Duetting: Memoir 68 Epilogue

Duetting: Memoir 68 Epilogue Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops herself and her daughter who died wearing masks like they did back in the days of cancer and caregiving, and took precautions similar to those taken for the COVID pandemic.

On the tenth anniversary of Marika’s death, in the spring of 2021, I am once more about to re-enter a changed world. Gently, my dead daughter drags me from the table where I’ve been blogging and Photo-shopping for almost a decade. It awes me to consider Marika’s been dead for ten years. Dead but not completely gone, some remnant of her now coaxes me from the house and down the long rocky driveway to where it meets the highway.

At the beginning of 2020, I had wanted to be out with people more, to spend less time and energy writing. So, instead of having to come up with new material each week for my blog, I started sharing the manuscript I’d already written about our journey through the wilds of cancer. Over the course of the year I broke up the 200-page/21-chapter memoir into weekly blogs and Photo-shopped illustrations for each, “Just to keep in touch [with my readers] while I venture out to discover where life will lead me next,” I wrote in the first entry. Then, shortly after I began, the world broke out into the COVID-19 Pandemic. Life, as I knew it, ended once again. And I was stuck social-distancing at home, alone with Marika’s ghost, her dog Suki, my computer, and my manuscript. Reflecting on this difficult past year, I believe that what kept me going was the rewriting, illustrating, and sharing of our stories, with Suki and the sweet ghost of my daughter by my side.

This COVID thing. It takes me back to the days of cancer and caregiving, when Marika and I wore masks and avoided crowds, always fretting about germs. That was when I first learned to sing the birthday song twice-over while scrubbing my hands. I would scrutinize everyone we came into contact with for any signs of infection or possible contamination. Living with cancer was so lonely back then. If only we’d had Zoom. Marika would have been endlessly zooming parties from her hospital bed. Maybe I could have zoomed my son and Laurie instead of burying my head in novels so much of that time.

Because of the novel coronavirus, I haven’t seen Greg in well over a year. He texts and phones me regularly from California where he works in executive security. I am so proud of him, employed and keeping up his own apartment during these chaotic times when so many sons and daughters are struggling. “There’s always a place for you here,” I tell him, in case things change.

Laurie phones me. And sends gifts through the mail. She still practices medicine but works online at her home these days. I miss her and look forward to the day my sisters and I can all get together again in person.

And Rachel. I mean Ray. On the eve of the tenth anniversary, Ray texts me from his cozy home in Florida, “Sushi tonight,” and I text him back, “Sushi tonight and tomorrow. Wish it could be with you.” Ray is a very handsome man now. He’s worked hard to find himself and make a good alcohol-free life. Yet he readily talks about his beginnings. And when I mention the dream I recently had where he was still Rachel, he told me he sometimes dreams of himself in his old life as Rachel, as well.

My friend Liz is my COVID buddy. Throughout the pandemic we have shared meals in each other’s houses and formed a tiny safe pod to get through this time. On the morning of the tenth anniversary, we mask up and meet at Ithaca’s new Trader Joe’s where she tells me first thing, “You have to buy flowers for Marika.” Then I shop like in the old times, bringing home more than I can possibly stuff into the freezer.

Suki, my inherited dog, is eleven years old now. My constant companion during the pandemic, she’s still hiking with me several times a week in the remote hills around Ithaca. It’s eerie how Suki often stares intently out across the living room, tentatively wagging her tail as if she maybe sees the shadow of someone she once knew and loved. If Marika were to actually appear, that dog would go ballistic jumping and a-leaping, dog-kissing her and squealing in joy.

As for me, I try to be One Tough Cookie, an expression of my mom’s I adopted after she died two years ago. I don’t want people to look at me and see only the pathetic Mother Whose Daughter Died. Okay, I do now-and-then nosedive into my grief, needing to wallow in the pain. And sometimes a song or smell will trigger me into a meltdown. But most days I’m filled with gratitude. Even during these COVID times, the life I lead is one I love, is one Marika would be proud of, is one she would have loved to live herself. I am the Mother Who Swallowed Her Daughter. There’s something of her in me now that soars at each opportunity for adventure, that sings in the car on the way to and from home. I now view the world through two sets of eyes, Marika’s and mine. And I carry her with me in joy as much as in sadness. 

