Trespassing

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photographs an abandoned farmhouse somewhere off NY route 96 near Ovid while on a photography field trip with the Finger Lakes Photographers.

“They’re hard, like porcelain,” a friend said, referring to her recently reconstructed breasts. “Do you want to see them?” she asked. I said no. She showed me anyway. “Feel this,” she said. Gently pressing a small spot with two fingertips, I felt her breast, the way I might have touched a dead fish.
“It’s soft. Like memory foam.” I was surprised. “They’re beautiful,” I said, admiring their perfect roundness, and grateful not to have to contend with the gutted ruins I had expected.

Gutted ruins came two days later. On the photography field trip. Ten photographers in three cars careening across the countryside, stopping to shoot old farms, demolished derby cars, and tiny towns that had seen better days. And the abandoned farmhouse somewhere off NY Route 96 near Ovid.

It stood among tangles of thorny shrubs and gnarled trees. We emptied out of the car and padded carefully on spongy ground toward it, behind our cameras, all trained on the house like we were attacking it. Someone tried the doorknob. Not locked. The others went through the door, crept into every room and up the stairs. I held back. It was someone else’s property. Someone’s home. I was not comfortable trespassing.

It was cold waiting outside, and the photographers were taking a long time. I hovered near the door, and finally inched my way in. It was a wreck. The whole house was cracked and crumbling. Ravaged. Debris lay everywhere. I looked to find traces of former inhabitants. It was just shards of junk. Little survived of past lives. The place was less haunted than I was. So I staggered back out the door, and took a few last shots of the house’s shell. It was still beautiful, even gutted and scarred. And it was still standing.

Gutted ruin. That describes my heart. Although I can laugh and love life again now, there are days I wonder, what am I doing here? Sometimes it feels like I’m trespassing, like I don’t quite fit in with my company or surroundings, like I need to be extra careful not to offend anyone by talking about my loss. I consider myself a survivor though, as in: my daughter died of cancer but I survived. I’m gutted. Scarred. But still standing.

When was the last time you felt like you were trespassing?

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Parallel Lives

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a rorschach inkblot to illustrate parallel lives and shared journeys of bereaved parents.As a child, I used to imagine that a double of myself was walking around somewhere else on the planet, far away. Later, when my world expanded to college, instructors and fellow students insisted I had a twin on campus. And when I was busy birthing and raising children, I saw myself replicated in mothers everywhere. But after my daughter died, for a long time, I felt like the only one on earth to ever lose a kid. Nobody was like me.

Last week, before writing my post, I googled “grief and gratitude.” That’s been my focus for a while; somewhere around the fifth anniversary of my daughter’s death, gratitude started sopping up some of my grief. And there in Google was someone else named Robin whose life was like a Rorschach inkblot of my own life. If you folded a map of the US in half, her home on the west coast would be juxtaposed with mine in the east. On the opposite side of the country, a stranger’s life was running parallel to my own.

Four months before my daughter died, this other Robin lost a son who was the same age as my Marika. This second Robin, also an avid hiker and writer, started blogging about her grief journey seventeen months after her son’s death; I started sixteen months after my loss. She wrote, “I am not the same person I was and this loss is an integral part of who I am now.” In over 97,000 words posted since 2012, I have tried to express the same truth. West Coast Robin currently facilitates grief support groups while I organize a bereaved parents group and make bereavement calls for Hospicare.

There may be millions more of us lighting candles for loved ones, posting their photos on Facebook, watching the Afterlife TV series on Youtube, and reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. Maybe tens of thousands of us are hoping to publish our own memoirs. And if there are hundreds of Robins howling to the moon, how many of us are now out there somewhere, contemplating the chances there’s a double of our child who died? A twin who’s still singing.

 

Did you ever wonder if there is someone just like you somewhere in the world? Did you ever find a soul mate? Or a look-alike?

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From Grief to Gratitude

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops friendship bracelets around a photo of her daughter who died of leukemia being hugged by friends.Saturday was my daughter’s sixth angelversary. Angelversary is the name bereaved parents often use to gently refer to the date of a child’s death. It marks the day a son or daughter became an angel. Or the day they took up a heavenly abode. I’m still on the fence about heaven and where one ends up after life. And Marika was no angel. But these wretched anniversaries wreak a range of emotions. What bereaved mothers and fathers really want, besides having their children back, is to know their child is loved and won’t be forgotten.

The first few angelversaries I was immobilized with fear and dread, wondering how I could survive the day. Then there were years when I obsessed about exactly how to commemorate such a time: to turn off the phone and stay in bed, or line up back-to-back meet-ups with friends? To curl up and cry? Or celebrate Marika’s life with balloons and butterflies?

“I’m declaring a personal holiday,” I told a bunch of other bereaved parents last week. “I’m going to party and drink and do all the things she liked to do. I’m gonna be really good to myself. Cake. Chocolate. Hiking with my daughter’s dog. I’m going shopping.”

I was going to write about all those things. I was looking forward to barging into the day full force, like my daughter would, feasting on the beautiful free time to do anything I wanted. And then, first thing on the day of Marika’s sixth angelversary, I felt a desperate urge to grab onto my grief again. I needed to drown in sorrow. Feel pain. Cry. Maybe so I could remember how much I loved, and how much that love costs me still.

There was a box of Marika’s photos. The ones from her last years. I knew they would fuel a major breakdown. What I didn’t know was, after the deluge of tears from seeing dozens of photos of Marika being held and hugged in the middle of friends, how grief could melt into gratitude. It warmed me as much as the cocoa, the chili, and the good cheer I found the rest of that day among my own friends.

All the beautiful, wonderful friends. Hugs to those who keep me going. And brimful thanks to everyone who filled Marika’s life with love. She was no angel. But she was loved.

