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


What it Took

I have learned more in the year-and-a-half since Philip died than I have learned in a lifetime.

It’s not separate, not really. It’s all of a piece of the work I’ve done because of the particular things I struggle with. Philip’s dying is my own personal Big Bang. But I also feel like the fact that he died is killing me slowly.

What I’ve come to understand is that the reason we’re here is to learn to love. Trite? I think not. A year-and-a-half ago I would’ve rolled my eyes if you said that to me. It took me nearly 55 years to get it; it took Philip dying for me to understand that the simple open heart I had with him gave me joy. I have said I never felt joy. That’s because in my unhappiness, I imagined what joy would feel like. Like if I ever felt it,  I’d rise beaming several feet off the floor. No. Joy was the open heart I had when I was with my son. It was quiet. Soft. It meant the knot that lived in my belly untwined and there wasn’t any other place I wanted to be.

I didn’t recognize it. I didn’t know that the incessant searching I’ve done for decades was because I felt disconnected (read: unloved), and that the way you feel connected to others, to the world, and most of all to your-Self is through love.

Love is one of those words that gets tossed around so much we stop thinking about what it really means. For now, I’m going to keep it simple. I am at the beginning, and it’s going to take me time to go deeper. When my heart opens up to someone and I feel connected, that is love. I’m not saying it’s as intense as with my children, as intense as if someone came along who I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. But if my heart is open, it’s from love. My love; it’s mine because I feel it and I want to share it.

There are people I’ve “met” through this blog that I love. Zoe. Tersia. Lucia. Rose. Nancy. And if I’ve left you out, I love you anyway. And there’s my cousin Lee who I’ve not been in touch with for decades. We’ve reconnected through my blog. Any time between us collapsed and all there is is how much I love her, I’ve always loved her.

Still, it hurts. It hurts to feel anything beyond grief; like I want to stay mutilated because I don’t want to leave Philip behind. How the hell can I be happy if my son is dead? How do I sort the real grief from the drama?

It’s too soon. I don’t yet know how to live.

I’ve said that when Philip died, I’d been going through a real shift in the way I felt about life. I was developing faith. And I know that shift has given me the tools I need to cope with his death. Like that faith. Except mine turned to ashes when he did. I mean, I know what faith is: it’s when I stop assuming the worst and pay attention to what I’m doing. Actually, it’s assuming nothing and paying attention to what I’m doing. Faith doesn’t mean I expect what I consider “good” is going to happen. It means that I know right now, in this moment, I am okay. Do I even know what’s “good” for me? Back in July, when I found an apartment and then lost it because of a technicality, I flipped. I flipped. I called my cousin Carol crying and I called Ed crying and neither one of them bought the drama so by the time I hung up with them, I was done. I let it go. I didn’t think my way out of it – I simply burst from the pressure and once I did, it didn’t matter.  So what changed? I’d still lost the apartment.  But I changed. I’d have to look for another apartment. That’s the sane response.

I don’t mind what happens.

And what happened? I found an apartment that wasn’t exactly where I wanted it, but it’s in a lovely neighborhood. The rent is $200 cheaper, dogs are allowed, the apartment is bigger and nicer, and I’m a two minute drive from Ed. Turned out my loss was actually my gain. My meltdown changed nothing, which isn’t news to me. And faith is not insisting that if I lose an apartment, I have to get a better one. Faith is losing the apartment and doing the work to find another one. Period.

I am talking about faith and the need to feel connected because I want to talk about the signs I get from Philip. They’re not weird or spooky and it doesn’t require me to turn down the lights, put on mood music, light the incense and candles and sit in lotus. It’s just every day things, some profound, some just nudging me on because he knows that when I’m walking around I keep waiting for the ground to open up and swallow me. I see no other way to release this pain that I can’t carry but of course I carry. Like we all carry; like all the people we meet in a day who go about their business and we think, “Why can’t I get it together like she does?” yet we don’t know a damn thing about what it took for her to get up that morning, put on her suit and face another day.

I’m going to stop here or this post is going to turn into a novella. Next, the details.

Day 3, and So On

I hate this. I goddamn hate that my son is dead and that you’ll say so very sympathetically, “Of course you do” but you don’t know. You think I’m brave and I’m doing great and hey, I’m writing a blog and maybe it’s what’s keeping me sane, but what do I do when I’m done with my story? Day One and Day Two (parts one, two, three and four) and now Day Three, and then what? What if I run out of things to say? Because I certainly won’t run out of things to feel. It’s my silences I don’t know how to live with.

It’s Friday, and I am at my parents’ house in Brooklyn. Philip is all around, pictures of when he was 2 and 4 and 14 and 17 and 18 and 20. He’s kissing his cousin, sitting with his grandma, sitting on a rock in Wyoming during the last vacation we’d taken as a family. And he’s in my old bedroom, on the bureau, he and Nicole, two dead grandbabies with a place of their own. And if I sound angry that my mom did that, I’m not. I’m angry that such a thing should be necessary.

