Monthly Archives: June 2017

My Memory is Broken. But I’m Not

“She’s broken. Falling apart, scarred for life since her daughter died,” various friends and family members have said about me. This week I was going to write about how I didn’t feel “broken,” how I believed I was stronger and better than ever. But then I lost my mind. Briefly. Just memory failure, really. But the mortification still grinds in my head.

I was sitting with a friend at a table outside the gym when a beautiful young woman stopped by. “I’m Shoshana,” she said, smiling at me with familiar warm brown eyes. Immediately I recognized her as one of my daughter’s oldest friends.
“I’m so glad you came over,” I said, my heart laughing and crying as it does whenever I run into one of Marika’s BFFs. I’m always grateful when this happens. It takes courage to approach a bereaved mother; once old friends fled the aisle in Wegmans to avoid me. Shoshana set her coffee and croissant on the table, and sat down.

“I think of Marika a lot,” she said. And I thanked her for that, told her it meant everything to me that Marika was remembered. Shoshana mentioned what she’d been doing lately. That doesn’t sound like you, I said, and then shared a dozen details of what I remembered of her. Only, the images that popped up in my head were memories of a different girl, not the Shoshana sitting before me. I’d completely confused her with another of Marika’s friends.

Suddenly, we were saying goodbye. I mentioned one more thing that was totally not about Shoshana, and she looked at me like I had cracked.

She left. And for a moment I sat there disoriented, blinded by bright sunlight and shards of memories. And then I recalled the serious child who told silly jokes, the quirky kid who couldn’t carry a tune but was so giving, so eager to please. She was one of the few young friends that would look me straight in the eye. Her warm familiar eyes. The real Shoshana. I’d last seen her when she visited Marika in the hospital.

I caught up with her. Still dazed, I tried to explain. But there is no way to account for the brokenness of a mind that can recall every detail of a daughter’s last years, and yearns to have that daughter remembered, but cannot keep the other pieces of the past straight.

If you see me on the street, in the gym or at Wegmans, please say hi. I will not break if you mention my daughter. Chances are she’s already at the foreground of my thoughts. Besides, when it comes to brokenness, we’re all on a spectrum. And a broken memory doesn’t mean you’re a broken person. So forgive me if I don’t remember your name. I know who you are. Mostly. It’s in your eyes and your smile.

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Another Precious Summer, Training for Life

Sixteen summers ago, in June, when peonies bowed their heavy heads, wispy clouds wafted over the still lake at Camp Scatico in Elizaville, New York. It was early morning a few weeks before camp would open, and that year’s new group of lifeguards was in training. Polar bear swim. To get a head start I ran into the lake first, breaking the calm surface into ripples. Two great blue herons suddenly soared up out of the mist. They flew over me, and before I could shout, “Look,” the other lifeguards, decades younger than I, splashed noisily by with great speed and strength. They swam all the way to some far marker and back again, twice leaving me in their wake. But that didn’t matter. Even then, I knew it was the beginning of a new journey. For me.

Two months before, I had turned fifty. Always afraid of drowning, I’d never dreamed of becoming a lifeguard. In order to afford to send my kids to camp though, I’d taken a job as a hiking counselor, and then the camp had me trained and certified. I spent the next four summers hiking and lifeguarding. And training. Every time the peonies bloomed I set off for camp for more lifeguarding instruction. It was good training for what was to come later, when my daughter got cancer.

Years after those lifeguarding summers, peonies were just starting to bloom when Marika was first diagnosed and I became her caregiver. Caregiving and lifeguarding were similar. Except with caregiving there was only one life to keep from drowning. And after the first summer with cancer Marika got her own lifeguard certification. Being a cancer survivor and a lifeguard, she knew something about the nature of life. A local camp hired her, but for the next two years, just when peonies perfumed the air, cancer came back. Marika and I were stuck in hospitals. Three whole precious summers lost. And after, there were summers when the peonies were lost; everything beautiful was lost on me. I was living in a downward wafting cloud.

The memoir I’ve been writing for the last six years was, at one point, to be titled Lifeguarding. A friend suggested that Guarding Life would be better. That got me thinking. Because guarding life is what I do now. Life and lives. And time. All bright, fresh, bursting with promise. Mysterious. Fragile. Elusive.

Whenever peonies bloom I get excited about summer, and I remember Camp Scatico where each June they train more lifeguards and leaders. I wish them a brilliant season, and hope these new leaders get to see the herons. My best wishes to all of us for a most magnificent summer.

 

Where will summer take you this year? Where will you allow yourself to go?

