I Have What I Give

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

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

“Of course,” he answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2016 Denise Smyth

On Writing

I thought I could write. Because I sit here and write posts that go wherever I want them to and I’ve space around them when I do it. I can’t write when I can’t breathe and I can’t breathe when there are these vicious, nagging, condescending voices in my head. As I’ve been writing the blog, I’ve kept them at bay. But I think they were just waiting.

I decided to take a local class in memoir writing. The teacher, L, came highly recommended. And so it got me started – not only the writing, but organizing notes and figuring out the order of the chapters, thinking about what this memoir is about. It is not about Philip’s death, though certainly that’s what drives it. It’s my story, it’s about me going through this rather than around it. And I have much to discover about all of it.

Here is what I’ve learned, and not from class. Writing is intensely personal. It takes a long time. If I write with the sole aim of being published my work will not ripen. I will be writing under stress. I will have the potential publisher’s voice in my head as he laughs at me, “You? Published? Ha ha ha ha. Next.”

The writing is the discovering. It’s the work. And writing a memoir is not writing a blog. There is much more to think about. Like scenes need to be set, I have to consider if each sentence is supporting what I’m trying to say, and I have to have some kind of order. This is challenging. I’m telling Philip’s story and my story and they have to flow into each other.

What I find comfort in is that this is not a race. This is unearthing. For instance, I started to write something about my mother at the wake, and I got so sick with rage and need that I had to stop. I couldn’t write the scene any more. I don’t know how to write the scene. But how much sense does that make? Writing reflects life. My feelings for my mother are twisted and are no where near the peace I need to take a step back as I write. So I turned to a different section and worked there. I’ll get back to my mother when I’m ready.

I know that this book is going to turn into what it’s going to turn into. And I will be surprised.

As for the writing class – it has helped, but it’s also thrown me. It’s a workshop. We read and we critique each other’s work. We can bring up to five pages. We can bring no pages. It’s up to us.

Me, I can’t imagine not reading aloud. I learned that I have little patience for workshops. With two or three people, maybe. Then you can slow it down and concentrate. We have as much as seven people reading and it’s just too much for me. I can’t listen to so many different writers – by the fourth one I’m losing concentration.

But the worst of it is that it’s become a drama, and much as I see it, I can’t help it. L has become my mother, sneering at me because nothing I do is good enough. (No, L. doesn’t sneer. Nor does she discourage. Really.) It’s a drama because I’ve taken a situation and written my story over it. And even though I see this, it’s affecting my writing. It’s a big deal for me to read in front of a group like that. I want to be good, I want to impress, I’m afraid I suck. That I’m boring. Right there that’s going to throw my writing off. As far as the memoir, the timing is off. If I’d started this class with a chunk of the memoir in progress, then it would have been a matter of bringing in what I’ve already written and discussing it. I haven’t written much of it – so I go home and want to write five pages and get it right and that is not writing, it is performing.

What I need is a class on craft. Not where I’m bringing my memoir in every week, but where I’m learning about structure and pacing and organization, things that confuse me and that I don’t, on my own, see when it’s not working.

Ever since this class, I sit at my computer in the grip of anxiety and I can barely write. I’m trying to describe a scene, describe a person, put in sounds and smells and give them what they I think they want to hear and I’m paralyzed. I can’t write like that. What I do – when I’m not pressuring myself because I’m in a class – is just write what I want to write and add what needs to be added after. But now I’m taking what L says in class and looking at all my sentences and not knowing how to make them better, how to be what she wants them to be.

It’s drama. And it’s all in my head.

There are things in class that have been pointed out to me that are really helpful. But in my crazy brain, I think that if I was a good writer I would not have made those mistakes and since I made those mistakes I am therefore not a good writer. It’s perfectly logical.

I’m not sure whose memoir I’m writing any more. Is it mine, or is it the one I think they want to hear?

I am nowhere near ready to workshop my work. I need to sit and write and keep it close. I need to figure out what works for me. Like no more writing on the couch. I have a writing desk. I am serious about this? I will sit at my desk and work. It feels good, because it feels like I’m taking myself seriously.

