The earth meets the sky at the horizon line. Always at eye level, this imaginary line sets one’s orientation. After being crushed by grief for so long, to me it is comforting—no, it is essential—to always know my relative physical position on this planet. This line, along with whatever celestial body happens to be hanging in the sky, is my critical formula for right side-up, for being able to move forward, for life.
On my last vacation before COVID, I was snorkeling in the West Bay of Roatan, Honduras, and the floor of the sea suddenly ended. It just dropped. Down a hundred feet from where I hovered. It was as if I’d arrived at the end of the world. One more step forward was a shear vertical drop-off into a vast dark nothingness. The deep of the bay. I tried to see ahead but there was only blue. Losing my orientation to the earth and sky felt like my brain was being squeezed out of my head. Like my very life could drown.
Terrified, I backed away, then turned and kicked and paddled as fast as I could with pounding heart until I reached the sandy shallows of the shoreline and could see where the sunny sky met the sparkling sea. Then everything felt right once more.
In late September 2012, at a campfire with musicians, a friend’s daughter tends the fire. Bent low to the ground, she blows at the coals until waves of flame dance up and embers riddle the air in fireworks of crackling jewels. Her every movement matches the music, and I sit in a lawn-chair, watching, mesmerized. When the fire is really roaring and the fiddles whinny at a feverish pitch, the young woman steps up barefoot on the rocks that circle the campfire. She tiptoes around the fire gracefully from rock to rock as the firelight plays on her face.
“Marika, you’re too close to the fire.” That’s what’s about to burst from my mouth as I watch this girl-woman. I catch myself just before toppling off the edge of my seat.
No one is like Marika. My friends’ daughters don’t really remind me of her. But late the next day, as I stroll over crack-dry leaves in the driveway, there’s the sound of an approaching car crunching gravel, and I feel a hopping in my heart. For seconds, I hear the old dented Toyota pulling up, music blasting, leaves flying behind it. Marika would show up suddenly like this. Just before dinnertime. She’d tumble out of the car carrying a full laundry bag, with Suki pulling at her leash. A cool smoke-tinged breeze brushes by. My deepest sadness is triggered by these sounds and smells. Marika had come to me like this last autumn too. And it had taken a whole winter to creep up out of the dark depths of despair.
“You don’t magically recover in a year’s time,” says Meg, my CompassionNet social worker who still keeps tabs on me, a year and a half after Marika’s death.
“But I’m tired of these triggers wrenching my emotions, at being accident-prone and making poor choices. Forgetting. Falling. Losing things. Breaking things,” I tell her. “Missing appointments was something someone else always did. I can’t even dress myself right. I used to be a teacher. I was a lifeguard. I took care of other people’s children. Except for childbirth, I was never in a hospital for my own care until this past year. Now I’ve broken a wrist, my nose, and two toes. My eyes are cried permanently bloodshot. I had vertigo last week. And Lyme disease. My sister wants me tested for some kind of neurological impairment. Is this how it’s always going to be from now on?”
“Take care of yourself,” Meg says, her brows twisting in opposite directions off her face. And I think, Yeah, I’m my own lifeguard now.
Sometime after, Rachel phones, “You hafta meet my new girlfriend.”
“Girlfriend?” I’m caught off guard. Why would she want me to meet her new friend? This must be a really special new friend, I think. And then I finally meet up with them, Rachel and her Girlfriend. Not a boyfriend this time. I mull it over and over, trying to get comfortable with an ever-changing Rachel.
These days I’m desperate to have something stay the same. My whole life has changed. It seems like to live is to change, and I’ve been fighting it. And I thought that Marika, being dead, would not change. I’m finally getting to know who she really was, but even dead—and after a year and a half I can finally say ‘she is dead’—she is changing too. Or, maybe it’s our relationship that’s changed. Marika—her ghost—is no longer fighting me. I noticed that. Somehow, now, she’s cheering me on.
“Always, Marika,” she used to sign her letters, notes to friends, emails, … everything. Was that a plea to remember her or her pledge to always be there? Was it a wink at immortality? Or was it simply a pretty word that could sit next to one’s signature instead of ‘sincerely’ or ‘yours truly,’ without too much thought behind it?
Who dares to say “Always” in a world plagued by climate change and ozone layer depletion? How could she sign something “Always” with deadly global viruses, nuclear weapons proliferation, water pollution, terrorism, financial meltdowns, and ecological destruction all over the planet? With freak accidents, madmen with guns, asteroid impacts? With cancer. A million things can go wrong. It takes just one to end your “Always.” Always is every time, at all times and for all time. Forever. Continually, repeatedly, in any case and without end. Always is the sun rising and setting, hopefully. Time. Space. Rocks, maybe. Even earth may not be around for always.
