Monthly Archives: October 2016

Thank You Letter

Fall flowers and a donation to Ronald McDonald House in memory of her deceased daughter inspired kindness and generosity for bereaved mother Robin Botie in Ithaca, New York.Dear Wag’in Tail Dog Grooming in Auburn, NY,

Thank you so much for your gift to Ronald McDonald House in memory of my daughter Marika Warden. I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m not even sure Marika knew you. But I’m very grateful for your donation. Unless you are another bereaved mother you probably wouldn’t understand how much it means to know that the life of your child mattered, or could make a difference somewhere. It means the world to me that five years after her death, Marika could inspire kindness and generosity.

And I’m so glad you chose to give to Ronald McDonald House. Because in the sad parting from the city where I last “left” my daughter, and in all this time since she died, I never really thanked the warm people at Ronald McDonald House and the Ronald McDonald House-Within-the-Hospital who welcomed the distraught mother standing at their doorsteps dazed and red-eyed, early on in her journey through the wilds of cancer, sobbing, “Is this for real? You mean I can sleep here and you’ll wake me if the hospital calls?”

Imagine you’ve traveled far from your home to seek treatment for your sick child. You know no one in this city. You sleep in the hospital’s uncomfortable reclining chairs, not wanting to leave your precious one alone. You eat from your child’s almost-untouched meal trays. You’re told not to use The Patient’s Bathroom, so you dash down the hall to the ladies room when you have to, and hug the sympathetic nurse who shows you the shower in a nearby slop closet. Your kid reacts to chemo so horrifically you don’t dare leave her bedside until things stabilize, and when they do you suddenly realize how tired and disheveled you’ve become. You don’t know how to begin to resuscitate yourself. And then, one day you’re offered a very affordable room close by.

First it was a room right in the hospital, a few floors down from the oncology unit. Later it was in a house a couple of blocks away. A room with a real bed and my own bathroom. Washers and driers nearby. Flowers. Meals lovingly prepared and left for whatever hour of the night I would tear myself away from my daughter. There were other mothers to talk to. Families. People like me, living in a strange city with invisible thick rubber bands tethering them to their critically ill children in the hospital, gratefully pulling themselves back and forth from their home-away-from-home, to regroup. Ronald McDonald Charities. You picked a good place to help out.

So thank you, Wag’in Tail. For your gift, for reviving my memories, for letting Marika’s story move you, and for allowing her life to still count for something. Cheers!

 

PS: Wag’in, The note Ronald McDonald House sent to inform me of your donation was what gave me the most joy this week. I don’t know your real name. But I know you are no longer a stranger.

 

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Standing Out in the Rain

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops rainy day walkathon of the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes.Months ago, when we were still in the middle of a drought, I had Staples print up two large vinyl banners, photos of my daughter, to be strung together and worn sandwich-board style for the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes’ Annual Walkathon. It seemed like a good idea back then. That was before I’d had time to consider how conspicuous I would be, sandwiched in bright colors, shoulders to knees. It never occurred to me that the dry spell could finally end in a three-day downpour concurrent with the October Walkathon. The banners’ colors would hold up in rain. But could I?

I didn’t stand out as much as the guy in the Tony-the-Tiger costume. I stood with him until the rain picked up and people ducked into the tents. Then I stood alone in the rain, waiting for my friend to show up. People passing by nodded with sympathetic smiles.
“Can I take your photograph?” I was asked several times.
“Yes, please. Take pictures. I’d like that,” I said, smiling into the cameras. Whoa! Was that really me? I hate being photographed. And I hate being conspicuous. It’s bad enough feeling folks’ eyes taking in “the woman who lost her daughter.” Before my loss, I’d tried hard not to stare at the one woman I knew whose child had died, as I wondered what kept her from disintegrating into millions of miserable molecules. Now I was that woman. And I was standing in the rain. Standing out. Alone. In costume.

High school girls’ teams came by. They wore tight wet jeans, soaked sneakers without socks, drenched jackets. My daughter would have fit right in. “That’s what you’re wearing in this torrential downpour?” I’d often said to her. She liked rain. She played soccer in the rain, wrote a song about rain. She even looked good wet. Whereas I was told once, coming in from the damp, I looked like a drowned rat. She’d be mortified to be seen with me now in my knee-high heavy-gauge rubber boots and clear plastic hooded raincoat.

“Oh. Marika!” her former teachers and an old friend pointed at me sandwiched in the photos. It felt good to hear my daughter’s name and have her remembered. And I realized that I wasn’t a drowned rat. I wasn’t simply a bereaved mother. Just then I was Marika. I was wearing her smiling face from shoulders to knees. And she loved being photographed. She wanted to be seen. So I shamelessly approached a small group, a young man in a tutu, and asked if they would take my picture with Tony-the-Tiger.

When my friend finally arrived and offered me space under her rainbow umbrella, I said, “No thanks. I’m completely waterproof.”

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, posing with friendly folks at the 2016 Annual Walkathon for the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes.

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Swan Songs

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops changing colors of fall foliage as she contemplates death as a beautiful transition rather than death as the end.Ancient legends tell us of the swan, mostly silent during its lifetime, that sings a song of great sweetness and joy in the moments before its death. A swan song.

