It’s Simple. Ask.

Sunday morning I woke up in a motel room with Natalie in Wildwood, NJ. Phil was in the room next door. We were there to watch Natalie compete in the annual NJ State Competition for gymnastics. Natalie’s been a gymnast since she was five, been competing since she was ten. This was the first year Phil came to States. It was the first time my in-laws came, too; Phil’s brother with his wife and two kids; his sister and her husband.

They all showed up because this was Natalie’s last meet. She’s outgrown her time at the gym. The last of the kids she’s close to is graduating, leaving for college. For Natalie, the sport includes the friendships that come with it, friendships that will hopefully last a lifetime. But it’s time to move on. We left Sunday knowing we wouldn’t be coming back. And I was feeling the loss particularly because it was Mother’s Day, and not because she’s never coming back to me,  but because another phase in her life  – in our life – is over.  “I’m trying to think – did I ever miss a meet?” I asked her; “There must’ve been one I didn’t come to.” She shook her head. “None,” she said. “You always came.”

She’ll practice, for fun, for the next month. Then July 1st she’s off to France for five weeks. The longest time she’s ever been away from me, a tiny taste of what’s to come. And I suppose I shouldn’t be upset because losing her to a life she loves living is far better than losing her to the alternative.

Yes, I know. I’m not “losing” her. But fuck all if that isn’t what it feels like. Today I’m angry, I’m mournful – I’m hungover from the crazy that was Mother’s Day. What’s any of it for? Life is loss and in my better moments I know there’s also what’s between the loss. Thing is the loss hurts more than the joy that having brings. Philip’s death has marked me. I’m branded and apart and I want something for it. What? Some recognition? Acknowledgment of how hard it is, as if I don’t get that anyway?

It was hard being around my in-laws. Leaving a marriage breaks up a family, each in its own way. I’m not sorry for my choices but that doesn’t make it easy. Sitting there Sunday, hearing bits and pieces of conversations that no longer have anything to do with me, added to a lonely I love to get lost in. And I was angry that none of them mentioned Philip, no one acknowledged I have two children, that the child who first made me a Mother died; that all anyone said was, “Happy Mother’s Day!” like it didn’t mean something it wasn’t ever supposed to mean.

But what do I know what anyone was thinking? It’s hard for people; no one’s sure what to do, what to say. It’s easier to say nothing. Grief throws people – certainly no one more than the person who’s suffering it, but also those on the edges of it. Would I have known what to do with someone’s grief before Philip died? And it’s not that I “know” what to do as much as I’m not afraid to ask. I understand the need to be asked. What more caring thing could someone say to me than, “How are you? How has it been for you?” And why is something as simple as that so hard to say?

Sunday night, after Natalie and I got home, I went out with the dogs, found a bench in a field and sat and cried for a good long time, cried like I haven’t in a while. I wanted some stranger to come by, ask me what was wrong. I might’ve had more luck with that on the busy corner of Broad and Watchung than in a dark and deserted field. But I think I was digging myself in deeper, drunk on grief and pity. And I paid for it these last few, terrified of losing Natalie’s love because how could she care for a thing as low and pitiful as me?

Last year, on Mother’s Day, I wrote a post called, “Still the best day…” Who is that, I thought; who is that calm and thoughtful woman because I feel too crazy to think it could have been me. But it was me. Grief is not linear. It’s not a march forward – it’s not even a “one step forward, two steps back” thing. Its nature is cyclical, but truth is it’s a spiral, deepening even as it goes round and round. Crazy’s part of it, is all. How could it not be?

© 2014 Denise Smyth


What I’ll Accept

“Accept whatever comes to you woven in the pattern of your destiny, for what could more aptly fit your needs?”
—–Marcus Aurelius

I’m still trying to write Part Two because I wrote Part One and I already posted something in-between, but I can’t quite get there because this is the story that wants to come out, and really, it can be An Ordinary Miracle in its own right.

And I’m wanting to write this because for whatever reason it was that came over me, I seized a box of photos from when my kids were little and so many years away from losing the innocence that’s their birthright, tore through them and picked out the cutest of the cute and took them to my therapist to show her.

“Here,” I said as I walked in. “Look. I don’t know why, but I had to show you.”

There should be a word for the kind of loneliness you’re left with when someone you love more than life – or maybe you love life because of them, or maybe you’re not so sure what you feel about life, but you do know they’re what makes it bearable – when that one you love is all of a sudden dead. Just…dead. One minute they’re here, then they’re not, and one year, eight months and three days later you still can’t believe it and no matter how much good you know they’ve helped you see even though they’re dead,  you just don’t see how you’re going to go on much more without them.

