Celebrations of Life

Robin Botie of ithaca, New York, photographs peaches before going to various friends to help make a peach pie in a celebration of life.A good friend of mine decided to have a celebration of her life before her death. “So I can be there to hear all those great things people will say about me,” she told me, during the planning stages. Feeling ancient and ailing, she mentioned her hopes of still being alive for the big event. And when the evening of the party arrived my friend was indeed still ticking, scooting back and forth among the guests in her motorized wheelchair, sharing her poetry and photos, and sampling the double-chocolate chip cookies.

Being a bereaved mother, I thought I knew all about celebrations of life, funerals, and memorials. Four months after my daughter’s death, after family and friends had time to put together slideshows and videos, we gathered to honor the memory of Marika, to tell the story of her brief life, and acknowledge her death with the release of doves and blue balloons over Cayuga Lake. It was a comfort to see how much she was loved. I wish she could have experienced it.

Rejoicing in a person’s life while they are still around seems to be a growing trend. Beyond the time for big birthdays and other celebrations marking milestones, those whose lives are nearing the end are now often organizing living funerals. Swan songs. Their party of a lifetime. For the ones they shared their time on this planet with. It makes them think in terms of gratefulness. It may even help to calm anxieties about dying.

To me, still lively and hoping to be hiking at one hundred, a celebration of life means a daily reveling in who and what surrounds me.

“Please come over and get some peaches. We are inundated,” a couple of hiking friends texted me, the morning after my ailing friend’s life celebration. Riotous red and yellow fruit was all over the kitchen when I arrived to find the smiling couple sitting together, slicing piles of peaches. “Take as many as you like,” they said. I filled my bowl with enough fruit for two small pies, and then went jaunting all over the countryside visiting various friends to gather inspiration or ingredients, make the dough and do the baking. And then share. This was a veritable celebration of the life I love.

 

If you were to design your own celebration of life, to be held before your death, what would you include?

 

 

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Preoccupied with Death and Dying

Robin Botie of ithaca, New York, photoshops a scene depicting her vision of a good death.The biggest ant I ever saw was flat on its back on my kitchen counter. It was waving its little limbs frantically when I went to bed that night too tired to deal with it. In the morning the intrepid ant was still there. When I put on my glasses, I could see it was still pawing at the air, but with somewhat less vigor.

And while I stood over it, wielding my mini-vac—my preferred method of bug removal—I considered how I might instead move the ant to a grassy spot outside. This would not be easy. Small creatures with many more legs than I have always kinda creeped me out. Bug phobia. It goes back over half a century. I’d once made a 24-inch-long paper mache ant for a grade school science project, partly to face my terror.

More recently, partly to face another fear, my terror of death and dying, I attended a workshop where we wrote about how we wanted to die. For a good death, I wrote, I would be lying in lush grass, under the open sky, near a forest with ferns. With friends nearby, I would listen to the sweet sounds of my favorite bugle calls, Tattoo and Taps.
“You’re pretty preoccupied with death these days,” a friend accused. Yes, I agreed. Because, maybe if I made a project of it, I could lose my terror.

But back to that morning, with the ant. It was writhing in slow motion, making me queasy about facing breakfast—and suddenly it stopped moving.

I stared at the lifeless insect. All I wanted was to suck the critter up into the depths of the dust-buster, to get rid of it. But I couldn’t do that after spending months preparing to sit vigil and help the dying. Hoping there was still time for the bug’s last moments, I used a teaspoon to sweep it into an empty yogurt container. And holding it at arm’s length, I ran outside and gently shook the poor creature out onto the grass.

The ant slid out, landing on its feet. It took off creeping. For a moment I watched it climb shakily from blade to blade of dewy grass. I watched as butterflies and dragonflies flew by. Until it hit me—I’d saved a life. Because of my preoccupation with death. Maybe then I felt just the tiniest bit better about bugs and death in general.

 

What creeps you out? What does a good death mean for you?