I’m here to visit my dad in the hospital, where he was taken for arrhythmia on Monday, and where we briefly thought he might die. What do people think about when they’re not thinking about death? It’s most of what I think about, no matter whatever else it seems I might be thinking about. Fill it up, regular; do you know my son is dead? Three veggie burgers and a chicken Panini; do you know my son is dead? What time should we meet for dinner; you didn’t forget my son is dead?

I don’t want to be in this hospital, this Bizarre Hotel where the NICU is opposite the birthing center and which I suppose might be viewed as perfectly normal, but it’s a normal I don’t want to be reminded of. Philip and Natalie were perfectly healthy babies who were the result of perfectly healthy pregnancies and had perfectly healthy births, right in my very own home – but who knew that babies who aren’t sick or hurting didn’t necessarily grow up to be adults who aren’t sick and hurting? If they managed to grow up at all, that is.

I’m at the hospital with my mom, and my Aunt Joan and her granddaughter, Andrea. The two of them flew in from North Carolina Thursday night. I picked them up from the airport, drove them to my parents’ house and slept there with them. Natalie’s working in the city. When she’s done, she’ll take the train here, to the hospital. Tonight we’ll drive home.

But I want to go home now. I want to be in my TV room on the couch, the same couch I’d tucked myself into when I found out Philip died, and where I’d spent most of the next year because to move off it was to take my attention away from my grief and I refused to take my attention off my grief.

No. That’s not it. It wasn’t possible to take my attention off my grief. It was intolerable. People thought it would be good for me to go out, get my mind off it. Even now I want to throw my head back and cackle like a crazy hyena at the absurdity of such a sentiment. You can be forgiven if you say such a thing because you don’t know what else to say, but if you really believe what you’re saying, then naiveté is the color of your world.

Never mind. Either way, there’s deep ignorance involved to suggest there’s such a thing as getting my mind off what Philip’s death felt like, and today I am in no mood to be charitable about any of it. The damn stupidity of suggesting I could take my mind off it, like getting some fresh air would do anything other than remind me that Philip couldn’t breathe it. What was I supposed to do, pluck my mind out of my head, lay it down on my pillow, tell it, “I’ll be back a little later, when you’ve calmed down?” As if that would have mattered, as if without a mind to think about it, my body wouldn’t still have been folding in on itself in its shock and disbelief that This Is My Reality, not some episode of ER where I could shake my head and think, “Wow. Sucks to be them.”

Maybe there’s truth to that. If emotion truly is the body’s response to what the mind’s thinking, “taking my mind off it” might’ve given me some relief. Except it’s delusional to think there was another response to Philip’s death besides the one I was having, that spending my time figuring out how not to think about my son being dead was somehow going to help me live through it. Why not just tell me to go get drunk about it? That would have been just as productive as any other way to not think about it. I mean, isn’t this what I got sober for? So I could fully feel what something like this feels like?


If, in fact, “getting my mind off it” was valid advice, it didn’t matter. No one can tell anyone else how to grieve. The one thing that made any sense to me was when my friend Debbie, who works with the bereaved, told me to follow any creative impulse I had. Which led to months and months of me sitting on my couch and knitting, and to consider writing the book, “How Knitting Saved My Life.”

You’d think it would’ve taken something heroic for me to make it through that night. The magnitude of my loss seemed to demand heroism to survive it. But I’m no fireman running into a burning, crumbling tower. They were the brave ones, the ones the word “heroism” was meant for. Me – I had no choice in this. This was life. Wait – no. This was death. Happens every second of every day and sooner or later everyone has to deal with it. Just so happens now it was my turn.

That night I sat on my couch like a wild thing caught in a trap, scrunched in a fetal position, knees bent, toes clenched, hands fisted, chewing on my thumbnails and staring at nothing, wanting someone to come and help me, embarrassed and afraid that they would. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to be. For two hours I sat in an ungodly silence broken only by my on-and-off sobbing and heaving. It should have been storming outside; the rain should have been pelting, the thunder ferocious, the lightning dazzling, the trees snapping and cracking from its impact. At the very least someone in the house besides me should be making maybe a sob or a moan.  And when the silence of that huge and implacable house provoked the racket in my brain into a simply unbearable frenzy, I grabbed my phone, went to my bedroom, shut the door and called Janine.

Janine is my friend from Brooklyn; we’d met one morning when we’d taken our kids to the same park on 79th Street and Shore Road. Philip was around 4; Janine’s son Jake was a few months older. There’s no good that can come from an unexpected phone call at 4:00 in the morning, which is maybe why she didn’t pick up the first time around. I chose her to call because if you’re going to give someone a 4am call, it’s got to be someone who’s going to start screaming right along with you.

