Is it Better?

I miss my son.

I am still shocked, and part of me feels like a dying tree, oozing sap and rotting away. When work is over and no friends are around, it’s just me and my grief. How am I supposed to do this? Is there some sort of answer to that? I can’t look to the world for it – the world is insane. Grasping , needing and killing to get what it wants. And what it wants is Power. What’s done in the name of power is psychotic. It’s never enough, there’s always more power to want. More ways to be right, to prove that you exist. But there’s no real satisfaction in being right. It’s like an addiction – because being satisfied with being right just once is no more possible than an addict’s first snort being his last.

Except when it kills him.

In “True Detective,” Marty asks Rust if he’s Christian. “No,” he says. “Well what are ya?” Rust doesn’t want to have this conversation, but he answers, “I’m a Realist. But in philosophical terms, I’m a Pessimist.”

I’ve never heard of Pessimism as a philosophy. So I did a little research, read Thomas Ligotti’s, “The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.” And one of the things he wrote about was the question of why it’s assumed that it’s better to be here than to not. I imagine you can’t get much traction with that because most people take it for granted that it’s better to be. Of course it is, right? But why, exactly? Forget my suffering. What about those women – those girls – that were rounded up by some terrorist organization in Iraq to be given to men so they can marry them or rape them or subject them to any degradation they choose?  Or people whose families became collateral damage in a war they neither wanted nor started? Or all the hungry kids, the abused kids – all over the world there is suffering I cannot even imagine. So is it better – is it always better – to be? We can’t answer that since we don’t know what it is to “not be.” We don’t if it’s better. Or worse. Or just the same. We just know we’re terrified of it.

And Pessimism isn’t Hamlet’s, “To be or not to be.” Hamlet was contemplating suicide. Pessimism is about coming into being at all. I thought about it for a while, until I circled back to the fact that while I found Pessimism fascinating, it wasn’t some kind of answer. No matter how much I debate it, I’m here. Whether’s it’s better to be here or not is irrelevant. I’m here and Philip’s dead, so now what?

Living. I’m as hung up on what that means as I am about death. And I’m not feeling good about either of them. “Mom, you have to work it out where you are,” Philip said. Which sucked the juice out of the fantasy of wanting to die – whatever I’ve been angry, depressed and twisted about for most of my life is my life. When I’m sitting here writing, this is my life. When I get up to pee then that will be my life. Life is not some separate path or some thing Out There that I’ll get to one of these days. Out There is the fantasy of the future, which only ever comes as now. Life is what it is. Every breath is life lived and it is one of these same, ordinary breaths that are going to be our last.

When Natalie was a  freshman at Rutgers, she was miserable. It was more than being homesick. It was misery. I was trying to help her get through that first year, at the end of which she could transfer. Accept it, leave it or change it, I told her. So she stayed. She applied to other colleges. But it wasn’t enough. She was torn and I wanted to help. We talked a lot. She’d often go visit her boyfriend in New York on weekends, then come home to Montclair on Sunday evening so I could drive her back to Rutgers. I loved my Sunday nights in the car with her. For 45 minutes we’d talk and talk and once we talked so much I missed the exit.

Two weeks before Philip died, we were talking about death. “You know everything won’t be here one day. Everything. One day this car won’t be here. This highway – it won’t be here, either.” I hesitated before I added, “I won’t be here,” because I didn’t want to scare her. But I’m going to die like everyone else and not talking about it won’t change that.

I told her that I didn’t think death was the end. “I don’t know what happens, but something’s left. Whatever you want to call it. Call it soul, call it energy. But something is animating my body – and when my body dies, that something remains.” I also told her that I had no idea what happened with that soul, that energy. I wasn’t talking reincarnation, I wasn’t talking heaven. I believe there is more than we see, but what that is I can’t say.

“Of course,” I added, “If anything happened to you or Philip, all bets are off.”

And this was around the time Natalie said to her boyfriend, “I am afraid my brother’s going to die.”

Philip’s death forces me to think about what life and death are. And this is what he said to me a while ago: “Mom, I’m trying to teach you what death isn’t. But you have to look to Natalie for life. If you don’t, nothing I say will mean anything.”

And all along I thought what he meant was all the signs, the messages, and the guidance were proof that death isn’t the end, that he’s around and always will be. But that’s only part of it. He’s also trying to get it through my head that death isn’t an answer to the way I feel. Because in spite of what I know and what I’ve experienced, when I’m grieved and terrified I think that death has got to be the answer. I am back to crying every day for Philip. I’m trapped because there are too many moments when I think that I just can’t do this – but I’m here and I have to and that’s when I get to thinking death must be a way out. And I’m reminded of when I was in labor, when I had that same terror because the pain was too much and there was nothing I could do – and a voice in my head said, “There’s no way out but through.”

