Tag Archives: Healing From Loss

Duetting: Memoir 43

Duetting: Memoir 43 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York photoshops an old picture of her daughter who died of leukemia as she sang her last concert.

“We have a donor for you,” the Roc Docs announced at our meeting, like they were giving Marika a birthday gift. “He is twenty-nine years old.” Age and gender was all the information the transplant team could share about our donor.
“The transplant preparations take two weeks, and the donor is available in mid-November.” Because of her history of extreme reactions to treatments, Marika would have to stay in the hospital during the rigorous preparations. “So you’ll be admitted at the end of next week,” they said. Startled by the short notice, I must have gulped. Suddenly seven sets of eyes turned to me. Then a small voice popped up, not my own.

“I can’t,” Marika said, and the focus honed in on her. “My concert. I have to do my concert.” There was a stunned silence in the small, overstuffed room.
“Your concert? But—um, when is your concert?” one of the team finally asked.
“It’s either the 26th or 27th of November. We’re still working out the details.”
“Uh, we can see if the donor can wait,” one of the team suggested uncertainly. Leftover smiles were frozen on the faces of the doctor, the social workers, and the nurses. They eyed each other in disbelief. Then they looked at me like I should do something. I heard myself swallow. No one said to us, “We’re worried about losing our small window of opportunity” or “We might lose our donor.” If this was a bad idea, it wasn’t being made clear. They simply nodded and said they would ask the donor if he could be available at another time. So everything was put on hold. My stomach was grinding bricks.

“Are you out of your mind?” Bewildered when I told her, Laurie yelled at me over the landline back home. “Remission doesn’t wait around for you to check everything off your to-do list.” She said nothing to Marika, didn’t yell at her. But a day later, she called back to ask me, “So, what’s the new game plan?”
“The concert is on Friday, November 26th. We get admitted on Monday the 29th, and the transplant is on Monday, December 6th. Wanna come out for Thanksgiving?”
“No, but I wouldn’t miss that concert for the world,” she promised.

Thanksgiving in Ithaca is a chaotic coming and going of thousands. Evacuating students, mostly. But also friends and neighbors. The people you count on to participate in putting on a concert, or to show up. All the movement over the course of a few days makes planning an event during this time period an exercise in patience, creativity, and faith. Marika and Russ scrambled about to get a back-up singer and other musicians from people who had not yet heard their music. By the day after Thanksgiving, the night of the concert, The Nines in Collegetown was packed. I knew almost everyone there, and their mothers. Saving a seat for Laurie, I nursed a beer at a table with friends as we ate pizzas and tried to hear ourselves talk over the clamor of The Nines, known for its crowds, Blue Monday jams, and deep-dish pizzas. Our excitement and anticipation were at a peak when simultaneously, the band appeared and Laurie arrived. My eyes immediately zoned into an examination of Marika. Cute dress. When did she get that? She’s wearing the boots I gave her. She looks happy. She looks tired, like she just woke up.

Pleased with the crowd, Marika started singing “Party Jam,” a short song she and Russ wrote. Her large earrings dangled wildly as she moved to the music. In the back, Russ beat away at his drums. I was mesmerized watching my daughter doing what she dreamed about. I ordered another beer.
“Hello everyone. Welcome to the Nines,” Marika said cheerily, and went right into “Soldier,” a song she had written for her brother who was there in the crowd, recently honorably discharged from the army. She grimaced at her back-up singer who, unfamiliar with the tune, sang off key. The singer wore an old ridged washboard tied around her neck, which she struck with two drumsticks. I glanced across the room at her mother who smiled proudly at her healthy, spirited daughter.

“Don’t forget to tip those bartenders,” Marika ordered at the end of the song. “I wanna see more of you dancin’,” she yelled. The crowd cheered. The music got louder, and she danced. Then we all danced. We bumped into each other and laughed, waving our arms. It didn’t matter that we could hardly hear the songs over the percussion. This was what we’d waited for, what our lives had been put on hold for. The crowd at the Nines was crazy. The music boomed and Marika was in command. I wanted to freeze-frame the moment. She sang “Never After” and trailed off, “I am not going anywhere, I am not going anywhere, I am not going anywhere.”

