My Secret

I ended my last post with what was to be next. Instead, I digress.


 AA says you’re only as sick as your secrets. The light’s supposed to shine away the dark. Because it’s always there, the light. It’s a matter of if you see it.

Secrets are built into addiction. It’s a matter of survival. “Addiction” becomes this thing you are, not this thing you have. It’s a force, and it wants to survive. It’s not supposed to be able to thrive in the light. So where does the light come from? Just from telling the secret? What exactly happens when you say the thing you think you are or think you have? With all the AA I’ve absorbed, you’d think I’d know.

I have bulimia and anorexia. I don’t mean I had bulimia and anorexia. I mean I have bulimia and anorexia. That’s been my response to Philip dying. At first I wouldn’t eat. For months after Philip died I picked at food. I was drained. A bag of bones my clothes hung on. It wasn’t so much a choice; the food wouldn’t go down. Anxiety was a tsunami in my belly. If anything went in, it would have been blown back out.

In the mess of days after Philip died, people wanted to feed me. “Are you hungry? Can I get you something to eat?” they’d ask. I could only shake my head. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t do normal. I couldn’t pay attention to anyone because they weren’t in my world. In my world the only answer was, “I will never eat again; I will starve myself to where my son is.”

David Foster Wallace, himself a sober addict when he died, wrote about benign and malignant addictions. “Many addictions, from exercise to letter-writing, are pretty benign.” He then adds, “…  something is malignantly addictive if (1) it causes real problems for the addict, and (2) it offers itself as relief from the very problems it causes.” And so round and round I go.

I am so damn angry. And I’ve a habit of punishing myself when I suffer loss, which I wrote about here. In the past, it was about The Guy. The one who always turned out to be a jerk, because, of course, it was his fault. All I wanted was to be loved. I lived for these guys, yearned for them, dressed for them, got on my knees for them; why the fuck couldn’t they love my need away? So I’d leave them, depressed and angry, and start the Food Games. Months of barely eating until my body couldn’t take it any more, at which point I went to war with it. Hunger was a betrayal, forcing me to eat when all I wanted to do was die. I’d sneak into delis and grocery stores, head down, walking as close to the shelves as I could, as embarrassed by my hunger as by my cartful of cookies and cupcakes and chips. I’d start eating in the car, and once I was home, tore through that food until I felt like a blimp about to burst. Then into the bathroom to hurl it all back at the universe. And soon as I got hungry again, I did it all over. Buying more food at different stores. At my worst, binging eight or nine times a day. At my worst, all 5’4” of me weighting 98 lbs., and counting down.

It was my mind that drove me crazy, and my body that I punished.

So what happened? At 28, I met my husband and it hit me it was either him, or my crazy. I chose him. I got help. I settled down. I learned how to eat, how to listen to my body. I stabilized at 125 lbs. The more I let myself eat, the less food was an “issue.” I got married, had kids. And to my wonder and surprise, after Philip was born, I lost more than my pregnancy pounds. I weighed in at 118, where I stayed for the next 20 years.

The blow of Philip’s death blasted me into a suffering I was helpless to deal with, so I turned to food. Same pattern – I went from barely eating, to vomiting. Back and forth, back and forth. Down to 102 lbs., obsessed with staying there. Telling no one; not anyone, for longer than I can remember. Until the day I told Kirsten, told Rose, who is sweet and lovely and who I’ve yet – but hope – to meet. Finally, I told my therapist. And most importantly, I told Natalie, because I would never have taken the risk that she’d find this out through a blog instead of directly from me.

I’ve been throwing out weight and height to make a point, to make the picture clear. To make myself see what I am doing, to shake myself into some semblance of caring for myself. Because much as I’m taking the steps to do what’s right, it’s coming from “I have to,” not, “I want to.” The have-to is because of Natalie; I love her enough to understand she needs me right where I am. It’s all for her; I don’t know how I ever let it get to be for me, too.

Here’s where I stand: I have stopped throwing up. I am afraid to eat, even though I do. I do not weigh myself. I am probably somewhere between 110 − 115 lbs. I am told I am too thin. I do not believe that. When I look in the mirror I don’t see what you do.