Part of the problem of the class is that it gets me thinking about the big picture – i.e., getting it to a publisher – when all I want to think about is the scene I’m writing. It’s one scene at a time and I want to spend hours – days – at these scenes. I need to – Philip has died and I am still and always will be working through this. That’s what the importance of the memoir is. I might not be able to write five pages in a week. And as I said, I don’t have to, but I will like a failure if I don’t. Five pages is a lot of pages to get right because it takes me a long time to get it right. And Philip is in every part of it, whether I say his name or not.

Right now, I’m writing about his childhood. I have some of his pictures around me, from when he was a baby through 18. I went on Google maps and pulled up the house we used to live in. I am immersed in the past and it’s starting to shake me. I think what helps is that I go to work and it’s been busy and funny. So much laughing there – so I’ve no time think about anything. Then I go home and turn on my computer and there it is. I’m not complaining. I chose to write this, that means I experience it. But I’m so very sad – he was here, wasn’t he? I have the pictures to prove it. It’s just seeing that childish innocence, then seeing him in a coffin…how do I find the words for that? By sitting and taking the time to write it. However long it takes.

© 2016 Denise Smyth

02/23/16

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

                                          William Shakespeare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2016 Denise Smyth

01/20/91 – #4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2016 Denise Smyth

On Love and Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2016 Denise Smyth

Things of the Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Was I?

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

However.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2015 Denise Smyth

For a Reason?

“Acceptance of the unacceptable is the greatest source of grace in this world.”
                        Eckhart Tolle

When Philip died, it didn’t occur to me to follow anyone’s prescription about how to grieve. The same when I was pregnant – I admit to buying “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” but I only read a couple chapters. I had already done some serious research on giving birth, including interviewing midwives and doctors. WTEWYE seemed to skim the surface. I wanted to understand the process of giving birth because I’d decided to have my babies at home. Death and birth need be aided by others, but the hospital doesn’t seem the place for either. I am grateful for the medical community, but it often interferes when it should simply facilitate. Death and birth are as intensely personal as they are widely universal. The question before me was, How do I want to do this?

Back then, I couldn’t exactly say why I wanted to home birth, except it felt right and authentic. Through giving birth I was learning to trust the body that I’d been waging war with for years. I was sad and moody even as a kid and I took it out on my body. As if my body was the problem. Bodies are not the problem. Bodies are tools – while we are in them, they are expressions of life. They are the receptors through which we feel and experience. But to blame my body for what I was feeling was akin to blaming my pen for my inability to write when it ran out of ink.

I grew up in rage and depression at what I couldn’t articulate but now understand was a lack of love and compassion. And what can a child do with rage and depression? Certainly not reason about it. My particular way was to drink. Which I started to do when I was 11. Pot and pills followed soon after, then bulimia in my early 20s. All in a rage against my body because it was making me feel. And when getting high didn’t work, I tried a serious but flawed attempt to kill myself. That I didn’t succeed was not a moment of revelation. It was a defeat because I knew I wouldn’t try it again – I wasn’t about to become a joke, someone whose version of a cry for help was inventing new and futile ways to kill herself. I failed. I was embarrassed and beaten.

So I went to therapy, stopped drinking. Eventually tried to deal with the bulimia, something that proved a far harder challenge than drugs and alcohol. I could grasp the concept of not taking the first drink. What was the formula for an eating disorder? Don’t take the first compulsive bite? Exactly which one was that? Sometimes, in my confusion, I’d opt for eliminating all all bites and I’d go days without eating.

But the body, restored to its rightful place, is a point of power. It’s where we access the richness of our inner life. It’s where we learn what true connection means and how it goes beyond the point of physical. Philip did not start as a body – he started as a longing. I wanted a child and so was graced with him. His birth was a continuation of the relationship I’d begun to form with him when I recognized that I wanted him. And grievous as his death is, we are still in relationship. It is hampered only by my inability to get my body out of my way.

To go to a hospital to give birth would be to give away the inherent power of my body. Women have been taught that we can’t trust our bodies, that our bodies cannot function as they are meant to. That somehow our prodding, probing and technology know better than we, ourselves, can know. That the pain of childbirth has no value and that we are unable to bear what women have borne always. We have been separated from our natural functions.

Like menstruating. There came a point as a young woman where I began to wonder where women’s disgust of their periods came from. Fertility is a power. Much as I wasn’t sure I wanted to have children, the idea that I had the power to do so made me feel sorry for men and what they would never know. My body could give life. I was part of the mystery. And much as I spent decades wishing I was dead, which really meant I wished I could stop feeling the terrible things I felt, some part of me recognized the sanctity of being able to give birth.

