From Strangers to Friends

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops hands reaching out over a scene of brick wall and staircase.“I’m at the bricks. Just keep walking toward the pavilion. I want to show you my son’s brick,” a new friend said when I phoned, confused about exactly where we were meeting up in the park. My daughter’s favorite spot in Ithaca, the Stewart Park Pavilion was a place I thought I knew well.
“What bricks?” I wailed into my cell phone, “Where?”

“Right there,” my friend pointed proudly, when we finally caught up. A cozy corner I hadn’t noticed before was paved with donated bricks, a fundraiser for the park. We stood together admiring the brick engraved with her son’s name. Zacariah. She was telling me the story of how they’d misspelled his name, when suddenly my eye was drawn to another brick. One brick away. Right there, it said, Marika Warden. My daughter. I stopped breathing. For a second I didn’t understand what I was seeing. Someone, probably her father, had dedicated a brick to Marika. And one more brick away from that was a brick for my son who is still alive and thriving on the other side of the country.

You wouldn’t think a few little bricks could deliver such joy. But for a mom, the most wonderful thing is to know her children are loved and remembered. My friend and I stood there marveling at this new connection. “It’s like we’re neighbors,” I said, “like family.”

That was just days ago. And here I am getting ready for my trip to the other side of the earth, to Australia. Responding to my posts, several bereaved mothers from Australia have been popping up on my Facebook pages and online support groups. We’re making plans to meet up during my travels. Warmhearted women. They’ve reached out across cyberspace sharing the stories of our children. Some of us watched the life wane out of our kids’ eyes from addictions or cancers. Others got the dreaded phone call that ended their worlds. We were strangers. Until we shared our stories.

And while I’m counting the days until we meet up in person and discover things we have in common, I realize that bricks can hit you hard on the head or lead you to places you might never have found on your own. And maybe the coincidence of the brick at Stewart Park in Ithaca, New York, is a forerunner to what lies ahead in Australia. I have to wonder, how many bricks away from each other are we all?

 

 

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Stuffed Puppy’s Final Trip: Australia

Robin botie of ithaca, New York, photoshops her daughter Marika Warden's stuffed animal before taking it to Australia to be cremated in a ritual to celebrate love and life.This is Puppy. She is going to Australia. Her third trip there. This time she will not be coming back.

Stuffed Puppy. A gift to my daughter shortly after she was born, Puppy spent almost every night of Marika’s twenty years tucked in the crook of her arm. Every time Marika left home for more than a day she took Puppy. Camp, vacations, weekends with friends, hospitals, and a year of college. In 2010, with cancer in remission, Marika probably brought Puppy to Australia. Puppy traveled there with me in 2012, as I scattered Marika’s ashes.

Puppy was always key to my communications with Marika. My words came out differently when they channeled through Puppy. Puppy didn’t say, “Don’t you have homework to do?” She said, “Can I do homewawk wiv you?” Years later, I would regularly fish Puppy out of hospital beds and pose her so Marika, returning from radiation, would find Puppy on top of the bed, hunched over a tea mug with napkin and cookie, like Puppy had a secret life of her own. Like I was leaving my daughter a kiss when we were no longer on touching terms.

Ragged love-worn Puppy. With her brownish matted fur and long floppy ears, she often got mistaken for a rabbit. She looks kinda haggard now, threadbare in places. From her little alter in the middle of the house, she watches me, with a look in her shiny plastic eyes like she doesn’t quite trust me. Like, she’s wondering if I’ll make good on my promise to “return” her to her girl.

“Okay, what a dope, what the heck,” you’re saying, “It’s just a piece of stuffed polyester.” But no, Puppy is a part of myself I wasn’t able to let go of the first time I went to Australia. And now, five years later, I am going back, ready to cremate Puppy and toss her ashes into the sea. Hopefully, there will be other mothers to celebrate with me. Maybe they, too, will have read Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit to their children, sniveling with tears spilling down their faces when they got to the part where the little boy’s stuffed bunny gets tossed out to a rubbish pile. And maybe they’ll understand that I need to wrap up Puppy’s time here on earth because I can’t bear to think of my daughter’s beloved stuffed animal being heartlessly dumped into the trash after I die.