Finally, with a victorious smile, finger pointing and fist punching the air, Marika shouted a song by Cake, “I want a girl with a short skirt and a lo-o-ong jacket.” A raucous finale. Just in case anyone was thinking this concert was to be her swan song. Sometimes I wonder if Marika knew it would be her last performance.

It was ending. Please don’t let it end, don’t let it be over yet, I pleaded in my head, sending a grateful prayer to whatever kind spirit might be watching my world. Cheers to Russ and all the musicians, to all the servers at The Nines, to everyone in the crowd. I shot blessings to the doctors who waited and the donor who waited.

Laurie and I walked back to the car, our Frye boots scuffing the sidewalks of late-night Collegetown. My ears still rang. In the dark streets, the dazzling streetlights were kaleidoscoped by my tears.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 24

Duetting: Memoir 24 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops Andrea Riddle and Marika Warden wearing headwraps and hoop earrings, as cancer patients.

There is always some anxiety as I wait for guests to arrive. My friends are so different from one another. They range from Marika’s age to my mother’s age. For the Feed and Reads I’ve gathered them from my hiking group, from foodie endeavors, former workplaces, and past mother-daughter relationships. One friend’s daughter will join us, and also a woman I’ve never met who felt linked by loss. And Rachel. If I can reach her.

“Hey Rachel, where are you? You haven’t called or emailed me in over a month. I’m getting worried,” I leave multiple messages on her cell, “You’re coming to the Feed and Read aren’t you?” Rachel usually communicates with confidence, like she’s the Mayor of Cool. But when I last spoke to her she’d sounded almost suicidal. Too wrapped up in my own pain, I’d never really considered how Marika’s death affected her best friend. 

Soon I’m more warmed than worried, looking around the first assembly of my readers. They introduce themselves and talk like they are old friends. And in the months to come, they will be. In their courageous effort to help me, they will discover familiar connections and create new ones. But there are two who are missing. One is Andrea. She had often “borrowed” my children over the years, spoiling them and stretching their minds. She’d visited Marika several times in the hospital. Andrea had given me my first teaching job, knowing what I could do long before I did. Two months ago we walked in the woods as yellow leaves fell. What kind of horrible joke was it that she was recently diagnosed with cancer herself? I wanted to be there for her. But wearing her head wrap and hoop earrings, she so resembled Marika, I could hardly look at her. Now Andrea is too sick from chemo to join the Feed and Reads.

The doorbell rings and I run to answer it. Rachel.
“Sorry I’m late,” she says, all bubbly at the door.
“Look at you!” I gush. “Your hair. You look adorable. You look – happy.” She looks like she owns the world and has just walked into her own birthday party. Her makeup and manicure are gone. And her hair is shaved off except for a bit at the top.
“It’s a Faux-Hawk,” she says, brushing at her almost bare head. “Do you like it?” It’s freezing outside, but she’s wearing a wife-beater undershirt, neon Michael Jordan sneakers, and low rise baggy khaki shorts that might be her dad’s. She looks like the beloved janitor from some old TV show. But she still has on the fragile silver necklace that was Marika’s.

“I’ve been sober for fifty-six days,” Rachel announces at the table as we feast on butternut squash soup, cheeses, salad, sushi, and shrimp cocktail. She proudly shows off her tattoos. One particularly huge one spreads across her ribs on her right side, “Be strong when you feel weak,” a quote of Marika’s. I’m very aware of how different Rachel is, from before, from the others. And I’m proud of her, like she’s mine.

When the meal is over, we move into the small living room for the reading. A photo of Marika sits on a tiny table next to me. Next to it is a box of tissues. And pencils and notebooks, for comments.

The Feed and Reads will go on for over a year. Whenever I have a couple of new chapters to share we will feast. My work is the focus at these gatherings, but everyone here knows grief. Before and after I read, we share our stories.

“It was just like that for me when my husband was in the hospital, before he died,” says Jane, the friend-of-a-friend I hadn’t known before. Next to her, Barb, who will host most of the Feed and Reads, sits stunned, holding a tissue in mid-air between her lap and her face.
“After my husband died I wrote him letters too,” says Annette, whom I’ve known over twenty-five years, “It was a powerful healing tool.” Celia, who remembers everything, brings the group back to my story saying, “You forgot to mention the prom. You have to write about the prom.”

