Those Next Days…

If you tell me that I have to move on from grief, that I have a life to live, that I can choose to stop feeling this as if grief has no value unless I kick its ass, I’ll stop listening because all you’re telling me is you don’t get it. You’re telling me you don’t know what else to say and if you say it nicely, I appreciate the gesture; if you say it impatiently I think that maybe you’re the one who can’t deal with it.  What’s it mean to think you can’t both grieve and live? No one moves on from grief. It’s part of you, like an arm or a leg. You don’t get cured, you get different. You’re forced to live more deeply – it’s either that, or go nutty. But as life is in constant motion and change, so is grief.

There was a time grief was loud and screeching; it chewed me up, then spit me out so it could chew me up all over again. Prometheus, bound. It made the world spin too fast for me to get my footing. So I sat on my couch, month after month, and let it do what it would. But sometime between then and now I stopped resisting it. That didn’t make it go away, but it did allow me to get to know it. Pain is terribly enhanced when we resist it – we might think we’re pushing it away, but since it’s immovable all we’re doing is letting it drain our attention and energy. I didn’t know that, then. Why talk of “not resisting?” I was that grief. Until time came when I felt more. Like love for Philip and love for Natalie. Take that love and add a bit of time, and what came to be was a grief that was more a partner than a bloodsucker.

I don’t learn the things I need to learn the easy way. That’s not how it works. I no longer hold on to grief, I commune with it. It’s hard. It hurts. It still grabs me when I’m not paying attention, still brings me to tears of a sudden. It still makes my gut raw and throbbing – and it keeps me vulnerable enough not only to hurt, but to feel the deep love in my life. For that, I am grateful. So I don’t run from it or pretend I can turn it off because I will cut off no part of myself that feels. Whatever it is.


Philip died snorting heroin. And what I found out later was he wasn’t alone. He was in his room with G, the kid who lived in the bedroom upstairs, the kid who left him there. I don’t know at what point, dead or alive. What I do know is that one year later G. himself died from an overdose.

Those days afterward – how did I survive them? How was I able to move around, to take care of things, to fall asleep? A couple days after the wake, Phil, Natalie and I had to go to Philip’s room to get his things. He lived in a house in New Brunswick near Rutgers with Max  and some other kids. And he spent a lot of time at his friend Austin’s house. Austin was urging Philip away from drugs and the tweakers he was hanging out with. And Philip was listening – he’d signed a lease and was supposed to move out at the end of the month. At the wake, Austin asked me if I wanted him to go straighten out Philip’s room. I knew the kind of mess Philip lived in. “Please,” I answered, “just don’t throw anything out.” I needed to get in and out of that bedroom quick as I could. No tears, no lingering – that was the room where he died. If I wanted to curl up with him around me I’d go to the bedroom he grew up in. The one with the rocket ship and stars that I painted on his closet door, with the plaid curtains and lampshade I made for him. The furniture I found at an estate sale, and the perfect hooked rug that was a steal at Marshall’s. I could crawl under his red denim comforter, stained with blood from the uncontrollable nose bleeds he had when he was growing up. And I’d hug his little dinosaur blanket, the one I made for him for his kindergarten nap time.

The night before I was supposed to go to Philip’s, I got a call from a furious Austin. “They robbed him. They actually went in his room and they robbed him. They took his stuff – his phone, his laptop, his Xbox. Everything was all over the place. I can’t believe they robbed him.”

A sponge can get so saturated that it can’t hold any more. The water washes right through while the sponge sits there, heavy and laden. I heard what Austin said. I understood what he meant. I knew I should be outraged. Instead I was numb, speechless. I told Austin we would be there next day and asked if he’d come meet us.

I didn’t know the kids Philip lived with. I knew Max, I knew of J., eventually came to know of G. I knew that right after Philip died, they cleared out of the house. At least for a while. J. had gone back to get something, saw a window had been broken, went into the house and saw Philip’s room had been robbed. No one else’s, just Philip’s. I spoke to J about it. “We all keep our rooms locked,” he said. “Philip’s was the only one that was open.”

Uh-huh. Like someone didn’t know Philip died, like someone didn’t use this as an opportunity. This sounds like I should be furious. I am not. At first I mourned the loss of his laptop. He’d been writing poetry and I wanted to read it. Philip was gone and they took another piece of him. Thing is, what kind of person does that? What kind of way is that to live? I hadn’t the capacity for anger, and so saw it differently than I might have. Nothing they took meant anything. So I didn’t have the poems – I still had my son. Who am I to condemn them? To live a life of preying on people is its own hell. You can’t get away with anything because life doesn’t work that way. Some people don’t get that until it’s too late. If I’m angry at these kids, I turn the situation into a drama and get sidetracked from what’s real about life  They are dreams, these dramas. And either I wake up now or death’ll come and do it for me.

Austin had straightened up Philip’s room again, but what I saw when I got there was a blur. I just wanted to hurry up and get rid of stuff before I started crazy screaming. I left his old bureau, got rid of a lot of his clothes (he had plenty more at home), grabbed any notebook he’d written in, took the Kindle Fire the thieves had missed. Took his sword and fencing helmets. His leather jacket and the parka I’d bought him for Christmas. But not his boots, his old, beat-up square-toed and very cool boots that were molded into the shape of his feet. Austin had been with him when he bought them, and he asked if he could have them. With love and gratitude I handed them over.

Funny how the thing that bothers me most is that I didn’t take his plaid flannel boxers. I could’ve worn them for pajamas, hung out at home in them. I could’ve cut them up and worked them into a quilt. The woman who taught me quilting had made a beautiful quilt from her boyfriend’s boxers. The odd and beautiful things that people make when inspired by love. I suppose you can make an an odd and beautiful life that way, too. Something to think about, for sure.

