Cemeteries Used to be Creepy Places

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a scene at Greensprings Natural Cemetery in Newfield, New York of a naural burial.“Bunny, bunny, bunny, bunny, bunny … ” we kids used to chant as we rode past the endless gravestones of the huge cemeteries of Queens and Brooklyn. We held our breaths hoping to convince the angel of death, who hung out in such places, that we were too young to die. Such places. Creepy. Wretched-scary landscapes of stones crammed close, with carved-out names of ghosts spooking you from every direction. As soon as I learned about cremation, I knew I’d rather be burned off the planet than be stuck in such a place for eternity.

Over years of travels to island countries and other continents, I peeked through fences at more inviting burial grounds. Always from a distance. Then, last week, I followed my friend’s body to Greensprings Natural Cemetery in Newfield, New York. In lush rolling hills bordered by forests, the place looked more like a nature preserve than a cemetery. There were no gravestones. No concrete mausoleums. No strange men in black penguin suits. The staff was indistinguishable from the mourners. I expected my dead friend to be hidden away in the depths of a coffin. But there was no coffin. Instead, her un-embalmed body had been neatly wrapped, swaddled in white cloth and tied like a big fancy bar of soap. Like an ancient Egyptian mummy. It was very obviously my friend inside. Her size and shape, and something about her character, were discernible through the shroud. She was gently carried from hearse to cart, and we all walked with her through moist green grass to a small clearing in a meadow.

A hole had been dug and was lined with boughs of pine. Family and friends gathered close under the tent to read poems and share memories. Then, together, mourners and staff lowered the fresh wood board holding the body, onto the bed of pine branches. People placed chocolates and cookies over my friend. And flowers cut from her garden. We took turns shoveling some of the soil over her. Here, she would complete the cycle of life, helping to give back to and restore the land.

It was okay that it was raining. It felt peaceful. Safe. If my voice choked or cracked it wouldn’t matter. So, moved by the simple beauty of the moment, I sang. My friend had wanted to hear me play Taps on the bugle, but she’d died before I could learn the notes. Instead, I sang the words to Taps.

And though I’m not one to visit cemeteries or gravesites, I’m planning to come back to this beautiful spot in the hills at Greensprings. For my first performance, when I can play Taps for my friend. And maybe, even, for the last stop in my journey here on earth.

 

What are your plans for after you die? Might you consider an ecologically sound burial?

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Losing a Friend

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photographed her friend Annette months before she died.Over the past few years I was called to my friend Annette’s deathbed a couple of different times. The hospital is just a short drive from my house, so I kept her company during many emergency room visits. If she got admitted for an extended stay, I’d merrily come and go twice daily, delighted to have her in my neighborhood. When we spoke about dying, she joked. She twisted her oxygen tube into a noose around her neck. Then she shaped it into an angel’s halo and held it over her head. She got me laughing ‘til I was short of breath myself. My friend for over thirty years. She made me feel adventurous and indestructible, like we could go on forever outwitting the angel of death.

And we did. For a while, she always bounced back. As per her request, I’d fetch steamed lobsters and double-chocolate-chip muffins from Wegmans, to celebrate the victory.

Not this time.

Annette died. And, since I wasn’t with her, since I didn’t get to see her ever-lively self in a lifeless state, I’m left trying to convince myself she’s no longer just across town or only a phone call away. She’s gone, I have to keep reminding myself. No more wild road trips wondering if the oxygen tank would last. No more silly antics during the most solemn moments. No more photo-shoots where she’d literally bend over backwards to give me a great shot. I’m just beginning to realize all the ways I will miss her.