In the spirit of beginning to respect what my body could do, I stopped using “sanitary” napkins  – was my blood dirty? I bought cloth menstrual pads which I washed myself, watching the blood run over my hands as I rinsed my cloths before putting them in my “moon bowl,” where they sat until I washed them. I loved having my period. It was the mark of my fertility, and it is through that fertility that I came to know the two who I love best in this world.

And birth control. In my early twenties, I briefly went on the pill. Like everyone else I knew, I wanted the freedom to fuck. But something felt wrong about manipulating my cycle so I went off it.  Any method of birth control that I could use involved pills, diaphragms, iuds – all too invasive. I didn’t trust my understanding of my cycle enough to risk what was then called “the rhythm method” – so it was up to my partner and a condom.

When Philip died I ran to no manual about grief. By that point I’d stopped looking for something outside myself to tell me how to feel, to tell me what I was supposed to “do” to be happy. I was not in control of my feelings, but I could figure out how to handle them, and what I’d figured out and written about here countless times is that my credo became, Accept it, leave it, or change it. What else could ever be done, in any situation? The simple answer was also the most profound. Thing is, leaving or changing a situation might be difficult but felt doable. But “accept?” Years of hearing AA’s platitudes about acceptance made me bristle to even hear the word. I thought it mean lying in the road and letting a mac truck roll over me. And since all anything can ever mean is the meaning I give it, I couldn’t “accept” because I couldn’t understand.

What brought this all to mind is something I read on the internet, something, as one blogger wrote, “is making the rounds.” It had to do with the notion that everything happens for a reason, and the grieving author’s anger at people who spout that platitude. And I do understand that anger – what is such a trite expression in the face of losing a child? Is that supposed to comfort? What reason could anyone possibly come up with that would make this okay?

But then I got the idea that here we are again – angry, and doing with grief what the world does with everything: it’s us against them. The victims that have been forced to grief and the enemies who want to look away. It’s exhausting. This anger perpetuates grief, even as it feels good to have somewhere to direct our anger besides the seeming randomness of the universe.

We are all going to die. The timing is not up to us. Since death is as birth is, how do we live with it?

People are frightened. People spend lifetimes avoiding death even though they are always creeping toward it. People don’t know what to say when it comes anywhere near them. If someone says, “Everything happens for a reason” it simply means they don’t understand. It’s not you they’re trying to reason with, it’s themselves. So why would I insist people have to be what I want them to be, say what I want them to say? Yet how that stings when we feel we are being strangled by our grief, how that cuts us off when what we need is love and connection. There is no loneliness like the loneliness that comes from losing someone beloved.

Maybe it’s easy for me to look at this because I haven’t anyone who’s said anything like that to me. I’ve been told to “move on” which of course isn’t possible – but it was said in the spirit of kindness and that is what matters. The worst thing anyone said to me that first year was, “Uh, here we go” when I brought up Philip’s death in what I thought was the right context. I was both incredulous and angry for a long time after. Now, what matter? What people say tells you much about them, but nothing about you. People speak from fear, from anger, from ignorance –  we all do it and we don’t realize it. And when people continue to say hurtful things it is good and right to absent them from our lives. Sometimes we can’t, and so we have to draw a line in their condition. But sometimes we don’t, because sometimes we just want someone to target.

Last week I was alone in my office. In walked a client to pick up some paperwork. Noticing the picture of Philip on my desk, he asked with a smile, “Is that your son?” It is, said. And then I told him he died. “I am so sorry,” he answered; and he stayed and talked with me for a while. He listened to what I had to say. He has children of his own, and at one point his eyes teared up. That’s what we want, isn’t it? People to let us speak of the unspeakable, to be unafraid to hear what we’re saying.

Whether or not you think everything happens for a reason – the point is everything that happens, happens. It’s not about reason, but about meaning. Searching for a reason perpetuates grief because there is no satisfactory reason. The only meaning can come from what we make it to be. Loss is. To live in a body is to experience loss, in all its forms. No one escapes grief, no one escapes death. It’s not personal and it’s not done “to” us. It happens. And when it does, it changes us forever. We live with it every day, and we have choice how to do so. Not at first – depending on who we are, not for a long time. I lived underwater so long after Philip died, I don’t know how I didn’t suffocate. Searching for reasons would not have helped – the opposite, in fact, because asking why is an impossible question, designed to distract and thus prolong the worst aspects of our grief. There is never an acceptable answer. Death is its own reason.

