilty about unless I choose to make it so. But look at what his dying has done to me, to his father, to his sister – to all who knew him. The shocking, mindless blow of it. Do I think my own death would be any less shattering? What worse thing for Natalie than to live with a mother who’s not only dead, but dead by her own hand? So she not only gets to suffer my death, she gets to spend her life wondering why she wasn’t enough for me to live for.

And if I would do such a thing, in what meaningful way would I have loved her?

A few months ago, in my bathroom, I got a pain in my chest. It wasn’t about my heart – more like indigestion. But it caused me to bend over, and I closed my eyes, and made believe it was my heart. I might be dying, I thought. My heart might be shutting down and I might just keel over and Natalie’s upstairs, my God Natalie’s upstairs, I can’t leave her now, she’ll freak. She needs me to stay with her – I don’t want to leave her. So there was a crack in the atmosphere and I got it…but where’d it go? Do people live in full knowledge that they matter, they very much matter, to those who love them?

And so I have reason to Stay. But I’m missing the part about wanting to. I’m more attached to Philip’s death than Natalie’s life.

Next: What Philip says about that.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Year Two

Last Saturday I was out with Natalie at a local Arts and Crafts Fair. We ran into G., a woman I know from a former job. She’s  also the mom of Natalie’s friend. G. is, in a word, rich.

What’s that mean, to me? Nothing simple, for sure. It’s too easy to say envy, jealousy. What does it mean to envy or be jealous? It’s in my reactions to the world that I learn how to live in it.

There is something exotic and fascinating about That Much Money, but I don’t envy G. In fact, never have I more not wanted to be anyone else or have what anyone else has since Philip died. What I want is Philip here and Natalie safe and sound along with him. I love Philip too much to want to be anything other than his mother. Any wanting for what I don’t have means I lose Philip. Because in order for me to know and love and have had 21 years of Philip, my life had to be exactly as it was.

And I can’t imagine a scenario where I would have done something differently so he wouldn’t have died. There’s the day I could’ve lost him, the day I wrote about in The Story. That would have been disastrous. That would have left me a hollowed-out wreck of a human being. But when Philip died, he was out of the house and mostly on his own. He seemed okay – but he’d gotten mixed up in something bigger than he was, and I’ll never know if the heroin was cut or if his body was compromised or if it was a straight-up overdose. Doesn’t matter. He died, but our relationship didn’t.

So – Saturday. G., who I last saw at Philip’s wake, asked how I was. I’m okay, I answered. Good, good, she said, nodding firmly, as she turned to Natalie. Which is right about when I split, like those people who have NDEs and feel like they’re up high watching what’s going on below them, which, of course, includes themselves. I understood that to G, being “okay” and soldiering on was what mattered. I wasn’t so sure I agreed, but I’m not so sure about a lot of things any more. I stood there doing the work of talking and listening while wondering who the fuck am I because what I am is not okay but I can talk and listen and be at this A&C Fair while my son is dead. My son is dead. And there is some profound crisis I’m in that I don’t know how to write about and that I certainly didn’t want to talk to G. about but it’s some next – what? Phase? Stage? I’m so changed I don’t know what call things, how to say what this is. But if I had to give it a name, I’d call it, “Year Two.”

G. has 5 kids. She told me about the daughter who’s graduated and works in D.C., about the one – Natalie’s friend – who’s been traveling all over the world, about the three kids that are still at home…I don’t know if what came up can be called “envy” or “jealousy,” but I do know the ghosts of guilt and shame were involved, at least for the few minutes I stood there trying to listen. Because she gave her children experiences I wasn’t able to. A lot of what bugged me about money, I told myself, was not about the things it could buy, but about the experiences it could offer. And with the exquisite antenna I had to to find things to make myself miserable about, the ways I couldn’t broaden my kids’ world because I didn’t have enough money became endless.

My kids grew up in a neighborhood with families that were pretty well-off. The people that lived around us vacationed several times a year, did endless home renovations; they had high-end cars, full-time nannies,  and money for college tuition for the expensive colleges that their childrens’ expensive tutors ensured they’d get into. And lest you think otherwise, I had some damn good neighbors. It’s just that I’d moved into a world that was different from the fantasy I’d had about it. I went to the suburbs thinking my kids would be out running up and down the block with a horde of other kids whose parents moved and thought the same. I had to get with the program. Who had time to run around? After school meant sports like soccer because my town’s big on soccer and one mom on my block told me Philip had to play soccer because, well, all the kids played soccer but what did I know of soccer? I came from Brooklyn. We played softball. And even that wasn’t something Philip particularly liked to do.

And summer? The school year hadn’t ended when the exodus to summer sleep-away camp began. Which made me feel like I was doing something awfully wrong because I wouldn’t have sent Philip and Natalie away for two months even if money had nothing to do with it. Life lasted longer than childhood. I wanted my kids around while I could have them.

