“Sixty”

There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is suffering too terrible to name
You hold your child as tight as you can
And push away the unimaginable
The moments when you’re in so deep
It feels easier to just swim down…

“It’s Quiet Uptown” – sung by Angelica from Hamilton

When Philip died I couldn’t find the words to describe it. It was easier to just swim down. One year later I started a blog because I had so much to say. I am still a mother whose child has died. I have need to talk about him but I don’t know what I want to say. His name – I rarely say his name to anyone and that hurts. In the car, when I’m alone, I talk out loud to him. I say his name. I love him.

I still want to scream at the world my child has died as if the world would reach round and cover me with a big, fluffy blanket, tuck me in, stand guard. But it’s not about the world and that’s the good news. Because a world that won’t take me in its arms also won’t attack. I don’t think Philip’s death was something done to me. It is something that happened and not a day goes by that I don’t wrestle with it. “There’s a grace too powerful to name,” Angelica sings, the other side of the suffering. And I know this. How can I explain that through Philip’s death I have known grace? I would not have chosen to find it this way, but here I am.

Because of where Philip’s death brought me, what it taught me. For whatever I might give in to, I refuse to let it turn into bitterness. Sorrow, soft and quiet, yes. This might be grace. The depth of my love for Philip matches the depth of my grief. Something inside broke when he died, but that dark and terrible place has another side. There is truth in that depth, there is a way to light if I choose. Philip’s love – our love – is my light and comfort. Whatever comes and goes, love remains. So I turn to him and let myself feel that. That is the big fluffy blanket I long for.

I am lonely for love. As much as I feel Philip’s love, I want to rest my head on someone’s shoulder, be held. I am starving for it. There are times when my insides feel like they’re collapsing for want of pressing against someone I love, someone who loves me. Then I pull back — it’s easier to be alone, I think. I’ve seen too much. And I’m turning 60 next year — is it too late?

I’m reading a book called Sixty by Ian Brown, a diary of his 61st year, which I expected to laugh and commiserate with. Instead I’m horrified. Brown talks of the world having no use for the aging — but what world? Surely in his personal world his friends and family have plenty of use for him. Brown is an active guy. He bikes, hikes, skis, goes kayaking. But he talks of his aches and pains, that come with aging and maybe in part from the wear and tear of exercising. Maybe I’ve no aches and pains because I don’t exercise. This bothers me because I used to all the time, and for years now I’ve refused to move. I’m getting older and think I should take long walks, but I cannot force myself.

Brown seems to be making 60 define his life. I don’t think about it that way — I think I’ll define 60. I don’t feel so much older than those around me, including the young woman my daughter’s age whom I work with. I look good, I feel good, I have a lot of energy, all things Brown complains about. He even questions the way he dresses, while I make an art of it. That’s what scares me about the book. I work to not let the world define me. Why should age matter in terms of what the world expects of me? Yes, things change. There are adjustments coming at me that I can’t yet fathom. But to spend a year looking at my life through the lens of my age is nuts.

It’s not that I’m not aware of my age, or that I never think about it. I changed jobs three months ago. My boss is handsome. Classically tall, dark, and good-looking. He’s the kind of guy I look up on the internet so I can show my friends what he looks like and watch them swoon. The kind of guy I always considered out of my league. Two weeks ago he threw himself a fiftieth birthday bash in a house on a lake, which included fireworks that spun glittering down from the sky around us. Yes, around us. Some people ran for cover. His age, his handsomeness, makes me think I’m getting old. Sure, he is, too, but at 59, 50 feels young, and he seems to have the world by the balls. And we all know men my age are looking down the decades for women which leaves me with…

Oh, bullshit. So what if men, in fact, look for younger women? That’s about getting laid. I’ve no problem with getting laid (except for the problem of no partner), but I want something more than sex, the thing that makes the sex mean something. Not that I do anything about it. In fact, I pointedly do nothing about it, the way I stay home so much. The only guys I meet are the ones in the current TV series I’m into. And we know where those relationships lead.

Philip’s been spared the pain of this life. Yes, you say, but he also misses the beauty and wonder. Except lately those are just words to me because there’s a lot more hurt than anything else. And the constant work of trying to see the other side of the hurt is exhausting. This doesn’t mean I think he’s better off dead. Beauty and wonder come from inside. Philip had it. He was it. He took it when he died, and it’s my work to remind myself that no, he really didn’t.

© 2017 Denise Smyth

The Bridge

“But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey

I am between those lands and I feel like nothing’s happening but maybe something is going on and I need to be patient. I am missing Philip and that missing is tinged with hopelessness. He is not coming home. I am a mother whose child has died. It’s been sickening me again – whatever’s spinning around my gut makes its way to my chest and arms and just for a moment I think I’m going to fall down, that I can’t bear this.

