Duetting: Memoir 28

 

Duetting: Memoir 28 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a scene of treading on shaky ground to illustrate how she feels that she has no religion.

There’s something I should have mentioned long ago: I have no religion. I mean, I don’t know if I believe in God, or in scriptures, or heaven, or in any of the various teams directing members about how to worship or who to trust. Religion, like politics, is one more thing that divides people. I don’t subscribe to any sides even though it means I’m often treading on shaky ground.

I like to imagine there’s some invisible thing out there, some entity that’s always creating, giving and taking. Watching over us all. I feel closest to this thing when I’m by an ocean or hiking in the mountains. Regularly, looking up at the stars or out across valleys into the hills, I send out grateful thanks to it. When I feel lost, this something reminds me I’m not alone. It counsels me to treat others the way I’d want to be treated, and it assures me I will never understand the ways the world works. Occasionally I beg for help or protection. And then it fades as it bids me to do my best and be strong.

In times of crisis or loss, I’ve always envied those who have faith in someone or something beyond this world. Life would be so much easier if I was chummy with God or had some indisputable doctrine to live by.

Back on the last day of June 2009, Marika’s burgundy snowflakes were all over her again. Her job as lifeguard and boating counselor at Stewart Park Day Camp was to begin the next day. It was supposed to be the summer to make up for the loss of the previous summer.

“I’m fine,” she said, dully, when I caught up with her at Strong Memorial. She’d already been put on intravenous arsenic, the standard second line treatment for her type of leukemia. “I’m bored,” she said, meaning she felt trapped and knew her summer plans were now shot. I rubbed her feet and made mental notes of what I would fetch from Wegmans.

“Have you heard anything from Jake lately?” I asked, suddenly needing to know more about the other almost-adult child with leukemia. Whenever we had a setback I’d check the status of the other players, as if we were in some sort of race to beat cancer.
“He hasn’t returned my messages,” she said, and turned away. We settled into our old established patterns for hospital confinement. But “fine” and “bored” didn’t last long.

“She didn’t eat the Cheesecake Factory takeout,” I whined to Laurie.
“Robin, she’s depressed and in pain. You don’t eat when everything between your hair and your toenails hurts.”
“And now they stopped her chemo. What does that mean? Are they giving up?”  
“That’s just temporary, until they make sure she doesn’t have an infection or pneumonia again,” she assured me. But two days later, Marika was short of breath, and the Roc Docs put her in the ICU to avoid respiratory failure, her signature crash landing. Then she did crash and was put on the ventilator once more. And as she lay there unconscious, the cascade of complications compounded. Low blood pressure. Liver malfunction. Kidney failure. Her heart developed an electrical abnormality leaving her vulnerable to lethal arrhythmias. Inefficient heart patterns. My own heart smashed into my stomach. I flailed about wildly to grasp something stable, anything that might hold me or help me find solid ground. I rubbed Marika’s feet fiercely.

A portable dialysis machine was wheeled in. It looked like a cross between an ancient refrigerator and a big old-fashioned tape recorder standing on its side. I stared at it skeptically. It hummed and churned. A wheel spun around as Marika’s blood went in and came back out. I watched the colors of the input and output to discern any differences, and asked questions of the technicians who monitored the process constantly. There was no one else to talk to. I was miserable. During dialysis, for some reason I was not permitted to rub Marika’s feet. Desperate for connection, by the end of the second week in the ICU, I left my Sleeping Beauty for a weekend at home when her father came to take over. Then, in Ithaca, I couldn’t face anyone. People said, “How’s your daughter doing? I’m praying for her,” and I didn’t know how to answer. If they were kind or tried to hug me, I broke down crying.

A cousin called to tell me a group of nuns in New Jersey were praying for Marika. Another cousin brought Marika’s name up in a service at his temple in Tucson. “We’ll keep her in our prayers,” various friends promised. I thanked them, “We need all the help we can get.” Visions flooded my head: Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, cloistered away in an abbey of somber nuns, singing and praying in heavenly harmony. Prayers, churches, synagogues, mosques, and monasteries were all foreign to me. But if more people were uttering Marika’s name, and wishing us well, it couldn’t hurt.

