People and Their Stories: Working Hard, Saving Lives

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a portrait of a paramedic in the style of photographer Chuck Close.This is my portrait of – let’s call him Working Hard. W.H. for short. He admits he’s a workaholic. Proud of and dedicated to his calling as a paramedic, W.H. would probably not be impressed by this quirky style I chose to experiment with for his portrait. Inspired by the works of artist/photographer Chuck Close, I, myself, worked hard turning my original photo of W.H. into a grid, and then twisting the individual squares to demolish his identity.

W.H. deserves to have his image treated with a lot more respect. He should be portrayed with monumental dignity. After all, he saves lives. As opposed to me. I gave birth twice, but miscarried twice, aborted two lives, and pulled the plug on one life. Not to mention the countless pets I’ve put down over the years. I don’t think I ever saved a life.

Years ago, I tried to keep up with a speeding ambulance as it rushed my daughter from a hospital in Ithaca to one in Rochester. She almost died on the way. But the EMTs saved her. So, I’m in awe of EMTs and paramedics. Touring a nearby fire station last week, I literally jumped at the invitation to enter their ambulance. It was my first time inside one.

“What’s it like to save a life?” I asked W.H., as I examined every inch of the neatly accommodated van with its medical supplies secured behind straps and doors.
“Sobering,” he replied, “It’s a large responsibility to shoulder. We cannot predict when something life-threatening happens. When we do save a life, it’s a moving experience.”

“What did you lose and what did you find?” I asked. He struggled with this.
“What I didn’t lose was my compassion,” he finally said. “It’s very easy in emergency medicine to become hardened to the circumstances of the people around you…. Emergency medicine tends to lead practitioners to feel that people are essentially suffering from their own bad decisions, driving drunk, smoking … but I have not lost my sense of compassion.”

He’d said, “Sobering,” about saving a life. “A moving experience.” I wanted to hear something more like Soaring. Something related to glory, jubilance, elation, and ecstasy. Because “sobering” is kind of what I felt watching my beautiful girl take her last breath. And compassion? That’s what I eventually found, after becoming a mother who could not save her daughter’s life, when I discovered too many others experiencing the same sorry thing.

I’m grateful to W.H. and all practitioners in Emergency Medical Services, for working to save lives. It can’t be easy, straddling the cusp between life and death.


What did you find and what did you lose in your life? Who or what saved you? Who or what did you save?


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Tracking Grief on the Seventh Sad Anniversary

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a picture of her deceased daughter Marika Warden with a new dress composed of photos of trees in snow, on the angelversary of her death.“I’m so sorry. Losing your daughter is a lot harder than what I’m going through,” a new acquaintance apologized, for voicing pain over the recent loss of her partner, as if her loss should yield some lesser quantity of heartache than mine.
“Grief is grief,” I said, shaking my head. Regarding her at that moment, I was sure if we were to rate our pains on a scale of one to ten, she’d win first prize.

I hate when I find myself comparing or scoring, or trying to measure grief. It really bugs me when people calculate that it hurts infinitely more to lose a child than a mother, or to lose two children over only one. And when someone tells me that it’s time to be done grieving, as if I’m out-of-whack or behind schedule, it makes me growl. Grief adheres to no predictable benchmarks as it rips you apart. Yet we feel compelled to compare; to measure the intensity, the duration, or the effects of our mourning; to mark our progress to recovery. Why can’t we simply accept grief as our individual journeys, our unique adaptations to loss that may eventually lead to growth and change, but could alternatively wipe us out?

Approaching the seventh anniversary of my daughter’s death, I fell into tracking my grief’s path over time. Looking back at my blog posts from Marika’s past angelversaries (now my most sacred holiday of the year), I wondered if I’d see healing. But there was no clear forward movement. Over the six years, I meandered. I celebrated. I wallowed in self-pity. There were anniversary posts filled with fear and dread about how I could possibly survive the day. There were years I obsessed about how to commemorate it. One year I was too busy worrying about Alzheimer’s disease and forgot to write about the anniversary. And last year I started the day immersed in sorrow, and ended up discovering how grief could melt into gratitude as friends surrounded me in support. Progress?

On Sunday, the day my daughter had been dead for seven years, I had sushi for breakfast, hiked with my inherited dog, and followed a friend to a hot tub. After, I gave myself a foot massage and made hot chocolate from scratch with Kahlua. I photographed trees in snow, and posted photos on Facebook. Things my daughter loved. And then I spent the evening lost in Photoshop, wandering in endless layers with her, “How about a new dress, Marika? A snow dress this time. Okay?”


Grief is grief. How do you make it beautiful?





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People and Their Stories: Unseen

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops an anonymous portrait for her new project People and Their Stories but her first subject is already a ghost.“I felt unseen. And unknown,” the person I was interviewing said. I think I gulped then. And looked up from my notes into eyes that were the color of my own. This was my first interview for a new project, People and Their Stories. I knew it was not going to be easy. Getting close to people was never easy for me. And now I’d be photographing them and asking about their life-defining moments. To share on Facebook and other social media sites where I work hard to be seen and known.

To protect the privacy of my subjects, I will obscure their identifying features and information. Keeping identities hidden in the stories is easy. Stories are universal. Your story might be my story. Or it might be the opposite of my story. Or, you may know a dozen people who could report the same history. But, a portrait – can there really be such a thing as an anonymous portrait? This will be another challenge.