People thought I was crazy for having my babies at home when I could go to the hospital and have the pain of it all relieved in some  chemical way. Had I done that, I would have missed that voice. And that’s the voice that’s brought me full circle and made every scream and exhausting push worth all of it.

So to all of you who have lost a child, to you who’ve lost a deeply loved one, what is life for you? And for you who have other children to look to, what do you see? What I see when I look at Natalie is complicated. She is not the girl who came home from Rutgers. Two-and-a-half years later she is a light and a joy. Her life is full of what she wants. She vibrates – when Natalie is in a room, you know it. I have loved watching her come alive. But watching her also puts distance between us. She is happy, I am not. She is full of life, I am dispirited. It seems so easy for her, this thing called life. I think I’m angry, I think I’m envious. I think I’m dejected because I tamp my anger down so hard it’s exhausting. I can’t deal with it; I’m angry that Philip’s dead, that Natalie’s moving out, that people think it’s okay to be here and I don’t.

And I’m angry that I don’t even know if that’s true.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

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To Sit Quietly

Natalie's Birthday

Natalie’s 21st Birthday

 

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
Blaise Pascal

In “True Detective” there’s a scene where Marty, angry with Rust’s take on things, tells him to “stop sayin’ shit like that.” Rust answers, “Given how long it’s taken for me to reconcile my nature, I can’t figure I’d forego it on your account.”

It’s things like that that fascinate me. Rust is cynical, aloof. He’s a self-proclaimed pessimist. He has no friends, and the only relatives we hear about are a mother who might or might not be alive, a father he didn’t get along with when he was alive, a daughter who died when she was two and a wife he’s divorced from because of it. He thinks existence is a mistake and the best thing we could do is stop reproducing, and so “opt out of a raw deal.”

Awful as any of that sounds, he says he’s reconciled his nature. “I know who I am,” he says. And what fascinates me is the idea of  knowing who I am and then allowing myself to be, even if I don’t look the way the world says I’m supposed to. But is that “self” knowable? Is “who I am” something other than fluid? Is “who I am” anything more than some self I’ve invented, and then judged?

Sunday we had a party for Natalie’s 21st birthday. Her birthday is actually July 4th, but she’ll be away in France so we had her party early. I made dessert, like I always do; pie, cookies and a sheet cake decorated to look like a flag. And like every day – which is something that I’d been starting to grasp right before Philip died – it wasn’t a good day or a bad day; it was a day of moments and some felt better than others.

Natalie is now (or at least, in 9 days will be) as old as Philip was when he died. Last year, when she turned 20, I spent some time feeling sick and scared because it hit me she was no longer a teenager, that she was “catching up” to him, which seemed to make him more dead. How will I feel when she turns 21, I wondered? On Sunday, I felt nothing in particular that I could connect to her birthday. Since then, whatever mood I’ve been in, whatever dark places I’ve been banging around in, I can’t connect them to Natalie’s turning 21. And I know that no matter what, Philip will always be her older brother.

At the party, I spoke to my sister-in-law J. for a while. She told me that when she was looking at cards for Natalie, she saw one with a big 21 on the cover. “I couldn’t buy it,” she said. “It didn’t feel right.” I’m sorry I didn’t tell her what it felt like not only to know she was still thinking about Philip, but that she told me about it. I told her that I just felt done; that I’m always feeling that I’d rather be where Philip is than be here, even though here is where Natalie is. I feel bad saying that, I told her. But my grief feels so much bigger than wanting to live ever could.

But is it true that I “always” feel like that? I don’t “always” feel like anything. Last week, I was asked to find a plumber for a job we’ll soon be starting (reminder: I work for a design and construction company). The job’s in an area we’ve never worked in, so we need to find subcontractors. So I googled “plumbing contractors” and that’s where I found Doodyman. In fact, what came up was not just Doodyman – it was “Doodyman to the rescue.” I was thinking, gee, poor guy, how hard to grow up with a last name like Doody, how fortunate he became a plumber – until I went to his site where there’s a Superman figure with a toilet bowl on his chest instead of an “S” and he’s talking about unclogging this and unclogging that and how he’ll make you “doody-free” and there’s even link to “The Adventures of Doodyman” and I realized, well, duh, it’s a schtick, not a last name.