But then there’s Philip, all around me, always all around me. I just have to pay attention. There isn’t a day that goes by that he isn’t nudging me. How graced am I? And how my life has opened up since he died. I left the hellish job I was at, and now work at a place I like to go to (most of the time). I have more people in my life than I had before. I finally started to write, and to stay with it. So many years – decades – I had fits and starts with writing. And years that I wanted to start a blog but was afraid. What could I possibly have to say? And if I had something to say, what made me think I could write it in a way that would make anyone want to read it?

Philip said, “let me be the voice in your head.” Because his is the voice of love. He would never talk to me the way I talk to myself, the way I learned from my mother. My mother, who cannot help who she is. I grew up nursing on her rages instead of her love. Witness to her preference for my brother, her disdain for me. And so hurt, angry and helpless as I was – as any child would be – I took my first drink at 11 and thought I found what I was looking for. Something to make me feel nothing because I’d rather feel nothing than feel what it felt like to be alive.

I have been remembering more often to replace that voice with Philip’s. I bought prayer beads to help. Not because I want to pray with them, but because they help me pay attention. They are beautiful copper beads flecked with gold, and have silver tassels They feel cool and weighty in my hands. I carry them around and every time I touch them I think, “Let Philip be the voice in my head.”

But that bridge Wilder talks of – I can’t find it. My heart’s not open. Back and forth I go between the fact that Philip’s died and the fact of how he lets me know he’s still here. What does his death mean in my life, what besides loss in a way I have never known? May I never know it again.

It’s such an odd way to live, this between-ness.  So much thinking going on here, so much “assessment” of my situation. Where does it get me? At the moment it feels easier to let it all go and just suffer. Then I can’t feel the love that comes at me from many different directions. Feeling it is also giving it – and what are we here for, if not to learn that?

How do I stop reacting like the small hurt child I was? I needed to be loved – I am never going to get what I needed back then, so it’s up to me to find what I need now. All I have to do, really, is look to my life, look to the people who matter, and let myself take it all in. And I take that little child I was and imagine myself at three, with my too-short bangs, wavy brown hair, big hazel eyes, pale yellow chiffon party dress, black patent leather shoes, finger in my mouth, being held by Philip. I imagine it because that is what it means to know love. That is what he’s trying to give me.

Love is not like the things of this world. It is not a transaction. It doesn’t get won, it doesn’t get lost. And it’s not diminished by giving. If I give it, I have it. It starts with me. With my ability to recognize that life is best lived in love. When do I feel peace? When I’m with love. Like I am with Natalie and Philip. With Ed. With the women in my life, old and new. With the quilts I’ve made and the cakes I’ve baked. These are works of love.

I am not speaking of what passes for “falling in love” which involves a significant other and in time is often revealed to be something very different. The love I’m speaking of is a state of being. And we desire to express that love. We think we need an object. We don’t. It’s true that people, animals, beaches and sunsets inspire us. Objects can loosen our sore and jaded hearts and let love through the cracks. If we can feel it, then we have it. But I have to ask – where does love go when nothing inspires me? When I feel alone? When nothing matters and I sit on my couch, look at Philip’s portrait and cry for want of him. It’s not love that’s moved, it’s me.

The bridge is love. That simple. So why is it so hard? I have two ways of thinking about Philip. One feels like I lean back in his love, one feels like I look ahead and see him gone. Lately I’m transfixed by what’s ahead, which means I’m imagining all the ways it stuns me that Philip won’t be here. Not in the way I want him to. Lately I’m blowing off his attention and retreating into what it feels like to have had him yanked from me, put into a navy blue suit in a coffin, then sent to a crematorium to spend two hours in a cremation container at 900 degrees so that he could be returned to me as a bunch of grey ash and bone fragments.

And guess what? Life kept on going. People brushed their teeth and straightened their ties and chose the right shoes to match their outfits and I did not understand. I knew there was so much more going on, things that arent’ seen and so feel lost. They are not lost. We who lose those we love walk differently. We cannot live in the world the same way, though we seem to. We are not even sure we want to be part of this world, but the reality is we are. So we have to find a way to bridge the gap. Or we can live in rage and hate, in despair, for what was “done” to us, when really, nothing at all was done to us. People’s dying is not done to us. What to do with that? To think about death we must move beyond vanity. Because all the money we make, all the things we buy, all the exercise we do and all the botox we shoot is not going to change the fact of death. We will die and if we’ve any hope of leaving this world without rage and fear, now is the time to work toward that. Philip once told me that I might think I want to die, but I am not ready. The way I live is the way I will die – if I live in fear, so will I die. There’s no magic that will make dying okay if living never felt the same. And I have much to do to make living feel the same.

