Australia Trip: Beyond Appearances

Robin Botie of ithaca, New York, hops around a barricade that conceals a construction site in Adelaide, on her recent trip to visit with bereaved mothers in Australia.“I’m kinda nervous about this,” I confessed to the leader of the tour group, as I waited for the stranger I was to drive off with. Before going to Australia I’d put out pleas on Facebook to meet up with Australian bereaved mothers on my free days, “to make my trip more meaningful.” This was my first. Dianne. Complete stranger, all I had was a name and phone number. She had messaged back, “No worries, hun,” to everything I’d written, which made me feel icky, reminded me of extinct relationships with men. But when Dianne pulled up in her shiny black RAV, I plopped into the passenger seat, and immediately knew I’d found a sister.

“Where d’you want to go?” she asked. Envisioning a peaceful quiet place to talk, I replied, “Can we walk along the Yarra River?” She took me to the Crown Casino.

She paid $50 to park in Crown’s endless garage below the snazzy scene of casino, hotel, shops, and restaurants. Huge dripping chandeliers, Prada, expensive jewelry displays…. As we trotted by I snapped photos of the colorful lights and our distorted images reflected in the mirrored facades of slot machines. I wondered if photographing was permitted in the casino. Trekking up and down escalators and elevators, we finally found ourselves outside, on a boardwalk lined with oyster bars and ritzy cafes. There was the Yarra.

We strolled, sharing the stories of our kids who died, and then sat on the edge of the Crown dock with our feet dangling off the edge. It didn’t look like the quiet clean river I’d thrown a good portion of my daughter’s ashes in, five years before. An old, bloated tennis ball floated by. It didn’t feel at all like I was littering when I tossed in my daughter’s dolphin necklace and tiny gold ring.

At a nearby outdoor café, I bought lunch for almost double what Dianne paid for parking. As we sat, a butterfly hovered between us. Long enough that I suspected one of us would get a visit from The Beyond. It was a butterfly like no other I’d ever seen. Giant. Rugged, like a moth. Its colors, blues, browns and gold, matched Dianne’s outfit perfectly. It flitted around her, and finally landed near her heart. The butterfly rested there, like a precious opalescent brooch. And then it perched on her hand. I snapped photos.

As we retraced our path through the casino and the dazzling courts of the palatial Crown to the RAV in the depths of the garage, I clicked away until we drove off to my hotel.

And when I got back home after my trip to Australia, I found that all the photos I had taken that day with Dianne disappeared. The picture you see here of me hopping around barricade panels concealing a construction site was taken by the next mother I met up with, two days later, in Adelaide. Miserable, in disbelief, I took my camera cards to various technicians but they found no trace that I ever took photos that day. I still see them in my head. The casino lights. The butterfly. The Crown chandelier shining, like starburst. All ghosts now. But so clear in my mind, I sit at my computer, stunned, still awaiting their appearance.

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Australia Trip: Screaming Birds

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops emus in Australia.Leeches were not on my list of things to be afraid of in Australia. There were so many other scary things. Stingrays. Screaming birds. Poisonous snakes. Jellyfish…. On the morning of the day I was headed to the Great Barrier Reef, my heart was clunking so wildly I could hardly breathe.

“I’m terrified. This is a real challenge for me,” I said to my tour-leader, trying to hold back tears. I envisioned myself bumping into the coral and bleeding, choking on seawater, getting stung by stingrays, and ripped apart by sharks. I imagined getting left behind in strong waves, and drowning. Alone. All this was really just my regular old cry of fear. I’m always finding things to worry and whimper about. The leader assured me we’d all stick together, I’d do fine.

With a heavy sinking dread, I pulled on the tight black lycra full-body suit, complete with hood and mittens, to protect from hungry fish and sun. The rental suit was still damp and sandy from the last brave soul who’d used it. Zipped up, it exaggerated every bulge of belly fat, but I was more concerned about how I could pee. Dragging my feet, I followed my tour-mates from big boat to small boat to Michaelmas Cay, the tiny reef island from where we’d snorkel.

Once landed, to keep up with the others, I threw on the fins and facemask with snorkel, and took off kicking as fast as I could without getting cramps. Head down 45 degrees as instructed, every half-minute I looked up for the others, while schools of white ghostlike fish surrounded me. The waves were shallow but the current was strong. Soon I spotted green parrotfish, banana fish. Zebras. They hovered around the nooks and crannies of the coral, which was bleached gray from pollution and climate changes. Beautiful anyway. Ahead, something big was approaching. Turtle? Snapping man-eating turtle? I choked. My snorkel filled with saltwater. Panicking, I looked up and realized, Hey. Where is everyone? A wave hit. I bumped against the coral, then took off like a rocket, flipping my feet hard as I could, swimming against the current. Head down. Blow hard out the snorkel. Long way to shore, kick harder. Lots of little white fish with long pointy fins. Keep kicking.

