Tag Archives: duetting

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.

 

 

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?

 

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.