Tag Archives: loss

Duetting: Memoir 26

Duetting: Memoir 26 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a collage of a tiny book made years ago by her daughter Marika Warden, who died with cancer.

For my holiday gift I’d asked my son for a shooting lesson. So on the unseasonably warm afternoon of Christmas Eve 2011, Greg comes downstairs with two long guns. Trembling, I wrap up in scarves, earplugs, earmuffs and hooded jacket, and follow him out the door and across the lawn. He stops just short of the pond, props his shotgun against a tree, and hands me the rifle. Remington.22, he tells me. And then he shows me how to hold, load, and ready it for shooting.

“You don’t pull the trigger,” he says, “you squeeze it. You hug it with your whole hand.” Willing my eyes to stay open, I squeeze and shoot. It’s not nearly as loud or as jarring as I’d expected. Marika would have said, “LikeBAM!” Hardly drawing a breath, I shoot again. Bam! The sky echoes with each ferocious bark. Handling this loaded rifle, cradling it so close, and then blasting the air—LikeBAM! —I am spellbound, conscious only of being just on the cusp of control or calamity.

We had placed two targets against a large willow tree across the pond. The targets were a gift I’d painted for Greg. The one I’m to use is a cartoon image of a rotund woodchuck with a bulls-eye bellybutton. We train the scope, first focusing far, and then zooming in so every breath and movement I make is exaggerated in the scope, and the woodchuck bounces in a dizzying scene. When it settles, I hug the trigger. LikeBAM! With no movement of my target, no trace of a hit, I aim and shoot again. BAM! I continue to load the magazine and shoot. My woodchuck hasn’t budged. Greg fires his gun and with each shot creates small clouds of smoke before his target.

When our bullets are spent, we walk together around the pond to inspect the targets. Surprisingly, the bullets sped through mine without moving it and I’ve hit the woodchuck’s belly twenty-six out of twenty-eight times. Pleased with myself, I’m hooting and cheering. Until we remove the targets from the base of the willow.
“Oh. No,” I wail, “I’ve been shooting clear through to the tree. We’re killing the tree.”
“Oh, well. ‘Goes with the territory,” he shrugs.

Some things, like the differences in our respect for life and living things, will never jive. I say a silent apology to the tree and then follow Greg into the kitchen. He takes the two rib-eye steaks I got for our supper, pierces them several times, plants them in plastic zip-lock bags, and marinates them in Johnny Walker whisky. He pours two glasses of the whisky over ice.

“Did Marika ever shoot? What’s the best prank you ever pulled on Marika?” I ask, thinking I’ve got him relaxed and ready to chat. “What would you fight for or even die for?”
“Mom. Just enjoy the Johnnie Walker. Okay?” And then, “Do you still have my extra passport photo somewhere? I need it back. I’ve got a job in Afghanistan as soon as I get my papers cleared.” He’s leaving again. Whatever holiday I’ve been avoiding is now totally shot.

Later that night, on the first Christmas Eve without my daughter, the single drawer of the small night table next to my bed is stuck open. I rarely use this drawer but I had rummaged through it for Greg’s passport photo. Now the drawer is jammed and I can’t get it to close shut. I slam it and it breaks. When I wrench it back out, a tiny green cloth packet falls to the floor, and I remember a Christmas long ago when Marika had no gift to give me. She had scurried upstairs, bounced back down, and handed me this small pouch of jeweled sequins. Now I empty the contents into my hand. Sparkling butterfly-light jewels catch the lamplight that blurs through tears. The remaining sparse contents of the broken drawer lay on the floor. And in the middle of the small mess, bound with shiny red holiday ribbon, sits a tiny book written and illustrated by Marika in 2001, when she was eleven years old.

Book of Wonderful Memories. From: Marika. J.W. To: Robin Botie
1.The costume parade. You were there for me every step of the way! I’ll never forget your face when I got 4th place. You were so happy! 2.That one teddy bear that you would look at when we were fighting and tell me a story of you. Mom … 5.Even with the most boring books, it seems so exciting with your voice. … 6.When I’m scared you are always there for me … 8.Always loveing even when I’m a brat.