Still, for me, then, the only sure solid thing in this world was my daughter. I rubbed her feet and wondered, would those nuns really pray for a girl whose mother practiced no religion?

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 27

Duetting: Memoir 27 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a family of geese to illustrate her memoir dealing with loss and bereavement.

When your life gets completely obliterated you can chuck it or you can go on, wailing and whimpering as you plant one foot forward in front of the other. I don’t know which is harder. In the thick of loss it’s not like you can recognize any options.

In March 2012, on the first anniversary of my daughter’s death, people are sending me mixed messages: it’s time to get on with your life; give yourself time to heal; get over it; this will be with you forever. It embarrasses me that I’m not employed yet. I had allowed myself the year off. But now my mother’s hints about getting a job have turned into sharp jabs that leave me gnawing at my cuticles. There are no jobs in Ithaca, not for me anyway. I don’t even know who I am anymore or what I can do. Marika’s been gone a whole year, and all I want is to stay home and write at my table in the corner of the house, overlooking the pond where the geese are back trying to nest again.

They’re early this year. Every year the same two geese sit in the same place and build the same measly little nest. Some years they even get to hatch their eggs before a raccoon or woodchuck claims them. Marika and I often watched a bevy of baby geese paddling in the pond between their parents, or waddling on the bank. One always toddled way behind or in the wrong direction. We woke many mornings to squawking and splashing as the parents tried to ward off other overtaking geese. And inevitably, every day, there’d be one less egg or one more baby goose gone, and then another gone, and another, until there were no baby geese left. Then the father would fly off and the mother would wander back and forth along the pond bank, picking at the pitiful remains of the nest. And I can tell you for sure that geese cry; it’s one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard. A sound, something like sobbing, sighing, heaving, and honking—all at once— fills the sky begging, “Why on earth?” and “What’s next?” and “How?”

“Did you hear from Pat?” I call Rachel. Pat was Marika’s Australian boyfriend. Rachel has his address, email, and phone number from the shoebox where she’d found the final wishes and a sealed letter to be sent to him upon Marika’s death.
“He said he’s expecting to hear from you.”
“Do I have the right address?” I’d emailed Pat twice already and not gotten a response. None of the Australian connections have replied. This is not turning out to be the trip I’d imagined. I wanted to meet up with people. I’d hoped to make it a family pilgrimage with my mother and Laurie, but my mother couldn’t go. And now, because of Laurie’s recent knee replacement, we need to rent a car to get around, forcing me to alter the trip again. Laurie calls at the last minute.

“Robin, I’m sorry. My knee is infected,” she says. There is a long pause. I wait. For the inevitable. But she wants me to fish it out of her. Laurie must really feel bad; I usually can’t shut her up to squeeze in a word of my own.
“You’re not going?” I say, knowing already and seeing only stunning white light.
“It’s just not going to work for me. I’m sorry. I really wish I could go,” she says. And I try not to panic or say anything to make her feel worse. So. Why on earth? What’s next? And how?

The day before I am to leave for Australia. Greg carries his rifle down the stairs, and together we traipse outside and around the pond to shoot the Heart Drive from Marika’s old computer. It bothers me that the box of Marika’s life-before-cancer could get swallowed up and lost forever in Greg’s vast accumulation of stuff upstairs. The Staples tech had said to destroy it. Destroying is a job for my warrior son; putting the pieces away in the right place is what I do. This is the last item on my list of things to take care of before the trip. And Greg may be called to his new job in Afghanistan before I get back. So we place the little black box at the base of the willow tree that still stands despite being shot at for the past year.

BAM! LikeBAM! He shoots. All the homework assignments, Marika’s pre-cancer concerns, the girl-life contained in that small black box, LikeBAM! The long-gone girl who preceded the almost-adult daughter I miss, BAM! BAM! No fanfare. No fireworks. 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. I hold back my tears as we examine the remains of the box. Satisfied that the contents are indeed destroyed, we bury it deep into a muskrat hole by our feet. This is Marika’s pond. Part of her will always be with it. I curl my lips around quivering teeth, and clamp down hard.

