Author Archives: Robin Botie

Dancing Wildly with Grief and Joy

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York photoshops hostas from her garden as a background for the words of joy she created in Adobe Illustrator.“Do you ever go out dancing?” someone asked an old woman. The old woman looked away, smiling, not sure how to answer. Because she’d been out just the night before, listening to the music of frogs, the joyful trilling of tree frogs and low gunk-gunks of the bulls. And she’d danced in the driveway with her dog.

Quiet and subdued when people were around, most days the woman kept herself in check. But sometimes she just had to run. Or dance. Or roughhouse with the dog. Often, from someplace deep within and unreachable, there was a stirring, a wildness that couldn’t be tamed and wouldn’t let her sleep. Her heart howled with the coyotes, and restless leg syndrome beat through her whole being. Ghosts danced in her head. “It’s the- Marika-in-me,” she told herself, attributing the hungry black hole in her heart to the daughter who died. In the middle of many nights she’d find peace outside singing Sweet Baby James to the moon.

Wild woman. Maybe. But you haven’t seen anything yet. In May she grows more and more alive. As daylight sticks around until almost bedtime, as hostas uncurl in the garden, as the flooded pond goes down and the hills green up, and the forest floor fills with trillium and then trout lilies, the woman yips, “Yee-hah!” into the wind. In a flurry of spring-cleaning, she prunes and rakes and weeds, all the time mimicking the songs of birds. She calls to the frogs and floats candles on the pond. Lights up the deck with battery-powered lanterns. Throws crackers to the ducks. Barks, with the dog, dodging the geese. Crazy lady. Good thing she lives in the countryside, out in the hills where no one is bothered by her rantings.

An invitation arrives in the mail. The RSVP card begs, “Please list a song that will get you dancing.” For days the woman considers this. Finally she responds, yes. But cannot say what might drive her to dance.

It’s mostly on clear nights after many days of rain, when the wind sleeps and stars wink, and the frog-song is at its most frenzied, that the crazy lady does her little dance with the dog. They jump. Twirl. They run and chase each other in the dark. And when she and the dog are both panting for breath, they sit together on a rock at the edge of the pond, and the woman whispers a promise into the dog’s soft fur, “We’re gonna make this summer our best yet.”

 

What does your wild side look like? What song will get you dancing?

 

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Taking a Day Off From Grief

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops the sky through trees when she takes time off from grief.“What magnificent thing will we do today?” I ask my daughter. She’s been dead for six years now, but this is how I begin my days. Walking the dog in the driveway, looking through trees to see what color the sky is wearing, I say, “What magnificent thing, Marika?”

Almost anything I do after dragging myself out of bed qualifies as magnificent. Other than burrowing back under the covers. The ‘magnificent thing’ is something that has the potential to propel me forward. For a while. Something to look forward to, that might even make me feel good. Because, if I don’t plan or push myself, I could easily spend my time immobilized by grief, moping and miserable. The work of facing the world and putting a life back together is exhausting. Grief invades your sleep, your physical and mental wellbeing, your creativity, all parts of your life. Counselors and support sites agree that taking time off from grieving helps us heal. Not that we can simply switch it on or off, but we can nudge it over from center stage to the background, or take baby-steps back from it to focus on something else for a while. To recharge. Regain strength, courage and hope.

Last weekend a friend asked me to go with her on a winery tour. It would be a whole day away from home, away from the computer, online support groups, and my quiet space to nurse my emptiness. All I had to do was sit in the car as she drove from one winery to another and we’d be served wines paired with beautiful foods. It was something Marika would have loved, and it would be magnificent, so I went. And I pretty much forgot about my grief. (I think maybe I even had fun).

I only “cheated” once. Looking over Cayuga Lake, holding a glass of Thirsty Owl dry Riesling, I was missing my daughter, so I made a silent toast to her. And blew a kiss to the clouds.

After the tour I was cranky. Taking a daylong break from grief turned out to be more exhausting than staying home grieving. Could barely eat dinner. Too tired to talk. Drove home, desperate to get to bed. Walked the dog without even reflecting on the day’s magnificent things.

And I felt guilty for spending so much time not thinking about Marika. But I know that she knows, and you know, it doesn’t mean I love her any less.

 

What can you do to take a break from your troubles?

 

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An Empty Nest on Mothers Day

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photographs a perfectly ripe pear on a mattress when her grown son moves out of the house.It’s when they buy a mattress, “Sealy Posturepedic, Mom. And a frame, and I got sheets….” That’s when you know: they’re really leaving home this time.

