Healing from Loss: Caregiver Burnout

Robin Botie in Ithacca, New York dog-sits for Hobbes, an ancient dogwho sits for the camera only occasionally.On the twelfth day taking muscle relaxants for back pain that won’t let me sit or bend, I find myself in a caregiver role once more. It is between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the climax of the stressful holiday season, and all I want to do is escape to see a movie. But I am dog-sitting for a friend’s ancient dog who needs to be taken outside every other hour. And I just brought my cat home after having his broken tail amputated.

Leaving Veterinary Care of Ithaca, I’d been given painkillers and a list of instructions. I drove away shell-shocked, transported back to the time I brought my daughter home from the hospital after her first chemo treatments, after life-threatening seizures and respiratory failure. Then and now, I doubted my care giving abilities. I look at the drugged cat wedged into his carrier wearing a stiff plastic Elizabethan-type collar. This was my daughter’s cat and I’d failed to protect it. It is now my job to confine it and nurse it back to normal.

Little Hobbes, the dog who has been sixteen years old for the three years I’ve known her, sleeps most of the time. Deaf and partially blind, when awake, she is right under my heels. She trips me and gets bumped every move I make. All the carpeted areas of the house are barricaded because Hobbes thinks these are perfect places for dumping.

My own dog, Suki, also inherited from my daughter, follows me closely as well, squeaking her toy that she always wants me to throw for her.

I spend most of the night hobbling with my bad back over barricades, feeding and watering the cat with an eyedropper, and opening and shutting various doors to keep in or let out pets.

“My cat isn’t eating or drinking and he hasn’t peed or pooped since I brought him home,” I wail to the vet over the phone the morning after the chaotic night.

Then I can’t find the cat. With his huge collar, he’s gotten stuck under a bed. I dislodge him and, conscious of his sutured tailless butt, carefully carry him to the bathroom where I have put out a special meal of shredded turkey leftovers. But Hobbes is standing over the empty bowl wagging her tail.

I yell at the deaf dog. Then I sit down with the squirming cat and cry.

Hobbes waddles over. With reeking breath she licks my face.

Then I have to wonder: who is the caregiver here?

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Healing from Loss on the Longest Day of the year

early photo of Marika Warden with angel wings taken by Robin botie of Ithaca, New York at the old Michigan Wymyn's Music FestivalThree years ago in December, I was staying at the Ronald McDonald House in Rochester, a few blocks from Strong Memorial Hospital where my daughter was preparing for her stem cell transplant. At the time there was only one family and very few staff there; everyone else had gone home for the holidays. When a small troupe of musicians showed up one night, the volunteer in the office begged me to join the tiny audience in the living room. I did, although I was not in the mood for Christmas carols. Marika had sung in caroling groups and now she was stuck in the hospital with leukemia. It didn’t seem right that I should be serenaded in that beautiful living room, next to a huge lit-up tree.
The musicians outnumbered the audience. I sat before them in a rocking chair and tried to smile. It was fine for the first couple of songs. But when they started “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” something inside me cracked. I tried to hide my tears. I did not want to be hugged by the volunteer or anyone. By the time they got around to “Silent Night” I was completely broken.
My reaction surprised and confused me. Marika was still alive and there was so much hope. We were moving forward. We were on the upside. Why was I miserable? I had no idea then that in less than three months our world would crash.

On the longest night of the year, three years later, I went to the Gifts of the Winter Solstice concert at Ithaca’s Hospicare. The large living room was packed. There were only a few familiar faces in the crowd as I wormed my way to a seat in the back.
It was supposed to be a celebration of the winter solstice so I did not expect Christmas carols. Three notes into the introduction of “Silent Night” my heart catapulted into my stomach. I glanced around wildly to make a quick exit but there was no way out of the crammed room. I was stuck.
The lights blurred through my tears. But halfway into the song I knew I would be all right. The lyrics were about heavenly peace and redeeming grace, brightness and calm. It suddenly became a lullaby and I let it settle me.

In the past three years, peace has grown within me. The pain of my daughter’s death sits more gently on my heart now. After the concert I lingered a short while to have cookies and a few words with friends from my old grief group. And later, in the rain, walking my dog before bed, I sang “Silent Night” to the invisible moon. I sang to my angel on the other side of the moon, on the darkest longest night of the year.

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Healing from Loss: Girl on the Beach at Sanibel Island

Robin Botie walks behind a joyful girl on the beach at Sanibel Island.It is out there, all around us, wherever we go. This time of year I see it in my friends’ eyes. I hear it over the phone, talking to relatives. And despite the antihistamines, melatonin and muscle relaxants I take daily, stress lives in me as well.

At my family’s annual reunion on Sanibel Island this weekend, I watched a young girl meandering along the beach. She walked with hands held out to the wind. Sometimes she skipped on her toes or kicked up the sand with her heels. Her feet took her in a direction that was the opposite of where she looked.

This is what I will need to do to get through the holidays. If I follow my head I might never get out of my pajamas or leave the house.  So I’m buying candles for friends. And I’ve got a box of rainbow cookies to share. I will look at who I am and the patterns I’ve developed but then, for the holidays, I will allow myself to go in a different direction.

