Tag Archives: healing journey

Duetting: Memoir 65

Duetting: Memoir 65 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York Photoshops a ghostly presence of her daughter who died.

Years ago I hated taking photographs. Having a camera in front of my eyes kept me from experiencing the world, I used to say, I couldn’t be present to what was around me if I was focusing through a camera. But now, with my digital Sony RX100 that fits in a pocket, I can capture so much I didn’t even realize was there. Its postage stamp-sized plastic chip holds a million memories in tiny thumbnail scenes. Memories, and sometimes surprises. I click, drag, and drop the tiny images from the chip into the Photoshop program on my computer where I can enlarge or erase, copy as-is, or change them. Then I spend hours remaking reality. In Photoshop there are intriguing “tools” to work with. Tools geared to fixing. A Patch Tool and a Path Selection Tool, a Dodge Tool and an Add Anchor Tool. A Magic Eraser and a Magic Wand … a Clone Stamp. And a Healing Brush.

One gray day in early March 2013, I pass an old abandoned home. I stop because I’d grown up across the street from a ‘haunted’ house, and as a curious kid I’d peeked into the clouded windows to find traces of former inhabitants. Even vacated, there remained a vague residue of the lives that came and went. This other empty house just outside Ithaca now captivates my imagination. Respectfully, I approach the threshold to snap pictures and consider how I might ‘shop a ghost-image of Marika onto its porch. But back home, I reconsider as I view the images in Photoshop. The house is beautiful in itself. It wears its own stories in chipped paint that reveals familiar patterns in the weathered wood underneath. There’s no need to imprint my own longings onto it. Two years after Marika’s death, I find I’m filled with a deeper regard for others’ hearts and homes that house memories of lost loved ones. Loss and grief do not belong only to me.

Sooner or later we all lose someone we love. Then, critically wounded, we wallow in hopeless despair, suffering regrets and guilt, fatigue, denial, depression, anger … all sorts of symptoms and phases of grief. And finally we scramble to adapt, to redefine our lives, and find our new selves amid the gutted remains of our broken hearts.

Why don’t we learn about death early on, like in grade school, I wonder? Why don’t they prepare us in high school for all the dying we’re going to be faced with in the course of our lives? We should know that the longer we live, the more people, pets, and plants will die before us, and that the deaths of the ones we love most are going to scour our hearts raw. Allowing ourselves to get slammed by death over and over again—is this the humanness of us? Watching the bereaved keen and crumple every time—is this godliness? And why aren’t we taught how to use all our pain and longing as a source of new strength?

To live on after loss is to hold on, and let go, and love again, all at the same time. There are no rules, no right or wrong ways to go about grieving. This whole grief thing is just our individual journeys or unique adaptations to loss, which may eventually lead to growth, but could alternatively wipe us out.

Before she died, Marika and I were in the middle of a great mother-daughter divide. She was almost out the door when cancer clobbered her. Us. After two years stuck together sallying through cancer, Marika was ready to move clear across the world to get away from me. And one day she would have come back. There would have been graduations, shopping trips for gowns, maybe a wedding … grandchildren. All the would-haves have disintegrated. Now I hold onto Marika’s memory and her words, and let go of her future. And the future I’d imagined for myself. But I will not let go of her. Her absence is a presence. Something still remains, and even without a physical presence there is still a relationship. I watch as it mellows with time.

And I discover almost daily that all around me there are others dealing with loss. Everybody’s dealing with something. Maybe the humanness is in recognizing this. Maybe the godliness is in our simply sitting with the brokenhearted, listening, and being a silent, compassionate, non-judgmental presence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 60

Duetting: Memoir 60 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York photoshops her daughter who died of leukemia, riding a kangaroo, for her blog about spreading ashes and setting souls free.

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.

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 52

Duetting: Memoir 52 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops old and new photos into a collage to tell the story of her journey to Australia with her daughter's ashes.

In southeast Australia, in the tiny town of Port Campbell, in the room with the bay view, I wake to sunlight and sounds of birdsong. I wake from dreams of carrying too much in too many pieces, endlessly trying to hold on to what I have.