© 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

How I Practice

I’ve been getting rid of stuff. Because when there’s too much of what you have, it becomes stuff instead of what it really is. It’s not clothes, books, shoes, jewelry, fabric; it’s stuff. And when there’s too much around there’s that much more of a psychic load to carry.

But it’s a mistake to get rid of things for the sake of getting rid of them. Things have value. I don’t want to worship what I have – I just want to understand what it all means. I want to remember everything has a life cycle. If I buy something, I’m responsible for seeing it through to the end. Whether it’s become garbage because it’s useless, or it’s something I donate it because I’m overwhelmed at the thought of dragging it to consignment, I am responsible.

I this started back in November – I took every piece of clothing and every pair of shoes I owned and put them on the living room floor. Panties included. Then I picked up each piece and asked myself if I loved it – I did not ask when the last time was that I wore it. And if I didn’t love it but didn’t want to give it away, I asked myself why? Like the dark green sweater that found its way back into my drawer. It depresses me when I wear it – it feels dark and sad and I’ve enough of that inside without wearing it outside. I kept it because it was expensive, because I bought it only last year, because Natalie really liked it and part of why I bought was so she could wear it. We often share clothing (which means she borrows my stuff) and I find myself greedy to be the one who can claim ownership. But she’s the one that likes the sweater and now she’s the one who owns it.

If I can’t let go of a sweater, what am I going to do about the last letting go, the biggest one of all?

During this purging, Laura, Philip’s first serious girlfriend, came to visit with her friend, Ella. Natalie and I lived with Laura and Nadiya, her mom, for a few years before I got my own apartment. Laura wanted to come over to see my apartment, to meet Nikki, to rummage through my clothes before I gave them away. While she and Ella were here, I told them the story of the day I was packing to move, and decided not to drag along the 3,000 or so pages of emails that I’d stored under my bed (which is a story for another time). Downstairs I went with boxes full of paper, sat on the bottom of the staircase and started tearing. Two good long rips later I balked. Was I doing the right thing, was I going to need these one day, what if  I needed them to write the book I thought I was going to write before Philip died, the book about something that seemed so important and came to matter little after I discovered just what life could do to me.  That’s when I noticed a something on the on the floor. I picked it up to find it was a clothing tag from the store called Forever 21.

I saved that tag, and as I told my story, I pulled it out for dramatic effect. And since I have a habit of putting things down and forgetting where I put them, that is exactly what I did. A couple days went by, and it hit me that I remembered picking up the tag, but I didn’t remember putting down the tag. I went to the cubby in my desk where I kept it, but it wasn’t there. I tore my desk apart, looked under the couch and the bureau, picked the edges of the rug. It wasn’t anywhere. That tag was proof that Philip was around I needed it. But a few panicked minutes later I stopped – I cannot stay upset for things I can do nothing about. And if I’m practicing letting go, then what did it matter? What mattered was that it happened, and what it means to me. I still have my story to tell. Maybe without the dramatic flourish at the end, but it’s still my story.

Then came Thanksgiving at my brother’s. Late in the evening, when I got home,  I got out of my car and said, “Philip, I want something.” I opened the door to my building, and in the entry was a box of recycling with a glossy flier on top with a store announcing a 21%  off sale. 21% off?? Who has a sale for 21% off?? So I lost a tag but have a flier. For now.

The phenomena of the tag and the flier are not isolated incidents. Philip communicates with me every day, in startling ways. I have stories and stories. I am graced, for sure. I’ve no doubt he’s here, and he won’t let me forget. Still – he’s dead and it terrifies me. But…he’s here. Not his body, but his presence is clear. So I find myself choosing my words more carefully. I can’t say Philip’s gone because that’s not the truth. But he’s dead and I’m still trying to figure out what that means because it’s the end of our lives as we knew them, but it’s not the end of the story.

So why this raging grief, and what am I terrified of? Am I afraid to die? There’s a correlation between my fear of letting go and my fear of death. The less I’m attached to what or who is part of my life, the easier it will be to die. This life needs to be let go of and I can practice doing that every day. That’s not to be confused with, “Who gives a shit? I’m going to die anyway.” Because what I’m talking about takes courage. It is a conscious, meaningful decision to stop resisting what is. And the more I stop, the more I know love. Because love cannot be grasping and clinging. Which makes me question if I’ve ever truly loved, and what I really meant when I said, “I love you” to someone. Was it them I was really loving, or was it my need for them to love me?

The one true love I know is that for my children. That’s why I knew how to let them go. Let them be. And that’s why I’m in such deep communion with Philip now. What was between us in life doesn’t change with his death.