In the shallows I tried to stand, but the fins made me flimsy on my feet and the waves kept toppling me over. Flailing, unable to keep upright, I was laughing because the alternative was to cry. I needed a bathroom, hoped a little pee wouldn’t hurt the fragile reef. I realized half of what I’d feared had hit me, yet I’d survived. So I shook out the snorkel and swam back to the coral twice more, all by myself, still scared but determined to make the most of my once-in-a-lifetime moment on the Great Barrier Reef.

I didn’t get rid of the heavy sinking feeling until I had one more sob-fest, this time to the tune of “It should have been Marika out here enjoying every bit of this Reef, not me.” My daughter would have been there. If she had lived. Maybe that was what I’d been struggling with all along: not the fears so much as the sadness. Because when I set free that thought, I felt like I could float forever with her smiling down at me, laughing at all my fussing.

And that night, while safe and snug in my hotel bed, I heard the bird that screams like it’s being murdered. Bush stone-curlew, the tour-leader had told us earlier. When scared or threatened, it shrieks a blood-curdling cry. I turned over, went back to sleep. And in the morning we headed out for the Daintree Rainforest where the Kuka Yalanji man leading us through the trails warned about snakes. And crocodiles that kill for pleasure. And leeches.

 

What fears have you overcome in your travels or ventures into the unknown? What has triggered hidden emotions?

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Touched by a Kangaroo

In Australia, Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photographs kangaroos and wallabies at Cleland Wildlife Park in Adelaide.On my first night in Australia, at a restaurant in Melbourne, I traded a bit of my barramundi fish for a bite of kangaroo meat. It tasted like highly seasoned steak. One taste was enough. Days later, after an afternoon at Cleland National Willdlife Park in Adelaide, I knew I’d never eat kangaroo again.

This is what I learned on my 6th day in Australia, observing kangaroos and their smaller version (called wallabies):

They are even shyer than I am. But the ones in the park like being fed and being scratched under their chins, so they are polite and put up with humans constantly creeping up to them. They’re nocturnal, mostly. During the day they laze around under shade trees, in small groups (called mobs). Their eyes are often squinting, maybe because their sleep is always being disturbed. Kangaroo babies (called joeys) pee and poop in their mama’s pouch. When the pouch gets too smelly, the mother cleans it out. I saw this. It’s not pretty. In one single leap, kangaroos’ strong hind legs allow them to reach 3-feet-high and 25-feet-over. Supposedly a kangaroo can stand on its tail, but I only saw them using their tails as supports when standing, and as counterweights when hopping. Their paws, similar to human hands, have 5 toes; each is curved and clawed. They use them to grab, eat, dig, groom, and fight.

Upon entering the park, I’d bought a small bag of kanga food. Hesitantly, I approached my first ‘roo with a trembling outstretched hand full of pellets, remembering that if you offer a horse an apple you have to stretch your palm flat so they can find the apple and leave your hand. Remembering how you end up counting to see if you still have all 5 fingers after you feed my dog Suki a treat. But here was this small sweet kangaroo. Or maybe it was a wallaby. I’d inconsiderately snapped several photographs as it lay in the field trying to sleep, so it really deserved some compensation. And as I got closer with the food, it looked at me with its half-closed eyes, got up, and slowly hopped over to me. It nuzzled through the pellets with its soft warm mouth. And then it laid both of its 5-toed paw-hands on my hand, and gently held on. Something in me melted. Something in me felt cared for, kissed. Something in me would later, and probably forevermore, prickle upon seeing kangaroo on a menu.

 

Did you ever feel a deep connection to some strange creature you met up with in your travels? Was there ever an animal in your life that seemed to understand you?

 

 

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Australia Trip: Some Things I Didn’t Anticipate

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a stuffed puppy before it is cremated and its ashes tossed into the waters of Manly Beach in Sydney, Australia in a ritual for healing.As much as you plan, you can never anticipate everything. Good or bad, other things happen.

I’m back home from Australia where, on days off from my O.A.T. tour, I met up with Australian bereaved mothers I’d found and friended on Facebook. On my last full day in Australia I was to cremate my daughter’s stuffed toy Puppy and scatter its ashes. Knowing I’d need help, I’d reached out to The Compassionate Friends NSW Chapter in Sydney.

Things I had not anticipated:

The generosity of my hostess. Jenny from TCF NSW spent the whole day with me, picking me up at my hotel, and then trekking, training, and tramming our way to the University of Technology Sydney (where, if my daughter had survived cancer she would have attended the nursing program), and Spice Alley, and the headquarters of Sydney’s TCF chapter where we attended a support group meeting. After, Jenny took me to her home for the cremation, and drove me out to Manly Beach. I had not realized how much time and energy my mission would take.

How Jenny had prepared for Puppy’s cremation. She’d lined a small fire pit with foil. She’d set out tongs and a box of tissues. And a tin for the ashes.

How she’d thought of everything except matches, to start the fire. Jenny rummaged through the house while her dog, a big mellow shepherd-mix, looked me straight in the eyes. I let him sniff Puppy, and he nuzzled me sympathetically.