What I have is an explosion of memories. And Marika’s poems. And a couple of photographs to guide me to where, in Australia, Marika had been when she was here two years before. And it’s Friday, so there’s a V-Line bus that runs along the Great Ocean Road. If I time my day right and catch the bus coming and going, I can ride over twenty-two miles back and forth and, in-between, spend the day walking trails in and around the sites Marika had photographed. If I hop on and off the bus like Marika did I won’t wear out my feet and energy just in traveling to all the places I want to go.

The bus lets me off near the Loch Ard Gorge, and I climb down countless sets of wooden stairs to stand in the place Marika had stood, posing with a finger to her lips, a dubious expression on her face. Loch Ard means ‘high lake,’ but I am low down in the sand between two caves and a blue bay. ‘High’ are the two massive walls of stone that surround the small beach, leaving open only a narrow gap to the sea. “Eva’s cave,” I remember from the legend, and head toward the larger cave.

When I first saw “Eva Carmichael and Tom Pearce” written in Marika’s scrapbook, I thought they were the names of rock stars. I didn’t know Loch Ard was the name of a large clipper ship that sank in 1878, leaving these two the sole survivors. Inspired by tragedy and romance, Marika had written a poem about the two eighteen-year-olds. I, too, am captivated by the story of the apprentice sailor Tom swimming out in the dark, in strong winds and huge waves, to rescue Eva who clung to a floating part of the wrecked ship in only her nightdress. He carried her to a cave and at first light climbed the high cliffs of the gorge to find help. Tom was heralded as a hero, and the townspeople hoped for a romantic union of the two, but they went their separate ways. “She’ll stay forever alone, ‘cause it’s her way, she’s going back home,” Marika wrote twice in her short poem. From the local literature, I learned that Eva fainted, was weak or unconscious for hours, hid terrified in the cave awaiting Tom’s return, and had to be carried with difficulty up the cliffs. But Marika saw her as strong and in control. I saw Marika as strong and in control. I wonder how she saw me.

For a long while I stand watching, trying to see into the long dark cave. I do not enter. My courage has not yet replenished itself from the rogue wave at Bells Beach. Luckily the waves are small here. I finally roll up my pants and wade into the shallow water. No one is at the Loch Ard Gorge this early in the morning so I sing lullabies to Marika as I toss her ashes in small sprays. Then, gathering strands of seaweed that litter the beach near Eva’s cave, I arrange them to spell MARIKA in large letters. Soon people trickle down the stairs into our space. I wait to hear them say her name aloud when they see the seaweed letters. This past year friends hadn’t mentioned Marika, afraid they would upset me, and I’m desperate to hear her name and talk about her. But I don’t want to make people sad, ruin someone’s day with the intrusion of a pathetic mother who lost her daughter. I pack up to go. Except for my footprints in the sand and Marika’s name in seaweed, I leave no trace of us.

It’s a short walk east along the Great Ocean Road to Gibson’s Steps where 86 stairs are carved into the face of the cliffs high over crashing waves. Supposedly, if I climb all the way down, I can walk on the beach and see the giant rocks rising from sea level. But I see rising frothing water below, so I sit on a step halfway down, and picnic on a cold beef-and-Guinness pie from my pack. I consider how one journey leads to another, and how in every place there is a story waiting or some lesson to be learned. If I were traveling with another person I’d be braver. I’d cover more territory and do more things. But then, I wonder, anchored to another, how much of the story might I miss?

Backtracking west a short way along the rugged cliffs from Gibson’s Steps, I reach The Twelve Apostles, the major highlight for many travelers along the Great Ocean Road. Here, twenty million years of marine organisms’ skeletal fragments have built up into steep limestone towers. Endlessly attacked by blasting winds and the savage Southern Ocean, their cliffs crack and erode into caves and gorges. These eventually collapse into towering stacks of rocks. Not quite twelve of these rock giants stand in the teeming surf where time, wind, and water continue to gut their softer spots, giving them character. Isn’t it always the most common universal elements, like pain and loss, which shape human lives as well? I wonder. In pounding waves, I picture the rock stacks as giant matriarchs bellowing thunderous laughter. Life constantly crashes down around them while nesting seabirds find comfort in the nooks and crannies of their capstones.