And I’m exhausted; I’m tired of worrying about food, tired of it always being on my mind, tired of the voices in my head  that don’t even sound like voices, just sound like normal thoughts. Normal? Here’s a sample: “Oh, are you going to eat that for lunch? That’s too heavy. You better not eat breakfast. Eat some grapes and drink some Vitamin Water. Don’t finish what you’re eating. It’s good to leave food on your plate. What are you going to eat for dinner? You ate lunch, after all, you can’t eat too much for dinner. And don’t eat too late. What? You’re eating popcorn at 10:00 at night? I don’t care if it’s fat-free; that’s bad. Very bad. Bad, bad, bad.”

This isn’t the end; it’s just all I can say for now.

© 2014 Denise Smyth


Sobbing and Useless (Suicide, Part Two)

Naturally the first (and as yet only) chapter of Jennifer Michael Hecht’s “Stay” that I’ve read is “Suffering and Happiness.” Because as anyone who’s tried to delve into what they suffer knows, lots of people have lots of things to say about the suffering/joy thing. I will not ask the one question that haunts: why? I mean, why the fuck does one have to suffer to know joy? Hell, I can even answer that in my own way – but it doesn’t satisfy, not really. But suffering transmuted can liberate me from believing that I must suffer. Can show me, if I’m honest, what my part is in what I feel. Like everyone, I suffer within the context of my life, and Philip is now the focal point of that suffering. But as I’ve said, he’s told me not to make his death into something it isn’t. I have to get my head out my ass first.

And what I mean by “suffering in the context of my life” is that Philip’s death is of a part of the rest of it. A really simple way to understand that is if you’ve generally been okay with being alive you’ll probably wrestle with your child’s death differently than if you’ve spent most of your life thinking you and those around you would be better off with no-you. I mean, one of the reasons I used to think it’d better if I died was because my insurance policy would pay for my kids’ college.

Think I had some of those self-esteem issues we hear talk about?

My cousin Maria remembers that when I was a kid I always loved gray days. They make me feel safe, I told her. Nothing’s changed. I’m looking out my window now, where the sun’s breaking through the clouds that just yesterday were full of rain. I’ve a pit in my stomach; they always leave, the clouds. Always. There’s more sun-time than cloud-time and it doesn’t seem fair. What I feel good about is temporary, leaves too quickly. What keeps me twisted is reliable. And that’s pretty much how life’s felt.

I don’t much like Hecht’s poem, “No Hemlock Rock (don’t kill yourself); there’s a certain silliness to some of it and I’m not sure what she’s trying to do:

Don’t kill yourself. Don’t kill yourself.
Don’t. Eat a donut, be a blown nut.
That is, if you’re going to kill yourself,
stand on a street corner rhyming
seizure with Indonesia, and wreck it with
racket. Allow medical terms.
Rave and fail. Be an absurd living ghost,
if necessary, but don’t kill yourself.

I guess she’s saying be crazy, do anything, anything at all except kill yourself; but those words have nothing to do with me because I’m hurting and and it’s too much effort to go out and get a donut and I don’t even know what it means to be a blown nut.

But “Stay” is something else. When two of Hecht’s close friends killed themselves, she wrote an open essay letter on a blog that she writes for.  “Life has always been too hard to bear, for a lot of people, a lot of the time,” she wrote. “It’s awful. But it isn’t too hard to bear, it’s only almost too hard to bear.” She tells us to sob and be useless because “Sobbing and useless is million times better than dead. A billion times.” She calls those who want to kill themselves but don’t, heroes.

I’m no hero. I didn’t kill myself out of fear; nothing heroic about it. And before I start going on about how cowardly I am that I didn’t, I’m going to switch gears. I have to start seeing things differently. I’m not into heroics, so I’ll just say I have some level of sanity or I’d’ve thrown myself drunk in front of one of our Montclair rail crossings.

