Facing Fears and Getting Gutsy

Facing Fears and Getting Gutsy Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops images of herself and her daughter who died, Marika Warden, on Bells Beach off the Great Ocean Road in southeast Australia.To get gutsy is to do something you never thought you could do, something positive and adventurous, that makes others wince in wonder that you dared to try.

In April 2012, I went alone to Australia to scatter my daughter’s ashes.

During the three years before, trailing Marika through the wilds of cancer, I was not afraid she would die. But I was afraid of almost everything else. Being alone, getting lost, falling, drowning. Losing control. Marika was fearless. To keep up with her I told myself I was too. I pretended we were on a road trip: there would be easy times and hard times but we were together and it wouldn’t last forever.
Then, shortly before she was to turn twenty-one, she died. The ground beneath me broke. I was alone, lost, and drowning.

I brought home the sealed black box of her ashes from the funeral home and built a small altar around it in the living room. I wished her goodnight and good morning each day. Her ashes were not just dust. The ashes were her, humming and dancing inside the box, watching me come and go.
In her final wishes she’d requested that her ashes be scattered in Australia.

It was not the trip I’d imagined. I’d thought to make it a family pilgrimage but my mother couldn’t go. None of Marika’s Australian friends answered my emails. And at the last minute my sister cancelled out. But taking Marika’s ashes to Australia was the last thing I could do for her. So a year after she died I stuffed the sealed box of her ashes in my carry-on bag and flew off.

I hugged the box through plane rides, airport security checks, customs, bus and train rides, and long walks to find lodgings. At dusk, in a small motel just off the Great Ocean Road, along the southeast coast of Australia, I met her ashes for the first time. With held breath and quivering hands, I pried gently at the box. It opened easily, like she was pushing the lid from inside.
She was a trillion tiny shards like pink-white sand on a beach at sunset. In a plastic bag. She was still beautiful.

The photograph on the altars I set up shows a smiling Marika on Bells Beach, holding her arms out like she’s hugging the world. The first morning on the Great Ocean Road, I held the photo as I turned from the winding street to follow the trail to that beach. Under a hot sun I lumbered over rocks and cliffs, along gravelly red footpaths, on deserted beaches and through heathlands, always close to the shore if not hanging right over it. Visions of falling from crumbling cliffs crashed in my head. I whispered nervously to the bag of ashes in my backpack each time the trail split. And hours later I climbed down huge sets of stairs and stared at Bells Beach, the exact spot in the photo. Only it was an empty haunted landscape that was supposed to have Marika centered in front of the jutting point, arms lifted skyward. Glued to that spot, sweating, I waited like I was expecting to be met by her ghost.

Finally I removed the bag of ashes from my pack and inched closer to the water. Fears of the incoming tide and the rogue waves I’d been warned about clashed with the realization that I had to wade into the water to release the ashes. I couldn’t just dump them into the sand. So I took off my sneakers and cautiously slipped into the seething surf. In knee-deep water the waves barreled into me drenching my pants. Bracing myself against the poundings, I tried to ignore the stirring in my head, “Never swim alone.”

I dipped into the bag. The ashes were gritty. They swirled and danced out of my chalky hand, away with the wind, making small smears on the water’s surface. I slogged through the water. Waves crashed at my thighs and washed back out to sea dragging the sand from my grasping toes. I watched Marika’s ashes disintegrate as they rocked and receded with the waves. Then BAM! I was hit with a rogue wave. It sprayed my face and soaked me to my armpits. Catching my breath, I looked around. No one was nearby. If I drowned or was swept away I would never be found. Hugging the diminished bag close to my pounding heart, I retreated to the dry sand.
For four days I spread my daughter’s ashes. Until at last I turned the bag upside down and shook it empty. It made flapping sounds like a bird taking off.