I will not be around for always.
Shortly after Marika died I found a small gold ring in her room. In many cultures a ring, an unbroken circle, symbolizes infinity and undying love. However, this ring is one of those adjustable bands where the ends don’t meet. As soon as I put it on, I knew it would snag on something someday and fall off. Sooner or later I will lose it. But I’ll wear Marika’s ring as long as I have it; when it’s gone I won’t regret not tucking it away in a box or someplace safe. Can I treat people this way? Like they are not forever? Can I treat my own life this way, like it’s not for always? Marika lived like she had only an hour left. How differently might we all live if we had expiration dates stamped on us like cartons of milk?
Barely twelve hours after landing in Ithaca, on my return from Australia, I fall head first and hard into my front door. And break my nose. Slowly, I lift myself up from the load I’d tried to carry into the house. Two huge garbage bags of cat-poop and soiled litter my cat-sitting friends had collected and sent back with the cat. The cat is still in the car, crying in his carrier. But I’m holding onto my head, barely able to breathe. A million things could have gone wrong in Australia, but they didn’t, and here I am, back on my own doorstep, losing my balance, falling apart.
My nose rains blood. Stars flash before my eyes. My fingers fumble blindly over the newly reactivated cell phone in an effort to reach someone for help. In the emergency room, I hold my face for hours as my memories of Australia evaporate. I beg the doctor for a new nose, a nose job. Impossible, he says, but he can fix the break. I wake up after the surgery wishing I could sleep through the healing. But even sleeping is difficult, done sitting up in a zero-gravity lawn chair parked next to the bed where cat and dog keep vigil over me and the tray of tissues, pills, and tippy-cup with water.
Over the next weeks my face turns the color of stormy oceans, then of green-gray grass, and finally a yellowish shade like wheat ready for harvest. I write feverishly as I nurse my nose. I watch the crazy geese on the pond. They hoot and honk. They do their nesting and protective dances all over again. From the south windows I follow the geese and the slow changing of the moon.
“Hey, Marika in-the-moon,” I call to her when it’s a full moon. When it’s a fingernail moon. On moonless nights when I walk her dog. “Do you see the moon, Suki?” I talk to the dog. I talk to Marika. I talk and sing to Marika’s moonbeam smile in her life-size photograph that hangs prominently in the middle of the house. It all helps.
Late spring nights I try to sleep, breathing through my mouth, as around the pond the songs of a thousand frogs echo in high peeps and low gunk-gunks. Frogs gulp and grunt. They scream into the dark night. Windows open or closed, it doesn’t matter though. Mostly I hear only the muddled noise of my mind trying to make sense of life’s events. I wait in the tumult of the night until the din dies down, or doesn’t.
The days are filled with friends who check on me, prying me from my writing. They listen. It helps to have friends, especially those who also have lost loved ones.
My friend Andrea dies. My children’s mentor. The one who believed in me. Cancer.
I lie on my back on the living room floor. Suki, my inherited dog, stands over me, engrossed by this new perspective. She pokes her inquisitive little nose into my still-sore face, and I can’t help but smile. Then she drops a squeak-toy on my chest and I explode into laughter. The sound of my own high-pitched squeals fascinates me. But it soon dissolves into a howling cry as I sink back into sorrow. Marika. Now Andrea. Has cancer always destroyed so many lives and I just never noticed? Suki stares at me, terrified. When I quiet down she licks the tears around my healing nose.
By the end of June my blog site is up. If I want to be a writer, I’m told, I need to have a website and write a weekly blog. And find followers on Facebook and Twitter. Oh, if Marika could see this. More and more, it seems, I’m living my daughter’s life. Only I’m shy and clueless as to social media. Communicating with strangers makes my neck muscles tense up and renders me almost wordless. But it is the only commitment I have, so I treat it like it’s my job; every Monday morning, no matter where I am or how I am, I publish an article. I reach out to family and friends, to Marika’s friends, and to people I have not yet met. I’m never sure of what to say. So I write the stories of my stumbling into deep holes of grief, and my attempts to crawl back out. In the hope it will help someone. We’ve all lost someone or something we loved. There’s life after loss. That’s all I’m trying to say. Or, it’s what I’m trying to believe.
Way before our colliding with cancer I had developed an aversion to producing visual art. So I’m not sure what on earth led me to enroll in a Digital Photography course at Tompkins Cortland Community College in the fall after the Australia trip. I know nothing about photography. I’d borrowed a small point-and-shoot for Australia and could barely manage that. Computers and technology in general confound me. And here I am in a class with tech-savvy college students and a handful of retired folks with huge expensive cameras hanging around their necks like gigantic gaudy jewelry. The only thing I have going for me is my sense of design. And maybe my newly developed adventurous spirit born from the discovery that I need to actually do something in order to have something to write about in my blogs. But there’s this keen desire to breathe visible life into my memories of Marika. Like one huffs and puffs at the last embers of a dying campfire.
