Author Archives: Robin Botie

Lighting the Night with my Dead Daughter

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a picture of her daughter Marika Warden who loved Chanukah candles and roasting marshmallows.

Stuck in the house. Alone, on a cold night. Just me and the life-size photo of my daughter on the wall. And I’m imagining, if she were here she’d trot downstairs in her tank-top and flannel pajama pants, saying, “Mom, what’s here to eat?” She would stand in front of the wide-open fridge, surveying its bare depths in doleful disbelief. Then she’d search the pantry and every cabinet, eventually getting to the breadbox where she’d find an almost full bag of marshmallows. The giant-sized ones. I’d carried them all last summer, from one friend’s house to another’s, in hopes of convincing someone to build a campfire and make s’mores.

“Mom, remember when it rained and we roasted marshmallows over the stove?” I hear Marika say now, beaming mischievously like she’s inviting me to play. “Where are those stick-things we used to stick in the ‘mallows?” She gets me tearing through the kitchen drawers until I find the shish-kabob skewers.

“OMG, Mom! You still have Hershey’s chocolate bars here.” She’s giving me her irresistible pout-face that begs, “Can we make s’mores, Mom?”
I don’t have any graham crackers, I tell her photo. But the next thing I know, I’m holding a skewered marshmallow over the blue flame of the stove-burner anyway. It suddenly catches on fire and I frantically blow at the small blaze. When my heart stops pounding, I devour the gooey mass, black ash and all.
“Mom, you’re such a wimp,” I hear her say. It’s like hearing an old sweet familiar tune.

I toast and eat enough marshmallows for us both.

“So Mom, if we can do this, why can’t we light Chanukah candles?”
It isn’t Chanukah, I tell her.
“That’s the best time to light Chanukah candles,” she assures me, “We can light them all then.”
Yikes, I’m thinking. More fire. Hot. Hurts. All those memories. I don’t want to remember that song you sang as you lit the candles. More pain. I don’t think I can do this, Marika.

Now she’s smiling at me. In the past she would have grunted, and rolled her eyes. But she smiles, and sighs,
“Let’s just light the effin’ candles, Mom.”

Who do you talk to when there’s no one to talk to? How do you keep alive the best parts of yourself and the one you are missing?

 

 

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In the Face of Death a Friend Wants to Re-home a Beloved Cat

Robin Botie of ithaca, New York, photoshops a picture of cat that needs a new home because owner has end-stage cancer.A friend of mine has end-stage cancer. And she has a cat. An adored, lovable, beautiful cat that cuddles under her arm, comforting her through afternoon naps and long nights. My friend worries about what will happen to her beloved Cat-Man when she is no longer here. She wants to secure a good home for him. Before she dies.

“I have to find the right person. Someone who will love him to pieces,” she tells me. We both know it will not be me. Totally taken with my dog, I no longer have room left in my heart to love a cat. But I know how she feels. Even without cancer or other known threats to my life, I keep a certain other friend (who loves my dog) informed of where I stash the special sweet-potato-and-fish-formula dog-food, the rabbit-flavored dog candies, and handmade doggie blankets. “Just in case,” I say, with a lump in my throat, whenever I have to leave town.

Years ago my daughter, who also had cancer, willed me her dog. The dog was supposed to be Marika’s lifesaver. “Her life depends on getting this puppy,” family members had said, in the same tones as the doctors who insisted her life depended on getting a bone marrow transplant. The dog couldn’t save Marika in the end. But maybe this inherited dog is my lifesaver. When my world plummeted into darkness, she still had to be fed and walked. She slept with me at night and followed me as I paced the house for days, searching for whatever was left of our girl. She kept me going. And for a while, because of her feistiness, I thought the dog’s soul had been taken over by Marika’s. It was kinda like having my daughter back. Some innate need to love and nurture was fulfilled in taking care of this dog. She soon became a veritable connection to life. And to my daughter. And even though the relationship with my daughter was rocky, I am ever grateful that Marika knew I would love and spoil her dog like I loved and spoiled her.

So I understand my friend’s fierce wish to rehome her cat. Neither of us can bear to think of any creature suffering, especially the ones that fill the part of us our human babies used to fill. Cat-Man is her baby. He will need care and compassion when my friend is no longer here. And in return, he will offer some great comfort and cuddling.

 

Was there an animal in your life that helped you get through a tough time? Have you ever helped an animal in need?

