Duetting: Memoir 60

Duetting: Memoir 60 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York photoshops her daughter who died of leukemia, riding a kangaroo, for her blog about spreading ashes and setting souls free.

The Australia journey can’t end this way. It’s a year and a month since Marika died, and I’m walking in circles in Melbourne, hugging the last of her ashes on the last day of my trip.

In a daze, I pass Federation Square in the center of Melbourne, the place where everyone meets up and hangs out. Soon I’m back on the Yarra River, behind Flinders Street Station from where one can start a journey to anywhere in the world. Everything leads to here and away from here. Whoever comes to Melbourne can’t miss it. People stroll along both sides of the river now. It’s midday. Musicians play, and street shows attract cheering crowds. The Yarra is lined with outdoor cafes, and filled with kayaks, paddleboats, cruise boats, and ferries. I sit on the edge of a small wharf and untie Marika’s bag of ashes for the last time. Ignoring everything, I begin to toss.

“This is for your Aunt Laurie, who wishes she could be here,” I whisper. “And here’s for Greg and your dad.” I toss another handful of ashes, “for Rachel, who loves you.” And another, “for your friend Jake.” I scoop and sprinkle a precious smattering of the ashes for Pat, Marika’s beloved Australian. And then I empty the rest of the bag.
“This is for me, Mareek. I love you…. I love you so much.” I turn the bag upside down and shake it clean. It makes flapping sounds like a bird taking off.

On the water’s surface, the ashes form a warm gray cloud like a pale ghost. It catches the sunlight and glimmers for seconds before disappearing into the river.

Marika Joy Warden from Ithaca, New York—you have been let loose in Australia, I announce in my head. She is free. Freed from the black box and plastic bags, doctors and drugs, rules and demands. Freed from cancer. And from the ashes, now blended into beautiful water.

I sit frozen. Seagulls whine. Small brown birds wait on the wharf. And from someplace deep inside my gut, faint tremors churn. I rock. Forward. Backward. Back and forth over the water, hugging myself. The rippled surface of the river reflects the sun and explodes in my face as I close my eyes on tears. Inside it is bright fiery red. Like flaming blood.

The birds do not leave until I tuck the empty bag away and stand. Don’t say goodbye; she’s not here, I think as I tear myself from the wharf. But she’s not completely gone either. Shortly after, she makes me dig through my pockets to give coins to nearby musicians. They thank me very enthusiastically, and I realize I’ve given them three whole Australian dollars instead of the seventy cents I meant to donate. And just as I reach the hotel, I hear a tiny hopeful voice, “Mom, what about the dumplings?”

I keep my promises. So later I head for the HuTong Dumpling Bar in Chinatown where they seat me before two dumpling makers who stretch and roll, pat, pinch, and pleat endlessly. I stuff my emptiness with Shanghai Dumplings and then return to the hotel, to the iPad, to check in with my friends. 

Tomorrow’s coming. In the little hotel room, I hold Puppy and rock her like she’s a fragile newborn Marika. We’ll come back to Sydney with Laurie, I promise, we’ll do Puppy’s cremation on Manley Beach one day. I’m trying not to think about traveling back across oceans, vast seas of clouds, time zones, and mountains, and arriving home—alone—to an empty house. That night I sleep with Puppy under my arm. 

In the morning, on the plane as it taxies to the runway, I try to ignore the rubber band around my chest that tightens the farther I go from where I left Marika’s ashes. Then, as the plane takes off, I spot her, out the window in the distant grasslands. Marika riding her kangaroo. The kangaroo’s gait is oddly syncopated, and as it turns, I see they are each wearing an iPod earbud. Hey! I want to yell after her, I’m going to live bigger, live like the lights could go out at any time. Because anything’s possible.

The engines roar and the plane lifts off the ground. Peering down at my last glimpse of Australia, I raise my hand and rest it on the window. I’ll be back.  

Don’t forget a single thing, I tell myself on the long flight: the road trips, Australia, the good things and the bad, all the scary parts. The waves. Her face. The white sheets wet with tears, Marika’s red-painted toes. How my back ached, sitting on the edge of the bed or standing over her to rub her feet. The glittering magic of just hearing her name. The heavy weight of not wanting to live when she died.