It’s as if they all know I need them here. They somehow sense the best way to support a grieving parent is to show up and listen. So I keep writing and rewriting. To read aloud my daughter’s story. All a bereaved mother really wants is for her child to be remembered. For the rest of my life I will listen patiently while friends ramble on about their kids graduating, getting their first real jobs, getting married … and there will be no more news of Marika that I can contribute to the chatter. But here is my time to tell about my beautiful brave girl, her accomplishments, and her extraordinary passage through the bloom of her short life.

 

 

 

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 23

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a collage of her daughter's ashes in an effort to heal her broken heart.

In late July 2011, I bring home the sealed black box containing my daughter’s ashes, and assemble a small altar in the living room, above the TV. Around the box I place photographs, daisies, chocolates, Marika’s stuffed Puppy, and two Lonely Planet Guides to Australia. The first summer without Marika is half over when I finally end my travels. I hadn’t found her anywhere else in the world. The box is where she lives now. Each day I stand before it wishing Marika good morning and goodnight. Her ashes are not just dust. The ashes are her, humming and dancing inside the box, watching me come and go.

With Rachel’s help, I clear out most of Marika’s bedroom in the house. Then, in a reckless determination to purge, I attack the attic, my son’s sprawl of accumulated stuff, and my own closets. I sell off my father’s stamp collection and deposit carloads of clothing and toys at the Salvation Army. It all has to go. The only things I want are Marika’s words. And once they are photo-copied, I send the original journals off with Rachel to give to Marika’s father. Then Rachel and I empty Marika’s bedroom at the apartment she shared with friends.

“What’s up with you?” I ask her. Rachel looks like a wounded animal. “Are you okay?” My eyes are drawn to the silver Tiffany’s necklace she wears, the one Laurie gave Marika for graduation.
“I’m not with my boyfriend anymore,” she says.
“Should I say sorry or congratulations? Well, either way, congratulations. ‘Cause you’re with you.” It’s what I say to anyone who tells me she’s survived a separation and is suddenly single or alone. It’s what I tell myself: You still have you. But I don’t recognize this as a gift yet. I feel I’m only a ghost of the person I was before. And it’s still hard to face people. I’m sure there is whispering and pointing just beyond my earshot and sight. Like last year, at a party, when my friend Andrea nodded discreetly in the direction of an acquaintance, “Do you see that woman? She’s been through hell and back, and she looks it.” I’d regarded the blinking, quivering woman who did indeed look like she’d fallen to Earth from outer space, breaking the sound barrier, her heart, and every moving part of her in the fall. Is that what I look like now? Floundering and crazed?

After Rachel and I bag the last of Marika’s shoes, I wash my hands singing “Happy Birthday” twice to Marika, and consider the strange haunted face in the mirror. Red rheumy eyes stare back. Graying roots jeer at me. Ugh. This has to go too.

Then, in early August, on a Sunday morning hike with Suki and friends, I fall in a slippery stream bed, and break my wrist. Right away I know it’s fractured although it is the first bone I’ve ever broken.
“Go. Get back to enjoying your Sunday,” I tell my friends who take Suki and drop me off at the hospital. “I’ll be fine.” But I am not fine. It’s my first time back at a hospital since Marika died. Waiting alone in the ER, I break down in howls. All the tears I had stuffed away for months each time I bravely faced the world beyond home, come gushing out of me. Marika’s supposed to be here, not me.

And then, as I bumble around the next several weeks in a cast, I suffer all sorts of snags. Mishaps. Glitches. Calamities. I get the flu. I mislay bills and incur late fees. By a hair, I miss hitting a deer on the road. Everything I cook burns. My keys disappear. My house is plagued by deferred maintenance. Skunks move in under my deck, and the pond is overrun with muskrats. I can’t sleep nights. And at the end of September, I get a traffic violation for failing to pull into the far lane when passing a blinking, parked cop car.

“Mom, you’re such a wimp,” I hear. And I know I’ve got to do better. So, I begin to drag myself out of the house and down the hill to the community that loved Marika. I start co-leading Chronic Disease Self-Management Workshops for the Tompkins County Health Department. I join a six-week hospice-sponsored group, Singing Through Your Grief, where mourners are supported as they share stories and sing. CompassionNet, a program serving New York State families of children with life-threatening illnesses, offers to pay for life coaching sessions.

