Tag Archives: mother daughter relations

Duetting: Memoir 57

Duetting: Memoir 57 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York tells her dying daughter her birth story

Mareek, I want to tell you the story of your birth, I rambled on in my head as I rubbed my dying daughter’s feet. I could not remember if I’d ever told Marika that story. This was on the third day of March 2011, shortly after I’d signed the papers to end her life. Consumed by the unfairness and all she would be losing out on, I was feeling like the worst kind of thief. I could not yet imagine my own loss, how that would feel. I’d failed her. I couldn’t tell my mother or even Laurie. There was only one day left to get close enough to death to accept it, to learn to love it. So, standing at the foot of her bed, I brought up the memory of when she was born, and then I tried to convince myself of everything I’d ever heard about death: Death means freedom from pain. Death is a transition, not an end. Our dying begins the moment we take our first breath so death is simply the last part of life.

Many rave about watching a birth, welcoming oncoming life that blooms from womb to world. And your birth, Mareek, was one of my most magnificent moments. But really, witnessing the exiting of life, even when walloped by sorrow, is awe-inspiring. Life, when it enters the world can be traced back to the source of the seed. But its departing is shrouded in mystery. A year and a half earlier, I had tried to watch as life evaporated from the still form of my father into nowhere. I stared, transfixed on an invisible drama, detecting only the signs of a soul having already taken flight: his just-stopped pulse and empty lifeless eyes. My father’s eyes were half open, dark black marbles that caught glints of light, even at the end. I wondered, for how long could he still see me as his mouth opened and closed, opened and closed so slightly like a dazed fish out of water gently gasping for breath? He seemed unaware he was not catching any air towards the end. He lay there calm and still while his family shook in sobs. I watched, but could not tell if the life ebbed out of him slowly or if it left as in the flick of a switch.

Where life goes in the time it takes for a heart to stop beating is an astounding mystery. Is the life locked dormant inside or does it dissipate into the negative space between those grieving? Does it escape into countless particles of dust? Are there a gazillion invisible, homeless souls freed from their earthly shells, crammed around us, hovering over the ones they loved and left behind, hoping to be reborn?

Mareek, I’d named you Marika Joy before you were even conceived. Yes, I knew you were out there waiting for me somewhere. Like the crocuses that herald in the spring. I always knew I would have a daughter one day. And I’d love the warmth of your dark-haired head on my cheek. ‘Marika’ was the most beautiful, magical name I’d ever heard. You were named after a flower, a Twelve Apostles Neo-Marica. A walking iris. And Joy, for your paternal grandmother, a precious life snuffed out too soon by cancer. A spark of her would live on, be reborn with you. Yeah. Too bad we couldn’t have erased the cancer genes from those sparks of Grandma Joy’s.

You were late, Mareek. You were supposed to arrive in April, the month of your father’s and my birthdays. You were taking your time but Doctor Kyong wanted to go on his vacation. So he had me choose a day in May from three convenient dates. I was embarrassed by this as all my pregnant friends were having natural childbirth with no interventions, no drugs. Back then childbearing was like being in some sort of Amazon birthing marathon, but being ten years older than everyone else, I had to comply with a different set of rules, or lose my adored doctor.

I chose May third. Three letters each in May and Joy. And so, early in the morning on May 3, 1990, your father and I arrived at the hospital after leaving friends in charge of your brother, our businesses, and the pets. The nurses gave me some drug, oxytocin, to induce my labor. And then an enema. But there was no progress in my dilating. We waited. And walked and waited. Wearing the special kimono-style birthing robe I’d sewn from fabric with joyful bursts of blossoms, we walked the halls of the hospital and waited all day. You were already finding ways to defy demands and doctors. There was little that was natural or unplanned except you simply were not ready, were not complying with anyone else’s agenda but your own.