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My Daughter’s Prom Dress

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a cloth of red roses onto an old photo of her daughter Marika warden wearing her prom dress.“Aren’t prom dresses supposed to be like – floor length?” I asked my daughter Marika, over ten years ago, never having been to a prom myself. She already had a closet full of gowns but insisted on buying the short, cream-colored, strappy one for her senior prom. Shortly after, she was diagnosed with cancer. She blogged, “… prom …. i’m still deciding whether or not to go. i’ve got a date, a dress, and will have tickets, but i won’t have hair. ick…” Then she had respiratory failure and seizures. When she regained consciousness she learned she would miss her prom. Prom #1.

On the evening of the prom, the nurses draped my still-dazed daughter in the dress I’d brought to the hospital upon their request. They propped her up in bed wearing the new red wig my mother bought. When Marika’s boyfriend arrived in his tux, with a bouquet of red silk roses, they put the young couple in a spare room decorated with white balloons and crepe paper. And a boom-box. From the cafeteria, I fetched two tiny cups of red jello, the only thing Marika could swallow without choking. Prom #2.

Marika was able to attend her high school graduation. She marched, wearing the wig and the prom dress under her cap and gown. Days later she ended up back in the hospital. For most of the summer, until two weeks before she and her friends were to go off for their freshman year at colleges all over the country.

Marika’s family and closest friends, desperate to make her happy, made her a special make-up prom. A prom by Cayuga Lake, in the Pavilion at Stewart Park. With her favorite band and over 75 friends. Sandwiches and drinks provided by local restaurants. Still shaky on her feet, Marika wore the wig, her sparkly heels, and the prom dress. She danced. And I danced, always with one eye on her tired smile. I danced like I’d never danced before or since. Like I could shake off forever that summer of darkness. Like I could forget the sight of my girl lying lifeless strung all over with tubes, forget watching her have to learn to walk again, or the disappointment on her face at every setback. Prom #3.

Somehow, Marika recovered enough in time for college. When I left her off at Clark University she had the tiniest fuzz of hair growth, and was abandoning the wig.

Ten years after all this, I sometimes find myself in a funk, fretting over stupid things. My thinning hair, my varicose veins, wrinkles, having to wear eyeglasses…. Then I try to remember, I’m the mother of the girl in the prom dress. In the photos she proudly wears that same dress to parties at college. My Marika. She got cancer, got bruised and scarred up, lost her eyesight on one side, and lost her hair. But she put on her dress and bravely went out dancing anyway.

 

Who or what inspires you? When’s the last time you went out dancing? What do you do to keep going when nothing seems to be going in your favor?

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Taking on a Different Project

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops her dog and her new red pcornet bought to practice her embouchure for bugle playing.Sometimes it feels like I’m just treading water, going nowhere. Simply staying afloat. It’s during those times that I tend to take on projects, maybe because I need something to dive into or some material thing to account for my time. Usually these projects have a predictable end upon which they get photographed and planted on Facebook. My newest project is different.

“I want to learn to play the bugle,” I told the guys at Hickey’s Music Store, last week. They put me in a tiny room to spit and blow raspberries into a rental trumpet, until I hyperventilated myself to exhaustion. They sold me a red plastic cornet. Cheaper than renting an instrument, we all understood a stunning bugling career was unlikely.

As a kid, I roller-skated over the cracked basement floor to recordings of John Philip Sousa marches and US military bugle calls. Bugle calls followed me through decades of summer camps, signaling wakeups, bedtimes, and changes in activities. This past winter something got me searching the internet for these calls, bookmarking various sites on my computer so I could play them all hours of the day. And one day, I came up with the notion I should learn to play Taps myself. It was only four tones. Twenty-four notes. Old, puny, and never very musically inclined, I hoped I had enough resolve to learn the four tones.

It’s not like I needed another project. Certainly not one that keeps me holed up in the house with windows shut tight to keep neighbors from hearing the horrible racket. The dog hides behind a wall when I practice. She peeks out at me in disbelief at the only sound I could produce for days, blasts that brought up images of an elephant yowling with bellyache. But yesterday I managed a second sound, somewhat like a foghorn. The dog crouched closer, cocking her head. And today I added a screaming duck call to my repertoire, though I still can’t control which of these noises will spill forth.

For this project there will be no end product to display on Facebook. From the start, I knew I would invest a lot of time and energy just to produce one beautiful solid note. I went into this hoping to be able to play one tune to my own satisfaction. What I didn’t know was that the reward would not be in the tune, but rather in the witnessing of progress in its rawest form. I’m experiencing slow but steady increments of improvement forged by dedicated effort. What a simple strange joy.

