Duetting: Memoir 42

Duetting: Memoir 42 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops the words and poems of her daughter who died of leukemia, in a scene exploring young love and cancer.

Remember how I warned you—my story bounces around a lot? This will be a bumpy ride. You will be jerked back and forth between times and places. Like now—before I continue with my journey in Australia, let me drag you back to the fall of 2010. Mainly because my heart is always being dragged back there, to the edge of a bottomless pit of regrets.

Autumn is one of my least favorite times. I don’t like to see summer die. Flowers shriveling up, leaves dropping, the woods turning colorless and cold … all followed by the long Upstate New York winter. Just thinking about the upcoming winter totally dims the richness of harvest time and the changing colors of the hills.

Marika, as always in September, was focused on what she would wear for Halloween. In remission, and on medical deferment from Ithaca College for a second year, Marika was taking two music courses at Tompkins Cortland Community College. She was singing again, writing and recording with her music partner, Russ. She and her friends had abandoned the old Limbo in Collegetown for a fresher, tidier apartment with a yard and parking area. Marika’s nights at the new Limbo with the old friends were livelier than ever. They could make Halloween last two whole months.

“On Wednesday, we have to leave for Rochester at seven-thirty in the morning. Do you want a wake-up call?” I asked as we drove back to her apartment after the Monday blood draw.
“So early?” she complained. She resented these trips. But I was excited. At any time, the Roc Docs could announce that a transplant donor had been found.

Two days later, picking Marika up at Limbo, I knocked lightly on her bedroom door,
“Mareek, are you ready?” There was a sudden scrambling on the other side.
“I’ll be right down,” she said, flustered, as she stumbled past me to the bathroom. “I’ll be in the car in five minutes,” she yelled from the toilet, my cue to go wait in the car. Someone was still scuffling around in her room, so I went downstairs to the car, wondering if there was a new boyfriend. I would be the last to know; she rarely shared anything about her love life. What kind of time was this to have a boyfriend anyway? Now that she had cancer my own life was all but halted. How did she get to have … A sudden loud clunk outside the car, Marika was gesturing sharply to unlock the door.

“Next time, I’m going up with a friend,” Marika said, like it was my fault she’d overslept. She threw herself into the back seat, slammed the door, and plugged her ears with the iPod earbuds. The ride to Rochester was long and silent. Who was the guy? I wondered. Much later, Rachel told me about Marika’s Australian boyfriend.
“Oh, the people, the parties, the bonfires, the laughing and drinking,” Rachel said, “all the time. Marika and Pat were so sweet together. She sang. He played the guitar. He told her stories.” Much later, I would find what Marika wrote about her first days with the Australian.

Marika on September 29, 2010:

It was a perfect autumn evening. A gray haze of clouds hung overhead and we just sat outside enjoying every breath, every minute of it. He strummed the guitar lazily while I sat in the grass humming to myself.
Inside we go. Fiddling around with the computer proved futile, and out of “exhaustion” we collapse onto the bed.
I cannot tell him. Not yet. My dream can’t be over yet.
I begin to feel my eyes shut and hear a silent laugh escape his lips out of amusement at my drowsiness.
When I open my eyes I pray he will be looking, but his eyes are closed. I sigh and drift off again a little.
Bits of chatter season the moment.
This is tag. Who will make the first move?
I shy away from the opportunity.
“What are you doing?” I ask myself. “You are leaving soon. He is leaving soon. None of this!”
I fight the butterflies in my stomach every time he moves.

Why do the best dreams always end so quickly?
After neither of us can stall any longer we rise and leave.
I will see him again. Night will come and I will dream again.

The next week goes by slowly. “Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor,” and I certainly missed my chance. I vow to myself that I will not forsake my next opportunity with him.
My next opportunity comes quickly.
We are sitting on my couch, surrounded by my friends. He is playing with my hair.
How I miss my hair.
We move upstairs. I know I should seize the moment, but he doesn’t know my secret. How could he know? He has not yet seen the scars that adorn my chest, or the surplus of medicine bottles in my dresser. He has not read the words in my journal, the doctors appointments on my calendar. Do I give myself to someone who knows not what baggage I carry? Do I tell him? I love that he doesn’t know. I love that he treats me as if I am healthy, normal.
Before I know it, it is too late. Our clothes litter the floor as we dance underneath the sheets of my bed.

