Tag Archives: grief

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 11

Duetting: Memoir 11 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops words of her daughter Marika Warden who died of leukemia.

Before leukemia, home was the place we came back to long enough to grab what we needed, whether it was a nap, a meal or a gym bag, as we rushed out again down the hill and back into the world. We rushed and everyone around us rushed. We rushed to get our homework done, to get to school on time, to go to soccer practice or to the mall to pick up some last-minute sports tape, and a fast smoothie to tide us over. As a new special education teacher, I pushed to get through paperwork that piled up too quickly, while Marika scurried between schoolwork and part-time jobs at her favorite sushi restaurant and the gym’s daycare center. There was never enough time. Maybe we liked to eat out so much because it forced us to sit still while we waited for our food.

We were foodies. She baked. I cooked when I didn’t have too much homework from my SUNY Cortland classes. I danced in the kitchen to the muffled sounds of Marika’s music. Indie rock. Upstairs in her room, where she thought no one could hear, she sang over pre-recorded instrumentals. And in the car, stuffed with singing girls, the joyful un-muffled voices made me smile as we sped off to soccer games in neighboring counties.

On the soccer field Marika was an aggressive tank, stopping at nothing to get at the ball. I winced whenever she headed it, and cringed every time she barged into another player. Marika was fierce; she was fearless. So of course she was going to fight leukemia. Early on, a friend set her up with a blogsite, Marika Kicks Leukemia. Though she lived in a dense fog the first few weeks of cancer, Marika was set for battle. She would fight her disease, her doctors, me, and anything else that kept her from living her life the way she saw it.

Life, the way I saw it, should be beautiful and function flawlessly. I always believed I could design my way into or out of anything. For me, to design is to control. It is ongoing, like breathing. Each day, before the sun rises, I envision every possible scenario so nothing can hit me by surprise. To put the most harrowing things in manageable perspective, I draw and make endless lists. There’s always a ‘Plan B’ as I bolster myself for the worst.
“I’m not worrying, I’m designing,” I insist, when accused of being anxious. And designing always started at home even though I hated being alone at home, and Marika would rather be anywhere else. But by the end of May 2008, home was where we both yearned to be.

“When can I go home?” she asked countless times as teams of doctors filed in and out of her hospital room. First this had to happen and then that—there were obstacles. It was like Monopoly, one of those endless board games we always gave up on before we could finish. We were only at the beginning of our road trip. And my mind was already racing, working overtime to find “beautiful” and “flawless,” to put them back into our lives wherever we might land. But leukemia had wormed its way into the warp and woof of our world. Cancer hit home. The tides were broken. They’d collided. Soon I, too, could not “ride along to the same rhythm anymore,” as Marika said. We were hanging over the dark craggy cliff of the gorge when Marika nearly died two times in her first three weeks of cancer.

There was no way to design my way out of that.

 

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 10

Duetting: Memoir 10 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops layers of a word cloud to illustrate the stae of her home at the time of her daughter's cancer diagnosis.Our home is Ithaca, New York. It’s a small town, a perpetually young town between Cornell University and Ithaca College. Bumper stickers proclaim, “Ithaca is Gorges.” It’s true. At the south end of Cayuga Lake, the largest of the Finger Lakes, Ithaca teems with frothing waterfalls and dramatic cliffs. Fractured rock continually crashes down these steep craggy gorges, occasionally smashing and rearranging the landscape.

To grow up in Ithaca is to be intimately familiar with Purity Ice Cream, the Stewart Park Carousel, swimming at Buttermilk Falls, and picking out pets at our local no-kill SPCA shelter. Teenagers in Ithaca attend the Winter ChiliFest, the Ithaca Festival, and the nearby Grass Roots Festival, yearly events that draw thousands to the region. Many teens dare to party on Cornell’s beer-flooded Slope Day, and sneak down to swim illegally at Second Dam, a popular swimming hole. They know their way around the ethnic eateries of Collegetown. Ithaca is environmentally, politically, socially, alternatively, and healthfully conscious. Bumper stickers peg Ithaca as “Ten Square Miles Surrounded by Reality.” It suits me. It’s the special place on earth where I fit in.

In 1976, I followed my first husband here when he landed a teaching job at Cornell. We bought land in the countryside and built a palatial home with a pond. There, I started Silk Oak, a small silkscreen-printing design business. I finally learned to drive. Too busy with our careers, we did not have children. After ten years we split, and I got most of the land. I built a small house and another pond. A few years later I married my plumber, the God of Heat and Hot Water. We made the house bigger, and had Greg and Marika. Then I gave away my 20-year-old home business so I could be with the children, to take them swimming, on vacations, to birthday parties and summer camps. No longer in need of the space for Silk Oak, we sold the house and built a third, smaller house with a third, smaller pond on the same land. And when that marriage fell apart, I paid a lot of money to have my second husband’s name erased from the piece of paper that said the house and the pond and the land once belonged to us both. But I couldn’t erase him completely. He was still the father of my two children.

