One Year

March 31st was my one year blogging anniversary. I wanted to write something then, but I didn’t know what. And I’m mostly writing this because I’ve been working – grappling? – with the post I’ve been writing for the last week and a half, and I’m feeling kind of disconnected from not posting for this long. It’s coming together, but it’s hard for me to get down what I’m trying to say. I’m still figuring it out.

Blogging’s connected me with so many people – and it keeps me connected to myself.  I don’t know how I’d get through this without it. I have to keep talking about Philip, about his death – one year of writing and I’ve still so much to say. If it was all just rattling around in my mind instead of being written on a page, I’d be a kind of crazy I can only imagine; curled up under the covers, eyes closed, holding my breath while I waited to die along with my son. So I’m saying, with much gratitude, thank you all for helping.

A few people have made some noise about me meeting someone. It would be good for me, they say. And right around that time, all-of-a-sudden I started getting Match.com invitations ;o) I think that if I cared for someone, if someone cared for me and I could take it in, that would be good. But I’m not sure I have the energy for that kind of effort. Philip’s death is so much with me – and anyone close to me has to know that. The friends I spend time with know that. So to meet someone, to go through that awkward first date – I’m not there because I’d have to sit down and say, “You have to know my son died, you have to know I’m suffering this,” and that just doesn’t seem like first-date conversation.

The conversation I want to have is the one I’m having right here – so back to what I’ve been writing, and I’ll “see” you all soon ;o)

What I Write

Lividity is when someone dies and the blood pools in their body based on the position they’re in. The skin turns dark. Philip was dead in his room for two days. He was lying on his back when his friends found him. One of the things I tortured myself about for months was thinking about what his body looked like, how all the blood had pooled on the back of it. I wished I’d never heard of lividity.

I knew that body wasn’t Philip any longer but it didn’t matter. I cried to think he was alone in his room for two days, to think that maybe he realized he was going to die and he was frightened; to think of him being handled by other people, put in a body bag, lying in the morgue. And now – I can look at it like he’s left this world and doesn’t get to live his life. Or I can look at it like he’s woken from this dream and so is spared the grief.

I’m grateful I wasn’t the one who found Philip. I used to wonder why we never see what a dead body really looks like, why the guy at the funeral parlor fixes them up first. You know what? Thank God. If I had to look at Philip in a coffin, better he looked like himself than what he looked like when his friends found him.

I thought about this because of an essay I read, which I’m linking to here.

My last post was a link, and I was about to end this one the same way. That’s not like me – and not that there’s anything wrong with linking. These two posts are just that good. But two in a row, plus not posting for two weeks, had me wondering, “What’s up with that?”

I started a ten-week writing class in January. It was hard to work on the assignments, as well as blog. Not because I didn’t have the time. Time doesn’t equal energy – I can only write for so long. And going from essay to blog post and back again was no easy transition. That would’ve been enough to deal with without my increasing frustration with the class. I had some real problems with V., the teacher. But that’s not the point. The point was I waited nine weeks to tell her what was going on. I acted like a resentful child, pleading sick when I didn’t want to go, until I went as far as I don’t want to write that assignment, and you can’t make me. And it’s not like I didn’t see what I was doing. I was paralyzed all the same.

Sometimes I think that since Philip died, what the hell else could bother me? Sometimes I think things bother me more because my emotional immune system is whacked. One thing’s for sure – his dying doesn’t give me a free pass. The things I was trying to work out before he died still have to be worked out. Like what went on in that writing class.

I’ve written about the way we take a situation – a set of facts – and turn it into a story where we’re writer, producer, executive director, star and victim. So if we see what we’re doing, we can stop, right? It’s that simple, but it isn’t easy. Some of my stories are old as I am, have a life and momentum of their own. It’s beyond thinking – my body gets involved. In fact, I’m not exactly aware of what I’m thinking because I’m consumed with reacting, wrung out and twisted and so terrified that I’m confused about what’s really going on or what to say about it.

So with V. I turned the problems I was having with her into she didn’t like me, wasn’t paying attention to me, wasn’t giving me what I needed. Blaming her rather than taking responsibility. Continuing the class with some secret hope that next time would be different, walking away pissed off and disappointed when it wasn’t. But why would it be? It was my version of “Ground Hog Day ” – doing the same thing over and over and thinking it’d turn out differently.

It didn’t help that I started class by announcing I wanted to use the assignments to write about something other than Philip. Did I forget who I was, who I am? That was a ridiculous and unrealistic pressure to put on myself because I do not want to write about something other than Philip. And what I write isn’t about “Philip.” It’s about me. What his death has done to me, what it feels like to live in the aftermath. This is hard, hard stuff. Writing’s a way I abide it. When I can abide it at all.

When writing is an assignment, it becomes a “have-to.” And it’s fine to say as a writer, I should be able to finish something when I have word count or a deadline. But I’m not living in a world of word counts or deadlines. I’m living in a world without. I don’t recognize it, I don’t like it, I don’t want it. When I’m with my daughter, when I’m at work, when I see Kirsten or Harriet, when I write – I crystalize. I feel it all, all of it. But then I’m driving or walking the dogs or sitting on the couch alone and it’s like trying to stand up in a rowboat during a monsoon.

It took nine weeks – as well as conversations with Ed, Kirsten and my daughter – for me to get the nerve to tell V. I wasn’t going to the last class.  “I’m like a child,” I told Natalie, who tilted her head and stared at me with a face full of  are-you-kidding-me?  “What do I say?”

“How about that class isn’t helping you?” she answered.

Result? V. and I talked about what was going on, and while I still didn’t go to the last class, I was out of the drama around it. In other words, I realized V. was not my mother.

And as far as what I write about, V said writers write about what they can’t stop talking about. I’d say we write about what we want to keep talking about but have to stop talking about because nobody wants to listen. So we write for others to read because we need that connection. I’m not saying “nobody” wants to listen to me about Philip. But it’d be impossible for anyone to listen to all I need to say, as impossible as it would be for me to keep talking. My throat would be scorched from the all of it.

It’s not for me to say, “I’m not going to write about Philip.” This is my need. For now, the writing is writing me.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Save yourself: write now, tomorrow, or whenever

I thought this was too good not to share. “One needs to grieve almost to death before they can live again.” Yes, one does.

Willower.org

LifeSaver Image ©Empire331 | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

Words that delivered

In her memoir, Lucky, Alice Sebold said, “No one can pull anyone back from anywhere. You save yourself or you remain unsaved.”

It is true.

You have to save yourself (no one can pull you back from this place). You have to trust yourself. You have to be the expert on you, and your grief.

In my case, after the sudden death of my son, I withdrew, cocooned from the world, and ignored those who told me to do otherwise. I was the expert on my grief. This was my way.

I let myself die. Almost die. One needs to grieve to almost death before they can live again. And then, after days of almost dying, of starvation, I took a bite of a sandwich. A sip of something hot. Then wrote down a memory. Then almost died again.

There was no…

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Door Number Three?

A couple things happened this past week which don’t particularly seem related but are if only because there’s either the familiar, self-destructive way to deal with them or the way that I can say lots of really smart things about, but seem unable to actually do.

These couple things are also about writing; what it is I’m doing here writing this blog where I take pause and look at the sorrow of my son having died and what all that means because it’s not only changed whatever I thought the future was going to be, it’s changed the way I see the past. And it’s forced me into constant reckoning with the fact that there only, ever is Now.

I work this out here because we’ve all an ancient need to tell and to hear our stories, and we live in a time where we’ve got virtual communities to do so.

A couple weeks ago I started a short term writing class about how to publish personal essays, which I thought would be easy since I’ve a got a blog full of them. Except it doesn’t work like that.  After reading aloud the couple pieces I’d brought in, the woman who’s running the class said – and in the gentlest way possible – that what I’ve written doesn’t work in the way I’ve written it and this should go here and that should go there and the rest of it isn’t necessary and on and on until I felt like she was taking what I’d written and making it into something I wasn’t trying to say. But the worst thing about it was that I didn’t hear it. I thought it worked, exactly as I’d written it. That I can’t hear what I’m writing is beyond dismaying.

And into the mix came a cryptic email from a long-time long-distance friend X who I haven’t heard from in a month and a half or so and who wrote that she’s “been reading my blogs” and decided that “Natalie must feel like not only did her brother die, but her mother has as well. She must be very lonely;” and that she’s an “innocent victim of my grief.  Why else would she want to spend more time at Phil’s.”