I wake early. His eyes are closed. My hand instinctively rubs the scar on my collarbone as I wonder if he knows I am not quite right.
Once he awakens, we head downstairs. He is ready to leave when he asks. He asks the question that I dreaded the whole night. He inquires about my scars. My mind races. Do I lie? Do I risk him running away, or do I give him something else to mull over? I decide that honesty is the best route and I tell him about my scars. I tell him about my cancer.
Suddenly, he doesn’t have to leave. He stays for three more hours. We talk. We lie out in the sun and I listen to his wonderful stories. I try to remember as many stories as I can, knowing that soon I will be alone in hospital with nothing but memories to keep me alive. I try to remember everything: his voice, his kiss, his eyes…

I turn to memories. I turn to happy days. I can’t rewind. Instead my mind replays.

“Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor,” Marika quoted from the musical, Into the Woods, by Stephen Sondheim. It was her mantra in the fall of 2010 as she partied, stocking up on memories. Laurie and I berated her for being in denial. We were supposed to have the transplant now that she was in remission. And who knew how long this remission would last? We were in a race against time, against the incorrigible demon, cancer. Laurie printed out the bleak statistics on survival rates for transplants, and I couldn’t eat or sleep. But Marika—she wouldn’t even look at the pages. Marika was in love.

 

Duetting: Memoir 41

Duetting: Memoir 41 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops her grief journey to Sydney, Australia.

Marika’s Australian scrapbook is filled with names and words. Excited scrawls strewn over the pages: “Suki wishing well” and “Wishing Tree.” “Flying foxes.” “Floating stage.” It becomes a game, a scavenger hunt. Her words are clues that set me loose fishing for what she saw. I canvass my way all over Sydney, and question people in the streets to find what Marika found.

Which of the countless statues of dogs was a wishing well that reminded her of Suki? She wrote “Hot Sake,” so I feast in Asian eateries, imagining her delight at being able to drink legally in Australia. She wrote “seagull and Big Mac.” Could she have seen the same seagulls and egret punching around the MacDonald’s bag that only the long-beaked egret could successfully reach into? “Weddings!” she’d written, and I could feel her joy. Words are no longer just words. They are stories. ‘Weddings!’ is a story. ‘Wishing’ is a story. And the word ‘ashes’ is now my tour guide who tells me, “Mom, you hafta go to the Queen Victoria Building,” and “Go to Darling Harbour.”

I pounce on this city like a young child attacking a pile of presents. At Taronga Zoo I follow koalas, quokkas, and rabbit-eared bandicoots. At the Aquarium, I stand in awe, surrounded up and down and on all sides by fish that swim serenely to classical music. Hanging out near the University of Technology, I find exotic Chinese Gardens and flocks of colorful parrots. I follow my nose through aromatic Asian and Italian neighborhoods, and pick out a live barramundi fish to feast on in Chinatown. I scarf down fish fries on the wharf and stuff myself with mashed pea-and-meat pies at the Harry’s Café de Wheels truck. Hot on Marika’s trail, I eat ice cream and crepes for breakfast at Pancakes on the Rocks.

The streets are lit up when I go to see The Marriage of Figarro at the famous Sydney Opera House. A huge chandelier is suspended over a floating stage on Sydney Harbour for the next evening’s performance of La Traviata. Loud funky music blasts out of shops along Elizabeth Street where everything is young and full of life and light, all day and long into the night. For four full days I ride the buses and walk endlessly in and out of markets, shops, museums and parks. I hop on a ferry and toss Marika’s jewels into the water at Darling Harbour and off the Harbour Bridge. Dropping her bracelets into deep water, it feels like I’m planting her here.

On the evening of my last day in Sydney, I am on a ferry I took out of the harbor in order to get free Internet access. I need to be in touch with my support squad. It is time to leave Sydney, the easy part of my trip, the first part of my four-part journey, where I’ve gotten comfortable and now feel safe. I send out a message to my friends: I’m emailing you from the middle of Sydney Harbour! We just passed the Opera House. Looks like we’re headed for the Pacific now … connection could quit any time … hope this ferry returns to the wharf eventually… more to follow.