I don’t remember pushing, Mareek. I don’t remember pain. I remember waiting, maybe a little impatiently, to see your face and be on our way to our great adventure together. My water was broken for me in the afternoon and then there were fierce contractions. I growled like a wild animal and hugged your father hard. They injected me with three paracervical blocks for pain relief, and finally, just at dinnertime, supported by your father, I squatted, extending one leg out like a Russian dancer. After some grunting I was cut open to make it easier for you. Then I ripped open even more. Suddenly there was a great avalanche inside me. And you tumbled out, surprised, kicking and demanding, What’s for dinner, Mom? You chomped down eagerly, nursing right away as they stitched me back up. You were purple and bruised. You were perfect. I loved you immediately. My Marika Joy. A true Taurus, my friends said. Everyone expected you to be solid and steady and strong. And stubborn. And you were.

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 54

Duetting: Memoir 54 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops her shadow on a beach in illustrating her grief journey to Australia to scatter her daughter's ashes.

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.

 

Duetting: Memoir 53

Duetting: Memoir 53 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops grottos along The Great Ocean Road in Australia on her grief journey to bury her daughte's ashes.

Eleanor from the Loch Ard Motor Inn gives me a ride to my first site of the day. She and Margaret take turns running the small motel. Not wanting to spread sadness, I haven’t told them my story. But I must seem lonely to them. They do everything they can to make me feel welcome. Driving me around Two Mile Bay, Eleanor points out landmarks for my return trip on foot. And suddenly, right in front of us, by the open back of his car, stands a completely naked man. A surfer. Very handsome. He chuckles calmly and waves at us. Eleanor and I giggle like giddy schoolgirls. Our faces turn shades of red. And I wonder how he can so gracefully accept this embarrassing collision of his path with ours. If it had been me caught in the nuddy, I’d be replaying the scene for months in my head, mortified.

Soon after, Eleanor drops me off by a trail through low scrubland. The atmosphere is murky and misting. I nervously note there are no tourists around. Determined to see more sculpted limestone features of this Southern Ocean Coast, I venture forward alone through thick fog, down stairs and long sand paths to find The Arch, the partially collapsed London Bridge, and the stunning sinkhole called The Grotto. I feel compelled to visit, like they are my ancient aunts who have known every joy and sadness in the world. These are not just hollowed-out rocks. These are places that make me want to sing, that make me cry. It’s a feeling of coming home. Some people have the Bible or Quran or some doctrine to follow. Some look to their ancestors for direction. I look to the sky, to the ground, to mountains and great masses of stone, to the paths people have trodden for ages. Where I feel very small and insignificant but very much a part of belonging. Where for a while I can stop searching because I am filled up with something. Something that resembles grace and gratitude. And awe. I feel blessed.

West of Port Campbell and Two Mile Bay, in the Grotto, I watch water seep into the cavities of the rocks at the ocean’s edge, and look past the cave walls and still pools to the sea beyond. Marika had not come this far on her trip. So many wonderful things she did not get to see or do. All the beautiful things she knew were out there somewhere. I’m going to find them. For her, I promise.

The sun comes out again. I imagine Marika riding piggyback on my shoulders once more as I climb back up the huge staircases to the Great Ocean Road. After a while on the long walk back to Port Campbell, I pass a yellow diamond-shaped sign with a kangaroo graphic. It is a warning to drivers to watch out for animals in the road. Just beyond, a huge heap of kanga-road-kill lies in my path. I stare dumbly at the carcass for a moment. And inch closer. It has long black nails on black hands that reach for the sky. It looks like it’s praying. In my mind, I make it rise up and shake itself out: My kangaroo-ghost stands much taller than I. I suddenly feel lighter as Marika steps down off my back and climbs onto the kangaroo, piggyback style. “Mom, really?” she asks, her eyes brightening like I’ve given her a new MINI Cooper convertible. “Yeah,” I reply, “Just keep her away from the roads.” In my mind I watch them ride off together, inland, to endless rolling hills of grasslands with windmills, farms, and scattered patches of dark trees. Far away from this Great Ocean Road where I have one day left to wonder what I’ll do once Marika’s ashes are gone.

There are too many questions. Like, how do I make Marika’s life count for something? And what should I do with my own life? How do I gather my own ragged remains, drag them back home, and breathe new life into my once intact world?

