Singing to the Moon

Singing to the Moon, Robin Botie in Ithaca, New York, sings to the moon, to her daughter in the moon.“ I see the moon. The moon sees me. The moon sees the one I long to see,” I’d sung as a girl and later as a mother holding my young daughter.

In the first days after my daughter died I felt her presence all over the house. But in a week, after I brought her life-sized portrait home and started talking to it, she seemed to fade away. Then something was drawing me out into the night, out to the driveway where the wind roared as it rocked tall trees over me.

I’d never felt comfortable outside alone in the dark before. But there was little to fear next to the nightmare I’d already survived. After my daughter died, nighttime became one of the gifts I got. And now, even in rain or snow, I bundle up in a down coat, grab the flashlight and my inherited dog, and walk up and down the long pebbly driveway, searching for stars, sometimes dancing with the dog in the moon-shadows.

“Hey. Marika-in-the-moon,” I call to her when it’s a full moon. When it’s a fingernail moon. On moonless nights when the sky is a thick blanket of cloud. Every night. This is when I feel closest to my daughter.

Our planet has one moon. I’ve been singing to it all my life. We can’t always see the moon but we know it is there. Our ancestors watched it and our children’s children will look up to the same night sky. And wherever my daughter is, or is not, if she were to look for light in the dark night, she would look to the moon. So I keep singing to the same moon.

Where or when do you feel closest to the one you love who died?

Ice Cream for the Soul

Ice Cream for the Soul, Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops her deceased daughter, Marika Warden, eating ice cream at Purity Ice Cream Shop.“They’re closer than you think,” I said, talking about loved ones who died. I dug into my cup of coffee ice cream. Seated around a small table at Ithaca’s Purity Ice Cream Shop with an old friend and two new friends, I could not remember being there in the past 3½ years since my daughter died. Marika and I came here often: mocha chip and coffee ice creams. Chocolate sauce or hot fudge. No cherry, no whip.

“If a child loses both parents (s)he is called an orphan. Widows and widowers are people who lost a spouse. But what is a word for a parent who lost a child?” I asked.
“Damaged,” said one of my new friends. We could laugh about this; each one of us knew loss too well.
“And what is a word that means ‘a dear one who died’?” It was the question that had haunted me all week.

I was about to make an ice cream toast to our lost loved ones when the server sent out a fifth dessert.
“It was on your order. Mocha chip with sauce.”

That’s when I decided to plant a picture of my dead daughter at the table.

What do you call your beloved who died?

Love Your Sister

Love Your Sister, Robin Botie, photoshopper in Ithaca, New York, photographs her sisters' reflections.“I’m your sister too.” Those were the last words my sister Wendy said to me. Months ago.

Then, this past Saturday evening, driving back from the Memoir Workshop given by Margaret and Marion Roach Smith, I thought of my own sister. Not the one who’s The Doctor in Massachusetts, who I always write about and photograph. No. The other one. Wendy, The Beautiful sister who lives in Florida. The one I, The Artist sister, got mad at and stopped talking to.

At Saturday’s workshop, I had sat between the two Roach sisters for hours with my head turning right and left like at a tennis match. Each sister easily bounced off and supported what the other said and together they fed the participants great information as well as a hearty lunch. How did they do that? I asked myself afterwards. And then I remembered Wendy.

We only see each other once or twice a year during family reunions. So I was mad she cancelled out for this year. She’s the sister who, when we get together, gets up early to walk with me before breakfast. And whenever we go shopping, whatever she tries on looks so good on her that I buy it for myself.

She reads my blogs, follows me on Facebook, and has always “been there” for me. She dropped everything and flew to New York when my daughter died. But I have not “been there” for her.

Ten years younger, she is the baby but I’m the one who was never big enough to forgive her for drawing on my books with a red crayon when she was five years old. Maybe I still haven’t forgiven her for all the attention she got when she was born.

The thing is sisters should stick together. The stories I hear of families going for years without talking terrify me. I don’t want to be like that. Life is too short.
So I’m sorry, Wendy. I will try to be a better sister. This one’s for you.

What Mothers Do

What Mothers Do ; Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a stuffed puppy on a Long Point, Ontario beach on Lake Erie with trumpeter swans in the distance.Mothers love to talk about their children. But if I talk about my daughter who died, someone might flinch or tell me to get over it. And next time she spots me in Wegmans maybe she’ll duck away into a different aisle. We will no longer exchange information about what our daughters are doing. Still sometimes I long to feel like Marika’s mom again. So I go to retreats for bereaved mothers.

To me Canada was always the cold wilderness way up north, a foreign country with foreign currency and crazy speeds on the QEW. A terrorist attack in Canada was all over the news two days before the retreat. I was nervous. But I’d already survived The Worst Thing. I propped my daughter’s stuffed puppy in the passenger seat and drove five hours to Long Point, Ontario, on the northern shore of lake Erie.

The Canadian mothers were a hardy bunch. Some traveled longer than I did to get there. Bighearted, bitter, tough, tender, broken and mending. Some clung to their faith. Some questioned it. Some had given their family members the finger when told to get over their grief. Nighttime pacers with tissues in pockets, acutely aware of time passing, looking for signs from the children who died, … immediately we were a group.

Together at one long table we ate hearty homemade soups. Our hostess gave us gift-bags and brought in practitioners for sessions in yoga, Integrated Energy Therapy, paraffin wax massages, and aromatherapy. We wore our children’s clothes. Some of us searched for trumpeter swans. We exchanged information about psychic mediums. We held sacred stones and envisioned angels with blessings. We held hands, encircling a table where candlelight brushed our faces and the faces in our children’s photos. We took turns talking about our precious sons and daughters and shared our personal nightmares.