“Why don’t you write a book?” asks my life coach, Marci Solomon.
“I would never,” I say, scrunching up my nose like Marika did when I suggested she wear shoes and socks in winter instead of sandals. But I enjoy writing responses to the questions Marci asks each week. And I eagerly do the homework from the Hospicare singing group.
“Your assignment is to pick a prompt from the list and write what you would tell your deceased loved one,” say Jayne Demakos and Kira Lallas, who lead Singing Through Your Grief. At the session that follows I read aloud what I wrote. A reverential silence followed by exuberant praise energizes me like richest chocolate.
“I will write for five hours this week,” I pledge at a Chronic Disease Self-Management workshop. Even the co-leaders are required to make and complete Action Plans, weekly contracts to do something for themselves, and then share their successes or failed attempts at the next meeting. The following week, “I will write for ten hours.”

It was just letters to Marika at first. Like on the TV game show Jeopardy, I teased out questions from her poems and songs, questions I wish I’d asked during our time together. What’s it like to be twenty and have cancer? What do you fear? How does cancer affect your relationships? … Memories swell up inside me. Words churn in my head. And when all the commotion is captured onto paper, I experience a thawing, a lightening. When I read aloud what I wrote, it becomes part of me. It makes me feel stronger. And it makes me sure this is not something I want to do on my own.

“Hey, Rachel, I’m writing a book,” I say over the phone. Then I call a dozen other friends. “I have an idea,” I say. “I’ve been writing a book and want to test it out. I want to do a series of simple dinners where I read aloud. Chapter by chapter, as I write. I’m calling these dinners ‘Feed and Reads.’ Would you come?”

It is so exciting to enlist listeners. With thirteen positive responses I begin two small groups that will fuel my energies over the next year with their kind and brave commitment. December starts out dreary. But I write for hours every day. Often by candlelight. For Marika, and now for the women who will gather together to hear me. Addicted to light, I line the driveway with solar-powered garden torches. I frame the mudroom door with rows of red mini-lights, and plant battery-operated plastic candlesticks in the windows up and down the house. I buy hundred-watt bulbs and full-spectrum therapy lamps to write by. Sweet light blossoms all around me, breaking the darkness as I write. Warm welcoming lights brighten the winter nights, the empty house, the long lonely driveway, and my dark heart. They beckon, they plead: come to me, come home.

 

 

 

Continuing Bonds Continued

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops an old photo of herself with her daughter who died of leukemia, to illustrate continuing bonds grief theory.“I’m over that. Done. I’ve moved on,” said a friend, about her child who died years before. Great for her, I thought, not able to imagine ever even wanting to be “done” with my own daughter, gone over 7 ½ years now. Actually, I’ve been carrying my Marika—whatever I could find left of her to hang onto—since she died. Different things work for different people.

A griever’s mental status used to be questioned if one held on to the memory of a loved one too long. Mercifully, someone came up with a modern grief theory called Continuing Bonds. It is now considered acceptable to create an enduring relationship with a deceased loved one as a way of coping and finding comfort while continuing to live one’s life. Even as one’s life changes with the loss. It is okay to stay connected. And it’s normal for these relationships to grow and change over time.

Continuing Bonds came instinctively to me. A matter of my own survival, it began the day after Marika died, when I collapsed, devastated, onto her bed, desperate to breathe in her scent and see the world from where she saw it. At first, I needed to wear what she wore, and hold what she held. That led to doing what she did, and loving what she loved. All the things that were part of her life, that I hadn’t understood or cared for—like writing, photography, blogging and posting on Facebook, making up tunes to play on instruments—I ended up finding myself drawn to. Doing these things daily now, I am living a life my daughter would have loved. It makes me feel forever linked to her.

There are many ways to maintain ties after the loss of someone who was the light of your life. I wanted to know what Continuing Bonds looked like for others. Not much is written about this because each person approaches it differently. It looks like the widow who still talks to her husband of fifty years, or the bereaved parents who keep their child’s room as it was before death—in order to have a special place to feel close to him. Some people start foundations and community events to honor their loved ones. Some look to their deceased loved one for inspiration in trying new things. Some create meaningful personal rituals, or works of art. Others continue their loved one’s work. Many try to live in a way that would make their beloved proud.

“Moving on” can be good. Maybe that’s what living is all about. But we learn from the ones we love and think we lost. Whether or not we choose to ‘carry them with us’ into the next chapters of our lives, I’m pretty sure that simply having loved them turns us into better people.

