Tag Archives: mother daughter

Duetting: Memoir 64

Duetting: Memoir 64 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York photoshops a memory of lighting candles on birthday cakes for her daughter who died.

Greg grills steaks outside in snowy December. Still home, waiting to see where his new job will take him next, my son shares his aged Dalmore whisky with me while across the valley Ithaca College lights up the dorm windows to display the digits 2013. Another New Year tiptoes in. Another year that will pull my son far from home. One more year that pulls me ever farther from my daughter, from our times together. The second holiday season without Marika evanesces somewhere between the late night drinks with Greg and the few quiet dinners at friends’ houses.

Awake at sunrise most mornings, half-dressed, I grab my coat and camera, and clamber outside in the cold to catch the earliest morning light kissing the pond. There have been no photography classes over the winter break so I’m trying to continue on my own, but I miss that community of students and photographers. I miss people in general over holidays. Everyone’s mostly wrapped up in their own families, absent to me, making the absence of my daughter even more pronounced. I crave company but I seem to have forgotten how to socialize.

At first, I was not to be the one to host the mid-January birthday party for Stephen, leader of the Ithaca hikers. But for too long I’d let everyone else do all the entertaining.

“Let’s do it at my place,” had suddenly fallen out of my mouth when I was giddy in the company of fellow hikers. For days I think of little else until thirteen of us, including two friends’ daughters, are squeezed around the table where I’ve been writing for a year and a half. After a lunch of make-your-own sandwiches, the daughters help clear the table and light the candles on the cake. They’ve already started to sing the Birthday Song when they hand the cake to me to place before Stephen. Don’t let the flames go out, I think, carrying the candlelit cake ten short steps to Stephen. Suddenly my head reels. There’s a jarring explosion of memories. Presenting birthday cakes to Marika. I was with her for every one of her birthdays. Twenty cakes, each year one more candle added. And one for good luck.
… Happy Birthday Dear Marika, Happy Birthday to …

No. Don’t go there now. It’s Stephen’s birthday and there are twelve people here, I tell myself, fighting back tears. I don’t know if I set the cake down carefully in front of Stephen, or if I threw it at him like a hot potato. But by the time the song ends, I collect myself, clap cheerfully, and serve the coffee. And note that the Birthday Song is now a powerful emotional trigger, along with Christmas carols, carrot cake, and actress Drew Barrymore.

“Susan and Stephen want us to come for brunch on Tuesday,” says Liz, over the phone on Friday, the first of March 2013.
“I can’t. I have my photography class on Tuesday,” I say.
“Well, how about Monday then?” Liz asks.
“No, I can’t on Monday.”
“Whatcha got going on Monday?” she pushes.
“Monday’s March 4th, the second anniversary of Marika’s death. I don’t want to do a get-together with people then. It’s the wrong kind of energy,” I say.
“Well, what are you doing on Monday?” she prods.
“Something quiet, reflective. Like light candles around the pond. Maybe a campfire. Yeah, Marika loved campfires.”
“Well, let me know how we can help,” Liz says, ready to hang up.
“You wanna help me build a campfire?”
“In the snow?” she laughs nervously, knowing I’m serious.
“Yeah. A little warmth in all the wet and cold, I don’t know,” I say, sensing a mutual doubt. “I haven’t figured it out yet. But there’s no way I’m gonna be fit for company on Monday,” I say, ending the conversation.

The period from March 4th to Mothers’ Day is my season of hailstorms and hurricanes. In between those dates fall my birthday and Marika’s, the first day of spring, Easter, and Passover. All are opportunities to wallow in misery and close off the world. Brain nausea sets in as I try to sort out what this day, the anniversary of Marika’s death, really means and how I should commemorate it. What keeps coming up is my Aunt Bertha. My favorite aunt lost her husband on her birthday over fifty years ago. She’s kept to herself for over half a century, feeding on little other than her immense sorrow. That is not living; it is dying in slow motion. The day my daughter died was the worst day of my life. It’s a date I’ll never forget. The only good thing about that time was the kindness and support of many friends. Without them, I would never have gotten through that day. Or the past two years.

“Hey Liz,” I call back. “Did you finalize a day for the brunch yet? Because I think getting together with friends is exactly what I need on Monday.” So, in recognition of the day I lost Marika but found my caring community, I take Suki to brunch with Liz at Susan and Stephen’s house. An hour later on the same day, my friends Barb and Jan take me out for lunch. I take Marika’s friend Rachel, now Ray, and the woman she will marry, out for sushi dinner. And in between, because the assignment in photo class this week is to take seventy pictures of people in their environments, I go to hikers Dennis and Virginia’s place, and then Dan and Celia’s with my camera. Counting friends. Counting blessings.

