Tag Archives: bereavement

Duetting: Memoir 26

Duetting: Memoir 26 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a collage of a tiny book made years ago by her daughter Marika Warden, who died with cancer.

For my holiday gift I’d asked my son for a shooting lesson. So on the unseasonably warm afternoon of Christmas Eve 2011, Greg comes downstairs with two long guns. Trembling, I wrap up in scarves, earplugs, earmuffs and hooded jacket, and follow him out the door and across the lawn. He stops just short of the pond, props his shotgun against a tree, and hands me the rifle. Remington.22, he tells me. And then he shows me how to hold, load, and ready it for shooting.

“You don’t pull the trigger,” he says, “you squeeze it. You hug it with your whole hand.” Willing my eyes to stay open, I squeeze and shoot. It’s not nearly as loud or as jarring as I’d expected. Marika would have said, “LikeBAM!” Hardly drawing a breath, I shoot again. Bam! The sky echoes with each ferocious bark. Handling this loaded rifle, cradling it so close, and then blasting the air—LikeBAM! —I am spellbound, conscious only of being just on the cusp of control or calamity.

We had placed two targets against a large willow tree across the pond. The targets were a gift I’d painted for Greg. The one I’m to use is a cartoon image of a rotund woodchuck with a bulls-eye bellybutton. We train the scope, first focusing far, and then zooming in so every breath and movement I make is exaggerated in the scope, and the woodchuck bounces in a dizzying scene. When it settles, I hug the trigger. LikeBAM! With no movement of my target, no trace of a hit, I aim and shoot again. BAM! I continue to load the magazine and shoot. My woodchuck hasn’t budged. Greg fires his gun and with each shot creates small clouds of smoke before his target.

When our bullets are spent, we walk together around the pond to inspect the targets. Surprisingly, the bullets sped through mine without moving it and I’ve hit the woodchuck’s belly twenty-six out of twenty-eight times. Pleased with myself, I’m hooting and cheering. Until we remove the targets from the base of the willow.
“Oh. No,” I wail, “I’ve been shooting clear through to the tree. We’re killing the tree.”
“Oh, well. ‘Goes with the territory,” he shrugs.

Some things, like the differences in our respect for life and living things, will never jive. I say a silent apology to the tree and then follow Greg into the kitchen. He takes the two rib-eye steaks I got for our supper, pierces them several times, plants them in plastic zip-lock bags, and marinates them in Johnny Walker whisky. He pours two glasses of the whisky over ice.

“Did Marika ever shoot? What’s the best prank you ever pulled on Marika?” I ask, thinking I’ve got him relaxed and ready to chat. “What would you fight for or even die for?”
“Mom. Just enjoy the Johnnie Walker. Okay?” And then, “Do you still have my extra passport photo somewhere? I need it back. I’ve got a job in Afghanistan as soon as I get my papers cleared.” He’s leaving again. Whatever holiday I’ve been avoiding is now totally shot.

Later that night, on the first Christmas Eve without my daughter, the single drawer of the small night table next to my bed is stuck open. I rarely use this drawer but I had rummaged through it for Greg’s passport photo. Now the drawer is jammed and I can’t get it to close shut. I slam it and it breaks. When I wrench it back out, a tiny green cloth packet falls to the floor, and I remember a Christmas long ago when Marika had no gift to give me. She had scurried upstairs, bounced back down, and handed me this small pouch of jeweled sequins. Now I empty the contents into my hand. Sparkling butterfly-light jewels catch the lamplight that blurs through tears. The remaining sparse contents of the broken drawer lay on the floor. And in the middle of the small mess, bound with shiny red holiday ribbon, sits a tiny book written and illustrated by Marika in 2001, when she was eleven years old.

Book of Wonderful Memories. From: Marika. J.W. To: Robin Botie
1.The costume parade. You were there for me every step of the way! I’ll never forget your face when I got 4th place. You were so happy! 2.That one teddy bear that you would look at when we were fighting and tell me a story of you. Mom … 5.Even with the most boring books, it seems so exciting with your voice. … 6.When I’m scared you are always there for me … 8.Always loveing even when I’m a brat.

