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 tcf.ithaca@gmail.com 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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All my Friends Have Grandchildren

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a grandmother catching a grandchild falling from the sky.Dear Friend who is Suffering Aching Throbbing Pain;

“Knives cutting through your heart,” you wrote to me. I’m sorry it hurts so much to see your lost dreams being lived by others around you. And I understand your “trying to sound happy” for your friends boasting of children graduating and getting married, for friends who get to vacation with their dozen or more grandchildren and are great-grandparents five times over. Yes, my heart has been shredded too. Having only one immediate family member (who lives far away), I often feel like a lone lost orphan myself.

Oh, bleeding heart. Violins are playing for what we’ve lost and all those things we will never have or get to experience. My suffering friend, we need to change that sad song or all this aching throbbing pain will make us sick. It will poison our lives. We have enough to mourn over without grieving the crazy-happy households of our past, the perfect problem-free progeny we’d always imagined, precious grandbabies video-taped all over Facebook … all the things we can’t have.

I’m not going to tell you we have to be grateful for what we do have. I’m not going to remind us that we can’t have everything, or that you and I really lead exquisitely privileged lives and there are infinitely more terrible tragedies in the world than not having a grandchild.

Life doesn’t last. Nothing lasts. Children leave home, grandchildren grow up, people we love die. And they leave empty black holes in our hearts. We need to learn to fill these with whomever or whatever is left, and allow ourselves to still love, and be loved. Easier said than done. This can be a lifelong project.

We can improvise. We can create. Dedicate our energies elsewhere. Volunteer. Find a cause, fund a foundation, or organize a food drive. Plant a forest. Mentor someone or adopt, (there’s gotta be a young child out there somewhere who needs a grandmother). Fill your life with other things. It’s all distractions. But they are opportunities to lose yourself and find yourself. And you might just make a difference in someone else’s life.

And when all these distractions are done for the day, when your most-fortunate friends disappear into their happy homes and you’re left alone with your pain, the best thing you can do is learn to love that aching throbbing pain. Because, reduced down to its common denominator, that pain is simply the love you still have for your beloved and the dreams that died when they did. So grab up the box of tissues, and wrap yourself in a warm blanket, and love your pain. Like it’s your grandchild.

 

How many grandchildren do YOU have? I really like seeing pics of people and their grandchildren. They make me smile. Can dogs be good substitutes for grandchildren?

 

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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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