 

 

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Hearing Silent Night Makes Me Cry

Robin Botie of ithaca, New York, photoshops a picture of her daughter Marika Warden playing christmas carols.Thanksgiving wasn’t even over yet last week when the stores started playing Christmas songs. This music was foreign to me until many years ago when my young daughter became a girl scout and we went caroling. We’d go home and I’d marvel at how she reproduced the tunes on her flute or pennywhistle. Now, hearing Silent Night and other carols makes me cry uncontrollably.

I remember the first time holiday music pummeled me. It was in early December, eight years ago, when I was stuck alone at the Ronald MacDonald House near the hospital where my daughter was waiting for a stem cell transplant. It was before everything went downhill for Marika, before I had any inkling it would be her last Christmas. There were only a couple of people staying at the RMD House that night, and the staff begged us to gather for the visiting musicians. Seated up close in a rocking chair, I listened, sniffling, confused about how the music was affecting me. By the time they began Silent Night, I was trembling and hugging myself, trying to hold in my howls.

This September, I began learning to play a red plastic cornet. It has nothing to do with my daughter, I told people, even though everything I’ve done since Marika died has been about her. This was just for me, I insisted—I wanted to play bugle calls. Taps in particular. Whenever I hear Taps, my heart stops. Same thing with Amazing Grace and Hallelujah. I want to play music that tugs at people’s heartstrings. So far I’m just a beginner still fumbling my way through scales and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Yet, I find playing comforts me. And last week, in a meltdown as Silent Night emanated from every corner of the mall, I raced home to my cornet. Then, instead of practicing Twinkle Twinkle, I googled ‘silent night sheet music.’

When I first tried to play Silent Night I sobbed between each note. Huffing and puffing my way up to the second-to-last line, “Sleep in heavenly pea-eeece,” I found the notes were suddenly too high for me to reach. I was fighting to conquer each measure—but then something changed. I started over, and played the piece—minus the five impossibly high notes—like it was one of those jaw-dropping awesomely beautiful tunes I’d been yearning to play. Only five high notes away from making beautiful music, I blew that horn like my song could reach to heaven and back.

I don’t know yet if my practicing the heck out of Silent Night will help desensitize the powerful emotional trigger Christmas music has become. But I’m beginning to understand the healing power of music. And now, in playing my cornet, I’m feeling an even stronger connection than ever to my daughter.

  

What are the songs that make you cry? What are the triggers you’re experiencing this holiday season? What connects you to your loved ones who died? Got any recommendations for other simple but powerful tunes I could learn?

 

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Expressing Thanks

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops color and texture onto an old photo of herself and her mother for a post about expressing thanks and appreciation.In the last seconds of my father’s life I told him, “Thank you.” Throughout our time together, I’d always thanked him for gifts and meals in fancy restaurants. And as the plug was pulled on his life support, I wanted the last words he heard to be, “Thank you, Dad.” In a desperate final instant I added, “for making my life—richer,” not able to find the right words to thank him for who he’d been or what he meant to me. Ever since, I’ve been haunted, wondering what on earth he could make of those words, if he even heard them, lying there unconscious and on his way out of this world.

My mother taught her daughters well, to say those two words. Thank you. And in similar fashion, although maybe not with the same consistent results, I taught my own children to acknowledge peoples’ kindnesses. But expressing the deepest, most sincere thankfulness—beyond the simple etiquette of responding to someone’s generosity—is different. That does not come easily for many of us. It’s kind of like exposing yourself, your vulnerability. It often involves trying to tiptoe around some unresolved issues that stand in the way. It sometimes involves fear. Conveying your appreciation might lead to a long awkward silence. It might turn you inside out. Or turn the one you’re thanking inside out. To communicate a genuine acknowledgment of sheer gratitude is to face all the ups and downs in the history of that relationship. And if the relationship is a complicated one, any response you get might send you racing from the room to hide in the nearest closet.

Here it is days away from Thanksgiving, the time we typically express our thanks. And not only should I NOT need this holiday to come forth with my gratitude, I should NOT be waiting until the ends of people’s lives to let them know they are appreciated.

So how do I do this? How do I deliver my heartfelt thanks to those who have treated me to-the-sky-and-back caringly, to the ones who might not be around when I finally figure out what I want to say, and find the courage to share it?