I throw Marika’s beaded bracelets off the overhang as hard as I can to reach them. The giants gobble up the jewels, adding the bits of glass and plastic to their accumulations. Then I spend the rest of the afternoon with them, thinking of time, ongoing life, and the hearty women back home who saved me by listening. Now over thirty women, made stronger by life’s poundings, share my stories with their daughters, cousins, and friends. They’ve sent me encouraging words. I hug the last quarter of my daughter’s ashes in awe of the greatness that surrounds me. And worry, what will I hug once the jewels and the ashes are gone?

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 46

Duetting: Memoir 46 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops an image of carrying her daughter who died, piggyback style along Bells Beach in Australia, as she scatters her ashes.

Cradling the bag of Marika’s ashes on Bells Beach, in the southeastern coast of Australia, I dip a hand into the cool graininess and it comes out chalky. The wind throws my first fistful of Marika back at me. It takes a few tosses to get the hang of it. Soon the ashes dance from my hand and curl away with the wind before they dust the water. It’s mesmerizing. It’s like playing. Like when I used to swing Marika around in the pond singing “Ring Around the Rosie” and “What Shall we do With a Drunken Sailor.” I would raise her up and dump her into the water. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down. “Again,” she’d beg, “again.” Now, sprinkling small handfuls, I watch smears of ash clouds gently rock on the water’s surface. Sand drags through my grasping toes as I slog through water that alternately swells and retreats. At each toss, the sweet grains of Marika drift slowly beneath the surface as the ash clouds rock and recede, and rock and recede, and rock and – BAM! Crash. I gasp. Cold. Wave. Almost knocked down. It fizzles away. Fast. But I’m soaked. Catching my breath, I look around. No one is near. If I drown or am swept away, I might never be found.

Half the precious ashes are gone. I hug the shrinking bag close to my pounding heart. Rogue wave. Enough ashes for today. I’m shivering. Still stunned. And wondering how I’m going to do this. How can I throw the last bits of my daughter to the sea and then return home to the other side of the world without her? And what will I do about Puppy? I pull the stuffed animal from the pack and pose it on a rock. Giving Puppy “back” to Marika is part of the mission. I’d planned to cremate Puppy on a beach, but fires are prohibited all over Australia except in protected barbecue pits. I’m squeamish around matches and lighters anyway. Marika was right. I’m a wimp. Scattering ashes is hard enough. But, barbecuing Puppy?

Shortly after Marika’s birth I had bought Puppy. Drawn to her myself, I gave her to the daughter I loved more than myself. Puppy went everywhere with Marika, and may even have gone to Australia and back. Puppy was always my key to communicating with Marika, often my only chance of swaying her to see reason. My words came out differently when channeled through Puppy. Puppy didn’t say, “Don’t you have homework to do?” She said, “Can I do homewawk wiv you?” How can I destroy Puppy? Ragged love-worn Puppy. With her long floppy ears, she often got mistaken for a rabbit. She looks a little haggard now in the sun with her saggy stuffing. Propping her upright on the rock, I remember regularly fishing her out of the hospital bed and posing her so Marika, returning from radiation, would find her on top of the bed, hunched over a tea mug with a napkin and cookie, like Puppy had a secret life of her own. I snap Puppy’s photo. Okay, what a dope, what the heck, it’s just a piece of stuffed polyester. But no, Puppy is not only my connection to Marika. She’s a part of myself I can’t let go of yet.

The trip back across the beach and up the long sets of stairs is lonely. But by the time I reach the heathlands, I feel Marika riding piggyback on my back again. She has fallen asleep now. Her head rests on my shoulder, and I hear tinny music sounds from her iPod ear-buds. Plodding on under the weight of her, I think about my own time for being carried. What did my own mother carry me through? That day in the waves at Jones Beach, when I lost hold of her hand, did she panic? Did she know, for a brief time, how it feels to lose a daughter? Was she plagued with thoughts of what if, what if, what if, like an ongoing heartbeat? It must have been hard this past year for my mom to see me so empty, carrying around only memories of my only daughter. She can’t stand to see me grieving. Maybe that’s why she tells me to get over it.

