Tag Archives: grieving moms

Duetting: Memoir 44

Duetting: Memoir 44 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a love poem written by her daughter who died of leukemia.

I remembered that I never talked to my own mother about love either.

“It will get better, it’ll be okay,” my mother had told me one day when I was lovesick and couldn’t hide my reddened eyes. The words seemed so lame then. It took decades to finally find the truth and comfort in her simple response, “It’ll be okay.” Eventually I learned love could keep a person going, could stretch a person to her best. It could make anything beautiful, even winter. Love could keep you fighting for your life. Or it could rip your precious reserves to shreds.

At the end of November 2010, three days after Marika’s concert and still high on our victory, we were admitted to Strong for the stem cell transplant preparations. Punching at her cellphone with frantic thumbs, as I trudged under the weight of our bags, Marika trailed me to our room in the Oncology Unit. OUR room. This was the first time the nurses told me I could have the empty bed next to hers. No more trying to sleep in a reclining chair. No late night drives to Hope Lodge. I stowed away the last of our belongings and noticed Marika on her bed, transfixed on the computer. Crying.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, immobilized.
“I haven’t heard from the schools in Australia yet,” she said in a squeaky pinched voice. She had applied to two Australian universities, hoping to enter a nursing program in January 2012. The Roc Docs had warned it would take a whole year to recover after the transplant.
“Mareek, you just applied a few weeks ago,” I said, “It takes time.”
“I didn’t even get to say goodbye,” she said, tears dribbling down her hot pink cheeks. She turned the computer around to show me a handsome young face with smiling blue eyes and long sandy-blond locks. “He’s going home. He has a girlfriend,” she sobbed.

Slowly, moving closer, in a high voice I asked, “Is this the Australian guy you’ve been hanging with the last few months?” She nodded, choking. Her whole body shuddered, and I remembered the pain of longing for lost love. I should have held her. Comforted her. But it was like I was wading into a cold lake. Tentatively. One frozen limb at a time. I kept my eyes focused on the face on the screen.

“He’s adorable,” I said, not knowing what else to say. She composed herself and added,
“He was always good to me. No man ever treated me better.”
“Then you’ll just have to go back to Australia. It’ll happen,” I said, touching the computer. “It’ll be okay.”

That was all she ever told me about the Australian. That was all I had to know. He made her happy. He made her sad. Somehow, it would all be okay.

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 41

Duetting: Memoir 41 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops her grief journey to Sydney, Australia.

Marika’s Australian scrapbook is filled with names and words. Excited scrawls strewn over the pages: “Suki wishing well” and “Wishing Tree.” “Flying foxes.” “Floating stage.” It becomes a game, a scavenger hunt. Her words are clues that set me loose fishing for what she saw. I canvass my way all over Sydney, and question people in the streets to find what Marika found.

Which of the countless statues of dogs was a wishing well that reminded her of Suki? She wrote “Hot Sake,” so I feast in Asian eateries, imagining her delight at being able to drink legally in Australia. She wrote “seagull and Big Mac.” Could she have seen the same seagulls and egret punching around the MacDonald’s bag that only the long-beaked egret could successfully reach into? “Weddings!” she’d written, and I could feel her joy. Words are no longer just words. They are stories. ‘Weddings!’ is a story. ‘Wishing’ is a story. And the word ‘ashes’ is now my tour guide who tells me, “Mom, you hafta go to the Queen Victoria Building,” and “Go to Darling Harbour.”

I pounce on this city like a young child attacking a pile of presents. At Taronga Zoo I follow koalas, quokkas, and rabbit-eared bandicoots. At the Aquarium, I stand in awe, surrounded up and down and on all sides by fish that swim serenely to classical music. Hanging out near the University of Technology, I find exotic Chinese Gardens and flocks of colorful parrots. I follow my nose through aromatic Asian and Italian neighborhoods, and pick out a live barramundi fish to feast on in Chinatown. I scarf down fish fries on the wharf and stuff myself with mashed pea-and-meat pies at the Harry’s Café de Wheels truck. Hot on Marika’s trail, I eat ice cream and crepes for breakfast at Pancakes on the Rocks.