I don’t believe you can own land, the land you live on, pay taxes on, and love. I believe the land owns you. The land I call home claimed me long ago. Here, high in the hills surrounding Ithaca, it feels secluded from the world but is only a five-minute drop down the hill to town. The green hills, the gravelly soil that tries to contain the ponds, the wind which causes frequent power outages. The woods and the abundant wildlife. The valley, and its view of Ithaca College where at each year’s end the dormitory windows are lit up to display the changing digits of the New Year. This land holds me when I’m home. It calls when I’m away. Wherever I travel, my inner GPS is set to the hill west of Ithaca, to Go Home.

To go home in the spring of 2008 was to follow the long driveway from the turn off State Highway 79, just over the crest of the hill after EcoVillage, our local intentional community. Home was the wreck we abandoned each weekday morning, fleeing to our schools. Marika’s was Ithaca High School where she was a senior; mine was Lehman Alternative Community School where, after years of subbing once the kids got older, I’d been hired as a special education teacher. Home was the sweet mess we gratefully returned to late each afternoon, to scurry away into our individual corners until dinnertime, our time together.

It was just Marika and myself then. My son Greg was in the army, always far away in Iraq or at Fort Lewis in Washington State. And there was Laurie. Our ever-present encyclopedia and sounding board, Laurie was always lodged in the phone, the landline. And in the message machine that still held a twelve-day-old recording of her singing Happy Birthday to Marika in her calm low voice, drawing out the final line. We always counted on Laurie for either a short version or a lengthy, but engaging, exposition of the truth. She always gave you choices. She could explain quantum physics in terms a preschooler would understand. She planted cannonballs in your gut, spouting twenty reasons to go see a primary caregiver about your searing pelvic pain. She made you cringe in horror describing the fish-flesh texture of tissue invaded by lymphoma. Or she could get you to relax in grateful relief, telling you the pain you were sure was ovarian cancer was most likely gas.

“Laur, is leukemia related to cancer?” I asked on that first night.
“What’s gonna happen to me?” Marika asked at the same time. Over the phone, sandwiched between Marika’s and my ears, Laurie said,
“Don’t you know anyone who has leukemia?” like everyone on earth has at least a dozen friends walking around hijacked by their white blood cells. Marika, in a squeaky voice on the verge of crying, said,
“Yeah. He died.”

 

 

 

 

 

Scattering Ashes

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, and sisters scattering their mother's ashes.My mother’s ashes filled three red plastic 18-ounce cups. One sister poured the cremains evenly, and almost to the brims, and handed the cups to the others like she was serving Juicy-Juice. We sisters stared down into the ashes. They were much finer than my daughter’s had been. No coarse sand or bone fragments. These ashes were fine enough to fly. Which is what Mom had wanted: Take me to October Mountain and scatter my ashes to the winds, that I may soar the Universe and observe eternity, she’d written. The powdery ashes would fly, but they’d stick to our hands. Good thing one of us had thought to bring cups.

There we were. Four of us, aged-sixtyish women with an impressive collection of phobias and health issues, gathered at the overlook of October Mountain. We’d traveled from as far away as Florida to be where Mom had spent over twenty summers. The drive up mostly unpaved mountain roads had been brutal, the Toyota Highlander plunging up and down, in and out of huge potholes. Finally reaching the lookout point, we’d tiptoed out of the Highlander trying to be inconspicuous, and hobbled over to the highest point, a large rock littered with cigarette butts.

The fourth sister, our honorary sister, refused to be dragged up the rock. Instead, she would snap photos from below. Close by, in the parking lot, a man sat on the tailgate of his truck, smoking, and watching the view with his pit-bull who eyed us with interest. We hesitated, hoping the man would leave. But he started up a new cigarette. And then a park ranger who was spraying something nasty nearby came over to warn us not to go walking into the brush below. As if there was any possibility we ailing-ancients might venture off our rock to go bushwhacking down the mountain.

We better do this fast, one sister said, when the ranger turned back to his exterminating. None of us wanted to be yelled at, or maybe even arrested, for sprinkling ashes in a state park.

The day was sunny and clear. Fall colors were just beginning to paint the hills. From our perch on the overlook we could see all the way to Mount Greylock—But there was no wind. It took only seconds to toss out three streams of my mother’s ashes. They landed inches off the rock, thickly dusting the bushes below us in white.