 

How do friends keep you going? How do friends keep you grateful?

 

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Pet Sitting

Robin Botie of ithaca, New York, photoshops her furry houseguests she is pet sitting for, grief distraction.Oh, you poor-sweet-babies missing your mamas, I croon to the extra sets of eyes that keep constant watch over me. One friend’s dog and another friend’s cat are houseguests for a good part of February. It’s like having a houseful of kids again, I tell myself. I fill the fridge and hunker down for Pet Camp.

Oh babies, you’re gonna exhaust yourselves, I tell them. Together with my dog, they follow me as I flit from room to room, from manuscript to mail pile, from computer to kitchen counter. They close in tighter anytime I approach the kitchen. The cat peeks out from her polyester cat-house parked on my desk when she’s not playing in the dripping bathroom sink. The houseguest-dog grunts at the extensive barricade system enclosing the carpeted living room. My own dog merrily tests out each of the extra nests lovingly installed around the house, distributing her chew toys among the various bedding options, like they might hold her place. The houseguest-dog has his own way of marking his places.

Babies, it’s TV-time, I announce turning on the news, and they follow me to the couch where we rotate who gets my lap. It’s potty-time, I sing. Time for bed everyone. Who wants dinner? Major rush to the kitchen.

Pet sitting is a great distraction from grief and worries. The more critters, the busier you can keep yourself. But sooner or later, when the pets are all piled into bed with you, and you’ve covered them up in your polar fleece jackets to keep them cozy through the night, you find grief is still there waiting. All the persons and things you lost come back to haunt you. The world is passing you by. Time’s disappearing faster than dog-chow. Other than visiting your mother, when did you last take a long trip? You think of your friends having fun times in exotic places, drinking strawberry margaritas on sunny beaches.

Halfway into the middle of my pet-sitting weeks I call a tour company to book a vacation for myself. Three sets of eyes watch me hug the phone. Oh babies, I’m going to Australia!

 

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Grief and Glory at the Opera

Late, past my bedtime, I am dancing with the dog in the driveway. With arms stretched out to hug the universe, I sing to reach the stars. My head is filled with a melody that clings, wrapping itself around every thought. And my heart bursts with love. For everyone and everything in the world. It’s growing greater than my little frame can contain. All this emotion and energy ricochets too wildly back and forth off the walls in my house, so I take myself outside where I can twirl it off into the still night air. This is what it looks like when I come home on Opera Night.

Opera is meant to move us, give us goosebumps. Some think opera is boring. Irrelevant. Silly even, as every human emotion is expressed in song. Imagine though: people get poisoned or stabbed, they crave power or revenge, they die or drown in despair, in desperate love, sometimes forbidden love. There is war, rage, jealousy, fear, hope, joy, … an explosion of passion, all conveyed through a wide range of the human voice. Howling, whimpering, roaring … trilling to tunes that tell a story that is timeless and universal. Always, there’s grief and glory to be found at the opera.

And opera is not just singing. It is a combination of music, drama, visual design and movement. It’s like the Ironman triathlon of the arts, only all the action is taking place at once. In costume, with stunning stage sets. It captivates and thrills us; it drains us. For performers and audience alike, opera is a workout.

Throughout my daughter’s cancer, come Opera Night, wherever we were, I took a break to attend the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD broadcasts offered several Saturday afternoons and Wednesday evenings at local movie theaters worldwide. I could sit through every tragedy known to man, and witness on the large screen all the churning I felt inside myself. Sometimes the story ended badly. I’d be in tears. But there was comfort in watching the sadness of the larger-than-life characters. Their grief was amplified by the intensity of the music. Magnificence. Even in the midst of catastrophe. Every pain I felt was validated, and became more bearable.

So meet me at the opera. We’ll hike the highest peaks and deepest pits of our emotions. We’ll witness the truth of what it is to be human in this world. And when we laugh or cry at the opera, we’ll know we’re not alone.

 

What does opera mean to you? What makes you feel like singing and dancing your heart out?

 

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In the Eye of the Beholder

In the Eye of the BeholderThe sign on the gate said Chef’s Garden. The place looked abandoned. No one was looking so she entered, and right away was drawn to a patch of blue. Fresh, frosty, mentholated blue.

Oh, that color. An icy, almost iridescent blue that could thaw into green or purple with the passing of a cloud. A blue you could fly in. Or float in. Like the color of snow at twilight, a ghostly pale blue that defied reality. And petals with ridged edges, like the gnawed ears of tomcats. Leaves that opened to the sun, yet wrapped the flower’s core tightly in shadow.

Blue roses, she thought. How beautiful. For an hour she photographed them up and down, zooming in and out.

She knew her roses. Roses were a symbol of love: Pink roses showed appreciation and gratitude. Yellow roses said Remember Me. White was the bridal rose, and orange meant excitement and desire. Peach-colored roses extended sympathy. The darkest crimson was for sorrow and grief. Over the course of her life she’d given and gotten them all.

But a blue rose. That was special. A rarity in nature, a blue rose symbolized the impossible, the unattainable. An unrealizable dream, a never-to-be-fulfilled wish. Or it could mean starting all over again but on a different path, and triumphing against all odds. A blue rose could represent immortality. Or the death of hope.

She considered her situation, her life. All the changes. The sorrows. Worries. Things she was grateful for. Things regretted. She thought of the manuscript she’d written and was returning to, her dreams of traveling, her yearning to discover who and where she was meant to be. Now, finding a whole patch of these roses, was this a blessing? Or –

Later, when she viewed all the photos she’d taken in the garden, it was the ones of the blue roses she kept coming back to. The camera had almost perfectly captured the moonshadow-blue color. Her eyes danced over each image with something like joy.

People told her, that’s just a rotting cabbage riddled with wormholes. But she knew better.

 

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