Mareek! Are you here? I cry out. Are you helping me get through Christmas? What the heck am I doing in this drawer anyway? It’s almost midnight and I’m holding the most precious gift, now received twice over. Why does it feel like you’re watching me? Sometimes it’s hard not to believe in ghosts, in after-life. Here I am, holding this tiny book you made ten years ago, before all the road trips, before cancer. Before our mother/daughter divide. Ten years ago when you adored me—Maybe you never stopped adoring me—Maybe you just stopped showing it.

She’d made me a book. And now I am making a book for her. She wrote. So I’m writing. Words are my new medium and I’m using them to paint our portrait, mixing words like I used to mix colors. All the sweet or savory, whispering or roaring, bland or bewitching words that dance in my mind. Like : meandering, infinitesimal, crimson, petechiae…. Reading my book aloud at the Feed and Reads, occasionally I glance up from the pages to peek at my audience, their jaws dropped and eyes begging me to continue. My gift to Marika, I tell myself. Really, though, she has gifted me, and is gifting me still.

My first manuscript is a plot-less lament to my dead daughter. But that doesn’t matter. Because, daily, I lose myself and find myself in what I write. Some new determination to live, lives on. And I feel hope. It’s back. And hope implies future. So I continue to write, and look forward to the sharing. And I love my book like it’s my daughter.

Duetting: Memoir 11

Duetting: Memoir 11 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops words of her daughter Marika Warden who died of leukemia.

Before leukemia, home was the place we came back to long enough to grab what we needed, whether it was a nap, a meal or a gym bag, as we rushed out again down the hill and back into the world. We rushed and everyone around us rushed. We rushed to get our homework done, to get to school on time, to go to soccer practice or to the mall to pick up some last-minute sports tape, and a fast smoothie to tide us over. As a new special education teacher, I pushed to get through paperwork that piled up too quickly, while Marika scurried between schoolwork and part-time jobs at her favorite sushi restaurant and the gym’s daycare center. There was never enough time. Maybe we liked to eat out so much because it forced us to sit still while we waited for our food.

We were foodies. She baked. I cooked when I didn’t have too much homework from my SUNY Cortland classes. I danced in the kitchen to the muffled sounds of Marika’s music. Indie rock. Upstairs in her room, where she thought no one could hear, she sang over pre-recorded instrumentals. And in the car, stuffed with singing girls, the joyful un-muffled voices made me smile as we sped off to soccer games in neighboring counties.

On the soccer field Marika was an aggressive tank, stopping at nothing to get at the ball. I winced whenever she headed it, and cringed every time she barged into another player. Marika was fierce; she was fearless. So of course she was going to fight leukemia. Early on, a friend set her up with a blogsite, Marika Kicks Leukemia. Though she lived in a dense fog the first few weeks of cancer, Marika was set for battle. She would fight her disease, her doctors, me, and anything else that kept her from living her life the way she saw it.

Life, the way I saw it, should be beautiful and function flawlessly. I always believed I could design my way into or out of anything. For me, to design is to control. It is ongoing, like breathing. Each day, before the sun rises, I envision every possible scenario so nothing can hit me by surprise. To put the most harrowing things in manageable perspective, I draw and make endless lists. There’s always a ‘Plan B’ as I bolster myself for the worst.
“I’m not worrying, I’m designing,” I insist, when accused of being anxious. And designing always started at home even though I hated being alone at home, and Marika would rather be anywhere else. But by the end of May 2008, home was where we both yearned to be.

“When can I go home?” she asked countless times as teams of doctors filed in and out of her hospital room. First this had to happen and then that—there were obstacles. It was like Monopoly, one of those endless board games we always gave up on before we could finish. We were only at the beginning of our road trip. And my mind was already racing, working overtime to find “beautiful” and “flawless,” to put them back into our lives wherever we might land. But leukemia had wormed its way into the warp and woof of our world. Cancer hit home. The tides were broken. They’d collided. Soon I, too, could not “ride along to the same rhythm anymore,” as Marika said. We were hanging over the dark craggy cliff of the gorge when Marika nearly died two times in her first three weeks of cancer.

