Tag Archives: mother daughter relations

Duetting: Memoir 28


Duetting: Memoir 28 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a scene of treading on shaky ground to illustrate how she feels that she has no religion.

There’s something I should have mentioned long ago: I have no religion. I mean, I don’t know if I believe in God, or in scriptures, or heaven, or in any of the various teams directing members about how to worship or who to trust. Religion, like politics, is one more thing that divides people. I don’t subscribe to any sides even though it means I’m often treading on shaky ground.

I like to imagine there’s some invisible thing out there, some entity that’s always creating, giving and taking. Watching over us all. I feel closest to this thing when I’m by an ocean or hiking in the mountains. Regularly, looking up at the stars or out across valleys into the hills, I send out grateful thanks to it. When I feel lost, this something reminds me I’m not alone. It counsels me to treat others the way I’d want to be treated, and it assures me I will never understand the ways the world works. Occasionally I beg for help or protection. And then it fades as it bids me to do my best and be strong.

In times of crisis or loss, I’ve always envied those who have faith in someone or something beyond this world. Life would be so much easier if I was chummy with God or had some indisputable doctrine to live by.

Back on the last day of June 2009, Marika’s burgundy snowflakes were all over her again. Her job as lifeguard and boating counselor at Stewart Park Day Camp was to begin the next day. It was supposed to be the summer to make up for the loss of the previous summer.

“I’m fine,” she said, dully, when I caught up with her at Strong Memorial. She’d already been put on intravenous arsenic, the standard second line treatment for her type of leukemia. “I’m bored,” she said, meaning she felt trapped and knew her summer plans were now shot. I rubbed her feet and made mental notes of what I would fetch from Wegmans.

“Have you heard anything from Jake lately?” I asked, suddenly needing to know more about the other almost-adult child with leukemia. Whenever we had a setback I’d check the status of the other players, as if we were in some sort of race to beat cancer.
“He hasn’t returned my messages,” she said, and turned away. We settled into our old established patterns for hospital confinement. But “fine” and “bored” didn’t last long.

“She didn’t eat the Cheesecake Factory takeout,” I whined to Laurie.
“Robin, she’s depressed and in pain. You don’t eat when everything between your hair and your toenails hurts.”
“And now they stopped her chemo. What does that mean? Are they giving up?”  
“That’s just temporary, until they make sure she doesn’t have an infection or pneumonia again,” she assured me. But two days later, Marika was short of breath, and the Roc Docs put her in the ICU to avoid respiratory failure, her signature crash landing. Then she did crash and was put on the ventilator once more. And as she lay there unconscious, the cascade of complications compounded. Low blood pressure. Liver malfunction. Kidney failure. Her heart developed an electrical abnormality leaving her vulnerable to lethal arrhythmias. Inefficient heart patterns. My own heart smashed into my stomach. I flailed about wildly to grasp something stable, anything that might hold me or help me find solid ground. I rubbed Marika’s feet fiercely.

A portable dialysis machine was wheeled in. It looked like a cross between an ancient refrigerator and a big old-fashioned tape recorder standing on its side. I stared at it skeptically. It hummed and churned. A wheel spun around as Marika’s blood went in and came back out. I watched the colors of the input and output to discern any differences, and asked questions of the technicians who monitored the process constantly. There was no one else to talk to. I was miserable. During dialysis, for some reason I was not permitted to rub Marika’s feet. Desperate for connection, by the end of the second week in the ICU, I left my Sleeping Beauty for a weekend at home when her father came to take over. Then, in Ithaca, I couldn’t face anyone. People said, “How’s your daughter doing? I’m praying for her,” and I didn’t know how to answer. If they were kind or tried to hug me, I broke down crying.

A cousin called to tell me a group of nuns in New Jersey were praying for Marika. Another cousin brought Marika’s name up in a service at his temple in Tucson. “We’ll keep her in our prayers,” various friends promised. I thanked them, “We need all the help we can get.” Visions flooded my head: Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, cloistered away in an abbey of somber nuns, singing and praying in heavenly harmony. Prayers, churches, synagogues, mosques, and monasteries were all foreign to me. But if more people were uttering Marika’s name, and wishing us well, it couldn’t hurt.