It boggles my mind to consider all the caring and carrying that every person who ever lived represents. Each one of us was carried, fed, and tended to. In one fashion or another, someone keeps a child from ruin. Then comes growth and change as the young life evolves into its own person. And finally comes separation. Into two strong, independent but deeply related beings. At some point the child begins to carry herself off. And the mother who held tight begins to release. There is a healthy split as mother and child divide into two. This is something one should be able to count on: like the tides, like summer following spring. Like your children outlasting you. You go through the normal processes of life and then—separation. But that was interrupted. Marika died. Separation, when a mother’s tug to hold close is not opposed by the daughter’s push to be free, is like fog. You vaguely sense something moving but cannot grasp exactly what or where it is. I envision all the love I invested in Marika wafted up into some universal cloud, a collective care blanket encircling the earth.

When the first anniversary of Marika’s death approached, my family and friends expected me to be done grieving. It was time to let her go, they said. But I wasn’t ready. I wanted to keep her. I could hold forever the memory of unending power struggles with my beautiful, cranky, uncompromising daughter. Besides, she had already written how to live on: she was going to carry her friend Jake who died. So I would find ways to carry her. With me. For the rest of my time. Until I myself must finally be carried out.

I carry Marika out again the next day. Her ashes. And since it’s a Thursday, there are no public buses coming or going in the little town of Torquay. If you have no car, you can only come to or leave this place on a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday on the public V-Line buses. Eager to start the next part of my journey, I book a spot on a private tour bus coming in from Melbourne in order to get to the other end of the Great Ocean Road. Which is how Marika traveled, hopping on and off a tour bus at a bazillion different stops.

The tour bus takes me to the Great Otway National Forest where giant ferns grow in thick moss, and ancient trees with trunks large enough to live in, climb to the sky. There are endlessly cascading waterfalls. This place is magical. It is dizzying. I smell the earthy magnificence of eons of time. If we were time travelers, Marika and I would be colliding into the same brief moment. She was here only two years ago, standing in the buttresses at the base of a primeval tree, posing for a photo. Which tree? From the elevated boardwalks that wind through the dense rainforest, I look around at the huge stands of mountain ash and myrtle beeches estimated to be two thousand years old. Gazing up and down, I see how infinitesimally minimal our being here is. My love, my grief, all the things that consume me are like one single tiny spore on a fern in a massive gully of ferns that have been reaching out for thousands of years from under immense forests of towering trees. Time is the endless sky beyond the forests. I cannot fathom it.

“The bus,” a fellow passenger points to his watch. Last to board, I fall into my seat as the bus takes off. It stops at a convenience store in the middle of nowhere, for lunch. It stops at a site where wild koalas hug eucalyptus trees, and bright-colored parrots land on my head. We visit lookouts, and learn the legends of the Shipwreck Coast. And towards the end of the day, the bus pulls into the petite town of Port Campbell. It drops me off at the Loch Ard Motor Inn, home base for the third leg of my journey.

Two women laugh heartily in the back room. I wait at the desk, listening a minute before I call to them. One comes out smiling warmly at me. That’s all I need to feel at home. And in my new room, I assemble the little altar on the counter under the hanging TV, and pose Puppy hugging the bag of ashes. The chocolate is gone but I lay out colorful ticket stubs from the bus tour, and the photos. Holding the old photo of Marika on Bells Beach, I touch the bag of ashes.
“Thank you, Mareek. All those gifts I gave you, all the best things, you’ve given back to me now: Suki, the cowboy boots, your love of writing, Puppy, Australia, … so much.”

I’d given her life. And maybe, in some way, she was giving life back to me too.
“Mom, get a life.” Maybe that’s what I’m really doing here in Australia.

Duetting: Memoir 34

Duetting: Memoir 34 Robin Botie of ithaca, New York, photoshops a party scene to illustrate her daughter's first apartment, and adds her daughter's poem about partying.

When I think of all the times I could have said No to my daughter, I am so grateful that someone reminded me to “pick my battles,” and that my intuition or just plain love got in the way of my saying No. And luckily, Marika’s will was stronger than mine.

She was moving out of the house. I was gnawing at my nails. Visions of dirt, lethal germs, and total abandonment of discipline clouded my appreciation of her excitement. But I knew how much she craved independence. Every single chance to be on her own had been foiled by leukemia. So now that she’d finally found a way to afford leaving home, I had to embrace her dream. The day after we learned there would be no transplant Marika began the move to her friend Julie’s apartment with her new dog and new hope.

