Monthly Archives: September 2014

What to Say When Someone Dies

What to Say When Someone Dies - Robin Botie in Ithaca, New York, hovers over computer screen showing her daughter, Marika Warden, who died of leukemia at the age of 20.The email said, “I lost my daughter Emily two years ago when she was 22.”
It came from a stranger, through Twitter. The public nature of social media sites makes responding with condolences so awkward. For a long while I sat with fingers poised over the keyboard, watching the blank space where my message would be printed.

“My husband died” and “My dog Bones was my best friend” and “My brother passed last week” are messages I get that make me want to dive into my computer, zoom through cyberspace to grab hold of these fellow grievers, and hug. If I could be there I would sit next to them in silence, ready to listen or to simply share the sad space around us.

After “I’m sorry,” I don’t have a stock set of lines for communicating to others who grieve. So much depends on the circumstances and on my relationship to the heartbroken person. But any response is better than no response. And even replying to a stranger, there are basic things to consider: like how to acknowledge the pain and let this person know I care. It has to be honest and heartfelt. It’s all about being supportive. It’s about the one who is left, not the one who died. And it’s not about my own experience, no matter how similar that may be.

It only takes a line or two: I am sorry. I am thinking of you. I will keep Emily in my thoughts today. I am here for you if you need me. I am wishing you peace. These are some of the things I might say or write. If I have a connection or memory to the one this person loves I will share it. And I will use the name of the loved one who died. When my own daughter died, hearing others’ stories about her and the sound of her name gave me comfort.

And maybe there’s a gentle way to let the person who is grieving know I’m available to listen. This is tricky through Twitter although Compassionate Friends does it all the time on Facebook. Reading the email I wondered, how did her daughter die? I wanted to ask but knew it was not appropriate.
But I decided I could ask, “How did Emily live?”

How did the one you are missing live?
Please visit my Garden of Loved Lives on HOME page. It’s starting to grow.

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My Daughter’s Voice

My Daughter's Voice - MarikaInMoon - Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops her daughter who died of leukemia at age 20, Marika Warden, in front of a full moon.“I have a message for you from your daughter,” I was told twice after my daughter died. “She wants you to know she’s all right,” was the gist of each message. But I was already engaged in conversation with her.

A year after Marika died the messages from family and friends were mixed: get over it; take all the time you need to grieve; let her go; you will never get over this. Talking to mothers whose children died decades ago, I learned that losing a child is not something one gets over. Ever.

“Stay with me,” I begged Marika as I walked her dog and looked up at a full moon. Nighttime in the driveway was the time and place I felt closest to her. Sometimes there was no moon. Sometimes I reached out to her in the middle of the day. After a while she followed me on my hikes in nearby gorges and I heard her voice whenever I passed a sushi stand in my travels.

I had talked to my daughter before she was even born. She would kick me and I’d watch my middle bulge and change shape. When she was a baby she echoed my words. As a toddler she asked a lot of questions. She boldly talked back to me as a young child. It wasn’t until she was a teenager trying to break free of me that our communications broke down. Then, when she was a young adult, during the almost-three years in the wilds of cancer, in and out of hospitals together, we hardly talked. But I’m talking to her now.

She kicks me. And almost daily I hear, “You can do this, mom,” and “Mom, get a life,” and – “Sushi?”

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Reclaiming Joy

In Ithaca, New York, Robin Botie and fiends make a campfire on her deck.“We’re comin’ over to your place with some wine,” the friends I’d just left phoned as I pulled into my dark driveway.
“But, uh … ” I sputtered.
“We’re almost there. Bye.” There was just enough time to pull out five wine glasses.

“Got any matches?” someone asked when the wine was poured. They gathered up their glasses and newspapers, found an old log, and made a campfire on the deck. The deck that once housed skunks; the deck that last year harbored a fox family and earlier this year was home to snakes. Squirrels and chipmunks scamper about daily on this deck, undaunted by the barking dog. The past week the dog, my son, and I watched woodchucks and raccoons dart underneath.

This year I’d only lingered outside my house briefly a few times to listen to coyotes and frogs or to photograph 2014’s super-moons reflected in the pond. In the three years since my daughter died, and the three summers in and out of hospitals before that, I had stopped reading and watching stars on the deck. So wild creatures found it a peaceful spot.

But on this night, between my son grilling his hamburgers, the prowling dog, and the friends stomping on the planks, raising flames and wildly whooping it up as they washed down the wine, on this first campfire of the year we took back the deck.

After, I went to bed with my hair smelling of smoke and slept through the night.The wildlife under the deck at the home of Robin Botie in Ithaca, New York.

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To Let Go

In Ithaca, New York, Robin Botie holds onto her daughter's stuffed puppy and old cowboy boots but she lets go of the pink boa and her manuscript.“Don’t give me any gifts. Unless it’s something I can eat,” I tell my friends. “I’m trying to unload, let go, recycle, send to the Salvation Army. I’ve been hanging on to too much for too long.” Like all the stuff I collected when my father died and everything I clung to after my daughter died. And like the manuscript I’ve been writing for three years. The manuscript that says, “You don’t have to let go of the one you love and thought you lost.”
So I’m wondering, what do I let go of and what do I keep, and why?

There’s my father’s gray bathrobe. It’s too big and totally not my color. I hang onto it because when I wear it I feel closer to him. Okay, this stays. But I don’t have to keep the hot-pink fake boa his girlfriend gave me.

My daughter’s stuffed puppy that she slept with every night of her life is a keeper. Until the day I cremate Puppy on a beach in Australia. Some things, like Marika’s poems and songs, I will never give up; her words encourage me. I wear her old cowboy boots to remind myself to be bold. But my closet is full of her tank tops and soccer socks. Someone else is going to love these.

As for the manuscript, the truth is I’ve kept it to myself because I’m afraid it’s not good enough. I’m scared of it being critically reviewed and rejected.

Fear is not a good reason to keep something. But fear is what I have and like grief, it isn’t simply let go of or gotten over. Like with grief, I need to face it, dive into it now and then, and explore it from the inside out. Isn’t this why I kept Marika’s cowboy boots?

In my mother’s house in Massachusetts, the sun splashed over the dining room table as I copied my query letter and the first ten pages of my manuscript into an email addressed to a carefully chosen literary agent. I paused to remember my daughter, her friend Jake, my father, and all the family and friends who watched me fumble, fall at times, and sometimes fly while I wrote my story. Sitting rigidly at the edge of the chair, I pressed cold fingertips into my chin.

“Go for it, mom,” I heard inside my head. Then I hit SEND.


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A Virtual Garden

Virtual Garden, In Ithaca, New York, Robin Botie, blogger and Photoshopper, photographsin multiples a friend in the garden room at Longview, an Ithacare Community.The yellow flowers quivered as I plopped the small plant into the hole I’d dug. I tamped the soil down around it. Done. Thankfully there had been no run-ins with earthworms. No bugs.
“I can water it myself,” my friend says.

“So what’s this virtual garden you keep talking about?” she asks.
“Well, it’s going to be a place online, on my website’s Home Page actually. Soon, people can go there and if they email me a picture of their loved one who died, I will Photoshop the face into a flower in the garden.”
“But why a garden?” my friend asks. “You say you don’t like gardening.”
“Because gardens are comforting places. Healing places. I like gardens. Being in them, seeing the colors, watching things grow. I just hate weeding and worms and getting dirt in my fingernails.”
“But that’s half the fun,” she says. And then my friend asks, “Can I give you a picture of (my husband) and have you put him in your garden?”


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