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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Finding God

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops her friend who has found a strong connection to Source.What did you lose and what did you find? I always pose these questions. But maybe what I should be asking all the people who share their smiles and stories is, What DIDN’T you lose? What is it that survived throughout all your pain and suffering?

I went to see an old friend who grew up in the same neighborhood as I did, in a similar household to mine. Neither of us had been exposed to religion as children. Yet, as young girls, we each prayed on our own. And we watched our other friends get confirmed or bat mitzvah-ed. “As long as I can remember I have been on a path to know God better,” my friend told me. “I always had my own connection to God, to Source, to All There Is.”

When we left home for college, we lost track of each other for almost two decades. During that time she explored the spiritual world and grew a strong commitment to God. I’m so in awe of this. Other than my kids and my inherited dog, my connections hang on fragile threads.

My friend is now a psycho-spiritual counselor and interfaith/inter-spiritual minister. Originally trained as a social worker, she went into a seminary and ended up teaching ministers-in-training. From all spiritual paths and traditions. Even atheists. How did she come to love serving God this way, I wondered?
“You don’t just get struck with a spiritual practice. It’s a discipline,” she said. “Like working out, you have to do it every day, seven days a week, in order to maintain connection.”

I asked, “What changed your world?”
“Having my daughter. Having my grandson. Losing my sister. Being diagnosed with cancer, being a three-time breast cancer survivor,” she replied.
“You lost your health. And your sister. How do you reconcile this with God, with your faith?” I asked.
“I believe that nowhere in any sacred text are we promised by God (or any entity or spiritual master), no death, no suffering, no war or sickness…. What I believe we’re promised is that God is there to comfort us. When I cry out in anger, ‘God, how could you…?’ I will be comforted.”

We walked around her yard and she told me she felt connected to earth through the trees, birds, and rocks. There were rocks everywhere. In the garden, on the path leading to her little rock-studded house, and particular piles of rocks that she proudly pointed out. She said, “God is the energy or conscience that moves through all of us and everything.” In my own current state of still thawing out from years of feeling like frozen mud, I’m considering this.

 

What didn’t you lose? What survived your times of pain?

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Death Midwife

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a death midwife's portrait veiled by the last snow of the season.We look at things differently when we know it’s the last time. On an early morning last week, my driveway was exquisitely patterned with bright patches of snow. The last snow of the season, I thought as I photographed it and then photo-shopped it to veil a portrait of the death midwife who patiently waits for and watches the last moments of life.

“What does a death midwife do?” I asked Iona (a name I chose for her after we spoke).
“…hold a conscious awareness of the naturalness of death. Sit vigil at the deathbed—holding space and bearing witness. Provide accompaniment, non-medical support, and education for the dying and their loved ones in the final months, weeks and days of life,” she answered. “Holding space,” she said, several times. I had to look that term up. It means to make oneself entirely, wholeheartedly present to someone, offering unconditional, non-judgmental support.

Iona told me the story of the first person she sat with. It was a woman with end-stage Alzheimer’s who talked constantly but incoherently. For six weeks Iona visited her and listened without understanding a word, until one day, at the very end, in a moment of clarity the woman said, clear as a bell, “Those of us with wings can fly away now.”

“What did you lose and what did you find?” I asked her, because I always pose this question.
“When I do this work, all judgment falls away. It is such a relief to stand in a space that is completely neutral…there’s nothing to do, you’re just asked to be. It lets me be a kinder, gentler version of myself. I found my true calling.”

“What have you learned from sitting with the dying?” I asked finally.
“That one is living until one is dead. There is always a possibility of growth and transformation up ‘til the last moment,” she said, and “You die the way you lived.” Which gave me a lot to think about.

 

If you die the way you live, what changes might you want to make while there is still time? What would your own dying look like, how would you want to die?

 

 

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Self Care Day

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a child sleeping in a slipper-shaped bed to visualize away her back pain.When the pain in my back got so bad that I couldn’t sleep left-side or right, or even belly-up, I went shuffling to my doctor’s where the nurse weighed me, took my blood pressure, asked where it hurt, and finally looked at me, cocking her head, and said, “Have you been depressed lately?” At which point I broke down into a drippy, wailing mess.

Without going into the whole story of my daughter’s dying seven years ago, I wanted to let the nurse know I felt entitled to some depression. But the question left me speechless. I stood there shaking and sobbing, looking anywhere but at her eyes, wondering if I had liver cancer, and wishing I could just curl up to sleep. Hanging on the wall was a children’s book illustration of a sleeping family. They were floating in the sky, each member cozily cocooned in their own fuzzy, quilted slipper-shaped bed.

I returned home with comfort food from Wegmans, Aleve, and a prescription for physical therapy sessions, and spent the next several hours visualizing my pain away in Photoshop. I’m calling it a Self Care Day.

 

What do you do to take care of yourself?

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Perfect Strangers

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a stranger's image behind a blanket crocheted by strangers for her daughter who died of leukemia.Every stranger is a potential friend. That’s what I kept telling myself each day as I found excuses to put off the week’s project: Stranger Portrait.

Doing the assignment meant I’d have to really look at a person who I didn’t know. Most likely I’d first need to ask permission to take a photograph. Who knows what else would take place after that, as I couldn’t simply snap a dozen shots and then disappear without saying thank you. And in the process of thanking a stranger anything could happen. The scary thing about strangers isn’t so much that you don’t know them, but rather, that you don’t know what they’re capable of or how they might react to you.

My world is full of strangers. The “friends” on Facebook, who respond to my posts and sometimes tell me what I wrote touched them, are strangers. In the hospital, during my daughter’s cancer, we constantly put ourselves in the hands of strangers. They CAT-scanned and radiated Marika inside out, took her vitals in the middle of the night. They came by with docile dogs, massaged her, showed me the secret broom closet where I could take a shower…. Complete strangers crocheted blankets for us.

My mother used to tell me, Don’t talk to strangers. And here I am, volunteering at Hospicare, making quarterly phone calls to check in with the recently bereaved. People I rarely get to meet. The first call is always harrowing. Until I find this new person is as shy, or as scared, or as dazed by the challenges of being a living human, as I am.

Apprehensive, but determined to do the photo assignment, I stood at the entrance to Wegmans and, from a distance, snapped shoppers coming and going. Finally I got the nerve to get closer, and asked one of two guys moving long trains of carts, D’you mind if I take your picture? He had red hair and looked safe in the camera’s viewfinder. But suddenly there was a dark blast. The other guy had his hand up like he was going to slap me. He growled, Wegmans employees don’t get photographed. I whimpered, Sorry, and slinked off to my car and drove to a nearby tiny storefront where I found a perfect stranger. She stood still smiling sweetly as I clicked the camera, only twice, and promised I’d drop off a print if it came out well.

 

How did a stranger surprise you? What have you done for a stranger?

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