20 Years

Philip and Nicole - 1994?

Philip and Nicole – 1994?

Sometimes, when I especially want to torture myself, I think of life as a long, long road made up of days that turn into weeks that turn into months that turn into years. And “20” is the number that keeps coming up. I’m 56. It’s conceivable I’ll live another 20 years. And I say, “No. I cannot. I cannot live 20 years without my son. I cannot become an old woman who’s lost her son so many years ago, who’s gotten older while he’s stayed the same.” It’s as if in 20 years he’ll be more dead, as if “more dead” makes any kind of sense.

So here are my two angels, Philip and Nicole. Nicole died 20 years ago today. Which means my brother and sister-in-law have lived that long without her. They were at the beginning of starting their family when she died. She was four, and her sister Christina was 18 months, the same age as Natalie. They went on to have three more children. That’s a whole hell of a lotta love.

Philip and Nicole are ten months apart – she is the older one. By the time Philip was a year and a half, he and Nicole were the same size and had the same curly hair. People often thought they were twins. I have many pictures of them together, and in some of them – like the one above – there is something very adult about the two of them. One of my favorites – one I can’t find – is where they’re leaning on a low stone wall, Philip with his navy cardigan and baggy plaid pants, holding a sippy-cup and looking to the side; Nicole in her flowered dress leaning on him with one arm around his neck. In another world, he’d be the tough guy with the drink in hand, she’d be the doll by his side.

What to say? I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to figure that out. I miss these children terribly. They’ve shown me how bloody harsh life is; they’ve also shown me just how madly I can love. My heart is breaking all over again. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Here’s one more photo. October, 1994. Nicole has only weeks left to live. She looks well, her hair’s growing back after the chemo. So were the cancer cells that raged in her head. But I believe these two are at peace, and for that I am grateful.

Philip and Nicole, October 1994

Philip and Nicole, October 1994

Give My Life, Live My Life

What wildness there is in grief. What unpredictability. And exhaustion. I’m tired of this crazy ride, I’m tired of missing Philip. Crying won’t bring him back, but I do it anyway. When words won’t come, tears take their place. I cry because I want my son alive, because I am helpless, because I want somebody to hang on to for a while, two strong arms and a shoulder I can tuck myself into and make believe, even for a while, that someone’s love for me is greater than this loss I don’t want to live with. And so the ugliness of grief – it creates a terrible need and then makes it impossible to meet.

My son. Sometimes I call him Philip, sometimes I call him my son. I’ve been trying more often to write “Philip.” “Philip” is older, is more independent, more of a partner. He is tall and handsome. He goes to school and pays his rent. He comes to dinner with me and even when he’s 21, he comes and lies on my couch when he’s not feeling well.

When I say, “my son,” I’m on my knees with my eyes raised to the holy heavens, begging for him to please come home. When I say, “my son” I’m lamenting more than saying – and I join the collective of all who’ve lost a child. It doesn’t make it better, that anyone else should feel this. We suffer a loneliness that can’t be touched because each of us lost our child and our special relationship and no matter who is suffering this, it’s hard to believe anyone else really gets it. Because Philip is my son and I am the one who lost him most.

I’d have given my life for my son. I’d have stalked, roared, clawed, destroyed anyone who dare try to hurt him. Because that’s what mothers do. I think I’ve been calling him “Philip” more because it hurts just a little bit less. Because claws and all I couldn’t protect my son, and if I call him Philip I know that he’s responsible for his death, too.

I don’t mean that I’m responsible in that I could have done something so he wouldn’t have died. I’m responsible for his being born, for the ways I responded to his life and now his death. At some point, the madness of grief has to give way to at least some lucidity where I can make decisions about how I feel and what I’m going to think about. I resist this. I grieve – as we all do – in the context of my life. Since I was a kid I’ve found it hard to be here and I still don’t get what’s so great about life. The way people don’t understand what I’m talking about is the way I don’t understand their ready engagement with the world. I am so angry that when I’d finally broken it down into something I could manage, when I decided that what I had to remember was I have my kids and I could build my life from there, Philip died. The nameless darkness I’ve lived with can now be called Death – and I can’t tell the grieving from the blaming.

I’m staring down the question we all come to sooner or later – how do I live in the face of death? Lately I’ve been doing that by waiting. In between time with Natalie and time at work, when I’m alone, I wait for it all to pass. I tell myself it doesn’t matter if I write or sew or cook or just lie on the couch and watch TV because sooner or later it’s all going to be gone. So what if I don’t like where I’m living? So what if don’t do laundry for weeks or if I eat sandwiches every night? So what if staying home sounds better than anything I can think to go out and do? When my turn comes I don’t think it’s going to matter where I lived or how many pillows I’ve sewn. It’s all going to fall away anyway, so what’s it really matter?

There is something Zen-like in that. To “not mind what happens” is the way to peace. But that’s not what I’m doing. I’m perverting that into defeat and a surrender to despair instead of acceptance. I’m so tired of Philip being dead, so weary of what I now carry. I know death, I want to scream; I know death. And it is not the end, it is not anything like the end. In fact, it’s endless. And relentless. You can’t reason with it, you can’t stop it, and once it’s come you can’t make it go away. You can’t call your kid any more, can’t watch him graduate from college, can’t get to know his new girlfriend or wonder if he’ll ever have kids because even though you never much liked babies, you were wild about your own and “grandma” had stopped sounding old, it just sounded like having more to love.

I’ve gone through – and am probably not done with – feeing guilty about being a mother who couldn’t protect her kid. Philip, from the second I found out he died, has asked something else of me. And when I talk like this, when I give up, I feel I’m betraying him. What am I doing with all he communicates to me? There’s a deep disconnect between my ranting at his death and the wonder at the love and protection I feel from him, that he shows me every day in tangible ways. Little things, like when I signed up for an adult ed class, walked into the high school and said, “Philip, I want to be in room 201.” Ridiculous, I knew, because class was on the first floor and I’ve been in that school enough times to know the rooms on the first floor start with 1. So while it couldn’t have been room 201, it was the next best thing: 102.

Or the bigger things, the things he gives me to think about. Like last week, on my way home after work, when the drive went from annoying to unbearable. I’m obsessively crazy about getting home, watching the cars on the highway more than the road itself to see if there’s an opening to get ahead. I strategize, I maneuver. I’m aggressive and treat each car like its sole reason for being in proximity to me is to keep me from getting where I want to go. It doesn’t matter that I see how crazy I am, or that I’m rushing home to spend a night alone, a night where I’ll dive under the covers in despair about Philip. I just want to get where I’m going. And on that day while I was thinking that I can’t do this any more but I’m helpless to do otherwise, I heard Philip. “Swerve, mom,” he said. “Just swerve.”

That’s all he had to say and I could breathe again. Philip was asking me if I could go gently, gracefully, from one lane to another when there was room to do so. I felt the breath that would allow me to do that, breath that would create the room I was desperate for. It’s holding my breath that makes me feel trapped. And then I understood what Philip was really telling me. That there are things I will come up against all the time, things that will not move and that I can’t barrel my way through. I can’t control any of that. But I can breathe and go round them, because that is the part that’s up to me.

I still don’t know what death is. I just keep learning what it isn’t. It’s life that’s harder than any of it. And the hardest question of all is that I said I’d give my life for Philip – why, then, won’t I live it for him?

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Healthy?

I’ve said before that I don’t listen to the news because I can’t stand the fighting. It’s always the same argument, and it gets vicious. The form changes, but not the content. People kill each because they want to be right, from the guy who shoots his girlfriend in the head to the guy who decides it’s time to drop the bomb. And when it comes to politics, people will go out of their minds to prove they’re right because it’s all about power. When they get that power, they’ll say anything to keep it. And if they can’t have it themselves, they’ll attach themselves to others who do. That’s what name-dropping is about – I might not be enough, but if I know people that matter, then I’ll matter, too.

And is that really what matters? I won’t listen to what I can only call insanity. I will not take on any more hurt than I have to.

Natalie listens to a lot of podcasts. Driving her to work one day, she asked if she could put one on. “I don’t want to listen to politics,” I warned her. As I’ve turned away from the daily warfare we know as politics, Natalie has turned from the parental fiscal conservativeness she grew up with to all-things-NPR. I don’t care. She knows I won’t discuss it, and she assures me that all she wants me to listen to are the stories of “This American Life.

I love stories. I get lost in stories. That’s why in the last two-and-half years I’m making up for all the TV watching I never did. When my kids were growing up, the only TV I watched was an hour or two of news after dinner, before I started reading. Now I hunt down old series that I can sit and watch for hours. Those imagined lives; those attractive people who care about things and get involved in things because they want to do things with all those other people who want to do those things, too. And they’re all adults. There’s CJ, tall and gracious yet so down to earth as she handles POTUS’ press conferences. Or busty, no-nonsense Joan, running the office of that ad agency with a smartness that comes from knowing how to use her sex. Or Rust – oh, Rust. Serious, worn, rugged, handsome and way too smart to live in a world like this.

When I watch TV I am transported and I forget. For just a while, I forget.

I’m hooked on “This American Life.” Whenever I’m driving, I listen. Last week I heard a show called “Origins,” four stories about the way certain things had started. Story number two was about a restaurant called Chad’s Trading Post. The producer of “This American Life” and his girlfriend happened in on it one day. When they picked up the menu, they read the restaurant was dedicated to and operated proudly in the memory of Chad. When they looked around, they saw the waiters at the Trading Post wore blue t-shirts with white writing on the back that announced their relationship with Chad: ”Chad’s Father,” “Chad’s Brother” “Chad’s Best Friend” “Chad’s Cousin.” Chad’s Mom, it turned out, used to work there, but was now involved in other things. There were pictures of Chad everywhere, even one that was life-sized. And so being a radio show producer, he spoke to Chad’s father Glenn, and got the story.

March 11th, 1990, two days before Chad’s sixteenth birthday, he was in his room with a friend and a couple of guns. The guns were legal, belonged to Glenn, who had no idea they were in his son’s room and so has to live with what he now knows. Chad picked up a gun, aimed it at his friend and said, “Bang.” The friend picked up the other gun, aimed it at Chad and went “Bang.”

I don’t know if Chad died immediately or in the ambulance, but just like that he was gone. The family went into shock, grief, despair. Chad has two brothers, Scott and Cory. How are we to live, they asked? Scott and his dad had to make a deal not to kill themselves. They all got tattooed in memory of him. Even grandma got one on her chest. And after a few years of despondency, they decided to open a restaurant.

From the time he was 12, Chad talked about opening a restaurant with his brothers and his best friend Mike, after they graduated high school. They planned the menu and scouted locations. So a few desperate and desolate years after Chad died, that’s what the family did. In telling the story, the producer remarked that he’d done many interviews and was used to people who started to cry in the middle of their story. Glenn was the first person who cried before he even started. And when he finished telling his story, the producer asked if this wasn’t kind of creepy, if this “roadside memorial” was a healthy thing to be doing.

I bet that producer never lost someone he loved, the kind of someone he loved in ways he didn’t know he could love. What is creepy about a family struggling to live with their son’s death? According to the reporter, Chad’s Trading Post was a happy, homey restaurant. The family talked about the fun and joking that went on while they worked. It’s the way they spend time with Chad. So what’s creepy? Why isn’t it creepy when you walk into a restaurant that’s plastered their walls with pictures of Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball? They’re as dead as Chad. Or those places where the waiters and waitresses dress up to look like those dead actors? But then, that’s not personal. Death in the abstract is okay. The reality of it is not.

And healthy? WTF is healthy? Isn’t that what you’re aiming for when you stop eating crap, join the gym, give up alcohol, keep a yoga mat in your trunk? “Healthy” has become chic, marketable and expensive. It has its own language, with words like “organic” “balanced” “healing energy” and “holistic” (sometimes spelled with a “w” to drive the point.) When I hear healthy, I think vanity. I think of the obsessiveness of trying to get your body to look and function the way you think your body should look and function – and the incessant chattering about reps and presses and miles ran and tendons torn. You know what? Go for it. Eat well. Exercise. But spend at least as much time thinking about death as you do working out at the gym. Because when death comes to tell you it’s your turn, being the best-looking body in a coffin will give new meaning to the term “cold comfort.”

I’d like to ask that producer what his version of healthy would be. If Glenn turned away, looked stoically toward some Chad-less future, lived with what he knew but put it in its place and moved on – is that would it would look like? “Healthy” is exactly what we do to avoid death. And when your kid dies and death demands you pay attention, you do pay attention. What the reporter was really saying was, “You’ve made this a little too real for me. I’d prefer to avoid it. Can you please show me how?” He wasn’t asking about Glenn, he was asking about himself.

I wonder if there aren’t any new questions to ask those of us who are living on the other side. Because clearly, living with Philip’s death has put me on some other side. And on this side, the words “grief” and “healthy” haven’t a goddamn thing to do with each other. Things are different here; the same rules don’t apply. There are no rules here, except the ones we each make. Or don’t make. Over here, we don’t ask each other if what we do is “healthy.” We ask, “How did you survive today?” Because sometimes, surviving’s just the best we can do.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

I Think of You

  • “I close my eyes I think of you
    I take a step, I think of you
    I catch my breath, I think of you
    I cannot rest, I think of you”
    “Looking Out” by Brandi Carlisle

She is, of course singing of a romantic relationship. I wrote once about that, about how people are always singing about romantic love – no one wants to touch the real grief that’s the other side of deep love. No one wants to sing about that kind of loss. So while Romantic Love’s what these lyrics are about, ask any parent who’s lost a child if they don’t resonate.

Tonight I feel Rutgers, New Brunswick. I’m there with Natalie, buying books for her next term. Philip knows we’re in the bookstore, comes to say hello. I am so happy to see him – Do you need anything, I ask? No, I’m good he answers. We chat a while, then he leaves. It was always okay when he left because we were okay. No thought of never seeing him again.

I’m selfish. I’m so wrapped up in Philip’s loss and Philip’s words that I forget things. I forgot to say something to Dale, about Brandon’s birthday. And today is one year since Amy Marie died and I know that Dee is suffering. And to all of you, who I’ve forgotten to say things to – know that I’m full of words. I’m not managing myself well.

So this is just to say I’m sorry for all of us who are suffering the loss of our precious children. I’m sorry if I’ve missed anything about Lucia, Dale, Tersia, Dave, Susan, Susan B., Mira, Daphne, Ed, Joyce, Afichereader, Deanna, Dakota, Anna, Joyce, Melissa, Toni, Elizabeth’s Mom, Graham’s Mom – and you who I haven’t mentioned, you who just care and let me know.  This is a pause to take a breath and bow our heads. They were here with us. Can we figure out how to make something of that?

© 2014 Denise Smyth

The Wanting

I don’t know the world since Philip died. Sometimes I think I’m just dreaming it away. But I try to pay attention to the light, what I hear it saying when I see the way it hits the trees. I’m cautious with morning light – it’s full of promises it can’t keep, has a brightness I don’t understand. What’s it so happy about, what’s it looking forward to? Morning light means adjusting – again – to time without Philip. I’m pissed at the afternoon light. That’s the light that’s turned against me – the trees catch fire and motion stops. The world’s suspended for hours in its harshness. But then there’s the evening light –  the softening of the day, and the lovely word for its waning: the gloaming.  Evening light is warm and rich and I’d like to slide right under it and stay there. Let it close in on me, let it wrap me in its luscious velvet and then maybe I can stop thinking.