Through all of it, I believe the day after Marika’s death was the only time I wanted to die. That gray day in March 2011, I drove home to Ithaca from the hospital and then moldered a whole day, stuck in the hallway like a bled-dry carcass battered on a highway. Our journey together is over, I’d thought.

But that night I’d found her poems.

That marked the end of our journey together through the wilds of her cancer. The poems, delving into them and then duetting, kept me going until I birthed the plan for our journey to Australia to carry out her final wishes. The two journeys have ended now. The ashes are gone. And here I am, once more, returning home without Marika.

It almost feels like I’ve lost her again, lost her all over again. I’d spent the past year discovering the daughter I hardly knew, and then followed her ghost to Australia, all the while writing and rewriting, and rereading every bit of everything we shared. Marika died a thousand times over the year, for me. Yet something more of her always surfaced, some memory, some photo I hadn’t seen before, or some old friend telling me a Marika-story I hadn’t heard. That’s over now. The Australia trip is over. And now everyone expects me to move on.

Comfort is found in strange places. In our darkest times, we all have to find some one thing that we can hang on to. Maybe it’s a mission, an image, a dream. A song. Or just words. Something that brings us light and hope again. And peace. There’s this poem of Marika’s I keep coming back to.

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 59

Duetting: Memoir 59

It was not like tucking her in. After my daughter’s last breaths and the moments the hospital staff reserved for the family’s final goodbyes, it was more like stripping down the Christmas tree. Off with the earrings. Then the navel ring, and the woven friendship band on her ankle. Off with the bracelet her brother brought back from Iraq. And stuffed Puppy, always held in the crook of her arm. Off. They said it all had to come off. I was left holding precious bits and pieces of my beautiful daughter, trying hard not to think about what would happen to her next.

Mom! Get over it! I heard Marika’s voice in my head. So I gave it all to her father. Except for Puppy. Almost threadbare Puppy was still warm from her. For a long quiet time I held Puppy, and stared at Marika’s empty house, getting used to the idea that she wasn’t there. And then I left, so they could take her beautiful house away.

They kept me busy. I don’t know who was with me, my friend Celia, my son? My sister? Didn’t matter, because Marika was not. I allowed myself to be led around. There was a walk to some local coffee shop to buy lots of gift cards that would be left in the Oncology Unit. There was packing up. Her things. My things. There was dinner in a restaurant where all I can remember is wondering how I could eat. And how Marika could not eat. How she, her body, her house, was stuck in the hospital, in the cold basement morgue while we were dining out. Her perfectly shaped eyebrows and red-painted toenails and all the rest of her that I’d never get to see again was now stuffed into some black plastic body-bag with not even a blanket to keep her cozy and warm. She had lain so still and vulnerable in the center of us. Helpless. And now she was alone in the cold dark, awaiting cremation.

I need to forget this last part. That is not how I want to remember her.

It was late. I returned to Hope Lodge without my hope. One last night in Rochester, that would forever be the city where I left Marika. Where I knew I’d have to return some day but knew I would never want to return. And that night, in my dream I swam with dolphins. I was overtaken by a wave that surprised me, rolling up from behind. It was too big, and I was too late to jump over it. So I was pulled down. Underwater, I collided with bricks and boulders and baby dolphins. Finally escaping the debris, bruised and battered, I floated, just dangling in the gray water while around me stars silently fell down. It was peaceful, so tempting to stay put. Was I prepared to die? I could not pretend this wasn’t happening. To me. Who was I now? I couldn’t remember. Did anyone need me anymore? No, the dolphins were gone. So I could go. I could rise above the bricks and leave the darkness behind. Wake up. Up and up. I could brave the wildest waves all the way home.

What have I done, I thought the next morning, upon awakening, when I couldn’t get up from the bed I’d sprung out of so many mornings to get to the hospital so Marika wouldn’t wake up alone. There was nothing to get up for. For the first time in my life I didn’t want to get up. I wanted to die.

 

Duetting: Memoir 58

Duetting: Memoir 58 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York witnesses her daughter's last breaths as her life support system is unplugged.

Warning: The following is an account of witnessing my daughter’s last breaths. A beautiful but very sad memory, it was important to me to include it here. But if you do not want to be faced with intense sadness you might want to simply enjoy my illustration and forego the reading this week.