No words were said. No poems. Quickly we gathered up the cups and bags, and scrambled into the car, and headed back down the mountain on the bumpy dirt road. Without being stopped. And two days later I’m sitting in my cozy house wondering if the winds ever picked up enough to send my mother’s ashes soaring—to greet the Universe—before the rains came down.

 

What is your Ashes Story?

 

 

Am I Crazy for Treating my Dog Like a Child?

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops the dog she inherited from her daughter, her fur baby replacement child.After my daughter died I didn’t want to love a single person or thing ever again. But Marika left me her dog. That was 8 ½ years ago. In the midst of my grieving, Suki became the sweetness and light in my life. Even now, when I look at this poochie-girl, the oxytocin in my brain bubbles over, melting all moodiness and moving me to plant multiple kisses on the fuzzy bridge of her nose. I’m a total mush pot over this dog.

Most of the time at home, when I’m not talking to my dead daughter, I’m talking to her dog. I worry about every little lump I find on her—is it cancer, is she going to stay healthy and have a good life? Is she too warm? Is she too cold? Driven to sew polar fleece blank-ees and construct plush featherbeds in every corner of the house for my baby-dog, I have a sneaking suspicion that Suki has turned into a replacement child.

Last week, Suki turned ten. And I wondered what I could possibly give her for a birthday present. She already had an abundance of squeaky toys and chew-sticks. And multiple puffer coats for cold-weather hiking. A card offering 20% off on a Dog DNA test arrived in the mail, and for a brief time I considered making a doggie birthday party but these ideas made me want to barf. Instead, I decided to spend a ton of time with her.

On the big day I put a bowtie necklace around her neck and fed her lots of roast beef. We hiked with friends, chased frogs around the pond, and played fetch. She got several belly-rubs. We spent the whole day together and I almost took her to the meeting of bereaved parents that evening knowing they’d understand my not wanting to leave her behind on her birthday. But Suki seemed worn out from all the attention. She crawled up on her new pillow perch in the window by the front door and pretty much told me she’d had enough.

Am I crazy for treating my dog like my child?

Well. Life is too short to worry about such things. And it’s too hard to go through life without love. So I’m just gonna keep doing anything I can to make sure my inherited dog has the best life possible.

 

 

Loving and Losing a Car

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York photoshops her banged up Prius as she wonders why she is carrying on about loving and losing a car.Falling in love or forming any strong emotional attachments was not going to happen after my daughter died. No more grieving for me, I thought. But last week, losing my car, I cried like I was losing my best friend. A friend who had faithfully protected me with its life, to the bitter end.

On the way to Boston for the weekend, passing a slow-moving vehicle on a busy highway, I pulled left into the middle lane and discovered a huge truck tire lying in my path. There was no way to avoid it. My beautiful Prius crashed into it with a great thud. This is the end, I told myself upon impact. But the car somehow plowed through the tire. I kept driving. There was no way to pull over or stop so I continued on, shaken but unharmed. The Prius, who I’d long ago named Peeje after a beloved pigeon, got me to my destination and days later, back home to Ithaca, New York. And after the weekend, checking out the damage, I learned I’d smashed the car’s sub-frame, under-panels, radiator, and every single part of her belly.
“Call your insurance company, this is going to cost you…” the mechanic told me.

With visions of skyrocketing premiums, big bucks for major repairs, and weeks of car rentals, I took my Peeje to the Toyota Dealership where they offered me a small trade-in towards a new Prius, and I accepted it. Immediately. Gratefully.

Then suddenly, I had tears in my eyes and was stroking Peeje’s hood with both hands. There I was, once more grieving the loss of a familiar, comfortable, beloved part of my life. We had a lot of history, Peeje and I. When she was still new we got lost together exploring October Mountain in the Berkshires. Many a snowstorm we’d slowly inched up the long hill to my house, both of us willing her little engine to keep chugging. This was the car that carried elderly loved ones (now gone) with wheelchairs and walkers to fancy restaurants. She carried me through dark empty streets to retrieve friends who’d drunk too much. “Thanks, Peeje,” I’d say every time she got me home safely.

“You’re gonna have a whole new re-built life,” I sobbed to my Peeje, driving her home one last time, to empty out the six-year accumulation of stuff in every corner of her. I wondered, after all I’ve been though, why I was carrying on so about loving and losing a car. But I gently dusted off her seats and lovingly packed her snow tires into her trunk. And let her go.

 

How on earth does one end up loving a car or a house or something that doesn’t even have eyes or a heart?