Duetting: Memoir 3

Duetting: Memoir 3 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, Photoshops an illustration for her memoir about her life with her daughter.I hold my daughter’s ponytail to my nose and sniff, then slip it back into the bag, and hurry off to the funeral home where I give it to her father.
“So you can visit her anytime you want,” I tell him.

Writing would become my way to visit my dead daughter.

But writing the story that pulverizes your whole world is like becoming a lifeguard when you’re terrified of drowning. I’ve done both though neither was ever in my plans. At the age of fifty, to afford sending my children to summer camps, I became a hiking counselor at Camp Scatico in Elizaville, New York, never expecting they would train me to be a lifeguard. Afraid of going underwater, it took all my courage to pass the part of the lifeguard test that required diving into deep water for bricks. Diving into my worst fears turned out to be good training for what was to come.

I never wanted to be a writer. The day my daughter died I sank, and then got my life handed back to me, unrecognizable, like I’d picked up someone else’s clothes at the cleaners. Then suddenly, I start writing a long letter to my daughter. Writing jolts memories. It dredges up painful debris. Alternately I sink and swim. I scramble up from great depths, cradling bricks in my arms, in search of the surface so I can breathe again. I let loose the bricks, one by one, on the pages I write.

In desperation one day, six months after I sank like a boulder dropped in water, I wanted to duet with my daughter. Too late, you can’t have a duet with a dead person. Someone who’d had her own heart broken told me this when I showed her the letter. I’d poured my heart out into that one long letter, for months, filling it with I’m-sorries, pleadings, and promises: When your tide broke, mine did too. Waves crashed over us. As they washed back out to sea, I was left alone with the sand seeping out between my grasping toes. Somehow, I am still here. So I will tell the story of our broken tides. I will cherish the words you left. Where your words and my words sit on a page together, we will have our duet.

I didn’t know about Marika’s poems until she was gone. If I couldn’t have a duet, at least I could riff off her words until I had a song of my own. So I put the poems, her side of what happened, in the telling of our journey as it unfolded. Then I responded to her words. What did I know about writing? I’m the one who drew and painted. But everything is changed now.

So I write to own what happened. She died. I let her die. To own this is to grow beyond it. I write so that someday I can look at a rainbow again or be hugged without crying my eyes bloodshot.

I write because she wrote. She left behind a brand new, otherwise empty journal with a single poem on the first page. In the bare pages that followed, Marika beckoned me to continue. No. She dared me to carry on.

And mostly I write to separate, in my mind, her story from my story. Because, before her death I was my biggest and bravest self as my daughter’s lifeguard. Before March 2011, my life was all about holding on and keeping her safe. Even as she fought to be free.

Eventually most mothers watch their children go off on their own. There are two stories as each one’s life takes its own direction. Two stories. They wend and wind. Tangling up at times. And then, unraveling. It’s not as if our two journeys were ever supposed to come out even or end up in the same place. A mother is lucky these days if her path intersects with her grown daughter’s for an occasional birthday or Thanksgiving. If a mother pines an hour or so each time her child leaves home, she is fortunate. One more countless sweet sorrow that is not forever. In a heartbeat, I’d give anything to have this be our parting rather than what we got.

Still. Separation was complicated enough before Marika died. From her earliest years on I tiptoed the tightrope between keeping her happy and keeping her safe. Regularly I’d hobble off, wounded, exhausted. But I always came bounding back. I was her least favorite person. But she—she lit up my life. Now I’m left to resolve the questions: Where is she now? Whose life am I guarding? Who am I, if not her mother? And how do I live without her?

 

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Duetting: Memoir 2

Duetting: Memoir 2 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops an illustration for her dead daughter's final wishes.I’m an intruder. Stalking through my daughter’s sacred and secret things. No mother should ever have to do this. It’s all upside down, inside-out. Backwards. Yet I feel my dead daughter is watching and directing my every move.

Marika hadn’t even died yet when her father began to whisper about what we should do with her remains. Scrunched together with his wife and our son Greg in a curtained-off alcove fifteen feet from Marika’s ICU bed, he said he wanted her to be buried in a cemetery near his house.

“So I can visit her.” His eyes winced wildly. I tried to contain the scowl twisting my face.

“Marika would want to be cremated and have her ashes scattered in Australia,” I said, the words flying out of my mouth even though Marika and I had never discussed this. I caught up my drooping jaw and gulped. And realized it was the first time in years I was sure of anything about her.