Back inside the house my friend Liz types away on the computer. Greg disappears upstairs, and I hover nervously over Liz as she fidgets with my iPad, and enters the email addresses of the women who have been gathering month after month to hear what I’ve been writing. Time is running out as I scour my contacts and my memory for all the strong women in my life, to add them to the list.
“How am I going to do this?” I ask Liz.
“You go to your gmail account on your iPad, you open up this email, then you –”
“No, I mean the whole thing. Tomorrow. This trip,” I say. “It isn’t right. What on earth am I doing going to Australia—alone—to spread my daughter’s ashes?”           

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 26

Duetting: Memoir 26 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a collage of a tiny book made years ago by her daughter Marika Warden, who died with cancer.

For my holiday gift I’d asked my son for a shooting lesson. So on the unseasonably warm afternoon of Christmas Eve 2011, Greg comes downstairs with two long guns. Trembling, I wrap up in scarves, earplugs, earmuffs and hooded jacket, and follow him out the door and across the lawn. He stops just short of the pond, props his shotgun against a tree, and hands me the rifle. Remington.22, he tells me. And then he shows me how to hold, load, and ready it for shooting.

“You don’t pull the trigger,” he says, “you squeeze it. You hug it with your whole hand.” Willing my eyes to stay open, I squeeze and shoot. It’s not nearly as loud or as jarring as I’d expected. Marika would have said, “LikeBAM!” Hardly drawing a breath, I shoot again. Bam! The sky echoes with each ferocious bark. Handling this loaded rifle, cradling it so close, and then blasting the air—LikeBAM! —I am spellbound, conscious only of being just on the cusp of control or calamity.

We had placed two targets against a large willow tree across the pond. The targets were a gift I’d painted for Greg. The one I’m to use is a cartoon image of a rotund woodchuck with a bulls-eye bellybutton. We train the scope, first focusing far, and then zooming in so every breath and movement I make is exaggerated in the scope, and the woodchuck bounces in a dizzying scene. When it settles, I hug the trigger. LikeBAM! With no movement of my target, no trace of a hit, I aim and shoot again. BAM! I continue to load the magazine and shoot. My woodchuck hasn’t budged. Greg fires his gun and with each shot creates small clouds of smoke before his target.

When our bullets are spent, we walk together around the pond to inspect the targets. Surprisingly, the bullets sped through mine without moving it and I’ve hit the woodchuck’s belly twenty-six out of twenty-eight times. Pleased with myself, I’m hooting and cheering. Until we remove the targets from the base of the willow.
“Oh. No,” I wail, “I’ve been shooting clear through to the tree. We’re killing the tree.”
“Oh, well. ‘Goes with the territory,” he shrugs.

Some things, like the differences in our respect for life and living things, will never jive. I say a silent apology to the tree and then follow Greg into the kitchen. He takes the two rib-eye steaks I got for our supper, pierces them several times, plants them in plastic zip-lock bags, and marinates them in Johnny Walker whisky. He pours two glasses of the whisky over ice.

“Did Marika ever shoot? What’s the best prank you ever pulled on Marika?” I ask, thinking I’ve got him relaxed and ready to chat. “What would you fight for or even die for?”
“Mom. Just enjoy the Johnnie Walker. Okay?” And then, “Do you still have my extra passport photo somewhere? I need it back. I’ve got a job in Afghanistan as soon as I get my papers cleared.” He’s leaving again. Whatever holiday I’ve been avoiding is now totally shot.