And, she says, her only reason for saying this is because she’s worried about Natalie, who I’m not sure she’s ever even met and if she did, it was when Natalie was a wee bit of a thing. Because had she met her, the last thing she’d call my scrappy, in-your-face, don’t-mess-with-me daughter is a victim of anything.

But reading that shook me up and began an obsessive chain of thinking that echoed back through the years of when I didn’t know better. The years spent locked in relationships (not only romantic ones) where I swore I was the victim and the closest I got to seeing what my part was was to say, well, I must have a part ‘cause it takes two but I’ll be damned if I know what it is because she is so doing that to me.

Obsessiveness and writing don’t work for me, in spite of my writing teacher suggesting the reason I keep writing about Philip is because I’m obsessed. I see “obsessed” as blinding and shortsighted which maybe isn’t at all how she meant it, but that’s how I took it and so twice in one week I decided I was the victim of a world that I always knew I didn’t belong in.

I’m not obsessed with Philip. When he first died, and for at least that first year – that’s obsessed. What the hell else would I be? And for that year, I – who at the time of his death was 150 pages into what I saw as a hot and sexy memoir – was not able to write a word because the grief-obsession duo made everything move too quickly to capture in words and drained me of both the will and energy to do so.

So now I feel like the contestant in Monty Hall’s Let’s Make A Deal who has to choose between Door Number One or Door Number Two or Door Number Three, except that what’s behind them is no secret to me. Behind Door Number One is angst and depression because I am what I write and if I can’t make a goddamn essay with the thousands of words that I’ve already written, then what the fuck am I here for? Behind Door Number Two is self-righteous victimhood and insecurity because how dare she and who the fuck does she think she is but maybe she’s right and what kind of mother am I, what kind of person with my goddamn tale of woe and what’s wrong with me that I still haven’t gotten with the program?

Then there’s Door Number Three, which is where truth lies and you’d think it’d be easy to walk through that door, but it isn’t. It hasn’t the obsessive seduction of tearing X apart and stomping through her bloody remains, or of watching myself whither away because the Teacher likes everyone but me and I can’t write and I can’t live without my son and life’s a big suck ball so why can’t I please just fucking die.

Behind Door Number Three lies the meaning of “it takes two.” Because first there’s the fact of what happens, and then there’s the way I choose to look at it. And that is how one creates a life.

A blog post is not, in fact, an essay. There’s the possibility of it turning into one, but it’s hard. I can choose to try to do that, or I can work on an essay instead of a blog post. I can choose to put my energy into what it takes to get published now, or I can continue to learn about it and try to make it happen later on. That’s all; there isn’t any drama here. There’s figuring out what I want to do, then figuring out how to get it done.

And this situation with X, which is too perfect: here I am suffering a death I consider way more tragic than my own, and what I thought was her loving hand was really holding a knife. And when I tell this story like that, I can get my goddamn ego stroked because no one should treat a grieving mother like that and how much better am I ’cause I’d never, ever do such a thing. And there was a time that would have satisfied me, but at the price of having to repeat my sad story until it grew flimsy and full of holes, but then sure enough along would come another injustice and I could start all over again.

But how about I change the story. How about I say…nothing happened. It’s a fact, of course, that X wrote those things. But what’s that change about me or my life? If I think it matters that much and I attack back, then I must think I’m small and weak and that someone’s words can threaten me, can change something fundamental about me.

What if I changed the story to understand that X is in her own pain, because people don’t lash out if they’re not. And if that’s true, why do I want to make it worse with a counterattack? Contrary to the laws of this world, we have what we give. If I shoot poison at her, I have that poison, which comes from an ever-replenishing well where the more I give, the more I have.

AA talks about detaching with love. Whatever, I used to think. Not so much any more. And I mean love as in keeping an open heart. I’m not saying I have to send flowers to X and tell her what she said didn’t matter and everything’s all Kumbaya. I’m way too human for that, and the fact is, it does hurt. Detaching with love means seeing this friendship has been fraught with difficulty and if I don’t like the way I’m treated, I end it. But I keep my heart open because when it shuts down in response to the pain I blame someone else for, all it does is shut that pain deep inside of it. That’s what the light’s about, the diamond Philip offered me. That’s the light that burns through the suffering and transmutes it first into something bearable and eventually to the joy that’s its other side.

And I am working on it, because no one feels the deadliness of my anger more than I do.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

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