***************************************

Match.com, story number two. Michael. Nice guy, interesting, handsome. Stud in his ear, which I find sexy. Suggested meeting at a yoga class. Skin-tight yoga clothes on a first date is a risk. I took it. And I liked it. After, we went to a cafe, talked over sandwiches full of whole-grain goodness. The bill came and Michael shook his head when I reached for my wallet. It’s the kind of gesture I want a man to make. Then he walked me back to my car. That’s the crucial moment – it’s either “let’s do this again” (said casually so you don’t sound too eager) or “I’ll be in touch,” (which means s/he won’t.) I let him decide because I was ambivalent. “I’d like to read your blog,” he said. I gave him the address. Then he handed me his business card and said to email him.

Sounded like a “let’s do it again” to me.

“Ambivalence is not nothing,” Philip tells me. I try to work with that. I’m often ambivalent because I don’t know what I want, I don’t know what’s driving me. Or stopping me. So while I didn’t particularly care whether or not I saw Michael again, I decided any decision was better than no decision. Next night I wrote him a short email, ending with, “So now that the first awkward date is over, if you’d like to get together for a second semi-awkard date, let me know ;o)”

I never heard from him. And other than being a wee bit stung by his rejection, I didn’t care. Since Philip died, I’ve never more known that the way people treat me has nothing to do with me. Even on a date, that intensely personal time with its concomitant judging. Someone not wanting to see me again isn’t personal.  What’s it change about me, if someone doesn’t think I’m second date material? It just means he realized we weren’t right together before I did.

I was listening to a podcast with Natalie about a man who, because of some temporary condition, lived with no testosterone for a few months. I had no desire, he said; none. He’d sit and stare at a wall for hours at a time. He didn’t want to read, or watch TV. He didn’t care what he ate. Yet he could see things were beautiful – in fact, he thought everything beautiful – but he didn’t want. Did I feel like that when Philip died, drained of anything I ever thought mattered? No – what I felt was way too wrecked and crazed to have lost all my wanting. I had no desire to bathe, wash my hair, go out, dress in anything but pajamas; and makeup – you’re kidding, right? But I had piercing desire, wanting either Philip to come home to me, or me to go to him. I was beyond reason.

In spite of the fact that Philip died, the world continued on its way. Eventually I had bouts of no-desire, lying on the couch in a state of One Huge Shrug. It wasn’t Zen-like, the way the guy on the radio described it (not that this guy ever wanted that to happen again). It was depression. For the most part, it’s not like that now. I want to write, to read, to watch TV; I want to knit and sew. I want to buy clothes. Partly because I’m not done being vain, partly because the way I dress draws attention, and if you can’t see I’m different and branded because my son died, I’ll wear my difference so you’ll notice something. “Hey – what a cool top – where’d you get it?” “Free People, do you know my son died?” “I didn’t know bell bottoms were back in style.” “Then you’re not paying attention, do you know my son died?”

As far as desire for a man…I must’ve wanted something beyond stories when I put myself on Match.com. But whenever it comes time comes for a date, I shrink. When I’m home with my writing, my books, my computer, my TV, on my couch that needs to be replaced in a living room that still has no curtains, I see no reason to invite a man into my life. I’m still nursing my grief. Working full-time and seeing friends just a little bit more than I used to gives me less time to do that. Something tells me if I let a man love me, it would be good for me; something also tells me I’m not emotionally up for what it takes to get there. I’m drained and vulnerable from living with Philip dead, and I’m not so sure about putting myself in the path of desire. Because really – it’s the wanting that undoes me.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

It’s My Heart

I haven’t felt as blocked and listless about writing – which is to say, about living – since I started this blog. I’ve been writing a post for a week, and I’ve got the bones of it. That’s usually when it starts clicking, when the writing starts writing itself. But the writing can’t “write itself” if I don’t show up for it. And I can’t seem to do that.

Ed moved. For the twenty year’s I’ve know him, Ed’s lived in Bloomfield, and ironically enough, when I moved last August, I moved close to him, close like a good, long walk away. But he and his wife had enough of working their house. They left it a buyer’s dream. I’m happy for them, that it sold quickly; but that house had been my sanctuary when Philip died. I spent days and nights with Ed and his wife, waking up early to go home and walk the dogs, returning a couple hours later to the only place I felt safe. Now they’ve moved to Florida, where they’ll stay for a year before coming back to buy a second home in New Jersey – something smaller than their last, something farther west, something that at least will be driving distance away.

