The Leap

“Leap and the net will appear.”
John Burroughs

Philip’s phone line is still active. For $10 a month we get to call his phone and hear his voicemail voice. The automated  lady announces him, so all he says is his name, “Phil Smyth.” It doesn’t even sound like him. He’d started calling himself “Phil.” But he will ever be Philip to me.

His mailbox is full. I called Verizon once. “My son has died,” I cried. “I want to hear his messages.” The woman was kind. You need his phone, she told me. Call back when you have it and we’ll change the password so you can get into his phone and retrieve his messages.

I talked to Phil about it. He thought I was nuts, was reluctant to give me the phone, I didn’t push it. But now I want it. I want to do this. I want to read his texts, I want to hear what messages people left him. I don’t care if it tears me apart. These last months I’ve been so removed, so out of touch with what I feel about Philip that I’d like to be ripped open. I’d like to see if there’s something more to me than this surface life I feel I’m living.

I’ve talked about grief being a spiral, not a straight line where you start to get “better” and continue along. Grief expands and contracts, triggered by memory, triggered by love. And I’ve spiraled to the outer edges, to a place where I no longer try to make sense of Philip’s death or my life. I’m not stepping back, I make things too real, get too caught up. I am not steady. Tune into me and I’m comforted. Say something contrary and I make myself small as I can. Less of a moving target, less of me to feel pain.

I don’t write much because I have nothing to say. At least, that’s what I feel like. What am I to talk about? Can I keep telling you about Philip? I make no sense of his death now. I cry, I’m angry, I’m disconnected. Disconnected is the worst. I’d rather weep until my eyeballs fall out than be disconnected. Didn’t I say I wanted to make meaning, that what anything  meant was up to me? Didn’t I write reams about “Accept it, Leave it, Change it?” Wasn’t I in touch with the grace that is the other side of death? At least for a moment? Didn’t I believe?

I am a mother whose son has died. Every day I feel that. I don’t think about it in any useful way. I feel about it, feelings that shift with the wind. Diminished. Resigned. Angry. Bitter. Despair. Helpless. Disconnected. Then I look at his portrait for a while and know how deeply I love him and I weep.

I start a new job tomorrow. During the interview I told them Philip died. I don’t know why I said it – what did that have to do with the job? It didn’t. It had to do with me. That he died is an essential fact of my life and if I’m going to spend time with people, they have to know. That’s why I told them.

I decided months ago it was time for a new job. What angst over my resume, in spite of the fact that I had two friends willing to help. I can’t do it, I thought. Because I don’t know how to write about myself, because I don’t have a degree, because I think the world is my enemy and anyone interviewing me will shake their head and dismiss me. Because that’s the way my crazy brain works even though none of that’s true. And I have a resume – it just needed to be updated. Back in 2011 when I was looking for a job, I paid someone $500 to write my resume. She also wrote my LinkedIn profile, several cover letters, went over job-hunting strategies. I’ll put it in her hands again, I thought. Let her do what I can’t.

When I called her I found out she doesn’t update resumes. She takes you through the whole spiel for $1500. When I told her that was too expensive, she referred me to someone who charges less. For a mere $700 I could have a new resume.

I actually considered it. I wanted to pay to get this burden off me. She’ll make look good, I thought. I need someone to make me look good because I am not good at all.

God I’m sick of myself. At least, that side of myself. Not sick enough to be rid of it, though.

For several months I had anxiety about my resume. I’ll do it over Thanksgiving weekend, I said. I didn’t. I’ll do it over Christmas vacation, I said. The pressure was on. Work was getting difficult and with the new year coming I wanted to make a new start. I might  have been anxious about the resume, but the need to leave was stronger. Finally, I did it.

During my Christmas vacation I went to Kirsten’s house. Why don’t you google resumes, she suggested. Duh. So I googled exactly what I am – Construction Administrative Assistant. And there it was – a whole resume full of bullet points that said what I did more elegantly than I could have on my own. With Kirsten’s help I wrote my resume, wrote a cover letter and found a job ad on Craig’s List for an Administrative Assistant for a construction company.

After months of agonizing over all this, here’s what happened: Sunday I send the resume. Monday I get the call. Tuesday I get the interview. Wednesday I get the job.

Am I not blessed? How do I not get this?

Lately I’ve turned Philip’s death into a weapon against myself. I am damaged goods. I am angry I have to be this mom. I’m resentful because life goes on and it doesn’t care about Philip’s death. And that is not about grief as much as it’s about the way I have of talking to myself when I’m not vigilant. Let me be the voice in your head, Philip tells me. And if I did, none of this is what I’d be hearing.