Grief is grief. The pain and suffering when a loved one dies cannot be measured or scored. That’s what I tell people who try to compare one person’s loss to another’s. When a friend dies, you cannot simply assume their pain is less than that of someone losing a spouse of sixty years, or losing three children rather than one, losing a beloved parent, or a long-awaited infant who dies at birth…. Someone’s misery is always perceived to be greater or less than someone else’s. Having experienced losses of a parent, a child, and friends, I believe each is painful in its own way. Each loss is different. Un-comparable. For me, now, in considering my losses without weighing one against another, I would say:

When you lose a child it’s like losing a limb or a vital organ. But when you lose a good friend, you lose some deep-rooted, invisible, remarkable, un-nameable thing that allowed your spirit to soar.

 

Who was the friend whose death broke your heart? How do you honor the memory of a good friend?

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Come Back to What You Love

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a picture of her daughter Marika Warden on Bells Beach in Australia.Keep coming back to what you love. A friend told me that. Years ago. I don’t remember the exact circumstances under which she said this. But, thankfully, these words echo in my mind whenever I find myself antsy, anxious. Immobilized.

A photograph of my daughter Marika on Bells Beach in Australia is what I come back to. The original photo was taken by her friend Carla when, during a brief time of remission, for two weeks Marika escaped cancer, chemo, her doctors, and me. Marika was planning to go back to Australia to become a nurse. This was one of her happiest times.

Last week, when CNN News announced another Consequential Week, one with much at stake for our country and the world, I turned off the TV. I dragged and dropped the tiny digital photo into Photoshop for the umpteenth time. Then, for most of the weekend, I expanded and embellished it, and lovingly rendered it into a comforting appliqued-quilt type of design. With all the ups and downs of the world , it helps to know what you love and what you need to balance your life. Sometimes you need to revisit and rework every little detail of the past. Sometimes you need to look back in order to move forward.

 

What do you go back to when facing your own weighty moments?

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Phoning the Bereaved

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a scene of grief support, how to comfort someone who is mourning.A stranger’s voice says hello. I gulp, hug the phone closer, and manage to squeak out, “Hi, this is Robin, a Hospicare bereavement-call volunteer. Is this an okay-time to talk?” The stranger usually softens at this. Either from warm memories of how Hospicare treated their family during dark times, or maybe they sense my anxiety and want to help me out. For me, talking to strangers is scary enough face to face. But phoning some unknown person, to see how they’re doing after the love of their life has died—that takes all my courage. The first phone call to a newly assigned person, I always dread that my mourner will sob uncontrollably and hate me because I made him remember his beloved is dead. As a bereaved mother, I know this isn’t likely. Still, that first call is scary. I never know what I’ll get.

Sometimes on the initial calls, I find people who are terribly lonely and grateful to have someone, even a stranger, to talk to. Not much of a conversationalist myself, if they babble on about their loss, I’m content to sit and listen as they reminisce or cry.

Other times, though, I find someone who is even more shy and reserved on the phone than I am. I frantically fish around for good questions not answerable with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ It is almost painful trying to engage some people. “May I call you again in three months?” I ask at the end of the call, wondering if they will take the opportunity to opt out.

Once, on a first call, a person told me, “Oh, I’m so over that. My life is much better now that he’s dead.”

It’s all okay. Better to phone than not phone. Because in the weeks and months following the death of a loved one, after the funeral, after family and friends have returned to their normal lives and deliveries of flowers and dinners have stopped, that is when a phone call (or regularly occurring calls) to the bereaved may be most welcome and needed. When I find the one whose friends and relatives have gotten tired of hearing her stories about her deceased loved one, and she’s bursting with the need to talk, it is worth all the worry and discomfort. “I miss my Joe,” she wails. And since she’s in howling-mode anyway, I ask, “What do you miss most about him? What was the best thing about Joe?” Or, “How did you two meet?” Or, “How did he change your world?” And if the person on the other end of the line is not gushing over with endless tales of her beloved one, I might ask, “What can you do to honor his memory?”

And finally, “What are you doing to take care of yourself?” That’s my favorite question because it gets back to the bereaved person and the self-care he or she deserves as they face the reality of life without their loved one.

