The Heart Drive

The mink are back. That’s how this was going to start. It was to be a story about the mink taking over the pond. And on Saturday, the day of the Winter Solstice, the day after the world was to end, I went out with the camera. It was a blustery cold day and I wanted to capture the ghost-like swirling wisps of snow that danced with the wind over the pond since I’m not quick enough to photograph the minks. But minutes into my outing, I came across the hard drive from my daughter’s computer. It was laid out carefully on a big rock next to the pond. That’s when the story changed.

Hard drive from Marika Warden’s computer lies by the pond that is home to geese, deer, mink and the memory of young Marika.A year ago, the day before Christmas Eve, with almost everything of Marika’s cleared and gone, I decided it was time to take the old desktop computer out of her room. Her friend, Rachel, came over to help. Recycling the computer was a good chore for Rachel; as Marika’s mother, it felt less intrusive to rummage through her underwear drawer than to go near her computer. So Rachel tore it from all the wires grounding it, binding it to the walls and to home, like a million arteries and veins, lifelines that reached out in tangled masses from Marika’s bedroom to the web and the world.

Later that day, alone in the Staples parking lot, I knew I was in trouble when, in the process of wheeling the computer-laden cart through the automatic doors, I had a flashback to the year before when I pushed Marika in a wheelchair through similar doors at the hospital. Soon, two Staples technicians, with some effort, operated with screwdrivers and pliers to pull the computer apart, removing screws and panels, following the red, yellow and green wires that wound deep inside the cavernous tower. After a while, they extracted and then handed me the hard drive, a small but surprisingly heavy black metal box. It was similar to the black box back home that contained her ashes. But this one said “Fragile” on it and contained all her letters, snippets and snapshots, conversations with friends, memories, the footprints of my precious pre-cancerous Marika, all locked up inside. It was like holding her heart or her brain. A technician penned in stars, in blue ink on the white label, where I should drill to destroy the contents. That’s when the tears started. On the verge of a major breakdown, I took Marika’s Heart Drive and fled.

My son, on his way out just as I arrived home with the somber little black box, offered to blast it apart at his next shooting session. Not able to imagine myself miserably driving a stake through the blue stars on her black heart, and remembering how proud she’d been of her brother shooting a shotgun off the deck during one of her parties, I decided to leave it to him. After all, he needed some closure too.

Three months later, on a bright day in the early spring, my son and I placed the little black box at the base of a willow tree and walked back around the pond to his shooting spot. BAM! LikeBAM! All the words, the homework assignments, lyrics to songs, all Marika’s pre-cancer concerns, the pre-laptop laments, the record of life contained in that small black box – LikeBAM! BAM! BAM! There was no fanfare, no fireworks. There was no explosion of computer chips or chorus of hallelujahs. Just two surprised geese taking off fast from the pond at the first of the five shots. We walked back and examined the remains of the box and, satisfied that its contents were indeed destroyed, buried it deep into a muskrat hole that gaped a wide welcome by our feet.

That summer, memories flooded my thoughts: Marika floating in the pond with her friends on colorful “noodles,” the deer and baby geese we watched, pond-side campfires, frog hunts and winter afternoons ice-skating. But I had neglected the pond and I felt bad about it. So, in October, excavators came to gouge out and rescue the leaking, nearly empty pond that was overrun with muskrats and minks. While the excavators dug, I looked in the place under the willow tree where my son and I had left the Heart Drive. The land was riddled with holes and tunnels. I couldn’t spot it.

“If you find a hard drive from a computer out here, would you please toss it into the pond?” I asked Paul-the-father and Paul-the-son, the excavators. There was so much mud and mess, I didn’t imagine they’d find it. So I let it be. I never expected to see it again.

HEARTDRIVE2                Saturday, the day after the world was to end, if I’d found Marika herself out there sitting by the pond, the outburst and inner bomb-blast would not have been more emotional. I cradle the sweet box closely. I wail. I laugh. My eyes blur the path as I carry the box of Marika around the pond, gently setting it down in various spots to photograph it, to talk to it.

Finally, when I’ve circled the pond, I kiss the Marika Box and throw it as far as I can, out into the pond. It lands with a grand “plunk” right in the middle of where I will swim next summer. Large circling ripples soon reach the edges of the pond. And the floating friends, the fawns, the baby geese and campfires all come back to me. As do the minks. Marika’s pond is filling up. And on the other side of tonight’s longest night of the year, the light grows longer and stronger.

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20 Candles

PUPPY-CANDLESThis morning I had breakfast by candlelight. At 7AM, it was still dark out, and in this almost-winter holiday season, I find I am addicted to light. Flashlights and camp lanterns, Chanukah candles, Christmas tree lights, red mini-lights that frame the mudroom door and solar-powered garden lamps that line the long driveway. But all the lights in the world won’t lift the heaviness I feel this Sunday morning, thinking of 20 mothers in Connecticut who now grieve the loss of their young children.

I bail out of the Sunday morning hike early and mope most of the day away watching the wind and rain play on the surface of the pond. I cannot read; I cannot write. So I light 20 candles.

To capture 20 small dancing flames in a photograph is beyond my skills. Frustrated, I fidget with the camera and the candles. Then, absently, I sweep the spent matchsticks into my hand. But one is still hot and it burns my palm before I fling it to the floor, sending a nearby tea mug crashing at my feet. It shatters like buckshot.