The sob-fest starts. It almost feels like grieving again although this is good news. For him. He’s so excited, “Mom, I leave Tuesday.” I’m happy for him, and very proud, but my heart is a cracked egg.

When he next lands in town, he’ll only be visiting and it’ll be on a round-trip ticket with a predetermined disappearing-date. It won’t be some temporary flight of adventure where, with maybe an hour’s notice he’s gone who-knows-where, and suddenly sometime later – surprise phone call in the middle of the night, “Mom, you locked the door. I’m here, can you let me in,” he’s found his way home, his mission ended or the money ran out. No, from now on when it’s time to go home he’ll scurry towards his own place, far away, where he’s parked his own mattress that he bought himself with 12-month zero-percent in-store financing and free delivery. Where beer cans and pizza boxes grow in the kitchen corner because he hasn’t figured out yet that someone has to remove and recycle them periodically. Where he thinks, at last he’s gonna get a pet pit bull.

No more of those soaring times when I cancel out on girls’ movie night, “sorry, my son’s grilling steaks tonight.” No more finally falling fast asleep after I hear him slip into the house safely at 2AM. And the exquisite elation of being needed, “Mom, I locked my key in the car,” or “Mom, is there anything in the house to eat?” No more. It didn’t matter how early or late or inconvenient, I will miss those times.

Okay. Big breath. Get centered. It’s not like he’s going to Syria. He got a job. Everyone with kids eventually goes through this. Empty-nest syndrome. It’s just a little harder for me, maybe, having “lost” one.

If I’m lucky, I’ll get an occasional phone call. But I don’t remember calling my own mother when I left home. Not until I became a mother myself did I even consider she might be anything other than thrilled when the house emptied out. And Mom always said, “You should have one just like you.” Sigh.

He left for his new home before he could eat the pear I’d saved for him, nursed for days to perfect ripeness. Seeing that prized pear sitting alone, uneaten, triggered a major meltdown. And when I finally stopped sobbing, there was nothing to be done but devour the pear myself. And phone my mother.

 

Please remind me, what’s so wonderful about Mothers Day?

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Learning Computer Graphics – For Healing

Robin botie of Ithaca, New York, uses Adobe Acrobat Illustrator and Photoshop to create a vector portrait of her daughter Marika Warden who died of leukemia.This is a vector portrait of my daughter Marika Joy Warden who was an aspiring young writer before she died of complications from cancer. It looks simple. But it took me forever to draw. Every shadow and highlight was painstakingly plotted out with a computer mouse-operated “pen tool” in the Adobe Acrobat Illustrator program.

Vector art is based on complex computer-generated mathematical equations that keep track of the relationships between every point, line, and shape in a composition. Every detail has to be traced out individually into a new shape. So highly detailed work is too time-consuming or impossible to create. Hence, vector portraits look like cartoon caricatures.

Six years ago, other than emailing, I had little use for computers. Technologically challenged, I would never have attempted anything like this. But when Marika died, one of the ways I found to cope with my grief was to “invite her into my life.” So I explored some of the things she loved that were foreign to me, and tried to adopt them in order to become more like her. She wrote, so I wrote. Writing led to blogging, which led to Facebook and wanting to illustrate what I wrote using photography, which led me to Photoshop. It should have stopped there; I was living the life Marika would have loved, spending hours on social media sites, writing and photographing. But the Marika-In-Me somehow got me to enroll in a Computer Graphics course at Tompkins-Cortland Community College. Since January I’ve been subjecting myself to weekly cranial electroshocking in a small class of talented techie guys and our very patient instructor, Christine Shanks. And the Illustrator program which makes learning Japanese look easy.

It was so difficult, my head hurt. Close to tears and tearing my hair out, I begged for help at every step of the way on this vector portrait project. But I kept going because it was to be for Marika’s birthday. Also, I believe challenging oneself can be healing. And as I worked I saw her eyes. The hazel eyes I love and miss. Even converted into strange shapes, points and vectors, they were still her eyes. They stared back at me, smiling, all the while. Like they were touching me from heaven.

Happy birthday Marika. Wherever you are. Thanks for making me a bigger person.

 

Does anyone else do something they’re proud of or maybe terrified of, to honor a dead loved one? What were you doing when you last wondered, what am I doing here?

