Expressing Thanks

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops color and texture onto an old photo of herself and her mother for a post about expressing thanks and appreciation.In the last seconds of my father’s life I told him, “Thank you.” Throughout our time together, I’d always thanked him for gifts and meals in fancy restaurants. And as the plug was pulled on his life support, I wanted the last words he heard to be, “Thank you, Dad.” In a desperate final instant I added, “for making my life—richer,” not able to find the right words to thank him for who he’d been or what he meant to me. Ever since, I’ve been haunted, wondering what on earth he could make of those words, if he even heard them, lying there unconscious and on his way out of this world.

My mother taught her daughters well, to say those two words. Thank you. And in similar fashion, although maybe not with the same consistent results, I taught my own children to acknowledge peoples’ kindnesses. But expressing the deepest, most sincere thankfulness—beyond the simple etiquette of responding to someone’s generosity—is different. That does not come easily for many of us. It’s kind of like exposing yourself, your vulnerability. It often involves trying to tiptoe around some unresolved issues that stand in the way. It sometimes involves fear. Conveying your appreciation might lead to a long awkward silence. It might turn you inside out. Or turn the one you’re thanking inside out. To communicate a genuine acknowledgment of sheer gratitude is to face all the ups and downs in the history of that relationship. And if the relationship is a complicated one, any response you get might send you racing from the room to hide in the nearest closet.

Here it is days away from Thanksgiving, the time we typically express our thanks. And not only should I NOT need this holiday to come forth with my gratitude, I should NOT be waiting until the ends of people’s lives to let them know they are appreciated.

So how do I do this? How do I deliver my heartfelt thanks to those who have treated me to-the-sky-and-back caringly, to the ones who might not be around when I finally figure out what I want to say, and find the courage to share it?

This post was originally going to be a note of gratitude to my mother. But writing about gratefulness, I got distracted and flew off on a tangent. Because my mother lives far away, and cannot hear me over the phone, and is not responding to emails, I wanted to briefly thank her here, as she’s my greatest fan. She gave me life. She carried me around, seeing to my welfare until I could take care (more or less) of myself.  And my mother is the one who not only taught me to say ‘thank you,’ she taught me to write letters when words were hard to find, or impossible to utter.

 

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

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Continuing Bonds Continued

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops an old photo of herself with her daughter who died of leukemia, to illustrate continuing bonds grief theory.“I’m over that. Done. I’ve moved on,” said a friend, about her child who died years before. Great for her, I thought, not able to imagine ever even wanting to be “done” with my own daughter, gone over 7 ½ years now. Actually, I’ve been carrying my Marika—whatever I could find left of her to hang onto—since she died. Different things work for different people.

A griever’s mental status used to be questioned if one held on to the memory of a loved one too long. Mercifully, someone came up with a modern grief theory called Continuing Bonds. It is now considered acceptable to create an enduring relationship with a deceased loved one as a way of coping and finding comfort while continuing to live one’s life. Even as one’s life changes with the loss. It is okay to stay connected. And it’s normal for these relationships to grow and change over time.

Continuing Bonds came instinctively to me. A matter of my own survival, it began the day after Marika died, when I collapsed, devastated, onto her bed, desperate to breathe in her scent and see the world from where she saw it. At first, I needed to wear what she wore, and hold what she held. That led to doing what she did, and loving what she loved. All the things that were part of her life, that I hadn’t understood or cared for—like writing, photography, blogging and posting on Facebook, making up tunes to play on instruments—I ended up finding myself drawn to. Doing these things daily now, I am living a life my daughter would have loved. It makes me feel forever linked to her.

There are many ways to maintain ties after the loss of someone who was the light of your life. I wanted to know what Continuing Bonds looked like for others. Not much is written about this because each person approaches it differently. It looks like the widow who still talks to her husband of fifty years, or the bereaved parents who keep their child’s room as it was before death—in order to have a special place to feel close to him. Some people start foundations and community events to honor their loved ones. Some look to their deceased loved one for inspiration in trying new things. Some create meaningful personal rituals, or works of art. Others continue their loved one’s work. Many try to live in a way that would make their beloved proud.

“Moving on” can be good. Maybe that’s what living is all about. But we learn from the ones we love and think we lost. Whether or not we choose to ‘carry them with us’ into the next chapters of our lives, I’m pretty sure that simply having loved them turns us into better people.

 

What do you think about keeping connected to a deceased loved one?

 

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What Unites Us?

Robin Botie of ithaca, New York, photoshops an image in questioning what unites us.Many different things bring people together. Like love. Ice cream. Music. Dancing. A child dying. A rescue. Hurricanes that devastate communities. Shootings. Lost dogs. Laughing babies. Peace marches. Funerals. Horrible events when the world suddenly stops, like when the World Trade Towers collapsed. Like during the great New York City blackout of 1965.

The power went out 43 years ago, on Tuesday, November 9,  at 5:30pm as people were coming home from work and thinking about dinner. Just a kid at the time, I was living in the Long Island suburbs. What I remember most about the blackout was how all the neighbors gathered in the darkening street. Old and young, Catholics and Jews, the Irish and the Italians, the kids who went to parochial school and those in public schools, the people who lived in the big fancy houses and the ones from the dingy dilapidated ones, those who had voted Republican the week before and the ones who voted Democrat, the couple with the funny name who barely spoke English, the friendly guy with candy in his pockets who they called “Ree-tar-dead,” the girls who were popular and us girls who were not and the boys who teased us all, our fathers and mothers, and even the lady who had not left her home since her husband died—they all came out of their houses shocked, chatting up a storm, and watching the stars and full moon rising in the otherwise darkened sky. No one knew how far the dark stretched, or when—or if— the lights would ever come back on. But I felt safe, standing together with the whole neighborhood.