I was right. Days later when Marika died, Rachel, her closest friend, found her final wishes. In a shoebox under the bed, in the apartment she rented with friends, where she’d moved half her stuff, and stayed when she wasn’t sick puking or in pain.
“You should write some final wishes. Just in case,” I’d told my daughter, four months earlier, back when writing wishes was more like making a shopping list. She’d actually done something I’d asked. Now I ache to think of her sitting alone in that place, imagining herself no longer alive when these words would be found.

“In the Event of my Death,” Marika had written by hand in November 2010. The document is simple and short, like her life. “Final Wishes” is penciled in diagonally at the top, the two words flying heavenward off the page. “If I am ever in a permanent vegetative state, do not keep me alive on life support.” Then she bequeaths her personal things. First, I would get Suki, her dog. Her closest girlfriends would get “whatever clothing they desire.” She shopped for her clothes at the Salvation Army and other secondhand stores. Who would want her clothes? But I want her fake leather cowboy boots and the sweaters she never returned that I lent her, and she lent to Taylor or whomever. Her jewelry is to be divided among the girlfriends. Figuring money was what her brother would value the most of all her earthly possessions, she requested her college fund go to Greg, “If possible, … along with the bracelet he gave me from Iraq. I wore it almost every day.” To Russ, her music partner, she leaves her guitar and lyrics. Other friends, the guys, get the pipes and party paraphernalia she’d given pet names to, Cricket and Halo. And on the bottom of the second page, she had signed her name with a final request. “Marika Warden. I would like my remains to be cremated and scattered in Australia, as that is where I would be if I were alive (If possible).”

Wishes. Last wishes. Wishes on stars. Birthday wishes. I was with her on every one of her birthdays. Twenty birthday cakes. With candles. Always one extra for good luck. Her last wish—leaving her ashes in Australia, where she had intended to begin a new life, free of cancer, and me—she must have known I’d make it possible. Anything would be possible. For her.

Her father hadn’t been mentioned in the wishes. Through the black hole of the past week, he had needed to grab onto every last little thing that had been Marika’s. He can have it all, I tell myself, the next four days as I poke through her soccer trophies, beanie babies, CDs…. Then, on the fifth day, my house fills up with people. Time to go to Bangs Funeral Home.

Marika orders me to bring her stuffed Puppy, some photos, and the first journal I discovered with the one poem. Looking for a bag to carry these to Bangs, I scrounge through a closet until a perfect-sized black canvas tote surfaces. It seems to be empty as I begin to load my few items. Then I notice a small plastic bag in the bottom. I take it out and unwrap the paper towels inside. Suddenly I’m holding Marika’s ponytail. Almost dropping it, I gasp at the silky-soft honey-brown bundle still bound at one end with a rubber band. Three years ago, when it became apparent she was losing her hair with the start-up of chemo, Marika’s friends had chopped it off and shaved her head. Not quite the requisite ten inches needed to donate to Locks of Love, a nonprofit organization that makes wigs for children suffering hair loss from illness, the ponytail had been stashed away.

I hold her hair to my nose and sniff, then slip it back into the bag, and hurry off to the funeral home where I give it to her father.
“So you can visit her anytime you want,” I tell him.

 

 

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Duetting: Memoir 1

Duetting: Memoir 1 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, uses photoshop to print and illustrate a poem written by her daughter who died.My dead daughter drags me up the stairs and into her bedroom. I thought I’d left her for good, in the hospital, in Rochester. But she walked in with me when I got home. Now, she is all over the house, excited, calling me to look, see this, find that. And she pulls me up the stairs. I don’t want to see that room. But I can’t sit still. Can’t think. Can’t eat. I want to be where she is. I want to be dead. It’s almost bedtime now and for hours I’ve resisted her luring me up here. But she wins.

Look, she says.
For what, I wonder? I scan my daughter’s room, trying not to believe she’s ninety miles north, in a bag, in the hospital’s basement refrigerator. No. Remember her here. In this room. She slept with her eye makeup on, smudged, her red painted toes peeking out from under four quilts. I’d wake her with breakfast trays—smoothies and grilled cheese sandwiches—to coax her into the morning. Now, sinking nose-down into the princess’s bed, I sniff, searching for her dwindling scent left buried in the linens. I roll over to see the room like she did. It feels like her hundred thirty-five pounds are sitting on my chest. Is she okay, I wonder? No. Nothing’s okay. I can’t keep her warm and comfortable anymore. Who am I without her? Am I still her mother? Now what? What am I supposed to do now, Marika?