© 2015 Denise Smyth


It’s Over

“While you were lookin’ for your landslide
I was lookin’ out for you
I was lookin’ out for you
Someone’s lookin’ out for you”

Brandi Carlisle

That’s all it took to wreck me, because I’m like that with music again – I can’t listen to it because it touches deeply and anything that touches deeply hurts and twists into something to do with Philip. And I hear these words as an accusation. She knew what she was doing, but where was I? Was I looking out for Philip? Was does that even mean? Something was going on and I wasn’t paying attention. And maybe I never paid the right kind of attention. Sure I love, I adore, my children. But maybe love is not enough – sometimes saying “no” is required and I am not good at that. I was afraid to be in conflict with Philip because I might lose him. I have never understood that anger isn’t the end.

I thought that I never asked myself if I could have done something that would have kept Philip alive. I mean, I don’t go back to the days and weeks and months leading up to his death and wonder what I could have done differently. I don’t wonder why I didn’t take seriously all the times I saw Philip dead, that I never thought I was having a premonition. Even if I thought that, what could I have done? I can just see myself trying to convince Philip that he was going to die so he should…what? Be careful? Not go out for a while? Come live with me until the coast was clear? How bizarre would that have been? I used to wish I was psychic. But being psychic doesn’t mean you can preclude things. It doesn’t make you God, doesn’t mean you get to orchestrate your portion as if it’s separate from the whole. It’s a responsibility – maybe you can know or sense what’s coming, but I would not wish to know the crisis that was heading my way. If I’m grateful for anything, it’s that the way Philip, Death and I had a relationship since he was little is something I can piece together as I look back, not something I saw as foreboding when it was happening.

When Philip died I felt responsible – not for some particular thing I did or didn’t do, but because I am his mother and I didn’t protect him. It matters not how he died – this is what a parent feels. And when Phil showed Philip’s autopsy to a doctor and was told that it’s not likely that Philip died from the amount of drugs in his system, that he probably had something like an undetected  heart condition, well, that made me feel worse. He came from my body – could I not make a child that was whole and healthy?  I did everything right when I was pregnant – I ate well, exercised, gained the right amount of weight. I had home birth because I would not deliver myself into the hands of a hospital staff I didn’t know or trust and who might interfere with a process they were taught to see as a health hazard. I nursed Philip for a year and a half, made his food when he started eating. I didn’t feed him meat because I see it as cruel and unnecessary, never gave him milk because it’s a myth that that’s something children need. They’re not calves, for God’s sake. What did I do any of that for? So he would grow strong and healthy. So he wouldn’t die. Isn’t that why we do the things we do for our children – so they won’t die? And if, after all that, his body was inadequate, how could it not be my fault?

I really like to say I don’t bother myself about what I did or didn’t do for Philip, because it makes no sense to do that. I know what I’m supposed to do. I’m supposed to figure out how to live with his death because to argue about it is crazy. It’s a terrible struggle enough without torturing myself about the past. Except that’s where grief’s led me. Back to the bitter, hopeless tears, to the helpless horror, to the inability (real or imagined) to say what this is and the goddamn rage and loneliness that comes from that. If I can’t say it, then what is left?

I think I skipped a step. Yes, the work is living with Philip’s death. But I haven’t finished with the part about if I’d done something different. And not in any particular moment, but in the way that I was Philip’s mother. I’m full of self-loathing because of the ways I stood back, the ways I didn’t say no, the ways I wasn’t strict either because it’s not in my nature or because the older Philip got, the less right I felt I had to tell him what he couldn’t do. But did I give that right up too easily?

People die for all kinds of reasons. There isn’t one story for each “kind” of death. Getting shot doesn’t mean you’re a criminal, getting cancer doesn’t mean you didn’t take care of yourself, snorting too much heroin doesn’t mean your mother wasn’t good enough. But that’s my mythology: the mother who meant well but let it slip away because she felt helpless. And my touchstone was the family across the street from us with the mother who was strict, had rules, and was not going to let her children get away from her. Her son and daughter were smart, polite, respectful and always – even in their jeans – carefully dressed. No weird and menacing black t-shirts, no Converse so worn their soles were split. I am so sure that these children grew into responsible young adults with serious interests and quiet, envious careers. Because that’s what their mother insisted.

All this, about a woman I never even met. But she haunts me, this fairy-tale Mother. She lurks around the dark and slimy mess I think my life’s become. Which is crazy and irrational because my daughter adores me, there are people who love me, my job is a dream and I am finally writing and taking the risk of pushing the “publish” button when Im done.

It’s over. Philip’s childhood is over, and I had all of it. Whatever kind of “mom” I was, he died loving me and he is right here protecting me. That’s the reality of now, not the story I tell of the kind of mother I was. It’s time to end that one, for sure. I am a writer; why can’t I do this? Because endings are hard. It’s why this post has taken weeks to write. I don’t know how to end it any more than I know how to end that story.

Why can’t I just say, It’s over?

© 2014 Denise Smyth

What About Sex?