I’m still on the fence about religion and heaven. And angels. And where one ends up after dying. My best friend from childhood, who discovered God and became an ordained minister over the decades I lost touch with her, told me God is everything, is in everything. That works for me. To me that means God is in Marika. And that makes me less embarrassed about admitting that these days I pray mostly to Marika. That’s not meant to sound irreverent. But maybe if we all connected the people around us to God in that way, we’d end up treating each other a lot better.

It took me four years to even consider joining a grief support group. One day I became a volunteer making bereavement phone calls for Ithaca’s Hospicare and Palliative Care Services, and shortly after, I began attending a child loss support group through Hospicare. That group eventually became the Ithaca Chapter of The Compassionate Friends. TCF is a peer support community for families that have experienced the death of a child, at any age, from any cause. Through TCF, we see the many different ways to live—with and without—our children who died. A dedicated member, when I realized there were other bereaved parents having problems socializing, I organized an offshoot of our local group to gather over monthly potluck dinners at members’ homes. All these get-togethers have had to operate via Zoom during COVID. And that is how I ended Marika’s tenth anniversary day, zooming with good friends who “get me.”

In November 2017 I returned to Australia. Traveling solo again for that trip, I met up in Adelaide, Melbourne, and Sydney with other bereaved mothers I’d found and friended on Facebook. Bonds formed easily with these strangers on the other side of the planet as we shared our stories and photos. And in Sydney, after giving me a tour of the city and the university Marika was to attend, TCF New South Wales president Jenny Wandl brought me to a monthly TCF meeting before taking me to her home to cremate Marika’s stuffed Puppy in her outdoor grill. It turns out Puppy was made of polyester, not cotton. So her remains were hard black chunks rather than ashes. Which reminded me that we’re all made of tougher stuff than we think. With Jenny’s help I scattered what was left of Puppy in the rocky shallows of Sydney’s Manley Beach. Being non-biodegradable, perhaps Puppy’s remains are still floating there among the rocks.

In the winter of 2021, I got the two COVID-19 vaccinations, each time holding tight to the memory of Marika grabbing my hand whenever she got a blood draw or injection. Sometime after my second shot, I woke up early one morning having dreamed of her. But it wasn’t the dream that woke me. I heard her say, “Mom,” her voice, spoken distinctly, close to my ear as if she was standing right over me. Just the one word, “Mom.” It was almost physical, like I could feel the breath in it. In over ten years I had not heard her voice so loud or clearly. And Marika’s voice didn’t fade like most dreams fade. It kept me smiling for weeks. I can feel it still.

I don’t know what’s next for me. It’s been cozy and safe, staying close to home. But almost daily, something of Marika drags me out into the world. On the news now they’re saying vaccinated persons no longer need to wear masks. I’m still wearing mine around my neck and keep an extra in my purse, but the Marika in me is already tearing it off and applying Very Berry Lip Gloss. She tells me, “Mom, I want to eat INSIDE a restaurant,” and has me checking out menus online. With her encouragement, every day I inch out a bit further from the house in one direction or the other. No longer rolling her eyes at me, in gentle prodding she says, “Mom, get a life. It’s time.”

 

 

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 67

Duetting: Memoir 67 Robin botie of Ithaca, New York photoshops layers upon layers to illustrate layers of grief and continuing bonds.

“Oh no! It’s gone,” I cry out in the middle of photography class. “All my work is lost. It just disappeared.” My heart stops and I stare in disbelief at an empty computer screen.
“Just hit Float All In Windows,” says Harry, the instructor. In a click my precious “lost” images are recovered and neatly lined up awaiting my next command. “You don’t lose anything in Photoshop,” Harry tells me. “It’s all right there. It’s just hidden in another layer.”

Layers. Photoshop is endlessly full of layers. They drive me crazy. They also intrigue me. Adjustment layers, restoration layers, background and mask layers … the opportunities to lose and find things are endless.

