Healing from Loss: Off Comfort Road

Rusty, a Pomeranian dog, peeks out between pink-spotted leaves in the forest off Comfort Road in Ithaca, New York.Notice anything new? What do you think of this updated version of my website? What needs to change? Somehow this hatched over the past two weeks amid many tears and tantrums.

“I want to indent. The photos should be bigger. This isn’t right. Why can’t it be like it was before?” I torment Bob at Ameriweb, my website’s new host. Bob works late nights to make the transition to my new online home go smoothly. But it is so different from what I knew and loved about my old site that I am having a hard time accepting it. “It’s too many changes,” I protest. This is just the beginning. This week I will register for a new health care carrier. I will start writing for a small online newspaper. I may even start to discover how the government shutdown will affect things.

“How much longer are you going to be working on your book? Don’t you think it’s time to move on?” my friend Liz prods. But I am still doggedly making changes to my memoir. And maybe I’m a little afraid to take the next steps.
I wasn’t always this wimpy about moving forward. I wonder what happened to the adventurous spirit that buoyed me as I got my pilot license, became a lifeguard at the age of fifty, and went alone last year to Australia to scatter my daughter’s ashes. Why am I so averse to change now?

At six in the morning on Sunday I burrow deep under the blankets not yet ready to face the new day. There is too much I can’t control. Nothing is the same anymore. My website, my book, … my life. Suddenly I need to just blow everything off.
So I go with my friends and our dogs for a walk in the woods off Comfort Road. We take a new trail in a familiar area. It is cool and damp in the forest. Then it becomes hot and muggy. The dark cloudy sky turns light as the sun comes out and I tie up my hair and tear off my jacket. If I close my eyes it feels like it’s still August. But when I open them I notice the green of summer is almost gone. The stream beds that were dry in July are muddy and wet now. And the trail is covered in red and yellow leaves.

“Look. Suki’s wearing earrings,” I say. The fallen leaves stick to her. She is like a trotting mop on the forest floor. We laugh when she shakes.

There is really no escaping change. I just have to find the joy in it.Suki, Robin Botie's Havanese dog, looks up as Robin photographs the fallen leaves at their feet


Coming Home, Going Home

Robin Botie sits by the water with her late grandfather

Robin Botie sits by the water with her late grandfather


This weekend I went to Massachusetts for my mother’s birthday. For her gift this year I restored a photo of her father and then photo-shopped myself into it. I’d worked long hours on the picture knowing she would enjoy this otherworldly reunion of two of her favorite people.

A strong current pulls me to my family in good times and in bad. And when my daughter died, it was comforting to think about her wrapped in the embraces of my long gone grandparents. Maybe that’s related to whatever compels me to add my own image to photographs of my lost loved ones.

I know little about my grandfather. He was a cabinet-maker in Brooklyn during the depression. I wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t left Poland as a young man looking to find a better life.
I have his nose.
If I could sit with him today in a quiet place by the water, I would ask him to tell me the story of his only son, the son he lost.
My mother and sister and I stayed up late last night, huddled over the computer, searching for some record of my grandfather’s life or death. As we discovered hints of him online, we grew more and more excited. It was like reaching out into time and space to touch him.

This morning I am traveling back to the sweet house in Ithaca where I talk to my dog and hear mostly myself. I am Going Home. But Coming Home means coming back to my family. The ones I love. Wherever they are.

Healing From Loss: Finding Laughter

Robin Botie's Havanese dog stands over the cell phone that emits strange ringtonesThe first thing I learned on the iPhone my son bought me was how to set ringtones.

Long before my daughter got leukemia and died, I had set ringtones on my first cell phone. Marika’s tone was like the sound of fairies dancing in a waterfall. My son’s was a tango. Their father’s was the first four apocalyptic notes of Beethoven’s Fifth. Through the years in and out of hospitals, and after a series of cell phone replacements, I lost the programmed sounds and never bothered to go beyond the default settings. But two weeks ago, with a fresh attitude towards technology and life in general, I went about assigning various tunes to my friends who supported me through tough times. Then, finally getting around to my family members, I discovered the bottom of the list of free options. My son got the barking dog. My sister’s ringtone became the duck.

During the next days, as friends called, I slowly started to identify their sounds and learn who to expect. If I heard a minuet it was Celia. Frenetic ascending notes meant calls from Barb or Liz.

Then one day last week, as I was writing at the table overlooking the pond, I heard a duck. It seemed to get louder and closer. When it sounded like it was going to fly inside and land on the table, my dog and I rushed to the window to watch it descend. By the time I realized it was my sister phoning me I missed the call completely. But I got a good laugh.

Later that evening I heard a strange dog barking in my bedroom. It took only a few seconds to figure out that my son must be calling. I dashed to find the phone and collided with my dog who was in hot pursuit of the canine intruder. As I got close to the phone I saw the cat crash into the bedroom door in his mad scramble to escape. He then flew between my legs, followed by my dog. I caught the phone before it stopped barking but was laughing so much I could hardly talk.

For a short while I considered changing the ringtones. What chaos would ensue if my son called while I was in the library or at the doctor’s? What if my sister, the duck, should phone when I’m at Taughannock Farms Inn dining on roast duck breast? But instead I combed the list of sounds and wondered who I could give “crickets” or the “tweet” to.

These days I need to find laughter wherever I can.

Healing from Loss: For Now

JOANinNYCThe now I know will be different on the other side of a blink.