I’m kicking myself for assuming the boat would return to the same place. Like home, I don’t expect I can really get back, not like the way it was. And what can one assume in a place where you don’t dare drive because people drive on the left and pass on the right? As it turns out, I can’t even walk properly in Australia. For four days I’d bumped into people and done a do-si-do dance with them in the street trying to figure out who was supposed to move over, and where, to let the other pass. Until some BIG guy coming from the opposite direction grumbled in his adorable Australian accent, “Yer in ‘Stralia now, yer not in America, darlin’. Stay lift!” I got it. Just in time to leave the crowded streets of Sydney, the city that whispers to me, “It’s okay, your story’s no sadder than anybody else’s here.”

And in Sydney Airport once more, headed for Melbourne, I’m coddled as if there’s a sign on my front saying ‘delicate.’ I’m told I don’t have to take my box of ashes out for inspection. I don’t have to remove my shoes. And in a state of disbelief, I completely forget to take out my plastic-ziplock bag of liquids. So forgiving is Sydney. She purrs, “We’ve seen it all before.” And at the airline counter, the agent offers, “Since you’re here two hours early for your flight, we can send you on the earlier flight, no extra charge.”

‘Sydneysiders’ they call themselves proudly. What a warm, sweet beginning to my journey. Doing Sydney first was like starting a meal with dessert.

 

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 40

Duetting: Memoir 40 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a scene of hugging her luggage for dear life in airport security screenings.

Traveling from Ithaca, New York, is never easy. And to travel from Ithaca to Australia can take over thirty hours if all goes well and none of the three flights is delayed or cancelled. During those thirty hours I will be offered only two small meals and a snack. During those thirty hours, unless I check my luggage or make a fast friend, I will be anchored to my bags. It feels like they’re filled with bricks. Precious gold bricks, considering the irreplaceable contents. I mean, there was no way I was going to ‘check’ my daughter’s ashes so she could ride in the cargo pit of the plane. Nor her stuffed puppy. Nor her baseball cap, nor her polar tech fleece jacket that had already gone to Australia and back with Marika two years earlier. No, I stuffed the box of ashes and everything else into my carry-ons. And now I’ll have to have to squeeze myself, with my backpack and rolling bag, into tiny airport restroom cubicles all the way to Australia. And during those thirty hours, I will fly far enough away from Ithaca on the first day of spring that my whole concept of the year and seasons will be totally rattled upon arrival in Australia on the third day of autumn.

In the Ithaca Airport waiting area I look around at my fellow travelers who are mostly engaged in tablets or smartphones that light up travel-worn faces. No one else is hugging their luggage for dear life or seems close to tears. My first flight is cancelled due to thick fog in Newark. So I am stuck in the Ithaca Airport, talking to Marika’s ashes for almost four hours. And when the new flight is delayed, there is a complete revision of the plan I’d worked on for months. It is still unclear if the newest flight will ever take off.

I hold the bulging backpack on my lap, wrapping my arms around the bulk of it the way I held my belly in the last weeks of my last pregnancy. Back then, if I was safe, Marika was safe, and being good to myself meant being good to her. Worries of cancer then were even more foreign and far away than Australia.

Marika’s first airplane ride was when she was three months old, and weighed nineteen pounds. My father had given me three hundred dollars to “go buy Gregory a toy for his birthday.” Instead, I bought airplane tickets to visit my Dad for a weekend. It was the first time I was traveling by myself with two children. Marika, who weighed only four pounds less than her just-turned-two-year-old brother, was always attached to me then. So she was along for the ride. That was decades ago. Over time we had all become veteran travelers.

Marika-in-the-box and I finally take off from Ithaca.

Traveling is not easy these post-9/11 days, but traveling with ashes is just asking for trouble. The security guard in Newark regards the sealed black box with a frown and furrowed brows. He scans my face. I hold my breath and don’t know where to look, back into his eyes or at Marika’s box. He nods in the opposite direction, “Step over there, please.”

Immediately I take out the documentation: the previously requested confirmation from the Australian Consulate, raised-seal death certificate, crematorium papers, and letter from the funeral home. Some terrorist somewhere must have tried the old box-of-ashes trick because every airport over the course of our trip has a special procedure for handling sealed boxes. Sometimes there is a particular broiler-like rack for ash boxes to get x-rayed on. Agents also run tiny laser-like flashlights over every inch. And then there are tests where they don rubber gloves and rub the box with a colorless liquid on paper that turns blue. Or doesn’t. In the Los Angeles Airport, my heart pounds and I momentarily abandon my shoes at the end of the x-ray screener when Marika and I are separated into different sections as they sonogram her box from every side. I recall a family vacation years back, just months after 9/11, when a last-minute random sampling search had targeted eleven-year-old Marika, separating her from me and her brother who had already charged ahead to board the plane. Torn between the two, I had run after her.