Seagulls squawked and whined. I sat frozen on a wharf. Small brown birds surrounding me stared and waited. And from someplace inside me faint tremors churned. I rocked. Back and forth over the water, hugging myself. The water’s rippled surface caught the sun and exploded in my face. I closed my eyes on tears. Inside it was bright red, like fire.

And maybe the gutsiest thing, the thing I never thought I could do that makes people wince, is what I began sometime after I returned home from Australia. It was a way to make all the colorless days, sleepless nights, and long years ahead into something positively adventurous. I decided to treat the rest of my life like I’m on another road trip: easy times, hard times, it won’t last forever. My daughter’s spirit, that I hold close, coaxes me to live boldly. And I tell others whose loved ones died, they don’t have to let go. That they can hold on forever to the memories, the love, the voices of the ones they thought they lost.

Now, when someone tells me, “It’s time to get over it,” with my gutsiest grin I say, “Never.”

Getting gutsy is all about stepping outside your comfort zone to reach your goals and live a life that makes you truly happy. This post is my entry for Jessica Lawlor’s Get Gutsy Essay Contest. To get involved and share your own gutsy story, check out this post for contest details and download a free copy of the inspiring Get Gutsy ebook.

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Surviving a Family Reunion

At the annual family reunion, Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, poses the family behind an empty chair.At the dinner party on the last night of our annual family reunion, I surveyed the dining room for a seat.

The Kids’ Table was bustling with parents settling their young children. I remembered years back, reluctantly leaving my babies at the Kids’ Table and watching from the Parents’ Table as they ate more and laughed more without me hovering over them. My 26-year-old son now sat with his 30-something year-old single cousins at the Kids’ Table, along with adorable almost-2-year-old Tovah.

Glancing over at the Big Table, I thought of my father and long gone white-haired grandparents. And my uncles, Henry and Martin, who sat there not so long ago. It was always the smallest table but it was where the big people sat so we called it the Big Table. It was the table that got served first and was closest to where the food was parked. My favorite cousin, Brigite, was sitting at the Big Table because she was the organizer of the event and both her parents sat at that table.

I was about to take a seat next to my sister and other cousins at the Parents’ Table when Brigite beckoned to me, “Robin, sit here.” Immediately, without a word to my sister, I flew to the empty seat next to Brigite, at the Big Table.
“Thank you so much for inviting me to sit here. I’m so thrilled,” I told her as we waited for our appetizers.
“Robin,” she said, raising an eyebrow and twisting her head to address me directly. “I need to give you a little perspective here.” One of her eyes was wincing. “There’s Number 1.” She pointed to her father, my Uncle Max, who sat across from us staring into space with a smile. “There’s Number 2,” she said, indicating her mother. “Number 3, Number 4.” Our Aunts Bope and Terri. She poked her head in the direction of her older brother, “He’s Number 5.” Then she looked squarely at me with somber eyes.
“I’m 6. And you’re Number 7.”

Three sleepless nights later, after I’d calculated that I was Number 5 on my mother’s much smaller side of the family, I knew it wasn’t a numbers game. It was more like musical chairs. If I could stay fast and strong enough, I might be able to bulldoze my way to the last empty chair whenever the music stopped. I intend to live long, for myself and for my daughter who died. Maybe I will be the one to live to a hundred.
But I will not be the first. Several times during the reunion I heard it said of my Uncle Max (Number 1) that he’s gonna outlive us all.

How do you survive the sad element of loss at family reunions?

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“Over the Rainbow” Video

“Is that to go priority or certified mail?” the clerk asked, eyeing the carefully wrapped package I clutched to my chest.
I would have been sending my daughter off to nursing school in Australia. Instead, I am sending the DVD of her singing “Over the Rainbow” made 8 ½ months before she died, to my web-master, at Ameriweb Hosting. For weeks I’d put this off, afraid to lose my only copy of Marika’s DVD. Then, sitting over dinner with friends who all had daughters coming and going, achieving and shining, I just wanted to talk about my daughter too.
“Way to kill the party, mom,” a small voice hummed from the back of my head.