Later that night, on the first Christmas Eve without my daughter, the single drawer of the small night table next to my bed is stuck open. I rarely use this drawer but I had rummaged through it for Greg’s passport photo. Now the drawer is jammed and I can’t get it to close shut. I slam it and it breaks. When I wrench it back out, a tiny green cloth packet falls to the floor, and I remember a Christmas long ago when Marika had no gift to give me. She had scurried upstairs, bounced back down, and handed me this small pouch of jeweled sequins. Now I empty the contents into my hand. Sparkling butterfly-light jewels catch the lamplight that blurs through tears. The remaining sparse contents of the broken drawer lay on the floor. And in the middle of the small mess, bound with shiny red holiday ribbon, sits a tiny book written and illustrated by Marika in 2001, when she was eleven years old.

Book of Wonderful Memories. From: Marika. J.W. To: Robin Botie
1.The costume parade. You were there for me every step of the way! I’ll never forget your face when I got 4th place. You were so happy! 2.That one teddy bear that you would look at when we were fighting and tell me a story of you. Mom … 5.Even with the most boring books, it seems so exciting with your voice. … 6.When I’m scared you are always there for me … 8.Always loveing even when I’m a brat.

Mareek! Are you here? I cry out. Are you helping me get through Christmas? What the heck am I doing in this drawer anyway? It’s almost midnight and I’m holding the most precious gift, now received twice over. Why does it feel like you’re watching me? Sometimes it’s hard not to believe in ghosts, in after-life. Here I am, holding this tiny book you made ten years ago, before all the road trips, before cancer. Before our mother/daughter divide. Ten years ago when you adored me—Maybe you never stopped adoring me—Maybe you just stopped showing it.

She’d made me a book. And now I am making a book for her. She wrote. So I’m writing. Words are my new medium and I’m using them to paint our portrait, mixing words like I used to mix colors. All the sweet or savory, whispering or roaring, bland or bewitching words that dance in my mind. Like : meandering, infinitesimal, crimson, petechiae…. Reading my book aloud at the Feed and Reads, occasionally I glance up from the pages to peek at my audience, their jaws dropped and eyes begging me to continue. My gift to Marika, I tell myself. Really, though, she has gifted me, and is gifting me still.

My first manuscript is a plot-less lament to my dead daughter. But that doesn’t matter. Because, daily, I lose myself and find myself in what I write. Some new determination to live, lives on. And I feel hope. It’s back. And hope implies future. So I continue to write, and look forward to the sharing. And I love my book like it’s my daughter.

Duetting: Memoir 25

Duetting: Memoir 25 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, phoshops a tangle of computer wires and cables to illustrate a aprt of her memoir about closure after the death of a loved one.It is the day before my first Christmas Eve without Marika. No Christmas this year. No Chanukah. Holidays seem pointless without Marika. So I’m erasing the whole season. Instead I’ll clean and write and do un-holiday-type things. Like clearing out the last of Marika’s belongings.

I had surprised myself, and others, by how quickly I got rid of her things. It had been eerily easy. Somewhere, someone said cleaning up after a dead loved one is an important aspect of achieving closure. Closure—hah! Not for me. It is more like a desperate urge to re-home the many pieces of Marika. I am seeding the world with her stuff. It requires a great trust in the universe to find the right new person or place for the pretty prom dresses, the high-heeled shoes, stuffed animals … and now, the old desktop computer in her room. Marika hadn’t used it since shortly after she got cancer, after my father gave her a new laptop for college. Staples will recycle the old computer for ten dollars.

Rachel comes over to help me get it into the car. It feels less intrusive to rummage through Marika’s underwear drawer or her journals than to go anywhere near her old computer. But we briefly check it for anything I might want to keep. Nothing. I crave the writings of the almost-adult Marika, but this computer predates that. So Rachel tears it from the tangled mass of cables and wires, the arteries and veins that bind it to home.

“I ended up drunk in the ER every weekend. It was like I was suicidal,” Rachel tells me as she pulls cords out from under the desk. I keep my mouth shut. “When I went into Rehab, I was out of contact with the world for twenty-eight days. No phone, no computer,” she says.
“Are you back at work now? What was that last job? Working as a caseworker?”  
“Yeah. I had to resign when I went to Rehab. I loved that job.”
“That was a neat job,” I say. She carries the computer down the stairs and I follow.
“Can you read some of the book to me?” she asks, after she shoves the computer into the car. She reminds me of Marika as a young child begging me to read. But before I can begin, Rachel’s cell phone rings. She listens briefly.