Still, for me, then, the only sure solid thing in this world was my daughter. I rubbed her feet and wondered, would those nuns really pray for a girl whose mother practiced no religion?



Duetting: Memoir 27

Duetting: Memoir 27 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a family of geese to illustrate her memoir dealing with loss and bereavement.

When your life gets completely obliterated you can chuck it or you can go on, wailing and whimpering as you plant one foot forward in front of the other. I don’t know which is harder. In the thick of loss it’s not like you can recognize any options.

In March 2012, on the first anniversary of my daughter’s death, people are sending me mixed messages: it’s time to get on with your life; give yourself time to heal; get over it; this will be with you forever. It embarrasses me that I’m not employed yet. I had allowed myself the year off. But now my mother’s hints about getting a job have turned into sharp jabs that leave me gnawing at my cuticles. There are no jobs in Ithaca, not for me anyway. I don’t even know who I am anymore or what I can do. Marika’s been gone a whole year, and all I want is to stay home and write at my table in the corner of the house, overlooking the pond where the geese are back trying to nest again.

They’re early this year. Every year the same two geese sit in the same place and build the same measly little nest. Some years they even get to hatch their eggs before a raccoon or woodchuck claims them. Marika and I often watched a bevy of baby geese paddling in the pond between their parents, or waddling on the bank. One always toddled way behind or in the wrong direction. We woke many mornings to squawking and splashing as the parents tried to ward off other overtaking geese. And inevitably, every day, there’d be one less egg or one more baby goose gone, and then another gone, and another, until there were no baby geese left. Then the father would fly off and the mother would wander back and forth along the pond bank, picking at the pitiful remains of the nest. And I can tell you for sure that geese cry; it’s one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard. A sound, something like sobbing, sighing, heaving, and honking—all at once— fills the sky begging, “Why on earth?” and “What’s next?” and “How?”

“Did you hear from Pat?” I call Rachel. Pat was Marika’s Australian boyfriend. Rachel has his address, email, and phone number from the shoebox where she’d found the final wishes and a sealed letter to be sent to him upon Marika’s death.
“He said he’s expecting to hear from you.”
“Do I have the right address?” I’d emailed Pat twice already and not gotten a response. None of the Australian connections have replied. This is not turning out to be the trip I’d imagined. I wanted to meet up with people. I’d hoped to make it a family pilgrimage with my mother and Laurie, but my mother couldn’t go. And now, because of Laurie’s recent knee replacement, we need to rent a car to get around, forcing me to alter the trip again. Laurie calls at the last minute.

“Robin, I’m sorry. My knee is infected,” she says. There is a long pause. I wait. For the inevitable. But she wants me to fish it out of her. Laurie must really feel bad; I usually can’t shut her up to squeeze in a word of my own.
“You’re not going?” I say, knowing already and seeing only stunning white light.
“It’s just not going to work for me. I’m sorry. I really wish I could go,” she says. And I try not to panic or say anything to make her feel worse. So. Why on earth? What’s next? And how?

The day before I am to leave for Australia. Greg carries his rifle down the stairs, and together we traipse outside and around the pond to shoot the Heart Drive from Marika’s old computer. It bothers me that the box of Marika’s life-before-cancer could get swallowed up and lost forever in Greg’s vast accumulation of stuff upstairs. The Staples tech had said to destroy it. Destroying is a job for my warrior son; putting the pieces away in the right place is what I do. This is the last item on my list of things to take care of before the trip. And Greg may be called to his new job in Afghanistan before I get back. So we place the little black box at the base of the willow tree that still stands despite being shot at for the past year.

BAM! LikeBAM! He shoots. All the homework assignments, Marika’s pre-cancer concerns, the girl-life contained in that small black box, LikeBAM! The long-gone girl who preceded the almost-adult daughter I miss, BAM! BAM! No fanfare. No fireworks. No explosion of computer chips or chorus of hallelujahs. Just two surprised geese taking off fast from the pond at the first of the five shots. I hold back my tears as we examine the remains of the box. Satisfied that the contents are indeed destroyed, we bury it deep into a muskrat hole by our feet. This is Marika’s pond. Part of her will always be with it. I curl my lips around quivering teeth, and clamp down hard.