Back in the office at the Motor Inn, Margaret laughs her hearty laugh. She’s just agreed to keep a stray dog at her house where she already has six dogs, two cats, a wallaby, and too many birds to count. A motel guest who is in the middle of his family vacation really wants the stray dog. It had followed him on and off the beach all day, and he promises he’ll come back for it. If Marika were here we’d be smack in the middle of this drama around the dog. She’d beg to keep it herself, and I’d dance up and down in a fit, trying to make her see sense. It’s someone else’s scene now. I smile, listening to the eruptions of Margaret’s chortling. How does one laugh in the thick of such craziness? But laughing is so much more gracious a response to a stressful situation than seething in rage or howling. I vow to put more laughter into my own life. Because this whole thing of living, of loving, is really very laughable. Who learns to go through it right? Just when you think life is good, you get booted from behind and someone you love dies, and everything changes. Then you scream and wail with the pain. Not fair, I can’t go on, Why me? To laugh is to recognize that all of it is incredible, even so.

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 51

Duetting: Memoir 51 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops the storm of dealing with her daughter dying of cancer.

The Shipwreck Coast. That’s the name of an eighty-mile section of rough coastline off Australia’s Great Ocean Road. At its midpoint, the town of Port Campbell hugs Two Mile Bay, a calm spot on this perilous coast with otherworldly names like Port Fairy, Moonlight Head, and Wreck Beach. It is off-season here in March 2012. That is why I am able to get a motel room facing the bay, and a table with a seaside-sunset view at 12Rocks Café Beach Bar. Eating beer-battered fish I study the cliffs, the stunning backdrops to the dramas of over 180 ships that sank off this coast. A lot of ghosts, I think over my glass of white wine. The only accessible spot to the stormy Southern Ocean, Port Campbell long ago became known for coastal rescues and shipwreck salvaging operations. It was from this stretch of beach that rescue teams were launched using rockets to fire rope lines out to sinking ships, to help bring in survivors. Sometimes the sea was so wild that those hanging onto the lifelines were washed away in the turmoil of being rescued.

On another rocky shore, on the third day of March 2011, Marika’s father called my friend Celia to come to the hospital in Rochester, so I wouldn’t be alone for the Letting Go of my daughter’s life the next day. But I pretended Celia wasn’t there. And I did not call Rachel or tell Laurie. Laurie would be heartbroken. She’d want us to hang on until she got there. I wanted to spare her the sorry trip. I wanted to spare Marika any more time of pain now that the time of miracles was over. Besides, now that I could see where it was all heading, I wanted my daughter for myself.

Alone with Marika in the glass fishbowl of the ICU room, I rubbed her feet, aware of the four teams that still took turns hovering near the door, peering in like buzzards checking out road-kill. The dose of Propofol had been upped to paralyze her so she could no longer work against the breathing machine. They said she felt nothing now. She was in deep trusting sleep as the monitors and mechanical devices ticked on.

If I had known how to face and share the awful conundrum convulsing in my head, I might have said: Marika, you put up an awesome fight. There’s no leukemia left in your body. But your lungs have been destroyed. And you have no immune system. I’m scared, Mareek. The only thing they can promise is more infections, more organ breakdowns, pain, a life attached to oxygen tanks and ventilators, maybe feeding tubes forever. I can’t let them hurt you any more. Your dad and I are letting you go. You are dying. For someone who prized independence and wanted to control the way you lived, you’re being given no choices now. You’ve been cheated and it isn’t fair. I’m so sorry. I wish I could make it all better. I love you and I always will.