I can become the girl on the beach.


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Healing from Loss: Warmth and Willpower

In Ithaca, New York, Robin Botie swings her red-painted toes out over the pondThrough the wilds of cancer, in and out of hospitals for almost three years, my twenty-year old daughter had guts. And right up to the end she wore red nail polish on her toes.

After Marika died, hiking became an important part of my healing. I’ve always needed time to be out under the sky where there is room to stretch. I feel most alive on top of hills and looking out over gorges. So during all seasons I traipse though forests and Finger Lakes Trails with friends and grow stronger. But in the winter it is a workout just to get out the door.

First I put on the one-piece teddy. It looks like a black bathing suit but it is winter underwear that does not leave a gap for the cold to find my stomach. Not that there’s any chance of exposing my stomach this time of year because next comes the long underwear, top and bottoms. Both black. Then come arm warmers and leg warmers made from old knee-socks. When the toes and heels of my socks wear out I cut them away to make thermal tubes for my limbs. Over these goes a hooded polar-fleece sweatshirt and matching pants. If it’s really cold out, double-layered snow-pants go on top of the set. All of this is black.

My fuzzy red polyester neck-warmer is the most important layer. If my neck is warm I am happy. A down jacket with two pairs of gloves stuffed in the pockets goes over all. Fleece ear-warmers. And finally the SmartWool socks and waterproof hiking boots with YakTrax, snow chains, attached.

Most of my energy is spent pulling the YakTrax over the bottoms of my boots. It’s worth it; wearing them makes me braver. To walk in the woods in winter can be harrowing. With my YakTrax on I can cross slippery streambeds and hike up or shuffle down icy slopes.

But with all my winter padding you cannot see what really warms me and allows me to face the wind and weather. What gives me the tiny extra charge I need to go by myself to the Ithaca Beer Company’s tasting dinners. What makes me smile and remember that summer will return one day. What surprises me each time I take off my layers of winter wear:

Underneath are my red-painted toes.


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Healing from Loss: Catawampus

Catawampus Robin botie in Ithaca, New York, holds her her daughter, Marika Warden, her Aunt Bope as a girl, and her dog.

A friend lets go of her walker and slowly backs into the passenger seat of my car.
“I’m all catawampus,” she says, after she lands slumped at an awkward angle and I try to adjust the seatbelt around her.
“What a great word,” I say, thinking that’s exactly how I feel sometimes. Especially in the holiday season when everyone else is dashing out to go shopping while I sit home hugging my dog. My friends are making toasts over Thanksgiving and I can only think of my Uncle Martin who just died. I’m out of kilter. Catawampus.

“You got through all of your troubles,” says my Aunt Bope, days later, at the gathering after her husband’s funeral. At the cemetery, family and friends had taken turns shoveling soil into the grave. I’d watched her high heels sink into the soggy ground as my cousin helped her lift the shovel.

“You will too. You’re strong,” I say over a plate of fruit salad and rainbow cookies. She shakes her head, no. I look  into her eyes that are so like my own. “We both are,” I insist, pointing out that her mother, my Omi Rosie, was the strongest person we ever knew. But I wonder how she will get over this. She was happily married to Martin for 66 years, over 2/3 of her lifetime. The 20-year-old daughter I lost was with me barely 1/3 of my time. That’s been hard enough.

“You’re young,” she says. “It’s different.”
I look at my feet and don’t know what to say. I do feel young. Now. But I remember how unsteadily I walked on the frozen mud when my daughter died. The ground was uneven and ungiving. Back then I couldn’t find enough to hold onto and did not want to face another day.

To my Aunt Bope … to the friend of a friend who recently lost a daughter … to another dear one who wonders how her world disintegrated … to all of us who carry sadness during a season that is shocked by bright lights and raucous cheer, I just want to say:
Do not think your life is over or that you will never laugh again. The pain of loss will soften. Life will not always be catawampus.

I look down, speechless before my aunt. That’s when I notice —

“Stay strong. Take care of yourself. And eat,” I say, feeling less worried.

— My Aunt Bope is still wearing her heels.


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Healing from Loss: Love Again?

Robin Botie being hugged at the Metropolitan Museum of Art by an ancient statue from Mesopotamia or Sumeria or -

I met him at the Metropolitan. It was love at first sight. But I didn’t get his name or number.

Am I ready to start a new relationship? Probably not since I’m asking the question. Sometimes I think I will never allow myself to come close to another human being again. Because nothing lasts forever and I don’t know how much loss I can take.

Shortly after my daughter died I found a small gold ring in her room. A ring, an unbroken circle, symbolizes infinity and undying love in many cultures. But this ring was one of those adjustable bands where the ends don’t meet. As soon as I put it on I knew it would snag on something someday and fall off. Nevertheless, I decided to wear Marika’s ring. That it would be okay when I lost it. I would not regret not tucking it away someplace safe.

Can I treat people this way? Like they are not forever?

How differently would we all live if we had expiration dates stamped on us like cartons of milk? What is safe? When is ready?

I promised myself I would learn from Marika. She lived like the lights could go out at any time, like she had only an hour left. She said, “Mom, get a life.” So maybe …

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