Back inside the house my friend Liz types away on the computer. Greg disappears upstairs, and I hover nervously over Liz as she fidgets with my iPad, and enters the email addresses of the women who have been gathering month after month to hear what I’ve been writing. Time is running out as I scour my contacts and my memory for all the strong women in my life, to add them to the list.
“How am I going to do this?” I ask Liz.
“You go to your gmail account on your iPad, you open up this email, then you –”
“No, I mean the whole thing. Tomorrow. This trip,” I say. “It isn’t right. What on earth am I doing going to Australia—alone—to spread my daughter’s ashes?”           



Duetting: Memoir 22

Duetting: Memoir 22 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops her daughter Marika Warden as a fierce warrior.

Sometimes I think of our time in the deeps of cancer as one big tumble. Cancer had barged into our home felling one thing after another, like the toppling of dominoes. Everything faltered and failed. Respiratory failure. The falling hair, the fallen-too-low white blood cell counts, the failing immune system. Prone to falling, Marika fell from a hospital bed, she fell down a staircase. She fell in love, she fell out of love. She fell in and out of remission. We both fell into depression. We fell down together in a parking lot near the hospital when I failed to support the weight of her larger frame. Falling behind in my work as I commuted back and forth to keep my job and keep at her bedside, I fell asleep at the wheel one day and ended up in a ditch. Terrified, I kept driving. Scared, worn out. Dangerous. My life was crumbling. And then the sky fell completely.

The chemo failed. We were all fooled. Life and the future are deceptions. Normal, if there is such a thing, doesn’t last long. Everything changes, and you can’t get back to how things were before cancer clobbered the world you once so obliviously flitted about. By the end of June 2009, Greg had been at war in Afghanistan for six months, my father began his own battles with failing health, and I got cut from my teaching job, just in time for Marika’s relapse of leukemia.

And maybe things wouldn’t have ended up the way they did if she hadn’t failed to stay in compliance. That’s what they called it, “failure to stay in compliance.” At some point she’d stopped taking her meds. Who knows why? Marika stopped the chemo maintenance pills that kept her cancer at bay and could possibly have cured her. The pills that might have been the happy end of the story. And she fell to her leukemia again. Her leukemia. As if she owned it, controlled it, and could just get rid of it. But now it owned her, and it would own every last aspect of her life.

“Robin, how many pills are left in Marika’s container of ATRA?” Laurie phoned, flummoxed, one day near the end of June. Laurie’s method of coping with the unknown is to tear it apart, examine every inch, and understand it.
“Fifty-five ATRA left,” I reported back to her ten minutes later. “Why?”
“Well, I called the two pharmacies she uses to fill the ‘scrips, and the math doesn’t add up. She must have quit taking the pills around January,” she said.
“Did she say anything to you?” I asked, knowing that Laurie would come right out and ask Marika why.
“She wouldn’t talk about it,” she said, sounding brokenhearted. Laurie was beating herself up about the pills, like she could ever have known or been able to do anything about it. What was Marika thinking? She’d dropped her weapons. Was she surrendering to cancer? Or was she pretending it just wasn’t there?

Marika, the intrepid warrior. That’s what someone on her blog site called her. My mother called her “a tough cookie.” Laurie dubbed her The Complication Queen since every bit of her, body and spirit, challenged any administration of new drug or routine procedure, resulting in countless complications. Laurie also said Marika was her own worst enemy. She fought blindly, sometimes recklessly, to live life on her own terms. People say you don’t fight cancer; that you learn to live with it. No, this was a battle. We were at war with cancer. I’d look at my daughter and marvel at how brave she was. In the hospital, I tried to be tough and strong so she could feel safe. When she was down I pretended to be a soldier standing guard over her, keeping long vigils. Then on Fridays, I’d say goodbye and go off again and again and again. And on Sundays, I’d march back up to my beautiful trouble at Strong. I pushed myself to be brave. For her. And maybe our war with cancer brought out the best in me. Maybe cancer was my General’s Table. Because that’s when I discovered I wasn’t alone. There were people, beautiful warm-hearted, courageous people, everywhere along the way. I was fighting in good company.