 

What do you think about keeping connected to a deceased loved one?

 

Losing a Friend

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photographed her friend Annette months before she died.Over the past few years I was called to my friend Annette’s deathbed a couple of different times. The hospital is just a short drive from my house, so I kept her company during many emergency room visits. If she got admitted for an extended stay, I’d merrily come and go twice daily, delighted to have her in my neighborhood. When we spoke about dying, she joked. She twisted her oxygen tube into a noose around her neck. Then she shaped it into an angel’s halo and held it over her head. She got me laughing ‘til I was short of breath myself. My friend for over thirty years. She made me feel adventurous and indestructible, like we could go on forever outwitting the angel of death.

And we did. For a while, she always bounced back. As per her request, I’d fetch steamed lobsters and double-chocolate-chip muffins from Wegmans, to celebrate the victory.

Not this time.

Annette died. And, since I wasn’t with her, since I didn’t get to see her ever-lively self in a lifeless state, I’m left trying to convince myself she’s no longer just across town or only a phone call away. She’s gone, I have to keep reminding myself. No more wild road trips wondering if the oxygen tank would last. No more silly antics during the most solemn moments. No more photo-shoots where she’d literally bend over backwards to give me a great shot. I’m just beginning to realize all the ways I will miss her.

Grief is grief. The pain and suffering when a loved one dies cannot be measured or scored. That’s what I tell people who try to compare one person’s loss to another’s. When a friend dies, you cannot simply assume their pain is less than that of someone losing a spouse of sixty years, or losing three children rather than one, losing a beloved parent, or a long-awaited infant who dies at birth…. Someone’s misery is always perceived to be greater or less than someone else’s. Having experienced losses of a parent, a child, and friends, I believe each is painful in its own way. Each loss is different. Un-comparable. For me, now, in considering my losses without weighing one against another, I would say:

When you lose a child it’s like losing a limb or a vital organ. But when you lose a good friend, you lose some deep-rooted, invisible, remarkable, un-nameable thing that allowed your spirit to soar.

 

Who was the friend whose death broke your heart? How do you honor the memory of a good friend?

Bereaved Mother at Wedding

Robin Botie of ithaca, New York, photoshops an image of her daughter who died onto a screen of flowers to illustrate one of the emotional triggers encountered as a bereaved mother at a wedding.Extra tissues were stuffed into the small purse I’d made to match my dress. The dress sewn with my daughter’s image tucked into the folds so I could ‘take’ her to her friend’s wedding.

I’d set rules for how to conduct myself at this wedding: Be inconspicuous, don’t glom onto any one person, look for others who appear lost or alone. And, to anyone who might ask about the image of Marika on the dress, reply, “It’s too long a story to tell here. What’s YOUR connection to the bride or groom?”

There were some thorny things about weddings I’d failed to think of. Like, how memories would be triggered by rollicking flower girls spinning in shiny shoes and pink twirly dresses. The father-daughter dance. Like having people pop up from my past, from my time with Marika. Plus, I was stunned by how grown up and beautiful her friends had become over the past seven years.

My plan was to leave before the reception. But the ceremony was short and I soon found myself talking to old acquaintances, inching towards the drinks and cheese platters. Besides, it would be rude to go without greeting the mother of the bride who was off being photographed. When I finally caught up with the wedding party, they insisted I stay for dinner, and showed me the seat where my name was written on a handcrafted coaster. The seat next to the mother of the bride.

So, gathering up the skirts of my dress, I sat down for dinner across from the family’s closest friends who all seemed to know about me and my daughter. A woman came over, followed by her husband who told me they’d lost their son, and knew how I was feeling. That’s when I remembered I wasn’t the only one with a story. Weddings are bittersweet events for many. I made silent toasts to Marika and to the son of the kind parents, and then laughed and applauded with the crowd.

Occasionally, my eyes got watery. But I did not have to dig out the tissues.

When dinner was over, just before the cutting of the cake, before anyone could ask me (or not ask me) to dance, I slipped out. Away from the party, dashing down the driveway like Cinderella escaping the ball. But first I grabbed a piece of the bread-pudding cake to-go.

And at home, in the lightest rain, I danced with my dog in the driveway, spinning like a little girl in a twirly new dress.

 

What is it about weddings? That makes you cry? That makes you want to dance?