Cut! I wish I had said that. But that is not how it played out. “Rewind. Replay,” as Marika would have said. Reality this time:

“Hang in there, Mareek,” I whispered, hoarsely. “Everyone is taking good care of you … so you can rest now. Stop fighting the breathing machine … it’ll be okay.” I kissed her arm near a small mole. And then my hands on her numbed feet kneaded a wordless love song. A silent dance over her soles, over and over: I love you, I love you, I love you, … It was like I was swimming in slow motion, in aimless circles, still trying to hang onto and lug my lifeless child back to shore. Still lifeguarding. Remaining vigilant, protecting and keeping watch over my precious charge. It was all I knew how to do. And slowly it dawned on me that soon there would be nothing left of her to guard. So, yielding to the miserable truth, the next thing, the only thing to be done was to fill my stinging wet eyes with her face. Memorize her face. The face that always fascinated me. The lavender-lined eyelids, her perfect nose, her rosebud lips. The face that, even when steeped in anger at me, was the most beautiful and best part of myself.

We all get caught up in storms. On the Shipwreck Coast in southeast Australia, the dangerous rocks just below the water’s surface have dashed many a ship to shards in storms. Sometimes captains lost their bearings. Or the pilots didn’t see through the heavy mist until it was too late to change course. Things got out of control. Ships smashed into pounding surfs. They capsized and couldn’t be righted. Passengers still on the sinking boat could see big fires built on the beach to warm survivors, but no one saw the reality of what was happening until the blue emergency lights burned and the rockets were firing. And in the commotion of it all, maybe there wasn’t even a clear second for the desperate ones on the doomed vessel to realize, “We are not going to survive this.”

 

 

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 48

Duetting: Memoir 48 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a duet of a dream she recorded with a song written by her daughter who died with leukemia.

My daughter was measured and marked for radiation. In a waiting area down the hall, I chewed at my cuticles as Marika got the first of her full body radiation treatments. She had to be seared and zapped cell by cell in order to live. It made me nauseous. They wheeled her back to the room on a gurney and she napped the rest of the day as I sat, waiting in the dimmed light by her bedside. At dinnertime neither of us could eat. I gently rubbed her feet before driving off to Hope Lodge.        

At Hope Lodge on Tuesdays I got free massages. Thursdays it was free dinners prepared by a group of med students. I took Bernadette, a cancer patient who lived there, out for port on her birthday, and watched another resident cook aromatic African dishes. In the afternoons I explored Swan’s German Market, the Public Market, the Monroe County Library, and Captain Jim’s Seafood, always bringing back some bit of Rochester for Marika. Each day I exhausted myself into oblivion. And then the transplant preparations got stepped up.

“Preparations,” Laurie said over the cell phone, “is really a euphemism here. What it really means is wiping out her blood cells and immune system with chemotherapy and radiation, and then ‘rescuing’ her with the donor’s cells.”
“Laur, what’s the deal with GVHD?”
“Didn’t you read any of the stuff I sent you?”
“I did, but it sounds better coming from you,” I said.
“Well, Graft Versus Host Disease is a fascinating condition. What can happen, just about any time in the first year or two after the transplant, is that the immune cells in the donor marrow can begin to attack the recipient’s tissues and organs. They still think they have to protect against ‘foreign invaders,’ and are totally clueless that THEY are the foreigners.”
“Yeah, they warned us it could get nasty,” I said, wincing.
“It’s her only shot, though. There are no more drugs capable of giving her a cure,” Laurie said. I knew that. I was still stuck on the part about the donor’s cells attacking tissues and organs “any time in the first year or two.”

It was snowing on transplant day, January 26, 2011. All morning long I watched outside the hospital window and checked online for weather-related transportation delays. Finally, midday, a courier delivered the stem cells in a picnic cooler. I collapsed on the end of the bed. Giddy with relief, I even smiled and joked with my ex-husband who had arrived with his wife and a cake. We gathered around to watch the donor’s blood product slowly seep into Marika’s veins via a long tube in which I pictured tiny cells charging forward on teensy running feet with swords pointing ahead. We had a little birthday party, and toasted to Marika’s new life, with Martinelli’s bubbly apple cider. After, in a trance, I washed my hands in the non-patient bathroom down the hall by the elevators, and sang softly, “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you. Happy birthday,” I choked, “dear Marika.” My eyes filled. My jaw quivered, “Happy birthday.” It was like whispering a prayer. Only I was downright pleading for my daughter’s recovery, “To you.”