She moved in slowly. Cautiously. First she moved her belongings. For weeks she hung out and partied at the apartment but did not stay overnight. Then, when she started to sleep there, she came back to the house for showers and meals. And she always returned home to do laundry. Whenever she arrived at the house, I stopped whatever I was doing. Something in me soared each time she showed up.

The apartment was a typical tumbledown Collegetown rental. As soon as I entered, I remembered my own best times in my first home away from my family. The sink and counters were filled with dirty dishes. Mountains of beer bottles and pizza boxes took up most of the kitchen floor. Doors were always open, heat on high, and lights left on no matter what the season or time of day. Dust. Mold. Mysterious odors and dark, dank narrow halls. A rust-stained bathroom sink with a constant drip and a shower that dared you to try to find a clean inch to put down your bare feet. A huge stained couch built to accommodate masses monopolized the living room. The place was begging for a party. Marika moved in and lit it up like Christmas. Plastic palm trees, blinking lights, posters. A psychedelic bedspread, magenta pillows and rugs. We shopped at Target for utensils and dishes to go with the lively décor. My housewarming gift.

The apartment had a high turnover and an ever-expanding cast of characters. One day two guys she’d never met moved in. Friends of friends would come and go, sometimes camping out on the couches, sometimes coupling, playing music, always coming back and partying. Rachel, escaping the stresses of relationships and school, hung at the apartment whenever she was home on breaks. When I visited, my eyes would focus past the people to the piles of beer bottles. Does Marika drink? Didn’t the doctors say, “no alcohol”?

I never knew who I’d run into. If I looked strange or out of place there, no one seemed to notice or care. Everyone and everything was in transition, on hold, waiting to see what was next. Hence, they called the place “Limbo.” And somehow community developed, which was just what Marika craved. I had to be happy for her. And she was a lot easier to live with now that we had separate homes. Was this what it’s like to have a grown adult daughter?

When Marika finally completed her move to Limbo, her puppy Suki became a regular resident too. Coming and going as much as anyone else, Suki was in and out of Facebook photo pages, another partygoer. If Suki could write a book it would be filled with parties, road trips, leftover pizza crusts, carloads of friends, couch-loads of friends, and her quiet adventures with me. Suki became my Sunday morning hiking partner when I discovered that Sunday morning didn’t exist for Marika and her apartment mates. Sunday mornings at Limbo were like the day after Doomsday. Bodies lay all over amidst decaying remains of Chinese take-outs. No signs of life anywhere. It soon became our regular arrangement, my rescuing Suki on Saturday afternoons before the festivities began.

“Mom, did you have dinner yet?” she would call just after I’d eaten. “Can you take Suki for the night? Do you have an extra set of measuring cups?”
“Sure, I’m in Wegmans. Do you need any— ”
“Sushi?”
“Okay, I’ll be right over.”

Her apartment was just a fifteen-minute drive from the house. I stopped by regularly to bring dinner or pick her up for our trips to Rochester. In the middle of the night I drove the empty streets across town to bring her home when she phoned she was sick. I kept my clothes out, ready for those calls at two in the morning. It was good to still be needed. There was always frozen fruit for smoothies, extra eggs, and bacon in my house for the mornings she woke up hungry at home. That was our deal: call when you need me. I never had to wait long.

 

Duetting: Memoir 12

Duetting: Memoir 12If the muskrat digging holes in the banks of our pond were to continue to bore a tunnel clear through to the other side of the earth, it would end up in the Indian Ocean off the southwest coast of Australia. Marika had picked the farthest place one could go from our cozy home in the hills surrounding Ithaca. But on our first forays into the jungles of cancer, we were being carried off to a world even farther and more foreign, and there was no knowing what awaited us on the other side of it.

To me, cancer was the demise of ancient neighbors, the terrifying realm of beloved grandparents. It wasn’t supposed to happen to one’s child. Although there was Marika’s father’s brother who died at age six, of a brain tumor, over forty years before. How could my daughter have cancer? All I could think was what did I do, or not do, to cause this? Visions of all the used and refilled water bottles in Marika’s room kept haunting me. Dozens of plastic bottles on the floor, in her gym-bag. In the hot car, festering toxins. “That can’t be good for you,” I’d mentioned to her, casually, way before cancer. What kind of mother was I that I hadn’t kept my daughter safe and healthy?
“Laur, you tell Mom. Okay?” I begged my sister, as cancer moved into our lives, clobbering me with guilt. And shame. I couldn’t face my own mother.

