Tag Archives: healing journey

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.”

 

 

 

 

The Compassionate Friends: A New Chapter in Ithaca, New York

Robin Botie of ithaca, New York, uses Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator to show a stand of trees representing the new Ithaca chapter of The Compassionate Friends, a worldwide child loss grief support group helping bereaved families grow and heal.“Pretend you’re trees. Open your arms wide like branches reaching out,” I said to the tiny group of people posing before my camera. They stood there, smiling at me, with outstretched arms. We were gathered for the first meeting of The Compassionate Friends of Ithaca, New York, a child loss support group. “Look up at the sky,” I directed, thinking they looked like children waving in the wind.

I was designing artwork for our brochure, for a Facebook page, and our new website. Since my daughter Marika died, it has not been easy to ask for assistance. It had taken me four years to even want to be part of a grief support group. So last week, when I needed people to pose, I had hesitated sending out the email, “I need help.” But now, here were these new friends of mine, swaying with arms held high like they could catch the sun. Or catch a child falling from heaven. They were eager to be helping me. I was so touched.

The Compassionate Friends is a worldwide support group for people who have lost a child or grandchild or sibling. All the people running Compassionate Friends groups are people who have lost children of all ages, from many different causes. Bereaved parents are a diverse group from all walks of life and all races. They understand what parents go through, and hold regular monthly meetings where they reach out to each other, sharing their pain and the love they have for their children. Together they grieve and heal and grow.

In Ithaca, our new TCF chapter meets the first Thursday of each month from 5:30 to 7:30 at Hospicare on 172 E King Road. If you are a bereaved parent nearby, or you know of someone who is and would benefit from opportunities to connect and learn together, I invite you to contact us at [email protected] or (607) 387-5711.

The morning after that first TCF Ithaca meeting I came across this illustration of a stand of pine trees I’d made for a friend. Immediately I connected the picture to what I was trying to portray by lining the parents up with outstretched arms. A stand of trees is a community of trees having a definite distinguishing characteristic, a particular uniformity, which makes it stand out from other nearby trees. The Compassionate Friends is my stand. These folks “get” who I am now. In a society that puts limits on grieving, and is uncomfortable discussing death or deceased loved ones, I have found a place to go where I can still be Marika’s Mom. In this journey called life, we all just want our children’s lives to matter, to be remembered. Hence, our Credo: We need not walk alone.  We are The Compassionate Friends.

 

Do you know someone who is grieving? Are you grieving?