Grief is endless. But grief changes. The cumulonimbus clouds that hung on me have turned into delicate cirrus wisps high over Cayuga Lake. The frozen mud has thawed, and I can breathe once more. I’m light. In love with fragile, beautiful, unpredictable life. And it’s April again. The geese are back. But they don’t stay to nest. No, now I have ducks. And Marika. She’s here. In Ithaca, with me, still. But it’s different.

Around town, by the lake and gorges, and the Downtown Commons, I am warmed remembering this was her home. She was here. Some part of her is still here. Out with friends, in restaurants on Aurora Street, I clink my wineglass and make a silent toast. Walking her dog late at night in the driveway, I sing to her, and ask, “What exceptional thing will we do tomorrow, Mareek?” ­And in the house, where her image smiles back at me from every corner, I light a candle over dinner, saying, “One for good luck,” meaning, one for Marika.

Once in a while she appears in my dreams: I open a car door and she is in the back seat. She’s walking the Commons with a companion. Or we’re jogging. Or shopping. She is always young, healthy, and bright as the sun.

“I saw her, Suki,” I say on waking in the early hours of morning. Then I let the dream fade away as Suki rolls over for a belly-rub. I no longer keep my dreams in a notebook. I don’t need to look for Marika. She is hidden in the myriad of layers surrounding me. She is inside me. She’s in the shadows and corners, the undefined edges of space between what one sees and what one imagines. Close by, but beneath layers. Layers I often overlook in my continual quest to find the too-big answers. Layers that occasionally yield a tiny earring lost long ago in the carpet under her bed. Layers that tease me with the sounds of her trying on new jeans in the dressing room across from mine, or that suddenly flash her name or face on the computer. That stop me each time I pass a sushi place. The layers of ash and earth, of galaxies in the universe, of the internet. Layers of memories and dreams. Of who I am and who I was. Between my joy and my sorrow. There are layers where what we love and thought we lost can be found. And kept. Or set free. So many layers. So many choices. We can plummet into despair missing our loved ones—missing out on the joys in our own lives—or we can allow our love to be a source of new energy, creativity, and strength.

I am my own lifeguard now and I choose to guard Marika’s life as I guard my own. She is part of me. Pain and death are layers of my experience. They are not things to get over or through. My life has been shaped as much by her dying as it has been by having children, by being my soldier-father’s daughter, by fearing the ocean and becoming a lifeguard anyway. By allowing Marika to be my beacon of light. We’re in this together. In almost everything I do, I am duetting with my daughter who died. This is who I am now. This is how I am holding my self together. Together with my daughter.

And as I venture into the next chapters of my life, I take her with me. She will always be here, somewhere in another layer, not too far. Maybe right in front of my nose.

It is May 2013. A year ago, on the way back from Australia, I fell and broke that nose. It’s healed now. There was a lot of time to figure out that healing means more than simply being brought back to the original condition. I still have a big nose, but these days it sits quietly in the middle of my face and does not bully my other features for attention. When it was set, it lost some of its hook. It lost lots of its prominence in my mind. Now it’s more crooked but it’s mine and it fits.

These days, when I look in the mirror I see my eyes first. They are eyes that scan life down to the tiniest pixels. They sweep the sky. These eyes watched my daughter take her last breath. And watched my son turn into a man. Someday these eyes may witness the first breaths of a grandchild. Or they may again seek the departing soul of another loved one. My eyes have earned their furrowed trails of lines that branch out and upwards. No longer shuttered, these eyes are ever on the lookout for the best times.

“I was fragile, yet strong, among all of the smiling faces around me
making a pool with me in the center of all of the surrounding energy.”

Marika wrote this. These were the last of her words I found. Days before I left to scatter her ashes in Australia, I’d scoured the house to have all of her to take with me. These words were in her attic loft, in a notebook with nothing written before or after them. As though she was starting a new story.

As though she was starting my new story.

 

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 66

Duetting: Memoir 66 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York photoshops images of the ones she loves in order to snuggly wrap up and put away into neat and safe nests.

Some things cannot be wrapped up, tied up and put neatly away. Like people. Like the love you have for them. There is no closure when it comes to the ones you have loved. We all talk about moving on but it doesn’t mean we have to purge ourselves of the memories and beautiful parts of our past lives.