Mareek! Are you here? I cry out. Are you helping me get through Christmas? What the heck am I doing in this drawer anyway? It’s almost midnight and I’m holding the most precious gift, now received twice over. Why does it feel like you’re watching me? Sometimes it’s hard not to believe in ghosts, in after-life. Here I am, holding this tiny book you made ten years ago, before all the road trips, before cancer. Before our mother/daughter divide. Ten years ago when you adored me—Maybe you never stopped adoring me—Maybe you just stopped showing it.

She’d made me a book. And now I am making a book for her. She wrote. So I’m writing. Words are my new medium and I’m using them to paint our portrait, mixing words like I used to mix colors. All the sweet or savory, whispering or roaring, bland or bewitching words that dance in my mind. Like : meandering, infinitesimal, crimson, petechiae…. Reading my book aloud at the Feed and Reads, occasionally I glance up from the pages to peek at my audience, their jaws dropped and eyes begging me to continue. My gift to Marika, I tell myself. Really, though, she has gifted me, and is gifting me still.

My first manuscript is a plot-less lament to my dead daughter. But that doesn’t matter. Because, daily, I lose myself and find myself in what I write. Some new determination to live, lives on. And I feel hope. It’s back. And hope implies future. So I continue to write, and look forward to the sharing. And I love my book like it’s my daughter.

Duetting: Memoir 5

Duetting: Memoir 5 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops an illustration for her memoir about the journey with her daughter through the wilds of cancer.Days after the calling hours, I enlist Rachel’s help to go through Marika’s belongings. Rachel wants me to meet her boyfriend. So the next week, still in a daze, I take the two of them out to dinner. Dressed up, made up, and manicured with acrylic French tips, Rachel glows, reminding me of Marika. For a moment I feel like the mother of a daughter again.

“May I see your wine list, please?” I ask the server, intending to order a bottle of wine for the table, the way I do when I go out with my girlfriends or family.
“I’ll have a Long Island Iced Tea,” Rachel says. I try to remember if that’s the drink with five different liquors. Tequila, I think. Vodka. Rum and gin and…. I’m surprised. But she’s of age, so I forget about it. Until she orders a third Iced Tea before our meal of steaks, fries, and giant chocolate chip cookie topped with ice cream is over. Does she always drink like this, I wonder? Did Marika drink like this? At that point, though, I get distracted by car talk. I sell Marika’s car to Rachel’s boyfriend.

Days later, I don’t empty the car or look to see what’s inside. The creaking sound of its door and smell of the strawberry-kiwi air freshener over the dash could release a torrent of memories. Car gone. That’s when I really know for sure Marika isn’t coming back. I spend the next three months running away as fast and as far as I can. I would have run out of my skin if I could have.

In the spring of 2011, England’s Prince William marries Kate Middleton, the Federal Government threatens to shut down, Osama bin Laden is killed, and New York legalizes same sex marriage. But I’m oblivious, racing to catch planes and scanning the crowds of fellow travelers for Marika’s face. It doesn’t matter what’s going on in the world or where I land. Finland. France. Anywhere but home. She is no longer there. The presence I felt so strongly the first days after her death dissipated shortly after I brought home her life-sized portrait and began talking to it. Maybe when I return to the house again she’ll be back. Maybe if I set her free, set her belongings free, she will come back to me. So I’m on a mission to toss Marika’s earrings and bracelets into oceans all over the earth. Does this have to make sense? Will anything make sense ever again?

Then suddenly it’s June and I’m back in the States. I wake up in my car one day, lost somewhere between my mother’s home in Western Massachusetts and my sister Laurie’s in the east. And I’m desperate to find a post office so I can mail more of Marika’s jewels to places she’d have visited. She wanted to see Greece and Ireland. She’d have loved Colorado. So I send out bits and pieces of her to friends all over the world. It offers me some vague comfort, like she is still here, like some part of her is just off traveling someplace beyond my reach.

 

Duetting: Memoir 4

Duetting: Memoir 6 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops an illustration for her memoir about her life with her daughter who died.At Bang’s Funeral Home, we discuss the ashes. Her father wants them. He says he will buy a nice urn. Then he starts talking about dividing the ashes between us.
“No. Don’t split her up,” I beg. “You can keep her ashes. Whoever goes to Australia first will take them.” That’s how we leave it. I assume he and his wife will be the ones to go to Australia anyway. That’s okay. I don’t need my daughter’s ashes. I have her words.