But how crazy am I to be touch with Philip daily and yet want to die because he did? What is it about the dark that attracts me? Philip told me that he is my teacher where he is, and Natalie’s my teacher where she is. He’s here to show me what death isn’t; she is showing me what life is. But it’s Philip I listen for and yearn for and learn from; I don’t learn from Natalie. She’s intense and blooming and instead of learning that from her, I sit on the sidelines because I can’t have that. Too late, don’t know how.

How complicated is this all? Philip was my first born, and extraordinary to me. The first thing I’d done right; and when I saw the beautiful child he grew into, all the more proof of what I was worth. He was my light. Funny thing is, there were times I thought I was paying way more attention to Natalie than to Philip; but my children needed what they needed, and Natalie needed more. Philip was my steady. Lights don’t go out, I said when he died; they just don’t. “I didn’t go out, mom,” he says. “Have a little faith.”

See, I can bow my head every day in gratitude when he lets me know he’s near. But what good is it if I don’t learn to live. If I want to work with what he’s trying to teach me, then I have to be willing to follow Natalie’s lead.

Hecht quotes Ann Sexton: “I don’t want to live…Now listen, life is lovely, but I Can’t Live It. I can’t even explain…if you knew how it Felt. To be alive, yes, alive, but not be able to live it…I am like a stone that lives…locked outside of all that’s real…I wish, or think I wish, that I were dying of something for then I could be brave…to [be] behind a wall watching everyone fit in where I can’t…to live but to not reach or to reach wrong…to do it all wrong…I’m not a part. I’m not a member. I’m frozen.”

I know this. I know every word of this. I’ve said it all, down to wishing I was dying so I could be brave. So I am not alone. But this is what else I know: It does not have to be this way. I don’t have to be this way. I haven’t figured out what that means yet. But this is only part two.

Next: Suicide, Part Three

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Stay (Suicide, Part One)

No, I’m not going to kill myself. But I’ve been preoccupied with being dead, and since the inner eventually becomes the outer, all things suicide have been coming my way.

Natalie bought me a book about suicide for Christmas. “Stay,” by Jennifer Michael Hecht. I find the title wrenching. “Dad asked me if I bought it because I was worried you’re thinking about killing yourself,” she said. “I told him no, it’s just I know you’re interested in suicide.”

My therapist is concerned. So I asked Natalie, who, after getting annoyed about the whole thing, pointed out that she knows I once tried to kill myself and hence, my interest; that she heard about the book on NPR, which gave her the idea to buy it; that if I was going to kill myself I would have already done so, since I’ve gone through the worst thing in my life so far; and that anyway, I wouldn’t do that to her. And no, I wouldn’t.

But she’s the thread I’m hanging from. I have enough sanity to see she’s a reason not to die. But it feels impossible I’ll ever get to the part about wanting to live. Or maybe I don’t think about that for the next few-whatever. Maybe I first get through Philip’s birthday on January 20th, then February 23rd when it’ll be two years since he died. Because if I’ve learned nothing else these last two months, it’s that this year-two stuff is pretty sickening. Year one’s unreality has been replaced by year two’s finality, and where’s there to go from here?

I get a daily poem from The Writer’s Almanac, which, by the way, is connected to NPR. 95% of the time I don’t read them. But one day last week, I got two emails from the Almanac, the second one correcting the first. Maybe I should read it, I thought; maybe that poem’s trying to get my attention. It was a poem about suicide. I mentioned it to Natalie because of the book she’d given me, and she said maybe it was the same author. So I checked, and sure enough, it was.

And if that’s not enough suicide-stuff, a couple weeks ago, I got a link to a blog post about suicide. The blogger – who I think had once felt suicidal and is now really happy to be alive – decided that those who kill themselves are selfish and cowardly. I don’t argue online – I don’t usually have the energy or self-righteousness for it. But this closed-minded, cliched version of What Kind of People kill themselves incensed me enough to let the blogger know exactly what I thought, which included the fact that many who’d read the post were the ones who’d lived through a loved one’s suicide, and what kind of burden does that add to a load that’s already broken a whole bunch of people to pieces? (And the end of that story was instead of getting flipped-off, the blogger read my entire blog and left a lovely comment. Who knew??)