I will go out into the world again, and see what I find, and find how I fit. This is what I tell myself in the spring of 2013, two years after my daughter’s death. I did not get to launch Marika. Instead, in 2013, she is launching me.

Typically, a child is sent forth fortified by the lessons and leanings of the parent. But now it’s me venturing out into the world, and I’m taking what I’ve learned from my daughter. Each new day, I drift farther from the course we shared, yet I carry her with me. Her spirit. Her smile. Her words. Her way of riding the wave of a birthday or victory or something she deemed exceptional, by celebrating the heck out of it. Her gravitation toward the light of others, toward gatherings. The ease with which she could snap out of a funk or get a friend to. Her stubbornness and resolve. These things grow in me now. And they are setting me in motion.

Except for the grief. It’s always there and it has a stifling effect on any movement forward. Grief is just all this love I still have, cooped up inside me, which I don’t know what to do with. It drains me. And it feels like I won’t ever be able to love again. It’s like when a friend comes over unannounced at dinnertime on a day when you have only a few leftovers in the fridge. And you think your cupboards are empty, that you have nothing to share. But somehow what’s there ends up being enough to feed you both. I have to remind myself: I’m still enough. Even with a wounded heart. The friends who keep calling, even though I’m often horribly unapproachable, see something worthwhile in me.

My friends. They listen, worry, and sometimes still raise a brow when I mention Marika. They’ve come to understand that I need to hear and talk about her, that I can’t stand the thought of her being forgotten. When they phone me on Marika’s birthday or send me flowers on the anniversaries of her death, I gush with gratitude. For the closest ones I make a huge salad every weekend. My salads are pure celebrations of life. Of the sweet and savory, the bitter and the bland. Into the greens I throw local ingredients and exotic delicacies, colorful vegetables, cheese, nuts, legumes, seafood, fruit or edible flowers. Each toss is a song of love for those who have hung in there, seeing me through hard times.

Almost every day, I hike with Suki and friends, all over Ithaca and beyond. In between, there are photo shoots, long sessions in Photoshop, and writing groups. I write daily and post a weekly blog. And fumble on social media sites, trying to expand and keep up with a growing group of followers. It’s exhilarating. It’s like flying. Tweeting and Friend-ing people; Marika would have loved this. It’s my life now. And she is my lodestar.

Once a month I take Rachel, I mean Ray, going on 526 days of sobriety in the spring of 2013, out to dinner. With his new wife. They chatter about their puppy, new jobs, and the upcoming move to their first shared apartment. Every so often Ray relinquishes a scarf or shirt that once belonged to Marika, and it’s like getting a precious gift from a past lifetime.

Laurie, as always, is only a phone call away. Late nights, we talk about going to Australia. Her knee has healed but I’m not sure about her heart. She collected the photographs from Marika’s Facebook page before it disappeared, and put them on a thumb drive for me, not knowing how for years I’d pick photos from it to virtually visit with Marika in Photoshop. Laurie treats every one of her patients like they’re her beloved niece.

“Mom, I leave for Afghanistan in two weeks,” Greg announces in April 2013, having accepted a position with a private security contractor. In my head a huge wave swells and I have to catch my breath to jump over it. For a long time I knew this was coming. My days disintegrate anyway. It snows at the end of April. The driveway floods. Another friend is diagnosed with cancer. But on Facebook new friends cheer me on. In Photoshop I dress Suki in armor, and superimpose several selfie-shots into one picture so it looks like I’m hugging myself. Maybe I like to ‘shop because it lets me control my universe. In Photoshop I’m not at the mercy of cancer or the changing tides. I can shift-click, drag-and-drop a girl running with her rabbit into the flaming sun. Stars shine and flowers bloom in my living room. I can move the moon. I can pretend I’m snuggly wrapping up the ones I love in intricately crafted nests. I ‘shop my son safe in his red Hummer in the driveway at home, far from the dangerous places on earth he’s drawn to.

“I love you, and I’ve loved having you here,” I tell Greg after his announcement about Afghanistan. “How can I help?”
“Uh, can you iron this shirt for me?” he shrugs.

