Author Archives: Robin Botie

Phoning the Bereaved

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a scene of grief support, how to comfort someone who is mourning.A stranger’s voice says hello. I gulp, hug the phone closer, and manage to squeak out, “Hi, this is Robin, a Hospicare bereavement-call volunteer. Is this an okay-time to talk?” The stranger usually softens at this. Either from warm memories of how Hospicare treated their family during dark times, or maybe they sense my anxiety and want to help me out. For me, talking to strangers is scary enough face to face. But phoning some unknown person, to see how they’re doing after the love of their life has died—that takes all my courage. The first phone call to a newly assigned person, I always dread that my mourner will sob uncontrollably and hate me because I made him remember his beloved is dead. As a bereaved mother, I know this isn’t likely. Still, that first call is scary. I never know what I’ll get.

Sometimes on the initial calls, I find people who are terribly lonely and grateful to have someone, even a stranger, to talk to. Not much of a conversationalist myself, if they babble on about their loss, I’m content to sit and listen as they reminisce or cry.

Other times, though, I find someone who is even more shy and reserved on the phone than I am. I frantically fish around for good questions not answerable with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ It is almost painful trying to engage some people. “May I call you again in three months?” I ask at the end of the call, wondering if they will take the opportunity to opt out.

Once, on a first call, a person told me, “Oh, I’m so over that. My life is much better now that he’s dead.”

It’s all okay. Better to phone than not phone. Because in the weeks and months following the death of a loved one, after the funeral, after family and friends have returned to their normal lives and deliveries of flowers and dinners have stopped, that is when a phone call (or regularly occurring calls) to the bereaved may be most welcome and needed. When I find the one whose friends and relatives have gotten tired of hearing her stories about her deceased loved one, and she’s bursting with the need to talk, it is worth all the worry and discomfort. “I miss my Joe,” she wails. And since she’s in howling-mode anyway, I ask, “What do you miss most about him? What was the best thing about Joe?” Or, “How did you two meet?” Or, “How did he change your world?” And if the person on the other end of the line is not gushing over with endless tales of her beloved one, I might ask, “What can you do to honor his memory?”

And finally, “What are you doing to take care of yourself?” That’s my favorite question because it gets back to the bereaved person and the self-care he or she deserves as they face the reality of life without their loved one.

 

What do you say to support the bereaved? What is the most difficult phone conversation to have with anyone?

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Looking for Beautiful

I wanted to be beautiful. It was a dream I had, all my life. It was a stupid dream. However, facing the loss of it, along with the loss of my youth and self-identity, makes me want to smash mirrors and rip up photos.

Aging does not look or feel pretty. It’s bad enough, the tired-looking eyes, wrinkles, graying hair, sagging skin, yellowed teeth… to top it all off, now there are eyeglasses. I always hated wearing or carrying anything extra. Like hats, jewelry, handbags, sunglasses, or makeup…. All nuisances. I want to be fast, light. Unencumbered. Mostly, though, I still want to feel beautiful. As far as I could see, there was nothing beautiful about glasses. Several of my friends look great with them. But me, I slip my bifocals out of sight when anyone comes near. Glasses do not fit in with my perception of myself. Even though I fish them out of purses and pockets a few hundred times a day, and the number of things I need them for keeps growing. Like being able to see photos of my friends’ grandbabies, doing Photoshop or anything on the computer, texting my son, chopping vegetables, driving…. To function or to feel beautiful? That is the question. It may be time to plant eyeglasses on my face for good.

Wearing glasses isn’t the only issue barring my path to beauty. From the beginning of my obsession to play the bugle, I knew that scrunching my lips and spitting into a horn was not going to be attractive. But I didn’t know I’d have to bloat my stomach out to its capacity with each inhale of air in order to play.
“I’ve been trying to hold in my gut for decades, so I could look beautiful,” I told my baby-faced music teacher, hoping he’d skip all the breath exercises.
“Focus on breathing and making a beautiful sound,” he said.

So here I am, encouraging my beer-belly to blossom, sporting my new specs, and trying to make beautiful noise. And trying to groove in my new self-image. It sure is great to be able to identify the food on my dinner plate again, and to recognize approaching friends. I’m going to have to revise my idea of beautiful though. If beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, I should be able to see it a lot more clearly now.