Since Philip died, I’ve come across people whose loved ones have killed themselves, and I don’t pretend to know what kind of hell it is to live with that. Especially if it’s your child – what ginormous excess of grief must that create? Suicide has nothing to do with the people who love you. It has to do with unfathomable loneliness, other-ness, not belonging, not seeing, not getting why you’re alive if this is what it feels; if all/most of the time, this is what it feels like. And screw feelings-aren’t-facts. Feelings are the world if that’s what you let them be.

My secret mantra has yet again become, “This won’t last forever because I will die.” Not exactly suicide, but a way of becoming one of the walking dead. I already wrote about what Philip said to me about suicide here. And I promised him I’d stop wishing myself dead. But lately, I’m not hearing anything but the battering between my ears, and I don’t know what it is I’m trying to accomplish with my little mantra. Maybe I think it’ll bring a natural death faster, and no one will blame me if that’s how I go.

I become unreachable when I’m lusting for death, which I’ve long considered the only way “out.” When I finally figured out that if I thought death was the answer, I was asking the wrong question, Philip died. And even though I remind myself that death remains the wrong answer, these last few weeks I’ve given up and given in and I see no way through. I’m not in touch with anything inside me that knows how to live, much less wants to. It seems wrong and unnatural, but life’s never much felt like a home I belonged in.

For whatever the reason, I was miserable and angry about life since I was a kid. When I turned 11, I decided the way out was to drink. By 14, I added pot to the mix. By 22, I had bulimia. For years I turned the rage I felt but never understood into a scathing diatribe against myself. I swore God took special pleasure in my unhappiness or else He’d make it go away.

When I was 21, I sat in my parents’ bathtub at 4:00 in the morning while they were away for the weekend, drinking and hacking away at my wrists with a razor blade. I thought I was making progress when the blood started spraying, but that’s when I heard the phone ringing. I guess I wanted to live more than I wanted to die because I answered it. It was my soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, Chris. Earlier that night, I’d left him at a party, drunk and angry that he hadn’t given me any of the Quaaludes he’d already passed out from taking. What he later told me was that he’d woken up out of his stupor and knew something was wrong when he couldn’t find me. He came over and wanted to take me to the emergency room. I refused, so he wrapped a towel around my wrist and went to a 24-hour drugstore for some butterfly bandages. When he was done patching me up, I sat in the bathroom watching him clean the blood from the walls around the tub.  On his knees, he tossed his long Jesus-hair back over his shoulders and never said a word while he worked. I longed to lay my head on his long, narrow back while he rinsed that bloody rag. I wanted him to love me as much as he wanted to save me, but when he stood and turned to me he was the Chris I knew again, his ever-increasing remoteness further justified.

After that, I went to therapy. I still didn’t want to live, but I was embarrassed by my failed attempt and by what I considered my cowardliness because I knew I wouldn’t do it again. By 24 I went to AA and I stopped drinking. By 30, I married Phil, which went a long way toward stabilizing my violent moodiness. I relied on his steadiness, but it offered no insight into how to build a life that I could enjoy. I’d stopped drinking and vomiting and had even given God a shot, but I wasn’t happy. I was living in a long, gray corridor called depression.  Wanting to die was my default position, the only way to permanently right what was wrong. I got it together for everyone else; I loved my kids and took care of my family, but the life I was living didn’t seem to include me.  I was bored staying home with the kids, unhappy being married, despondent because I had no career, resentful that being a wife meant having sex when the only touch I didn’t object to was that of my children. I was waiting my life out. I thought about swallowing pills but had no idea how to get them. Sleep was the only peace I knew, and the nights I was particularly despondent I’d crawl under the covers, pull them up to my chin and curl up to say my adult version of the prayer my mother taught me as a kid:

Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
I  pray to die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

But the Lord wasn’t listening, so I kept a package of razorblades in my kitchen drawer. I might’ve been too scared to use them, but they were my version of hope.