I found this hilarious. I mean bent-over-belly-clutching-wiping-tears-from-my-eyes uncontrollably hilarious. I haven’t laughed like that since Philip died. And every time I told someone else I lost it again and I don’t think anyone was laughing at old Doodyman as much as they were laughing because I was.

So what was it I lost? The voice in my head. The voice that creates my-self so exquisitely that I can’t tell which came first, this terrible self that deserves what it’s being told or the secret, brutal voice that assures me my daughter can love me, my friends can care about me and I can do as well at work as I want, but when I come home and sit alone with myself there’s an ugly truth to being alive that’s always been and always will be, and if I want proof of what that is, it’s that Philip’s dead. And his death becomes real personal, the antithesis of what I wrote here.

I’m told life is in the living. I’m here, Philip isn’t, but I have to go on, make a life for myself. Philip wants me to be happy. I’m told I should be happy that Natalie’s going to France, I should be proud that I’ve raised a kid who’s moving out into the world. She’s also found an apartment, and chances are she’ll be moving out when she gets back. I’m not losing her, I’m told. She’s still here, she’s in my heart. Like Philip’s in my heart. Like that’s a comfort – and maybe it should be, but right now, it’s not.

I can’t be logical about Philip’s death. I do go on. I love my daughter; when I see how happy, scared and excited she is to go away, of course I can join her in that. But be proud that she’s leaving? That’s what kids do. I could be a shitty mom, I could be mom-of-the-year; kids leave. What’s to be proud of? She should be proud, for all she’s accomplished, particularly these last few years. I didn’t need her to do any of that to be “proud” of her. I love her; that she is, is enough.

Philip’s dead, Natalie’s leaving. Ed’s moved. I feel diminished and that makes being alone a tortured and terrible place to be. Alone’s where I read, where I write; where I sew, and where I cook. I can’t do what I love without alone-time. Except alone is like being with three people – the one who’s vicious and abusing, the one who feels deserving of abuse, and the one who’s sitting here writing about it. How the fuck am I supposed to sit quietly in a room with that??

“It’s just one story”

(Spoiler Alert: In case anyone’s watching or planning to watch “True Detective,” I’m writing about the final scene.)

I’ve watched “True Detective” three times. When I finished the post before my last (“Hand to God”), I was up to my second viewing of the final episode. I knew what was going to happen, but I didn’t remember the all of it. And what struck me was the final conversation between Rust and Marty, because this is what I’d written in that post:

“So on the one hand, I say I need the dark to understand death. On the other, I say it’s light that leads to transcendence. Do I even know what the hell I believe?”

I’ve mentioned “True Detective” several times now; if you haven’t been reading along, Rust and Marty are two detectives trying to solve a macabre murder. Rust is the dark one. The fact that his two-year-old daughter was hit by a car and died is a huge part of what drives him.

The final scene in “True Detective” takes place at night, outside the hospital where Rust and Marty had been taken after being attacked by the suspect they’d been pursuing. Marty was already released, Rust was in a wheelchair. He’d sustained more serious injuries, was in a coma for a while. As Marty pushes Rust in the wheelchair, Rust talks about what we’d call a near-death experience, but not quite like the ones most of us heard about, the ones with the white light. He says he went somewhere dark, and in the deeper-dark he knew his daughter was there; he could feel her love. In that place, he said, there was nothing but that love. And even if you haven’t watched any of “True Detective,” if you’ve read the bit I wrote about it or watched any of the scenes I linked to, you’ll know Rust is not a sentimental guy. Hell, in eight episodes his one and only smile was a smug one.

Rust says that he wanted to stay in that love, and so he let go. That’s quite the opposite of near-death experiences I’ve read about, where people say they didn’t want to “come back,” but they knew they had to. Rust had no such dilemma. He let go, but he woke up. “I’m not supposed to be here,” he cried.

So Rust is crying in his wheelchair, and Marty looks up at the sky, at all the stars. Marty reminds Rust that Rust once told him that when he lived in Alaska, he used to look at the stars and make up stories. Tell me a story, Marty says.

“…I was thinkin’. It’s just one story. The oldest,” Rust answers.

“What’s that?”

“Light vs. dark.”

Marty looks up at the sky again. “Well, I know we ain’t in Alaska, but it appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory.”

“Yeah. You’re right about that.”

But then a minute later, this is what Rust says, the last lines of the show:

“You’re lookin’ at it wrong. The sky thing…Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light’s winning.”

Light and dark – there it is. Rust found something in that deep-dark that allowed him some light. It was Love. Because if Love is real, is tangible, there’s a reason to live. I don’t consider that a ride-off-into-the-sunset moment. It was a transcendent moment, which is no guarantee of what any next moment will be. But each moment like that is a star twinkling in the blueblack night. If you’ve ever looked deeply into a sky lit with stars, you know the beauty that comes from the interplay of dark and light.

Years ago, when I first joined AA, I met Maria. We shared the same sponsor and vied for her attention like two children. It was part of the friction between us, but I had no friends except the ones I was making in AA. I needed her.  Maria was short and dense with a long, serious face, wildly curly black hair and eyes that warned you away, like there was something inside she was keeping watch on. I used to think she was mean. But maybe she was watching the hurt that she’d been trying to drink away, maybe she was protecting that hurt because if your pain runs your life, what are you without it? And if that pain’s lived holding hands with alcohol, what kind of monster does it turn into without it?

One day Maria told me she’d seen God. What do you mean, I asked – you saw Him, like He was a person? Yes, she said, I saw Him. He’d come to her in a vision of robes and glory. I didn’t know if I believed her. I imagined such a thing was possible, but talking about it made it sound loopy. I wanted to ask Maria, “Then what could ever be wrong for you? If you saw God, if you knew He existed, what could your sorrows be?”

I didn’t ask because I didn’t want her to think I doubted her. Truth is I was envious. Why’d God visit her and not me? I’d stopped drinking and was trying to “turn my will and life over to the care of God” like everyone around me. It wasn’t working. But if I had a vision, I would finally be once-and-forever all right because I’d know something I hadn’t known before. If God revealed Himself to me I could believe there was something beyond this deeply disturbing world. But where was He, and why should I want to live in a world that even He refused to inhabit?

There isn’t – for most of us – a single epiphany that causes a big enough shift that world settles down forever. That we settle down forever, because the world is the world and it isn’t going to change. If you want to change the world, change your mind about the world. That’s the way to peace. I’ve had moments of transcendence, and never more so than since Philip died – not the least of it being the way he communicates with me. Two years of it and I’m still sometimes shocked. Philip’s wise in ways I didn’t have access to when he was alive. To be this close with him in death is pure grace. But what do I do with it? I know these daily signs are nudges from him telling me to wake up to life. He told me a long time ago that signs are pointers to the truth. At some point they’re not necessary. But he knows I’m too hurt and shaky to do without for now.

Never have I felt as loved as I do since Philip died. A broken heart means I’m as vulnerable to love as to grief. But my dark still has a lot more territory. I know that sometimes life’s irredeemable, sometimes people die sad and broken. So I have to ask myself what do I make of I’ve been given and what’s been taken? Will I die treating my life like a tragedy?

© 2014 Denise Smyth

“Hand to God”

A couple Sundays ago Kirsten took me to see a play, “Hand to God.” It was set mostly in a church rec room, and had five characters. Seven if you count the puppets. Three were teenagers – Jason, Jessica and Timothy, – one was the pastor of the church, the other was Margery, Jason’s newly-widowed mom, who was supposed to be teaching the kids puppetry. Jason was there because Mom insisted, Timothy was there while his Mom went to twelve step meetings, and Jessica was there because, well, she was “more into Balinese shadow puppetry,” but she’ll take what she can get.

But the real star of the show was Tyrone, Jason’s evil demon hand puppet. Jason steadily loses control over him – Tyrone even shows up in Jason’s bed after he takes him off one night. “He’s making me do bad things,” Jason tells Margery. Jason is a shy, troubled kid, and Tyrone becomes his mouthpiece. If Jason’s thinking it, Tyrone’s saying it. And if you’re thinking anything with a puppet or two is silly, it’s not so funny when Tyrone bites a bloody chunk of Timothy’s ear off. Or when, in desperation to be rid of him, Jason starts hacking Tyrone – in other words, his hand – with a hammer, and accidentally smashes his mother’s while he’s at it.

To paraphrase Tyrone – “self-hatred’s a bitch.”

Anger and lust drive the play. The pastor wants to sleep with Margery, who rebuffs him. Timothy also wants to sleep with Margery, who doesn’t rebuff him. Jason is smitten with Jessica, and Tyrone lets her know in his vulgar way. And before the show is over, Jessica’s puppet will have dirty puppet sex with Tyrone.

Two weeks later I’m still thinking about that play. That’s what happens with art, when you see yourself in it. Jason’s overwhelmed by his rage at Margery for being a shitty wife and mother. I’ve lived overwhelmed by rage, and my version of hammer-smashing my hand was drinking, vomiting and refusing to take care of myself, some of which I talked about here and here.

