We Need to Take Care of Each Other

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a dead butterfly into a perfect setting, in considering the life of beloved chef and author Anthony Bourdain of CNN's show Parts Unknown.Leaving the house one morning last week, I noticed a bright Monarch butterfly flying around the spirea bush outside my front door. I stood a moment watching it flutter over the tiny nectar-rich blooms, the most perfect setting a butterfly could want. Then I left in a hurry. Later that day, I noticed the butterfly was still there. It was flapping its wings only occasionally and seemed to be settling in for the night. Strange how it was still there, I thought. Maybe it was laying eggs, or maybe it was a sign from my daughter who died. I went about my long list of things to do before bed and forgot about it. The next day I found the butterfly. Still there. Only now it was lifeless.

When I tried to gently remove the poor thing from its perch, I found one of its antennae was wound around a small branch. The butterfly had gotten itself stuck. And now it was dead. All that time, I never noticed it had been struggling. If only I had reached out my hand when I first saw the butterfly, I could have shooed it away and maybe it would still be alive. If I had spent more time, I might have seen it was in trouble. I could have helped.

That was the same week Anthony Bourdain took his life. CNN, the TV station that keeps me company as I photoshop, was broadcasting information for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. In between they were playing clips from the celebrity chef/author’s popular world-travel documentary, Parts Unknown. It was hard to believe. The man who had everything. A perfect life. Now over. Where did he get stuck?

It made me realize we need to take care of each other better. We need to slow down and pay attention. Love, listen, and reach out more. Sometimes I can be oblivious to the inner workings of my fellow humans and other creatures around me. But these are the ones I share this time on earth with. We are all related. And each one’s well-being matters.

 

How do you help a friend who’s stuck in a bad place? And what can I do with this dead butterfly, too beautiful to throw away?

 

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Fathering Continued Beyond the Grave

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops an old photo of her father who is still fathering from beyond the grave

Father’s Day when your father is no longer around can be a time of bewilderment. Especially when it seems your father continues fathering from beyond the grave. Although my dad has been dead for eight years, I can still hear his words. Sometimes he is encouraging. Proud of me. Other times his words are filled with doubt and directives.

My father’s ghost shows up every time I spend more than the cost of a meal in a good restaurant. He says, You don’t need this; spend your money on something worthwhile. Dad makes me feel like mopping the floor with my tongue when I’ve spent money on something that doesn’t work out, like the Roto Rooter guy who charged me the $175 minimum service fee and then left without fixing the garage drain problem.

Dad sneers, This is the way you balance your checking account? and I shrink. He tells me, Never lend money to family. Be good to your sisters. Be generous to your friends. Spoil your dog; that’s your best friend. You don’t need a husband.

When I race home from Wegmans, throw bags of groceries in the fridge, wolf down dinner, and drag the dog for a quick potty before dashing off to some event across town and, in the scurry, misplace the car keys… Dad says, This is a hell of a way to live.

When I burn dinner, he suggests, Okay, now we go out to a nice restaurant. He chuckles at me dancing with the dog to John Philip Sousa’s marching band music, and persuades me to play every army bugle call I can find online.

Dad points out the honeysuckle that needs trimming, and the tiny dings in the car’s fender that should be painted before rust sets in. And the raccoon that lives under my deck, named Oscar after the squirrel Dad used to feed on his porch – sometimes I think the ‘coon is my father reincarnated, now overseeing my weed-whacking.

From the other side, from beyond the great divide, from wherever he is or is not on Father’s Day, I can hear my father louder than usual. His words comfort me like old familiar songs even though they mostly remind me I’ve been careless or done something stupid. Most of the time he has a valid point.

What voices do you hear from your father? What does Fathers Day mean to you?

 

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Saying Goodnight

Saying GoodnightLiving alone, I don’t get to say “goodnight” very often, except to ghosts. But for one night every year, just before summer begins, I get to say it over and over again at Ithaca’s Hospicare and Palliative Care Services’ annual Illuminations, an evening of remembrance and community.

Five years ago I asked about volunteering for this event. Having a job to perform makes it easier to attend parties and gatherings, especially as a bereaved mother prone to bursting into tears. No one had filled the spot on the volunteer sign-up list requesting a Goodnighter. “Say goodnight to guests and thank them for coming,” the job description read. I could do that, I thought.

The first year, I was so nervous about approaching people that I forgot how easily I could fall apart upon hearing Christmas carols or smelling cucumber-melon body-spray. But I strolled through the gardens where hundreds of lit candles inside white paper bags lined the walkways, and found the ones labeled with my father’s and daughter’s names. Balancing a glass of wine and a plate of fresh fruit and cheese on my lap, I sat through the program of live music and poetry. Then it was almost dusk, time for floating candles on the pond. And Taps. Taps was my cue to start getting into place between the guests and the parked cars. There, I would chirp out my greetings to all the people as they left for home.

No one had mentioned that a real live, very talented trumpeter would be playing Taps. Suddenly, I was stuck stock-still, standing in a hailstorm with my skin turned inside out. The sun was setting bright red and I felt like a duck shot down out of the sky. Somehow I recovered, remembering, I was the Goodnighter. I quickly took my station. And remembered my lines. “Goodnight.” And “Thank you for coming,” I croaked, in between gasping recovery breaths. My shaking stopped when people started saying goodnight and thank you, back to me. And when it was all over, and the last guests had gone, I fetched the luminarias with my father’s and daughter’s names, and knew I’d found my calling.

So come say hello. Say goodnight to the Goodnighter. Goodnight is not goodbye. It is a sincere wish for your wellbeing. And it is my song of gratefulness. For a beautiful evening with people who understand love and loss. For feeling connected. For having the opportunity to say aloud, from my heart, goodnight and thank you. And to sometimes hear those words echoed back.