Rather than looking for reasons, I ask myself how I can live with what is to me both a tragedy and a blessing. Philip is dead. I will one day join him, and when I do it will seem like life went by quickly. But since I’m here, how is it I want to be in the world? How do I walk with an open heart as I long to do? How do I stop hiding myself away because there’s something nagging at me that I won’t face – it’s an ancient darkness I carry and it’s going to take some strength to lay it down.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Let It Go

Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
go,
to let it go.

                           –Mary Oliver

Let it go. Not Philip – that isn’t possible, even if I wanted it so. Just let go the rage, the grief, the despair, the emotional flailing because my child has died. My child has died. The most shocking words I have ever said.

The way I better understand this is to say, “no resistance.” “Let it go” sounds like make it go away, make these things we think we owe our dead disappear. That’s not what it means. To not resist is to let it be. Let the grief be. I’ve reached a point where I can think about what that means. Grief isn’t going to go away, nor is anger. When I resist them, it’s like holding on to fiery coals and what happens to hands that cling to fire? They burn. And they burn. And then they burn some more. They won’t stop burning until the hands begin to loosen. The fire doesn’t go away. But the hands, while still hurt, begin to heal, even as they remain forever scarred.

The source of salvation in this world is letting go. To stop resisting what is. I’ve spent my life looking for an answer when it was there in front of me all the time. Salvation comes not from without, but within. It took Philip’s death to catapult me into this wisdom that I was dancing around with before he died.

Letting go is work. It’s not something done once, but once you really do it, there’s no turning back. You forever know the grace of letting go, you know what it feels like, you know it’s a decision in your power to make. When Philip died I said a cosmic fuck you. I didn’t want to know what was then my credo: Accept it, leave it, or change it. The only workable alternative was impossible. Accept it? In my hellish grief, I misunderstood what that meant. Accept it didn’t mean it was okay. It meant grieving but not fighting. It is possible to grieve without fighting. That doesn’t mean I don’t love Philip. And in letting go of the fight, I am free to live in his love.

The month before Philip died I was debating whether to take a Shakespeare class at the local adult school. While I love Shakespeare, it’s difficult to read on my own. It’s in class that the work comes alive. I was ambivalent, and as Philip told me, ambivalence is not nothing. For a month I carried the brochure around, longing but stopping. Until I finally decided to stop stopping and went online to register. The class was full, the fact of which knocked me off my feet and sent me spinning into some fantastical universe. The chattering in my head was unbearable until I finally listened to what that voice was saying:  You’re not good enough, you’re not smart enough, this is Montclair for God’s sake, filled with intellectuals, did you really think they’d let you into their club??

Notice that the voice was saying “you,” not “I.”  What, who, was this voice that drove me into such darkness, such hatred? It didn’t matter. All that mattered was I got it. The only reason I didn’t get into that class was because it took me a month to make a decision. It wasn’t personal. It wasn’t about me. The class was filled. Period.

I let it go –  I took a big, deep breath and let it go. The knot in my stomach didn’t go away, the ground didn’t immediately return to steady me, but there was space around all of I. I saw it was my thoughts that created my reality. I was excited. This was the work and I was doing it. So simple, so profound. And it didn’t mean I wouldn’t come up against something like this again, it just meant I could choose not to get caught in it.

So I looked at the brochure and took note of the date class started. Monday, February 27th. Let me see what I’ll be doing on that day, I thought. Maybe something better will come along.

I couldn’t know that what I’d be doing was giving my son’s eulogy.

Heaven and hell converged that night, and for a long time hell won. Philip’s words to me were never forgotten: Mom, you gotta go deeper. I knew he was right. I didn’t care. He was dead and that’s all that mattered. What I refused to realize was that the greatest teaching in this world would come from from his death. Of course I couldn’t realize – death consumes, strangles, destroys everything in its wake. But it is not for nothing that the phoenix rose from the ashes, its youth renewed, ready for another cycle.