“What are you doing in a bar, you goofball? Get out of there. Fast,” she says. Then, “You’re gonna throw sixty days of sobriety down the trash for a girl?” As she speaks to this person in crisis, I am awed at how together Rachel sounds. She seems to have found herself after this difficult year of loss, substance abuse, and Rehab. Her head is in a good place, whereas I feel lost. After the last three sad but blessed years of knowing exactly why I was where I was, I now find myself directionless.

Later, alone in the Staples parking lot, I can barely lift the computer tower out of the car and into a shopping cart. I know I’m in trouble when, wheeling the loaded cart through the automatic doors, I have a flashback to last year at this time when I pushed Marika in a wheelchair through similar doors at the hospital. But soon, two Staples technicians are operating with screwdrivers and pliers to pull the ancient computer apart. The younger tech, about Marika’s age, extracts and then hands me the hard drive, a small but surprisingly heavy black metal box. It says “Fragile” on it and contains all her old high school homework, snippets of printed conversations with friends, playlists, … young girl-stuff locked up inside. It is like holding Marika’s heart. The technician draws stars in blue ink on the white label.

“Drill here. When you get rid of a computer you have to destroy the hard drive,” he says. Too mesmerized by the mysterious box in my hands, I don’t question why Staples doesn’t just take it and complete the job themselves. Through sobs, I ask the tech whom to pay the ten dollars to, and he tells me there’s no charge. On the verge of a major meltdown, I take Marika’s Heart Drive and flee.

My son, on his way out just as I arrive home with the somber little black box, offers to blast it apart at his next shooting session. Remembering how proud Marika had been of her brother shooting a shotgun off the deck during one of her parties, I give it to Greg. After all, maybe he needs some closure.

 

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 24

Duetting: Memoir 24 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops Andrea Riddle and Marika Warden wearing headwraps and hoop earrings, as cancer patients.

There is always some anxiety as I wait for guests to arrive. My friends are so different from one another. They range from Marika’s age to my mother’s age. For the Feed and Reads I’ve gathered them from my hiking group, from foodie endeavors, former workplaces, and past mother-daughter relationships. One friend’s daughter will join us, and also a woman I’ve never met who felt linked by loss. And Rachel. If I can reach her.

“Hey Rachel, where are you? You haven’t called or emailed me in over a month. I’m getting worried,” I leave multiple messages on her cell, “You’re coming to the Feed and Read aren’t you?” Rachel usually communicates with confidence, like she’s the Mayor of Cool. But when I last spoke to her she’d sounded almost suicidal. Too wrapped up in my own pain, I’d never really considered how Marika’s death affected her best friend. 

Soon I’m more warmed than worried, looking around the first assembly of my readers. They introduce themselves and talk like they are old friends. And in the months to come, they will be. In their courageous effort to help me, they will discover familiar connections and create new ones. But there are two who are missing. One is Andrea. She had often “borrowed” my children over the years, spoiling them and stretching their minds. She’d visited Marika several times in the hospital. Andrea had given me my first teaching job, knowing what I could do long before I did. Two months ago we walked in the woods as yellow leaves fell. What kind of horrible joke was it that she was recently diagnosed with cancer herself? I wanted to be there for her. But wearing her head wrap and hoop earrings, she so resembled Marika, I could hardly look at her. Now Andrea is too sick from chemo to join the Feed and Reads.

The doorbell rings and I run to answer it. Rachel.
“Sorry I’m late,” she says, all bubbly at the door.
“Look at you!” I gush. “Your hair. You look adorable. You look – happy.” She looks like she owns the world and has just walked into her own birthday party. Her makeup and manicure are gone. And her hair is shaved off except for a bit at the top.
“It’s a Faux-Hawk,” she says, brushing at her almost bare head. “Do you like it?” It’s freezing outside, but she’s wearing a wife-beater undershirt, neon Michael Jordan sneakers, and low rise baggy khaki shorts that might be her dad’s. She looks like the beloved janitor from some old TV show. But she still has on the fragile silver necklace that was Marika’s.