A couple weeks after I left home and moved into Nadiya’s, I had to stop at my house before I went to work. I’d forgotten some essential article of clothing that God forbid should cause a wardrobe crisis. It was August, 2009. Philip was a freshman on his way to Rutgers, living his last couple of weeks at home. Natalie was 16, and splitting her time between me and Phil. Up the stairs I went to my (former) bedroom, and saw Philip’s bedroom door was open. Philip’s bedroom door was never open when he was asleep. Curious, I stuck my head in to find he was not at all asleep, what with the girl he had in bed with him. He rose up in surprise, half-naked (top half, thank God), and I was all, “Oh-my-God-I-am-so-sorry-I’ll-get-what-I-need-and-get-out-of here.” Back in the car, when I finally stopped laughing my ass off, I sent him some funny text about protecting himself, and ended it with, “And you’d better be good to her or I’ll kick your ass.” I knew he’d show it to her; I didn’t know who she was or what she meant to him, but just in case she was going to be sticking around, I wanted to mitigate the weirdness that was now between us. If she meant something to him, then she meant to me, too.

That night Philip and I were meeting for dinner, and I’d already decided not to bring it up. What was there to say, really? He was 18, and I knew he was responsible. But he brought it up, and I appreciated his candor.

So what about sex? When Philip and Natalie were teenagers, Phil used to tell them not to have sex until they got married. That wasn’t anything I’d ever say, but I didn’t mind him saying it.  Somebody should tell them to wait, I thought, and since I was sixteen the first time I allowed a guy into my sacred space, I wasn’t sure I was the one to do it.

Besides, I didn’t really know what I thought about them having sex. When they were younger, I had the conversation about the mechanics of it – me trying to explain while they tried to squirm away. But what about the heart of it? I didn’t talk to them about that, I didn’t tell them that you wait for someone you care for and who cares for you, someone who’ll not only be there in the morning for breakfast, but will stick around and help clean up. That sex will bring you the hottest and holiest pleasure you’ll have in your life and if you’re going to make yourself vulnerable to someone that way, it had better be someone you trust.

So while Phil did the forbidding, I began to have the other conversations about sex. The kind you have in a moving car. The last such conversation I remember having with Philip was when he was 17 and I realized the bandana he was wearing around his neck was hiding a hickey. He and Natalie laughed when I noticed it and went into my feigned horror-and-surprise mode: “Is that a hickey, oh my God you have a hickey why did you let yourself get a hickey summer hickeys are harder to hide blah blah blah.”

I admit to having had a guilty pleasure at the sight of that mottled blotch. It was an animal pride that my good-looking, 6′ 1” tall son was marked with desire. Desire makes the world go round. It’s biological; if our bodies didn’t meet to fuck, there’d be no little bodies to grow and do the same. Which isn’t what I said to Philip. Later that night we were in the car and he was captive behind the steering wheel.  “Philip,” I said, “we have to talk about sex.” His response was to reach for the radio, mine was to slap his hand away. I told him hickeys were ugly and disrespectful to X (his girlfriend). Why should you wear your business on your neck for everyone to see? What are you telling people about X? He agreed to no more hickeys. “And I want to remind you that sex makes babies, so if you’re having sex you better think about how you’re going to raise the kid.”

Which was my not-so-subtle way of reminding him that abortion is not a form of birth control.

I’ve been wanting to write about this for a while, but wondering why this particular incident, why now? There’s ego involved, for sure. Look at me, I want to say; look at the kind of mom I am. I mean, how cool am I?? My response to finding Philip and a girl in his bed was just me being me. But then I took that response and added it to the list of things that made me a cool mom, like my long streaked hair, skinny jeans and Free People wardrobe. Like the fact that my kids not only loved me, they liked me, were proud of me, had no problem being seen in public with me. And I am embarrassed at the pleasure I took when my daughter announced that the word around school was that I was a MILF. In fact, I’m so embarrassed by my reaction that I’m leaving it as an acronym. If you don’t know what it means, it’s easy enough to find out.

What did I want my kids to see when they looked at me? The important stuff, they knew. They knew I loved them, that I’d happily take Philip to the airport at 5:30 in the morning, then wait for him in the terminal when he got back. That I’d drive Natalie back and forth to Rutgers in New Brunswick as many times as she needed. That being sick always meant pajamas on the couch, fluffy pillows, comfy blankets, lots of fluids, and an indispensable mom who appeared just when the soup was needed, the juice glass was empty or a sweaty head needed some stroking.

But what about physical-me? The last few years of Philip’s life, it got real important that my kids should think I was attractive, that I was sexy and pretty and cool enough for their friends to invite me to hang (they did), and even cooler when, of course, I didn’t. I just wanted to be noticed. I thought if their friends liked me, my kids’d like me more, too.

What’s up with that? Is it so obvious that I don’t see it ‘cause I’m looking a little too deep? What’s up with wanting to be seen as sexy, with wanting Philip to know that’s how I was seen? The “obvious” answer – I’m getting older, I’m afraid  I can’t be desired, I don’t want to be a juice-less hag – that’s all surface. For decades I was uncomfortable in my body whether my clothes were on or off. And if I go down that road now, this post is going to take too long of a  diversion. For now, suffice to say that at 52 I was waking up sexually. For years I was all baggy jeans, shapeless tees and outfits that didn’t seem to work because I dressed around hiding my ass.  But the more I bloomed, the tighter my clothes clung. With some help from a padded bra, my curves were out there for y’all to see.

No small part of this is the yin yang of male/female energy. The longing to be whole, which we can’t be, not in body, and if that’s where we place our longing, we’ll not only get fucked, we’ll be fucked. Because we’ll fuck selfishly, desperately, insatiably – through our hungry mind instead of our open heart. Always feeling that something is missing, often blaming our partner, believing what we’re looking for is about our body and not our being.

That last year of Philip’s life another shift was taking place between us. The night he came over, a year before he died, the night I said, “When they find you dead of an overdose, they’ll blame me,” the shift was palpable. We stood on the third floor landing where I was living, me asking him not to do drugs; him saying he wouldn’t, me knowing I couldn’t protect him from his choices. And so another shrinking of my mother-ness, another growth of his other-ness. Philip needed room to grow and I gave him all.  As paradoxical it sounds, every step back brought us closer.