Which was prescient on my part. Philip’s life lasted longer than childhood, but not by much.

Now, I knew enough to tell myself that whatever I thought I couldn’t give my kids because of money wasn’t what really  mattered. It nagged at me anyway.  I felt a little different, a little inadequate, a bit of a nobody. And “a little” was enough to make me feel like my kids deserved more than I could give them.

You know what? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how many vacations we went on or the size of our house or that Philip didn’t want to play baseball or soccer and that when he did, he wasn’t very good at it. The things that used to nag at me even though I told myself they didn’t matter, really didn’t matter.

What matters is the poem that Philip wrote in second grade, where he said that out of all of his friends, I was his best. What matters is giving birth to him exactly the way I wanted to, and the months of nursing him when all the world was his eyes locked with mine. What matters are the stories I haven’t told yet, the things I remember because even if it was just for a moment there was nothing but the truth of love between us, moments that even his dying can’t take away.

To elevate another cliche to the status of truth, all the money in the world can’t buy what matters. And yes – I had to learn it the hard way.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

Wantings and Warnings

I’ve been nominated several times for blogger awards, most recently by dear Lucia from Luminous Blue. I want to take a moment to say thank you; I am honored. And I haven’t meant not to “accept” the awards so kindly offered. It’s just that there’s a whole long process involved, and I haven’t had time to sit down to do it. But I am grateful for even being considered.


Natalie and I have officially moved. We have no internet service, so I haven’t been online in days.

Just sayin’.

There’s a story about Philip I’ve been wanting to tell, but I couldn’t figure out why except for thinking it shows just what a swell mom I am. I was working on it last week. Turns out maybe I am a swell mom, but that’s not what the story is about. It’s getting complicated, so I’m taking a break because it’s been hard to concentrate. I am not feeling so very well. See, Philip’s dead and my stomach’s threatening to hurl its contents. How to live in a world where such things happen, where every moment parents all over the place are getting whacked into this appalling reality? How many times can I say it’s unbearable, even as I get up and bear it anyway?

Ed’s been talking to me about a young man and woman he’s working with at the college where he teaches. They’re a couple – she’s 21 and has her Master’s Degree; he’s 25 with two Masters from Columbia and will probably go on to his Doctorate. Ed says they are beautiful and brilliant with a future to envy. They are all three passionate, with Ed wanting this future for them and teaching them what he knows to help them have it.

That’s the story as Ed tells it. I listen, then make my own story. The one about these beautiful, brilliant kids who have life by the balls because something was granted them that wasn’t granted Philip. To say “granted” is me having a tantrum. Truth is there isn’t any answer why people are the way they are. I thought my efforts to raise my kids would yield a certain kind of future; I thought if I loved them, fed them and read to them, they’d be good to go.

A couple days ago I thought about a story I read when Philip was a baby. It was in a magazine called “Mothering,” which was (is?) the go-to manual on birthing/raising children au natural. You know – born at home, nursed, cloth-diapered, fed organic foods, carried around in calico cotton slings that fit across your torso. Vaccinations and circumcisions were hot topics, with writers on the side of nay to both. See, that was me; wanting to live down to the bone, wanting to stay at home and hand-raise my babies. Thinking that would make them into some version of what I wanted to but couldn’t be. Philip had the same innate intelligence I had when I was a kid; but he was generous, kind and friendly and so I thought his world richer than mine, me with my troubled, emotionally crazy responses to Life. So what makes some kids beautiful and brilliant and other kids dead from heroin?

I know that’s not the question. But I can’t help feeling sick with envy at beautiful and brilliant while my son is reduced to ashes in an urn.

But the story. The story was written by a woman who had five kids. All born at home, all nursed, all taken care of by a 24/7 Mom. But one of her kids, a son – he didn’t do so well. He was an addict, he was wild. One day he disappeared. She didn’t know where he was, didn’t know if he was dead or alive. A warning that all the breast milk in the world won’t guarantee your children will live longer than you do.

I thought of that story many, many times over the years. I got what she was saying; I really did. I was touched and humbled and so very sad for her. Still, that was her life and I didn’t consider the possibility of something like that happening to my son. What parent would? That kind of stuff happened in magazines and newspapers; what had that to do with my life? Thing is, for all the years I read “Mothering,” that’s the only story I remember. It’s another piece of what I’ve already written about, that in some larger sense I was being prepared for Philip’s death.

How is it that I believe in the pattern I see evolving, yet so often feel on the edge of unhinged? And get what happened yesterday:  First off, for anyone who doesn’t know, there’s a woman’s clothing store called Forever 21 (it’s written “XXI,” and it’s the reason the name of my blog can’t also be its address). The clothes are trendy and not made so well. Neither Natalie, Nadiya or I shop there.

I still have stuff at Nadiya’s, and yesterday I was packing some of it up. I made a decision to get rid of something I’d been holding on to for a long time. It was a hard decision, but I’m in letting go mode, so I took a breath and released. Getting rid of this something involved tearing up papers. Lots of papers. So I took a stack of them, sat on the bottom stair in the foyer and started ripping away, wondering if I was really doing the right thing, scared I was going to be sorry for this one day. Then I noticed something on the floor, next to the garbage bag. I looked closer, picked it up and son of a bitch if it wasn’t a clothing tag from Forever XXI.

I think I need to go think about that; I need to really, deeply think about that.

© 2013 Denise Smyth




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

A Pause (during which, Life Goes On)

I am going to pause for a second; that was a tough one.

As I wrote elsewhere, I’d like to say that I’ve given a solemn affirmative to the universe and have agreed to soldier on. Maybe I have, maybe I am; maybe I just expect that if that’s true, I should feel differently than I do. Better, more peaceful. It’s a process, I’m told; it’s a progression. God save us from our “processes” and “progressions.”

But it’s like this. Like today. Walking around the early Sunday quiet of Whole Foods, with its gorgeously arranged produce. It’s the peppers that take my breath away – the God-given reds and yellows and oranges. Not so much the greens – I find their waxy dullness unappetizing. Clenched against despair amidst all that abundance, I ask, what for? I mean, what the fuck? I see Philip, standing, looking at me, in the black leather jacket I’d given him, the one I’m now wearing, the one that makes me look like biker-chick. I see him, beautiful boy, in his navy blue suit, laid out in a coffin.

My son, in a coffin. In what universe does life make sense?

Or like yesterday, at The Boathouse in Central Park, overlooking the water. The simple joy and relief of spring written on faces, underlying conversations. Everyone, I think, feels it. Everyone but me. But what do I know? I’m in a city of millions. How many of us are being looked at as if we’re the lucky ones? I’m sitting down with three friends to a brunch that will cost $140, one that I won’t even have to pay for. But I don’t celebrate spring. It scares me. I see no hope in the cycle of life, where everything dies and everything is born. It’s all moving too quickly, moving without Philip. Wait, stop, I want to cry out; give me a moment to breathe; just a moment, please.

Is the phrase, “Life goes on” supposed to comfort? Because it doesn’t.

On the way home from the city, a song I like very much is on the radio. He loves her. He wants her. She is the “resolution,” he sings, “of all the fruitless searches.” All he has to do is look in her eyes and he’s complete. I used to believe that could happen. And I think I’m so loving to hear this song until my throat starts to close and my chest starts filling up with air that’s going in but not out until I can’t contain it any more and it blasts out a bunch of tears and I’m bent over, hands covering my face, shaking, shaking because if I can’t contain my weeping I can at least contain the pitiful sounds that accompany it. Cindy, my angel of a friend, is driving. I don’t want to make her feel any more helpless than she already does at my unexpected meltdown.

I think I’m crying because I see Philip’s face, and I imagine a woman looking into his eyes and feeling like that about him. He deserves that kind of love; he will never know it. But I’m probably crying for myself more than for him; crying because I believe the singer has truly, deeply found his happily ever after, and I am doomed to live with clawed fingers continually digging at my sore and bloodied heart.

Truth is, pop culture songs about love are mostly about infatuation. What does real love have to do with 90% of the stuff that goes on between couples? And why is it that people are always singing about the pain of romantic love? Ask anyone who’s lost a child about the kind of pain that’s the other side of deep love. It isn’t any wonder, not really, that no one wants to sing about that kind of pain. We don’t even want to talk about it, much less raise our voices in harmony about it.

And I’ve also paused to talk about the drug thing, because while it changes nothing about the way I think about Philip…well, that’s not entirely true. I think him vulnerable in a way I hadn’t before, and myself helpless in ways I hadn’t considered. But if you don’t know Philip, and you hear he died from an overdose, you might get a picture of him that is wrong, or at least superficial and one-dimensional. And while it’s none of my business what you think about him or me or anyone else, I am talking about my child and I do care.

Before Philip died, I probably would’ve thought that a kid that died from an overdose was a kid that was already going down the tubes. That drugs had taken over, that drugs were what this kid’s life had been reduced to. And I say this with so much empathy, because I have suffered addiction and I know its heartache and destruction.

But that wasn’t Philip. He didn’t grow up a troubled kid. Phil and I didn’t have the normal adolescent problems with him that we expected we’d have, that any parent expects to have. Philip was just easy. My dear friend Ed (and Ed is my dearest, closest friend – my mentor, my teacher, my advisor. Let me say this now so I don’t have to keep repeating myself every time I mention him) once told me that I didn’t have to mother Philip, I just had to love him. When I said Philip was a light, I meant it. He was kind, loving and responsible. Generous. People were drawn to him. I was stunned at how many showed up at his wake. And friend after friend after friend came over to me and to Phil to say the same thing: “He took care of me.”

When Philip died, he’d been seeing a young woman for about a month and a half. She was a senior in high school, he was a junior in college. I assume it was their age difference that made him go to her father and ask permission to date her. I mean, who does that??

Philip does. That’s who.

I’ll talk more about him in the days and weeks to come. I wanted to say this much because I am his mother and I am feeling very protective right now. And there’s something else.

Weeks after Philip died, when the autopsy came, Phil took it to a friend of his, a doctor, to look at. After he went over it, he said to Phil that given Philip’s age, weight, physical condition (he was a fencer) and the amount of drugs in his system, it was unlikely that this was an overdose. Something else had to be wrong – probably his heart, probably an undetectable condition. And he said that it’s easier for a medical examiner to say “overdose” when drugs are involved than to dig any deeper.

Phil found comfort in this – and I don’t blame him. Who the hell wants to think their kid died from something that could’ve been prevented? Much less from drugs – heroin, which still makes me shudder – which no matter how you cut it, casts an ugly pall over so short a life, and can make you wonder how well you knew the child who first taught you what it truly meant to love.

I’ll never know if there’s any truth to this. Whether there is or isn’t, drugs are a part of this. If not the cause, then a contributing factor. If Philip had a heart defect, his drug use shortened what might have already been a compromised life span. And at some level, this is all a distraction from the essential fact of his death how helpless I am to change it.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

They found him… (Day 2, Part 2)

I don’t know too much detail about Phil’s story. I don’t want to ask him; he doesn’t need to re-live it. I don’t think he trusts reliving it. What for, I think he’d say? He works to find his peace, building his world, brick by brick. I think that’s what men do. Me – I spent a year sitting in the rubble, ashes in my hair, moaning when I wasn’t wailing. Phil tries not to go to the dark place. I am there enough for the both of us.

What I do know is that he’d taken a walk that night; that he remembers exactly where he was when he thought of how earlier that day, I’d jokingly said, “Hey. Where’s your son? I’ve been calling him, he hasn’t called me back.” That after he got home, there was a knock on the door (I don’t know if the bell rang) and he’d thought, good, it’s probably Philip. That instead, it was the police. That after they told him, he called his friend Larry and asked if he’d ride with him in the police car to Nadiya’s because he had to go there to tell me.

When my phone rang, I thought it was Natalie calling to finish what she started. Instead I saw it was Nadiya, which was odd because Nadiya never called, she texted. I answered the phone and she said, “Denise?” and I said, “Yeah,” and she said, “Phil is here,” and the simple equation (Phil is here + 10pm) – Philip = fucking X took no time to compute since I blasted down the stairs screaming, “My son my son!” and I heard Phil running up the stairs and I was still screaming, “My son my son!” and we were both on the second floor landing where I’d flung my phone and dropped to my knees, crawling around the floor screaming, “My son, my son!” and I was waiting, waiting, for Phil to say, “Calm down, it’s not that bad” because it couldn’t be, not really, it had to be that I went straight to panic because this is my child and then when Phil said it wasn’t that bad I’d be able to bear whatever it was because I’d already gone to the worst possible place, which it couldn’t be, not really, and I was waiting, waiting, for the relief of Phil’s words. But there was no relief, there was my husband, sitting on the landing, taking me by the shoulders, saying to me, “They found him…”

 They found him.

No, no, no, oh God no, no.  No!

I don’t remember what I said or when I stopped screaming or how long we sat there.  I didn’t want to compute what I was supposed to be computing. Philip is a light, a joy – my joy. Lights don’t go out. They just don’t. I had entered the unholy quiet of the tragic. I couldn’t scream it away, because it was true. It was true.  I lifted desperate, pleading eyes to Phil and asked softly, softly, “But…how?” Maybe they missed something. Maybe I could see they got it wrong. I pictured Philip in the backseat of whatever car he’d been in, victim of the stupid (possibly drunken) teenage recklessness of some other kid, when Phil said, “Drugs.”

I started to fall. Except I still hadn’t gotten up.

“Drugs?” I whispered. “But wha…”


“Heroin? Heroin? He was shooting heroin?”

Phil shook his head. “He snorted it.”

You could snort it? Heroin? You could snort heroin?  But it’s Philip, don’t you see; it’s Philip, this can’t be, it’s Philip, it’s Philip. FOR GOD’S SAKE, IT’S PHILIP.

And yes, yes it was. It was Philip.


© 2013 Denise Smyth