 

What did you hang onto for its sentimental value? What brings you comfort?

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No Time Out From Heartbreak

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a cow trapped in the piping of a dairy products facility.There are some things in this world I am never going to understand.

Like massacres. Killing. Cold-bloodedness. And inhuman cruelty.

Last week too many mothers had their hearts broken. Their stories and the faces of their children filled my head even after I turned off the TV. I tried to escape the images of their agony, but wherever I turned, in Wegmans, in the woods, Netflix, Facebook, …their despair followed me.

It was too difficult to write about people senselessly losing their lives. And the tormented families and friends left behind. Memories of my own pain resurfaced each time I tried.

So I sequestered myself in the quiet corner of my living room, in the depths of my computer and the distraction of Photoshop, thinking I could paste together a pure fresh collage on a blank canvas. There was no escaping. Even there, in the limitless layers of Photoshop, I found traces of my own heartlessness.

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What do You Google? And Why?

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a silkscreened design she made for Silk Oak, to illustrate grieving cats. Thinking about Life Before Cell Phones used to give me a headache. But now it’s Google, the Internet search engine for quick easy retrieval of information, that I cannot imagine living without.

Vital information. Like, how to take grease stains out of grout. Like, what do screech owls sound like? Like, what is chermoula and how do you make it without cilantro?

Before Google, I would wonder about something, and maybe try to search for an answer in the library. Most of the time I simply accepted that the world was full of puzzles I’d never solve. There were too many questions one couldn’t ever hope to answer, even with the help of the sharpest librarian. Like, what ever happened to Mark Newhouse, my first boyfriend?

There are things I search for regularly on Google. Like synonyms, and chili recipes. And I google my own name periodically to see what others, who might be googling me, can see. A few times a year I google, Where is Marika Warden? My 20-year-old daughter who died 6 ½ years ago. You wouldn’t think anything could change about her. But every time I search, Google yields different information. Last week, in addition to the regular old obituaries, Google listed a White Pages link for her. When I clicked on it I learned that Marika J Warden, age 27, “Lives” in Ithaca, NY. It noted there were 13 marriage records, 2 divorce records, 1 birth and 1 death record affiliated with her name. It cheered me. Like she’s still somewhere in town, still trying for some Guinness World Record.

You can ask Google anything. Anything! Like, do cats grieve? I did not pose this question. I merely googled ‘grief’ and ‘cats’ to link these two ideas together so I could paste this kitty illustration I designed long ago for Silk Oak (google it) into this blog post. Google instantaneously connected the two, and offered up hundreds of articles on grieving cats. Which led me to wonder, what else could I connect, and why would I even want to connect things like ‘nosebleeds’ and ‘frying pans,’ and what in the world isn’t connected in some way, and why do I feel compelled to keep searching for these things?

So, after much consideration, I have an admission: I don’t google to find information. I do it because it feels good to get immediate responses. Lots of responses. It’s like receiving free gifts. And it connects me in odd ways to the rest of the world. Google confirms I am not alone; people from all over the planet are searching. Which led me to the discovery that I’m not the only one addicted to Google.

 

What do you google? And why?

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Stepping Outside my Comfort Zone

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops scenes from Cayuga Milk Ingredients, a milk processing facility in Central New York.Remove anything with a stone, we were told. Jewelry. Watches. It all had to come off. Backpacks. Purses. Everything was to be left in the small conference room at Cayuga Milk Ingredients.