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 65

Duetting: Memoir 65 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York Photoshops a ghostly presence of her daughter who died.

Years ago I hated taking photographs. Having a camera in front of my eyes kept me from experiencing the world, I used to say, I couldn’t be present to what was around me if I was focusing through a camera. But now, with my digital Sony RX100 that fits in a pocket, I can capture so much I didn’t even realize was there. Its postage stamp-sized plastic chip holds a million memories in tiny thumbnail scenes. Memories, and sometimes surprises. I click, drag, and drop the tiny images from the chip into the Photoshop program on my computer where I can enlarge or erase, copy as-is, or change them. Then I spend hours remaking reality. In Photoshop there are intriguing “tools” to work with. Tools geared to fixing. A Patch Tool and a Path Selection Tool, a Dodge Tool and an Add Anchor Tool. A Magic Eraser and a Magic Wand … a Clone Stamp. And a Healing Brush.

One gray day in early March 2013, I pass an old abandoned home. I stop because I’d grown up across the street from a ‘haunted’ house, and as a curious kid I’d peeked into the clouded windows to find traces of former inhabitants. Even vacated, there remained a vague residue of the lives that came and went. This other empty house just outside Ithaca now captivates my imagination. Respectfully, I approach the threshold to snap pictures and consider how I might ‘shop a ghost-image of Marika onto its porch. But back home, I reconsider as I view the images in Photoshop. The house is beautiful in itself. It wears its own stories in chipped paint that reveals familiar patterns in the weathered wood underneath. There’s no need to imprint my own longings onto it. Two years after Marika’s death, I find I’m filled with a deeper regard for others’ hearts and homes that house memories of lost loved ones. Loss and grief do not belong only to me.

Sooner or later we all lose someone we love. Then, critically wounded, we wallow in hopeless despair, suffering regrets and guilt, fatigue, denial, depression, anger … all sorts of symptoms and phases of grief. And finally we scramble to adapt, to redefine our lives, and find our new selves amid the gutted remains of our broken hearts.

Why don’t we learn about death early on, like in grade school, I wonder? Why don’t they prepare us in high school for all the dying we’re going to be faced with in the course of our lives? We should know that the longer we live, the more people, pets, and plants will die before us, and that the deaths of the ones we love most are going to scour our hearts raw. Allowing ourselves to get slammed by death over and over again—is this the humanness of us? Watching the bereaved keen and crumple every time—is this godliness? And why aren’t we taught how to use all our pain and longing as a source of new strength?

To live on after loss is to hold on, and let go, and love again, all at the same time. There are no rules, no right or wrong ways to go about grieving. This whole grief thing is just our individual journeys or unique adaptations to loss, which may eventually lead to growth, but could alternatively wipe us out.

Before she died, Marika and I were in the middle of a great mother-daughter divide. She was almost out the door when cancer clobbered her. Us. After two years stuck together sallying through cancer, Marika was ready to move clear across the world to get away from me. And one day she would have come back. There would have been graduations, shopping trips for gowns, maybe a wedding … grandchildren. All the would-haves have disintegrated. Now I hold onto Marika’s memory and her words, and let go of her future. And the future I’d imagined for myself. But I will not let go of her. Her absence is a presence. Something still remains, and even without a physical presence there is still a relationship. I watch as it mellows with time.

And I discover almost daily that all around me there are others dealing with loss. Everybody’s dealing with something. Maybe the humanness is in recognizing this. Maybe the godliness is in our simply sitting with the brokenhearted, listening, and being a silent, compassionate, non-judgmental presence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 64

Duetting: Memoir 64 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York photoshops a memory of lighting candles on birthday cakes for her daughter who died.

Greg grills steaks outside in snowy December. Still home, waiting to see where his new job will take him next, my son shares his aged Dalmore whisky with me while across the valley Ithaca College lights up the dorm windows to display the digits 2013. Another New Year tiptoes in. Another year that will pull my son far from home. One more year that pulls me ever farther from my daughter, from our times together. The second holiday season without Marika evanesces somewhere between the late night drinks with Greg and the few quiet dinners at friends’ houses.