When we thought we were all talked out, we sat around a windblown campfire listening to the sounds of waves.
“Do you believe this? Do you recognize yourself?” one mother laughed in the glow of the fire. Then we all doubled over in our chairs, holding our bellies, whooping with laughter, “Just look at all the things we do to feel better.”
My Canadian sisters. They are my heroes. I was not so far from home. And I was right at home, in the middle of these strong mothers who have learned from their beloved children that life is short, that we need to love it more. We need to love ourselves and each other more.

Looking for Joy

Looking for Joy, Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, Photoshops produce and trees reflected in Cayuga Lake at the Ithaca Farmers' Market.Do you ever get stuck looking for something? I mean really stuck like you can’t stop yourself from scouring the house, searching the same spots over again, like you can’t move forward until you find this one thing.
It was stupid. I knew I was being unreasonable spending hours trying to find the snapshot of my son as a toddler holding a yellow umbrella. So much for my plan to Photoshop it with a shot of the stunning yellow tree dropping leaves in my driveway. After three hours of non-stop tearing the house apart it hit me: when you look for something, you always find something else. I found a twenty-dollar bill, my dead daughter’s certificate of live birth, and the watch I was looking for last week. I would have to search for something else in order to find this photo. I fled the scene where now, upstairs and down, small piles of tossed stuff riddled every room.

“I’m looking for joy,” I said, bumping into a friend at the Ithaca Farmers’ Market. “I need to photograph something joyful.” It was gray and rainy. People were cold and cranky. The only things I was drawn to were the reflections of trees in the lake and the stacks of colorful produce. I took a couple of shots, bought lunch at the Macro Mamas booth, and headed home. There were only a few hours until dinner with my daughter’s old friend so I went back to searching for the photo.

It was dark and raining outside Mitsuba Restaurant as Marika’s friend and I stood over the open trunk of his car. He pulled out something red and held it up. Marika’s Ithaca Soccer jacket danced in the wind. There it was, the jacket she’d worn so often before cancer. Was that really seven years ago? The familiar shade of red, the shape of it – it was almost like seeing Marika again. Close to tears, I grabbed it.

Later that night I got lost in Photoshop. There was no thinking, no plan. I just played with the images I’d shot that day, fascinated by the different reds in each photo. It didn’t matter that the picture didn’t match the story I’d written. Warmly wrapped in my daughter’s red jacket, I forgot about the son-with-umbrella photo that still remains to be found.



I Killed My Cat

I Killed My Cat | Robin Botie in Ithaca, New York, photoshops a portrait of the cat she had euthanized.Going to bed is not possible. Because before I go to bed I brush the cat and give him the last half of his chow so he won’t stomp on me, hungry in the middle of the night. But there is no cat tonight. I have killed him.

He’d just finished his dinner and was making the yowling sound that usually means he’s about to throw up. I chased him yelling “No Not On The Carpet” all over the house until the dog and I cornered him. He was panting and a front paw looked broken. He tried to get away limping on the buckled paw. That’s when I realized he was in pain.

A bright almost-full moon glared at me as I lugged the cat carrier to the car. The cat and I drove from one emergency animal hospital to another but Cornell University’s Companion Animal Emergency and Critical Care Service confirmed what the first vet told us.
“We can stabilize him $800 to $1000 overnight $129 to have him seen by the vet, call the cardiologist in the morning maybe $1600 heart failure leaking blood clots $340 sonograms and testing, hypothermia, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy – we cannot promise a good prognosis …” I’d already spent $100 at the first hospital.
“Please. I don’t want him to be in pain.”
“It’s up to you,” said the vet.
“Look, I’m the one who signed the papers to remove my daughter’s life support. So I can face letting go of her cat if it’s the time for that,” I told the doctor of veterinary medicine who looked no older than my daughter who died.

Almost ten years ago, at an SPCA extension in PetSmart, Marika held up a lethargic kitten that had multiple thumbs and a Roman nose.
“Look mom. This one has two hearts on his side.” With some effort, the kitten raised its head and licked her hand gratefully. “You’re lucky,” she said. He was lucky. The vet found eye and ear infections, an upper respiratory infection, and a heart murmur. We took him home. Marika named him Skittles and he grew to be a big, sweet, healthy member of our tiny family. Now Skittles’ luck was running out. His heart murmur had caught up with him.

This is crap, I said to myself. I am not God. Why am I always the one signing papers and calling the end to life?

Skittles was wailing when the vet carried him back to me, swaddled in stiff pink waterproof pads. I wrapped my arms around the pitiful bundle.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered into the fur on the top of his head. “Thank you for being a really great cat.” What could I say to this friend I just sentenced to death? “I love you, Skittles.” I rubbed his chin. He licked my hand gratefully as the vet injected him.

The almost-full moon glowered at me when I arrived home and walked my daughter’s dog in the driveway. It kaleidoscoped through my tears as I began my nightly chant:
“Goodnight Moon. Goodnight Marika. Goodnight Morocca, Fraidy, and Sushi … Goodnight Skittles.”

Has anyone ever had to do this? What do you do to feel better? It feels like I’ve been dumped into an old plastic bag where something’s decaying. Everything looks blurred and gray outside the bag while inside it stinks and I’m running out of air.