The streets are lit up when I go to see The Marriage of Figarro at the famous Sydney Opera House. A huge chandelier is suspended over a floating stage on Sydney Harbour for the next evening’s performance of La Traviata. Loud funky music blasts out of shops along Elizabeth Street where everything is young and full of life and light, all day and long into the night. For four full days I ride the buses and walk endlessly in and out of markets, shops, museums and parks. I hop on a ferry and toss Marika’s jewels into the water at Darling Harbour and off the Harbour Bridge. Dropping her bracelets into deep water, it feels like I’m planting her here.

On the evening of my last day in Sydney, I am on a ferry I took out of the harbor in order to get free Internet access. I need to be in touch with my support squad. It is time to leave Sydney, the easy part of my trip, the first part of my four-part journey, where I’ve gotten comfortable and now feel safe. I send out a message to my friends: I’m emailing you from the middle of Sydney Harbour! We just passed the Opera House. Looks like we’re headed for the Pacific now … connection could quit any time … hope this ferry returns to the wharf eventually… more to follow.

I’m kicking myself for assuming the boat would return to the same place. Like home, I don’t expect I can really get back, not like the way it was. And what can one assume in a place where you don’t dare drive because people drive on the left and pass on the right? As it turns out, I can’t even walk properly in Australia. For four days I’d bumped into people and done a do-si-do dance with them in the street trying to figure out who was supposed to move over, and where, to let the other pass. Until some BIG guy coming from the opposite direction grumbled in his adorable Australian accent, “Yer in ‘Stralia now, yer not in America, darlin’. Stay lift!” I got it. Just in time to leave the crowded streets of Sydney, the city that whispers to me, “It’s okay, your story’s no sadder than anybody else’s here.”

And in Sydney Airport once more, headed for Melbourne, I’m coddled as if there’s a sign on my front saying ‘delicate.’ I’m told I don’t have to take my box of ashes out for inspection. I don’t have to remove my shoes. And in a state of disbelief, I completely forget to take out my plastic-ziplock bag of liquids. So forgiving is Sydney. She purrs, “We’ve seen it all before.” And at the airline counter, the agent offers, “Since you’re here two hours early for your flight, we can send you on the earlier flight, no extra charge.”

‘Sydneysiders’ they call themselves proudly. What a warm, sweet beginning to my journey. Doing Sydney first was like starting a meal with dessert.

 

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 39

Duetting: Memoir 39 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a poem written by her daughter who died of leukemia onto her photograph of a sea of clouds.

My story bounces around a lot. Back and forth between times. That’s because I, myself, am always straddling time, living with one foot firmly planted in the past and the other limping in the here-and-now. Time is so squirrely. It’s always getting waylaid by something catastrophic or miraculous, or just plain draining.

What am I doing? I ask myself when almost everything I do is for Marika. In the spring of 2012, I’m going to Australia to carry out her last wishes. The trip is an extravagance I would never have allowed myself. But someone was going to have to go someday, unless we would have brazenly mailed her ashes off to that Australian she loved, who never answered my emails, and let him dispose of her ashes, easy and cheap. No. In April 2012, I am still standing guard over her. Her ashes. This is part of our journey together. And for me, a journey is never simply a distance covered in time or space. It’s an opportunity to change something. It can be open-ended, intuitive, or steeped in purpose, but a journey is dependent on attitude more than intentions. Where will I allow myself to go? Can I stay open to whatever comes my way? And if something goes wrong, if “broken tides collide” like Marika wrote, will I be able to smile—one day, if not immediately—and accept that it was simply what happened? Just part of where that journey would intercept another path?

Australia was Marika’s dream for another shot at life, a life without cancer. And when my journey is over I, too, will start a new life. My life without her.

I have to keep reminding myself I will not find Marika in Australia. Not a trace of her. She was there only two weeks. When she left home, I gave her tickets and a Triple-A Travelcard loaded with three hundred dollars. I told her not to spend money on anything for me. I just wanted to know about different foods she would find. And she gave me, on her return, cookies and a postcard with a cheeky four-year-old in a superhero costume on the front. It was a government-issued advertisement for product safety she’d gotten for free.

“Mom,” she had written on the back of the card, “Always Marika, Top 5 foods from Australia to try: 1. Vegimite!! – Very salty 2. TimTams – Especially dark 3. Rosy Apple Bits – ask me for some 4. Australian style bacon – probably can’t find in US 5. Lamington slice – I couldn’t find. I need to try too!” Right there was an unfinished mission, I noted.

Then there’s her scrapbook with clippings, postcards, and brochures. And photos. Photos Laurie and I googled to match the backgrounds with images of particular places. So I could have an idea of where Marika’s feet had taken her, “which way my feet are going,” like Marika said.

She had flown to Australia alone to meet up with her lifelong friend from Ithaca, Carla, who was at school in Sydney for the year. Marika had other friends there as well. I will have no one. She’d asked for extra money to rent a car and I’d said no. So I will not allow myself to have a car there either. I will not open the box to spread her ashes until after Sydney, after one last flight five days later to Melbourne. I’ll take four full days in Sydney to calm my apprehensions, fuel my courage. I’d planned as much as I could before the trip so I wouldn’t end up immobilized by fear in hotel rooms for the whole two week trip. Yes, I’m terrified. That is why, on my last night home, I emailed twenty-two women, my Australia-Alone Support Squad:    

If you’re getting this email it is because I regard you as someone who has been strong and supportive, and I need your help now. I am on my way to Australia with Marika’s ashes. But I am not alone. I have her stuffed Puppy, my iPad, and you. It is scary but I can do this …

To Marika I wrote, in response to her poem: Marika, I am not “Flying to You.” There will be no one and nothing to greet me. I will arrive alone, tired and hungry, and scared because I will have to fend for myself as soon as the plane lands. I will not be rewarded with your smile or anyone’s open arms. Oh, to be flying to someone I love. And now, over this past year of grieving, I have found all your words, all over the house. There won’t be any more poems left to find when I get home. But while I was packing, I came across a framed drawing of a rabbit you’d made that said “Welcome Home Mom.” I put it on the mantle outside my bedroom, to be the first thing that greets me when I return from Australia.

Let the royal rumpus begin, I always say upon starting an adventure. Buckle up. We’re gonna bounce around a lot.

Duetting: Memoir 37

Duetting: Memoir 37 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a sea of highways to illustrate her fear of waves, fear of cancer, and fears of getting lost.

Long Island, New York. I knew nothing about how to navigate my way around the place of my birth. Yet every cell in my body was acutely aware I was back home. My original home. Where Marika was immediately accepted into the drug trial program at North Shore Medical Center. Insurance was going to pay for it so we were going to be stuck on Long Island for most of the summer. I followed the GPS instructions to my cousin Norm’s apartment in Woodbury, twenty minutes away. Norm was graciously giving us his guest room and the living room couch for our first weeks in treatment. We unloaded Marika’s belongings into the guest room before she took off with Rachel. I got the couch.