I need to hold close the fact that everything passes. Life is in motion, ever changing. Every change is a little death. It’s also a chance to let go, to leap into the great unknown. One day I will pass, too, take the greatest leap of all. And when my time comes will I feel I wasted it in apathy, in anger? My life with Philip is forever changed – we will never be the way we were, but we are something different. His presence is as strong as ever – when I pay attention. You’d think I’d pay attention because that’s when I feel closest to him, this child that I need as much as I need air and food and water.

I no longer can live with his body, but I certainly can live in his love.

© 2017 Denise Smyth



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 am going to kick his ass…

I am going to Kick. His. Ass.

At the end of Philip’s wake, a young woman came over to me. Look at this kid, I thought, she’s beautiful. In a China-doll way. Dark, straight, shiny hair and poreless, creamy skin (skin that even at her age I never had). The kind of girl Janis Ian was whining about when she was 17* (and sadly, she wasn’t so wrong). “Mrs. Smyth?” she said. “My name is Natalia. I’m Philip’s girlfriend.”

What the???

If Philip had a girlfriend, I thought I’d know about it. I didn’t expect to know every girl he crossed paths with, but if he called someone his girlfriend, he was serious about her. In fact, the only other girlfriend he’d had was Laura, Nadiya’s daughter (which is how I met Nadiya). They were together for a year, and remained deeply good friends afterward.

Turns out Philip and Natalia had been together about six weeks. Turns out they met because Philip was a referee for high school fencing and Natalia was a high school fencer. Turns out they wanted to wait until the end of the fencing season to go public (impropriety and all). Turns out the end of the fencing season was February 25th. That would be two days after Philip died, and one day before the first day of his wake.

Dazed as I was at the end of the wake, Natalia shocked me awake for a moment. I asked her if she wanted my phone number, and she jumped back like I’d spit fire at her. “NO,” she said, and then she was gone. I figured she was too upset to want to have anything to do with me.

Weeks later, Natalia was in touch with Phil on Facebook. It kinda bothered me that he got her attention when I couldn’t…but an active Facebook page seems the currently preferred method of communication, and other than having a page with my face on it, you weren’t going to find me there. She asked if she could have Philip’s army jacket. The one I’d picked up in Urban Outfitters and given him last Christmas. As in, his last Christmas. Phil probably took my “Um. Uh. Well. Oh. Okay. I guess” as an affirmative. Give something of Philip’s away? To a girl who’d been seeing him for six weeks, and would probably forget him in six more?

In the end, I told him to go ahead. She seemed to really want it, and besides, I had his black leather jacket, all warm and worn and broken in the way leather will, the way mere fabric never can.

Then a few weeks ago, I got an email that started “Dear Mrs. Smyth,” and at which I smiled. I’ve never gotten used to being addressed as “Mrs.” Who is she, “Mrs. Smyth?” Some older woman with a muffin top,** wearing Not My Daughter’s Jeans*** because they have so much stretch in them you can size down, their legs cut just a little too baggy and sitting just a little too long atop her sensible flats. Hair grayish and shortish because Women of a Certain Age cannot be bothered taking care of long hair. Brisk and business-like, her life in order, and having pretty much figured out all she’s going to figure out about life. Not young any more, but who cares? She has her husband, her kids (the ones who’ve flown off to separate colleges and isn’t it so great because it’s so good for them to go away), her friends, her work. She might not be in her prime, but at least her life is settled.

I wasn’t Mrs. Smyth. I was Philip and Natalie’s mom. Big difference. Huge, ginormous, world of difference. Skinny jeans, black leather boots, long streaked hair, still-don’t-know-what-the-hell-I’m-doing, God-please-help-me and all.

And did I mention I was really, really happy that my kids were a 45-minute-I’m-coming-home-to-do-laundry drive away?

The letter was from Natalia,**** and while I appreciated her respect, I wrote back and asked her to promise to call me Denise. We weren’t going to have a meaningful conversation with me being Mrs. Smyth.

