At a Full Moon campfire I watch a friend’s daughter and remember my own daughter Marika Warden who died of leukemia at age 21
I wish I could make last Monday disappear. I wish I could take back the EF-5 tornado, give back the lives lost, and say it was only a nightmare. But as the people of Moore, Ohio and others newly bereaved begin the long journey to healing from loss, I can only offer this: the pain you can’t imagine living with will soften and you will feel better in time.
Shortly after my daughter died, one thing I tried was “bookmarking” a special time or place for her memory. I chose the full moon. So whenever I saw a full moon or an almost-full moon I would think about my daughter. To this day, on moonlit nights when I walk the dog I sing or talk to Marika.
I think about her a lot even when there’s no moon. At first, if an hour went by or a day went by that I didn’t think of her, I felt remorse. When I started to find things in my new life without her to smile or laugh about, feelings of guilt crept over me. At one point I asked myself, “Did Marika ever like seeing me unhappy or suffering?” No. Even my feisty daughter with her anger issues and attitude was in her best mood when her mother was happy. She would want me to enjoy my life now.
So when I get an invitation to a full moon campfire I grab my opportunity to have fun and remember my daughter at the same time.
“Robin, where are you?” my mother calls from the next room.
“I’m trying to photograph the new cat.”
“Get over here and tell me what you think about this color,” she says. We are at Wonderful Things, an exciting yarn, hand-crafted gift and craft supplies shop in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. She is picking out yarn to make a blanket for my friend Barb. That’s how she shows that she cares: she knits and crochets things for people.
My drawers are filled with her sweaters and vests. Wool throws are draped over chairs in each room of my house. As we grew up my sisters and I didn’t hear, “I love you” very often. Hence I don’t say it much myself. Does it mean more if you say it less? Does it mean less if you say it more? But we were the best-dressed students at PS94 and we knew we were loved.
Writers always demand, “Show, don’t tell.” There are many ways to show love. My friend Celia cooks magnificent meals for the ones she loves. My friend Liz fixes things. My father’s love currency was money; he took those he cared for out to the best restaurants and on expensive vacations. He often slipped his daughters much-appreciated big bills.
I give my time. It is the most precious thing to me and I gift it out with care. Sometimes just showing up and helping out is the right gift. Other times I will spend hours photo-shopping a carefully thought out picture I know will make my loved one smile. Planning a present and thinking of the special person who will receive it distracts me from my grief and loss.
“Barb has peach-colored walls and she likes olive green,” my mother says. “And the yarn should be wool to keep her warm in the winter.” This is the third friend of mine my mother is knitting a blanket for. It makes me feel lucky and loved. Like a cat in a yarn store.
“I wanted to know Marika better,” says my friend Lynn after she reads my manuscript. “You should show the reader more … beyond the natural love a mother feels for a child.” For days I scour my memory for endearing mother-daughter moments to add to the book. They don’t materialize. So I abandon that project to photo-shop a picture of my mother in her twenties and consider what I could write about Mothers’ Day for my next blog post.
Sunday I wake to the wild scampering of my cat. It sounds like he’s found a mouse. Something I will have to get up to deal with. But not yet, it’s too early. As my dog scrubs my face with morning kisses in an effort to coax me out of bed, I remember that it is Mothers’ Day today. Now that my son is in Afghanistan and Marika is gone this is one of my dreaded holidays. I wonder if Greg will call. Not likely. It’s too much for me to think about. I bury myself under the comforter.
When I finally get up I find a trail of Q-Tips leading to the bathroom and all over the house. The cat has been busy; no mouse, just Q-Tips. Suddenly I am transported back to a Mothers’ Day in 2008, days before Marika was diagnosed with leukemia. I had come home to find a trail of Hersheys chocolate kisses dotting the floor in a roundabout route from the front door to the dining room table.
“Mom, you hafta follow the chocolate and read the clues to find your present,” Marika had said. I traced the chocolates to an elegant dinner she’d made of Caesar salad and pasta generously laced with red sauce, shrimp and scallops. She’d moved her boom-box downstairs for the occasion. There were flowers on the table, a tablecloth and candles, and a chocolate cake. It was the first time she had ever cooked a meal for me.
The picture of her proud face that evening warms me now and I write a note to myself, “Add Marika-memory to book.”
“Stop tormenting the dog,” I yell to the cat that swats at Suki each time he prances by to check my progress towards the refrigerator.
“Suki, don’t tease him,” I say to the dog. “You’re just encouraging him.” For a moment it’s like having my young children home again.
Suki tosses and then pounces on a last stray Q-tip by the dining room table that has become my desk over the past months. A large note sits on top of the table. “CALL MOM.” The last two Mothers’ Days I was so lost in grief and looking for life after loss that I almost forgot to phone my own mother.
Later, in the middle of the Sunday Morning Hike at Hammond Hill, my son calls me from Afghanistan. That’s when I know I’ve found this week’s blog story.
“What did you do to this water?” one of my son’s friends asks. Four of us regard the dark turquoise pond that glows and eerily reflects off our faces. It looks like a lake of shimmering nuclear paint.
“I put blue pond dye in it. To keep out algae,” I say.
“That’s weird water.” He makes a face.
“Yeah. I put in twice as much as I should have. Wasn’t thinking straight.” It’s been a week of frazzled nerves, huge highs and lows, little sleep. Friday is my daughter’s birthday. Marika would have turned 23. The days leading up to and around May 3rd I race around frantic and out of control. I stay up all night photo-shopping pictures of the fox and kits that live under the deck. I miss appointments and meals. I trade in my perfectly fine car and take on debt to buy a new Prius. There is a gigantic grenade in my head that could detonate in a thunderous explosion at any moment and I’ve been trying to outrun it.
“Greg tells me you’re writing a book,” says the other friend, who has become famous in the mixed martial arts world and is the current UFC Light Heavyweight Champion. “What’s your book about?”
“Well, my daughter died of leukemia when she was 20. It’s our story of her almost 3-year fight against cancer.” I try to be short, knowing this is not a favorite topic for anyone, let alone a champion prizefighter.
“I have a large following on Twitter. Could you use a tweet about your book, a link to your website?” he asks. Whoa! How does he know I’m trying to build an audience?
“Um – hundreds of thousands of martial arts and fighting-match followers? Uh – that’s interesting. Not exactly my audience.” I’ve forgotten for the moment my own four years of taking tae kwon do at the Ithaca Chung Do Kwan Tae Kwon Do Club. “Sure. I could really use the help,” I finally say. “There must be someone in all your fans that lost a loved one. Someone who’s trying to get over grief and live life bigger. Maybe you can ask them to pass the information along to their mothers or girlfriends?” Who in this guy’s crowd would be interested in me or my book? What on Earth could we possibly have in common?
“My sister died of brain cancer when she was 18,” he says. My gaze flies from the blue pond to the warm eyes of this fellow fighter and champion of life.