Awake at sunrise most mornings, half-dressed, I grab my coat and camera, and clamber outside in the cold to catch the earliest morning light kissing the pond. There have been no photography classes over the winter break so I’m trying to continue on my own, but I miss that community of students and photographers. I miss people in general over holidays. Everyone’s mostly wrapped up in their own families, absent to me, making the absence of my daughter even more pronounced. I crave company but I seem to have forgotten how to socialize.

At first, I was not to be the one to host the mid-January birthday party for Stephen, leader of the Ithaca hikers. But for too long I’d let everyone else do all the entertaining.

“Let’s do it at my place,” had suddenly fallen out of my mouth when I was giddy in the company of fellow hikers. For days I think of little else until thirteen of us, including two friends’ daughters, are squeezed around the table where I’ve been writing for a year and a half. After a lunch of make-your-own sandwiches, the daughters help clear the table and light the candles on the cake. They’ve already started to sing the Birthday Song when they hand the cake to me to place before Stephen. Don’t let the flames go out, I think, carrying the candlelit cake ten short steps to Stephen. Suddenly my head reels. There’s a jarring explosion of memories. Presenting birthday cakes to Marika. I was with her for every one of her birthdays. Twenty cakes, each year one more candle added. And one for good luck.
… Happy Birthday Dear Marika, Happy Birthday to …

No. Don’t go there now. It’s Stephen’s birthday and there are twelve people here, I tell myself, fighting back tears. I don’t know if I set the cake down carefully in front of Stephen, or if I threw it at him like a hot potato. But by the time the song ends, I collect myself, clap cheerfully, and serve the coffee. And note that the Birthday Song is now a powerful emotional trigger, along with Christmas carols, carrot cake, and actress Drew Barrymore.

“Susan and Stephen want us to come for brunch on Tuesday,” says Liz, over the phone on Friday, the first of March 2013.
“I can’t. I have my photography class on Tuesday,” I say.
“Well, how about Monday then?” Liz asks.
“No, I can’t on Monday.”
“Whatcha got going on Monday?” she pushes.
“Monday’s March 4th, the second anniversary of Marika’s death. I don’t want to do a get-together with people then. It’s the wrong kind of energy,” I say.
“Well, what are you doing on Monday?” she prods.
“Something quiet, reflective. Like light candles around the pond. Maybe a campfire. Yeah, Marika loved campfires.”
“Well, let me know how we can help,” Liz says, ready to hang up.
“You wanna help me build a campfire?”
“In the snow?” she laughs nervously, knowing I’m serious.
“Yeah. A little warmth in all the wet and cold, I don’t know,” I say, sensing a mutual doubt. “I haven’t figured it out yet. But there’s no way I’m gonna be fit for company on Monday,” I say, ending the conversation.

The period from March 4th to Mothers’ Day is my season of hailstorms and hurricanes. In between those dates fall my birthday and Marika’s, the first day of spring, Easter, and Passover. All are opportunities to wallow in misery and close off the world. Brain nausea sets in as I try to sort out what this day, the anniversary of Marika’s death, really means and how I should commemorate it. What keeps coming up is my Aunt Bertha. My favorite aunt lost her husband on her birthday over fifty years ago. She’s kept to herself for over half a century, feeding on little other than her immense sorrow. That is not living; it is dying in slow motion. The day my daughter died was the worst day of my life. It’s a date I’ll never forget. The only good thing about that time was the kindness and support of many friends. Without them, I would never have gotten through that day. Or the past two years.

“Hey Liz,” I call back. “Did you finalize a day for the brunch yet? Because I think getting together with friends is exactly what I need on Monday.” So, in recognition of the day I lost Marika but found my caring community, I take Suki to brunch with Liz at Susan and Stephen’s house. An hour later on the same day, my friends Barb and Jan take me out for lunch. I take Marika’s friend Rachel, now Ray, and the woman she will marry, out for sushi dinner. And in between, because the assignment in photo class this week is to take seventy pictures of people in their environments, I go to hikers Dennis and Virginia’s place, and then Dan and Celia’s with my camera. Counting friends. Counting blessings.