So I rent a digital camera from the school and photograph whatever sits still long enough for me to consider f-stops, shutter speeds, and ISO settings. Right off, I learn to photo-shop pale images of Marika’s face onto all my landscapes. Soon I’m ‘shopping away, trying to make impossible scenes appear somewhat real. I ‘shop Suki a dozen times all over the living room, in one picture. I enlarge Marika’s face until I can gaze into her life-sized eyes. Working in Photoshop is the closest I’ve come to finding peace. Or God, maybe. Time and troubles disappear when I ‘shop. The making of each picture is a prayer of gratitude. It’s comforting to me, if not actually useful. It’s challenging. I stagger out of class each week dizzy with new ideas. And in my weekly blogs I add photos to complement what I write.
It doesn’t take long to notice that my approaches to writing and photography differ. I work hard to find the exact words to describe reality. How something feels, smells, sounds, and tastes. I could never write fiction. But when I photo-shop, I can tell a more colorful story. So I tell the truth in words, but shamelessly stretch it in my photos. And I call the whole thing ‘healing.’
The Australia journey can’t end this way. It’s a year and a month since Marika died, and I’m walking in circles in Melbourne, hugging the last of her ashes on the last day of my trip.
In a daze, I pass Federation Square in the center of Melbourne, the place where everyone meets up and hangs out. Soon I’m back on the Yarra River, behind Flinders Street Station from where one can start a journey to anywhere in the world. Everything leads to here and away from here. Whoever comes to Melbourne can’t miss it. People stroll along both sides of the river now. It’s midday. Musicians play, and street shows attract cheering crowds. The Yarra is lined with outdoor cafes, and filled with kayaks, paddleboats, cruise boats, and ferries. I sit on the edge of a small wharf and untie Marika’s bag of ashes for the last time. Ignoring everything, I begin to toss.
“This is for your Aunt Laurie, who wishes she could be here,” I whisper. “And here’s for Greg and your dad.” I toss another handful of ashes, “for Rachel, who loves you.” And another, “for your friend Jake.” I scoop and sprinkle a precious smattering of the ashes for Pat, Marika’s beloved Australian. And then I empty the rest of the bag.
“This is for me, Mareek. I love you…. I love you so much.” I turn the bag upside down and shake it clean. It makes flapping sounds like a bird taking off.
On the water’s surface, the ashes form a warm gray cloud like a pale ghost. It catches the sunlight and glimmers for seconds before disappearing into the river.
Marika Joy Warden from Ithaca, New York—you have been let loose in Australia, I announce in my head. She is free. Freed from the black box and plastic bags, doctors and drugs, rules and demands. Freed from cancer. And from the ashes, now blended into beautiful water.
I sit frozen. Seagulls whine. Small brown birds wait on the wharf. And from someplace deep inside my gut, faint tremors churn. I rock. Forward. Backward. Back and forth over the water, hugging myself. The rippled surface of the river reflects the sun and explodes in my face as I close my eyes on tears. Inside it is bright fiery red. Like flaming blood.
The birds do not leave until I tuck the empty bag away and stand. Don’t say goodbye; she’s not here, I think as I tear myself from the wharf. But she’s not completely gone either. Shortly after, she makes me dig through my pockets to give coins to nearby musicians. They thank me very enthusiastically, and I realize I’ve given them three whole Australian dollars instead of the seventy cents I meant to donate. And just as I reach the hotel, I hear a tiny hopeful voice, “Mom, what about the dumplings?”
I keep my promises. So later I head for the HuTong Dumpling Bar in Chinatown where they seat me before two dumpling makers who stretch and roll, pat, pinch, and pleat endlessly. I stuff my emptiness with Shanghai Dumplings and then return to the hotel, to the iPad, to check in with my friends.
Tomorrow’s coming. In the little hotel room, I hold Puppy and rock her like she’s a fragile newborn Marika. We’ll come back to Sydney with Laurie, I promise, we’ll do Puppy’s cremation on Manley Beach one day. I’m trying not to think about traveling back across oceans, vast seas of clouds, time zones, and mountains, and arriving home—alone—to an empty house. That night I sleep with Puppy under my arm.