 

What’s your latest project? Why do we take on projects? What brings you simple joy?

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My Trees are Dying

Robin Botie of ithaca, New York, photoshops a negative image of her ash trees that are dying of emerald ash borer beetles.“Your trees are dying,” the guys working around my home pointed out. Something about emerald ash borer beetles and fungal infection. “They should be chopped down before they fall on your house.” One more thing in my world was falling apart, along with the clothes drier quitting, the dog getting sick, and the driveway flooding mudslides into the garage. The earth beneath my feet was crumbling. The safe haven, always solidly set in my heart’s GPS to ‘Go Home,’ was going kerflooey.

I don’t believe you really own land or trees. The land you live on, pay taxes on, and love. I believe the few gravely acres I’ve parked myself at for four decades own me. So I’m having a hard time understanding how it falls to me to make huge life-or-death decisions about these skeletal trees. Do trees have ghosts, I wonder? Because I’m already haunted by the ghosts of countless fellow creatures I’ve ‘put down’ over the years. Cats. Dogs. My daughter.

For months, I tried to ignore the bare branches that never leafed out. But eventually I brought in tree specialists to get a second opinion. By then, even I could spot a sick tree. Twenty-four of them. Or more.

“Do trees have spirits? Do they have some sort of consciousness?” I asked a healer friend, “What can I do for them?” There were several things. Nothing that could save them though. Over the next few weeks, as guided by the healer, I went about touching them, communicating to them what was to happen, saying sorry. I sang Day is Done to the tune of Taps. Even the dog sensed something was up, lying on the grass under the trees rather than peeing or poo-ing there.

If trees can read my thoughts, if they leave lingering ghosts, I am surely in trouble. Weeks before their chopping-down day, as I hugged my doomed trees, and explained and begged forgiveness of them, I was already eyeing the not-yet-vacated space, considering all the possibilities of how I could fill it.

 

Have you ever loved a tree or land? Have you ever had to destroy something you thought was beautiful? Have you ever felt guilty for being the one still standing? If I don’t watch the trees coming down, can I pretend I didn’t kill them? How could I not watch the trees coming down?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Learning to Sit Vigil with the Dying

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops her eyes watching over her dying daughter's face to illustrate sitting vigil with the dying.Always squeamish about facing death, after years of volunteering solely with the bereaved through Hospicare and Paliative Care Services, I finally attended the workshop for how to sit vigil with the dying. The main idea of sitting vigil is to listen, stay present, and direct your energy and compassion to the one who is dying. To practice this, toward the end of the training, the participants paired off for an exercise where we took turns playing each of two roles, the Thinker and the Listener. First my partner sat, thinking of something. I, the Listener, was to simply watch her and be with her. Silently. This, I imagined, would be the harder part. But it went smoothly as I observed attentively, breathing in sync with my partner for what seemed like forever, until the time was called and we switched roles.

I intended to fill my time as Thinker with memories of my daughter who died seven years ago. Marika having tantrums, rolling her eyes when she disagreed with me, laughing, her hoop earrings and iridescent eye makeup…. But shortly after I started thinking, something unexpected happened. Instead of remembering our sweet and sour interactions, I was transported back to our last two days together, when I sat vigil with her, watching for the tiniest twitch of her brows. Staring at her face to remember her features forevermore.

Suddenly something in the exercise went screwy. My partner seemed to be me. And I felt like I was my daughter. Looking up into brown eyes that waited patiently with me, I became Marika, lying still, waking occasionally from sedation to find my sad loving eyes fixed on her face. The rest of the world disappeared beyond the bubble that contained our two sets of eyes.

Over the past seven years, I’d never thought of those last days from Marika’s point of view. I’d never considered that my being there, caressing her with my eyes, might be a comfort to her. Before this, I couldn’t have imagined what a gift it was, for us both, to just be there together at the end.

How could I possibly try to illustrate this? I don’t know. But I do know, now, how I will sit with the family members, friends, or strangers I am privileged to be with in their final hours.

 

Have you ever sat vigil with a dying person? What gifts can we give to someone who is dying?

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