 

 

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 63

Duetting: Memoir 63 Robin Botie of ithaca, New York photoshops a scene illustrating the day she was stopped by a flashing police car for speeding, as she sits low, wishing she was invisble, considering whether or not to pull the cancer card, the 'my daughter just died of cancer' card.

Driving home one autumn day, a police car blinks bright lights and trails me until I pull over in disbelief. It is Officer Barr, the same Officer Barr who had stopped me in the exact same spot years before, after my divorce. And here he is again, telling me I was speeding, but this time he also notices my inspection is three months overdue.

Waiting for him to do whatever cops issuing tickets do back in their vehicles flashing dazzling lightshows, I sit low in the car hoping no one driving by will recognize me. I look over at the seat where Marika used to sit, where, if she were here now, she’d be rolling her mascaraed eyes at me. Why always me, I’m kicking myself, why can’t I just become invisible? Officer Barr taps on the window. He looks no different from when I saw him eight years ago.

“It behooves you to go to court,” he says, handing me two tickets on four pieces of curled paper. And all I can think is, I need a break. Maybe I shouldn’t leave home for another year or two. What do I say in court? What do I wear in court? Should I “pull the cancer card” as Marika used to say? The ‘my-daughter-just-died-of-cancer card?’

For two weeks I wail about the tickets. I pick out and toss aside various outfits for my day in court. Friends warn me I will pay over a thousand dollars between the two fines and the surcharges. I cry over the phone to my friend Celia,
“I’m a wreck. I don’t know if it’s the court date or the rewriting of chapter ten.”
“What’s chapter ten?” Celia asks.
“It’s the one where Marika dies,” I say, trying to hold back the floodwaters swelling in my head. “No, it can’t be chapter ten. This is my third rewrite; Marika’s died a hundred times for me in my manuscript this past year, and I’ve never had a reaction like this.”
“You’ve got a lot going on,” Celia sympathizes.

On the October day I am to account for my deviant behavior, wearing a rust-colored skirt and sweater, I settle myself into the wooden pew-like benches of the Ithaca City Court. I survey the scene to find a familiar face, to figure out where I fit in, and if I am over or underdressed. A man in a black suit stands before the judge and is told to pay four dollars to a local food store with which he’d had some entanglement. A redheaded preteen squirms in his seat, nudging his father who wears khaki shorts and rubs his face every five minutes, looking nervously from side to side. A thin, pale woman is six months pregnant, out of work and paying off hundreds of dollars of previous violations, five dollars at a time each month. The judge jokes with a young man in an orange jumpsuit who wears chains around his waist and wrists.

The judge is the one I feel the most kinship with. A neon pink shirt is barely concealed under her black robe. She looks like someone who would understand a fleeting loss of control, about being human and making mistakes. But Judge Rossiter never gets to hear my story. I do not get to stand before her to plead my case. She suddenly leaves the courtroom and the city attorney approaches. He waves my papers at me, the papers which show how I diligently got my inspection taken care of the day after Officer Barr stopped me.

“I’ll make you a deal,” the attorney says.
“Uh, is that how it’s done?” I ask doubtfully, wondering why no one else had been offered “a deal” and why the judge had gone without seeing me.
“I’m going to dismiss the ticket for the inspection and charge you fifty dollars for the speeding. That’s the deal.”
“This is legal?” I ask, looking around for witnesses and still praying I won’t get charged the thousand dollars my friends had predicted.
“You can wait and present your case to the judge, but she doesn’t make deals. I make the deals,” he says. It feels like a bribe. I have no excuse for the speeding and haven’t yet figured out what to say to the judge about it. “And there’s an eighty-dollar surcharge,” he adds. But my mind is already made up.
“I’ll take the deal,” I say, rising, my skirt clinging to the backs of my legs.

As I leave the courthouse I pass people in suits, in uniforms, in tee shirts and jeans, and in rags. There are people in wheelchairs, in chains, in tears, in defiance. Some are in dire straits. I walk by a hundred different stories. I’m out a hundred thirty dollars, but I still have my house, my son, my car, a bank account, my friends, my health, … my manuscript. It’s the first time since cancer came that I can remember counting my blessings.