“It’s okay, Mareek,” I tell her ashes after the sonogram. Traveling with ashes, I have someone to talk to who shouldn’t be interfering with the plans. But she does.
“Mom, I’m starving. Pleeease. You promised,” I hear her every time we pass a Starbucks kiosk or airport sushi bar.
“Her remains,” they’d informed me at Bang’s Funeral Home, when I went to pick up the letter affirming that the box was indeed filled with ashes, “are the last physical leftovers, the flakes and chunks and chips of her bones.” Even reduced to crumbs, she’s still bossing me around. And as chunks and chips, she is heavy.

After three flights and what feels like a year later, Marika and I arrive at Sydney International Airport. Getting off the plane, I sense her excitement, especially when the security dog from Sydney Customs comes by, wagging its tail. I was sure, after all the fuss at each airport’s security station, our arrival at customs in Sydney would be the killer. But the security dog does not stop at our carry-on, now laid by my toes along the yellow line on the floor with everyone else’s belongings. The dog goes straight for the punky fat guy with the earring. It trots right by us to his stuff, which really appeals to that dog. And I swear I can feel Marika’s ashes jump for joy as it passes, “Here pup! Awwww, come ‘ere pup.” The dog ignores my precious bundle on the floor. So Sydney is the first airport out of four where my box of Marika is not subjected to swabbings, dustings, x-rays, or severe scrutiny. It took a fraction of a second to pass that canine sniff test, and now Sydney is ours without a single question. And dog-tired as I am, I quickly replicate, in the hotel room, the tiny altar I’d set up at home with her box, photos, stuffed Puppy, and chocolates. Through the hotel window, the early evening light on the harbor calls to me. Any mother and daughter would need to take a break after traveling non-stop together for almost two days. So I scurry out of the room, and right away begin my exploration of Sydney.

 

Duetting: Memoir 39

Duetting: Memoir 39 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a poem written by her daughter who died of leukemia onto her photograph of a sea of clouds.

My story bounces around a lot. Back and forth between times. That’s because I, myself, am always straddling time, living with one foot firmly planted in the past and the other limping in the here-and-now. Time is so squirrely. It’s always getting waylaid by something catastrophic or miraculous, or just plain draining.

What am I doing? I ask myself when almost everything I do is for Marika. In the spring of 2012, I’m going to Australia to carry out her last wishes. The trip is an extravagance I would never have allowed myself. But someone was going to have to go someday, unless we would have brazenly mailed her ashes off to that Australian she loved, who never answered my emails, and let him dispose of her ashes, easy and cheap. No. In April 2012, I am still standing guard over her. Her ashes. This is part of our journey together. And for me, a journey is never simply a distance covered in time or space. It’s an opportunity to change something. It can be open-ended, intuitive, or steeped in purpose, but a journey is dependent on attitude more than intentions. Where will I allow myself to go? Can I stay open to whatever comes my way? And if something goes wrong, if “broken tides collide” like Marika wrote, will I be able to smile—one day, if not immediately—and accept that it was simply what happened? Just part of where that journey would intercept another path?

Australia was Marika’s dream for another shot at life, a life without cancer. And when my journey is over I, too, will start a new life. My life without her.

I have to keep reminding myself I will not find Marika in Australia. Not a trace of her. She was there only two weeks. When she left home, I gave her tickets and a Triple-A Travelcard loaded with three hundred dollars. I told her not to spend money on anything for me. I just wanted to know about different foods she would find. And she gave me, on her return, cookies and a postcard with a cheeky four-year-old in a superhero costume on the front. It was a government-issued advertisement for product safety she’d gotten for free.

“Mom,” she had written on the back of the card, “Always Marika, Top 5 foods from Australia to try: 1. Vegimite!! – Very salty 2. TimTams – Especially dark 3. Rosy Apple Bits – ask me for some 4. Australian style bacon – probably can’t find in US 5. Lamington slice – I couldn’t find. I need to try too!” Right there was an unfinished mission, I noted.

