Coming Home or Going Home?

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops coming home versus going home to a predicted snowstorm.When my first flight, out of Fort Lauderdale, was announced delayed, I became obsessed: Would I be coming home that day? How could I possibly not be going home?

I spent so much time trying to figure out if I was coming or going home, I almost forgot how it had felt to come all the way from New York to my mother’s apartment in Florida and not see her. For four days, my sisters and I had removed the last of her belongings. When we left, even the white carpets had been scrubbed clean of any trace of her. One less place in the world to come home to.

As my first flight was finally landing, I got a text: the connecting flight to home had been cancelled. Agents at the American Airlines help-desk informed me it would be three days before a seat was available on a flight anywhere near my home. That’s when I really became unhinged. Directionless, I wandered Philadelphia Airport’s terminals among all the other untethered passengers scrambling to find their ways home. I phoned a sympathetic friend.

“Hop on a Greyhound,” she said. But there were no buses until the next day, and having already invested nine hours into journeying home, I balked at the thought of a long bus ride. I didn’t want to leave the airport. Yet, camping out an unknown number of days and nights on stand-by to fly would be too grueling. From her computer, my friend booked me a hotel room, downtown, near the Greyhound station.

Going home or coming home? Maybe the difference is between where your physical body is and where your heart is. Maybe it’s the direction you’re moving, in relation to home. Whatever, home seemed to disappear ever farther away as I hugged my suitcase in the taxi to town, and then lumbered down endless carpeted hallways to a room that would serve as home for the night. And going home early the next morning on that Greyhound, every mile of the 235 miles between Philadelphia and Ithaca, every little town we stopped in to let people off to their homes, every hour of the eight-hour ride was painted over with thoughts of what I was coming home to: my dog, my friends, my cozy bed, a snowstorm, the freezer filled with tamales, the horn that hadn’t been played in days….

“Let’s make a toast—To coming home,” friends said, over dinner that night. Sigh.

 

What’s the difference between going home and coming home? What is home anyway?

A Good Death Story

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York photographs sculptures to illustrate dying a good death.I want to hear the story of your mother’s death, a friend said. It startled me. No one had been bold enough to request anything like this from me before, and in all of my phone calls to the bereaved, I, myself, had only ever asked for the stories of the deceased one’s life.

But we need to hear more death stories. Maybe dying wouldn’t be so scary if we shared more good deaths. And in the end, all in all, my mother had managed to have a pretty good death.

On the weekend after one sister had visited, my other sister and I arrived clueless to our mother’s state of mind. Not answering phone calls or emails, two weeks earlier Mom had written on my blogsite that she wasn’t ready to die, don’t give up on her. A week later she reported on the blog that it was time. When we got to her apartment, she was teetering between lucidity and an ever-enveloping morphine fog. It was the beginning of the storm before the calm.

Is this it? Am I dying now? she begged of her aides, desperately searching their eyes.
No, not yet, we all told her. And tucked her snuggly into the new Sleep Number bed. All night long and into the next day, she groaned in an alien tongue. It sounds like you’re in pain, her aide said.
No pain, she responded. But then she’d tear herself from the bed, driven by some invisible force, sending the aides scrambling to avoid her falling.

I think I’m dying now, she whispered with eyes closed. Yes, I’m dying, she said, not moving. Even the aide was convinced my mother was willing her death to arrive in that instant. But Mom perked right up when asked to initial and sign paperwork for the traveling notary, and whenever she was served rum raisin ice cream. That was pretty much how the weekend went. In and out of this world.

Agitated and restless, in the middle of the night of the day her daughters said goodbye, my mother wanted to be moved to the couch she’d inherited from her boyfriend. Soft, cushy and low to the ground, it was the couch she never sat on because she knew she couldn’t get up out of it. But that was where she chose to sit at 2AM Monday. And soon the aide helped her to lie down there. Then, she finally went to sleep. And never woke up.

These sculptures are worth a lot of money, my mother had told me, way before she could consider dying. I photographed them partly to show her that Yes, I’m taking good care of them, Mom. Also, they kinda remind me of all of us on our own individual journeys through life and dying. What we bring to the ends of our lives. What we leave behind. The chaos and the calm.

Got any good death stories to share?

Where’s My Grief?

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops an image of a dog figurine as she wonders where is grief.How’re you doing, people kept asking, cocking their heads and squinting at me, like they expected to find me keeled over, buckled up in pain since my mother died.

I’m good, I assured them. Actually, I was feeling like the Queen of Sheba, merrily doling out all my mother’s earthly belongings. The car, the beds, coffeemakers, the jewels…. Mom’s caregivers and cleaning lady and their families came by to help clear out her apartment. Take whatever you like, I proclaimed, Take it all before the Jiffy-Junk man gets it. The place was bustling. No time for grieving.

Years after my daughter died I thought I was an expert in grief. That sinking squeezed-flat feeling, the hanging heaviness, the painful emotional triggers…. You have to embrace the pain and let it consume you for as long as it takes, I’d tell bereaved friends. But now I was distracted by people and the long list of things to do. And I had just squirreled away my Mom’s huge hand-painted Italian bird-bowl I’d long coveted. Not to mention other, mostly practical (as opposed to sentimental) things of hers I’d chosen to keep for myself. I was feeling no pain.

