Sometimes it feels like the sky is falling. It’s a feeling I have learned to love because I understand now that it is mostly the heaviness of the loss of my daughter. So I put a rose in a sky, and in the background I used scratchy and oozy-goozy textures from a bath towel and soap holder—to echo the rough and slippery sides of life.
When my life was upended by loss I had to redefine myself and re-find my footing in the world. Recently I began fabricating landscapes, and became obsessed seeking stability and balance as I worked in Photoshop to create tiny micro-environments. I could concoct a horizon line even during bath time.
“Oh no! It’s gone,” I cry out in the middle of photography class. “All my work is lost. It just disappeared.” My heart stops and I stare in disbelief at an empty computer screen.
“Just hit Float All In Windows,” says Harry, the instructor. In a click my precious “lost” images are recovered and neatly lined up awaiting my next command. “You don’t lose anything in Photoshop,” Harry tells me. “It’s all right there. It’s just hidden in another layer.”
Layers. Photoshop is endlessly full of layers. They drive me crazy. They also intrigue me. Adjustment layers, restoration layers, background and mask layers … the opportunities to lose and find things are endless.
Grief is endless. But grief changes. The cumulonimbus clouds that hung on me have turned into delicate cirrus wisps high over Cayuga Lake. The frozen mud has thawed, and I can breathe once more. I’m light. In love with fragile, beautiful, unpredictable life. And it’s April again. The geese are back. But they don’t stay to nest. No, now I have ducks. And Marika. She’s here. In Ithaca, with me, still. But it’s different.
Around town, by the lake and gorges, and the Downtown Commons, I am warmed remembering this was her home. She was here. Some part of her is still here. Out with friends, in restaurants on Aurora Street, I clink my wineglass and make a silent toast. Walking her dog late at night in the driveway, I sing to her, and ask, “What exceptional thing will we do tomorrow, Mareek?” And in the house, where her image smiles back at me from every corner, I light a candle over dinner, saying, “One for good luck,” meaning, one for Marika.
Once in a while she appears in my dreams: I open a car door and she is in the back seat. She’s walking the Commons with a companion. Or we’re jogging. Or shopping. She is always young, healthy, and bright as the sun.
“I saw her, Suki,” I say on waking in the early hours of morning. Then I let the dream fade away as Suki rolls over for a belly-rub. I no longer keep my dreams in a notebook. I don’t need to look for Marika. She is hidden in the myriad of layers surrounding me. She is inside me. She’s in the shadows and corners, the undefined edges of space between what one sees and what one imagines. Close by, but beneath layers. Layers I often overlook in my continual quest to find the too-big answers. Layers that occasionally yield a tiny earring lost long ago in the carpet under her bed. Layers that tease me with the sounds of her trying on new jeans in the dressing room across from mine, or that suddenly flash her name or face on the computer. That stop me each time I pass a sushi place. The layers of ash and earth, of galaxies in the universe, of the internet. Layers of memories and dreams. Of who I am and who I was. Between my joy and my sorrow. There are layers where what we love and thought we lost can be found. And kept. Or set free. So many layers. So many choices. We can plummet into despair missing our loved ones—missing out on the joys in our own lives—or we can allow our love to be a source of new energy, creativity, and strength.
I am my own lifeguard now and I choose to guard Marika’s life as I guard my own. She is part of me. Pain and death are layers of my experience. They are not things to get over or through. My life has been shaped as much by her dying as it has been by having children, by being my soldier-father’s daughter, by fearing the ocean and becoming a lifeguard anyway. By allowing Marika to be my beacon of light. We’re in this together. In almost everything I do, I am duetting with my daughter who died. This is who I am now. This is how I am holding my self together. Together with my daughter.
And as I venture into the next chapters of my life, I take her with me. She will always be here, somewhere in another layer, not too far. Maybe right in front of my nose.
It is May 2013. A year ago, on the way back from Australia, I fell and broke that nose. It’s healed now. There was a lot of time to figure out that healing means more than simply being brought back to the original condition. I still have a big nose, but these days it sits quietly in the middle of my face and does not bully my other features for attention. When it was set, it lost some of its hook. It lost lots of its prominence in my mind. Now it’s more crooked but it’s mine and it fits.
These days, when I look in the mirror I see my eyes first. They are eyes that scan life down to the tiniest pixels. They sweep the sky. These eyes watched my daughter take her last breath. And watched my son turn into a man. Someday these eyes may witness the first breaths of a grandchild. Or they may again seek the departing soul of another loved one. My eyes have earned their furrowed trails of lines that branch out and upwards. No longer shuttered, these eyes are ever on the lookout for the best times.
“I was fragile, yet strong, among all of the smiling faces around me
making a pool with me in the center of all of the surrounding energy.”
Marika wrote this. These were the last of her words I found. Days before I left to scatter her ashes in Australia, I’d scoured the house to have all of her to take with me. These words were in her attic loft, in a notebook with nothing written before or after them. As though she was starting a new story.
As though she was starting my new story.
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.’
People always tell me what I want to do is impossible. And I have to wonder, what do they see when they look at me? Do I look so inept? How many times on this Australia trip have I been told I wouldn’t be able to do something? To walk to Bells Beach, to get to Port Campbell on a Tuesday, to travel without a car, … to spread ashes in the ocean without drowning myself.
“Impossible,” I’d also heard back home, coming upon the first anniversary of Marika’s death, “You can’t keep a relationship with someone who is dead.” But I was talking with my dead daughter every day and every night. Speaking to her came naturally to me after she died. How could something so comforting be impossible?
Sadly, watching the twilight turn to night over Two Mile Bay, I regret how often I, myself, have similarly, close-mindedly shot down other’s ideas. I recall a time years ago, in the middle of winter when my father had taken my sisters, and me, and my children on a vacation to a Caribbean Island. Arriving on a balmy night, the sisters and children immediately headed for the beach where we kicked off our shoes and danced in the starry dark. Until my father, flustered on the boardwalk, said, “You can’t be on the beach at night,” and then I, myself, ruined the joyful moment saying, “Okay, everybody to bed now.”
“Impossible. No way,” I’d decreed when sixteen-year old Marika begged to go off on road trips with friends. To young Marika on the edge of our pond or hanging out in the surf with her boogey board, I would holler, “Don’t fall in” and “Don’t go out too far” and “You wanna do WHAT?” Objections. Directives. Were those my only songs all those years? So much negativity, controlling, and prejudging. This dragged up a deep sadness, because there were few relaxed, neutral communications with my daughter that I could remember.
“Mom, I wanna duet. Let’s do Chopsticks,” Marika used to beg me as a kid. When I could put it off no longer, we sat close on the piano bench and she’d begin plunking keys. To duet is to take part in an activity with another in a way that achieves a harmonious effect. A unity, of sorts. But for me, keeping in sync with someone else was like trying to catch the first step on a fast-moving escalator.
“I can’t,” I’d say and give up. She asked me to play only a few times more before she gave up as well.
In early spring of 2012, my daughter’s been dead a whole year, and suddenly I need to duet with her. Not just our everyday exchanges where I’d sing, “Don’t do this” and “You can’t do that,” and she’d follow with her refrains, “Mom, what the—” and “Get a life, Mom.”
“You can’t have a duet with a dead person,” a friend insists. And I know it’s too late to have the conversations and exchanges Marika and I should have had. But, reading Marika’s poems aloud, I hear her voice. Her songs swish around in my head. Now she’s daring me to have a duet and it’s impossible to ignore. So for hours every day and into the night I read and echo her words, and scribble out my own. It’s like when we used to fight. We were mostly saying the same thing but we were bouncing against one another from two opposite planets. And now she is saying, “I will not follow you. You will have to follow me.” So I do, recognizing that we are each of us stubbornly strong women. Beautiful trouble, I used to call Marika. I had never before considered myself strong or beautiful. But something is growing in me. Something’s shifted. Somehow our relationship is changing and it’s like I’ve finally grown up. She’s grown up. And we’ve melted into one. I follow Marika’s words to find her, to find myself. To find us: who are we now, and what we could possibly carry on together as time goes on.
Line by line, I read her poems and responded. It felt like duetting. As if we were playing an elaborate game of checkers or tic-tac-toe that depended on each other’s moves. Marika’s words. My words. Marika’s. Mine. Before leaving for Australia, I pasted our words together on paper. And then I shared them aloud at the last Feed and Read, enlisting my friend Paula’s help for Marika’s part. A duet with my daughter who died. Not only was it not impossible; for me it was like delivering a divine opus.
So here, on my last night on the Great Ocean Road, I know, when one is doing something, doing anything to climb up out of a rut, anything’s possible. I understand now that to squash a person’s efforts may be to shoot the very thing that keeps her breathing. I’ve learned that anything’s possible with people cheering you on. And that getting from Port Campbell to Melbourne before dark on a Monday, a day when the buses are running, has to be possible. With all the connections between buses and trains, I could travel all day and still not see Melbourne until nightfall. By car, it’s only a four-hour ride. So Eleanor at the Loch Ard Motor Inn operates on the computer and on the phone. She finally shouts out from the front door and manages to arrange a ride to Melbourne for me with her son’s friend, Cannonball.
In the morning, I am packed and ready to move on. Locking the little room with the bay view for the last time, I count my resources: the rolling suitcase; the pack with Puppy and the last quarter of Marika’s ashes; and the iPad, my link to friends and family back home who have faith by this point that I might really pull this mission off. And now I have Cannonball.
Maybe he’s named for his gut, barely hidden under a soiled tee shirt that says QUIRKS three times in large letters. He has a long black ponytail, no front teeth, orange fingernail polish, and a car with bald tires that is packed to the gills. He tells me, as we drive off, that first we have to stop at the pub.
Uh, what? The pub? You wanna WHAT? I’m suddenly seriously nauseous, and kicking myself for being, once more, in some weird stranger’s car. Until, half-listening to his words, I realize I’m shutting my mind and prejudging again. Turns out, it’s Cannonball’s moving day so he’s driving the “dog” of his fleet of cars. He’s returning to his kids in Melbourne after working many months at a good job on the coast. His teeth got totaled just days ago in a car accident involving tourists driving on the wrong side of the road. And he has to return the keys and pay the last of his rent at the pub before leaving Port Campbell for good. There’s still no accounting for his orange nail polish but the tiny details don’t matter once I warm to his generosity and kindness. He does most of the talking during the long drive, pointing out various sights along the way, and finally drops me off in Melbourne, in sunlight, near my hotel. An engineer, well paid and compensated for his travel, Cannonball won’t take money from me. I shake his hand gratefully, because anything’s possible, and that could’ve easily turned out any-other-which way than it did.
My mission on the southeastern coast of Australia is almost over on the day I decide to try a shortcut on the way back from my morning explorations. It’s a cliff path called the Discovery Walk. I take it. But whatever one is supposed to discover on this path is lost to me as I just want to get back to my room, and the bathroom in particular, as soon as possible. Following the path, I heavily descend the stairway to the beach, and find the incoming tide has swallowed up the bottom steps of the cliff. A shallow pond now blocks my way across the beach to the motel. Too tired to hike back up the cliff and around through town, and too scared to wade through the small but growing swells of waves entering the pond, I stand immobilized. The bag of ashes in my backpack jabs, “Mom! Don’t be a wimp!” And then more gently, “You can do this.”
So I watch to time the waves, take a deep breath, and dash through the shallowest part. Right away a wave rolls in. It’s not a huge wave but my heart’s pounding wildly anyway. And my feet can’t find the damp sand ahead fast enough for my hundred-twenty pounds to catch up to them. I flounder. And fall. And the wave recedes, leaving me scrambling to rise from the shallows. Then, for seconds, before all the surfers and swimmers, sunbathers, and stray dogs on the beach, just at the intersection of my day’s path with theirs, I stand, shuddering. Sobbing. No, maybe I’m giggling. Uncontrollably on this beach. They must think I’m a madwoman. I try to stifle this torrent of emotion but it grows. And I don’t know if I’m laughing or crying but suddenly my bladder goes. Then I’m really wet. Yet somehow I know—I’m okay. It’s all going to be okay.
Because tomorrow’s coming. And who knows what will be blown in with tomorrow. There’s the trip to Melbourne, the Queen Victoria Market, the HuTong dumpling place, and the adventure of locating the nursing school Marika was to attend. And so much more to explore.
On my last night in Port Campbell. I return to the Loc Ard Motor Inn and unwrap a small take-away by the altar. A Lamington, Marika’s food item #5 that she never got to try. Covered with dark chocolate, dusted with coconut, the cube of cake sits perfectly in the palm of my hand. I sink my teeth into it and find it is spongy. Yellow. Sweet and soft with a touch of crunch. Lamingtons are integral to Australian childhood, typically available at school bake sales, I’d learned. Like brownies and chocolate chip cookies back home.
“You’d have baked these for your dad and your friends. You were like that. Only not with me,” I tell Marika’s ashes, recalling the blue-iced birthday cakes and sweet smiles she reserved for others. I never cared about the red velvet cakes. The time she spent hours making chocolate turtles and didn’t leave me a single one, I almost crumpled. And I might have buckled under completely because not a single one of her poems was written to me. Mostly what Marika left me was a bunch of mysteries. Like who is “deejaylungbutter” who she acknowledged in one of her songs? And who was the Australian she was flying to in the poem she wrote long before she ever met the Australian boyfriend? And what is the story about all the endless unruly brown spaghetti rendered from old VHS cassettes that lined the bottoms of her dresser drawers? There is so much more to be discovered. Or to remain unknown. All I know for sure is, I have Marika’s words. Her words have gutted caves and gorges in my mind. She didn’t have to bake or be nice to me. Marika always knew I loved her. And I know she loved me, as brash as she often was. In the hospital, fighting sedation near the end, she’d reached out to hug me. That’s what I need to remember.