In the morning, on the plane as it taxies to the runway, I try to ignore the rubber band around my chest that tightens the farther I go from where I left Marika’s ashes. Then, as the plane takes off, I spot her, out the window in the distant grasslands. Marika riding her kangaroo. The kangaroo’s gait is oddly syncopated, and as it turns, I see they are each wearing an iPod earbud. Hey! I want to yell after her, I’m going to live bigger, live like the lights could go out at any time. Because anything’s possible.
The engines roar and the plane lifts off the ground. Peering down at my last glimpse of Australia, I raise my hand and rest it on the window. I’ll be back.
Don’t forget a single thing, I tell myself on the long flight: the road trips, Australia, the good things and the bad, all the scary parts. The waves. Her face. The white sheets wet with tears, Marika’s red-painted toes. How my back ached, sitting on the edge of the bed or standing over her to rub her feet. The glittering magic of just hearing her name. The heavy weight of not wanting to live when she died.
Through all of it, I believe the day after Marika’s death was the only time I wanted to die. That gray day in March 2011, I drove home to Ithaca from the hospital and then moldered a whole day, stuck in the hallway like a bled-dry carcass battered on a highway. Our journey together is over, I’d thought.
But that night I’d found her poems.
That marked the end of our journey together through the wilds of her cancer. The poems, delving into them and then duetting, kept me going until I birthed the plan for our journey to Australia to carry out her final wishes. The two journeys have ended now. The ashes are gone. And here I am, once more, returning home without Marika.
It almost feels like I’ve lost her again, lost her all over again. I’d spent the past year discovering the daughter I hardly knew, and then followed her ghost to Australia, all the while writing and rewriting, and rereading every bit of everything we shared. Marika died a thousand times over the year, for me. Yet something more of her always surfaced, some memory, some photo I hadn’t seen before, or some old friend telling me a Marika-story I hadn’t heard. That’s over now. The Australia trip is over. And now everyone expects me to move on.
Comfort is found in strange places. In our darkest times, we all have to find some one thing that we can hang on to. Maybe it’s a mission, an image, a dream. A song. Or just words. Something that brings us light and hope again. And peace. There’s this poem of Marika’s I keep coming back to.
It was not like tucking her in. After my daughter’s last breaths and the moments the hospital staff reserved for the family’s final goodbyes, it was more like stripping down the Christmas tree. Off with the earrings. Then the navel ring, and the woven friendship band on her ankle. Off with the bracelet her brother brought back from Iraq. And stuffed Puppy, always held in the crook of her arm. Off. They said it all had to come off. I was left holding precious bits and pieces of my beautiful daughter, trying hard not to think about what would happen to her next.
Mom! Get over it! I heard Marika’s voice in my head. So I gave it all to her father. Except for Puppy. Almost threadbare Puppy was still warm from her. For a long quiet time I held Puppy, and stared at Marika’s empty house, getting used to the idea that she wasn’t there. And then I left, so they could take her beautiful house away.
They kept me busy. I don’t know who was with me, my friend Celia, my son? My sister? Didn’t matter, because Marika was not. I allowed myself to be led around. There was a walk to some local coffee shop to buy lots of gift cards that would be left in the Oncology Unit. There was packing up. Her things. My things. There was dinner in a restaurant where all I can remember is wondering how I could eat. And how Marika could not eat. How she, her body, her house, was stuck in the hospital, in the cold basement morgue while we were dining out. Her perfectly shaped eyebrows and red-painted toenails and all the rest of her that I’d never get to see again was now stuffed into some black plastic body-bag with not even a blanket to keep her cozy and warm. She had lain so still and vulnerable in the center of us. Helpless. And now she was alone in the cold dark, awaiting cremation.
I need to forget this last part. That is not how I want to remember her.
It was late. I returned to Hope Lodge without my hope. One last night in Rochester, that would forever be the city where I left Marika. Where I knew I’d have to return some day but knew I would never want to return. And that night, in my dream I swam with dolphins. I was overtaken by a wave that surprised me, rolling up from behind. It was too big, and I was too late to jump over it. So I was pulled down. Underwater, I collided with bricks and boulders and baby dolphins. Finally escaping the debris, bruised and battered, I floated, just dangling in the gray water while around me stars silently fell down. It was peaceful, so tempting to stay put. Was I prepared to die? I could not pretend this wasn’t happening. To me. Who was I now? I couldn’t remember. Did anyone need me anymore? No, the dolphins were gone. So I could go. I could rise above the bricks and leave the darkness behind. Wake up. Up and up. I could brave the wildest waves all the way home.
What have I done, I thought the next morning, upon awakening, when I couldn’t get up from the bed I’d sprung out of so many mornings to get to the hospital so Marika wouldn’t wake up alone. There was nothing to get up for. For the first time in my life I didn’t want to get up. I wanted to die.