Monthly Archives: January 2014

Carrying Grief and Talking About Loss

A Banyan tree in Florida with roots wrapped around its trunk photographed by Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York. “ … I will remember you forever. In this way, because I got to live, you will too,” my daughter, Marika, wrote to her friend who died. She was going to carry Jake with her forever.

My aunt sits like a small island on her couch and listens as my mother tells her, “He’ll always be with you.” My aunt shakes her head No, considering the husband who was with her for over sixty years, the empty seat next to her in temple now, the lonely apartment.

I watch her, wondering if I dare mention that she brings my uncle back to life for me when she tells us about their time together. After my daughter died I needed to talk about her. Having people listen was better than hearing them tell me Marika was watching over me. Can I tell my aunt my daughter is stamped all over my heart and that as long as I live, a small part of her will be kept alive too? Can I say that I will carry and keep Marika with me until the day I myself am carried out of this world?

“You still have you,” is my standard line for someone who tells me she has lost someone or something. But it takes a while to recognize this as something of value. Over time it has become my mantra, “I still have me.” What I really want to tell my grieving aunt is, “Live.” Live because life is a gift. A time-limited offer, it will not last forever. Non-transferable, it cannot be given away to one of the many who fight for each breath and each hour. Live and discover how you’ve grown in his love.

I say little during our visit. Instead, I listen to my aunt’s stories.

And outside her living room, the trees in Florida hug themselves with outstretched roots that wrap around their trunks and cling. Each tree is a small community that holds itself up in a celebration of life.

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Healing After Loss: Giving Gifts

Robin Botie in Ithaca, New York poses with cat and Suki-dog Havanese and toilet in the snow. “Oh, what I did with the money this time, for my mother – ” my friend Valentina reports to me, grinning, almost a month after the holidays.

For over ten years Valentina has been giving me handcrafted boxes from Russia, cookies, candies, … Long ago I started giving her gifts too. But during the years in and out of hospitals with my daughter who had leukemia I couldn’t bring myself to buy or make gifts. That’s when I started to give money. Which I doubled, once I learned that it was going to her family in Siberia.

Sharing always made me feel good, even in times of sorrow. Giving Valentina money and clothes to send to Siberia became something to look forward to. A card with pictures of Russian dogs always came back, with handwritten notes of thanks and printed greetings in Russian letters. English translations under the message would thank me and God-Bless me for the pig or the cow that the money had secured.

“Okay, this time I bought – don’t laugh,” Valentina says, and I’m thinking maybe she bought chickens this year, or rabbits. But the look on her face tells me it’s something big. A horse?

“I bought for my mother – ” she says, and I remember the photos she showed me of her mother, a small but sturdy woman at work in her garden or in her simple house. Of all Valentina’s sisters, brothers, and other family members I’ve heard about over the years, her mother has become my favorite.

“You will laugh, Robin,” she says, “but this is very special.” I can hardly wait to hear how the mother, with two grown sons living in the tiny house with her, will have milk or meat to eat this year.

“I bought my mother a toilet.”

I don’t laugh. But my smile grows as I consider my gift. Then I do laugh when Valentina insists I take a photo of myself and my dog and cat – and my toilet too – to send to her mother who now shows off her new toilet, the first in the neighborhood. I picture red-cheeked neighbors wrapped in scarves, stopping by to see this gift, maybe even test it out. And I see Valentina’s mother, who I may never meet, grateful to no longer have to traipse outside to the outhouse in the Siberian winter.

And later that night, sitting on my own porcelain throne, I send wishes for health and warmth out to all the mothers in Siberia. And all the children in the world, young and old, who keep half their hearts in places far away, with the ones they love.

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A Gift From Beyond the Grave

Robin Botie in Ithaca, NY loves rainbows on CDs, especially the CD made for her by her daughter, Marika Warden, who died of leukemia at the age of twenty.Who was this daughter of mine? I really only started to get to know her after she died.

Almost three years ago, when I thought I’d lost Marika forever, I found her poems. My daughter was not gone; she was upstairs in her room, in a dozen journals, in a million words, waiting for me to discover. Over the first year I combed the house, upstairs and down, and came up with other “gifts” that revealed things about her I never knew. Then, a year after her death, days before I flew to Australia to scatter her ashes, I wrote, “When I get home there will be nothing left to find.” But in the process of packing for the trip I found a framed picture she’d drawn of a rabbit in a heart that said, “Welcome Home Mom.” After the trip, only very occasionally an earring, a drawing or some other “gift” would surface.

Late Monday night this past week, I found one more. In a pile of CDs, in a corner of our shared workspace, stuck behind another CD was a real gift I had never seen or known of before. On its front, marked in the palest letters it said, “To Mom From Marika.”

Marika never got the chance to say goodbye or leave a letter. And I was not her favorite person, to say the least, so I never expected anything. But there I was in the middle of the night holding something she made just for me.

It was long past my bedtime but I played it. For 74 minutes I laughed and cried. I trembled, rocked, hugged myself and danced. I felt her reaching out to me, saw her sitting in her room knowing she had cancer, knowing she could die, copying 17 songs with carefully selected messages she knew her mother would listen to and be cradled by.

When it was over, wet-ratted tissues dotted the floor and I held myself up, exhausted, with dripping face, to talk to her life-sized photo on the wall.

“How did I not see the person you were, you daughter of mine?”
I can still hear her smugly poking back at me,

“Way to go, mom. It only took you three years to find this.”

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Healing After Loss: When a Child Dies

Robin Botie in Ithaca, New York knows that you don't lose a child when a child dies. Years ago, from a distance, in awe I watched the woman who lost her child. I wondered how she was able to leave her house. How was she standing there? How on Earth could she still breathe?

Now I am that woman. I feel mothers gape at me, perturbed, “How does she smile? How can she be laughing?”

First of all, you don’t just lose a child. Sons and daughters are forever. Even if they get wiped out by cancer, car accidents, or unfathomable acts on the part of themselves or others. Death and time can only cloud their existence. They don’t entirely erase the memories, the history, deepest feelings, or the dreams you have of the one you loved and thought you lost. They don’t quiet my daughter’s pleading voice each time I pass a sushi shop.

“This will always be with you,” my mother said. Was she talking about the pain of loss? I decided “This” meant my daughter: she will always be with me. I’d make it a good thing. I’d keep her close forever.

“Since her daughter died, she’s only half the woman she used to be,” I overheard a friend say about me. Did that mean I was losing myself? It was a wake-up call. If I disappeared too, to whom and how would my daughter’s life continue to matter? Her life has to have been for something. Even if only to make me into a stronger and more caring person.

Marika was strong, self-assured and dogged in her pursuits. She had guts. She always partied and played. She lived like the lights could go out at any time. When she died I started wearing her clothes. Maybe I was hoping some of her would rub off on me. After all, I was the one who gave her life. I should be able to take and grow some parts of that life for myself.

For the New Year, in her honor, I will party more. I will get pedicures and sexy underwear, maybe even go on a date. If you see me laughing it’s because she taught me to love my life. She is with me still. And I will work harder to get our story published. I will not let my daughter be lost.


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