This post was originally going to be a note of gratitude to my mother. But writing about gratefulness, I got distracted and flew off on a tangent. Because my mother lives far away, and cannot hear me over the phone, and is not responding to emails, I wanted to briefly thank her here, as she’s my greatest fan. She gave me life. She carried me around, seeing to my welfare until I could take care (more or less) of myself.  And my mother is the one who not only taught me to say ‘thank you,’ she taught me to write letters when words were hard to find, or impossible to utter.

 

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

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Continuing Bonds Continued

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops an old photo of herself with her daughter who died of leukemia, to illustrate continuing bonds grief theory.“I’m over that. Done. I’ve moved on,” said a friend, about her child who died years before. Great for her, I thought, not able to imagine ever even wanting to be “done” with my own daughter, gone over 7 ½ years now. Actually, I’ve been carrying my Marika—whatever I could find left of her to hang onto—since she died. Different things work for different people.

A griever’s mental status used to be questioned if one held on to the memory of a loved one too long. Mercifully, someone came up with a modern grief theory called Continuing Bonds. It is now considered acceptable to create an enduring relationship with a deceased loved one as a way of coping and finding comfort while continuing to live one’s life. Even as one’s life changes with the loss. It is okay to stay connected. And it’s normal for these relationships to grow and change over time.

Continuing Bonds came instinctively to me. A matter of my own survival, it began the day after Marika died, when I collapsed, devastated, onto her bed, desperate to breathe in her scent and see the world from where she saw it. At first, I needed to wear what she wore, and hold what she held. That led to doing what she did, and loving what she loved. All the things that were part of her life, that I hadn’t understood or cared for—like writing, photography, blogging and posting on Facebook, making up tunes to play on instruments—I ended up finding myself drawn to. Doing these things daily now, I am living a life my daughter would have loved. It makes me feel forever linked to her.

There are many ways to maintain ties after the loss of someone who was the light of your life. I wanted to know what Continuing Bonds looked like for others. Not much is written about this because each person approaches it differently. It looks like the widow who still talks to her husband of fifty years, or the bereaved parents who keep their child’s room as it was before death—in order to have a special place to feel close to him. Some people start foundations and community events to honor their loved ones. Some look to their deceased loved one for inspiration in trying new things. Some create meaningful personal rituals, or works of art. Others continue their loved one’s work. Many try to live in a way that would make their beloved proud.

“Moving on” can be good. Maybe that’s what living is all about. But we learn from the ones we love and think we lost. Whether or not we choose to ‘carry them with us’ into the next chapters of our lives, I’m pretty sure that simply having loved them turns us into better people.

 

What do you think about keeping connected to a deceased loved one?

 

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What Unites Us?

Robin Botie of ithaca, New York, photoshops an image in questioning what unites us.Many different things bring people together. Like love. Ice cream. Music. Dancing. A child dying. A rescue. Hurricanes that devastate communities. Shootings. Lost dogs. Laughing babies. Peace marches. Funerals. Horrible events when the world suddenly stops, like when the World Trade Towers collapsed. Like during the great New York City blackout of 1965.

The power went out 43 years ago, on Tuesday, November 9,  at 5:30pm as people were coming home from work and thinking about dinner. Just a kid at the time, I was living in the Long Island suburbs. What I remember most about the blackout was how all the neighbors gathered in the darkening street. Old and young, Catholics and Jews, the Irish and the Italians, the kids who went to parochial school and those in public schools, the people who lived in the big fancy houses and the ones from the dingy dilapidated ones, those who had voted Republican the week before and the ones who voted Democrat, the couple with the funny name who barely spoke English, the friendly guy with candy in his pockets who they called “Ree-tar-dead,” the girls who were popular and us girls who were not and the boys who teased us all, our fathers and mothers, and even the lady who had not left her home since her husband died—they all came out of their houses shocked, chatting up a storm, and watching the stars and full moon rising in the otherwise darkened sky. No one knew how far the dark stretched, or when—or if— the lights would ever come back on. But I felt safe, standing together with the whole neighborhood.

Two weeks ago I wrote a post about categorizing friends. Later, when I thought about it, I wanted to curl up in a dark corner and disappear. It sounded like I was splitting the people I care about into opposing teams. I don’t want to highlight things that separate us. We don’t need anything else to split us apart theses days. Globally, and as a nation, and even in our own communities and households, we are so divided.

It’s time to focus on what unites us. The things we have in common, our shared hopes and dreams. We should be recognizing the things that bring us all together. In peace. In kindness. And in good health and happiness. We all need to feel safe together.

What unites us?

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