That’s why I went on the Tompkins Cortland Community College Art Club excursion today, an 18-hour whirlwind trip to New York City and back.

Things change. I may never get another opportunity like this (it was free). Who knows if or when I’ll have the time or energy to pull this off again. But today I’m cruising.

That’s why I went on the Tompkins Cortland Community College Art Club excursion today, an 18-hour whirlwind trip to New York City and back.

Things change. I may never get another opportunity like this (it was free). Who knows if or when I’ll have the time or energy to pull this off again. But today I’m cruising.


TimesSquare    In that spirit, I joined 35 other students and faculty on a Swarthout bus at 6AM this morning. After 4 hours on the road we burst off the bus and darted through the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan, and the Museum of Modern Art. I glimpsed many works of art, like the Jules Bastien-Lepage painting of Joan of Arc, that had inspired me as a young girl. It was like running into old friends. We dashed through Central Park. Finally we had a fast dinner at the Pain Quotidien Bakery, hopped back on the bus, and drove through Times Square.

The almost-full moon is following us now as we speed along the highway to home.

Now I am at the end of my 6th rewrite of my memoir. It is time to start looking for an agent or publisher. I am about to start writing a bi-monthly column for a small online newspaper. The essay I’ve been working on for over a month is due in 2 days and in the morning I will submit it to a contest. My son is home and healthy.

The now I know is full of bright lights and promises. I can celebrate. For now.

Healing From Loss: Ungrounded

UNGROUNDEDSome people have bad hair days. I have bad technology days.

My son had just bought me a cell phone last week when mine quit. The next day the Internet connection at the house failed. Hating to deal with Verizon tech support, I put off the phone call for help. And after finally gathering the courage to face the inevitable hours of frustration working with someone on the other side of Earth to get back online, I discover that my landline is dead.

“Agent. A-gent,” I shout impatiently a short while into the labyrinth of Verizon’s automated answering system. I finally get a real live human who questions me, runs tests, and tells me a technician will come out in eight days.

“You mean I’m stranded without Internet or a landline for the whole week? No emails, no Facebook postings? No human contact?”

“That’s the soonest we can get someone out there,” she confirms.

I regard all the wires binding the phone/fax/message machine to the walls and to home. The lifelines that reach out in tangled masses to the web and the world sit useless. During the next days I periodically pick up the receiver in hopes of finding the familiar dial tone. There are only screeching sounds when I check the line. I’ve always had a landline and I’ve been with Verizon for as long as I can remember. And I miss the warm welcoming light that blinks on the bulky plastic phone when I get a message.

Feeling disconnected and powerless is not helpful in the process of healing from loss. For three days I drive to friends’ houses to keep up with emails and postings. I dig out the old paperback thesaurus and find weather updates on the TV. The new cell phone is still strange to me and I explore the different buttons and functions to connect with the world. Lots of people don’t even have landlines anymore, I tell myself. I can survive this.

But by the third day I feel totally cranky and ungrounded. So I leave the house to investigate my other options.

That’s when I find the bird. Lying on its back in the driveway is a young robin that must have flown into a window. Someone’s day was worse than mine, I think. The robin is still warm when I pick it up to remove it from the path of my car.

Entering the office of Clarity Connect, I notice the shelves that line each wall and drip over with equipment and papers. In the middle of the room, busy at their computers, are a bunch of young geeks in tee shirts and sneakers. They introduce themselves with names like Ryan, Corbin, Jesse and Mike. I shake hands feeling like I’ve landed in the middle of the lost boys in Never-Never Land.

“We’ve just put up a new tower across the street from you,” says Ryan. He seems genuinely pleased to meet me. I begin to picture the big red Verizon V on equipment all over my house flying off in the distance with the geese heading south.

“We can install service for you on Monday,” says Mike. I’m sold.

Driving back from Clarity I find myself singing “I’m Flying” from Peter Pan. And shortly after I arrive home I pour a glass of sherry and tear out the dead phone/fax/answering machine.

Healing from Loss: I Have My Son

“There was no one left to
be brave for,” I’d written in my essay.

“That’s not true,” says my mother as she goes over my work. “You still have a son!” she scolds, pointing her finger like she’s shooting me.

“It’s not the same. I never had to be brave for him,” I say, thinking of my son who eats bullets for breakfast, works nights in the most dangerous places on Earth, and sleeps days amid chaos. I consider this as I remember his first deployment to Iraq when he was nineteen. We’d shared a beer on his last night in town before leaving. By the time he returned he was a seasoned soldier. It became our tradition to have a drink together on homecomings and send-offs. Only now he pours two glasses of his finest whisky over ice.

Had I neglected him? Only a few weeks ago, for his twenty-fifth birthday, I finally replaced the single bed he’d slept in since he outgrew his crib. Last week I could hardly wait to see his reaction when he came home from Afghanistan to a new double bed topped with fresh pillows and bedding in manly tans and browns.

Maybe I had neglected him. I’d stopped sending the care packs and letters that went out every month the first year he was gone. After that first year, his sister, constantly in and out of hospitals, took up all my attention. He’d given me his address and called me regularly. I emailed him. But I can’t remember when I last sent him a package or letter.

Suddenly, towards the end of my four-hour drive back from my mother’s house, I find myself desperately hoping to find him at home. Then, something in me soars as I spot his red Hummer in the driveway. I have my son.

“I’m going back in mid-October,” he says later, over his glass of aged Dalmore Whisky.

“Great,” I lie when I hear where he’ll be stationed. I smile at him.

I guess I am still being brave for one of my children.