It was three years ago today – 2/01 – that I last saw my son. This is the season of his birth and his death. I find myself doing exactly what I did when he first died. Sitting on the couch, knitting and watching TV. If I have any advice for people who lose loved ones, it’s what someone told me when Philip first died: Follow whatever creative urge you have. So I knit, I write, I sew, I cook. I’m alone and quiet in my mourning because it’s time to tend to it.  Whatever letting go needs to be done around Philip’s death, I cannot yet do. When I say, “letting go” what I mean is to stop resisting what I feel. That doesn’t mean I won’t grieve any more, it does not mean it’s okay that Philip died. It just means I allow what I’m feeling to be as it is, knowing that – whether I like it or not – it will pass into something else.

It is in not resisting that I will mine the riches of Philip’s death. I am coming to understand that is the way to honor him, that is the way I can see his death was not for naught. His death means what I make it to be – and he’s asking me to make it my way into life.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Nikki

It’s taken two weeks of writing for me to realize what I want to say – and this isn’t it. But I’m posting this first because it’s been too long, and next because I want to show you.

I have an open heart toward animals, which is why I don’t eat them. But when I decided I wanted a dog, it wasn’t just any dog. It had to be a shih-tzu, and now I have two. There’s something I can’t figure out about this – since there are so many dogs that need homes for free, why buy one? We’re talking about sentient creatures, not the right pair of Converse. If I wanted a dog, why did it have to be a shih-tzu? Why did it have to look a certain way? Sure, even in a shelter you have to pick, but you’re picking among dogs that need homes. I bought a dog that had a waiting list of people wanting to take it home.

It’s not breeders that are the problem – if the only people selling animals were breeders, that would take care of the homeless-animal problem. But that’s a fantasy – reality is, as usual, hard and ugly. And I can’t help but look at myself more closely since Philip died, wonder why I do what I do. And given the way I feel about animals, this is a conundrum – but the short answer is I am intensely attracted to long hair, big eyes and a puggy face. And what I wanted in my heart overruled what I thought in my head. It’s not bad, it’s not good, it just is. And I’d say in general, the heart is the one to trust.

This time it was beautiful, long-haired, blue-eyed cat that I wanted, and here she is:

Nikki 8-24-14

Nikki at two months

Nikki is a Himalayan, and I pick her up on Friday. She’s named after my dad – Nicky – and my niece Nicole, who died when she was four, which I wrote a little about here. Right now Nikki’s a teeny two pounds or so. I just want to pick her up and hold her close – it’s that ache again, that wanting that is not going to go away, but maybe can be eased a little. So I’ve another baby to love, and that has got to be a good thing.

(If you’re wondering what’s up with the background in the picture, Nikki’s owner has a cat ledge in her house that’s in front of a painting of a beach. Everybody knows cat-people are crazy…need I say more? ;o)

1/20/91 ~ 2/23/12

It’s no exaggeration to say that I knew the worst moments of my life on February 23rd, 2012. One of the first things I thought when Phil told me Philip had died was, “Right now, this very second, there are people all over the world who are feeling like I am right now. And if it is possible to feel like this, what is the point of being alive?”

Many of you know exactly what I’m talking about. And all of you are helping me, every day, to find some “point.” You have shown me love and so taught me gratitude. Because without love, without connection, there is no point.

I thought that instead of writing something today, I’d scan a bunch of pictures of Philip and post them, but that didn’t feel right. For  reasons I can’t yet figure out, posting that last picture of Philip and Natalie sent me spinning into despair. Then I thought I’d post some quotes from an anthology  I have of writers and poets on losing a child. Except I read so much of that book today that I started to drown in it all, which meant I wasn’t breathing and the world was turning into the color of death.

I haven’t much to say. It’s quiet time now. But I wanted to mark this day somehow, so here it is. And I’ll end with just one quote, which pretty much sums it up:

“I love the boy with the utmost love of which my soul is capable, and he is taken from me…yet, in the agony of my spirit in surrendering such a treasure, I feel a thousand times richer than if I had never possessed it.” ~ William Wordsworth

RIP Philip – my love, my heart, my son.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Two Years

Me and Philip, August 2012

Me and Philip, August 2012

Two years ago today was the last time I saw Philip; February 1st, as in 2/1 or 2/01 which will make sense if you read what I wrote here.

We went to dinner at the moderately expensive restaurant called Next Door, so named because it’s next to Blu, its older, more expensive sibling. It’s the omission of the “e” that makes you think it’s okay to pay up.

We ate, we talked. When we were done Philip asked if he could leave before the check; he had to get to fencing practice. Of course you can, I said. We stood to say good-bye and the restaurant became the stage where I kissed my handsome, 6’1” son for what would be the last time. Are you all watching, I thought; are you looking at this child of mine, this beautiful boy I mothered – me, I did it – and do you see what I see?

Turned out someone was watching.  I sat to wait for the check and the woman next to me smiled. “You always worry about them, don’t you?” she said. I smiled and nodded but truth was I didn’t worry. Philip and I were solid and if what was between us was right, what did anything else matter?

Then the unimaginable – that’s what came to matter.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

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