“I’ve been sober for fifty-six days,” Rachel announces at the table as we feast on butternut squash soup, cheeses, salad, sushi, and shrimp cocktail. She proudly shows off her tattoos. One particularly huge one spreads across her ribs on her right side, “Be strong when you feel weak,” a quote of Marika’s. I’m very aware of how different Rachel is, from before, from the others. And I’m proud of her, like she’s mine.

When the meal is over, we move into the small living room for the reading. A photo of Marika sits on a tiny table next to me. Next to it is a box of tissues. And pencils and notebooks, for comments.

The Feed and Reads will go on for over a year. Whenever I have a couple of new chapters to share we will feast. My work is the focus at these gatherings, but everyone here knows grief. Before and after I read, we share our stories.

“It was just like that for me when my husband was in the hospital, before he died,” says Jane, the friend-of-a-friend I hadn’t known before. Next to her, Barb, who will host most of the Feed and Reads, sits stunned, holding a tissue in mid-air between her lap and her face.
“After my husband died I wrote him letters too,” says Annette, whom I’ve known over twenty-five years, “It was a powerful healing tool.” Celia, who remembers everything, brings the group back to my story saying, “You forgot to mention the prom. You have to write about the prom.”

It’s as if they all know I need them here. They somehow sense the best way to support a grieving parent is to show up and listen. So I keep writing and rewriting. To read aloud my daughter’s story. All a bereaved mother really wants is for her child to be remembered. For the rest of my life I will listen patiently while friends ramble on about their kids graduating, getting their first real jobs, getting married … and there will be no more news of Marika that I can contribute to the chatter. But here is my time to tell about my beautiful brave girl, her accomplishments, and her extraordinary passage through the bloom of her short life.

 

 

 

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 23

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a collage of her daughter's ashes in an effort to heal her broken heart.

In late July 2011, I bring home the sealed black box containing my daughter’s ashes, and assemble a small altar in the living room, above the TV. Around the box I place photographs, daisies, chocolates, Marika’s stuffed Puppy, and two Lonely Planet Guides to Australia. The first summer without Marika is half over when I finally end my travels. I hadn’t found her anywhere else in the world. The box is where she lives now. Each day I stand before it wishing Marika good morning and goodnight. Her ashes are not just dust. The ashes are her, humming and dancing inside the box, watching me come and go.

With Rachel’s help, I clear out most of Marika’s bedroom in the house. Then, in a reckless determination to purge, I attack the attic, my son’s sprawl of accumulated stuff, and my own closets. I sell off my father’s stamp collection and deposit carloads of clothing and toys at the Salvation Army. It all has to go. The only things I want are Marika’s words. And once they are photo-copied, I send the original journals off with Rachel to give to Marika’s father. Then Rachel and I empty Marika’s bedroom at the apartment she shared with friends.

“What’s up with you?” I ask her. Rachel looks like a wounded animal. “Are you okay?” My eyes are drawn to the silver Tiffany’s necklace she wears, the one Laurie gave Marika for graduation.
“I’m not with my boyfriend anymore,” she says.
“Should I say sorry or congratulations? Well, either way, congratulations. ‘Cause you’re with you.” It’s what I say to anyone who tells me she’s survived a separation and is suddenly single or alone. It’s what I tell myself: You still have you. But I don’t recognize this as a gift yet. I feel I’m only a ghost of the person I was before. And it’s still hard to face people. I’m sure there is whispering and pointing just beyond my earshot and sight. Like last year, at a party, when my friend Andrea nodded discreetly in the direction of an acquaintance, “Do you see that woman? She’s been through hell and back, and she looks it.” I’d regarded the blinking, quivering woman who did indeed look like she’d fallen to Earth from outer space, breaking the sound barrier, her heart, and every moving part of her in the fall. Is that what I look like now? Floundering and crazed?