Because that’s what we do, we women. We moan when our children come into the world, wail if they leave it before we do.  Our lives then become Life Sentences, as we’re condemned to carry on without those we carried into this world. What are we to do, we ask? We are a society of do-ers. What use is it to just be? Where’s the value in that? If we don’t have something to show for our time spent, what the hell are we worth? That’s why we have such a hard time with the elderly; theirs is a time to be, but the rest of us are so busy doing that we whiz on by while they watch with rheumy eyes, eyes that probably have lots to teach us if we’d just slow down and pay attention for a bit.

How ill-equipped are we to deal with death, then? The original moment when the immovable object meets the irresistible force. My body was screaming for action while my mind understood it wouldn’t matter. I wanted this feeling out of my body. One night, during the relentless progression of Nicole’s cancer, Robert went to South Beach on Father Capodano Boulevard in Staten Island and screamed. I picture him, head thrown back, maybe shaking his fists, maybe stamping his feet, howling his anguish to that dark and endless universe, the only place that could contain it.  And maybe he screamed until he was sure he had not one more drop of rage to exhaust, only to find that all it took was one night’s sleep – and not even a good one, at that – to revive his rage, but not his spirit.

Animals caught in traps have been known to chew off a limb to escape. I was that animal, but short of ingesting my entire body, there was no escape. Where would I escape to, anyway? I wanted to escape what I knew. I cursed Eve for biting into that goddamned apple. The Tree of Knowledge; the tree of consciousness, the part where we woke up and began to know things like loss and grief and death, things that I was quite clear I did not want to know about. Not where my children are concerned. Most unequivocally, especially, assuredly where my children are concerned.

But here’s the thing. There’s only grief because there’s love. That’s what it means to live in a world of opposites. Once we decide “good,” we’ve automatically created “bad.” Once there’s birth, there’s death. Once we love a child, we grieve if we lose that child. If I intend to make meaning, then I have to pay attention to what I say. “I do not want this grief,” I say. But I love my son; I want to love my son. What am I meaning, then? That I wish I had no kids so that I didn’t have to know this formerly unspeakable thing that is kicking the damn shit out of me? But you don’t know the unspeakable without having the mad, deep love that is its cause, and I would have rather had Philip for a while than not have had him at all.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

Happy Birthday?

Tuesday was my mom’s birthday. Natalie and I went out to dinner with her and my dad, my brother Robert and his wife, Maria (if you’ve been reading along and are confused about “Maria,” one is my cousin and one is my sister-in-law. It’s an Italian thing.), my nephew and two nieces. My other niece is away at college in Boston. Yes, that Boston. She was in the area an hour or so before the bombs went off.

Last year, Philip hadn’t even been dead two months when my mom turned 80. That was the end of the surprise party. Birthdays are way too ironic in the face of death. We weren’t about to celebrate life after it had turned on us, and in such a vicious, impossible way.

This year, my dad kept it simple. I don’t think my mom wanted a bigger celebration. Last year we were in our separate orbits around Philip. This year, not so much. This year, I remembered that everyone had lost him. Philip was a brother, a nephew, a cousin. He was a grandchild, the second one who had died. See, I have been greedy in my grief, wanting it all, allowing no portion to anyone else. It bound me to my son, and I believed it was all that was left between us. I was not about to share. It was Natalie who had to remind me that yes, I lost my son, but she lost her brother, and that very much mattered, too.

Tuesday I didn’t need to be reminded. Tuesday I looked around the table and had a collapsible moment where I realized that these people are my family and I love them. Don’t “of course you do” me. I do not love so easily. In that moment I knew why. Because it hurts too much. It hurts. I am helplessly in love with my children; thank god for that. But Philip’s death left my heart roadkill, and when love reaches in and touches, it does not soothe.  It reminds me of its cost. I see the terrible beauty of grief, the cost of a life deeply lived. I have spent my life wanting to live deeply; did I understand what I was asking for?

I have to take it in bits and pieces.

Full disclosure #1: I’d considered writing about my mom’s birthday, but decided not to – time to get back to the narrative. But Natalie had been taking pictures that night, and she posted some on her blog. Just a few; my mom and dad, Robert, me, Natalie. It’s a happy blog; she’s a happy girl. So if you want to see what some of us look like – and give her a little more traffic while you’re at it – you can find her at www.flockingowls.blogspot.com .

Full disclosure #2: Natalie told me that the reason my gravatar is my picture is because it’s my Facebook picture and it’s somehow linked to everything else I do online. So in case you think you know what I look like, that is my face dressed up for a gala that was five years ago.

Just sayin’

© 2013 Denise Smyth

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