Rebekah’s Story: The name Rebekah means to tie, to bind and secure. But when my friend Rebekah was born, her mother was unconscious for the very first hour of her life. Their bonding was not secure. Like all babies, Rebekah looked into her mother’s face for the smile that would tell her she was lovable and loved. She waited for the cooing and soft touch that let an infant know she is safe and wanted. But Rebekah’s mother could not show love. Rebekah the infant, the developing toddler, the growing girl, the teenager, and the young woman grew up feeling unseen and unknown. Unloved. Rebekah the adult had learned again and again, over her lifetime, that she was insignificant, that her feelings and needs didn’t matter. Eventually, not having a voice and not being seen became her expectations. And being invisible came to mean being safe. If no one noticed her, maybe no one could hurt her.

What did you lose and what did you find? This is the main question I ask my subjects. Then I photograph them and Photoshop the portrait to make their identity unknowable. I try to conceal them. But my first person is already a ghost, wandering mouth-less in search of who she might be. Looking for her reflection, she is bent over a turbulent river with eyes shut tight.


What did you lose and what did you find? Can a portrait be anonymous?


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Another School Shooting

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, upset about yet another school shooting, buries her sadness in Photoshop to create a photo illustration of what kids' high school days used to look like before all these scholl shootings.I give up. Just sitting here. Can’t write. But I can’t ignore another school shooting. More brokenhearted parents. Devastated families. It’s too painful searching for words to describe having to face the rest of your life without the child who made your world shine. So I’m burying my sadness in Photoshop, where I can patch together a cozy nest to keep my memories of what kids’ high school days used to look like. Before.

How do you deal with so much senseless tragedy?

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Death Mask

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photographs a death mask of a prisoner at the Old Melbourne Gaol.I wish I’d made a death mask of my daughter seven years ago. Like the ones I found myself drawn to in Australia, at the Old Melbourne Gaol. The death masks of executed inmates. Especially that of Martha Needle, one of four women who had been hung there. The masks are true-to scale, three-dimensional representations of the deceased, in plaster or wax casts taken directly from the faces of the individuals right after their hangings. They capture light and shadows, and seem to still contain some spark of the prisoner’s unique character. Much more so than a photo.

The facial expressions seem to be devoid of emotion. Small signs of stress were visible in only a few. Mostly, the death masks radiated a serene peace. I think that’s what attracted me to them.

Before the widespread availability of photography, death masks were the only way to preserve the appearance of the departed. Death masks were made of the notable and the notorious. Royalty. The wealthy, and the famous. And criminals. Death masks were also made of the unknown, as in unidentified bodies, to permanently record and preserve the facial features of an unclaimed corpse, for future identification purposes.

Searching on Google, you can find many different sets of directions for making a death mask. Some tips: It has to be made in the first few hours after death so that bloat and decomposition do not alter the likeness of the subject. And you need to prop up the body into a sitting position so the weight of the plaster doesn’t distort the features. You smear grease over the face, including the individual’s eyebrows and hair, so the plaster won’t stick to it. You dip plaster strips into water and apply smoothly all over the head. The first layer will capture details like lines and wrinkles. Several subsequent layers reinforce the first. Let the plaster set until hardened and then cut through the mold to get two halves. Carefully remove the mold and paste it back together at the cut seam, and then pour melted wax into it. Remove the plaster mold from the wax impression, and behold.

A life mask is made the same way, but it is made from a live subject. Okay, this is one of my more weird posts. I’m just saying, if you love a living person dearly now, and find comfort in gazing at her face, and you dare to remember that death and grieving come to all of us sooner or later, maybe you want to consider making a mask. A life mask. Now. While she’s still here.


What favorite thing do you keep to remember someone you love?







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Things We Do For Love

Robin Botie of ithaca, New York, photoshops a valentine using an old photo of her daughter who died of leukemia.“Missing my beautiful boy so much, I want to die.” “I don’t want to go on living without my baby girl.” This is what I hear so often from grieving parents. It’s a feeling I remember. Not quite seven years ago, the death of my own child just about crushed the life out of me.

What helped me was being mindful of my new mission in life, the special role of keeping a place for my daughter here on earth. I had to continue to live so she could be remembered. I would carry her, what was left of her, until I, myself, had to be carried out of this world. It would be hard. It is hard. When you can no longer wrap your arms around the one you love, or send her extravagant care packages, you end up with love that has no place to go. Leftover love.

It brings me quivering to my knees, to think of what love makes us feel and do. Remarkable things, both minuscule and monumental, have been accomplished in the name of love. Great monuments have been built, magnificent works of art produced, races won, foes conquered. Generous funds have been donated to humanitarian causes. Because of love, lives are created; lives are destroyed; lives are altered, for better or for worse.

Love makes us talk to ghosts and sing to the moon. It makes us write words that melt others’ hearts. It gets us sending long letters into cyberspace. Trying to express our love, we wring our hearts out baking a cake, making an exceptional meal, or rubbing someone’s feet. Love makes us come home; it makes us leave home. It keeps some returning again and again to the person who beats them. Love blinds us to what we don’t want to know; and allows us to see beauty where no one else can. It makes us live on the edge of a dare; it makes us want to die.

Look at all the energy gathered, even in the wake of love’s loss. What will you do with your leftover love?

Dragging and dropping an old photo of my daughter into Photoshop, I paste a bed of bright geraniums around her. And hug her image with ribbons and roses, and anything I can come up with that reminds me of how love feels during the best times. I’m holding on with all my might to whatever is left of my daughter, to my love for her. Through the whole spectrum of love’s emotions, from happiness to pain, from pain to happiness, I stop at a million points in between. I wish I knew how to help the ones who say they don’t want to live without their loved one. The only thing I know for sure is love can rip your reserves to shreds. Or it can fuel your most magnificent dreams.


What did you, or do you, do in the name of love?




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