 

 

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Gifts From my Father

Robin Botie restores and posterizes an old photo of her father for Fathers Day, in Photoshop.“Dad, is it okay to replace my 17-year-old mattress?” My father’s been gone seven years but I still consult him every time I spend more than what a dinner in a nice restaurant would cost. If I’m spending money on someone else however, I don’t bother to ask. For family or friends, for persons in need, or for matters involving food, I know I have his blessings to be generous.

When my sister and I were about six and seven, my father came home from work one day and took us out shopping for bicycles. The small store was closing but the shopkeeper stayed open for us. We quickly chose our bikes, and my father asked if we wanted bells for our bicycles. No. We were thrilled simply to have bicycles. “How about baskets? Bicycles need baskets,” he said. We shook our heads. No, thank you. “What about these?” he went on, pointing to streamers and things to dangle off the handlebars. My sister and I hugged our new bikes and declined all his offers until he finally nodded in the direction of the shopkeeper and said, “C’mon, what else can we buy? This guy has to make a living too.”

Decades later, right before a winter vacation to a beach, a surgery gone wrong necessitated buying new clothes for my Dad. Having never been sick up until then, he didn’t own a bathrobe or slippers, or anything one would sit still in. He and I went shopping at Nordstrom’s Department Store for sweatpants, pajamas, a swimsuit, and comfortable casual clothes to fit over the temporary catheter and tubing he suddenly had to accommodate. I couldn’t believe my father even knew how to shop. Except for his love of good food he lived very simply, and wore clothes of World War II vintage. When our pile of purchases at Nordstrom’s grew too heavy for me to carry, I asked, “What else can we buy?” this time meaning I thought he had bought enough.
“Now we buy something for you,” he answered. And he bought me a bathing suit, two pairs of sandals, and a red dress.

Maybe my Dad is watching over me still. Maybe he smiles each time I treat a friend to dinner at Gola Osteria. But, except for food and clothing, it’s hard to be generous with myself. Like this old mattress I want to replace. I’ve been looking for a new one for at least three years. Maybe this year, Dad? For Fathers Day.

 

What “gifts” did you inherit from your father? What does Fathers Day mean to you?

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The Compassionate Friends: A New Chapter in Ithaca, New York

Robin Botie of ithaca, New York, uses Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator to show a stand of trees representing the new Ithaca chapter of The Compassionate Friends, a worldwide child loss grief support group helping bereaved families grow and heal.“Pretend you’re trees. Open your arms wide like branches reaching out,” I said to the tiny group of people posing before my camera. They stood there, smiling at me, with outstretched arms. We were gathered for the first meeting of The Compassionate Friends of Ithaca, New York, a child loss support group. “Look up at the sky,” I directed, thinking they looked like children waving in the wind.

I was designing artwork for our brochure, for a Facebook page, and our new website. Since my daughter Marika died, it has not been easy to ask for assistance. It had taken me four years to even want to be part of a grief support group. So last week, when I needed people to pose, I had hesitated sending out the email, “I need help.” But now, here were these new friends of mine, swaying with arms held high like they could catch the sun. Or catch a child falling from heaven. They were eager to be helping me. I was so touched.

The Compassionate Friends is a worldwide support group for people who have lost a child or grandchild or sibling. All the people running Compassionate Friends groups are people who have lost children of all ages, from many different causes. Bereaved parents are a diverse group from all walks of life and all races. They understand what parents go through, and hold regular monthly meetings where they reach out to each other, sharing their pain and the love they have for their children. Together they grieve and heal and grow.

In Ithaca, our new TCF chapter meets the first Thursday of each month from 5:30 to 7:30 at Hospicare on 172 E King Road. If you are a bereaved parent nearby, or you know of someone who is and would benefit from opportunities to connect and learn together, I invite you to contact us at [email protected] or (607) 387-5711.

The morning after that first TCF Ithaca meeting I came across this illustration of a stand of pine trees I’d made for a friend. Immediately I connected the picture to what I was trying to portray by lining the parents up with outstretched arms. A stand of trees is a community of trees having a definite distinguishing characteristic, a particular uniformity, which makes it stand out from other nearby trees. The Compassionate Friends is my stand. These folks “get” who I am now. In a society that puts limits on grieving, and is uncomfortable discussing death or deceased loved ones, I have found a place to go where I can still be Marika’s Mom. In this journey called life, we all just want our children’s lives to matter, to be remembered. Hence, our Credo: We need not walk alone.  We are The Compassionate Friends.

 

Do you know someone who is grieving? Are you grieving?

 

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