Family members and a couple of Marika’s best friends gather in a back room at Bangs for a brief service before the calling hours begin. My friend Andrea, directress of the Montessori school my children attended, hands out DVDs of Marika singing “Over the Rainbow” at a school anniversary celebration ten months ago. When Marika was barely six, Andrea had given her the leading role in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat knowing she would be able to sing the songs, if not deliver the lines. Marika went on to star in the school’s production of The Wizard of Oz, and music became an important part of her life. I hold the DVD of her return to the Montessori community as a star having conquered cancer. Marika’s friend Rachel holds a life-sized portrait of Marika. My mother and youngest sister Wendy hold Laurie, my other sister, who looks like she’s been shot. The small group is silent as I read Marika’s poem, “Atop a Mountain,” clutching the journal to keep from crying. Marika would want people to hear it, I remind myself. I must not sob her poem away.

The calling hours begin. It’s my last chance to stand up for her. To stand guard. I will be a soldier. A rock, solid to the core. Soldiers go to funerals for their fallen comrades all the time and never break down in tears, I tell myself. Or maybe they do and I’ve been turning my head. I stand with my twenty-two-year-old soldier son who is no stranger to funerals. He arranged Marika’s.

Most of the people in the procession somehow know better than to try to hug him. Greg looks lost, and brittle like he might crack if you got too close. A man of few words even during the jolliest of times, he nods, avoiding the faces, watching the floor from his six feet up. He stays by me the whole five hours. Be strong next to him, I tell myself. But my tears are nowhere near. I’m too awed by the endless crowd.

It was supposed to be only three hours. But dripping wet people keep filing in. They wait outside in the rain in a long line that winds around the block, trudges up the stairs, and circles the porch of the funeral home. Inside, they pass the hushed room where my mother and sisters sit. They enter the lively space where members of Marika’s father’s and stepmother’s families are clustered, and finally reach the inner chamber where Greg and I are stationed with the stuffed Puppy and life-sized portrait. And I can’t stop thinking how courageous all these people are, waiting to face a shell-shocked family, a soldier saying goodbye to his only sibling, and a heartbroken mother who lost half her world.

“Are you doin’ okay?” Rachel bends from her high-heeled six feet to hug me when the visitors are gone. Her eye makeup has smeared, but otherwise she looks like she’s held up.
“Tired,” I say. It’s what Marika might have said—one word to someone who cares, but doesn’t care if I don’t feel like talking.

Months after the calling hours, Bang’s Funeral Home phones me. What do I want done with Marika’s ashes? Horrified to hear she’s still at Bangs, I drop what I’m doing and fly sobbing down the hill to bring her home.
“I’ve got Marika’s ashes. I’m sorry,” I leave a message on her father’s phone. “You can have them anytime you want. But her words—she wanted to be scattered in Australia. So I can’t just leave her abandoned in Bangs’ basement.”
That’s when I make a promise—Australia. That’s when I know I’ll be the one to go.

 

 

Ice Cream for the Soul

Ice Cream for the Soul, Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops her deceased daughter, Marika Warden, eating ice cream at Purity Ice Cream Shop.“They’re closer than you think,” I said, talking about loved ones who died. I dug into my cup of coffee ice cream. Seated around a small table at Ithaca’s Purity Ice Cream Shop with an old friend and two new friends, I could not remember being there in the past 3½ years since my daughter died. Marika and I came here often: mocha chip and coffee ice creams. Chocolate sauce or hot fudge. No cherry, no whip.

“If a child loses both parents (s)he is called an orphan. Widows and widowers are people who lost a spouse. But what is a word for a parent who lost a child?” I asked.
“Damaged,” said one of my new friends. We could laugh about this; each one of us knew loss too well.
“And what is a word that means ‘a dear one who died’?” It was the question that had haunted me all week.

I was about to make an ice cream toast to our lost loved ones when the server sent out a fifth dessert.
“It was on your order. Mocha chip with sauce.”

That’s when I decided to plant a picture of my dead daughter at the table.

What do you call your beloved who died?