After Rachel and I bag the last of Marika’s shoes, I wash my hands singing “Happy Birthday” twice to Marika, and consider the strange haunted face in the mirror. Red rheumy eyes stare back. Graying roots jeer at me. Ugh. This has to go too.

Then, in early August, on a Sunday morning hike with Suki and friends, I fall in a slippery stream bed, and break my wrist. Right away I know it’s fractured although it is the first bone I’ve ever broken.
“Go. Get back to enjoying your Sunday,” I tell my friends who take Suki and drop me off at the hospital. “I’ll be fine.” But I am not fine. It’s my first time back at a hospital since Marika died. Waiting alone in the ER, I break down in howls. All the tears I had stuffed away for months each time I bravely faced the world beyond home, come gushing out of me. Marika’s supposed to be here, not me.

And then, as I bumble around the next several weeks in a cast, I suffer all sorts of snags. Mishaps. Glitches. Calamities. I get the flu. I mislay bills and incur late fees. By a hair, I miss hitting a deer on the road. Everything I cook burns. My keys disappear. My house is plagued by deferred maintenance. Skunks move in under my deck, and the pond is overrun with muskrats. I can’t sleep nights. And at the end of September, I get a traffic violation for failing to pull into the far lane when passing a blinking, parked cop car.

“Mom, you’re such a wimp,” I hear. And I know I’ve got to do better. So, I begin to drag myself out of the house and down the hill to the community that loved Marika. I start co-leading Chronic Disease Self-Management Workshops for the Tompkins County Health Department. I join a six-week hospice-sponsored group, Singing Through Your Grief, where mourners are supported as they share stories and sing. CompassionNet, a program serving New York State families of children with life-threatening illnesses, offers to pay for life coaching sessions.

“Why don’t you write a book?” asks my life coach, Marci Solomon.
“I would never,” I say, scrunching up my nose like Marika did when I suggested she wear shoes and socks in winter instead of sandals. But I enjoy writing responses to the questions Marci asks each week. And I eagerly do the homework from the Hospicare singing group.
“Your assignment is to pick a prompt from the list and write what you would tell your deceased loved one,” say Jayne Demakos and Kira Lallas, who lead Singing Through Your Grief. At the session that follows I read aloud what I wrote. A reverential silence followed by exuberant praise energizes me like richest chocolate.
“I will write for five hours this week,” I pledge at a Chronic Disease Self-Management workshop. Even the co-leaders are required to make and complete Action Plans, weekly contracts to do something for themselves, and then share their successes or failed attempts at the next meeting. The following week, “I will write for ten hours.”

It was just letters to Marika at first. Like on the TV game show Jeopardy, I teased out questions from her poems and songs, questions I wish I’d asked during our time together. What’s it like to be twenty and have cancer? What do you fear? How does cancer affect your relationships? … Memories swell up inside me. Words churn in my head. And when all the commotion is captured onto paper, I experience a thawing, a lightening. When I read aloud what I wrote, it becomes part of me. It makes me feel stronger. And it makes me sure this is not something I want to do on my own.

“Hey, Rachel, I’m writing a book,” I say over the phone. Then I call a dozen other friends. “I have an idea,” I say. “I’ve been writing a book and want to test it out. I want to do a series of simple dinners where I read aloud. Chapter by chapter, as I write. I’m calling these dinners ‘Feed and Reads.’ Would you come?”

It is so exciting to enlist listeners. With thirteen positive responses I begin two small groups that will fuel my energies over the next year with their kind and brave commitment. December starts out dreary. But I write for hours every day. Often by candlelight. For Marika, and now for the women who will gather together to hear me. Addicted to light, I line the driveway with solar-powered garden torches. I frame the mudroom door with rows of red mini-lights, and plant battery-operated plastic candlesticks in the windows up and down the house. I buy hundred-watt bulbs and full-spectrum therapy lamps to write by. Sweet light blossoms all around me, breaking the darkness as I write. Warm welcoming lights brighten the winter nights, the empty house, the long lonely driveway, and my dark heart. They beckon, they plead: come to me, come home.