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

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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

The First Time

I miss Philip. I miss talking to him. I miss his adoration, even though I feel his love. But I’m human and I miss the human things. Like taking care of him if he wasn’t feeling well. Or telling him secrets because I knew I could trust him and that he was paying attention. And calling him first when something exciting happened. Like the day I went on my first ride at Six Flags.

It was a hot summer day in July and I was at Six Flags in New Jersey, home of Kingda Ka, the tallest and fastest roller coaster in North America.  I came here every year with Natalie and her best friends, Rebecca and Eve. Every year I trailed behind them, carrying assorted bags, cell phones and iPods for them so they could go on the rides while I sat on the bench, waiting. I didn’t go on rides. They scared me. But that year was different. That was the year I’d turned fifty, the year I’d gotten a job after spending 17 years at home with Philip and Natalie. I needed a reason to get of bed that didn’t include driving them somewhere or making three dinners because Philip wanted meat and Natalie didn’t and Phil couldn’t eat black pepper without upsetting his stomach. My therapist said I needed a job for structure. She worried that I was being sucked too far into a hole and I was afraid that the hand she offered to help me out of it was slipping beyond my reach.

So I found a part-time job that quickly turned full-time, and something happened along the way. I replaced the khaki skirts and sensible shoes my husband suggested I buy with skinny jeans tucked into high-heeled ankle boots. I started asking my family to take out the garbage and empty the dishwasher and seethed in fury when they didn’t. I’d trained them well – for years I’d done everything so the fact of my job didn’t suggest to them anything at home needed to change. And much as I was finding less need to sleep away the hours that had felt too long and hard to be awake for, I was still depressed – I was dull, I didn’t have a career, didn’t have a degree, didn’t have a purpose.

But that day life was pulsing in the crowds, the colors, the lights, the blaring loudspeakers and the roaring roller coasters. Overweight people with super-sized drinks held tightly to children with sticky cotton-candy fingers. Giggling teenagers brushed past me, rushing to the next ride. Even here I was on the wrong side of excitement. There was something I wanted, something I needed to know, something in the crowds I normally disdain and the rides I was terrified to go on. I was pulled in their direction and resisting like hell. I thought I was different. I didn’t eat fast food, meat or dessert. I didn’t drink soda, I wasn’t afraid of the dark or of germs and I didn’t wash my hands after I went to the bathroom. I wasn’t afraid of cancer and I wasn’t afraid of death. Death sounded easy, like going to sleep and not having to wake up facing long, dull days when I went out only to buy groceries or pick up my kids from school.

I was restless and sticky as I prowled around the amusement park with the girls. We stopped in front of a purple behemoth of a ride that rose fourteen stories high with a track that twisted and corkscrewed around while riders screamed over its roar. That’s Medusa, Rebecca told me, and asked if I’d go on with them. They knew better than to ask me to ride anything more exotic than the gorgeously painted horses on the carousel, but all morning Rebecca’s been bugging me to at least try and I was secretly hoping she’d convince me.

“I can’t,” I said.

“C’mon,” Rebecca said, giving me a nudge. “Of course you can.”

“No. I can’t. Forget it.”

“You’ll be fine,” she insisted. “Just do it. We’ll be right there with you.”

“But…”

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” she cut in. She eyed me carefully, then shrugged. “If you really don’t want to…” She turned back to Natalie. My daughter hadn’t said a word, sure that her mother would never go on this ride and wondering why Rebecca would even bother to ask.

I followed them onto the line, where they turned to me.

“You coming?” Rebecca asked.

I don’t know what I’m doing. I think I’m cracking up here.  I’m tired of sitting on the bench, tired of waiting, tired of being afraid and I don’t have the nerve to do anything about it. If I stand here a while, maybe I’ll find it.

“No. But I’ll just stay with you for now.”

Staying meant walking with the girls up the staircase that ended at the platform where Medusa pulled in. I was filled with dread. I didn’t know if I was more afraid of getting on the ride or watching it leave without me. If I didn’t get on that damn ride I’d spend the rest of the day withering under the weight of yet another choice made by ambivalence. But that was the dismal habit of my life and I didn’t think I could break it.

I panicked as what I thought was a distant rumbling turned into a ground-shaking roar. Medusa pulled in and screeched to a stop in front of us. I watched people unbuckling seatbelts and unstrapping harnesses, looking for something in their faces that would tell me what to do. A lifetime of wanting someone to tell me how to live still hadn’t taught me that whatever answer I got wasn’t the one I wanted. I could have called the Almighty down and it still wouldn’t have helped. He’d already given me life; He just forgot to include the operating manual.

“Mom!”

“What?” I ask, startled out of my reverie.

“We’re going on. What are you doing?”

I looked over at the ride in desperation. That’s when I saw him. The chubby little boy who couldn’t have been more than eight, being helped off the ride by his father. He jumped out of his seat as soon as he was able, happily slipped his hand into his father’s and vanished down the staircase on his way, I was sure, to his next thrill. He was living life. He was awake.

I turned back to the girls.

“I’m coming.”

Yes!” screeched Rebecca.

“Are you sure?” asked Natalie anxiously. And with a twist that was only the beginning of what would become an increasingly tense dynamic between us, she became the worrying mother, trying to protect me from making choices she didn’t understand to do things she’d never seen me do.

Once we were seated and strapped in, Medusa came alive with a clang as the metal floor dropped out from beneath us. I tensed as I looked down to where the ground used to be and saw nothing but narrow track. Then with a jerk, we lurched forward. My stomach lept up to my throat.  Medusa’s padded torso brace held my upper body firmly, while my legs dangled loose and dangerously free. We swung around the first curve and headed up the incline. The world was turning white hot as we inched up the slope until the sickening moment when we paused at the apex. Terrified, I did the only thing I could: I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and let Medusa take me where she would.