 

So, what is beauty anyway?

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Watching Births

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a restoration on an old photo of her daughter as a newborn, getting to know her big brother.No more kind nurses. No more jolly nuns. By midsummer I had finished watching the entire series of Call the Midwife on Netflix. Most sadly, there would be no more daily doses of real-live babies being born, the highlight for me of every episode. Births remind me that life is ongoing, blooming fresh and miraculously. My own two birthings had completely changed my world. So for weeks after the last Midwife show, I trudged heavily through my days, daunted and dazed like I’d lost my beloved family.

Around that same time, off the west coast of Canada, there were reports of a mother whale keeping her dead calf afloat for seventeen days as she swam along with the rest of her pod. The whale carried the baby on her head, diving deep into the Pacific to push the dead calf up to the surface each time it slipped and sank into the depths of the ocean. She did this for a thousand miles or more. Until the baby’s body disintegrated.

As a bereaved mother, I could understand this. It reminded me of my own efforts to keep my dead daughter’s spirit alive. Wearing Marika’s clothes, reading her poems aloud, eating her favorite foods, listening over and over again to the CD where she sings with a voice that still pulls at my heart … doing all the things she loved to do … I tried desperately to keep my daughter from sinking into the depths of oblivion. Over the years since she died, her life became my life. And any sign of life at all became precious.

“One of the cows is giving birth!” friends announced, last week, shortly after I arrived at their farm for a potluck dinner. I dropped my dish-to-pass and hurried to the barn. A minute later, facing the tail end of a huge black and white dairy cow, I witnessed the birth of a girl calf. She was big. And alive. Standing stock-still, I watched the miracle. And the world suddenly felt right again.

So now I’m wondering why, the next day, I was seized with trembling and nausea when I discovered two nests of new baby mice in my kitchen cabinets.

 

What does watching or hearing about someone being born do to you? Do you feel emotionally fried when your favorite TV series ends?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Celebrations of Life

Robin Botie of ithaca, New York, photographs peaches before going to various friends to help make a peach pie in a celebration of life.A good friend of mine decided to have a celebration of her life before her death. “So I can be there to hear all those great things people will say about me,” she told me, during the planning stages. Feeling ancient and ailing, she mentioned her hopes of still being alive for the big event. And when the evening of the party arrived my friend was indeed still ticking, scooting back and forth among the guests in her motorized wheelchair, sharing her poetry and photos, and sampling the double-chocolate chip cookies.

Being a bereaved mother, I thought I knew all about celebrations of life, funerals, and memorials. Four months after my daughter’s death, after family and friends had time to put together slideshows and videos, we gathered to honor the memory of Marika, to tell the story of her brief life, and acknowledge her death with the release of doves and blue balloons over Cayuga Lake. It was a comfort to see how much she was loved. I wish she could have experienced it.

Rejoicing in a person’s life while they are still around seems to be a growing trend. Beyond the time for big birthdays and other celebrations marking milestones, those whose lives are nearing the end are now often organizing living funerals. Swan songs. Their party of a lifetime. For the ones they shared their time on this planet with. It makes them think in terms of gratefulness. It may even help to calm anxieties about dying.

To me, still lively and hoping to be hiking at one hundred, a celebration of life means a daily reveling in who and what surrounds me.

“Please come over and get some peaches. We are inundated,” a couple of hiking friends texted me, the morning after my ailing friend’s life celebration. Riotous red and yellow fruit was all over the kitchen when I arrived to find the smiling couple sitting together, slicing piles of peaches. “Take as many as you like,” they said. I filled my bowl with enough fruit for two small pies, and then went jaunting all over the countryside visiting various friends to gather inspiration or ingredients, make the dough and do the baking. And then share. This was a veritable celebration of the life I love.

 

If you were to design your own celebration of life, to be held before your death, what would you include?

 

 

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Preoccupied with Death and Dying

Robin Botie of ithaca, New York, photoshops a scene depicting her vision of a good death.The biggest ant I ever saw was flat on its back on my kitchen counter. It was waving its little limbs frantically when I went to bed that night too tired to deal with it. In the morning the intrepid ant was still there. When I put on my glasses, I could see it was still pawing at the air, but with somewhat less vigor.