The acrid, chemical smell of the burning. It turned out that stuffed Puppy was made of polyester. She went up in flames faster than I’d imagined. She burned longer than I would have guessed. There was dark smoke. In the end there were no ashes, only black molten chunks. Less volume than I’d thought. So instead of using the big tin, Jenny washed out a dogfood can. I peeled Puppy’s remains from the foil, placed it in the can, and smashed up the chunks with the tongs.

How sad I felt during the car ride from Jenny’s house to Manly Beach. Sadder still, wading into the gentle waves and tossing Puppy’s remains. Then I watched in horror.

Puppy’s black molten chunks floated. At the top of the water. Instead of sinking or dissolving.

There was other black chunky stuff floating around so I didn’t feel too terrible about polluting.

The traffic as Jenny drove from the beach back to my hotel. The rain that held off until my mission was all over.

The emptiness that stung me later that night as I said goodbye to the city lights of Sydney, and whispered goodnight to my daughter, and to Puppy.

The warm gratitude I felt, remembering the long full day Jenny had given me.

Lastly, I hadn’t known gratitude, sadness, and relief could sit so peacefully together, all mixed up in my heart.

 

More to come in the next few weeks about my trip to Australia.

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Ninety Years Young

Robin Botie of ithaca, New York, photoshops the symbol for Anonymous Female from Facebook instead of a photo of her 90 year old friend who is online dating.“I may be 90 but I’m not dead,” my friend Juliette said. It was her birthday. To celebrate, I’d brought over the requested tuna-on-rye with onion and lettuce, a tiny cheesecake, and my camera.

“Oh good,” she said, eyeing the camera. “I’m considering going back to online dating and I need some photos.” I looked at her in awe, never having gathered enough courage to go through with online dating myself. She had over five years of experience.

“But you already have a boyfriend,” I said, trying to hide my jealousy. “Are there really guys online, looking for women in their 80s and 90s?”
“Oh, yes,” she assured me. But there were problems about dating in one’s Sunset Years. “Mostly related to geography,” she said. She mentioned health issues and scammers as well, but decided the biggest obstacle was the physical distance between herself and her admirers. If you no longer drive and your sweetheart lives hours away, there is never enough time together and each meet-up requires the aid of family or friends to transport one to be with the other. “That’s why I’m going back to shopping online to find a congenial companion who lives within 10 to 20 miles.”

“So, what’s your ideal man like?” I asked. She responded with her list: Gentle. Affectionate. Good command of the English language. Someone to go to ethnic restaurants with, who likes to play word games and cards, enjoys listening to classical music, … happy to share coffee in the morning. I wondered, how early in the morning? And if that implied they would spend the night together? Not wanting to pry, I didn’t say anything at first. But finally, because these days I’m trying to be more forthright in my communications, I asked, “Is there sex at 90?”

From her shiny red motorized wheel chair, Juliette looked up at me through knitted brows, and lowered her voice, “Well, you’re not supposed to advertise that fact.” That’s when she said, “I may be 90 but I’m not dead.” Right then, I knew I’d found my story of the week.

 

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Searching in My Dreams

Robin Botie of ithaca, New York, photoshops woman prisoner searching a haunted house in her dreams.In my dream I had lost everything. My house, my money, my family. And I was incarcerated. For a crime? Or for being crazy? It wasn’t clear in the dream. What was clear was that I was searching for something. In the middle of a group of women prisoners, I was always on the lookout for something as we were taken to various parts of town to work, supervised by some nice man. Who loved me. And maybe I loved him back. A little. Because when the dream ended and I woke up, I lay very still, trying to get back into the dream.

“Don’t move when you wake from your dream,” I’d been told in real life, at a conference for bereaved parents months ago, “or you’ll forget it.” They’d given me a blank journal to record dreams of my daughter who died. But ever since I got the journal, Marika stopped showing up in my dreams. Completely. This latest dream, about being an inmate, had not included her. So I let it go. The journal still sits on my night table. Still blank.

How are you supposed to dream if you hardly ever sleep? Most of each night I lay awake with my mind racing, and tell myself it’s enough to just be resting my body.

Somewhere, I’ve read that we dream what we think about. Hah! Also, that our brain is simply remixing and replaying our waking times, and searching for connections between unrelated experiences.

Maybe dreaming is really just our minds continuing to search, endlessly, even as our bodies rest. And maybe the important things in life are not who we are or what we have, but rather what we’re searching for. I’m just putting that out there, being one who searches day and night, awake or asleep. All that seeking; you’d think it would tire me out.

New plan for before bedtime: watch less of Orange is the New Black, the Netflix series about women prison inmates, and read more of Anne Lamott’s inspiring books about finding hope, and mercy, and faith. Spend more time looking at photos of my daughter. And maybe even consider taking a peek, now and then, of the offerings on Match.com.

 

Dreams don’t matter, you say?

 

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