We were off. Straight down we plummeted, wind batting back my hair, my breasts pressed firmly against the brace. The momentum forced my legs apart with a freedom I’d yet to experience anywhere else. Up we went to loop around, then around again, my back arching to resist the plunge, then slamming against the seat when we raced back up, breathless as we spun upside down, elated as we rose once again. Inside the roaring, I was weightless, flying, careening side to side, tossed upside down, thrust forward yet again, until way too soon we jerked to a stop, then cautiously slid forward to the platform, where we exited on one side so those waiting on line could enter from the other.

Back on the ground, the air was pungent with barbecue and buttered popcorn. In the midst of the crowd I looked up. Kingda Ka rose forty-five stories into the dazzling blue sky before me. Natalie followed my gaze

.“Mom, no. No.

I didn’t argue. She’d gone on that ride before, but she was frightened; I saw it in the intensity of her big green eyes, heard it in the urgency of her voice. She wasn’t quite sure what happened but she had enough for one day. For the moment, I agreed.

© 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

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

Lonely?

Natale and Me, October 2015

Natalie and Me, October 2015

Natalie and I just had portraits taken. This is my favorite. I have a portrait of Philip and me, I wanted one of me and Natalie. How happy I look – it makes me smile when I see it. And it’s genuine – I love my daughter and I am able to enjoy her. “Enjoy” is a word I thought I would never use once Philip died. But the deep and grievous wound of his death has made me vulnerable to love as well as to pain. Never have I realized how deeply I love my daughter. Or that the fact of my love for my son is what sustains me through his death, even as it brings me to my knees in grief.

Sometimes when I’m driving, I say Philip’s name. I call out to him. And I realize how little his name is actually said. And how saying it doesn’t mean he’ll answer the phone or sit across from me and chat at dinner. It reminds me that something’s gotten smaller and more lonely. His name is lost in space. I can say it, it can go out there, but I will never speak it out loud to my son again.

I used to scream Philip’s name in my car when he first died. Now when I say it it hangs thin in the air, like an empty clothesline. A reminder that there used to be a person at the other end of that name, there used to be hair and flesh and hands that had two differently shaped thumbs. I’m the only one, besides him, who noticed. He was over 6’, tall enough to for me to lay my head on his chest when I needed a moment of love and protection. Reassurance, because what could be wrong if he was all right? That’s why I didn’t worry about him. Because he was all right until he wasn’t, and worrying wouldn’t have changed anything.

I’ve been wondering if I’m lonely. Another one of those feelings I thought would feel one way when in fact it feels another. I imagined lonely as sitting with my head hanging and wishing desperately for company. I imagined it small, sad and helpless in the kind of silence no sound can disturb. But that’s not what it is. It’s quiet, for sure. It’s a longing for I-don’t-what. It’s a restlessness. It’s me hurrying home because that’s where I’ll find what I love. My daughter. My dog and my cat. And it’s where I go to do what I love – to write, to quilt, to knit. When I’m creating I feel alive.

But I have to follow the flow of my energy because there’s only so much of it. I know when I want to write or knit or sew. I also know when I’m done with it for the day, and that often leaves a space that I fill with TV. The only television I used to watch was news. Now I can’t watch the insanity we call “the world.” The grief I hold for Philip is all I can manage. So I look for series, the longer the better. I started that when Philip died. It didn’t take away the sick knot in my stomach, or that I felt raw, bloodied and beaten up, but it quieted my mind. And if I needed anything, it was relief from the damn screaming in my head.

Now there’s no more screaming, just the chattering of the monkey mind. And confusion about what it is I’m yearning for but can’t find. Whatever it is, it’s not “out there.” It’s a reckoning from within. The past informs my present too much. Growing up I felt I was in the wrong world doing the wrong things. I was drunk and directionless. I went to college, then dropped out because I wasn’t interested. I got a job in the last place I thought I’d wind up, Wall Street. For years I worked there in misery. I knew I was in trouble the day I got a $12,000 bonus and looked at it with a shrug.

It is not enough to say, “it’s a job, you’re not supposed to like it.” If that’s what you make of it, then that’s how you’ll live. It was work I was after, not some job, but I didn’t know how to find it because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was asleep. What I wanted to do, what I always wanted to do, was write – but at 18 I was incapable of making decisions that didn’t involve alcohol. I wandered into FIT (Fashion Institute) in NY because my friend went there. As if I gave  a shit about fashion. When that didn’t work out I wandered into a job on Wall Street because a friend got me an interview. I spent my free time drinking and when I decided to stop, I spent my free time in AA.

I didn’t understand what I know now. Back then, the world was the problem, as if I had nothing to do with anything. As if I was at the mercy of an implacable universe. I used to say there must be a God because this much pain can’t be random

I can’t say how I think my life should be or should have been. The doing is only the reflection of the being. If I had the presence of mind when I was a kid, I would have gone to college to study the things that called me – writing and literature. That would have led to a different life. Not necessarily better, just different. But that’s not what happened. I am where I am because of choices I made and things that have happened that I have no control over. The classroom I learn from is wherever I am.

There is a way to live that feels right. You have to pay attention to where your spirit leads, not to what the world says. The world is crazy – why on earth would you want to listen to it? I’ve listened too long and too hard and much as I begin to disengage from the false, the truth is not so easily revealed. Or maybe it is and I still can’t see it. I’ve an inner struggle that manifests in the material. Today, talking with Kirsten, I realized that much as I don’t particularly think about the future, I have a sense that this is all there is, this is where I stop, this is where I’ll be when I die, restless and lonely, wondering what it was I was asked to do but too scared to hear the question.

© 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

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