As a mother preparing for my daughter’s impending death, I needed to see the beautiful life I’d brought into the world carefully wrapped up and tucked in snuggly. This was really happening. There was no stopping it, no stopping time. It was past the time for hope.

Marika’s father and I had promised her peace, that we wouldn’t fight. We had worked hard to hold things together. But on Friday, March 4, 2011, the day we were to let her go, we were both on the dark, uneven edges of our individual cliffs. We’d agreed to “have it happen” at one o’clock. But suddenly, in the middle of the morning, her father announced he couldn’t stand it any longer; it had to happen right then. His wife couldn’t bear to watch him suffer. So there we were. The time that had been ticking away was suddenly taken away.

The nurses asked us to leave. We would be called back soon to be with her for the end. Marika’s father, his wife, my son, and my friend Celia slipped quietly out the glass door. I did not. The preparations for disengagement of life support would not be pretty. But I wanted to be there anyway. I held onto Marika’s feet, and looked the nurses straight in the eyes through a blur of tears.

“I’ve been with her through everything else,” I said, trying to collect myself in between gasps, “I want to stay.” And they invited me to come closer to where Marika lay in the milky light of the overhead fixture that hummed on center stage. There, the nurses, like Disney bluebirds attending Sleeping Beauty, flitted about undressing ribbons of tubing, tying up cords, primping and preening her. They fidgeted with the monitors. Marika looked peaceful and trusting.

Are you dreaming, Mareek? I said to her, in my head. My Hurricane Marika, where’s your thunder now? You know you could tear out these lines and rip apart these bags of blood and drugs. You could throw the IV stands javelin-style through the glass walls and make torrential waves shatter and smash everything. You’re still alive.

I wrapped my hand around her forearm. The nurses checked her eyes one more time, shining a small flashlight under her lids. She had the warmest hazel eyes. It’s okay, Mareek.

It wasn’t okay. I hated hearing myself say those words. That was something I said when she didn’t win her soccer game or didn’t get the grade she’d expected on a school project. ‘It’s okay’ meant she’d get over it and things would work out better next time.

They unhooked the bags of meds draped up and down the twin IV stands, leaving only the painkillers. I watched Marika’s perfectly arched eyebrows for signs of discomfort as they swabbed and then suctioned her mouth. The monitors ticked. After weeks of constantly checking their displays, I couldn’t stop peeking at the blinking green digits.

There was no plug to pull. There was no lethal injection. It was simply a matter of removing the air that was being pumped in. First the nurses peeled the tape from her face and gently wiped the tape marks from her chin and cheeks. Then they pulled out the breathing tube that delivered air, and stuck another tube deep into her mouth to suction out her throat once more. I heard the air hissing and then sucking. The monotonous hum, ticking, and beeps of the monitors comforted me; they meant she was still here. The air tube was gone now and she breathed on her own. I inhaled and exhaled every breath with her. Keep breathing, Mareek. Breathe. Breathe.   

The others filed back in around us. Her father found the monitors too distracting, so a nurse turned them off. The screens that exhibited Marika’s life in glowing green turned dark. I felt for her pulse the way I learned as a lifeguard. Still strong.

You’re still breathing. Marika breathed seconds long enough for me to imagine her never stopping, long enough to imagine a chorus of nurses singing “mistake” and “miracle.”

How long can you keep breathing? Sweet breaths. Shallow breaths. She would not last long now.
You’re still here. I’m here. I need to focus, wake up. Watch. The now I know will be different on the other side of a blink.

Her mouth opened and took in no air this time. It closed and opened and hesitated. Her lips gently shut and opened and shut. And opened. Gently. Slowly.

Rest, Mareek. My Mareek, it’s okay. Her mouth was suspended open.
Rest. I love you. I had only her pulse. Pulse, no breathing. She was really going.

You are so beautiful. Pulse slowed.
Here. Still here. She was still here.

Here. Still.

Here.

Still.

 

Gone?

All gone?

 

Gone.

The clock said 12:28. I wanted the nurses to notice. It was 12:28 and Marika was gone.