Everything Laurie read about Marika’s type of leukemia said that once identified, it should be handled as a medical emergency. By the time it was diagnosed, Marika’s disease was already advanced. Aggressive. So after one night in our local Cayuga Medical Center we dashed up north to Strong Memorial, a teaching hospital at the University of Rochester Medical School. But before she could escape the Ithaca hospital, Marika­­­ had to undergo the cancer novice’s initiation, the bedside bone marrow biopsy.

Marika lay prone in the hospital bed, waiting for the inevitable pain. We both saw the tool. It resembled the antique hand-crank drill I inherited from my grandfather, a carpenter in the 1930s. The doctor marked a spot inches above her tailbone. He braced himself. I held Marika’s shoulders down. He drilled. She shrieked. I cried, silently beseeching him to hurry up. Her face and neck turned red. I focused on the tiny waterfall that scaled her cheek and trickled off the tip of her nose, creating a wet blotch on the sheet. I wondered how they knew I wouldn’t faint. It was taking forever. And when the longest ten minutes of our lives were over, and after the required twenty minutes to stay very still ended, Marika grabbed the nearest thing, a box of tissues, and threw it forcefully at the wall where the doctor had stood.

So by the time we got to Strong Memorial and met that week’s squad of the always-rotating oncology team, Marika was already wary of doctors. Laurie called them the Roc Docs.
“Acute promyelocytic myelogenous leukemia, or APML, has an average survival rate of eighty-five percent,” they said, “depending on complications.” They wasted no time starting an intense chemotherapy attack. Three days later Marika developed her first serious complication. “Disseminated intravascular coagulation. DIC,” the Roc Docs reported. Marika’s blood clotted inside her blood vessels but she bled from everywhere else—every orifice on her body, through every sore, through the tender spot near her tailbone, under the retinas of her eyes, and into her lungs. Always squeamish around blood, I anxiously waited for the nurses to come back with more pads as I applied pressure through soaked gauze on one of her arms. Marika cursed through a towel she held to her nose and mouth. Leaning over to push the call button, I noticed she was lying in a puddle of blood. I did not pass out. An animated movie was playing in my head. It starred my headstrong daughter’s bone marrow that had produced lots of immature unruly cells that didn’t do what they were supposed to. Like those red cells that need to carry the oxygen, and the white cells which should be fighting infections. And her impossibly undisciplined platelets that were supposed to be clotting and stopping all this bleeding. I imagined millions of tiny-legged rebellious cells sneering, careening and carousing throughout every inch of her body. And I was thinking, Marika’s a rebel—clear to the core.

In the non-patient bathroom by the elevators, regarding myself in the mirror as I washed my hands, I saw old tired eyes. My nose usually bullied other facial features for attention, but now, small shuttered eyes glared back at me in cold detachment. I sighed and turned away from the ghostly reflection. Marika had gotten all the good looks in the family. Even sick and strung out by cancer, she still looked beautiful.

It was a showdown: headstrong Marika versus aggressive cancer. The Roc Docs pumped drugs with strange names through her. Daunorubicin Hydrochloride, Cytarabine, something called ATRA that sounded like a sneeze, and something I heard as “Harass-Sea.” There were established formulas for treating this leukemia. Complying with these evidence-based approved protocols was considered the path to beating cancer. In my head the medicines blossomed into yet more cartoon characters, like Sigh-terror-bean, Cytarabine. Donna-Ruby-Sin Hydrochloride. Reactions to these chemo cocktails could be deadly. And when the ATRA almost destroyed Marika but failed to put her into remission, they gave her arsenic instead. That one I knew. In my head I saw the dead shriveled-up mouse I’d found as a kid, on top of the mail pile. “Arsenic,” my Mom had frowned at the mouse, explaining, “I forgot to leave a holiday tip for the mailman.”

Marika had horrific reactions to everything. She retched, and wrenched in pain. I winced as she threw a cupful of pills down her throat with a fast splash of water.
“How do you do that?” I asked, remembering smashing tiny aspirins in applesauce for her just a week before. She shot me a look like I had food on my face.
“Mom. I’m a cancer patient.”