Exhausted at the end of the Great Give-Away Day, I went to sleep on the inflatable airbed since I’d gifted away the couch I usually slept on. In the middle of the night I woke on the hard floor, the mattress deflated. Unable to fall back to sleep, I wandered the apartment. Oddly empty, I thought. Not the apartment. Oddly empty was how I felt, myself.

In the dark, the eyes of a flea-market figurine stared at me. It was a dog. A schnauzer. Mom had a thing for schnauzers. Salty. Cozy. Chuckie. OMG, how I loved those dogs. It still makes me cry to think of them. The schnauzer figurine sat on top of a pile of things for the Jiffy-Junk man. With cocked head, it eyed me pathetically, squinting like it was trying to reach through me, imploring me to rescue it.

Rushing out early to catch my plane the next morning, I left the schnauzer. But the expression on its plastic-resin face haunted me the whole trip home, and I knew I’d have to claim it when I returned for Jiffy-Junk Day.

Focus on Mom, I kept reminding myself all week, Mom’s not coming back. I was expecting—no, I was yearning—to be overcome by suffering and uncontrollable keening. I was ready to be consumed by pain. So…. ?!*}(<*! Where was my grief?

 

 

 

My Mother, the Matriarch of the Family, Died

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a picture of her mother, matriarch of the family, who died.Last week, I went to visit my ninety-three year-old mother and found a stranger in her apartment. A docile, pale old lady in a wheelchair was falling asleep over her hardly-touched cake and coffee. She apologized and begged forgiveness of me, and of anyone who came near.

This was not MY mother. The mother who, weeks ago, was still stuffing her walker into the car, and shuffling off to the “beauty parlor.” The mother who bought jewels to match every outfit. The one who demanded that everything be executed in her own particular way, or you’d suffer her scorn. MY Mom could out-eat anyone, and was shamelessly vocal about whatever or whomever she disliked. Head of our tribe, she didn’t apologize.

Last week, the only thing my Mom ate with any interest was rum-raisin ice cream. It was set before her in spoon-sized clumps after lovingly prepared meals were removed and dumped in the trash. Morphine was doled out to balance my mother’s free-from-suffering time with her time to be able to think and communicate coherently. Sleep, when it came to her, was deep and steeped with groaning. Over the weekend she drifted ever farther away into her sleep.

On Sunday we sisters kissed her goodbye, said we’d be back in two weeks. But early the next morning, I got The Phone Call, the call that knocks you upside down even if you’ve known for a while that death was parked waiting right outside the door. Needing time to process this, I went to the gym. There, responding to the first person who casually inquired, “Hey, how are you?” I tested out the words too impossible to believe yet, “My Mom just died,” adding, “I think I’m an orphan.”

“No,” my friend said, looking me sternly in the face, kinda like my mother used to, “You’re not an orphan. You’re a matriarch now.”

I am still waiting to see how all this will hit me once I finally get it through my head that my Mom, the woman who gave me life, carried and protected me—and ruled my world—is dead. Sooner or later, I will be clobbered hard by the loss of her, I’m sure. But that morning in the gym, after being dubbed “matriarch,” I mustered up twice as many planks than ever before and threw myself into a fierce aerobic frenzy. Then, still breathless, I phoned my sisters to assign them various tasks from the list of all that had to be done to accommodate the great shift in our tiny family. What kind of matriarch will I be? I wonder. The glue of the family, or the iron fist?

 

Afraid of Dying

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a beach to illustrate the life and death cycle.You’re afraid of dying, you say, afraid of dying alone mostly. I wish I could tell you how this thing called death works and what dying means. Or where we end up in the end. I wish I could alleviate your fears, and tell you the best comes after life, that there will be music and bright lights and long-lost loved ones welcoming you. But I’m still trying to convince myself there’s more than nothingness, that after we die we reach some eternal heavenly state of consciousness, if not an actual heavenly place.

All I know is that for eons of time, trillions and gazillions of other beings before us have made this journey of conception, life, and then death. That this is part of a great cycle. And that maybe, possibly, death is not the last stage.

What if we think of this life-death cycle as a beach? Over the course of your lifetime you crept along the sandy shore, and then toddled, walked, and eventually waded into the water where you swam and dove through the waves, never noticing the tide gently dragging you out ever farther. And now every breath takes so much energy and struggling. Yet you keep swimming until there is nothing but ocean and sky, and soon you become part of them both. It’s like when you were born. You had no choice in being born, no control. You yielded to the forces pulling you into the then unknown world. Now it is time once more to be carried along into another great unknown.

You will not be alone at the end. There are those who will be honored to sit vigil with you and make you comfortable at this sacred time. Let’s call Hospice. Allow people in. I will come myself when I can, wearing my red-beaded necklace, the one like yours, because greeting death with red beads seems both gutsy and appropriate. I’ll hold your hands and listen to your memories, or to your breathing. Maybe I’ll rub your feet.

And finally, when you are gone to the great wherever, I will always love you and remember you. Whenever I wear those beads I’ll think of you laughing boldly in a bevy of friends, immaculately bedecked with makeup and perfectly matched jewels.

 

What can you do to assuage a loved one’s fear of dying?