Rather than go on about what she said, I’ll let her tell you herself. Here is what she told me about Philip:

Ever since Natalie posted that you had a blog dedicated to Phil, I have been quietly reading through every post, every day. It has been a very long time since I cried as hard as I did. Phil was one of the most amazing people I have ever known. The connection I had with him was one that I will never find ever again. Many people say that I am too young to know such things, but I believe that when you know when someone is perfect it doesn’t matter when you feel it, just that you do. He and I had a friendly acquaintance-like relationship the year or two prior. It wasn’t until the end of 2011 that we started to talk more. The click between us was instantaneous. It was like I knew him my whole life. He was constantly supportive… Even now, in my darkest of days, our old conversations are the only things that can make me smile. He had that sort of magic about him. He was a once-in-a-lifetime guy and I was lucky enough to even be able to be loved by him …Honestly, the way he treated a girl would make any mother proud, and it sure did make a huge impression on my mom…she loved him. There was something about him that just told her he was an amazing guy.

And when I asked her how she found out that he died, she wrote:

I found out that he had passed because I contacted Natalie after spending a few days without hearing from him and by that point I was freaking out. Something told me Wednesday that something had gone horribly wrong. The last thing he said Tuesday night was that he would talk to me in the morning and when he hadn’t (something which was completely out of the ordinary) I began to worry. My slight worry turned to full blown I-can’t-concentrate-on-anything-else freaking out by Friday. I had gone home for lunch (something I never did) and saw I had a message from her. That message came with the news…then I was on the ground, attempting to even slightly make sense of things and maybe even wake myself up from this bad dream…

And that is why I am going to kick his ass. Because I blame him? Of course not. But he is dead and I am pissed off. Much as Natalia and I are in touch, I will never know the two of them as a couple.  And here I go again. I don’t want to open my heart to this girl; I am trying to keep my heart still – like I would any other part of me that was broken. You don’t move a broken arm or a broken leg. You let it rest, give it a chance to heal. But a broken heart doesn’t just “heal.” It can’t get put back together because it doesn’t know its shape any more. And now I feel myself loving this girl, this smart and beautiful and lovely child that I already know I could have loved as one of my own if Philip had just stayed around and let me.


*If you actually had to refer to this asterisk, all I can say is

**A muffin top is when your belly hangs over the top of your jeans.

*** That is actually a brand of jeans, made for us “mature” women with our “mature” figures.

**** I asked Natalia for some pictures. She hasn’t any of the two of them together, but she sent me some of herself. I’ve put them on my photo page. Take a look for yourself; you’ll see what I’m talking about. I mean, how do you not love a girl who rides a horse? And remember – that guy in the picture really is just her friend. Really.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

Happy Birthday?? (#2)

Yesterday was my birthday. Woke up cranky, shook-up in a way I hadn’t expected. What I’d noticed on Philip’s birthday in January and the anniversary (can we please find a different word??) of his death in February was that it wasn’t what I thought it’d be. I knew what these days were, more than I experienced them. It was during the days afterward when grief yet again unmoored me from the world.

Didn’t think much about my birthday, didn’t consider any sort of “celebration.” The quiet keeps me steady, focused on the daily work of living with Philip’s loss. And no sense rushing it; I’m going to be doing it for the rest of my life. Natalie spent the day with me, which was all that I wanted. I’ve recently finished hospice training, and she and I volunteered for a hospice fundraiser in the morning. Then lunch at Toast, then to a deaf event at Union College that Natalie had to attend for her ASL class. Home to watch “Ondine” (thank you, Cindy), dinner at Redeye Café. Then home for the night, while Natalie went to spend some time with a friend.

I think what describes it best is a short letter I wrote to X, whose daughter recently died. She’d said she cannot make sense of this, to which I replied:

“I think you have to start by making meaning in your life before any of it makes sense. And I will tell you something – one year and two months later I have made at least some sense of this. It’s not pretty. But Philip is still dead. I can philosophize and spiritualize and analyze all I want. I’m tired of it now, today. Today is my birthday and I don’t want to be bothered. This was a hard day, more than I expected. I wanted to stamp my feet and scream, “Enough of this; I’m tired, don’t you see? I’ve been working really, really hard and now I think it’s time you please please send him home.”

I miss him. It’s fresh again. But this is what my son did: tonight, I was on my laptop, doing what I was doing, and his headshot popped up. I almost threw the computer. There he was, his face innocent, like an angel. I did not touch anything; the picture hadn’t been open. It just popped up. That was his happy birthday to me.”

They do reach out to us, those we love. Which isn’t even unusual, mysterious as it may be. It’s a matter of paying attention, it’s a matter of what you want. And I’ll take Philip any way I can have him – any way.

Okay. Back to the narrative.

© 2013 Denise Smyth