My Mother, the Matriarch of the Family, Died

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a picture of her mother, matriarch of the family, who died.Last week, I went to visit my ninety-three year-old mother and found a stranger in her apartment. A docile, pale old lady in a wheelchair was falling asleep over her hardly-touched cake and coffee. She apologized and begged forgiveness of me, and of anyone who came near.

This was not MY mother. The mother who, weeks ago, was still stuffing her walker into the car, and shuffling off to the “beauty parlor.” The mother who bought jewels to match every outfit. The one who demanded that everything be executed in her own particular way, or you’d suffer her scorn. MY Mom could out-eat anyone, and was shamelessly vocal about whatever or whomever she disliked. Head of our tribe, she didn’t apologize.

Last week, the only thing my Mom ate with any interest was rum-raisin ice cream. It was set before her in spoon-sized clumps after lovingly prepared meals were removed and dumped in the trash. Morphine was doled out to balance my mother’s free-from-suffering time with her time to be able to think and communicate coherently. Sleep, when it came to her, was deep and steeped with groaning. Over the weekend she drifted ever farther away into her sleep.

On Sunday we sisters kissed her goodbye, said we’d be back in two weeks. But early the next morning, I got The Phone Call, the call that knocks you upside down even if you’ve known for a while that death was parked waiting right outside the door. Needing time to process this, I went to the gym. There, responding to the first person who casually inquired, “Hey, how are you?” I tested out the words too impossible to believe yet, “My Mom just died,” adding, “I think I’m an orphan.”

“No,” my friend said, looking me sternly in the face, kinda like my mother used to, “You’re not an orphan. You’re a matriarch now.”

I am still waiting to see how all this will hit me once I finally get it through my head that my Mom, the woman who gave me life, carried and protected me—and ruled my world—is dead. Sooner or later, I will be clobbered hard by the loss of her, I’m sure. But that morning in the gym, after being dubbed “matriarch,” I mustered up twice as many planks than ever before and threw myself into a fierce aerobic frenzy. Then, still breathless, I phoned my sisters to assign them various tasks from the list of all that had to be done to accommodate the great shift in our tiny family. What kind of matriarch will I be? I wonder. The glue of the family, or the iron fist?

 

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Afraid of Dying

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a beach to illustrate the life and death cycle.You’re afraid of dying, you say, afraid of dying alone mostly. I wish I could tell you how this thing called death works and what dying means. Or where we end up in the end. I wish I could alleviate your fears, and tell you the best comes after life, that there will be music and bright lights and long-lost loved ones welcoming you. But I’m still trying to convince myself there’s more than nothingness, that after we die we reach some eternal heavenly state of consciousness, if not an actual heavenly place.

All I know is that for eons of time, trillions and gazillions of other beings before us have made this journey of conception, life, and then death. That this is part of a great cycle. And that maybe, possibly, death is not the last stage.

What if we think of this life-death cycle as a beach? Over the course of your lifetime you crept along the sandy shore, and then toddled, walked, and eventually waded into the water where you swam and dove through the waves, never noticing the tide gently dragging you out ever farther. And now every breath takes so much energy and struggling. Yet you keep swimming until there is nothing but ocean and sky, and soon you become part of them both. It’s like when you were born. You had no choice in being born, no control. You yielded to the forces pulling you into the then unknown world. Now it is time once more to be carried along into another great unknown.

You will not be alone at the end. There are those who will be honored to sit vigil with you and make you comfortable at this sacred time. Let’s call Hospice. Allow people in. I will come myself when I can, wearing my red-beaded necklace, the one like yours, because greeting death with red beads seems both gutsy and appropriate. I’ll hold your hands and listen to your memories, or to your breathing. Maybe I’ll rub your feet.

And finally, when you are gone to the great wherever, I will always love you and remember you. Whenever I wear those beads I’ll think of you laughing boldly in a bevy of friends, immaculately bedecked with makeup and perfectly matched jewels.

 

What can you do to assuage a loved one’s fear of dying?

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Health Care Proxy Karma

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a duck stuck in an icey pond to illustrate losing the ability to make life and death decisions without a trusted health care proxy.I do not want to be kept alive or kept on mechanical support if I have a permanent and severe condition where I am not able to take care of myself, and I am not expected to recover.

Whoa. This is ME I’m talking about. Not my elderly friend, not my mother, not my daughter who died. It’s also about some of you who have no devoted partner or family member who you feel absolutely certain will step in and make all the exact right choices if you lose your ability to make your own health care decisions. Who will take care of us, and how?

I’m watching a lone duck swimming in my pond where the ice is closing in on her, and imagining that one day I, myself, may be cornered into an ever-shrinking world with limited options. A world where I am no longer in control. Facing pain. Dementia. Death. My gut suddenly feels like I’ve swallowed an iceberg.

Years ago my daughter, in the throes of cancer, appointed me to be her health care proxy. Not understanding what that meant, I was thrilled to be chosen over other family members, and I carried that document with me like it was a certificate of merit. But I was clueless. We never talked about quality of life, pain, comfort, dying. What she might want or not want. I flubbed the job. When her health eventually crashed, and the doctors wanted to shove scaffolding through her ribs to bolster her collapsing lungs and—well, who could have predicted the myriad of sudden frantic decisions and all the things that could go wrong in a short time? I’m screwed if there’s such a thing as bad proxy karma that catches up with you when your own turn comes.