Then there’s her scrapbook with clippings, postcards, and brochures. And photos. Photos Laurie and I googled to match the backgrounds with images of particular places. So I could have an idea of where Marika’s feet had taken her, “which way my feet are going,” like Marika said.

She had flown to Australia alone to meet up with her lifelong friend from Ithaca, Carla, who was at school in Sydney for the year. Marika had other friends there as well. I will have no one. She’d asked for extra money to rent a car and I’d said no. So I will not allow myself to have a car there either. I will not open the box to spread her ashes until after Sydney, after one last flight five days later to Melbourne. I’ll take four full days in Sydney to calm my apprehensions, fuel my courage. I’d planned as much as I could before the trip so I wouldn’t end up immobilized by fear in hotel rooms for the whole two week trip. Yes, I’m terrified. That is why, on my last night home, I emailed twenty-two women, my Australia-Alone Support Squad:    

If you’re getting this email it is because I regard you as someone who has been strong and supportive, and I need your help now. I am on my way to Australia with Marika’s ashes. But I am not alone. I have her stuffed Puppy, my iPad, and you. It is scary but I can do this …

To Marika I wrote, in response to her poem: Marika, I am not “Flying to You.” There will be no one and nothing to greet me. I will arrive alone, tired and hungry, and scared because I will have to fend for myself as soon as the plane lands. I will not be rewarded with your smile or anyone’s open arms. Oh, to be flying to someone I love. And now, over this past year of grieving, I have found all your words, all over the house. There won’t be any more poems left to find when I get home. But while I was packing, I came across a framed drawing of a rabbit you’d made that said “Welcome Home Mom.” I put it on the mantle outside my bedroom, to be the first thing that greets me when I return from Australia.

Let the royal rumpus begin, I always say upon starting an adventure. Buckle up. We’re gonna bounce around a lot.

Duetting: Memoir 38

Duetting: Memoir 38 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops her daughter's poem onto a scene of driving the highway at night.

I’m an expert on fear. Long ago I defined two categories, based on how hard it hit: the immediate mind-gripping terror where one may respond quickly and with focus; and the kind of fear that festers deep inside, an ache that slowly gnaws away at one’s heart and gut. Fear is what fuels most of my functioning. It’s also what immobilizes me. I’ve learned to mostly tame it by looking ahead, asking, “What’s next?”

At the end of July 2012 on Long Island, after moving from my cousin’s place to the Ronald MacDonald House, and spending weeks wandering the halls at the North Shore Medical Center, my daughter and I were permitted to go home. We would need to make weekly trips back to Long Island. Even so, the prospect of having several days a week in Ithaca for whatever summer was left, cheered us. But shortly after arriving home, Marika developed chills and fever. We dashed to our local hospital where she was pumped with antibiotics, and then we were sent back to Long Island. Marika’s leukemic white blood cell count had climbed high off the charts. Afraid of a repeat of the syndrome that put her into respiratory failure and nearly killed her the first summer of cancer, the new Long Island team gave her a dose of a Phase Three experimental drug that was only made available to patients who had no choices left. Mylotarg was called a “magic bullet.” Unlike chemo drugs that kill or damage everything, the Bullet targeted only leukemia cells for destruction, and left the liver, kidneys, and other organs intact.

The Bullet worked for Marika in just one dose. But the trouble with the Bullet was its frequent side effect, horribly high fever. Fever that surged after a day of hibernation. Fever that was impossible to tell if it was from the Bullet or from some hidden, lurking infection. Getting close to summer’s end, Marika desperately wanted to be home where most of her friends were preparing to leave for their colleges. We both yearned to go home. Fever was the only thing holding us back.

When she was free from fever for two days, we left Long Island. It was a Friday afternoon, when everyone else was fleeing for the weekend. We slowly inched our way out as the Brit in the new GPS dragged us through the scenic route of New York City. We were stuck for hours in traffic. In the heat. Sitting in the passenger seat, excited to be going home, Marika was talking to me once again. She was pink. Maybe too pink in the air-conditioned car. Between us a brown paper bag held her meds and a thermometer. Finally out of traffic, we approached the more remote parts of Pennsylvania, and stopped for dinner.