 

 

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 60

Duetting: Memoir 60 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York photoshops her daughter who died of leukemia, riding a kangaroo, for her blog about spreading ashes and setting souls free.

The Australia journey can’t end this way. It’s a year and a month since Marika died, and I’m walking in circles in Melbourne, hugging the last of her ashes on the last day of my trip.

In a daze, I pass Federation Square in the center of Melbourne, the place where everyone meets up and hangs out. Soon I’m back on the Yarra River, behind Flinders Street Station from where one can start a journey to anywhere in the world. Everything leads to here and away from here. Whoever comes to Melbourne can’t miss it. People stroll along both sides of the river now. It’s midday. Musicians play, and street shows attract cheering crowds. The Yarra is lined with outdoor cafes, and filled with kayaks, paddleboats, cruise boats, and ferries. I sit on the edge of a small wharf and untie Marika’s bag of ashes for the last time. Ignoring everything, I begin to toss.

“This is for your Aunt Laurie, who wishes she could be here,” I whisper. “And here’s for Greg and your dad.” I toss another handful of ashes, “for Rachel, who loves you.” And another, “for your friend Jake.” I scoop and sprinkle a precious smattering of the ashes for Pat, Marika’s beloved Australian. And then I empty the rest of the bag.
“This is for me, Mareek. I love you…. I love you so much.” I turn the bag upside down and shake it clean. It makes flapping sounds like a bird taking off.

On the water’s surface, the ashes form a warm gray cloud like a pale ghost. It catches the sunlight and glimmers for seconds before disappearing into the river.

Marika Joy Warden from Ithaca, New York—you have been let loose in Australia, I announce in my head. She is free. Freed from the black box and plastic bags, doctors and drugs, rules and demands. Freed from cancer. And from the ashes, now blended into beautiful water.

I sit frozen. Seagulls whine. Small brown birds wait on the wharf. And from someplace deep inside my gut, faint tremors churn. I rock. Forward. Backward. Back and forth over the water, hugging myself. The rippled surface of the river reflects the sun and explodes in my face as I close my eyes on tears. Inside it is bright fiery red. Like flaming blood.

The birds do not leave until I tuck the empty bag away and stand. Don’t say goodbye; she’s not here, I think as I tear myself from the wharf. But she’s not completely gone either. Shortly after, she makes me dig through my pockets to give coins to nearby musicians. They thank me very enthusiastically, and I realize I’ve given them three whole Australian dollars instead of the seventy cents I meant to donate. And just as I reach the hotel, I hear a tiny hopeful voice, “Mom, what about the dumplings?”

I keep my promises. So later I head for the HuTong Dumpling Bar in Chinatown where they seat me before two dumpling makers who stretch and roll, pat, pinch, and pleat endlessly. I stuff my emptiness with Shanghai Dumplings and then return to the hotel, to the iPad, to check in with my friends. 

Tomorrow’s coming. In the little hotel room, I hold Puppy and rock her like she’s a fragile newborn Marika. We’ll come back to Sydney with Laurie, I promise, we’ll do Puppy’s cremation on Manley Beach one day. I’m trying not to think about traveling back across oceans, vast seas of clouds, time zones, and mountains, and arriving home—alone—to an empty house. That night I sleep with Puppy under my arm. 

In the morning, on the plane as it taxies to the runway, I try to ignore the rubber band around my chest that tightens the farther I go from where I left Marika’s ashes. Then, as the plane takes off, I spot her, out the window in the distant grasslands. Marika riding her kangaroo. The kangaroo’s gait is oddly syncopated, and as it turns, I see they are each wearing an iPod earbud. Hey! I want to yell after her, I’m going to live bigger, live like the lights could go out at any time. Because anything’s possible.

The engines roar and the plane lifts off the ground. Peering down at my last glimpse of Australia, I raise my hand and rest it on the window. I’ll be back.  

Don’t forget a single thing, I tell myself on the long flight: the road trips, Australia, the good things and the bad, all the scary parts. The waves. Her face. The white sheets wet with tears, Marika’s red-painted toes. How my back ached, sitting on the edge of the bed or standing over her to rub her feet. The glittering magic of just hearing her name. The heavy weight of not wanting to live when she died.

Through all of it, I believe the day after Marika’s death was the only time I wanted to die. That gray day in March 2011, I drove home to Ithaca from the hospital and then moldered a whole day, stuck in the hallway like a bled-dry carcass battered on a highway. Our journey together is over, I’d thought.

But that night I’d found her poems.

That marked the end of our journey together through the wilds of her cancer. The poems, delving into them and then duetting, kept me going until I birthed the plan for our journey to Australia to carry out her final wishes. The two journeys have ended now. The ashes are gone. And here I am, once more, returning home without Marika.

It almost feels like I’ve lost her again, lost her all over again. I’d spent the past year discovering the daughter I hardly knew, and then followed her ghost to Australia, all the while writing and rewriting, and rereading every bit of everything we shared. Marika died a thousand times over the year, for me. Yet something more of her always surfaced, some memory, some photo I hadn’t seen before, or some old friend telling me a Marika-story I hadn’t heard. That’s over now. The Australia trip is over. And now everyone expects me to move on.

Comfort is found in strange places. In our darkest times, we all have to find some one thing that we can hang on to. Maybe it’s a mission, an image, a dream. A song. Or just words. Something that brings us light and hope again. And peace. There’s this poem of Marika’s I keep coming back to.

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 59

Duetting: Memoir 59

It was not like tucking her in. After my daughter’s last breaths and the moments the hospital staff reserved for the family’s final goodbyes, it was more like stripping down the Christmas tree. Off with the earrings. Then the navel ring, and the woven friendship band on her ankle. Off with the bracelet her brother brought back from Iraq. And stuffed Puppy, always held in the crook of her arm. Off. They said it all had to come off. I was left holding precious bits and pieces of my beautiful daughter, trying hard not to think about what would happen to her next.

Mom! Get over it! I heard Marika’s voice in my head. So I gave it all to her father. Except for Puppy. Almost threadbare Puppy was still warm from her. For a long quiet time I held Puppy, and stared at Marika’s empty house, getting used to the idea that she wasn’t there. And then I left, so they could take her beautiful house away.

They kept me busy. I don’t know who was with me, my friend Celia, my son? My sister? Didn’t matter, because Marika was not. I allowed myself to be led around. There was a walk to some local coffee shop to buy lots of gift cards that would be left in the Oncology Unit. There was packing up. Her things. My things. There was dinner in a restaurant where all I can remember is wondering how I could eat. And how Marika could not eat. How she, her body, her house, was stuck in the hospital, in the cold basement morgue while we were dining out. Her perfectly shaped eyebrows and red-painted toenails and all the rest of her that I’d never get to see again was now stuffed into some black plastic body-bag with not even a blanket to keep her cozy and warm. She had lain so still and vulnerable in the center of us. Helpless. And now she was alone in the cold dark, awaiting cremation.

I need to forget this last part. That is not how I want to remember her.

It was late. I returned to Hope Lodge without my hope. One last night in Rochester, that would forever be the city where I left Marika. Where I knew I’d have to return some day but knew I would never want to return. And that night, in my dream I swam with dolphins. I was overtaken by a wave that surprised me, rolling up from behind. It was too big, and I was too late to jump over it. So I was pulled down. Underwater, I collided with bricks and boulders and baby dolphins. Finally escaping the debris, bruised and battered, I floated, just dangling in the gray water while around me stars silently fell down. It was peaceful, so tempting to stay put. Was I prepared to die? I could not pretend this wasn’t happening. To me. Who was I now? I couldn’t remember. Did anyone need me anymore? No, the dolphins were gone. So I could go. I could rise above the bricks and leave the darkness behind. Wake up. Up and up. I could brave the wildest waves all the way home.

What have I done, I thought the next morning, upon awakening, when I couldn’t get up from the bed I’d sprung out of so many mornings to get to the hospital so Marika wouldn’t wake up alone. There was nothing to get up for. For the first time in my life I didn’t want to get up. I wanted to die.

 

Duetting: Memoir 58

Duetting: Memoir 58 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York witnesses her daughter's last breaths as her life support system is unplugged.

Warning: The following is an account of witnessing my daughter’s last breaths. A beautiful but very sad memory, it was important to me to include it here. But if you do not want to be faced with intense sadness you might want to simply enjoy my illustration and forego the reading this week.

As a mother preparing for my daughter’s impending death, I needed to see the beautiful life I’d brought into the world carefully wrapped up and tucked in snuggly. This was really happening. There was no stopping it, no stopping time. It was past the time for hope.

Marika’s father and I had promised her peace, that we wouldn’t fight. We had worked hard to hold things together. But on Friday, March 4, 2011, the day we were to let her go, we were both on the dark, uneven edges of our individual cliffs. We’d agreed to “have it happen” at one o’clock. But suddenly, in the middle of the morning, her father announced he couldn’t stand it any longer; it had to happen right then. His wife couldn’t bear to watch him suffer. So there we were. The time that had been ticking away was suddenly taken away.

The nurses asked us to leave. We would be called back soon to be with her for the end. Marika’s father, his wife, my son, and my friend Celia slipped quietly out the glass door. I did not. The preparations for disengagement of life support would not be pretty. But I wanted to be there anyway. I held onto Marika’s feet, and looked the nurses straight in the eyes through a blur of tears.

“I’ve been with her through everything else,” I said, trying to collect myself in between gasps, “I want to stay.” And they invited me to come closer to where Marika lay in the milky light of the overhead fixture that hummed on center stage. There, the nurses, like Disney bluebirds attending Sleeping Beauty, flitted about undressing ribbons of tubing, tying up cords, primping and preening her. They fidgeted with the monitors. Marika looked peaceful and trusting.

Are you dreaming, Mareek? I said to her, in my head. My Hurricane Marika, where’s your thunder now? You know you could tear out these lines and rip apart these bags of blood and drugs. You could throw the IV stands javelin-style through the glass walls and make torrential waves shatter and smash everything. You’re still alive.

I wrapped my hand around her forearm. The nurses checked her eyes one more time, shining a small flashlight under her lids. She had the warmest hazel eyes. It’s okay, Mareek.

It wasn’t okay. I hated hearing myself say those words. That was something I said when she didn’t win her soccer game or didn’t get the grade she’d expected on a school project. ‘It’s okay’ meant she’d get over it and things would work out better next time.

They unhooked the bags of meds draped up and down the twin IV stands, leaving only the painkillers. I watched Marika’s perfectly arched eyebrows for signs of discomfort as they swabbed and then suctioned her mouth. The monitors ticked. After weeks of constantly checking their displays, I couldn’t stop peeking at the blinking green digits.

There was no plug to pull. There was no lethal injection. It was simply a matter of removing the air that was being pumped in. First the nurses peeled the tape from her face and gently wiped the tape marks from her chin and cheeks. Then they pulled out the breathing tube that delivered air, and stuck another tube deep into her mouth to suction out her throat once more. I heard the air hissing and then sucking. The monotonous hum, ticking, and beeps of the monitors comforted me; they meant she was still here. The air tube was gone now and she breathed on her own. I inhaled and exhaled every breath with her. Keep breathing, Mareek. Breathe. Breathe.   

The others filed back in around us. Her father found the monitors too distracting, so a nurse turned them off. The screens that exhibited Marika’s life in glowing green turned dark. I felt for her pulse the way I learned as a lifeguard. Still strong.

You’re still breathing. Marika breathed seconds long enough for me to imagine her never stopping, long enough to imagine a chorus of nurses singing “mistake” and “miracle.”

How long can you keep breathing? Sweet breaths. Shallow breaths. She would not last long now.
You’re still here. I’m here. I need to focus, wake up. Watch. The now I know will be different on the other side of a blink.

Her mouth opened and took in no air this time. It closed and opened and hesitated. Her lips gently shut and opened and shut. And opened. Gently. Slowly.

Rest, Mareek. My Mareek, it’s okay. Her mouth was suspended open.
Rest. I love you. I had only her pulse. Pulse, no breathing. She was really going.

You are so beautiful. Pulse slowed.
Here. Still here. She was still here.

Here. Still.

Here.

Still.

 

Gone?

All gone?

 

Gone.

The clock said 12:28. I wanted the nurses to notice. It was 12:28 and Marika was gone.

I held her hand and stared: Lavender lined eyelids. Rosebud lips. The tiny spot that had been on her left chin forever. And I kept checking in with the clock, watching time fall away. March 4, 2011, 12:28 pm vanished. Just dropped off the planet. Overtaken by 12:29, and then 12:30. Wishing the whole world would end, I watched as the part of me that could sing and fly disappeared into nowhere. I waited. Like time might suddenly rewind. But wherever Marika was, her body was empty. She’d abandoned it. Some essence, some energy, was no longer there. This was not her. This was just her house. Her beautiful house with its scuffed walls and once-bright windows through which once emanated sweet songs. And sometimes thunder.

I hope there was light, Mareek. I hope you saw light. 

Please, whoever or whatever you are out there—God? —please don’t deprive her of the light.

 

 

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.”