Illuminations at Hospicare on June 7, 2018 at 7:30
At 172 East King Road, Ithaca
A free event (but they’ll take donations for a personalized luminaria)

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When It’s Time to Die

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops how she wants to die peacefully, in a garden

Not too long ago, at some unnoticed and now unidentifiable moment, I reached the point beyond which it could be remarked that, “She died before her time.” It got me thinking.

When it’s “my time” I want to be carried outside and laid in the sun, in a bed of day lilies and soft grasses. Wrap me in a blanket of hasta leaves. Amid birdsong and the sweet scents of lilac and honeysuckle, I want to be surrounded by friends sipping wine. We will all say our goodbyes, but I will stubbornly cling to life; there will be no dying peacefully in the garden for me.

The first time I met my friend’s father he proudly showed me his garden. He was already old then, and the vegetables and vines were growing greater than he could handle. He gardened and lived ambitiously. And eight years later, when it was his time to die, this old man kept going on and on, six days without food or water, relatives pouring in from all over the country, multiple moves from hospital to hospice-at-home. During the waiting, from 400 miles west, I sat picking spent buds off the plant my friend had left me. Deadheading, she’d called it. Trying to imagine the flowers and grasses endlessly going on, growing without me, I considered this dying, this idea that someday, now sooner rather than later, I will be dead.

I, like the old man, will take my time leaving. I’ll make pretty plans for my death, create a perfect day to die, and then grab every last moment I can to continue living. Even if I’m stuck in a dreary hospital bed tucked away from the beautiful bustling world.

My friend, sitting vigil, took photos of her father, half in this world and half out, photos of his hands holding her hand. When she finally crept back into town, exhausted, we sat over whiskeys, hardly whispering just a few words. She handed me her iPhone to see the multiple pictures of their entwined hands. They both had gardeners’ hands. Sturdy calloused hands that displayed lifetimes of pulling at thorny weeds and tamping down moist soil around fragile seedlings.

Daily now, I remind myself: We are born. We live. We die. And in that middle part, as I go about the living, all the brutal and beautiful living, I want to consciously consume every second.

How do you want to die? What is dearest to you in your life?

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That Word: Dead

Not DeadNow. When the landscape is greening up and wildflowers are in bloom, and forsythia and redbud trees spray the streets with vibrant color. When everything is bursting alive, blooming, and blossoming. This is the time to discuss the problem many of us face concerning the use of that four-letter word we all avoid: DEAD.

Dead, as in, my daughter is dead. My father is dead. Dead Children.
As opposed to saying, She is no longer with us, or, He is on the other side. Or, They earned their angel wings. She’s transitioned. Deceased. Extinct. Expired. He kicked the bucket, went to his eternal home. She passed away. He is departed. They are gone.

In his poem Away, James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916) wrote,
     I cannot say and I will not say
     That he is dead. He is just away!

It seems it’s just too painful to use the word ‘dead’ when speaking about a deceased loved one. People cringe. They say it feels too final, too harsh. Cold. It’s upsetting and uncomfortable. All this distress over the little word ‘dead.’ I didn’t even say ‘corpse’ or ‘cadaver.’

My daughter is not “just away!” Don’t try to tell me she is gone; she regularly pops up in my dreams and I talk to her every day. And my father, dead eight years now, still makes me quiver whenever I spend more than fifty dollars.

It is no crime to be dead. It is no affront to polite conversation to mention that word. If I say ‘dead daughter’ or ‘dead father’ I don’t mean to torture anyone. But because of people’s unease, I recently changed the title of my manuscript (still not ready for querying) from Duets With My Dead Daughter to Duetting. With my Daughter. Who Died.

It’s easier on our delicate psyches to say, or hear, my daughter died. That doesn’t feel like I’m defining her. It simply states something she did. She did a lot of things. She drove me crazy, she lived like she had only an hour left, she changed my life. She died. No one in the world loves my daughter more than I do, but the reality is: Marika is dead. So I’m gonna learn to love that word even if it kills me.

What words do you use to say your loved one is dead? What do you think of my new title?

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Things That Carry Love

Things That Carry LoveThere are many different ways to hug and hold the ones you love.
I had a daughter who loved to make books.
I have a mother who shows her love by knitting sweaters and crocheting blankets.
And then there’s my own thing: swaddling images of my beloved ones in ribbons of fluff and flowers, in Photoshop.
These three things all came together on Saturday before Mothers Day, when I was looking for the old baby sweaters my mother knit, to photograph and photo-shop them into softly wrapped layers around an old baby picture.

On Saturday, from way back on the top shelf of a closet, I pulled down a box labeled KIDS. There were no baby clothes inside but the box was filled with my kids’ artwork and school projects. Ones I don’t remember ever seeing. Back in the days when tiny crayoned booklets, Play-Dough creatures, and kids’ paintings turned up daily, I must have stashed away a bundle of kid-stuff without even looking at it. In the middle of the box I found a spring-bound book. On the first page was a colored-pencil picture that said, “to MOM.” Pages later, through tears, I came across this drawing that read, “dear mom I mist you I lof you.”

Marika’s books from her early years, full of bright renderings of cats, rabbits, angels and goddesses, were mostly made for me. For years, after she died, they kept popping up. In her attic loft. In my drawers. In corners of her room. Hidden away all over the house. I thought I’d already found them all. But Marika and I were both great at squirreling things away. Maybe next time I’m searching for some random thing, I’ll find another gift from her.

I still haven’t found the tiny beautiful sweaters my mother knit for my babies. They’re somewhere, carefully stowed away in a safe place. But something tells me this is all related to my need to envelope everyone and everything I love, and tuck them all snugly into cozy secure nests, in Photoshop.

How do you show your love? What do you keep that reminds you, you were loved?

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