 There’s so many levels of disturbing in “Hand to God” that it’s hard to parse – not the least being the tragic hilarity of it all. Everyone – with the possible exception of Jessica – was unhappy and none of them knew what to do about it. And when the play was over, there wasn’t any resolution. Margery and Jason can bond over their mutually bloodied hands, but that won’t fix the history between them. And in spite of his viciousness, I felt like I lost something when Tryone was killed off before the end of the play, when there was nothing but the “real” characters left. But after the lights went out and the players disappeared, a spotlight shone above the stage, and there was Tyrone. Miss me? he asked; C’mon. You know you did.

What’s up with that? I couldn’t be the only one glad to see him. Tyrone the Terrorist was seductive and exciting. He was the best thing in a play filled with terrific. But I want to know why. I want to know why I’m so drawn to the dark side. “I don’t think I liked the play so much,” Kirsten said. “I really didn’t like what Jason did to his hand.” It bothered her – she has a limit to how far down she’ll go. Where’s my limit? What am I looking for in that dark? I believe that’s where I’ll find something real. Something raw and primal and so far down I can scream until I exhaust myself numb.

“You have to learn to like the light,” Philip tells me. He doesn’t say “love” – that’s too much right now. I’m drawn to gray days, to rain and thunder, to storms which don’t happen often enough. Melanie told me there’s a word for that – pluviophile. Lover of rain. I don’t think there’s anything to learn from lightness. I’ve been watching a lot of TV series, a lot of movies, and it’s making the way I experience life clearer. Entertainment is either a black or light image to me. When I hear “chick flick,” I think Waste of Time. When I hear drama, I’m seduced. I want the treachery – give me “Pulp Fiction,” “American History X,” “True Detective,” “Requiem For A Dream.” Let something besides my own morbid thoughts bring me to that darkness because if I see it outside of me I won’t be so alone with it – and maybe somewhere in that depravity I can figure out how to live with grief and death.

In “True Detective,” Rust says that with humans, “nature made a tragic misstep in evolution.” I thought about why someone would say that. And what I thought was how hard it is to be here, even if you get through without a major tragedy. First off, we live knowing we’re going to die, and since we don’t know what happens when we do, it’s terrifying. And it’s not only our own death we have to deal with. People we love will die, which can be a worse thing to suffer than any nightmare we might have had about dying ourselves. Then there’s the fact that we need each other, yet it’s so hard to get along. Especially when we’re wanting to be right more than we’re wanting to be loved. The world’s like a big refracting mirror. Our personal arguments are reflected in larger social arguments, which are reflected in even larger political arguments, which often culminate in the most massive, monstrous argument of all – war. If we take a look at what’s going on around us, it’s clear that as a species, we’re insane.

We deal with our tragedies in the context of the way we live, which means crisis brings out the past. So when Rust says we are mistakes of nature, that’s what his life has brought him to. What do I bring to my suffering? Philip’s death is my Sisyphus. The shock of it hurled me back to some personal, primitive beginning that I thought was long gone. But that’s the thing – life isn’t linear. It’s now, it’s all happening now. I brought the grief of a lifetime to Philip’s death. I’m torn and twisted and it’s hard to untangle the grief from the drama. When Philip said, “Don’t make my death into something it isn’t,” he meant don’t bring the past into this. And much as I’m talking about the void I’m attracted to, Philip’s in a light so profound I can only pray to have a glimpse of it. That’s the light that burns the past out of us, the light that leads to the Divine. And burning “the past out of us” has nothing to do with forgetting. I’m talking about a psychic past where we react based on the self we’ve created and so stay stuck in our stories. To burn the past out is to bring a freshness and wonder to whatever is now, including death and grief. And that doesn’t mean happy – it means clarity.

So on the one hand, I say I need the dark to understand death. On the other, I say it’s light that leads to transcendence. Do I even know what the hell I believe?

There’s so much I don’t understand. There are people who, after their child has died, reach a point where they find life more precious than ever. Is it because they loved life before, and so now appreciate its brevity the more? When I was a kid, I loved music. My parents gave me a transistor radio in a brown leather case that went wherever I did. When my mom would get mad at me, she’d take my radio away. She took a piece of me with it. “Didn’t you want music even more, when your radio was gone?” my therapist asked. So loss of something makes you want it more. But how’s that supposed to translate? Philip’s death has made me want his life more, not mine.

More, next…

© 2014 Denise Smyth