Okay. She’s been dead over 3 ½ years so there’s nothing new to share.
“But I’m so proud of you,” I tell her life-sized portrait later. And inside me, she is still alive and singing. From not-so-deep within she tells me, “Go for it, mom,” when I pause to consider a red dress in a mail-order catalog. She says, “Sushi for dinner?” Now she’s saying, “Way to go, mom. You just showed all your readers how insane you are” and “Mom, TMI.” (Too Much Information)

Wait. I do not play the video over and over again. In fact, it took a long time before I could even watch this performance from the EAC Montessori School of Ithaca 30th Anniversary Musical/Reunion though I knew she always loved being seen and heard (please watch it). I am already filled with Marika. Her voice and starry eyes are the film through which I see the world.

Call me the crazy-lady. Maybe I deserve that title because for years, that’s how I labeled too many others. The ones who lost children and seemed to lose their own souls. The ones that looked liked they’d fallen to Earth from the edge of space, broken the sound barrier, their hearts, and every moving part of themselves in the fall. Is that what I look like now?

“Does it get better? Do you ever not think of your child?” I asked for months of everyone I found who’d lost a kid. And it turns out I’m doing nothing that eons of bereaved mothers haven’t done before. Only I’m coming out about it.


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Progressive Memory Loss

Progressive Memory Loss - Using progressive eyeglasses, Robin botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops multiple images of storyteller Regi Carpenter who suffered memory losses before her decent into mental illness.“I TOLD you these progressive glasses would not be easy to get used to. DON’T you remember?” the woman at the optician’s sounded defensive.
“Well, I have no memory of-,” I stopped. I couldn’t argue. “Thanks anyway,” I said curtly, and left before I could explode.
The truth is anyone can tell me she told me something, anything, and I would not be able to say for certain whether she did or did not. The only things I remember for sure are the blue veins like tiny trees on my daughter’s lavender eyelids as she lay unconscious in the ICU four years ago. And her red-painted toenails. And the invincible feeling that Marika could endlessly pull off miracles each time she almost lost her life. And then I remember the crushing words from the doctors that finally compelled me to put down the Ken Follett novel I was reading and memorize my daughter’s face instead.

“I don’t remember any of it,” I said to Jill Swenson, book development agent, a year after my daughter died, when I’d written a long love-letter to Marika thinking I was writing a memoir about our journey through the wilds of cancer.
“If you can’t remember the facts of what happened, you can’t write a memoir,” Jill said, smiling incredulously. Then, queasy with headaches, I kicked myself to read through my daughter’s blog posts, paperwork from the hospital, my sister’s weekly email newsletters from the bleak days of cancer, and my own daily-calendar books, to whack my memory back. Soon there were enough memories to fuel three years of writing, 200 pages, and 60,800 words. Ratted-up tissues littered the floor and my eyes turned red as all the things I wanted to forget rewound and replayed in my head.

Recently I attended Snap!, a true story of a young woman’s decent into mental illness, written and performed by Ithaca storyteller Regi Carpenter. Before she got locked up in a state mental hospital, losing chunks of her memory was Regi’s first sign that something was wrong. So sometimes I wonder if I am losing my mind.
I am not afraid of being crazy. Writing down what I want to remember now, I am not afraid of forgetting what I ate or what I read or was told. What I AM afraid of is being hurtful to another. Because I’ve learned that what life throws at you hurts enough without people adding to it.

“I will make these work,” I stubbornly tell myself, repositioning the progressive eyeglasses and my chin over tiny print. I’ve survived the death of my daughter. I’ve been through hell and back; I can do anything now.
Warning: I will walk out on you if you say to me, “DON’T you remember?”


Is memory loss a symptom of grief and does anyone else suffer from this?