There was no way to design my way out of that.

 

 

 

Loving and Losing a Car

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York photoshops her banged up Prius as she wonders why she is carrying on about loving and losing a car.Falling in love or forming any strong emotional attachments was not going to happen after my daughter died. No more grieving for me, I thought. But last week, losing my car, I cried like I was losing my best friend. A friend who had faithfully protected me with its life, to the bitter end.

On the way to Boston for the weekend, passing a slow-moving vehicle on a busy highway, I pulled left into the middle lane and discovered a huge truck tire lying in my path. There was no way to avoid it. My beautiful Prius crashed into it with a great thud. This is the end, I told myself upon impact. But the car somehow plowed through the tire. I kept driving. There was no way to pull over or stop so I continued on, shaken but unharmed. The Prius, who I’d long ago named Peeje after a beloved pigeon, got me to my destination and days later, back home to Ithaca, New York. And after the weekend, checking out the damage, I learned I’d smashed the car’s sub-frame, under-panels, radiator, and every single part of her belly.
“Call your insurance company, this is going to cost you…” the mechanic told me.

With visions of skyrocketing premiums, big bucks for major repairs, and weeks of car rentals, I took my Peeje to the Toyota Dealership where they offered me a small trade-in towards a new Prius, and I accepted it. Immediately. Gratefully.

Then suddenly, I had tears in my eyes and was stroking Peeje’s hood with both hands. There I was, once more grieving the loss of a familiar, comfortable, beloved part of my life. We had a lot of history, Peeje and I. When she was still new we got lost together exploring October Mountain in the Berkshires. Many a snowstorm we’d slowly inched up the long hill to my house, both of us willing her little engine to keep chugging. This was the car that carried elderly loved ones (now gone) with wheelchairs and walkers to fancy restaurants. She carried me through dark empty streets to retrieve friends who’d drunk too much. “Thanks, Peeje,” I’d say every time she got me home safely.

“You’re gonna have a whole new re-built life,” I sobbed to my Peeje, driving her home one last time, to empty out the six-year accumulation of stuff in every corner of her. I wondered, after all I’ve been though, why I was carrying on so about loving and losing a car. But I gently dusted off her seats and lovingly packed her snow tires into her trunk. And let her go.

 

How on earth does one end up loving a car or a house or something that doesn’t even have eyes or a heart?

 

Parallel Lives

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a rorschach inkblot to illustrate parallel lives and shared journeys of bereaved parents.As a child, I used to imagine that a double of myself was walking around somewhere else on the planet, far away. Later, when my world expanded to college, instructors and fellow students insisted I had a twin on campus. And when I was busy birthing and raising children, I saw myself replicated in mothers everywhere. But after my daughter died, for a long time, I felt like the only one on earth to ever lose a kid. Nobody was like me.

Last week, before writing my post, I googled “grief and gratitude.” That’s been my focus for a while; somewhere around the fifth anniversary of my daughter’s death, gratitude started sopping up some of my grief. And there in Google was someone else named Robin whose life was like a Rorschach inkblot of my own life. If you folded a map of the US in half, her home on the west coast would be juxtaposed with mine in the east. On the opposite side of the country, a stranger’s life was running parallel to my own.

Four months before my daughter died, this other Robin lost a son who was the same age as my Marika. This second Robin, also an avid hiker and writer, started blogging about her grief journey seventeen months after her son’s death; I started sixteen months after my loss. She wrote, “I am not the same person I was and this loss is an integral part of who I am now.” In over 97,000 words posted since 2012, I have tried to express the same truth. West Coast Robin currently facilitates grief support groups while I organize a bereaved parents group and make bereavement calls for Hospicare.

There may be millions more of us lighting candles for loved ones, posting their photos on Facebook, watching the Afterlife TV series on Youtube, and reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. Maybe tens of thousands of us are hoping to publish our own memoirs. And if there are hundreds of Robins howling to the moon, how many of us are now out there somewhere, contemplating the chances there’s a double of our child who died? A twin who’s still singing.