 

What do you say to support the bereaved? What is the most difficult phone conversation to have with anyone?

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Looking for Beautiful

I wanted to be beautiful. It was a dream I had, all my life. It was a stupid dream. However, facing the loss of it, along with the loss of my youth and self-identity, makes me want to smash mirrors and rip up photos.

Aging does not look or feel pretty. It’s bad enough, the tired-looking eyes, wrinkles, graying hair, sagging skin, yellowed teeth… to top it all off, now there are eyeglasses. I always hated wearing or carrying anything extra. Like hats, jewelry, handbags, sunglasses, or makeup…. All nuisances. I want to be fast, light. Unencumbered. Mostly, though, I still want to feel beautiful. As far as I could see, there was nothing beautiful about glasses. Several of my friends look great with them. But me, I slip my bifocals out of sight when anyone comes near. Glasses do not fit in with my perception of myself. Even though I fish them out of purses and pockets a few hundred times a day, and the number of things I need them for keeps growing. Like being able to see photos of my friends’ grandbabies, doing Photoshop or anything on the computer, texting my son, chopping vegetables, driving…. To function or to feel beautiful? That is the question. It may be time to plant eyeglasses on my face for good.

Wearing glasses isn’t the only issue barring my path to beauty. From the beginning of my obsession to play the bugle, I knew that scrunching my lips and spitting into a horn was not going to be attractive. But I didn’t know I’d have to bloat my stomach out to its capacity with each inhale of air in order to play.
“I’ve been trying to hold in my gut for decades, so I could look beautiful,” I told my baby-faced music teacher, hoping he’d skip all the breath exercises.
“Focus on breathing and making a beautiful sound,” he said.

So here I am, encouraging my beer-belly to blossom, sporting my new specs, and trying to make beautiful noise. And trying to groove in my new self-image. It sure is great to be able to identify the food on my dinner plate again, and to recognize approaching friends. I’m going to have to revise my idea of beautiful though. If beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, I should be able to see it a lot more clearly now.

 

So, what is beauty anyway?

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Watching Births

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a restoration on an old photo of her daughter as a newborn, getting to know her big brother.No more kind nurses. No more jolly nuns. By midsummer I had finished watching the entire series of Call the Midwife on Netflix. Most sadly, there would be no more daily doses of real-live babies being born, the highlight for me of every episode. Births remind me that life is ongoing, blooming fresh and miraculously. My own two birthings had completely changed my world. So for weeks after the last Midwife show, I trudged heavily through my days, daunted and dazed like I’d lost my beloved family.

Around that same time, off the west coast of Canada, there were reports of a mother whale keeping her dead calf afloat for seventeen days as she swam along with the rest of her pod. The whale carried the baby on her head, diving deep into the Pacific to push the dead calf up to the surface each time it slipped and sank into the depths of the ocean. She did this for a thousand miles or more. Until the baby’s body disintegrated.

As a bereaved mother, I could understand this. It reminded me of my own efforts to keep my dead daughter’s spirit alive. Wearing Marika’s clothes, reading her poems aloud, eating her favorite foods, listening over and over again to the CD where she sings with a voice that still pulls at my heart … doing all the things she loved to do … I tried desperately to keep my daughter from sinking into the depths of oblivion. Over the years since she died, her life became my life. And any sign of life at all became precious.

“One of the cows is giving birth!” friends announced, last week, shortly after I arrived at their farm for a potluck dinner. I dropped my dish-to-pass and hurried to the barn. A minute later, facing the tail end of a huge black and white dairy cow, I witnessed the birth of a girl calf. She was big. And alive. Standing stock-still, I watched the miracle. And the world suddenly felt right again.

So now I’m wondering why, the next day, I was seized with trembling and nausea when I discovered two nests of new baby mice in my kitchen cabinets.

 

What does watching or hearing about someone being born do to you? Do you feel emotionally fried when your favorite TV series ends?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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