Next: Suicide, Part Two

© 2014 Denise Smyth


Fuck art. It’s time for a rant, because really, I’m exhausted. Not for lack of sleep. For my mind tripping over my broken heart to figure this out or make meaning or whatever the hell it is my mind is trying to do while it’s continually screaming Philip is dead Philip is dead Philip is dead dead dead.

WTF? What’s today? I don’t know but it’s the Aftermath. The Christmas quiet which I used to wind down with my family, wrappings gone, bows saved, boxes still under the tree like we could open our presents all over again. My family, of which 1/4  is dead, 1/4 I’m separated from, and 1/4 is beginning to leave on her life’s adventure. And I am paralyzed because there’s nothing in me to be adventurous, there’s nothing in me that wants to go out and do anything. WTF kind of life is this? I can’t carry Philip’s death. It’s too goddamn heavy and I don’t know what to do. I miss him, I goddamn miss him. What does anyone do? What do you say to yourself, what do you do with your time when you’re suffering? I wrote a post called “What I do” about that, but there’s more. There’s food, there’s not eating, or eating and vomiting, and torturing myself that I’m going to get fat and fretting about it all the time and for shit’s sake I’m 55 and I’ve got adolescent eating problems. I am exhausted.

Somebody told me that Joseph Campbell said – big paraphrase coming here – that it’s not meaning that people are searching for, it’s the feeling of being alive. WTF? So I’m doing it wrong again? I thought I was trying to make some damn meaning out of all of this and be on my merry way to some peace, which is another idea I have the way I had an idea about forgiveness. Because I keep thinking I want peace which, in my idea, feels not like life but like tolerance of life, which is feeling very fucking empty right about now. Is that what I really want? A life that’s “tolerable?” Any wonder why I’m waiting to die? Why do people want to live, I asked my therapist? What’s with the wanting?

Why do you want Philip to live, she shot back? Which brings up a whole shitstorm of questions like, WTF is life, really; what is it when I can hear my son and read his signs and feel his nudges which would mean (there’s that word again) that life can’t possibly be about a body so it must more be about connection.

There it is. I don’t feel connected to anyone right now, not myself, not Philip, whose eyes I feel watching me even as I write this. And I don’t mean “eyes” as in those of a body but I am restricted to language to talk about what’s going on and “eyes” watching me conjures up what I’m feeling. I feel his watching, his patience. I feel him waiting for me to calm the fuck down and begin again. So, what then? Am I connected, or am I not?

Maybe when it comes to Philip, I’m never completely disconnected. There’s some thread that at the moment is stretched to breaking even though I know it won’t. But it’s not enough. There are people here, people with flesh and hair and body fluids that leak from all different places; people that take up the same space as me and to need to be paid attention to.  There’s Natalie, for starters, who I sometimes feel like I’m watching through the long end of a telescope. She’s there; she must be. But I can’t take in that I matter to her or anyone else and it’s that profound loneliness that’s dogged me since before Philip was born and is unfathomably murky now. But there is no one to hug me. There is not one person I can sink into.What’s it matter? echoes the hollowed out place my heart’s supposed to be, and where not coincidentally Philip asked me to place that diamond. Light it up, mom; see what’s really there. But I think it’s a big, fat nothing. I think it’s loss upon loss with more loss to come because what else is life anyway? Being ready for the loss. As if you could be, even when you know it’s coming. (Tersia, Lucia – are you reading this?) In “No Chance,” Lou Reed sings of not having a chance to say good-bye to his friend who died: “There are things we wish we knew and in fact we never do / But I wish I’d known that you were gonna die.”

Really? ‘Cause I don’t. I dreamt of Philip maybe three times since he died. In one dream he was telling me he needed some fencing gear, and that he needed socks. “If you did your laundry, you’d have socks,” I’d thought, much to my surprise because I knew that on Sunday, he was going to die. I was sorry to have thought that about the socks, and it was awful to tell him yes, we’d go get his fencing stuff even though I knew he’d be dead before he could use it, and there was nothing I could do about it. Just keep acting normal until it happened. So no, I don’t wish I knew he was going to die.  Something had been driving me those last months, something that made me choke on my love for him and make my twisted way into his heart to let him know how much I did.