In the fall of 2011, when doctors announced they’d found a donor and were scheduling my daughter’s stem cell transplant, she told them, “I can’t. My concert. I have to do my concert first.” Everything was put on hold until after she’d performed her songs on a crisp fall evening, to the crowd at The Nines in Collegetown. “I wanna see more of you dancin’,” she’d sung out that magical night. Later, I wondered if Marika knew it would be her last performance.

Now, every day I can, I go out hiking with friends under brilliant blue cloudless skies. In these bright days before the trees are stripped bare to the bone, I gaze at their rainbow of fall foliage. “October is more colorful than Christmas,” I tell my companions, as I gather a few perfect leaves to take home. The wind picks up, and red and yellow leaves fall gently. “It’s like watching the forest cry,” I say. The show of color is October’s glorious swan song.

Death is not the end. Death is change. Transformation. Some call it beautiful. It is a beautiful transition. Birth and death are simply two points on a continuum, the circle of life. We have been dying since the time we were born. Every minute of every day, cells in our bodies are dying. Eventually our physical bodies die completely. But our spirits are still singing somewhere. I have to believe this. I’m still hearing, “I wanna see more of you dancin’.”

Rain and colder weather are in the forecast. This may be the last warm evening until next spring. I’m on the deck singing, with my dog, a ripe pear, cheese, and a glass of Madeira. If I sing and dance and do everything like it’s my swan song, when it’s my time to transition, I will have lived my physical life with my fullest heart.

 

How does one live life to the fullest? If you were to plan out your last great act on this Earth, what would it be?

 

 

 

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Focusing on the Important Things

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops joyful color of a fallen leaf in focusing on life and death, the important things.“Selling isn’t the important thing,” I said, “I just want people to see my work.” It was my first solo show as a photographer in Ithaca. The focus of the exhibit was death and grieving, reframing our views of these. Assuring myself the focal point of the event would be my artwork, not myself, I’d chosen to wear a black dress and over-the-knee black boots to recede into the background. But I’d put on the red beads my mother bought me, so I wouldn’t vanish entirely. The red necklace was to keep guests from fixating on the tragedy of That Woman Whose Daughter Died. After all, the core of the show was supposed to be creativity and healing. If people couldn’t see the forest from the trees, at least they might spot the joyful color of a fallen leaf.

At the reception, after making the rounds of the fourteen huge photographs, people headed over to me one-by-one or in twos. Suddenly I was the center of attention. But I didn’t know how to operate in the spotlight. I didn’t know how to break off speaking with an individual or small group in order to be with the next. Guests waited patiently for me to get to them, and then they gave up and walked away. The couple of times I excused myself saying, “Oh, I need to give that person behind you a hug,” it felt like cutting people off. And the few rare moments I stood alone, I was too shy to approach the strangers examining my work. I was entirely clueless in the art of mingling.

A mother and daughter came through, stopping to study each piece. I wondered what the girl thought of my story and images. I wondered what the mother was saying. Several of the pictures were of my own daughter: Marika as a baby. Marika at age four, at nineteen. We had never attended a show centered on death. Maybe if Marika and I had seen an exhibit like this we’d have had a discussion about dying.

Beyond the friends talking to me, the mother and daughter I didn’t know were ready to leave. I wanted to greet them, thank them for coming. Maybe I could answer a question, or ask which piece they liked best.

I didn’t stop them. But I stood there wishing and hoping my photos would start a conversation between them. Focusing on life and death. The important things.

 

So – does anyone have any tips for how to circulate when you’re in the spotlight?

 

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A Black Hole

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops the eye of a flower to represent the black hole that happens when a loved one dies, that happens when a writer falls into creative block.A black hole can happen when a star dies. It can happen when someone you love dies. And when artists or writers run out of inspiration, losing the ability to create new work, they may wail, “I’m lost in a black hole.”

In a black hole, the pull of gravity is so strong that nothing can escape it, not even light. Powerful tidal forces exert pressure that compresses matter, making it plunge at the speed of light, stretching it out lengthwise and squashing it sideways, tearing it to pieces, smashing, disintegrating, instantly incinerating and obliterating it to ashes.

I remember the early days after I lost my daughter. I remember the crushing feeling, the slow leaking of my energy, gravity ripping me apart. The hopelessness. My insides were imploding. I was alone. Aching. Trapped. Lost in a deep, dark, endless emptiness.

Black holes come in different sizes, from micro to supermassive, from death and grieving to creative block.

“If you feel you are trapped in a black hole, don’t give up. There is a way out,” says world-renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who has spent a lifetime studying black holes. But even he questions what kind of shape you, or any matter that gets sucked into a black hole, might be in upon escaping. Hawking says whatever gets freed from the hole is “for all practical purposes … useless.” Still, somehow, my hope survived my black hole. A battered ounce of hope is enough to fuel one forward.

Last week I started off my “new season” of photographic images. Taking cautious baby steps, keeping it simple, I photographed all sorts of orifices with my newly repaired, cleaned camera. Openings in foliage, depressions in trees, eyes of fall flowers… I made a circle. A square. And the beginnings of a plan to bring joy and color back into my life:

Start with a black hole. Put it in a box, to contain the chaos that might grow from it. Hug the negative space around it. Skirt the edges of its perimeter, aware it could suck in and swallow whatever approaches its point of no return. Surround it. Expand it. Drag it around and poke at it. Keep peeking into it to look for light. Learn to love the black hole that periodically pulls. And find new ways to fill it.

 

What can you do with a black hole? How can you fill it? Should black holes just be avoided?

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