Tag Archives: mother daughter

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 45

Duetting: Memoir 45 Robin Botie of ithaca, New York, photoshops apicture of her daughter who died of cancer on Bells Beach in Australia.

“Why would you want to go THERE?” ask two stewardesses on my flight from Sydney to Melbourne, when I question them about transportation to Geelong, the gateway city for my next destination, the Great Ocean Road.
“To scatter my daughter’s ashes,” I gush out, in tears, overwhelmed by the first bit of interest anyone has shown in me since I got to Australia. I’m also a little terrified, having no plan for getting from the Melbourne airport to Geelong to the tiny town of Torquay where I have booked a room. This is not how I like to do things, not knowing what’s next.

From the airplane to the Melbourne shuttle, two train rides, two buses, and long walks dragging my rolling luggage behind, I am making my way, inch by inch, with direction-seeking and extended waits between each step. It takes all day to get from Sydney to the remote town of Torquay on Australia’s southeast coast. This second part of my journey is filled with questions no one back home could answer. Marika’s friend Carla would only tell me the Great Ocean Road must be discovered for oneself.        

The first I’d ever heard of the Great Ocean Road was in April 2010 when, in the middle of her trip, Marika had phoned. Overjoyed to hear her voice, I was caught off guard. I thought she was homesick. I should have known better. She was calling to ask for extra money. To rent a car for a trip along the Great Ocean Road. It was “what everyone does on holiday from Melbourne.” I told her, No. So she and Carla took a bus.         

Now here I am, two years after Marika’s trip, on a V-Line regional public bus, racing along a two-lane winding road that hugs a corner of Australia’s dramatic southeastern shoreline. The road ties together one hundred fifty miles of remote coastal towns and popular resorts. Prime surfing territory. I can’t take my eyes off the teasing blue sea which one minute seems ahead of me, just beyond a stretch of beach, then disappears and is suddenly smack below as we speed along atop high cliffs. We wind by rocky gorges, rolling foothills, secluded bays, and shipwreck coasts with towering limestone formations. Built as a memorial to the fallen soldiers of World War I by the returning soldiers, and later the jobless of the Great Depression, the Great Ocean Road is one of Australia’s National Heritage Sites. Tour buses from Melbourne regularly run its length, stopping at the most dramatic spots, the stunning seascapes in Marika’s photos.

Finally arriving in Torquay at the east end of the road, in a new motel room I reconstruct the altar of photos, chocolates, and stuffed Puppy, around the box of ashes. Then, wanting to locate the trailhead before dark for the next morning’s mission of ash-scattering on Bells Beach, I question the motel’s friendly bartender. No one else is around at that moment. So he closes up shop and leads me to his car. I hop in. He’s not really a stranger, I tell myself. But I sit poised for escape anyway. He drives a short distance down a deserted road.

“Yer sure ya want to walk all the way from the motel ‘n the morning?” he asks, regarding me like I’m crazy. “It’s a long way.” I don’t want to look at him. What am I doing in this bartender’s car anyway? He keeps driving.

“Nine kilometers, that’s only like six miles. Not much elevation change. Why not?” I say with a rising cloud of doubt. He shakes his head. I must look old to him, this kid running the whole show here. A hotel, motel, gaming room, bar and bistro, all in one, the Torquay Hotel Motel is the liveliest place in this little town. Everyone including this bar-boy seems to be Marika’s age, maybe younger. “I can walk back from here, thanks,” I say once we reach the trailhead. My sense of direction flustered, I ask him, “Which way back to the motel?” just to be sure.

Back at the bar and bistro later, I borrow a knife to open the sealed box of ashes, to let Marika breathe. And to make sure I won’t be stuck way out on the beach the next day, unable to open her box without tools. It is my first time meeting her ashes. With held breath and quivering hands, I pry gently at the box. It opens easily, like she’s pushing the lid from inside. She’s a trillion tiny shards, like cool white sand on a beach at sunset. In a plastic bag. In a bewildering way she’s still beautiful. I stare at her. At what’s left.

“The internet’s crashed,” says the Hotel Motel bartender when I seek him out once more, to get online. “I’m sorry. This never happens. I’ll refund some of your money.”
“No, that’s okay,” I say, thinking I may have killed the Internet connection myself. I’d tried to google “how to scatter ashes” and the little iPad went blank. Connection disappeared. It went the way of my family and friends all during the past year whenever I’d mentioned anything about Marika or ashes. Or death.

I didn’t have much faith I could learn efficient tossing techniques online anyway. I’d simply have to stand with my back to the wind and wing it. Tossing ashes. Flinging ashes. Ashes are typically “scattered” or “spread” if not kept forever in an urn on the mantle until someday some distant young relative has to figure out what to do with them. Marika had requested her remains be “scattered in Australia, if possible,” which gives me a lot of leeway. Spreading means smearing, like what one does with peanut butter or sunblock. So I’m glad she specified scattering. It gives me more a picture of sprinkling small amounts. Either way implies a distribution over a large area or several areas, broadcasting here and there, as opposed to just dumping it all in one place. And Australia is a vast continent, almost as big as the US. Early on I decided to leave ashes in the places I knew from her photos that she’d been happy.

The next morning, I load Marika’s Ithaca Track and Field drawstring backpack with water bottles, a peanut butter and plum sandwich, and chocolate bars I’d hunted and gathered from the local grocery the evening before. I add maps, Marika’s stuffed Puppy curled into her baseball cap, and the ashes. But when I put the pack on, the box of ashes chafes at my back, giving me visions of Crusaders with heavy crosses gouging deep gashes across their backs and shoulders. I take the bag of ashes, maybe six pounds, out of the black box and gently stuff it back into the pack, leaving the box behind. With a full, heavy backpack I step out the door to a blinding sun. Quickly the bag of ashes settles into a rounded rump shape that bumps behind me as I walk a few hesitant test-steps around the parked cars. I imagine I’m carrying a life-sized Marika piggyback style. I can almost feel the swish of her heels swinging by my knees.

“Mom. Let’s go.” She kicks and nudges me in the direction of the trail. And so we’re off to Bells Beach. A long walk with a lot of weight, but all I need to do is keep on the right trail and be wary of the high tide at four-thirty the bartender had told me about.
“Oh, I’ll be done way before then,” I’d responded. Then he’d warned me to watch for the occasional big rogue wave, and I’d stifled a gulp.

Now, tall dark Norfolk pines line the beaches I pass. A long boardwalk over shallow water bounces under me as I tread the moist planks. When I reach solid ground, the landscape changes rapidly. Forest turns into scrub, and then into sandy coastline. Soon the path climbs. It becomes gravelly beneath sky that is dauntingly blue and forever. Under the hot sun, I lumber over rocks and cliffs, along crunchy red-sand footpaths, and through heathlands. Grasses, scattered trees, birds flickering in low woody bushes. Scrubland. The Surf Coast Walk twists and breaks off occasionally for lookouts. I whisper nervously to Marika’s ashes each time the trail splits. When it hangs over the shore, visions of falling from crumbling cliffs crash in my head. And I assure her—her ashes—we’re okay.

There are surfers out in the distance. A dog sits in the teeming shallows waiting for its owner. So much of surfing is waiting. You wait to be in the right place at the right time, wait for the right wave, and then fly with it. Hold on when you’re tossed, keep on top, re-find your footing when it’s lost, and then go the distance. As far as you can. And scramble back up again when you get dumped. And wait some more. It reminds me of living with cancer. Am I a cancer survivor, I wonder? Marika got wiped out by cancer, but I survived. Watching the surfers, I wonder how they don’t get completely mauled in the crashing waters.

Three hours later, I climb down several sets of wooden stairs and stare at Bells Beach, the exact spot in the photo. The photo where Marika stands smiling, holding her arms out like she’s hugging the world. Only it’s an empty landscape before me now. It’s supposed to have her centered in front of the jutting point, arms lifted outward. Glued to the spot, sweating, I wait like I’m expecting to be met by her ghost.

An Asian tourist, bogged down with heavy cameras, passes by after a while and I give him my borrowed, pocket-sized point-and-shoot to take my picture in Marika’s place as I try to duplicate her pose. When the tourist is done and walks off, I am left alone on the beach. A kick at my back tells me Marika wants out of the bag, so I remove it from my pack, open its twist tie and inch closer to the water. Fears of waves and the incoming tide clash with the realization that I need to wade into the water to release the ashes. This is what I came all this way for, I tell myself. I can’t just spill Marika’s ashes onto the sand. So I kick off my sneakers, roll up my pant-legs, and cautiously slip into the seething surf. In knee-deep water the waves barrel into my body, soaking me almost to my waist. I brace myself against the poundings and try to ignore the stirrings in my head, “Don’t go out too far” and “Never swim alone.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 32

Duetting: Memoir 32 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a photo of Marika Warden taken by Ray Possen that depicts the lifesaving dog that was bought as a cancer companion.

“Mom, why can’t I get a puppy?” Marika asked, as we made our way to Rochester for a routine bone marrow biopsy.
“Mareek, I don’t even want a houseplant right now. We still have a lot of time in the hospital and then you’ll be going off to college again. A dog just doesn’t fit into our lives.” She sighed heavily and put her earphones back on.

Laurie called that evening.
“Robin, I’m really worried about Marika. She is so depressed. I’m serious. She needs a puppy.” (I learned later that Aunt Laurie had already promised her a puppy).
“She has a cat. And guess who ends up feeding it all the time and having to find cat-care whenever we leave home?” I countered.
“Her life depends on this puppy,” she stated, in the same tone as the doctors who insisted her life depended on getting a bone marrow transplant. In our little triad, no one of us could fight the other two united. So I finally relented. We found Suki online, near Rochester, the only female in a small litter of jolly Havanese puppies. We visited her on the way home from a day at the hospital. She was round, fuzzy, and tough, with an attitude that rivaled Marika’s. Still too young to come home with us, she lit Marika’s eyes up and recharged her heart.

Marika’s spirits were lifted even more when she got her driver’s license back.
“Mareek, I need to be in the car with you when you drive the first time or two,” I told her. The Toyota Avalon my mother had given me years before had seen better days. I’d let Marika keep it at college for her second semester. CDs and musty clothes were scattered over the seats and floors, and a cotton-candy air freshener dangled in the windshield. Marika was one of the few women with wheels in her crowd, and the car was a gas-guzzler, so an old coffee can labeled “Donations for Marika” lay conspicuously on the passenger side floor.
“No, Mom. Get a life,” she hissed, horrified at the thought of my monitoring her driving.

Unprepared for this reaction, I yelled, “Mareek, I’m about to finally GIVE you the car but you haven’t driven in months and I’m not gonna GIVE you the car until I know you’re not gonna drive it into a tree.” I gulped, surprised at my own resolve, and even more by her sudden cooperation. Later that evening she came downstairs bubbly, wearing eye make-up and a beaded necklace, a short skirt and strappy little tanktop under her worn-out gray winter coat.
“I’m recording with Russ tonight,” she shared as we negotiated the logistics of the driving. It was still light out as we pulled up to a familiar house and she parked the car.

“Mareek, I know this place. We came here for a party when you were four.”
“It’s Russ’s house,” she said, like I should have known.
“Oh, THAT Russ.” I recalled a rambunctious four-year-old flying down the banister. “I remember him. I took flying lessons with his father at the East Hill Flying Club before you two were even born,” I said. Unimpressed, Marika shot out of the car. I took over her warmed driver’s seat.

“Call me when you want to be picked up,” I shouted out the window, adding something about practicing night driving. She was gone. But her perfume, a hint of lily-of-the-valley mixed with a tanginess reminiscent of mustard, lingered after her as I turned the car to go home. I would wait for her call while she sang for hours with Russ, a percussionist who recorded his music for her so she could uncover melodies and create lyrics. She was proud of her first efforts and shared them with me in the beginning. Making music became her passion. Then it became one more secret, another thing that didn’t include me.

On the day the puppy was finally old enough to come home, the breeder held it up to us. One of the puppy’s eyes drifted sideways. Its top hair was pulled up tightly in a pink barrette. Marika and Suki curiously examined each other face to face.

“This hairdo has to go,” Marika said, pulling the barrette out as soon as we got in the car. Settling Suki in her arms for the long ride home, she cuddled and cooed, and they both fell asleep. Driving, I remembered the first times bringing my babies home. And I wondered if someone with no immune system should be housebreaking a puppy.

“Let’s go potty, Suki. Where’s your potty, Suki?” I chanted in the driveway. For weeks, I took Suki on extra walks so she wouldn’t ‘go’ in the house. I thought we’d agreed to crate-train the puppy, but one morning I brought a breakfast tray up and discovered Suki in the bed, sound asleep, nestled between the pillow and Marika’s chin. The crate sat on the floor, door shut, under a pile of dirty clothes.

When Marika’s friends went back to their colleges after the holiday break, we went off to puppy training classes at PetSmart. We sneaked Suki into the physical therapy sessions and the local hospital for the Monday morning blood draws. The nurses in the Hematology Lab fussed over them both, bringing doggie treats and cans of soda. The undercover slinking about with Suki was nerve-wracking for me but such a thrill to Marika that I allowed it to continue for months. Until the day we got busted. Suki was too big to fit in her travel bag by the time some hospital staff reported us.

Suki seemed to be the lifesaver we needed. Back at the house, we couldn’t help but laugh as Suki climbed to the tops of couches, to the shoulders of anyone sitting on the couches, and to Marika’s bed where she rested happily among the stuffed animals. And one day while Marika slept, leaving me to dog-sit, Suki and the cat cornered a mouse. When the mouse darted toward her, Suki gave a surprised squeak, caught it, and threw it high into the air. The cat and I watched in awe as the mouse fell down in the middle of us, dead. I tried hard not to love this adorable dog that was to, one day, leave home for good with Marika.

 

Duetting: Memoir 6

Duetting: Memoir 6  Robin Botie 0f Ithaca, New York, photoshops a bereaved mother searching through her deceased daughter's facebook page as if it is a window to another world.One night in Massachusetts, my sister Laurie and I watch the stars. Then she takes me to Marika’s Facebook page. There we find love letters, poems, stunned friends from all over pouring their hearts out to Marika through the internet. One friend touches another through words that ripple outward, beckoning to an aunt and a mother huddled over a laptop like it’s a window to another world. Invisible webs stretch among us all. So this is what Facebook is, I think. I cast her name out into cyberspace: Marika Joy Warden, who are you and where have you been? Words radiate from my fingertips tapping on plastic. My plea rains over all the planet before waves of warmth come back to me.

On the screen, I see familiar names and photos of children I once knew, now grown. For many of them, Marika’s was their first death. For many more, it was the first death of someone their own age. A few had phoned me on her birthday and on Mothers’ Day. They are traveling or still at college. In all corners of the world, they are getting on with their lives.

I am not getting on. I want my daughter back. I will try anything to keep her close. Wear her clothes. Sleep with her stuffed Puppy, and build a nest in my bed for her real dog, Suki. Marika loved sushi, so I take Rachel out for sushi dinners. Over and over, I play the few songs Marika had recorded. Yearning to know what it’s like to sing before a crowd, and how she could keep practicing a song “until it’s right,” I sing. One song. Musician/songwriter Susan Ceili Murphy put the first poem I found of Marika’s, “Atop a Mountain,” to music. I practice until I can get through it without bawling. Then I take it to France with me and sing it under vaulted ceilings in castles and cathedrals, wherever I find an echo. I sing it over hilltops, off the top of my hotel in Nice, in a boat on the Seine. I sing it to twelve goats in a barn in the Loire Valley, as the biggest goat cocks her head and squints skeptically at me. And back in Ithaca, walking Marika’s dog at night in the driveway, I sing the song to the stars. Finally, I sing it at the memorial in the middle of June.

No one in Ithaca, other than my babies, has ever heard me sing. Setting up for the memorial at the Stewart Park Pavilion on Cayuga Lake, I test the mic with the first lines of the song. There is a sudden hush and I realize I’ve grabbed people’s attention.
“You sound just like Marika,” someone says. Pleased about this, I step before the crowd shortly after, take a deep breath, and begin “Atop a Mountain.” It will take many more months to recognize that my singing would not be the way to hold onto my daughter. But at the memorial, I follow Marika’s voice through the song, without a crack until the last note. My heart pounds as I find my seat, and scoop my inherited dog up into my lap.

Her dog. People had wanted to see Suki. So I brought her, but I’m wondering if this was a mistake. She squirms uncharacteristically. Seeing and smelling so many of Marika’s friends, Suki’s searching frantically for her shining girl. Even though I had quickly become her new girl and she’d become my shadow, waiting for me in her nest by the front door whenever I’d leave the house. Having lost one of her girls, she does what she can to keep on top of the other. My song over, I bury my tears in Suki’s fur. She whines, and looks mournfully at the friends as Rachel begins “Changed for Good,” a song from the show, Wicked. Marika had once silenced a crowd at camp with that song. And now, out of Rachel’s mouth comes perfection. Even when she starts sobbing into the mic, and then apologizes. No one blinks when Rachel sings. And then Cassie sings. And Julie sings. Songs for Marika from those of us who rarely open our mouths in public. I imagine Marika watching us from above, dumbstruck.

 

 

 

 

Focusing on the Important Things

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops joyful color of a fallen leaf in focusing on life and death, the important things.“Selling isn’t the important thing,” I said, “I just want people to see my work.” It was my first solo show as a photographer in Ithaca. The focus of the exhibit was death and grieving, reframing our views of these. Assuring myself the focal point of the event would be my artwork, not myself, I’d chosen to wear a black dress and over-the-knee black boots to recede into the background. But I’d put on the red beads my mother bought me, so I wouldn’t vanish entirely. The red necklace was to keep guests from fixating on the tragedy of That Woman Whose Daughter Died. After all, the core of the show was supposed to be creativity and healing. If people couldn’t see the forest from the trees, at least they might spot the joyful color of a fallen leaf.

At the reception, after making the rounds of the fourteen huge photographs, people headed over to me one-by-one or in twos. Suddenly I was the center of attention. But I didn’t know how to operate in the spotlight. I didn’t know how to break off speaking with an individual or small group in order to be with the next. Guests waited patiently for me to get to them, and then they gave up and walked away. The couple of times I excused myself saying, “Oh, I need to give that person behind you a hug,” it felt like cutting people off. And the few rare moments I stood alone, I was too shy to approach the strangers examining my work. I was entirely clueless in the art of mingling.

A mother and daughter came through, stopping to study each piece. I wondered what the girl thought of my story and images. I wondered what the mother was saying. Several of the pictures were of my own daughter: Marika as a baby. Marika at age four, at nineteen. We had never attended a show centered on death. Maybe if Marika and I had seen an exhibit like this we’d have had a discussion about dying.

Beyond the friends talking to me, the mother and daughter I didn’t know were ready to leave. I wanted to greet them, thank them for coming. Maybe I could answer a question, or ask which piece they liked best.

I didn’t stop them. But I stood there wishing and hoping my photos would start a conversation between them. Focusing on life and death. The important things.

 

So – does anyone have any tips for how to circulate when you’re in the spotlight?