So WTF? What’m I supposed to do? Nothing’s working here. I don’t want to knit or sew or read or cook or watch TV. I don’t even want to drink, which sometimes I think I do, but which I know won’t help ‘cause I’ll wake up worse. A pill, maybe. A big, fat pill – or several small ones – so I can go to sleep, which is my version of peace. It won’t make me connected to myself, but it’ll sure make me forget that I’m not.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

Days 3-4

I thought that if I had to live with Philip’s death, I could live with anything. Natalie aside, what could matter enough to upset me? What could matter at all? But that’s not true, not really. I don’t think this gypsy life suits me. I’ve been at Kirsten’s since I got back from California, will be here til I find somewhere to live. My dogs are still at my mom’s. My home is a Ghost Town, a huge storage bin for what I have and what I have to get rid of. Last week I had minor surgery with not-so-minor recovery. On my back the whole of the week, I found out the apartment I thought I had fell through, like the job I thought I had fell through. I have no job, I have no apartment was my uncontrollable mantra.

And for a while, I lost my voice.

So things happen for a reason, I’ll land where I’m supposed to. And I can flip all of this on its head because I might have lost my home, but I have friends who’ll take me in. I might have lost my job, but I have some income to help as I look for another. I might feel like I’m walking on shifting ground, but at least there is a ground; I am not as lost as I was a year ago, I’m not traveling in the Netherworld where I lived when I found out that Philip died.

I’m not in the interregnum of Days 3-4. The purgatory before the real hell started. I was out of time, out of mind, out of space; walking beneath roily waters, seeing and hearing and moving in some grotesque aquatic ballet. I looked at people as if I didn’t comprehend, but I did. Denial was never a part of this. My son was dead.

I surfaced when I was spoken to, surprised myself by answering back. Waited a second or two before I went under again, just in case someone was going to say something that mattered, something that had to do with Philip but didn’t have to do with death. But whatever anyone said, all I heard was, Philip is dead Philip is dead Philip is dead. So what was anyone talking to me for, then? It was hideously comic that I was supposed to do a certain type of normal because things needed to be done, phone calls had to made, arrangements had to be taken care of. To Phil I said, “I can’t.” To me he said, “I will.”

Because that’s what men do; they do, and Phil did it all.

What to say about 3-4? I can tell you that Ed came over and my parents came over and my phone rang a lot. I can tell you that after being awake for 38 hours my body took over and I went down for the night.  I can say that with Natalie’s help I materialized at Phil’s on Saturday where there were people milling around and that late in the afternoon, Phil said, “Maybe you should take a shower.”

I looked up at him. “Do you think I should take a shower?”

He looked kind and weary and so very sad and he gently said, “Yes, I do.”

Like a child, I was. Wearing the same clothes I had on since Thursday. Shocked and awed by the magnitude of what happened. Finding myself standing in rooms or sitting in chairs and not knowing how I got there or why I was there or what I was supposed to do. I made no decisions because there wasn’t any me to make them. And the longer that day went on and the more people came and the more hugs and kisses and tears made Philip more dead. Maybe no one should have come. Maybe if I hadn’t called anyone and sat quietly for a while there was a chance something could have changed. We didn’t give it a chance; we told people and they came with their bruised hearts and stunned disbelief and they made it impossible for Philip to come home. His death had taken on a life of its own.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

Suffering is Optional?

I started this post on a plane to Palm Springs, California. Natalie’s a gymnast, and is competing at World Championships. We both giggle at the name; it’s true that it’s worldwide, but while it sounds like it’s important enough to be televised, the only cameras that’ll be there are the ones all the parents have brought.  Still, there are talented gymnasts competing, and I’m proud to say that Natalie is one of them.

The last time I was on a plane was May, 2012, three months after Philip died. My so-always-so-generous cousin Maria took  me and Natalie for a long weekend to Key Biscayne in Florida, right outside of South Beach, Miami. Maria and I were both born in April; “For our birthdays, we’ll go,” she said. Like a sad little puppy I followed, not knowing what I should or shouldn’t do but hoping that if someone was taking care of me, it would somehow please make me better.