“I’ve got a fever again,” Marika announced, removing the thermometer that chirped the now familiar alarm of four sets of three high beeps. She took a dose of Tylenol, and we downed hamburgers and cold drinks at MacDonalds, ordering extra drinks for the road. She took her temperature again, and drank another icy diet coke as I started up the car.
“Mom, it’s up. It’s a hundred-two point nine now.”
“We’re in the middle of nowhere,” I said. The single server at MacDonalds had been unable to help locate a hospital, so we got back on the road to Scranton. Marika checked her temp every ten minutes and toyed with the GPS as I drove. One hundred-three, she whimpered. I think I began to pray then.

“Mom, a hundred-three point four.”
“Are you okay?” I fixed my eyes on the road and heard my own voice getting higher.
“I’m okay,” she said.
“There’s a blue hospital sign. The blue H,” I pointed out. We drove on and on and there was no other sign. It was dusk and it was getting hard to see. I almost ran a stop sign looking for anything that resembled a hospital. Please help us. Someone. Where’s the darn hospital?
“A hundred-four, Mom.”
“Okay, another blue H, I think this is it, can you read that sign?” A one-way street and hidden entrance to a full parking lot, “This doesn’t look like a hospital. Is it? Yeah. I’m gonna drop you off at the emergency entrance.”
“No! I can wait. I’m okay,” she implored.
“Mareek–I have to park in the garage, way down the road.”
“I’m not getting out,” she hollered. So I parked illegally, as close as I dared, and together we headed into the emergency room.

“This is a cancer patient on two trial drugs with a hundred-four fever,” I screamed to the woman who seemed too calm behind the glass window at the emergency check-in. Marika was looking very gray now that she was on her feet. Someone shoved her into a wheelchair and took off with her, and I ran to keep up as they wheeled down endless halls and around corners of the strange single-story building that was unlike any of the hospitals we’d frequented the past two years. What kind of hospital was this? Now that we were back in a hospital, a part of me believed we were safe, or that her safety was out of my hands. So then the second type of fear, the gnawing, festering fear-ache, took over. It had sat heavily in the back of my mind ever since I’d been given the papers, in triplicate, labeled ‘Healthcare Proxy.’

Marika had first asked Rachel, and Rachel, knowing what it was, had turned her down. I was Marika’s second choice. Though I did not fully understand what the document meant, it meant everything to me to have been chosen over her father. I had never really considered the day I’d actually have to represent Marika or guess her wishes. But now we were in a strange hospital somewhere outside of Scranton, and Marika was burning up. I unfolded and refolded the piece of paper that lived in the bottom of my tiny purse. Was this going to be the night? Would I have to make life and death decisions for her? Tonight?

At two in the morning, when the fever had died somewhat, after tons of tests and our promise to go straight to our local Cayuga Medical Center, we were released.

Driving in the dim hours before dawn, I was wide-awake. Something had changed around us. My heart was no longer pounding but I was acutely aware of my daughter as a time-ticking catastrophe. Out the windshield, the sky was a vast ocean over the black hills scooting by. Stars shone above the deserted highway that wound toward home. The world was frighteningly beautiful. Quiet. Peaceful. And in the car, on that almost-last night in August, riding side by side the final two hours to home, Marika and I shared brief bits of conversation, too drained to keep up our usual guarded disconnection.

“I’m gonna take a road trip next summer, with a girl I met in Australia,” she said. “We’re gonna start out in Boston and visit Laurie and my friends at Clark.”
“Neat,” I said. “You think you’ll wanna try to do camp again?”
“This is before camp starts,” she said, “Yeah.”
“Well, this summer’s done.” My eyes widened, taking in the shadowy landscape as I drove. We were planning, considering, “What’s next?” and didn’t know—we had no clue—this would be Marika’s last summer. I said, “Next year we’re gonna have a real summer. No hospitals or cancer centers.”

Duetting: Memoir 37

Duetting: Memoir 37 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a sea of highways to illustrate her fear of waves, fear of cancer, and fears of getting lost.

Long Island, New York. I knew nothing about how to navigate my way around the place of my birth. Yet every cell in my body was acutely aware I was back home. My original home. Where Marika was immediately accepted into the drug trial program at North Shore Medical Center. Insurance was going to pay for it so we were going to be stuck on Long Island for most of the summer. I followed the GPS instructions to my cousin Norm’s apartment in Woodbury, twenty minutes away. Norm was graciously giving us his guest room and the living room couch for our first weeks in treatment. We unloaded Marika’s belongings into the guest room before she took off with Rachel. I got the couch.