 

 

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Grateful to Nurses

Robin Botie of ithaca, New York, restores a photograph of her daugher with two oncology nurses at Strong Memorial Hospital.“You can have all the ice cream cups you want,” the nurses at the oncology unit told me, back at the beginning of the journey through the wilds of cancer with my daughter. They knew I wasn’t hungry so much as in need of kindness. But even more than kindness, I desperately needed to know Marika was in good hands, that the people around her cared. Over the course of her cancer, hundreds of nurses would come to look into Marika’s eyes, check her vitals, listen as she scored her pain on scales of 1 to 10, and treat her like a princess. And even when I hollered at the nurses, the time they barred me from her room (as per the princess’s request), I was thoroughly grateful for all their caring.

National Nurses Week, an opportunity to honor the hard work and dedication of nurses, is May 6th through 12th. From the bottom of my broken heart I’m sending out my warmest wishes to nurses everywhere. And many thanks, especially, to the ones who carried sweet light into our nightmare.

Cheers to the nurses who showed me the secret shower in the hospital mop closet. To the nurses who let Marika sneak her puppy into the hospital room and brought doggie treats. Thanks to the nurse who gently washed my daughter’s hair as she lay unconscious in the ICU. And to the one who sang to her. Hugs to the two nurses who, when Marika ran out of underpants and I bought her Jockey briefs, used their lunch break to go buy her bikinis and thongs. When Marika had to miss her senior prom, those same nurses decorated an empty room with balloons and crepe paper, added a boom-box with favorite tunes, propped Marika up in bed with prom dress hiding catheters and IV tubes, and invited her boyfriend over for a private prom-night. Nurses brought Marika books and CDs, stuffed animals, an electric keyboard, and restaurant-takeout recommendations. They made her chocolate ice cream milkshakes.

One day I found Marika flushing out her own vein-access port under the careful guidance of an oncology nurse. Beaming with pride, Marika announced, “Mom, I got accepted into the nursing program at University of Technology Sydney.” Inspired by the people who had kept her going with their kindness and skills, Marika had decided to become a nurse herself.

Two weeks after that though, the princess’s situation had changed. Her journey was ending. Nurses from the three units Marika had frequented over the almost-three years of cancer came by in pairs to see her. They silently stood over their princess one last time. There were no words. They left me with hugs. And a feeling of having been taken care of and held in warmest kindness.

 

What is your nurse story?

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From a Bag Lady on Earth Day

In Photoshop, Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, restores a picture of three-year-old Marika Warden as a garbage monster, wearing a dress made of plastic bags.“I don’t think I can do this.” I stood over my bin of plastic bags. “Earth Day’s coming, and I should be able to do this one simple thing for our planet,” I told myself. After decades of hoarding plastic shopping bags, I was considering eradicating them from my routine. But I kept coming back to all the things I do with these bags. Like carry gym-clothes and potluck dishes. Like use them for trashcan liners and dog-poo bags. They make great stuffing for stuffed-animal art projects. And long ago, inspired by Tom Knight’s song, The Garbage Monster, I even taped a bunch of plastic bags together into a dress for my then three-year-old daughter to wear in a costume contest where she won 3rd place.

Call me a Closet Bag Lady. I’m very attached to plastic bags. Even though they release toxic chemicals into the soil and oceans when discarded. Even though they’re produced from crude oil (a non-renewable resource), and their manufacturing process results in chemical pollution. And, while they are now made with a percentage of recycled material, they are not biodegradable so it’s nearly impossible to get rid of them. So animals find them and mistake the bags for food, and die choking and strangling on them. Nasty bags. For a long time I wondered if all the old plastic bags and bottles I found in my daughter’s room had something to do with her getting cancer. I kept saving bags anyway.

We’re destroying the planet,” friends wail. “Pollution, ozone depletion, carbon emissions, strip mining, fracking, … ocean acidification.” They write letters to congressmen and go to marches, keening like they’re grieving, “Habitat loss, deforestation, climate change…” laments that sound eerily similar to my bemoaning all the complications of my daughter’s disease. Seeing my planet in trouble reminds me of the helplessness I felt trying to hang onto Marika through the wilds of cancer. In the end, nothing could save her. But there ARE things we can do for Earth.

On Earth Day, all over the world people will be planting trees and picking up trash. Earthlings will take to the hills, to their gardens, to community Earth Day events. On any day, not just this holiday, we can recycle plastic bags and other recyclables, set up bird feeders, learn about the environment, investigate community composting, … to help make the planet a better place to live.

I don’t know for sure if I can really give up these darn bags. But the Earth is my home. Our home. So I hereby pledge: for the love of our beautiful planet, starting now, I will shop with reusable cloth bags. What one simple thing will you do?

 

 

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