I wasn’t afraid of these psychic shifts because I trusted what was between Philip and me. He told me we were “growing up together,” and it’s only now I’m beginning to see what he meant. As he became independent so did I, freer than ever of that formerly-unshakable feeling that I couldn’t be happy because there was something wrong with me. And part of what I counted on was his love and support which existed beyond his physical presence. I didn’t have to see him, or even speak to him, to know he was there.

Kinda sorta like what he’s asking me to do now.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

The Reason (Suicide, Part 3)

“I keep one foot out the door, and that’s suicide by increments.”
Rob (played by John Cusack) in “High Fidelity”

And that, right there, is the problem. I’ve a lead foot out the door and I think it’s soldered there. There’s an uncertain fear I live with and don’t care to define. Ed’s done it for me: “You are afraid to live because you think you’ll lose Philip.” But what does it mean to live, I want to ask him; show me how. He’d only shake his head because really, what else could he do? He can’t show me how to live because life isn’t given you by someone else, and if you think it is, it isn’t yours and you’ll wind up resentful, angry and either half-alive or half-dead, depending on the way you look at such things.

I keep thinking that living means having oh-so-many friends and taking fabulous vacations and talking on my cell when when I’m not texting on my cell and Facebooking, Twittering, Instagramming and “connecting” whatever latest way the internet’s figured out how to keep us glued to each other 24/7 because God forbid we should spend too much time considering. Life. Death. Meaning. WTF. It’s exhausting. But that’s not what Ed means by living. He means taking my foot out that door, which has to do with being, not doing. That still gives me only a vague idea of what it means to be in life. And what I see when I come close to sensing what living means is that I’m afraid if I’m not shaming myself, then someone else will do it for me. Somehow, that foot out the door feels like protection.

Hecht writes, “When a person dies, he does wrenching damage to the community.”  And, as Hamlet says of suicide, “ay, there’s the rub.” He’s talking of his uncertainty that death is any kind of end; I’m talking of what happens to those left in the wreckage of a loved one’s suicide, as well as the collective impact. Living carries responsibility with it, which includes taking seriously my effect on other people. I have to tell myself this because I don’t know it. I know I love Philip and I know I love Natalie; what I don’t know is how much I matter to both of them. Nor do I seem to “get” what I mean to other people.

And I think people who kill themselves don’t get what they mean to others. I’ve heard suicide called “selfish.” That’s a cruel, shallow, ignorant and cliched way to describe someone who’s in such devastating pain that it overwhelms consideration of anyone else. For  many, it’s almost like there is no one else because it feels like no one can help and no one really cares, not really. Because it doesn’t penetrate. Because  when you look around it seems like everyone else’s figured out this thing called life while I’m some solitary freak who can’t even find any other solitary freaks to commiserate with. I mean, what is it that keeps people wanting to live? It’s got to be love, doesn’t it? For people, for art, for work that is satisfying; for nature and its mysteries. That feeling of aliveness where you’re engaged in what you’re doing or who you’re with and there you are, being.  But what if you can’t feel anything but the lack of it all, the “Why?” that has no answer?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but my experience can’t be unique. I’ve wanted to die because I couldn’t feel love from anyone out there. I mean, I could feel love toward certain people – most deeply and particularly my children – but it didn’t feel reciprocal. When they were little, in my worst moments I would tell myself that I would kill myself when Natalie turned 16, because by then she wouldn’t need me any more.  She’d be well on her way (where the hell did I think she was going?), I’d be one more thing out of her way. Dead mom? Blip in the road, a stumble with quick recovery, then back to it like I wasn’t really there in the first place.

I believed this.

“We are all members of society,” Hecht writes, “and these connections are to be honored.” She says suicide creates more suicide. So I think about this. I think about the way Philip died – it was an accident. And I think of what I went through when I first learned of it, what I’m going through now. I was tortured; it didn’t matter that there wasn’t anything I could’ve done. I’m his mother – I was supposed to protect him. I was sick at the thought that there was a moment when he knew he was going to die, and he was alone and terrified but he had to let go. No way, I’m told; because of the heroin he went out in a blaze of bliss. I’m not so sure, but there isn’t anything I can do about it.

But as devastating as Philip’s death is, what if he’d chosen to killed himself? The things I hold on to are that he was a happy kid, that we were close, that there wasn’t anything unsaid between us. That I’ve nothing to feel guilty about unless I choose to make it so. But look at what his dying has done to me, to his father, to his sister – to all who knew him. The shocking, mindless blow of it. Do I think my own death would be any less shattering? What worse thing for Natalie than to live with a mother who’s not only dead, but dead by her own hand? So she not only gets to suffer my death, she gets to spend her life wondering why she wasn’t enough for me to live for.

And if I would do such a thing, in what meaningful way would I have loved her?

A few months ago, in my bathroom, I got a pain in my chest. It wasn’t about my heart – more like indigestion. But it caused me to bend over, and I closed my eyes, and made believe it was my heart. I might be dying, I thought. My heart might be shutting down and I might just keel over and Natalie’s upstairs, my God Natalie’s upstairs, I can’t leave her now, she’ll freak. She needs me to stay with her – I don’t want to leave her. So there was a crack in the atmosphere and I got it…but where’d it go? Do people live in full knowledge that they matter, they very much matter, to those who love them?

And so I have reason to Stay. But I’m missing the part about wanting to. I’m more attached to Philip’s death than Natalie’s life.

Next: What Philip says about that.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Nothing Good or Bad?