The girls spent as much time together as they could between Marika’s appointments and Rachel’s classes. Some days Rachel took Marika to Jones Beach, my old hangout. They wore eye make-up and dressed in little bikinis. Marika’s tiny cutoffs sat well below her navel ring. Joined by friends, they wave-surfed and picnicked with wine coolers, beer, and watermelon. They stayed up late, stargazing in Hofstra’s intramural fields where Marika sang long into the night with strangers who brought guitars. They laughed, made up lyrics, and ducked in the gully to avoid the patrolling public safety enforcers. Marika went with Rachel’s friends to a concert in Brooklyn where the tickets were sold out so they climbed over a fence to watch for free. They rollicked all over Long Island while I lay low, reading in Norm’s apartment where it was cool and quiet. Except for a noisy air conditioner. Which I kept off as much as I could stand, not wanting to hike up Norm’s electric bill. When temperatures fell below eighty, I ventured out to hike along Jericho Turnpike. It was harrowing to walk alongside moving vehicles, but I felt oddly alive being whipped by the hot blasts of their passing. I couldn’t simply sit inside all the time. Sometimes I just needed to be out under the sky, to have room to stretch.

The GPS was set to find the medical center, west of Norm’s. It was set to find Rachel at Hofstra, somewhere east. “Have GPS will travel” was my motto. When Marika went out with Rachel, I sometimes took off to find Turkish restaurants, shopping sites, and parks to walk around. Anywhere I could get an address to plug into my GPS. But on one hot afternoon, driving Marika to Rachel’s, we noticed the GPS was dying. First, the feisty female voice quit. Lindsay Lohan with barely restrained attitude stopped ordering me around, stopped badgering me, sneering, “Ree-lo-cating,” like she had to work hard not to add, “dumb bitch, you missed this turn for the fifth time.” If she had eyes, she’d have rolled them like Marika. She ditched me.

Then the map disappeared. By the time I dropped Marika off, the text of instructions had gone entirely as well. I felt abandoned. Terrified, I tried to retrace my way back to Norm’s, but I was lost. I drove on, searching desperately for something familiar. I was in a sea of highways. Wide bands of roads crammed with cars crisscrossed, curled, and tangled over and under in churning waves. Directionless, I wiped my sweaty forehead, and continued with the flow of traffic until an exit advertised a shopping mall. I turned anxiously from the highway, my first intentional move on Long Island without the guidance of a global positioning system, and found the mall’s Best Buy. A half hour later, with the new Garmin Nuvi GPS set to a charming British male voice, I was back on the road again.

Almost every town I passed on Long Island had a memory tucked away: an old boyfriend who lived in Wantagh, a factory my father once owned in Westbury, the parking lot at Roosevelt Field where our family dog died when a friend left it in a hot car. Most haunting about being back though, was the ocean. It was in the air all around me, always just beyond the crowded highways and stretches of shopping centers. It was in my blood. To be on Long Island in the summer was to feel the Atlantic Ocean and the Long Island Sound pulsing in every part of me.

Living in Ithaca, I missed the ocean. So we’d take vacations to beaches, with boogey boards and picnics. My children were fearless in the water, maybe because I’d swung them around in Cayuga Lake and in pools and ponds from early on. But I was always terrified of waves. If I went into the sea, I stood stiffly in the waves, jumping up as high as I could at each swell, keeping the kids close, ready to grab before they could be pulled under. Because as a young girl, one summer on Jones Beach, I was swept away by a wave. Not very far. But I remember being petrified, helpless under the water. The sea was way stronger than I. It was vast and violent below its surface. And it wanted to swallow me. Crying, I finally pulled myself up out of the shallow remains of the wave and looked about. I could not find my mother whose hand I’d been holding only a moment before. Salt water stung my nose and throat. All around, concerned strangers reached out to help me. But I was not supposed to talk to strangers. I was frantic. Lost. Battered by the ocean I’d loved. And where was my mother?

That trauma haunted my dreams. It gave me a tremendous respect for water. It made becoming a lifeguard the hardest thing I ever tried. And it fired a small current in me every time I watched my children in the waves. In no way could I stand the thought of Marika or her brother being lost or scared like that. In pain. In any sort of trouble, with no mother to protect them. Back on Long Island during the summer of 2010, I visited the ocean at Jones Beach only once. I didn’t have to see it more than that. It was in me.