Two weeks ago I wrote a post about categorizing friends. Later, when I thought about it, I wanted to curl up in a dark corner and disappear. It sounded like I was splitting the people I care about into opposing teams. I don’t want to highlight things that separate us. We don’t need anything else to split us apart theses days. Globally, and as a nation, and even in our own communities and households, we are so divided.

It’s time to focus on what unites us. The things we have in common, our shared hopes and dreams. We should be recognizing the things that bring us all together. In peace. In kindness. And in good health and happiness. We all need to feel safe together.

What unites us?

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Sick and Tired of Gray

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a depressing drippy gray scene of her daughter who died, as part of her coping strategy for dealing with seasonal affective disorder.It’s barely even November. And already I’m sick and tired of gray. But the days keep getting shorter, darker, colder, and grayer. Endless gray. Overburdening gray that brings everyone dropping to their knees, howling for light. And here in Central New York, we have six more months of grim gray ahead of us. This makes me want to hole up at home in front of the TV, bingeing on Netflix and spaghetti.

All this gray is dull, boring, dingy. Maybe even dirty. It is lifeless, or life without color. But then, gray is the color of everything when you are grieving.

It’s the color of concrete. Of old hair. Storm clouds. Ash. Lead. Gunmetal. Neither black nor white, gray is a neutral non-color that is deathly quiet. And depressing. It’s got nothing to do with the rest of the world where friends text you jolly pictures of themselves guzzling bubbly pink margaritas with their golden super-stuffed tacos and garishly decorated cupcakes, oblivious to the frigging cold and wet and gray.

Gray is the color our brains turn when dead.

Is anyone else suffering from seasonal affective disorder?

This is what I’ve tried that helped: Running outside with upturned face whenever the sun cracks through the clouds. Spending my waking hours next to a light-therapy lamp. Escaping to sunny islands in the Caribbean. Escaping to the movies or into a captivating novel. Taking up a new hobby or project, like hiking, preferably outside, although tramping through Walmart works too. Hugging a puppy or a baby. Hugging the one you love. Hanging out with people who make you laugh. Exercising, so your brain pumps out more pleasure-producing endorphins. Falling in love (it was a long time ago but it worked).

It’s a dismal gray autumn in Upstate New York, and I’m using every ounce of my creativity to try to change my perspective. I will find a way to make gray beautiful. I’m going to love it. If, years ago I learned to love my life even though my daughter—the light of my life—died, then I can learn to love gray.

 

Got any advice? What helps you the most in coping with seasonal affective disorder?

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Categorizing Friends

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops an image of all types of friends for categorizing friends.“How many children do you have?” The question used to put me in a quandary.
“One living and one dead,” I’d reply, needing to account for both kids. Needing to hang on to what I love, and peg it in place. I think that was how my categorizing started. Now I categorize everything, including friends. Online friends and offline friends. And offline friends are further classified into my Regular Friends and the new Blue Friends.

There is nothing really regular about my Regular Friends. Many knew me in my old life, knew my daughter. When she died, they showed up to support me and they continue to do so. These Regular Friends keep me grounded, anchored in the real ongoing world with news about their kids’ graduations and weddings, their grandchildren. These are mostly people I chose long ago. We are connected by history. I love them, love that they stuck by me. But. They don’t really get me. They don’t understand my fascination with afterlife, or what drives me to endlessly photo-shop my daughter’s face. Forgetting that I’d give my eyeteeth to have one more hour with my girl, they sometimes complain about their children, about petty things a daughter did, or a son did not do. I call them ‘regular’ because these friends are happily not initiated into the realm of child-loss. I’m grateful they don’t know this pain.

Then there are my newest friends. Bereaved mothers and fathers. I call them Blue Friends as they aren’t at their happiest, and I may never know them at their happiest. Many of these people are folks I would never have met if not for our shared grief experience. Now I am drawn to them. I see beauty and a particular grace about them. They are like cousins. We are fragile and broken in the same ways. These friends get who I am. Now. They understand the crazy things I do—we do—to keep connected to our children who died. They will plant candles on a cake and sing Happy Birthday to my dead daughter with me. When I desperately need to talk about my girl, my Blue Friends listen without feeling uncomfortable. There is something very special about the way we can laugh together despite our crushed hearts.

In an unpredictable world, where a child you love can disappear forever, I need friends of both types: those who know, and those who are blessedly ignorant of how everything changes and everything hurts when you lose a child. I’m grateful for all my friends. Having them has made everything almost manageable. Stepping cleanly from one set of friends to the other, sometimes several times in one day, I always felt like I was on solid ground. But that changed last week when one of my Regular Friends had her world pulled out from under her— her child died—and suddenly, even assigning categories can’t stop the conundrum of change as a Regular Friend turns Blue.

 

Best friends, foodie friends, crazy friends, needy friends…. Is it okay to categorize your friends?

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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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