I was asked to guest post by Becki Duckworth at Becki’s story is brutal; you can read about it here.

And you can find my next post here.

I wish all of you peace on this day after Christmas. I find it’s not the “day” that’s hard as much as the aftermath, when I’ve survived to find yet again that life goes on and I’m just not sure how I’m supposed to go along with it.

I Disagree

Today I’m wishing to be a poet. Today I’m wishing I could write elevated language; like what I want to say I just can’t get to in simple sentences. Because I’m trying to say what I feel when I look to my left and see Philip’s headshot on my desk, to the right and see the portrait of me, him and Natalie. The helplessness, frustration and continual shock of those moments caught in time, that this child of mine is to live in my memory but not in the flesh. I want to say it in such gorgeous language it’ll pierce your heart the way mine is; I want to give shape to our shared humanity. Because I’m standing out here in a way that feels alone in the way that only Death can leave you, and that’s not where I’m wanting to be.

I’m not a big reader of poetry. I don’t always have the patience, don’t always understand what I’m reading. But when a poem moves me, I stay moved. Like Stephen Crane’s, “In the Desert,” which I already wrote about. Like Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan.” Talk about gorgeous language, about language painting a living, trembling picture. Like Jane Kenyon’s, “Having it Out With Melancholy,” – depression elevated to art. Tell me there isn’t something in it that won’t have you saying, “Yes, yes.” Or anything by Louise Gluck.

My friend Ed is a poet. We met when I was 36. Philip was three and Natalie just turned one, and I decided to go to college and get the degree I’d never gotten back when everyone else I knew did. I still don’t have it, but I have Ed.

Ed is an English Professor, and he was teaching the Shakespeare class I’d signed up for. It was somewhere around the first minute he started speaking when I thought, “This is the teacher I’ve been looking for.” Bam. Sometimes you just recognize someone even if you’ve never met them before. And nearly twenty years later, I can tell you he’s saved my life. My emotional, spiritual, psychic life. The life underneath the busyness of what it looks like we’re doing when what we’re really trying to do is hang on for another day.

Last week Ed was talking to me about John Keats. Ed is a serious man, Keats is a serious poet. “Have you seen the sketch of Keats on his deathbed by Joseph Severn?” he asked. “Go look at it.” So I looked at this beautiful boy, 25 and dying, caught in a moment of rest and peace, and then I emailed Ed. Did you know he died the same day as Philip, I asked; did you know the year was 1821? 18-21?? I did not, he answered. Then, a few days later, this, from Ed:

Sonnet: A Poet, A Boy

He died the day the poet John Keats died,
whose tormented lungs finally gave way.
He was twenty-five, superbly alive,
inventing language to preserve the day,
the instant of the living human heart.
With words he seized a handful of water–
impossible, I know–but his great art
achieved this, as he, dying, grew gaunter.
The other one was an older child,
twenty-one on the day he lost his heart.
He was–I knew him–clever, loving, mild–
but becoming lost had become his art.
Two beautiful males share the same death date–
a poet, a boy, who rushed to his fate.

And I am collapsed again because that boy – my boy – “rushed to his fate.” It’s all our fates, no? To die? It’s a fact we don’t face until we’re forced to. Philip was racing to his death unaware and it is precisely his vulnerability that’s killing me. I’ve been asked if I’m angry at him for taking the drugs that killed him; I’m not. He didn’t know. Yes, he made poor choices but he wasn’t able to do otherwise. Like all the poor choices I’ve made – and I’m talking serious shit, alcohol-drugs-anorexia-bulimia shit. I couldn’t choose otherwise until I was ready, and I happened to live until I was.

You can’t not love the light because he’s died, Ed says. But I’ve always preferred the night, the gloaming and the gray. Yet sometimes, at a certain time of day, when that light hits the trees in a certain way, I think he’s right. But other times, like when its harshness wakes me from a dreamless sleep to remind me once again of what I’ve lost, I disagree. And even though I know Ed knows better than me, for tonight – I disagree.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

Year Two

Last Saturday I was out with Natalie at a local Arts and Crafts Fair. We ran into G., a woman I know from a former job. She’s  also the mom of Natalie’s friend. G. is, in a word, rich.

What’s that mean, to me? Nothing simple, for sure. It’s too easy to say envy, jealousy. What does it mean to envy or be jealous? It’s in my reactions to the world that I learn how to live in it.

There is something exotic and fascinating about That Much Money, but I don’t envy G. In fact, never have I more not wanted to be anyone else or have what anyone else has since Philip died. What I want is Philip here and Natalie safe and sound along with him. I love Philip too much to want to be anything other than his mother. Any wanting for what I don’t have means I lose Philip. Because in order for me to know and love and have had 21 years of Philip, my life had to be exactly as it was.

And I can’t imagine a scenario where I would have done something differently so he wouldn’t have died. There’s the day I could’ve lost him, the day I wrote about in The Story. That would have been disastrous. That would have left me a hollowed-out wreck of a human being. But when Philip died, he was out of the house and mostly on his own. He seemed okay – but he’d gotten mixed up in something bigger than he was, and I’ll never know if the heroin was cut or if his body was compromised or if it was a straight-up overdose. Doesn’t matter. He died, but our relationship didn’t.

So – Saturday. G., who I last saw at Philip’s wake, asked how I was. I’m okay, I answered. Good, good, she said, nodding firmly, as she turned to Natalie. Which is right about when I split, like those people who have NDEs and feel like they’re up high watching what’s going on below them, which, of course, includes themselves. I understood that to G, being “okay” and soldiering on was what mattered. I wasn’t so sure I agreed, but I’m not so sure about a lot of things any more. I stood there doing the work of talking and listening while wondering who the fuck am I because what I am is not okay but I can talk and listen and be at this A&C Fair while my son is dead. My son is dead. And there is some profound crisis I’m in that I don’t know how to write about and that I certainly didn’t want to talk to G. about but it’s some next – what? Phase? Stage? I’m so changed I don’t know what call things, how to say what this is. But if I had to give it a name, I’d call it, “Year Two.”