“I’m in Strong,” Marika said over the phone on the last day of June 2009, while I was stuck at Fort Lauderdale Airport, returning from a visit with my father. She said “in Strong,” not “at Strong.” When one is “at” the hospital, it means she’ll be home by dinnertime. But Marika was IN Strong. Again.
“I’m on the way,” I told her. And waiting for the plane back to New York, nothing in that airport was moving fast enough, now that we were soldiers at war once more.



Duetting: Memoir 18

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York uses Photoshop to illustrate the journey with her daughter through the wilds of cancer.Depression affects the immune system. To survive bad luck, boredom, painful procedures, endless blood transfusions, and long hospital confinements when it seemed everyone else was out dancing, I conjured up all sorts of distractions for my daughter. Part of my mission was to make something magical happen each day. So I pretended the hospital was our summer resort. The lobby was an esplanade, perfect for people-watching, with the prevailing aroma of roasted coffee, and a player-less piano trilling away. The information desk was our concierge, offering restaurant menus for takeout dinners. Complimentary prune juice cocktails and ice cream cups were always available from the unit kitchen, a few doors down from our somewhat-less-than elegantly appointed room.

“If you could makeover this room, what color would you paint it?” I asked, wanting to draw Marika into my fantasy. She rolled her eyes at another of my stupid questions.
“Orange,” she grunted.
“What about the floor? Orange too?”
“Carpet.” Then she added, “And I’d make this a double bed with a real mattress.”
“I’d put a fridge in over there,” I said, grateful to get her engaged.
“Yeah, and a bar. I could use a martini.” Speechless, I looked at my just-turned eighteen-year-old daughter and wondered how many martinis she’d had.

When allowed off the unit, we escaped to the meditation room with its cool blue-green lights and crocheted blankets that hugged two stuffed chairs. I wheeled her to an indoor courtyard near the far-off dentistry wing. We roamed the endless hallways, searching for the chapel in the depths of the massive Strong. We tiptoed to the newborn babies’ window and peeked through the slats of drawn blinds to watch the tiny wrapped bundles wriggling or peacefully still.
“You were the most beautiful baby, Mareek.”
“I know,” she said, engrossed in the newborns.

“Where are they?” She growled impatiently. We were stranded in the radiation department, waiting for the transport team to take us back to the room.
“Okay, it’s been over ten minutes. I’m kidnapping you. Hold onto your hat,” I said, whirling her wheelchair around.
“Mom! Whoa, what are you doing?” she sputtered as we zigzagged wildly down the hall. “Do you know where you’re going?”
“No, but I bet I can get us back by lunchtime,” I said, surprising myself by my desperation to stave off negativity and the ensuing insults to Marika’s meager immune system. On the way to the room, we meandered through the fourth floor pediatric hall where the walls were painted in bold colors and plastered with distorting mirrors and protruding animal sculptures that begged to be interacted with. Then we were at the door to the Ronald MacDonald rooftop playground. It was deserted so we sat outside in the middle of the chain-link fenced-in yard, four floors up. From my backpack, I removed two tiny containers I’d carried around for days for just this opportunity. We blew filmy, fragile bubbles that flew off into the wind.

“Should I fetch cooked sushi for dinner tonight?” I asked in between bubbles.
“I want steak,” she said, adding “for lunch.”
“Well, if I get lunch take-outs we’ll have to eat hospital food for dinner,” I reminded her. That was our deal: eat hospital food for breakfast and lunch, eat well for dinner. “But,” I offered, “I might be talked into sharing a frozen latte from the lobby after a hospital lunch.” She scrunched up her face and declared,
“Double iced mocha with chocolate ice cream. I want my own.”
“Deal. Do you think we’re locked out?” I asked, nodding toward the door that had closed behind us when we went outside, a last-ditch effort to throw in some further intrigue.

Friends were the best diversion. They occasionally made the two-hour trip from Ithaca to Rochester. Cassie, Carla, Shoshana, Golda, Jeff, Julie, Lamarr, Rachel, and more. Cassie brought an enormous stuffed dog. Carla brought Silviana. Julie always climbed into bed with Marika. There was lots of pizza and Chinese food. And laughter. I left the room most of the time when her friends came. But not before I scanned them for signs of pinkeye or colds.

As it got closer to college orientation, the visits died down. Except for Rachel.
“How’s she doin’?” Rachel asked from Ithaca, ninety miles away.
“Well, it’s funny you should pick this moment to call. She’s in radiation right now. She had a high fever last night and we’re waiting to see…”
“Well tell her to cool down,” she said, “and tell her I miss her.” They called each other “Wifey.” Rachel, a year older, had recently passed her Emergency Medical Technician training. When not in college, she worked for a local ambulance company. I felt totally comfortable sharing the details of Marika’s condition with her. Especially since she always found us, whenever Marika’s health crashed, wherever we landed.

Several times a day, I rubbed Marika’s feet. She didn’t like asking.
“Mom.” She would shamelessly wave a foot in my face and frown pathetically. Foot rub.
“How do you do that with your mouth?” I asked, trying to mimic her pout. “It has to be a short one. I have to write a paper for my class.”
“Why don’t you pull the cancer card?” she yawned.
“What cancer card? What’s a cancer card?” I asked. She smiled with closed eyes, and wiggled her toes in anticipation of the foot-rub.    
“Just tell your teacher your daughter has cancer, Mom. Then you won’t have to work so hard.”

Marika never had to do much to get me to rub her feet; it was the only time now, other than grasping hands when she got shots, I could touch her. So I rubbed her feet when I was nervous, when she was tired, after breakfast, before bedtime. It was a dance of my hands over her soles, a meditative prayer tracing around her ankle bracelet, holding her heels, pulling gently on each of her painted toes. My thumbs lightly pressed butterfly-indentations over the balls of her feet. And finally, I’d slip-slide my palms along the curves of her arches, massaging those sweet feet over and over as though I could knead the cancer out. On hearing bad news, I’d grab her feet. It was my way of hugging her.




Duetting: Memoir 16

Duetting: Memoir 16 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York asks, Why is my daughter turning yellow?"

For Marika’s high school graduation gift I was supposed to take her to Greece, but she got cancer instead. It looked like she’d never get her gift. Then, almost two years after her graduation, during a time of remission, Marika came up with a different mission: to get to Australia. On her own, she cleared it with her doctors. By the time she finally presented it to me, everyone else knew about her plan. The only thing left was to purchase the ticket. It was very scary to me because she would travel alone, meeting up with a friend later. But after all she’d been through, I couldn’t say no, so Australia became her belated graduation gift. It was Marika’s last trip, ten months before she died. Looking back, I smile when I remember I gave her Australia; it was possibly the best two weeks of her life. She fell in love with the place and intended to make it her home. It is the end of January 2012 now, and Marika’s been dead almost a year. Soon I, myself, will go to Australia to scatter her ashes and find out why she loved it. This is my mission now. It is the last thing I can do for her. Besides, I don’t think I can live without a mission.

A mission infuses one with an important purpose, a direction. A goal for the greater good. A mission might collide into your comfort zone, hurtling you off to who-knows-where in your effort to carry it out. But it fuels you. And it answers the question: Why am I here?

Missions change. All the time. There were other missions back in the summer of 2008. We had returned to Strong Memorial for the second round of chemo after almost two weeks at home following graduation.

Scrunched up in a reclining chair by Marika’s bedside, I was warmly wrapped up in a dream one morning. Then, in the melting moments between sleep and awakening, the nightmare I took to bed just hours before and thought I’d be wrestling with the whole night, hit—smothering me like a blanket of bricks. Cancer. The day was contaminated by it before I even opened my eyes. A sudden stirring made me blink, and I found the entire oncology team on morning rounds, stuffed into the hospital room. I looked over at Marika. She was still asleep.

“Good Morning,” said a cheery, deep voice.
“Morning,” I managed.
“You had a question, Mom?” Doctor Phillips asked. I hated his calling me Mom, as if he was my seventy-year-old son.
“Oh yeah,” I remembered, “Why is my daughter turning yellow?” I was suddenly awake, aware I was supposed to take notes when the doctors made their rounds. But everything was already moving too quickly. I heard,
“Blocking the flow… bile… from liver… infection…” and something like “collect-sister- itus.” How would I report this back to her father? He had to be in Ithaca weekdays for his plumbing business but wanted to be kept in the loop. My two main missions were to keep Marika safe and keep her father informed. But at that moment, understanding or passing on technical information was beyond my capabilities.

Part of my problem was I missed half of what was said because of daydreaming. When overwhelmed, my mind would fly far away, leaving the rest of me behind looking totally engaged in the immediate goings-on. Sometimes I escaped to sheep-dotted mountainsides in Scotland. Most of the time, I just got stuck redesigning the bleaker aspects of my life.

Part of the problem was I didn’t get much sleep in the uncomfortable reclining chairs. And then there were the hourly vitals checks and lights left on all night. It didn’t help that every third day I woke up in a different room. Marika, with her various complications, got trundled back and forth from the oncology unit to the ICU to the transplant unit and back to oncology. Always a different room in oncology. And I got to pack and unpack all our stuff, sometimes in the middle of the night. Not to mention the logistics of moving home each weekend. To stay flexible, I kept most of our things in the car which was parked a whole hike-and-a-jog down and out and around the other end of the enormous structure that was Strong Memorial. My mission was constantly clobbered by logistics.

Marika was the adult running the show and she didn’t like me shaking things up. Most of the time it was easiest to simply go with the flow, and not question too much (like Marika turning yellow). It was not part of my mission to wonder how many times she might check in and check out of the ICU, narrowly missing the clutches of death. So I’d lay low in a cloud of oblivion. Until something threatened to get in the way of my protecting Marika or getting her well enough to send off to college. I heard,
“… inject dye … implant a drainage tube … gall bladder surgery next Thursday.” It was time to focus on what was going on.







Duetting: Memoir 14

Duetting: Memoir 14 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York photoshops a picture of her daughter under sedation, resembling the John Everett Millais painting of Ohelia.Only three weeks into cancer, Marika was on life number three. The Roc Docs noted in her charts, “Reactions to treatments—fast and horrendous.” Reluctant to leave her side, I became a slow-moving aerial drone, on top of her constantly, watching and waiting.

“Mom, I can’t see,” she hissed, days after her seizures, when I turned on the television. “Why can’t I see right?” She punched the nurse-call button and tried to yell. It came out as a hoarse whisper. “I’ve lost—everything,” she tried to tell me. Life as she knew it was indeed lost. Her voice was gone. She was losing her hair. Soccer and singing were out. And now almost all the vision in her right eye, and some in her left, was gone. She knew, with impaired vision on top of seizures, it would be a long time before she could drive again. Driving was her independence, her freedom. I was watching a trapped animal, and there was nothing I could do. Stunned by her fury, I shrunk into a corner while she screamed. At the doctors. At nurses and aides.

She demanded to go home, but she’d developed a fever and a mysterious pain in her right shoulder. After tests and more drugs, the Roc Docs decided she had a swollen pancreas. Then the pain suddenly subsided and we were sprung from Strong.
“No raw fruits or vegetables,” the Roc Docs reminded us as I packed the stuffed animals, candy-grams, and other accumulated gifts into pink plastic hospital bins.
“Well, I’m having sushi for dinner,” she stated.
“No sushi. Nothing raw. No flowers, no dirt. No germs. No friends with colds.”

With a long list of instructions, fifteen different prescriptions, and orders to take her temperature several times a day, we left Strong. It was scarier than the time I brought home my firstborn. So as soon as we reached Ithaca, I invited our mother-daughter group to the house.

The living room was packed when Marika asked, “Mom, do you have scissors?” Then she sat with a towel at the dining room table, and her friends cut off her ponytail and shaved her head. Music played and everyone cheered. We ate her favorite cooked foods, grilled steak and Wegmans boxed macaroni. And later, as she and I counted pills out into plastic boxes, I couldn’t stop wondering how this daughter of mine could be so brave. And beautiful, even without hair.

For two nights Marika and I slept gratefully in our own beds. Then a fast-rising fever sent us racing to our local hospital. Marika was sent back to Rochester in an ambulance with her father while I followed behind in my car. But I couldn’t keep up. Shortly into the trip, my heart sank as I watched the speeding ambulance disappear ahead of me.

She arrived in Rochester in septic shock, with breathing difficulties and very low blood pressure. She actually asked to be intubated and put on the breathing machine again. So by the time I parked my car and caught up, Marika was back in the ICU. The shoulder pain thought to be pancreatitus turned out to be pneumonia in both lungs, and a virus had invaded her heart muscle. For two days the ventilator was set to maximum levels. She was given end-of-the-line, last-rites crisis drugs to keep her blood pressure from falling through the floor. I stared at her, hugging my sides to hold myself together. Except for her shaved head she resembled Ophelia in the John Everett Millais painting. Ophelia lying still, and singing. In a river. While drowning.

In a few days, still on the ventilator, Marika was awake with a pitiful look on her face. She patted her stomach whenever anyone entered the room. “Hungry,” she spelled out on an alphabet board, unable to speak through her breathing tube. Half dazed, still under sedation, she could hardly communicate. Giddy to see her finally awake, I couldn’t think straight.
“They can’t feed you anything; you’re still on the respirator. That’s dinner,” I said, pointing to the bags of IV nutrition slowly emptying into her system. The nurses were nervous because she was supposed to be sedated, and instead she was getting more and more agitated. Marika glowered at me like I should do something. She grabbed a marker, and drew a long urgent scrawl on the backside of the alphabet board, and glared at me with desperate eyes. I had a sinking feeling I knew what she wanted, but didn’t want to mention it in case she’d forgotten.

A month ago, she’d written on her blogsite, “as for my graduation…we don’t know what kind of condition i’ll be in on june 26th. and prom… i’m still deciding whether or not to go. i’ve got a date, a dress and will have tickets, but I won’t have hair. ick…” It was clear to everyone but Marika, she would not get out in time for her senior prom. We were still hanging onto a tiny particle of hope she would be able to attend her graduation in another week. I was crushed because I couldn’t make it all better and I wanted so much for something to go right for her. It’s not fair. That’s what she used to say when things didn’t go her way. Since toddlerhood she’d been a strong proponent for her rights. “Not fair, not fair,” she would chant almost daily. But now she had lost her voice. So it was up to me to sing it. Only now, I, too, was mute.

The oxygen levels on the ventilator were turned down as Marika’s lungs dried out. Finally they took her off. Red, and blimped-out from all the IV fluids and steroids, she resembled the Michelin Tire Man. There were tape marks on her cheeks. Strung all over with tubes and cords, she was decked out like a Christmas tree when Marcus, her baby-faced boyfriend, arrived for a visit.
“She looks like she’s gone through the heavy wash and extra spin cycles in a commercial washer,” I warned Marcus.
He asked, “What do I say to her?”
“It doesn’t matter what you say,” I told him. “It’s all in your eyes. Just look at her like she’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen.” Why was he asking me this? I’d run out of words weeks ago, when cancer first hit. We entered the room and he smiled adoringly at her. I almost melted at his smile, myself. And as I tiptoed out, I heard him hesitate and gulp,
“Uh, boy Marika, you sure have a lot of wires coming out of you.”

Days later, on the evening of her senior prom, Marcus came back. The nurses had decorated the room. White balloons and crepe paper. Music played from an old boom-box. They’d dressed Marika and propped her up in bed so that the lacy white prom dress hid the wires and dangling tubes. They topped her off with the red wig my mother had bought. And on the bedside table, set festively on doilies, were two containers of red Jello, the only thing I found in the cafeteria she could swallow without gagging. There was a great stirring in the hallway when Marcus walked in. Almost seven feet tall, handsome in his tux, he carried a bouquet of red silk roses. I scurried from the room. In tears. In grateful peace.

In the hospital there really was something peaceful. For me. For the first time in years Marika wasn’t fighting me. She focused on her disease and the medical staff. I was not the enemy. We even collaborated sometimes, us against them. Like the time we ‘accidentally’ unplugged the monitor when no one responded to the call button. Mostly though, I hung back and didn’t interfere, knowing the side effects of our actions could be horrendous. Knowing that any move we made could start a cascade of consequences. And I wondered how come Marika got to be so bold? How did she not have to consider the consequences?

“I’m going to my graduation,” she announced, to me, and her doctors, two days before the event.