So it’s not that “bad,” if you will. I can fly to Florida to visit, then they’ll be back before I know it. And If I’ve learned nothing else from Philip, it’s that when someone’s in your heart they’re with you always – you just have to accept it the way it is, not the way you want it to be. I keep saying that every change is practice for death. The practice is the leap into the unknown, the risk of not resisting what’s so. If I can’t handle the changes in my life now, how am I going to handle that last big change, that final slipping into the unknown? I’m kidding myself if I think I can stay miserable about my losses, yet go gracefully into that Good Night.

I’m mourning. I’m withdrawn. I’ve been depressed, which is different from sad. Depression seeps – it’s a whole, big, generalized “what-for-what’s-it-matter?” Growing up, I felt alone and tormented. I looked to death as a way out – at least, to my idea of death, which I imagined as a release from pain. But Philip’s told me that thinking death is some kind of answer is the same thing as thinking hitting lotto will make everything better. It’s the same in that it’s thinking some event in time, some situation other than the one that is, will be a cure. It doesn’t work that way. And I watch the way I’m responding to life, knowing so much of this heartache is about Ed, but unable feel it that way. I’m disconnected from the source.

When Philip was alive, he’d become my center. A cure for my unsteady. The older he got, the more I let go and the closer we became. But no matter what was between us, while he was alive I wouldn’t have had access to his wisdom the way I do now. And that’s because when we’re alive, there’s a lot of ego-noise that interrupts the flow of what we’d otherwise know to be true. Things like greed, power and desire, which have to do with the body. Philip’s gone from his, yet I experience him clearly and continually. Which doesn’t mean I don’t grieve for him incessantly.

A couple weeks ago, I joined Match.com. Last week, some guy named Steve sent me an email. Good looking guy, says he’s a trial lawyer, says he does stand-up comedy in NYC, when he can. His letters were funny enough that I believed him. He started his email by stuttering about how  b-b-beautiful  h-h-he  t-t-t-thought I w-was, then launched into funny bit about about where he lived, how he liked my profile, how he’d like to hear from me.

I was smitten. ONE email, and I was smitten.

So I answered him and he answered me and I answered him and it’s all funny and I’m feeling warm and fuzzy. And while I was feeling that warm-fuzzy, I thought of Philip, saw him in lying in the coffin. That’s when I heard him: “Mom,” he said, “You don’t have to choose.” Because that’s what I do. I can’t figure out how I’m supposed to live without him and feeling a certain kind of pleasure just seems wrong. He’s trying to tell me it isn’t.

As for Steve, he was the fantasy guy. The one that makes it seem like it’s so easy because that’s what he does. It was like shooting up pleasure. I mean, it was all about me – he saw how lovely and beautiful and special I was. Hell, he “snuck out of court” to write me!  He made it easy to slip past the goddamn anxiety of real-world dating. But like any fantasy, eventually you wake up. And I don’t mean like Sleeping Beauty, when you find The Prince has been waiting for you. I mean like when your second email doesn’t get answered and the guy hides his profile so he’s inaccessible and it hits you that maybe Prince Charming has a heavy hand when it comes to Cut and Paste.

Two emails was all it took for me to plunge into the netherworld of disappointment. I spent all that Saturday lying on the couch watching “True Detective” for the seventh time. I stopped for half an hour to take a quick drive to Ed’s for a final good-bye. Watching him direct the movers was too much. “I have to go,” I said. “I’ve had enough.” “I know,” he said. “I love you.”

So who the hell was I mourning for, really? For two-email Steve? I think not. I think it ironic that the weekend Ed was leaving was the weekend I let myself be seduced. I used to think that with Philip dead, what the hell could ever bother me again? Now I think that because Philip’s dead, many things bother me more. Prometheus was tied to a rock. Every day an eagle came to peck out his liver, every day it regenerated so the eagle could come back and do it again. It’s like that, except it’s not my liver. It’s my heart.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

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