I held her hand and stared: Lavender lined eyelids. Rosebud lips. The tiny spot that had been on her left chin forever. And I kept checking in with the clock, watching time fall away. March 4, 2011, 12:28 pm vanished. Just dropped off the planet. Overtaken by 12:29, and then 12:30. Wishing the whole world would end, I watched as the part of me that could sing and fly disappeared into nowhere. I waited. Like time might suddenly rewind. But wherever Marika was, her body was empty. She’d abandoned it. Some essence, some energy, was no longer there. This was not her. This was just her house. Her beautiful house with its scuffed walls and once-bright windows through which once emanated sweet songs. And sometimes thunder.

I hope there was light, Mareek. I hope you saw light. 

Please, whoever or whatever you are out there—God? —please don’t deprive her of the light.

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 57

Duetting: Memoir 57 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York tells her dying daughter her birth story

Mareek, I want to tell you the story of your birth, I rambled on in my head as I rubbed my dying daughter’s feet. I could not remember if I’d ever told Marika that story. This was on the third day of March 2011, shortly after I’d signed the papers to end her life. Consumed by the unfairness and all she would be losing out on, I was feeling like the worst kind of thief. I could not yet imagine my own loss, how that would feel. I’d failed her. I couldn’t tell my mother or even Laurie. There was only one day left to get close enough to death to accept it, to learn to love it. So, standing at the foot of her bed, I brought up the memory of when she was born, and then I tried to convince myself of everything I’d ever heard about death: Death means freedom from pain. Death is a transition, not an end. Our dying begins the moment we take our first breath so death is simply the last part of life.

Many rave about watching a birth, welcoming oncoming life that blooms from womb to world. And your birth, Mareek, was one of my most magnificent moments. But really, witnessing the exiting of life, even when walloped by sorrow, is awe-inspiring. Life, when it enters the world can be traced back to the source of the seed. But its departing is shrouded in mystery. A year and a half earlier, I had tried to watch as life evaporated from the still form of my father into nowhere. I stared, transfixed on an invisible drama, detecting only the signs of a soul having already taken flight: his just-stopped pulse and empty lifeless eyes. My father’s eyes were half open, dark black marbles that caught glints of light, even at the end. I wondered, for how long could he still see me as his mouth opened and closed, opened and closed so slightly like a dazed fish out of water gently gasping for breath? He seemed unaware he was not catching any air towards the end. He lay there calm and still while his family shook in sobs. I watched, but could not tell if the life ebbed out of him slowly or if it left as in the flick of a switch.

Where life goes in the time it takes for a heart to stop beating is an astounding mystery. Is the life locked dormant inside or does it dissipate into the negative space between those grieving? Does it escape into countless particles of dust? Are there a gazillion invisible, homeless souls freed from their earthly shells, crammed around us, hovering over the ones they loved and left behind, hoping to be reborn?

Mareek, I’d named you Marika Joy before you were even conceived. Yes, I knew you were out there waiting for me somewhere. Like the crocuses that herald in the spring. I always knew I would have a daughter one day. And I’d love the warmth of your dark-haired head on my cheek. ‘Marika’ was the most beautiful, magical name I’d ever heard. You were named after a flower, a Twelve Apostles Neo-Marica. A walking iris. And Joy, for your paternal grandmother, a precious life snuffed out too soon by cancer. A spark of her would live on, be reborn with you. Yeah. Too bad we couldn’t have erased the cancer genes from those sparks of Grandma Joy’s.

You were late, Mareek. You were supposed to arrive in April, the month of your father’s and my birthdays. You were taking your time but Doctor Kyong wanted to go on his vacation. So he had me choose a day in May from three convenient dates. I was embarrassed by this as all my pregnant friends were having natural childbirth with no interventions, no drugs. Back then childbearing was like being in some sort of Amazon birthing marathon, but being ten years older than everyone else, I had to comply with a different set of rules, or lose my adored doctor.

I chose May third. Three letters each in May and Joy. And so, early in the morning on May 3, 1990, your father and I arrived at the hospital after leaving friends in charge of your brother, our businesses, and the pets. The nurses gave me some drug, oxytocin, to induce my labor. And then an enema. But there was no progress in my dilating. We waited. And walked and waited. Wearing the special kimono-style birthing robe I’d sewn from fabric with joyful bursts of blossoms, we walked the halls of the hospital and waited all day. You were already finding ways to defy demands and doctors. There was little that was natural or unplanned except you simply were not ready, were not complying with anyone else’s agenda but your own.

I don’t remember pushing, Mareek. I don’t remember pain. I remember waiting, maybe a little impatiently, to see your face and be on our way to our great adventure together. My water was broken for me in the afternoon and then there were fierce contractions. I growled like a wild animal and hugged your father hard. They injected me with three paracervical blocks for pain relief, and finally, just at dinnertime, supported by your father, I squatted, extending one leg out like a Russian dancer. After some grunting I was cut open to make it easier for you. Then I ripped open even more. Suddenly there was a great avalanche inside me. And you tumbled out, surprised, kicking and demanding, What’s for dinner, Mom? You chomped down eagerly, nursing right away as they stitched me back up. You were purple and bruised. You were perfect. I loved you immediately. My Marika Joy. A true Taurus, my friends said. Everyone expected you to be solid and steady and strong. And stubborn. And you were.

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 56

Duetting: Memoir 56 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York photoshops a scene in Melbourne, Australia where she went on a grief journey to scatter her daughter's ashes.

In Melbourne, right away I regret not leaving more time to experience the city Marika’s friend Carla told me Marika really loved. Immediately after arranging the altar in the new hotel room, I take the free two-hour bus tour around town to get oriented. I snoop out the independent music scene and local street art that attracted Marika to Melbourne, and eat dinner overlooking the Yarra River. Melbourne at night is lit up like Christmas. Everywhere I turn, it’s crawling with people. There is Chinatown. There are sushi places. There is always some hanging-around dog or statues of dogs. This is it, I tell myself: wherever Marika made home there would be dogs, lights, sushi, music, and water.

In the morning, on the way to the famous Victoria Market, I scatter some of the ashes in the pretty Yarra River as people hurry off to work. By midday, I board the train at Flinders Street Station to spread the rest at the Victoria University of Technology Saint Albans Campus, home of the Nursing Program. It’s not a long trip. Leaving the train, I follow the trickle of students from the station to the school. In this corner of Melbourne, there is little else to head to.

It’s a new campus, still under construction. Fences, a few young trees, some makeshift structures … everything calls out ‘in process.’ I look around at the barren place. The single campus fountain sits dry, filled with garbage and fallen leaves. Some friendly students assure me there are flowering shrubs in the spring. A raven caws. Nervously, I hug the bag of ashes and keep walking. I try to imagine Marika going to school here. But something feels wrong.

There is no water. Anywhere. I’ve come all the way out here with the last quarter of Marika’s ashes and I can’t leave her in this place. I walk the tiny campus, twice around, looking for a good spot. Marika would have been here now, in April 2012. The students passing me would have been her classmates. But I cannot see her. I can’t feel her here.

In fact, I’m pretty sure Marika would hate it here. Is this coming from Marika or is it my own hang-up? I’ve only got today to figure this out because early tomorrow morning I’ll be leaving Melbourne, heading back home. And I need to finish her ashes. Today. 

Gingerly, I sprinkle a bit in a spot near the Artistic Café, where students sip soft drinks on outdoor tables with bird chatter overhead. Then suddenly, mid-scoop into the ashes, I find a little tag in my hand. Cheap gold-colored, tinny plastic. It has a number on it, and says Mount Hope Crematorium. I take this as a sign to stop. In tears, I stuff the bag of ashes back into my pack, and rush back to the train station, back to Melbourne proper, and up to University Student Services on Flinders Street where I pester the poor clerks who have no idea why this desperate woman is pleading for help to find the daughter she’s convinced is supposed to attend school here.

“Marika Warden isn’t on the roster for Victoria University,” one clerk says as she fusses on her computer. Immobilized, I finally remember to breathe. I’m muttering madly to myself, Think. What’s missing here? Marika said she was accepted. She showed me the letter on the computer. I paid a deposit with a personal check. Two checks. I wrote two checks to two different universities. What was the other school? “Oh, here she is,” the clerk points to her screen, “University of Technology Sydney. You had the wrong university,” she says, and I burst, howling, into tears.

Why hadn’t I paid attention to this important detail in Marika’s life? I remember being happy for her, and proud she was putting together a future for herself all on her own. Maybe I didn’t believe it was possible. Maybe I didn’t want it to be. And maybe, after all we’d been through while she was alive and all I learned after she died, maybe I could never really know who this amazing creature was.

There was so much I simply didn’t know about my own daughter. Back in March 2011, shortly after the calling hours and the departure of family members who’d flown in for the funeral from Boston, Chicago, and parts of Florida, I’d crept back up to Marika’s room and spent hours tearing through her shelves. In the days that followed, I scoured her bedroom at Limbo, where Rachel had already foraged and slept, hugging the things Marika had held. But nothing contained Marika. Not for me. Until I found her words. Then I just wanted to find more of her words. Devour her words. Read them aloud. Sing them. Hang on to every last one.

Until soon, I was not only an intruder; I was possessed. I became an addict, needing, craving, begging her brother to break into her laptop, demanding of Rachel, “Where are the rest of Marika’s words?” Over the next bleak weeks, I’d copied the poems and prose. When I typed her words, I felt Marika’s heart beating. When I gathered the best of the songs and poems, and Xeroxed them into a spiral-bound book, I could hold her. Her thoughts. Her hopes.

She wrote about her life; she wrote about her death. She wrote about what it was like to have cancer and how it affected her relationships. How it felt to be sedated and then wake up to everything changed. About feeling like two different people. About needing freedom. About love.

Some of her writing from before she knew she had leukemia frightened me. She’d been in some difficult relationships. She’d contemplated suicide. Torn between honoring Marika’s privacy and wanting to hang on to all her words, yet not able to stomach some of the dark ugly truths, I threw out one of the early notebooks, burying it deep in the trash. Then, in another journal, I found the page from the very night she was diagnosed. She’d picked up her pen immediately. One day she was writing about the frazzled love life that gave her pain so great she wasn’t sure she could go on living. And that night, in one turn of a page, she wrote about her leukemia. All the things I wish we had talked about, all the conversations we should have had—she wrote.

And there I was, three weeks after she died, sitting in the middle of her cluttered bedroom floor with a hot pink spiral-bound journal in my lap, first realizing that she’d been thinking, processing, and writing everything all along. Marika had been grieving for her life. For almost three years, on paper, and I’d had no idea. That’s when I first knew:

It was me. I had never been fully present to her, to the one who dazzled me most in the world. Doggedly pretending she could live forever, even as she lay dying, I was the one not facing reality. And I never left her an inch to talk about the possibility that she might die.

 

Duetting: Memoir 55

Duetting: Memoir 55 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a duet with her daughter who died despite peopkle telling her what she wants to do is impossible.

People always tell me what I want to do is impossible. And I have to wonder, what do they see when they look at me? Do I look so inept? How many times on this Australia trip have I been told I wouldn’t be able to do something? To walk to Bells Beach, to get to Port Campbell on a Tuesday, to travel without a car, … to spread ashes in the ocean without drowning myself.

“Impossible,” I’d also heard back home, coming upon the first anniversary of Marika’s death, “You can’t keep a relationship with someone who is dead.” But I was talking with my dead daughter every day and every night. Speaking to her came naturally to me after she died. How could something so comforting be impossible?

Sadly, watching the twilight turn to night over Two Mile Bay, I regret how often I, myself, have similarly, close-mindedly shot down other’s ideas. I recall a time years ago, in the middle of winter when my father had taken my sisters, and me, and my children on a vacation to a Caribbean Island. Arriving on a balmy night, the sisters and children immediately headed for the beach where we kicked off our shoes and danced in the starry dark. Until my father, flustered on the boardwalk, said, “You can’t be on the beach at night,” and then I, myself, ruined the joyful moment saying, “Okay, everybody to bed now.”

“Impossible. No way,” I’d decreed when sixteen-year old Marika begged to go off on road trips with friends. To young Marika on the edge of our pond or hanging out in the surf with her boogey board, I would holler, “Don’t fall in” and “Don’t go out too far” and “You wanna do WHAT?” Objections. Directives. Were those my only songs all those years? So much negativity, controlling, and prejudging. This dragged up a deep sadness, because there were few relaxed, neutral communications with my daughter that I could remember.