When the scattered shards are all picked up, before dragging myself to a friend’s party with a bowl of fresh strawberries, I finally place plastic battery-operated candlesticks in the front windows. By nightfall, soothing bright lights shimmer in every corner of the house. Sweet lights. They beckon, they plead: come home.

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Holding on, Letting Go

On Friday I gave my manuscript to an editor I’d met recently who didn’t know me or my story. I delivered it to her and then had to tear myself away. It was like leaving my precious newborn child off at a strange babysitter’s place for an undetermined amount of time. During the ride home, I fretted about the 200-page bundle I’d hugged and held and written my heart inside-out in.

HoldingOn-LettingGo       On Saturday, to keep my mind off the manuscript, I photoshopped. I sifted through all my files and folders and flagged a few photos that called to me. Like the ones of water and rocks. And always, Marika. I found some old pictures of her and then cobbed all the images together in Photoshop. This captured and calmed some of my inner turmoil. It all seems to be about holding on and letting go.

“Oh no!” I’d cried out in the middle of the photo lab one especially challenging day. “I lost it. She’s gone.”

“You can’t lose anything when you photoshop,” said Harry, who teaches the class. “It’s all right there. It’s just hidden in another layer.” And in another click or two my dear constructed vision was restored before my eyes.

I dabbed and pecked at my composition a while longer. When the images were all satisfactorily glommed onto a page and printed out, I could hold it in my hand. Or put it away in a box somewhere. So then I had ice cream and gave the dog a long bellyrub.

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Healing with Photoshop

MarikaonlakeI couldn’t find a job. Over the past year I’d spent too much time cooped up at home writing my manuscript. And my aversion to producing visual designs had grown stronger; it had not faded as I had hoped. So I enrolled at Tompkins Cortland Community College to take a Photography/Photoshop course.

I knew nothing about photography. I’d borrowed a small point-and-shoot to take to Australia and could barely manage that. Computers and technology in general confound me. And here I was, in a class with tech-savvy college students and a couple of my-own-aged men with impressive digital cameras. The only things I had going for me were my “good eye” and an adventurous spirit. And a keen desire to breathe life into my memories of Marika, like one huffs and puffs at the last embers of a dying campfire.

So I rented a digital camera from the school and started playing with digital ghosts, shadows, images of Marika, and shots of whatever I could convince to sit still long enough for me to consider F-stops, apertures, ISO settings and how to hold and shoot without my habitual tremors and jolts.

Learning all this is a headache of a challenge. I stagger out of class each week seeing stars. But it allows me to share some of what constantly swims around in my head. It lets me put things and people together in impossible places and situations, and make it all look somewhat real. This is comforting to me, if not actually useful. One day, maybe I’ll discover exactly why I need to do this. For now, I’ll just call it part of my healing.

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HOLIDAYCARDThe dark silent house brightened and hummed at 1AM when I finally arrived home after 4 days in New York City. The house hugged me as I dumped my bags in the mudroom and crawled straight away into bed. Happy to have a few hours of sleep before I would tear away again the next morning, I counted my blessings. And now, there is even more to be grateful for. Over the last week, I received several invitations for Thanksgiving dinners. Even Suki was invited to a few. Many, many thanks. But, more this year than ever, I look forward to Thanksgiving at home with my sweet inherited dog that has carried me through the most terrible troubles.

On Thursday, Suki and I will hike in the morning with friends. In the evening we’ll cuddle on the couch while I watch DVDs. In between, I will roast a turkey breast, cook up a yam dish with Calvados, make a gluten-free stuffing, watch the wildlife on the pond and read Alexandra Fuller’s Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness.

Have a cozy Thanksgiving, my readers, my friends. A toast to you all, to your happiness and healing. And to the memories of the ones we lost and love still. Cheers!

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To Be Everywhere but Home

Keep moving, keep busy. That’s how I got through the holidays last year, my first holidays without my daughter. Mid-November starts my crazy season of trying to be everywhere at once in an effort to avoid being home, alone and miserable. This year, with my son in Afghanistan and my friends leaving town for Thanksgiving to be with family members elsewhere, it’s a perfect set-up for a panic attack. And I almost had one. But I have a responsibility now to put out my weekly blog about healing, taking care of oneself, and finding life again after loss. Falling apart and drowning in sorrow for more than twenty minutes or so at a time is unproductive, and not worthy of blogging about.

There are options. For Thanksgiving, I could help out at a local soup kitchen. I could go to lots of movies and get Chinese takeouts. I could hope for a last minute invitation somewhere. Or I can make a special time at home just for myself. And Suki.

This year, I choose to renew my relationship with holidays and home. And recognize the many things I still have to be grateful for. Thanksgiving is a good time to focus on what I have, rather than on all I have lost.

So I will gather a small feast at Wegmans, with a honey-brined turkey, chocolate, candles and wine. I’ll play with Suki, go for walks around the pond, experiment with the camera. There are two simple but long deferred projects I am ready to spend time with. And if Suki will leave me a little space on the couch to camp out with a good book or a DVD, I will be cozy and content, at least until the Black Friday Midnight Madness sale begins at the mall.

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