Having witnessed enough human deaths, and played god for too many pets’ endings, I do not take this health care proxy thing lightly. As the New Year tumbled in, I lost sleep worrying about how another person could possibly make life-or-death decisions for me, ever. When a friend finally looked me straight in the face and said, “That’s going to require a very long conversation,” I practically wept with relief.

 

If you were close to death with no hope of recovering, and you could not make decisions or communicate your wishes, what would you hope for from those who are caring for you?

 

 

 

 

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Everything Changes

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops her daughter Marika Warden as a mass of changing regenerating cells.I read somewhere that the cells in our human bodies get replaced by brand new cells about every eight years. Blood cells. Stem cells. Brain cells. They keep getting worn out and dying at different rates. We become essentially new people every eight to ten years as almost every single cell in our body replaces itself with a new cell.

So my daughter, who died almost eight years ago, if she had lived would be a wholly regenerated being since the last time I saw her. I am grieving for someone I wouldn’t even know anymore, not the girl who smelled like mustard and lily-of-the-valley, whose feet I rubbed regularly even as the cells of her red-painted toes were shedding and renewing themselves right under my fingertips.

This occurred to me in the middle of the construction going on in my kitchen to replace major parts: the structural framing decayed by two decades of water damage (human bones get replaced once a decade), deteriorated insulation (human fat cells replenish themselves every eight years), and the cracked concrete countertops now being jack-hammered into smithereens (skin cells last two to three weeks before quietly sloughing off at a rate of a million cells a day).

Everything is changing. Sometimes aggressively, sometimes barely noticeably. Life is nothing like it used to be. Regeneration of cells aside, I, myself, am not who I used to be. My daughter would hardly recognize me. The mother she knew has been replaced cell by cell. And maybe I’m not happier these days, but every cell of me has a greater awareness and capacity for happiness than ever before.

 

What doesn’t change? Have you, yourself, changed for the better or—

 

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Mothering my Daughter’s Spirit into the New Year

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops ghosts of her daughter who died, in an effort to carry the spirit of her daughter into the new year.Lying awake, I worried about how I could carry the spirit of my daughter with me into yet another New Year. The phone rang shortly after I finally fell asleep. A voice said something about a young friend, too drunk to drive home. Could I fetch her from the bar and keep her overnight?
“Sure. I’ll get dressed and be right there,” I responded, suddenly wide-awake, my heart bouncing. It had been a long time since I’d been summoned like this.

Years ago, my daughter would phone me from her apartment around two in the morning, “Mom, I feel sick.” I’d throw on clothes, head out to the car in the dark, and drive the empty streets across town to bring her home. Before she got cancer I would have gotten grumpy about being awakened in the middle of the night. But I learned to make peace with matters serious enough lose sleep over. When my daughter phoned, whether it was chemo or something else, it felt good to be needed. I’d keep my mouth shut and not ask questions. I’d just get her home. That was our deal; call when you need me. Back then I never had to wait long.

And now, here was this young friend, about the same age my daughter would be. Collapsing into the back seat of the car, she told me she was embarrassed.
“Don’t be, I’m happy to help,” I said, thinking of how relieved and grateful some mother would be to know her daughter was safe and cared for, hoping someday someone would help my own son if he was ever in need.

Entering the house, she left her high heels in the mudroom. I walked her upstairs, spread an extra comforter on the bed, plugged in a few nightlights, and said goodnight. Halfway down the stairs I looked back to ask if she wanted a glass of water, but her light was out.

In my still-warm bed, I fell asleep quickly, like I used to whenever my kids would find their way back home. When I woke the next morning, I saw the heels parked in the mudroom. That’s when I knew my daughter’s ghost would find a way to follow me into every day of 2019.

 

What brings you peaceful sleep? How do you carry the memory of a loved one into the New Years of your lifetime?

 

 

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I wish You Time

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops time ticking away by collecting a lifetime of photos of her daughter who died.For the New Year I wish you time. Precious, beautiful, amazing time. This is my wish for all my online and offline friends, and family, and especially for my beautiful smart friend who is now running out of time.

Time is not something you can really gift another person, no matter how much you love her. You can spend time with someone and help them, comfort them, and perhaps get them to stop thinking about time for a while. We can wish them time. But I haven’t figured out a way to actually give it away, to extend someone’s time here on earth.

Long ago, my colleagues at work gave me their unused sick-days so I could have time with my daughter who was in a hospital hours away from work or home. That was the best gift ever. If only there could be some sort of global pooling of unused or unneeded time, where people could drop off or sign away a day or even an hour of time from their own lives, to donate to one who is too young to die, or too loved to let go of. Like blood banks, we could have collection centers for people to leave off small portions of their time.

Time is something few people have in excess, and you can’t even buy time. For yourself, anyway. When my house was under construction, I told the woman who cleans, “Don’t come in next week. Here’s the money. Please do something nice for yourself that morning instead.” It was the closest I could come to giving away time.

Weekly, I spend an afternoon with my friend who is dying, listening to her stories and sharing my own. I worry about taking up too much of her remaining time. But she assures me our time together is a gift.

So I’m wishing you all time. Time to spend with the ones you love, and to do the things you’ve been wanting to do but had no time for. Time to see your children grown and settled. Time to see your face age like your parents’ faces aged. Time when you stop counting the ever-increasing years gone by from when loved ones died, and you instead begin to hear their voices calling you closer. I wish you time to know you’ve had enough time.

Happy New Year, everyone. Here’s hoping you have many more coming.

 

What do you wish for, for 2019?

 

 

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