The girls spent as much time together as they could between Marika’s appointments and Rachel’s classes. Some days Rachel took Marika to Jones Beach, my old hangout. They wore eye make-up and dressed in little bikinis. Marika’s tiny cutoffs sat well below her navel ring. Joined by friends, they wave-surfed and picnicked with wine coolers, beer, and watermelon. They stayed up late, stargazing in Hofstra’s intramural fields where Marika sang long into the night with strangers who brought guitars. They laughed, made up lyrics, and ducked in the gully to avoid the patrolling public safety enforcers. Marika went with Rachel’s friends to a concert in Brooklyn where the tickets were sold out so they climbed over a fence to watch for free. They rollicked all over Long Island while I lay low, reading in Norm’s apartment where it was cool and quiet. Except for a noisy air conditioner. Which I kept off as much as I could stand, not wanting to hike up Norm’s electric bill. When temperatures fell below eighty, I ventured out to hike along Jericho Turnpike. It was harrowing to walk alongside moving vehicles, but I felt oddly alive being whipped by the hot blasts of their passing. I couldn’t simply sit inside all the time. Sometimes I just needed to be out under the sky, to have room to stretch.

The GPS was set to find the medical center, west of Norm’s. It was set to find Rachel at Hofstra, somewhere east. “Have GPS will travel” was my motto. When Marika went out with Rachel, I sometimes took off to find Turkish restaurants, shopping sites, and parks to walk around. Anywhere I could get an address to plug into my GPS. But on one hot afternoon, driving Marika to Rachel’s, we noticed the GPS was dying. First, the feisty female voice quit. Lindsay Lohan with barely restrained attitude stopped ordering me around, stopped badgering me, sneering, “Ree-lo-cating,” like she had to work hard not to add, “dumb bitch, you missed this turn for the fifth time.” If she had eyes, she’d have rolled them like Marika. She ditched me.

Then the map disappeared. By the time I dropped Marika off, the text of instructions had gone entirely as well. I felt abandoned. Terrified, I tried to retrace my way back to Norm’s, but I was lost. I drove on, searching desperately for something familiar. I was in a sea of highways. Wide bands of roads crammed with cars crisscrossed, curled, and tangled over and under in churning waves. Directionless, I wiped my sweaty forehead, and continued with the flow of traffic until an exit advertised a shopping mall. I turned anxiously from the highway, my first intentional move on Long Island without the guidance of a global positioning system, and found the mall’s Best Buy. A half hour later, with the new Garmin Nuvi GPS set to a charming British male voice, I was back on the road again.

Almost every town I passed on Long Island had a memory tucked away: an old boyfriend who lived in Wantagh, a factory my father once owned in Westbury, the parking lot at Roosevelt Field where our family dog died when a friend left it in a hot car. Most haunting about being back though, was the ocean. It was in the air all around me, always just beyond the crowded highways and stretches of shopping centers. It was in my blood. To be on Long Island in the summer was to feel the Atlantic Ocean and the Long Island Sound pulsing in every part of me.

Living in Ithaca, I missed the ocean. So we’d take vacations to beaches, with boogey boards and picnics. My children were fearless in the water, maybe because I’d swung them around in Cayuga Lake and in pools and ponds from early on. But I was always terrified of waves. If I went into the sea, I stood stiffly in the waves, jumping up as high as I could at each swell, keeping the kids close, ready to grab before they could be pulled under. Because as a young girl, one summer on Jones Beach, I was swept away by a wave. Not very far. But I remember being petrified, helpless under the water. The sea was way stronger than I. It was vast and violent below its surface. And it wanted to swallow me. Crying, I finally pulled myself up out of the shallow remains of the wave and looked about. I could not find my mother whose hand I’d been holding only a moment before. Salt water stung my nose and throat. All around, concerned strangers reached out to help me. But I was not supposed to talk to strangers. I was frantic. Lost. Battered by the ocean I’d loved. And where was my mother?

That trauma haunted my dreams. It gave me a tremendous respect for water. It made becoming a lifeguard the hardest thing I ever tried. And it fired a small current in me every time I watched my children in the waves. In no way could I stand the thought of Marika or her brother being lost or scared like that. In pain. In any sort of trouble, with no mother to protect them. Back on Long Island during the summer of 2010, I visited the ocean at Jones Beach only once. I didn’t have to see it more than that. It was in me.