I’d heard much about the beauty of the Keys, the glamour of South Beach, Miami. We were staying at the Hilton, large and elegant with ginormous flower arrangements in the lobby and crystal bowls of glossy green and red apples for the taking. Maria booked one room for me and Natalie, and stayed in another with her daughter, Gina. Leaning over the railing on our 10th floor terrace, I could see the bay a ways off. A parking lot was to my left, with hotels in all directions. Below, palm trees and such lined the circular drive that was busy with idling buses briskly greeted by courteous, uniformed attendants. Their willingness-to-please was exhausting.

I thought my sense of beauty might’ve died along with Philip, but I suspected not. Whatever beauty drew people here was buried under the massive amount of building it took to support them when they came. But just in case I was missing something, when Natalie joined me on the terrace I asked her if she thought the view was beautiful. “Hell no,” she answered.

Then our trip to South Beach, which was awful. Our cab driver let us off on Ocean Drive. This is the real South Beach, he’d said. It’s 1.3 miles of hotels, restaurants and shops which look as classy as Fifth Avenue New York in pictures but are a few steps above seedy when you’re walking past them at 7:30pm just-after-tourist-season. Music was blaring from each of the crowded, canopied restaurants that lined the street, which was impossible to navigate. Natalie and I crossed to walk on the opposite side – the beach side – giving us I suppose a better view of the much-touted Art Deco designed buildings, which my unsophisticated eye saw as run-down. We continued to Lincoln Avenue, where the concierge at the Hilton suggested we go. It was an outdoor mall like every other outdoor mall that’s been popping up in America, with a broad street closed to traffic, chain stores I don’t have to vacation to shop in and restaurants who employ people to stand outside to try to coax you in with extended Happy Hours and two-for-the-price-of-one entrees.

I suffer from tourist-itis. I don’t go away much, and when I do, I remain a perpetual tourist, feeling like I don’t belong, looking for something I can’t find, thinking if I follow the signs that lead to The Village there’ll be something old and authentic, something that isn’t a bunch of chain stores with different facades to match the climate. I can’t even find a place to walk beyond the hotel, never mind trying to find something to do besides what’s offered in the brochures of endless attractions. It’s the soul of the place I want to find – is it in the side streets, the surrounding neighborhoods, in the parks, on a mountain, on a trail? It’s like some big secret that the kind of people I envy know about. But I think it’s my own soul I’m searching for and if I can’t find it inside of me, I’m not going to find it outside of me, either.

This searching is no longer an abstraction. I am sick from grief. My insides keep folding in on themselves and I’ve not stopped asking myself just how I am supposed to live without my son. Natalie and I went to lunch after we landed. There was an elderly couple in a booth to my right, deep in conversation for the entire time we were there. And another elderly couple in front of me, sitting side by side at a table made for ten, more interested in their food than each other. He was a handsome man with his silver hair and beard, decisively pushing around the food on his plate, intent on which was the next bite he’d be chewing. She was pale and birdlike, her mouth gently turned down at the corners, slowly chewing food that I never once saw her put in her mouth. In her I saw the result of my long, long life without Philip. She is unhappy, I cried to Natalie when we left. And I am unhappy; how can I be okay without Philip?

Why do you do that, Natalie asked? Why are you paying attention to the couple you think is unhappy instead of the couple who couldn’t stop talking to each other? You are not going to be okay because you are okay.  It’s not a place you get to. It’s where you are, right now.

Part of me thinks she’s right and part of me is screaming you don’t know, no one knows, because you can’t be inside me and feel what this feels like. Am I supposed to take heart because so many are suffering and so many go on? I can’t, not in the way that other shared experiences might buoy me. But it is humbling, for sure; that I could feel so unbearably isolated and unnervingly grieved while knowing that every day people are suffering this, and worse. That my portion of pain isn’t any more extraordinary than anyone else’s. Pain, they say, is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

If so, I am choosing wrongly and feel helpless to do otherwise.

© 2013 Denise Smyth