And while I stood over it, wielding my mini-vac—my preferred method of bug removal—I considered how I might instead move the ant to a grassy spot outside. This would not be easy. Small creatures with many more legs than I have always kinda creeped me out. Bug phobia. It goes back over half a century. I’d once made a 24-inch-long paper mache ant for a grade school science project, partly to face my terror.

More recently, partly to face another fear, my terror of death and dying, I attended a workshop where we wrote about how we wanted to die. For a good death, I wrote, I would be lying in lush grass, under the open sky, near a forest with ferns. With friends nearby, I would listen to the sweet sounds of my favorite bugle calls, Tattoo and Taps.
“You’re pretty preoccupied with death these days,” a friend accused. Yes, I agreed. Because, maybe if I made a project of it, I could lose my terror.

But back to that morning, with the ant. It was writhing in slow motion, making me queasy about facing breakfast—and suddenly it stopped moving.

I stared at the lifeless insect. All I wanted was to suck the critter up into the depths of the dust-buster, to get rid of it. But I couldn’t do that after spending months preparing to sit vigil and help the dying. Hoping there was still time for the bug’s last moments, I used a teaspoon to sweep it into an empty yogurt container. And holding it at arm’s length, I ran outside and gently shook the poor creature out onto the grass.

The ant slid out, landing on its feet. It took off creeping. For a moment I watched it climb shakily from blade to blade of dewy grass. I watched as butterflies and dragonflies flew by. Until it hit me—I’d saved a life. Because of my preoccupation with death. Maybe then I felt just the tiniest bit better about bugs and death in general.

 

What creeps you out? What does a good death mean for you?

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My Daughter’s Prom Dress

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a cloth of red roses onto an old photo of her daughter Marika warden wearing her prom dress.“Aren’t prom dresses supposed to be like – floor length?” I asked my daughter Marika, over ten years ago, never having been to a prom myself. She already had a closet full of gowns but insisted on buying the short, cream-colored, strappy one for her senior prom. Shortly after, she was diagnosed with cancer. She blogged, “… prom …. i’m still deciding whether or not to go. i’ve got a date, a dress, and will have tickets, but i won’t have hair. ick…” Then she had respiratory failure and seizures. When she regained consciousness she learned she would miss her prom. Prom #1.

On the evening of the prom, the nurses draped my still-dazed daughter in the dress I’d brought to the hospital upon their request. They propped her up in bed wearing the new red wig my mother bought. When Marika’s boyfriend arrived in his tux, with a bouquet of red silk roses, they put the young couple in a spare room decorated with white balloons and crepe paper. And a boom-box. From the cafeteria, I fetched two tiny cups of red jello, the only thing Marika could swallow without choking. Prom #2.

Marika was able to attend her high school graduation. She marched, wearing the wig and the prom dress under her cap and gown. Days later she ended up back in the hospital. For most of the summer, until two weeks before she and her friends were to go off for their freshman year at colleges all over the country.

Marika’s family and closest friends, desperate to make her happy, made her a special make-up prom. A prom by Cayuga Lake, in the Pavilion at Stewart Park. With her favorite band and over 75 friends. Sandwiches and drinks provided by local restaurants. Still shaky on her feet, Marika wore the wig, her sparkly heels, and the prom dress. She danced. And I danced, always with one eye on her tired smile. I danced like I’d never danced before or since. Like I could shake off forever that summer of darkness. Like I could forget the sight of my girl lying lifeless strung all over with tubes, forget watching her have to learn to walk again, or the disappointment on her face at every setback. Prom #3.

Somehow, Marika recovered enough in time for college. When I left her off at Clark University she had the tiniest fuzz of hair growth, and was abandoning the wig.

Ten years after all this, I sometimes find myself in a funk, fretting over stupid things. My thinning hair, my varicose veins, wrinkles, having to wear eyeglasses…. Then I try to remember, I’m the mother of the girl in the prom dress. In the photos she proudly wears that same dress to parties at college. My Marika. She got cancer, got bruised and scarred up, lost her eyesight on one side, and lost her hair. But she put on her dress and bravely went out dancing anyway.

 

Who or what inspires you? When’s the last time you went out dancing? What do you do to keep going when nothing seems to be going in your favor?

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