G. has 5 kids. She told me about the daughter who’s graduated and works in D.C., about the one – Natalie’s friend – who’s been traveling all over the world, about the three kids that are still at home…I don’t know if what came up can be called “envy” or “jealousy,” but I do know the ghosts of guilt and shame were involved, at least for the few minutes I stood there trying to listen. Because she gave her children experiences I wasn’t able to. A lot of what bugged me about money, I told myself, was not about the things it could buy, but about the experiences it could offer. And with the exquisite antenna I had to to find things to make myself miserable about, the ways I couldn’t broaden my kids’ world because I didn’t have enough money became endless.

My kids grew up in a neighborhood with families that were pretty well-off. The people that lived around us vacationed several times a year, did endless home renovations; they had high-end cars, full-time nannies,  and money for college tuition for the expensive colleges that their childrens’ expensive tutors ensured they’d get into. And lest you think otherwise, I had some damn good neighbors. It’s just that I’d moved into a world that was different from the fantasy I’d had about it. I went to the suburbs thinking my kids would be out running up and down the block with a horde of other kids whose parents moved and thought the same. I had to get with the program. Who had time to run around? After school meant sports like soccer because my town’s big on soccer and one mom on my block told me Philip had to play soccer because, well, all the kids played soccer but what did I know of soccer? I came from Brooklyn. We played softball. And even that wasn’t something Philip particularly liked to do.

And summer? The school year hadn’t ended when the exodus to summer sleep-away camp began. Which made me feel like I was doing something awfully wrong because I wouldn’t have sent Philip and Natalie away for two months even if money had nothing to do with it. Life lasted longer than childhood. I wanted my kids around while I could have them.

Which was prescient on my part. Philip’s life lasted longer than childhood, but not by much.

Now, I knew enough to tell myself that whatever I thought I couldn’t give my kids because of money wasn’t what really  mattered. It nagged at me anyway.  I felt a little different, a little inadequate, a bit of a nobody. And “a little” was enough to make me feel like my kids deserved more than I could give them.

You know what? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how many vacations we went on or the size of our house or that Philip didn’t want to play baseball or soccer and that when he did, he wasn’t very good at it. The things that used to nag at me even though I told myself they didn’t matter, really didn’t matter.

What matters is the poem that Philip wrote in second grade, where he said that out of all of his friends, I was his best. What matters is giving birth to him exactly the way I wanted to, and the months of nursing him when all the world was his eyes locked with mine. What matters are the stories I haven’t told yet, the things I remember because even if it was just for a moment there was nothing but the truth of love between us, moments that even his dying can’t take away.

To elevate another cliche to the status of truth, all the money in the world can’t buy what matters. And yes – I had to learn it the hard way.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

Wantings and Warnings

I’ve been nominated several times for blogger awards, most recently by dear Lucia from Luminous Blue. I want to take a moment to say thank you; I am honored. And I haven’t meant not to “accept” the awards so kindly offered. It’s just that there’s a whole long process involved, and I haven’t had time to sit down to do it. But I am grateful for even being considered.


Natalie and I have officially moved. We have no internet service, so I haven’t been online in days.

Just sayin’.

There’s a story about Philip I’ve been wanting to tell, but I couldn’t figure out why except for thinking it shows just what a swell mom I am. I was working on it last week. Turns out maybe I am a swell mom, but that’s not what the story is about. It’s getting complicated, so I’m taking a break because it’s been hard to concentrate. I am not feeling so very well. See, Philip’s dead and my stomach’s threatening to hurl its contents. How to live in a world where such things happen, where every moment parents all over the place are getting whacked into this appalling reality? How many times can I say it’s unbearable, even as I get up and bear it anyway?

Ed’s been talking to me about a young man and woman he’s working with at the college where he teaches. They’re a couple – she’s 21 and has her Master’s Degree; he’s 25 with two Masters from Columbia and will probably go on to his Doctorate. Ed says they are beautiful and brilliant with a future to envy. They are all three passionate, with Ed wanting this future for them and teaching them what he knows to help them have it.

That’s the story as Ed tells it. I listen, then make my own story. The one about these beautiful, brilliant kids who have life by the balls because something was granted them that wasn’t granted Philip. To say “granted” is me having a tantrum. Truth is there isn’t any answer why people are the way they are. I thought my efforts to raise my kids would yield a certain kind of future; I thought if I loved them, fed them and read to them, they’d be good to go.

A couple days ago I thought about a story I read when Philip was a baby. It was in a magazine called “Mothering,” which was (is?) the go-to manual on birthing/raising children au natural. You know – born at home, nursed, cloth-diapered, fed organic foods, carried around in calico cotton slings that fit across your torso. Vaccinations and circumcisions were hot topics, with writers on the side of nay to both. See, that was me; wanting to live down to the bone, wanting to stay at home and hand-raise my babies. Thinking that would make them into some version of what I wanted to but couldn’t be. Philip had the same innate intelligence I had when I was a kid; but he was generous, kind and friendly and so I thought his world richer than mine, me with my troubled, emotionally crazy responses to Life. So what makes some kids beautiful and brilliant and other kids dead from heroin?

I know that’s not the question. But I can’t help feeling sick with envy at beautiful and brilliant while my son is reduced to ashes in an urn.