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Not My Normal Self

Not My Normal Self - Robin Botie of ithaca, New York, tries to do the tree yoga stance in a photoshopped moonscape.After a half hearted workout, I dressed myself in the warm comfort clothing I’d tossed into the gym-bag earlier knowing I would go nowhere but straight home. No one would see me in the threadbare sweatshirt, the fleece vest, my son’s army long-johns, multiple pairs of arm warmers, and my polar fleece pants that make me look like I weigh 200 pounds.

This is not my normal self, going to the gym late in the day, skimping on the workout, and not caring enough to pick out respectable clothes. Slipping into the shoes I usually wear only to walk the dog, I hurried from Island Fitness, hoping no one would notice me.

When I arrived home, fumes of grilled meat greeted me. My son was in the kitchen with a new friend and a pile of barbequed chicken thighs sat in the middle of the kitchen counter.
“Oh hi,” I said to the friend, raking my windblown bangs with my fingers. She was beautiful. And tall enough to see the inch of gray roots on top of my head. I left my scarf on to distract from the rest of me and looked to my son, not sure if I should quietly disappear. But the counter was set for three. Bottles of pinot grigio and merlot were already opened and he offered me a glass of the white. I threw off one of my layers of fleece.
“Uh, if you tear up the romaine, I’ll make a Caesar dressing,” I said to the guest. We worked side by side, me dumping together anchovies, garlic, and olive oil as she cut and carefully arranged the salad. I ditched a pair of arm warmers and drank some wine.

It was so easy. So normal. And I’ve been craving easy and normal ever since my daughter died over three years ago. Glancing at the life-sized portrait of Marika on the wall, I made a silent toast to her.

The three of us filled our plates and ate. The friend laughed like a two-year-old being tickled. I almost cried to hear laughter in my house again.
“I just bought cake at Sarah’s Patisserie. Anyone into dessert?” I asked when we’d polished off most of the food. But they smiled, no. “Well, thanks for a great dinner. I’ll do the dishes,” I offered. They disappeared upstairs and there was more laughter.
I tore off my sweatshirt and began to clear and clean, humming “Some Enchanted Evening,” an old favorite. Then I ate a whole mini-cranberry-ginger cake myself and thought about the ever-changing nature of normal.

What is normal anyway?


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Holiday Tips for Grievers

Holiday Tips for Grievers - Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops herself joyfull greeting the image of her dead daughter walking through the door.If my daughter were to show up at my door on Thanksgiving Day I’d hug her howling, laughing, dancing, throwing myself at her. It would look like the videos on Facebook of veterans returning home being greeted by their old loving dogs.
Then, after the emotional reunion, I’d merrily mess around in the kitchen all day fixing her favorite foods and stuffing the fridge to last a whole week. I’d make her 3 different cranberry relishes and the recipe of pumpkin ice cream pie I found online last week. She would tear the breadcrumbs for the stuffing and make a carrot cake. If she were here the house would have flowers and candles. We were foodies together. And this was our holiday.

Damn it. If I have to cry my way through it, I AM gonna make a pie on Thanksgiving this year. Wegmans can make the turkey and Roses Home Dish can make the sides, but I will make cranberry sauces and pie. There will be leftover-turkey enchiladas and wines for my son who will be asleep upstairs while I work wailing in the kitchen.

This will be the 4th Thanksgiving without Marika. I think I’m learning how to handle this.

Convinced that one can grieve and be grateful at the same time, I’m calling it Thanksgrieving.

So here are my tips:

  1. Treat yourself like you’re the guest. Be good to yourself because a part of the one you love now lives on inside of you. Our beloveds won’t be seated at the table but they are seated in our hearts. So carry on the way (s)he would have wanted.
  2. Allow yourself to cry. Let the pain run out in tears. Pull out old photos, phone your sister in Florida to reminisce, chop onions, and cry like a lemon being juiced.
  3. If you can’t find something to be thankful for, go do something nice for another. In 3½ years of mourning my daughter, I found the most joy always comes from giving someone else something to be grateful about.

So go do this holiday, my friends. You are not alone.

What do you love and remember on Thanksgiving? And who is in your heart?

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