The next morning, I returned early to the hospital from Hope Lodge. Marika sat in bed peering down at her chest, her head angled to accommodate her good eye. She was flushing out and disinfecting her own port as a nurse gave directions. Glancing up at me, Marika smiled. She looked ready to take on the world. Like she could deal with aggressive foreign cells, or doctors who dared to tell her No, or whatever else life might throw at her.
“Mom. I just got accepted into the University of Technology Nursing Program. I’m going to Australia next year.”

Two weeks later, on a Friday afternoon in early February, she was pedaling away on an exercise bike someone had left in her room. In sweat pants and a tee shirt, she almost looked like her old self, the athlete, the soccer player, the powerhouse-Marika who would sneer at my panting as we jogged around the block together.

The car was packed for my trip home for the weekend. I felt torn, as I always did, whenever I left Strong.
“Don’t forget to put your laundry in the new blue laundry bag,” I reminded her.
“O-Kay, mom,” she said, dismissing me.
“And remember to keep yourself hydrated. No caffeine drinks.”
“Mom, okay.” She rolled her eyes.
“And when’re you gonna take these pills that have been sitting here all morning?”
“Mom! Get a life,” she barked. “Go.” Conscious of my nagging, I silently picked up my computer and the old green bag of dirty laundry. I walked out the door. Without a look back.

Late that night I got a call. Marika had been admitted to the Intensive Care Unit with pneumonia, low blood pressure, and respiratory failure. She’d asked for me as it became more and more difficult to breathe, while her doctors and nurses awaited her consent to be sedated and intubated. Somehow, at home, before racing back to the hospital early the next morning, I slept. I know, because I wrote down my dream.

 

 

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 44

Duetting: Memoir 44 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a love poem written by her daughter who died of leukemia.

I remembered that I never talked to my own mother about love either.

“It will get better, it’ll be okay,” my mother had told me one day when I was lovesick and couldn’t hide my reddened eyes. The words seemed so lame then. It took decades to finally find the truth and comfort in her simple response, “It’ll be okay.” Eventually I learned love could keep a person going, could stretch a person to her best. It could make anything beautiful, even winter. Love could keep you fighting for your life. Or it could rip your precious reserves to shreds.

At the end of November 2010, three days after Marika’s concert and still high on our victory, we were admitted to Strong for the stem cell transplant preparations. Punching at her cellphone with frantic thumbs, as I trudged under the weight of our bags, Marika trailed me to our room in the Oncology Unit. OUR room. This was the first time the nurses told me I could have the empty bed next to hers. No more trying to sleep in a reclining chair. No late night drives to Hope Lodge. I stowed away the last of our belongings and noticed Marika on her bed, transfixed on the computer. Crying.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, immobilized.
“I haven’t heard from the schools in Australia yet,” she said in a squeaky pinched voice. She had applied to two Australian universities, hoping to enter a nursing program in January 2012. The Roc Docs had warned it would take a whole year to recover after the transplant.
“Mareek, you just applied a few weeks ago,” I said, “It takes time.”
“I didn’t even get to say goodbye,” she said, tears dribbling down her hot pink cheeks. She turned the computer around to show me a handsome young face with smiling blue eyes and long sandy-blond locks. “He’s going home. He has a girlfriend,” she sobbed.

Slowly, moving closer, in a high voice I asked, “Is this the Australian guy you’ve been hanging with the last few months?” She nodded, choking. Her whole body shuddered, and I remembered the pain of longing for lost love. I should have held her. Comforted her. But it was like I was wading into a cold lake. Tentatively. One frozen limb at a time. I kept my eyes focused on the face on the screen.

“He’s adorable,” I said, not knowing what else to say. She composed herself and added,
“He was always good to me. No man ever treated me better.”
“Then you’ll just have to go back to Australia. It’ll happen,” I said, touching the computer. “It’ll be okay.”

That was all she ever told me about the Australian. That was all I had to know. He made her happy. He made her sad. Somehow, it would all be okay.