But the story. The story was written by a woman who had five kids. All born at home, all nursed, all taken care of by a 24/7 Mom. But one of her kids, a son – he didn’t do so well. He was an addict, he was wild. One day he disappeared. She didn’t know where he was, didn’t know if he was dead or alive. A warning that all the breast milk in the world won’t guarantee your children will live longer than you do.

I thought of that story many, many times over the years. I got what she was saying; I really did. I was touched and humbled and so very sad for her. Still, that was her life and I didn’t consider the possibility of something like that happening to my son. What parent would? That kind of stuff happened in magazines and newspapers; what had that to do with my life? Thing is, for all the years I read “Mothering,” that’s the only story I remember. It’s another piece of what I’ve already written about, that in some larger sense I was being prepared for Philip’s death.

How is it that I believe in the pattern I see evolving, yet so often feel on the edge of unhinged? And get what happened yesterday:  First off, for anyone who doesn’t know, there’s a woman’s clothing store called Forever 21 (it’s written “XXI,” and it’s the reason the name of my blog can’t also be its address). The clothes are trendy and not made so well. Neither Natalie, Nadiya or I shop there.

I still have stuff at Nadiya’s, and yesterday I was packing some of it up. I made a decision to get rid of something I’d been holding on to for a long time. It was a hard decision, but I’m in letting go mode, so I took a breath and released. Getting rid of this something involved tearing up papers. Lots of papers. So I took a stack of them, sat on the bottom stair in the foyer and started ripping away, wondering if I was really doing the right thing, scared I was going to be sorry for this one day. Then I noticed something on the floor, next to the garbage bag. I looked closer, picked it up and son of a bitch if it wasn’t a clothing tag from Forever XXI.

I think I need to go think about that; I need to really, deeply think about that.

© 2013 Denise Smyth




So Tell Me

From Fourth of July:

Today is Natalie’s birthday; Happy Birthday to you, my sweet girl. I love you so.

Today I found us an apartment; Happy Birthday again, Natalie. It’s small, but we’ll make it work. It’s located exactly where we want to be, the rent is okay, and – the big one – they’ll take the dogs. Around here, that’s a Godsend. My application is in and I’m waiting for approval. The manager who showed me around wants us there. Assuming all goes well, we’ll move August 1st.

Today, I’m wondering how it got to be July again, without Philip. I didn’t want to use this blog to whine, but here I am. I think of him, my stomach churns, the tears at the back of my eyes spring forth, my voice has to fight its way out of my throat and the dark place is all there is. Natalie just turned 20; she’s closing in on him and I’m scared. One day she will be older than him. Do I have to add, ‘God willing?’ And I think I say this stuff because I’m reaching out for help, and I know people care, but no one can take this from me because if they took my grief, they’d take my love. And there is nothing that can “take” my love for Philip.


 So I piece together all that has happened and continues to happen. It’s the grace of connection I’m yearning for, the light of meaning, the knowing of what it is I am waking up for. My son – I don’t know how to live with him dead because the feeling is too much to bear. But these bits and pieces along the way tell a story, a story whose meaning I’m struggling to find and whose end won’t come until my own does. If, even, then. I’ve talked about some of it already: Philip, not yet two, saying his grandpa was, In the light;” the day at the beach, when I almost lost him; the desperate need I had that last year to let him know how goddamn much I loved him;  my “all bets are off” conversation with Natalie; my “dead in a ditch” message, which ironically enough makes me smile because that’s the sort of joke Philip and I would laugh at. And I feel him, smiling back at me.

Then the fact of where I was at spiritually, emotionally, psychically. For the six months or so leading to his death, I’d crossed a line, chosen to live, chosen to stop asking why I was here and accepted the fact that I was. Tried to figure out what I wanted to with the life I was given. Began to understand my inner state was up to me, that my emotions did not, in fact, control me. And I had the tools to work with all of this. Take a breath, take a mental step back from inner turmoil, look at it. No resistance, I’d say, which is the same as “accept it” except those words meant something to me in a way “accept it” didn’t. “No resistance” was a big, deep breath to which I had a physical response. My chest would relax, my arms and shoulders followed. My stomach remained tense and knotted. My stomach was always knotted; it was a question of it being background tension or being whacked-in-the-solar-plexus tension. “No resistance” helped me manage myself.

And, of course, I kept reminding myself, “Accept it, leave it, or change it.”

A year before Philip died, when he was a second-term sophomore, he took a creative writing class. He liked me to read his work and one day sent me an essay about a kid walking down the street, high on LSD, what this kid saw, what he felt like. Shit, I thought.

A week later he came to visit. You know that story I sent you, he asked? That kid walking down the street? That was me.

Well, duh.

“Philip,” I said, “listen; I know you drink, but now you’re doing drugs. Drugs are dangerous. I can’t force you not to take them, but I am asking you please, please, do not do drugs.”

To which he said that he’d done LSD twice, that he didn’t like it, wasn’t going to do it any more, not to worry.

“This is great,” I answered. “I’m your mom, you tell me this stuff, I can’t do anything about it, and when they find you dead of an overdose, they’ll blame me.”

We laughed.

And then there’s this:

The months leading up to Philip’s death, I kept seeing him dead. An image of him would float up in my mind, from the waist up, in a soft yellow button-down shirt (??), his eyes closed,  dead. I didn’t get upset, didn’t think I was having a premonition. I just saw him, dismissed it. Except for the couple times I thought about it a bit, thought about myself at his wake, pictured myself waist down, wearing exactly what it was I wound up wearing when I was actually there. And when I pictured myself, I wondered how I would act. If I truly understood “accept it, leave it, change it.” Because if I did, I’d have to be at peace. But how would it really be?

Since I’m not Jesus or Buddha, I’ll tell you how it really was. I was wrecked. I walked into that funeral home with Phil and Natalie and my brother and outside the room he was in was a plaque that read, “Philip Smyth Jr.” which made me just a little more sick and a little more dizzy.  The name that so touched me when I saw it on a birth certificate or passport or high school diploma or fencing award or even in his own uneven handwriting, now turned on me. Are you telling me that the last time I saw my son we were saying good-bye in the restaurant where we’d just eaten dinner, and the next time I’ll see him is when I walk through that door and he’s lying a coffin? Phil went in first. I waited a minute to follow. And there he was, handsome boy, lying dead, looking exactly like he always did and I fell to my knees and sobbed and all the wide world was Philip, dead. There was no life in that body. What am I to do with this? What the fuck is this? What does it mean to be dead? That’s not an academic question, it’s a blood-and-guts question because Philip was just here, just around to talk to and laugh with and eat with and hug and just like that he wasn’t. So where was he? Don’t tell me he’s in my heart, don’t do that. Of course he’s in my heart, he’s my son. He has been in my heart since the night I woke from my sleep and heard  – I heard – the whisper in my ear: you’re pregnant. It is not enough that he’s in my heart. He has to be where I can touch him, watch him, call him, hold him. Where I can feel he protects me because I know he’s got my back. What is this dead body, what has this to do with my son? I am his mother, I carried him alone before he was born and I’ll carry him alone now that he’s dead. Don’t tell me you’re there to help me because I don’t even know what you’re talking about. If the dictionary-def of help is, “to give or provide what is necessary to..satisfy a need,” then tell me what can be done to bring my son home because that – that – is my need.

So tell me what you’re going to do to help me, and don’t leave me alone when I say that you can’t.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

What I Know

I haven’t talked about this part of the story because it’s fucking hard to write. Harder than screaming down the stairs and pulling my hair and drowning in my cousin’s coat and all of it because that was about me. This is about Philip and what I know and what I imagine and I’m skittish as a cat about what it sounds like. This part’s focal point involves heroin, which is so Requiem For A Dream-ish that maybe it leaves nothing but Jennifer Connelly on her hands and knees and Jared Leto’s gruesome, festering, amputated arm as your tableau vivant.

This is what I know:  The night of February 21st, 2012, in celebration of the unfortunately-named Fat Tuesday, Philip went to a party. Last thing Natalia said to him was, “Don’t do anything stupid.” He did. Last thing he said back was, “I’ll call you in the morning.” He didn’t. At the party, he drank. Back home, he went into his room, locked the door, snorted some heroin. Wednesday he didn’t show up for lunch with Natalie. Thursday night, Max,* a housemate and Philip’s friend since elementary school, asked another housemate if he’d seen Philip, that Philip’s car was in the yard and hadn’t been moved in a while. The two of them went to his room, found it locked, broke into it, and saw him lying on the floor. Max started yelling, one of them called 911. The operator asked them to touch him, check his pulse, but Max was yelling and saying he couldn’t; he told me he tried to touch Philip with his foot, that he was freaked out.

‘’He was my friend since I was a kid,” he told me; “He was my best friend, and I found  him. How am I supposed to live with that?” So at the wake, when Max cried and said to me, “It’s my fault, I’m the one who brought it into the house, I’m the one who gave it to him,” I answered, “Look, you didn’t shove it up his nose. You can’t spend the rest of your life feeling guilty about it.”

A week later, raw as if my skin’d been peeled off with a razor, maybe I was thinking Max should feel guilty. I called him up to ask him why he didn’t tell the cops where he got the heroin. I’d get in trouble, he answered.  Well maybe if you told them, I answered, some next kid wouldn’t have to find his best friend dead and some next kid’s mother, father and sister wouldn’t have to spend the rest of their lives suffering about it. And if you don’t, I added, you get to spend the rest of your living with it.

I didn’t consider what I was really asking, that ratting on a heroin dealer isn’t like turning in the creep on the corner selling $2 joints, that we’re talking some serious Sopranos-type shit here. I saw Max, a couple months later, working behind the counter of a convenience store with narrow aisles lined with canned Vienna Sausage and 3.5 ounce containers of Bumblebee Chunk Tuna,  the counter crammed with Tic-Tacs and Tastykake Honey Buns and where there was always at least one customer doing some serious Lottery Ticket Buying. How are you, he asked. How do you think I am, I answered. And in case you’re wondering, when I got to back my car and sat gripping the steering wheel like a Mac truck was coming at me, thinking how Max had started the whole heroin thing and wondering if Philip’d be alive if he hadn’t, I did not wish that it had been Max instead. I thought about it, wondered why I didn’t wish it. I didn’t wish it because that’s a fantasy, and fantasies are dangerous. If I fantasize I’m living in a world that doesn’t exist, trying to solve a problem where it can’t be solved. I didn’t wish it because Philip is my child, dead or alive, and dead or alive I have a relationship with him. His death turned our relationship into sacred space, and thoughts of vengeance don’t belong there. I can’t get lost in whys and wishes. What would wishing Max dead mean? Only that I was furious and not doing the work that is required a parent do when she loses her child.

My son is dead and that’s forced me into a reality I do not want, but is what’s been given me. I can want it to be different, but it’s delusional to think that I can orchestrate one part of Life and not all of it. I don’t want the responsibility of all of it, and besides, it’s not an option. The only sane option is the one that feels like it’s driving me crazy: Philip has died, and how the bloody hell am I to live with it?

*NB: Natalia notwithstanding, I do not use real names when it comes to Philip’s friends.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

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