Signs” notwithstanding.

We moved to Montclair when Philip was seven and Natalie five. Phil and I had been looking for a house in nearby Verona, which was somewhat less expensive. But our realtor’s office was in Montclair and the more we drove through it, the more Montclair’s funky, artsy, hipster, stately atmosphere started to feel like home, and I began to wonder why we were driving away from the place I wanted to live instead of toward it.

So Phil and I decided to expand our search into Montclair, and two weeks later I did something I hadn’t once thought to do during the five months we’d been on the hunt. I opened the real estate section of The New York Times on Saturday morning and saw a “Cozy and Charming” house for Sale by Owner in Montclair at a price that made me think there must be something wrong with it. There were built-in corner cabinets in the dining room and I don’t know why that’s what they mentioned in the ad instead of the the huge backyard with the deck and the patio and the stand of six cedar trees that stood guard over the large plot of grass just beyond them. But corner cabinets worked for me. I’m a sucker for aged and charming and “built-in” anything.

I made an appointment to see it on Sunday. Even if “Cozy and Charming” turned out to be “Cramped and Confined,” at least we’d spend some time in Montclair.

So next day we went to see it with Philip, but without Natalie, who hated car rides and asked if she could stay with Grandma, promising she’d come to NJ when we bought a house and were really going to live there.

Montclair is a lovely, hilly, hip and shaggy-tree town. It has lots of parks and a 408-acre reservation that spans three towns. It has movie theaters that show Manhattan-movies and restaurants and shops that make weekend parking impossible. It has a museum and a university, an uptown, a downtown and even a town in the middle. There’s the diversity of the not-so-mini-mansion-rich and lower-east side poor. And it’s filled with artists and writers and journalists and actors. High-level creatives, the kind of people I imagined had something I didn’t but living among them felt right even if I wound up keeping mostly to myself anyway.

When we pulled up in front of the house, I did what I always did – got out of the car, looked up and down the block, stood for a moment and asked, How do I feel?? To my surprise, the answer was good. Like, really good. Like, I think I could wake up and come outside and be really-glad-I-live-here good.

You already know the end of the story – we bought the house. But more importantly, we bought a home.

I suspect most of the house-buying-and-selling-thing is a transaction of the kind Nadiya had to suffer. Where the realtors swoop in, take the soul out of the house and hussle you out the back door when the buyer’s coming in the front. So the people who are making one of the biggest decisions they’ll ever make in their lives don’t get to meet each other until maybe it’s all said and done. I don’t know how it got to be like that, but welcome to Real Estate 2013. Me? I got lucky. I got Sam and Gina.

Sam and Gina raised their two kids in that house, but with a third on the way, they needed more room. They didn’t want to leave as much as they felt they had to. But it was the home they’d spent years creating and no matter how many realtors called begging to sell it for them, they said no, we want to try to sell this ourselves.

(And as I found out later, one of those realtors was mine, who called Sam and Gina and said, “I know a couple this house is perfect for – and I can get them to pay you $25,000 more for it!”)

The house was smaller than what I’d imagined for us, but its advertised Charm-and-Cozy actually was Charm-and-Cozy. The yard was lovely, with a wooden swing set in one corner and and a shed that looked straight out of a farmhouse with red siding and white trim in the other. And when a bunny leapt past me as I stood outside contemplating all this, I knew this was my  house.

And I suspect Sam and Gina thought the same when, sitting at their dining room table making our offer, the French Doors slid open and Philip walked in. He’d been in the yard playing with their five-year-old daughter. “Excuse me,” he said, addressing himself to Gina. “But the little girl went into the barn and I don’t know if she’s supposed to.”

No, she wasn’t supposed to, since what Philip meant by “the barn” was the shed in the corner with the lawn mower and paint cans and garden tools and bug spray and pretty much every parent’s toxic nightmare all stashed into one spot. Sam ran out to get her while Gina gushed her thanks to Philip. And on the way home in the car, I turned to Philip and said, “You know, if we get that house, it’s because of you.”

Which I did and do believe. Because when Sam called us that night to congratulate us, he also let us know they turned down a higher offer because Gina was firm that the house needed to have children, and I knew it was Philip she had on her mind.

I’m not immune to the what-ifs, but thank God I don’t take them seriously. It’s crossed my mind that, well, what-if we didn’t buy that house, what-if we’d moved to Verona instead, what-if we’d chosen a different school for Philip to go to. Except more than that is the way my past has been woven, the way one story overlaps with another and how I can’t unravel one thread without unraveling it all. And Philip has been so much a part of whatever’s recognizably mystical in my life that even though I hate that I have to accept that he’s dead, I’m willing to accept he’s not gone.

© 2013 Denise Smyth


Yesterday a window opened. Just for a moment. And there he was – Philip, in his biker jacket, standing there. Palpable. Tangible. In living color. As in I could touch him? No. Do I mean I had a vision? No. I just mean I remembered him like it was yesterday and I am aching for what I can’t have.

Sometimes…well, it’s like this – and not as in a complaint, but as a result of choices I’ve made. I haven’t anyone to hold me; I mean, to just sink into. And right about now, that’s feeling like it would be a good thing. I’d rather be sitting on my couch balled up under someone’s arm with a reassuring head resting on mine than sitting on my couch trying to explain it to you. There’s a release that happens when it’s the right person. Like lancing the wound and the pus runs out and the hot pain chills out and from the simple act of touching, there’s nowhere one of you ends and the other begins. Just breathing in a place where you think you’re safe from something it’s not possible to be safe from, but it’s okay to make believe you are, just for a while.

It’s a break in the tension. It’s what I drank for; that click, the one that came right around the third drink, when I started nodding to the music all warm and dreamy because really, everything was going to be all right.

Philip used to let me sink into him. Just for a moment, here and there. He knew me. He saw my unhappiness, he wrote about it, he tried to love it out of me. Funny thing is, I was finally letting him, then he went and died.

Yeah, well. Maybe not so funny.

I guess I’m saying that it just hit me weak-in-the-knees hard that my son is gone and I am crying crying crying again and for what? I well know that people are suffering this and I can’t do anything about mine like they can’t do anything about theirs. And it matters; it matters that people suffer all sorts of things because I don’t think I’ve been given more or less than anyone else. It matters that people are trying to cope with what’s in front of them. It has to matter because if I can’t make some sense – even some vague, primitive sense – of this, I think my spirit will lie broken and useless and my body will follow right along.

For months and months and months I asked Philip to come to me in my dreams. I had two dreams about him after he died, but no more. Phil told me he dreams of Philip. He sees him standing with his friends, and he wants to tell him something but he can’t. How do you feel when you wake, I asked? Terrible, he answered.

Then I thanked Philip for not dreaming of him because I got it. To feel like I experienced him would only make me feel worse. There’s a cushion that’s developed, between and around me and my son. It doesn’t keep me from him, it doesn’t make the grief go away. But it’s the difference between how I grieved when he first died and how I grieve now. It has to do with the physical fact of him; 14 months of not seeing him or touching him has lost its sharp edge.

Then that window that opened. It was visceral. Again; the brutality of loss. Philip popped up and was gone, and I’m haunted by the line I wrote, weeks ago:  “I see him, beautiful boy…”

My beautiful boy; oh God, where is he? When Natalie went to pre-school, and then again in kindergarten, she screamed for me. Mrs. M had to carry her in while I watched, Natalie reaching her arms out to me over Mrs. M’s shoulder, Mommy…Mommy…Mommmmmmmyy!! And kindergarten, Mrs. R holding her hand, Natalie screaming, Mommy! My stomach hurts! Mommy! Mommy! Please!

I can’t stop thinking about this because I am Natalie, screaming for help, reaching out for someone who cannot or will not help, and it’s killing me that I let her go and I know exactly how she felt, her big eyes streaming tears, terrified, not understanding how mommy could let this happen and of course it took one day for it to be all right, but she didn’t know that, not in those moments. I am stuck in that tableau where I am Natalie more than I am me. Terrified and bewildered at what’s happened, guilty and ashamed for letting it.

I know Philip’s death wasn’t my fault. But I am his mother; protecting him is what I’m supposed to do. It’s beyond sense or reason. It’s biological, it’s psychic. I didn’t do it, couldn’t do it, and that’s what I have to live with. I did nothing wrong; if you think I’m saying I feel guilty because I could have done something to prevent this, I’m not explaining it right. See, what I know and what I feel have nothing to do with each other. The fact is that Philip is dead, the fact is I couldn’t have stopped it, the fact is I am wired to protect him and I didn’t.

Next, I want to tell you a story.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

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