“Mom, I wanna duet. Let’s do Chopsticks,” Marika used to beg me as a kid. When I could put it off no longer, we sat close on the piano bench and she’d begin plunking keys. To duet is to take part in an activity with another in a way that achieves a harmonious effect. A unity, of sorts. But for me, keeping in sync with someone else was like trying to catch the first step on a fast-moving escalator.
“I can’t,” I’d say and give up. She asked me to play only a few times more before she gave up as well.

In early spring of 2012, my daughter’s been dead a whole year, and suddenly I need to duet with her. Not just our everyday exchanges where I’d sing, “Don’t do this” and “You can’t do that,” and she’d follow with her refrains, “Mom, what the—” and “Get a life, Mom.”

“You can’t have a duet with a dead person,” a friend insists. And I know it’s too late to have the conversations and exchanges Marika and I should have had. But, reading Marika’s poems aloud, I hear her voice. Her songs swish around in my head. Now she’s daring me to have a duet and it’s impossible to ignore. So for hours every day and into the night I read and echo her words, and scribble out my own. It’s like when we used to fight. We were mostly saying the same thing but we were bouncing against one another from two opposite planets. And now she is saying, “I will not follow you. You will have to follow me.” So I do, recognizing that we are each of us stubbornly strong women. Beautiful trouble, I used to call Marika. I had never before considered myself strong or beautiful. But something is growing in me. Something’s shifted. Somehow our relationship is changing and it’s like I’ve finally grown up. She’s grown up. And we’ve melted into one. I follow Marika’s words to find her, to find myself. To find us: who are we now, and what we could possibly carry on together as time goes on.

Line by line, I read her poems and responded. It felt like duetting. As if we were playing an elaborate game of checkers or tic-tac-toe that depended on each other’s moves. Marika’s words. My words. Marika’s. Mine. Before leaving for Australia, I pasted our words together on paper. And then I shared them aloud at the last Feed and Read, enlisting my friend Paula’s help for Marika’s part. A duet with my daughter who died. Not only was it not impossible; for me it was like delivering a divine opus.

So here, on my last night on the Great Ocean Road, I know, when one is doing something, doing anything to climb up out of a rut, anything’s possible. I understand now that to squash a person’s efforts may be to shoot the very thing that keeps her breathing. I’ve learned that anything’s possible with people cheering you on. And that getting from Port Campbell to Melbourne before dark on a Monday, a day when the buses are running, has to be possible. With all the connections between buses and trains, I could travel all day and still not see Melbourne until nightfall. By car, it’s only a four-hour ride. So Eleanor at the Loch Ard Motor Inn operates on the computer and on the phone. She finally shouts out from the front door and manages to arrange a ride to Melbourne for me with her son’s friend, Cannonball.

In the morning, I am packed and ready to move on. Locking the little room with the bay view for the last time, I count my resources: the rolling suitcase; the pack with Puppy and the last quarter of Marika’s ashes; and the iPad, my link to friends and family back home who have faith by this point that I might really pull this mission off. And now I have Cannonball.

Maybe he’s named for his gut, barely hidden under a soiled tee shirt that says QUIRKS three times in large letters. He has a long black ponytail, no front teeth, orange fingernail polish, and a car with bald tires that is packed to the gills. He tells me, as we drive off, that first we have to stop at the pub.

Uh, what? The pub? You wanna WHAT? I’m suddenly seriously nauseous, and kicking myself for being, once more, in some weird stranger’s car. Until, half-listening to his words, I realize I’m shutting my mind and prejudging again. Turns out, it’s Cannonball’s moving day so he’s driving the “dog” of his fleet of cars. He’s returning to his kids in Melbourne after working many months at a good job on the coast. His teeth got totaled just days ago in a car accident involving tourists driving on the wrong side of the road. And he has to return the keys and pay the last of his rent at the pub before leaving Port Campbell for good. There’s still no accounting for his orange nail polish but the tiny details don’t matter once I warm to his generosity and kindness. He does most of the talking during the long drive, pointing out various sights along the way, and finally drops me off in Melbourne, in sunlight, near my hotel. An engineer, well paid and compensated for his travel, Cannonball won’t take money from me. I shake his hand gratefully, because anything’s possible, and that could’ve easily turned out any-other-which way than it did.