Floor to ceiling, every inch and corner is filled with stuffed animals, photos, books, and memorabilia. Clothes. Papers. Nothing has been thrown out in three years. Since cancer. The room is crammed, and I am completely empty.

Look, she kicks me.
In the middle of the bookcase, a small spiral-bound notebook stands out an inch from the other books. It appears to be an unused journal. Until I pick it up and flip the pages backwards. There, on the first page, written in her most polished handwriting, is the poem above.

A wave crashes over my head. Inside me a seawall breaks. I take the poem and her stuffed Puppy to bed. The night fills with images of my almost twenty-one-year-old Marika flying over hills and mountains. And in the morning, I find myself back upstairs, haunted. Hungry for more. Another journal beckons, and then another. Rummaging through her things I find sketchbooks. Notebooks with poems and plays. Letters. When did she write all this? Songs. Diary entries. Bittersweet glimpses into her short life. And it’s like an invitation. I’ve found my daughter again. Marika’s not gone. She is upstairs in her room in a dozen different journals, in a million words, waiting for me to finally—really—get to know her.

 

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Getting a Life

Getting a Life   Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a cover for her manuscript that helped her heal from child loss, and will now be shared on her blog.“Mom, get a life,” my daughter Marika often told me, mostly when she was angry with me. It was the last coherent thing she said to me, “Get a life.” And after she died I did everything I could think of to make a new life for myself, one she’d approve of.

Mainly, I tried to do all the things Marika loved to do. Things I’d never considered before. Like writing, blogging, and photographing. It was comforting to coop myself up at home for endless days crafting weekly blogs and a 200-page memoir about our journey together through the wilds of cancer. It was like duetting with my daughter. Or with her ghost. Writing and rereading the manuscript brought her back to me, made her come alive again and again. It helped me heal. I never needed to get the work published. It did enough just giving me a foothold to re-enter the world.

There’s a problem with getting a life, or getting a new life. Living isn’t just about doing things or maintaining one single mission. And people change. I’ve changed. Nine years after Marika’s death, I’m finding I need more time to watch birds, or to simply sit and do next to nothing. I want to spend more time in the company of friends, to listen to others’ stories. To listen to music, to maybe even dance. These days there’s never enough time to record meaningful material for my readers. It takes me forever to compose. Yet writing, blogging, is a connection to Marika and to my newfound community that I do not want to give up.

When Marika died, long before I could begin to write, it helped to read what others had written about their losses. So I’m hoping you won’t mind if I share bits and pieces of my own manuscript here, in my weekly blogs, over the next weeks. Or months. Just to keep in touch while I venture out to discover where life will lead me next.

 

 

 

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How do You Define Yourself?

How do You Define Yourself? - Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, defines herself as a bereaved mother, forever.A Bereaved Mother. Is that how you’re going to define yourself forever? A friend asked me this. And for a long while the question bothered me. Mostly because it seemed to suggest I’d lost my self as well as my daughter. But A Bereaved Mother is not all of who I am. When my daughter died I lost my old life, and in many ways I changed. Yet I am still me. And if you ask me who or what that is, you will get only an abbreviated account of where I stand at that one moment in time.

And yes, being a mother is forever. I am a proud mother of an amazing live grown son and of a beloved daughter who died. This will always be towards the beginning of the complex outline of how I define myself.

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Wildfires

Wildfires Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photographs a New Year's campfire while the wildfires blaze in Australia.In Ithaca New York’s cold wet winter, we lit candles and campfires, bonfires even, to herald in the New Year. At the time, I didn’t know that on the opposite side of our planet, in Australia, not too far from where I left my daughter’s ashes, there was ongoing, worsening fiery devastation. The media is now filled with images of wildfires forcing people and their pets to flee to nearby shores, houses exploding, homes and whole towns in smoldering ruins, volunteers comforting injured koalas and kangaroos… they say half a billion animals have been lost. And I don’t know how many hearts have been broken in all this. But I will never again be able to bask in the warm glow of a fire without remembering the videos of roaring flames and smoky orange skies, and people trapped on beaches, watching as winds sweep the blazes ever closer.

 

 

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