I’m trying to teach you what death isn’t, Philip told me. It isn’t the end – there is no “end.” Not to what matters. Bodies are temporary. Death is change. Change is always uncomfortable because it’s the death of what was. I’m looking for the courage to jump into the void of change. I know what it feels like. I’ve done it. It’s what to do with Philip’s death. Holding my grief is not going to bring him back. Letting it go isn’t a betrayal. And yes, it leaves me vulnerable. To pain as well as to love. But still there’s that knot, past pain tangled up with Philip’s death and I am yet scared to really let go. To fully embrace my son exactly as he is. Still there’s something so terrible about him dying, and something that feels familiar about this sorrow.

At the end of Philip’s eulogy I asked, “Can I love this child of mine without attachment?” In other words, can I love him and not cling to my wretched grief? Even then I knew letting go was the answer, much as it was impossible to do so. Now I do it in bits and pieces as I hold him close to my heart. Because holding onto him feels better than those fiery coals.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Something Bigger

Free will and fate. I believe in both. I also believe in karma. Some of this is contradictory, but I’m willing to hold that contradiction because there’s a mystery to life that I cannot know. It’s like I’m standing in front of a gorgeous painting five miles high and ten miles wide but all I can see is the little part in front of me. Out of context, it might not make sense. It doesn’t fully convey what the painter meant. But just because I can’t see the whole of it doesn’t mean it isn’t there, doesn’t mean there isn’t meaning that I can’t grasp.

We all make choices. But there are only a limited amount of choices we can make. It is not true that you can “be” anything you want to be. When I was a kid I desperately wanted to be a singer. I can’t sing. I cursed God for yet another thing He withheld from me. It’s not an option for me to be a rock star or to be president. It’s not an option for me to own a mansion or manage a baseball team. But within life, I have my own choices and those choices create the circumstances where I experience life.

Every moment is where I experience life.

I believe in fate. Philip died because he snorted heroin but that isn’t the whole of it. Looking back at the way death touched both our lives, from the two-year-old who told me his dead grandpa was “in the light” to the way I kept seeing him dead in the months leading up to his death…and looking at what his death has done to me, it’s hard not to see a sort of “supposed to” as part of this. It does not feel entirely wrong that he’s dead, no matter how much I don’t want to accept it.

But there’s something bigger, more pressing, more to the point, because my circumstances are not the point. The way I think about them is. Whatever it is, the question is, What purpose does this serve? Take my job. I’m an administrative assistant, I’m the office manager. But that’s not who I am. It’s not what I do that matters, it’s how I am. Every day’s interactions are a chance to be present or to go to sleep. And I work for someone who is challenges me in this. The difficulty I have in responding to him shows me my real work which is way more important than what I get paid to do.

Last week my boss, Jack, was out of the office and called because needed something from me quickly. His abruptness unnerved me, and here’s where the present dissolved into the past, which means I went to sleep. I became the kid with the forbidding parents who couldn’t do anything right. I panicked because I didn’t think I could find what he needed, and after I did, I told him, “I’m afraid of you.” A few minutes later he called me back. “Look,” he said. “I don’t want you to be afraid of me, I want you to help me.”

Is this someone to be afraid of? I think not. But it’s not about him. It’s about the way my being is affected by him and how I’m going to work through it. It is the working through the difficulties in life, the being-ness that’s there when I do, that matters. A lot of that requires letting go of what I’m resisting to move more fully into life. And it is that letting go that I need practice because one day there will be a final letting go, and if I can’t let go of my boss’ impatience what makes me think I’ll be able to let go for the big one?

Death has lessons to teach us, and not morbid ones. Every time we stop resisting the circumstances of our lives, it prepares us that much more for death. And why not practice for that inevitable moment? Anything you want to do well takes practice. So why not practice what matters? A life lived without contemplating death is a shallow life. It’s made of up desire and accumulation of not only objects, but of people. None of which are real or sustaining, but a way of avoiding. I don’t want to avoid the fact of death, but neither do I want to continually feel like I don’t know how to live. Whatever I’ve come to understand since Philip died, the tangible ways he lets me know he’s around, doesn’t change the fact that I feel I like I lost a limb. Like I’m searching for something but I don’t know what it is. That there are times this still feels like a horror – did he really die, this child of mine? Will I really grow old without him?

Have I not yet learned that life is not predictable and any breath can be my last?

© 2015 Denise Smyth

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