Hugging my pack close, I watched my classmates nonchalantly shed their excess belongings. Leave my stuff? No way. We were way out in the middle of nowhere. With people I hardly knew. My photography instructor and five other retired folks with flashy cameras who’d go anywhere for a good shot, and some young guy I’d never met before with a pale pinkish ponytail and blue polished nails. What kind of field trip was this where we had to abandon our things?

I’d thought we were going to photograph a dairy barn, but silver tank-trucks kept pulling up to deliver milk. This was a milk processing facility, I learned. No cows. No free ice cream at the end. The place was creepy, huge, with gigantic stacks towering into the sky. It was too late to flee. And now everything would have to be removed: my father’s watch, the necklace my mother gave me, my grandmother’s ring that would have to be wrenched off, the thumb-drive-pendant with poems written by my daughter who died, and my single earring that gets taken off only by my sister or a girlfriend since I’m squeamish about it. “I won’t be able to put my earring back in by myself,” I said to no one in particular.

It wasn’t like we had to strip ourselves bare; but for me it was. Who was I without the things I’d been hanging onto for dear life? We were given long white plastic coats. And green mesh hairnets. And a choice: eyeglasses or safety glasses. To complete the outfit, we had to put shower caps over our shoes. With the eight of us there to take pictures, it hurt to think of how many times I’d be photographed in this get-up. I gazed at the pile of my precious worldly possessions like I might never see them again, and began the tour.

We followed the milk that was pumped from room to room. Each room had a distinct climate zone and different noise patterns. There were vast hallways of empty sterile space. And fans, plastic vats, pumps, motors, … lots of sanitized chrome. I avoided the foamy puddles I later learned were sanitizing agents, meant to be stepped in; and watched as, behind bars, a robot packaged products and sealed bags. Mountains of plastic bags of powdered milk filled cavernous rooms. And mostly, there were the endless pipes. They reached up and out, obscuring any sense of ceiling. They pulsed with milk. And chemicals. And some of the pipes dripped. It was like walking through an enormous haunted house in a conglomerate of Disneyland and the Twilight Zone.

Then, suddenly, we were all herded out an exit, into the hot glaring sun. Dazed and blinking, we found our way back to the conference room and our belongings. I scooped up my backpack and jewels. The kid with the ponytail helped me put back my earring. Then, gratefully restored to my old familiar self, I rode in the school van with my fellow explorers, and agreed that THAT trip was The Best.

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Caring and Kindness Needed

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, felt like a rat when she made it difficult for a friend who was homeless after Hurricane Irma.Doing a good thing doesn’t count for much of anything unless you do it with caring and kindness. Knowing how loss hurts, I want to be helpful and do nice things for others. But too often I lose track of my caring and kindness. I forget how to support someone in pain.

At the end of last weekend, I cried when my son left town. Miserable in my empty house, I tried to feed the hole in my heart with ice cream. I made popcorn, and watched three episodes of Orange is the New Black on Netflix. Nothing helped. It felt like grieving and loss, all over again.

After days of mourning I got back to appreciating the quiet house, and loving the privacy where I could dance wildly with the dog and sing to my dead daughter. Except for all the TV images of people suffering severe losses in hurricanes, I was feeling fairly comfortable when I got an email from one of my friends in Florida, “Hi. I’m homeless. Do you have a room…?”

Right away I emailed back, yes, she could have my guest room. But before hitting SEND, I listed all the reasons why she wouldn’t want to stay in my home: the smelly dog, the neighbor coming and going, lights out at 9:30, no storage space available, meetings with writers and bereaved parents scheduled there at all hours…. And I made a list of My New House Rules, which I didn’t include in the email but meant to have ready in case she still accepted my offer after reading all the listed conditions and deficiencies. I almost phoned her to talk her out of the idea of staying in my home. But she’d already (almost immediately) emailed me back. And there was so much relief and gratefulness and joy in her email – that I suddenly felt like a rat.

 

Did you ever lose your caring and kindness? Your patience? What animal do you turn into when you aren’t at your finest?

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