 

Did you ever wonder if there is someone just like you somewhere in the world? Did you ever find a soul mate? Or a look-alike?

Expectations

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops an incomplete healing mandala of herself and her daughter who died of leukemia.Something has been bothering me. A couple of weeks ago when I blogged about how to handle holiday stress, I posted all over Facebook, “Stay in bed with a hot water bottle…. You don’t have to do the holidays this year.”

“No way. Expectations,” a couple of Facebook friends replied. And it took a while until I remembered my many years of being The One Who Made Joy Happen in our house. Back then I couldn’t have simply turned my back on what was expected of me. I would not have wanted to. There are times in your life when people look up to you, depend on you, trust you. And when you are in that position you do what you can to keep their world intact, and you do it with grace. I apologize to the ones I offended or disappointed. I’m sorry for forgetting how important it is for us to hold our tribe together.

Sometimes you lose track of what others expect of you, or what you expect of yourself. With the loss of my daughter, I lost a lot of my expectations. The biggest one was that children would outlive their parents. There were others:

The expectation that life will return to normal. That there ever was a normal in life.
That grief has an ending point, that at some time we should reach the end of our grief.
That one day you will be the same person you used to be. That one could ever be the same person she was before losing her heart.
That the first year of grieving is the worst. That time heals all wounds.
That if I followed all the rules and did what was right, everything would turn out okay.

That I would always complete my photo-illustration before putting it out on the Internet for all to see.

So much for what we believed.

You were expecting something joyful here? You’ve been so patient, putting up with my moping through the last weeks. There is some good news: We don’t have to worry or fret over any of this. Expectations – I’m pretty sure that’s one of those things our president-elect is working hard to rescind.

 

What expectations have you come to let go of?

 

Standing Out in the Rain

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops rainy day walkathon of the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes.Months ago, when we were still in the middle of a drought, I had Staples print up two large vinyl banners, photos of my daughter, to be strung together and worn sandwich-board style for the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes’ Annual Walkathon. It seemed like a good idea back then. That was before I’d had time to consider how conspicuous I would be, sandwiched in bright colors, shoulders to knees. It never occurred to me that the dry spell could finally end in a three-day downpour concurrent with the October Walkathon. The banners’ colors would hold up in rain. But could I?

I didn’t stand out as much as the guy in the Tony-the-Tiger costume. I stood with him until the rain picked up and people ducked into the tents. Then I stood alone in the rain, waiting for my friend to show up. People passing by nodded with sympathetic smiles.
“Can I take your photograph?” I was asked several times.
“Yes, please. Take pictures. I’d like that,” I said, smiling into the cameras. Whoa! Was that really me? I hate being photographed. And I hate being conspicuous. It’s bad enough feeling folks’ eyes taking in “the woman who lost her daughter.” Before my loss, I’d tried hard not to stare at the one woman I knew whose child had died, as I wondered what kept her from disintegrating into millions of miserable molecules. Now I was that woman. And I was standing in the rain. Standing out. Alone. In costume.

High school girls’ teams came by. They wore tight wet jeans, soaked sneakers without socks, drenched jackets. My daughter would have fit right in. “That’s what you’re wearing in this torrential downpour?” I’d often said to her. She liked rain. She played soccer in the rain, wrote a song about rain. She even looked good wet. Whereas I was told once, coming in from the damp, I looked like a drowned rat. She’d be mortified to be seen with me now in my knee-high heavy-gauge rubber boots and clear plastic hooded raincoat.

“Oh. Marika!” her former teachers and an old friend pointed at me sandwiched in the photos. It felt good to hear my daughter’s name and have her remembered. And I realized that I wasn’t a drowned rat. I wasn’t simply a bereaved mother. Just then I was Marika. I was wearing her smiling face from shoulders to knees. And she loved being photographed. She wanted to be seen. So I shamelessly approached a small group, a young man in a tutu, and asked if they would take my picture with Tony-the-Tiger.

When my friend finally arrived and offered me space under her rainbow umbrella, I said, “No thanks. I’m completely waterproof.”

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, posing with friendly folks at the 2016 Annual Walkathon for the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes.