Tag Archives: motherhood

Duetting: Memoir 57

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 56

Duetting: Memoir 56 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York photoshops a scene in Melbourne, Australia where she went on a grief journey to scatter her daughter's ashes.

In Melbourne, right away I regret not leaving more time to experience the city Marika’s friend Carla told me Marika really loved. Immediately after arranging the altar in the new hotel room, I take the free two-hour bus tour around town to get oriented. I snoop out the independent music scene and local street art that attracted Marika to Melbourne, and eat dinner overlooking the Yarra River. Melbourne at night is lit up like Christmas. Everywhere I turn, it’s crawling with people. There is Chinatown. There are sushi places. There is always some hanging-around dog or statues of dogs. This is it, I tell myself: wherever Marika made home there would be dogs, lights, sushi, music, and water.

In the morning, on the way to the famous Victoria Market, I scatter some of the ashes in the pretty Yarra River as people hurry off to work. By midday, I board the train at Flinders Street Station to spread the rest at the Victoria University of Technology Saint Albans Campus, home of the Nursing Program. It’s not a long trip. Leaving the train, I follow the trickle of students from the station to the school. In this corner of Melbourne, there is little else to head to.

It’s a new campus, still under construction. Fences, a few young trees, some makeshift structures … everything calls out ‘in process.’ I look around at the barren place. The single campus fountain sits dry, filled with garbage and fallen leaves. Some friendly students assure me there are flowering shrubs in the spring. A raven caws. Nervously, I hug the bag of ashes and keep walking. I try to imagine Marika going to school here. But something feels wrong.

There is no water. Anywhere. I’ve come all the way out here with the last quarter of Marika’s ashes and I can’t leave her in this place. I walk the tiny campus, twice around, looking for a good spot. Marika would have been here now, in April 2012. The students passing me would have been her classmates. But I cannot see her. I can’t feel her here.

In fact, I’m pretty sure Marika would hate it here. Is this coming from Marika or is it my own hang-up? I’ve only got today to figure this out because early tomorrow morning I’ll be leaving Melbourne, heading back home. And I need to finish her ashes. Today. 

Gingerly, I sprinkle a bit in a spot near the Artistic Café, where students sip soft drinks on outdoor tables with bird chatter overhead. Then suddenly, mid-scoop into the ashes, I find a little tag in my hand. Cheap gold-colored, tinny plastic. It has a number on it, and says Mount Hope Crematorium. I take this as a sign to stop. In tears, I stuff the bag of ashes back into my pack, and rush back to the train station, back to Melbourne proper, and up to University Student Services on Flinders Street where I pester the poor clerks who have no idea why this desperate woman is pleading for help to find the daughter she’s convinced is supposed to attend school here.

“Marika Warden isn’t on the roster for Victoria University,” one clerk says as she fusses on her computer. Immobilized, I finally remember to breathe. I’m muttering madly to myself, Think. What’s missing here? Marika said she was accepted. She showed me the letter on the computer. I paid a deposit with a personal check. Two checks. I wrote two checks to two different universities. What was the other school? “Oh, here she is,” the clerk points to her screen, “University of Technology Sydney. You had the wrong university,” she says, and I burst, howling, into tears.

Why hadn’t I paid attention to this important detail in Marika’s life? I remember being happy for her, and proud she was putting together a future for herself all on her own. Maybe I didn’t believe it was possible. Maybe I didn’t want it to be. And maybe, after all we’d been through while she was alive and all I learned after she died, maybe I could never really know who this amazing creature was.

There was so much I simply didn’t know about my own daughter. Back in March 2011, shortly after the calling hours and the departure of family members who’d flown in for the funeral from Boston, Chicago, and parts of Florida, I’d crept back up to Marika’s room and spent hours tearing through her shelves. In the days that followed, I scoured her bedroom at Limbo, where Rachel had already foraged and slept, hugging the things Marika had held. But nothing contained Marika. Not for me. Until I found her words. Then I just wanted to find more of her words. Devour her words. Read them aloud. Sing them. Hang on to every last one.

Until soon, I was not only an intruder; I was possessed. I became an addict, needing, craving, begging her brother to break into her laptop, demanding of Rachel, “Where are the rest of Marika’s words?” Over the next bleak weeks, I’d copied the poems and prose. When I typed her words, I felt Marika’s heart beating. When I gathered the best of the songs and poems, and Xeroxed them into a spiral-bound book, I could hold her. Her thoughts. Her hopes.

She wrote about her life; she wrote about her death. She wrote about what it was like to have cancer and how it affected her relationships. How it felt to be sedated and then wake up to everything changed. About feeling like two different people. About needing freedom. About love.

Some of her writing from before she knew she had leukemia frightened me. She’d been in some difficult relationships. She’d contemplated suicide. Torn between honoring Marika’s privacy and wanting to hang on to all her words, yet not able to stomach some of the dark ugly truths, I threw out one of the early notebooks, burying it deep in the trash. Then, in another journal, I found the page from the very night she was diagnosed. She’d picked up her pen immediately. One day she was writing about the frazzled love life that gave her pain so great she wasn’t sure she could go on living. And that night, in one turn of a page, she wrote about her leukemia. All the things I wish we had talked about, all the conversations we should have had—she wrote.

And there I was, three weeks after she died, sitting in the middle of her cluttered bedroom floor with a hot pink spiral-bound journal in my lap, first realizing that she’d been thinking, processing, and writing everything all along. Marika had been grieving for her life. For almost three years, on paper, and I’d had no idea. That’s when I first knew:

It was me. I had never been fully present to her, to the one who dazzled me most in the world. Doggedly pretending she could live forever, even as she lay dying, I was the one not facing reality. And I never left her an inch to talk about the possibility that she might die.

 

Duetting: Memoir 54

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

My mission on the southeastern coast of Australia is almost over on the day I decide to try a shortcut on the way back from my morning explorations. It’s a cliff path called the Discovery Walk. I take it. But whatever one is supposed to discover on this path is lost to me as I just want to get back to my room, and the bathroom in particular, as soon as possible. Following the path, I heavily descend the stairway to the beach, and find the incoming tide has swallowed up the bottom steps of the cliff. A shallow pond now blocks my way across the beach to the motel. Too tired to hike back up the cliff and around through town, and too scared to wade through the small but growing swells of waves entering the pond, I stand immobilized. The bag of ashes in my backpack jabs, “Mom! Don’t be a wimp!” And then more gently, “You can do this.”

So I watch to time the waves, take a deep breath, and dash through the shallowest part. Right away a wave rolls in. It’s not a huge wave but my heart’s pounding wildly anyway. And my feet can’t find the damp sand ahead fast enough for my hundred-twenty pounds to catch up to them. I flounder. And fall. And the wave recedes, leaving me scrambling to rise from the shallows. Then, for seconds, before all the surfers and swimmers, sunbathers, and stray dogs on the beach, just at the intersection of my day’s path with theirs, I stand, shuddering. Sobbing. No, maybe I’m giggling. Uncontrollably on this beach. They must think I’m a madwoman. I try to stifle this torrent of emotion but it grows. And I don’t know if I’m laughing or crying but suddenly my bladder goes. Then I’m really wet. Yet somehow I know—I’m okay. It’s all going to be okay.

Because tomorrow’s coming. And who knows what will be blown in with tomorrow. There’s the trip to Melbourne, the Queen Victoria Market, the HuTong dumpling place, and the adventure of locating the nursing school Marika was to attend. And so much more to explore.

On my last night in Port Campbell. I return to the Loc Ard Motor Inn and unwrap a small take-away by the altar. A Lamington, Marika’s food item #5 that she never got to try. Covered with dark chocolate, dusted with coconut, the cube of cake sits perfectly in the palm of my hand. I sink my teeth into it and find it is spongy. Yellow. Sweet and soft with a touch of crunch. Lamingtons are integral to Australian childhood, typically available at school bake sales, I’d learned. Like brownies and chocolate chip cookies back home.

“You’d have baked these for your dad and your friends. You were like that. Only not with me,” I tell Marika’s ashes, recalling the blue-iced birthday cakes and sweet smiles she reserved for others. I never cared about the red velvet cakes. The time she spent hours making chocolate turtles and didn’t leave me a single one, I almost crumpled. And I might have buckled under completely because not a single one of her poems was written to me. Mostly what Marika left me was a bunch of mysteries. Like who is “deejaylungbutter” who she acknowledged in one of her songs? And who was the Australian she was flying to in the poem she wrote long before she ever met the Australian boyfriend? And what is the story about all the endless unruly brown spaghetti rendered from old VHS cassettes that lined the bottoms of her dresser drawers? There is so much more to be discovered. Or to remain unknown. All I know for sure is, I have Marika’s words. Her words have gutted caves and gorges in my mind. She didn’t have to bake or be nice to me. Marika always knew I loved her. And I know she loved me, as brash as she often was. In the hospital, fighting sedation near the end, she’d reached out to hug me. That’s what I need to remember.

 

Duetting: Memoir 25

Duetting: Memoir 25 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, phoshops a tangle of computer wires and cables to illustrate a aprt of her memoir about closure after the death of a loved one.It is the day before my first Christmas Eve without Marika. No Christmas this year. No Chanukah. Holidays seem pointless without Marika. So I’m erasing the whole season. Instead I’ll clean and write and do un-holiday-type things. Like clearing out the last of Marika’s belongings.

I had surprised myself, and others, by how quickly I got rid of her things. It had been eerily easy. Somewhere, someone said cleaning up after a dead loved one is an important aspect of achieving closure. Closure—hah! Not for me. It is more like a desperate urge to re-home the many pieces of Marika. I am seeding the world with her stuff. It requires a great trust in the universe to find the right new person or place for the pretty prom dresses, the high-heeled shoes, stuffed animals … and now, the old desktop computer in her room. Marika hadn’t used it since shortly after she got cancer, after my father gave her a new laptop for college. Staples will recycle the old computer for ten dollars.

Rachel comes over to help me get it into the car. It feels less intrusive to rummage through Marika’s underwear drawer or her journals than to go anywhere near her old computer. But we briefly check it for anything I might want to keep. Nothing. I crave the writings of the almost-adult Marika, but this computer predates that. So Rachel tears it from the tangled mass of cables and wires, the arteries and veins that bind it to home.

“I ended up drunk in the ER every weekend. It was like I was suicidal,” Rachel tells me as she pulls cords out from under the desk. I keep my mouth shut. “When I went into Rehab, I was out of contact with the world for twenty-eight days. No phone, no computer,” she says.
“Are you back at work now? What was that last job? Working as a caseworker?”  
“Yeah. I had to resign when I went to Rehab. I loved that job.”
“That was a neat job,” I say. She carries the computer down the stairs and I follow.
“Can you read some of the book to me?” she asks, after she shoves the computer into the car. She reminds me of Marika as a young child begging me to read. But before I can begin, Rachel’s cell phone rings. She listens briefly.

“What are you doing in a bar, you goofball? Get out of there. Fast,” she says. Then, “You’re gonna throw sixty days of sobriety down the trash for a girl?” As she speaks to this person in crisis, I am awed at how together Rachel sounds. She seems to have found herself after this difficult year of loss, substance abuse, and Rehab. Her head is in a good place, whereas I feel lost. After the last three sad but blessed years of knowing exactly why I was where I was, I now find myself directionless.

Later, alone in the Staples parking lot, I can barely lift the computer tower out of the car and into a shopping cart. I know I’m in trouble when, wheeling the loaded cart through the automatic doors, I have a flashback to last year at this time when I pushed Marika in a wheelchair through similar doors at the hospital. But soon, two Staples technicians are operating with screwdrivers and pliers to pull the ancient computer apart. The younger tech, about Marika’s age, extracts and then hands me the hard drive, a small but surprisingly heavy black metal box. It says “Fragile” on it and contains all her old high school homework, snippets of printed conversations with friends, playlists, … young girl-stuff locked up inside. It is like holding Marika’s heart. The technician draws stars in blue ink on the white label.

“Drill here. When you get rid of a computer you have to destroy the hard drive,” he says. Too mesmerized by the mysterious box in my hands, I don’t question why Staples doesn’t just take it and complete the job themselves. Through sobs, I ask the tech whom to pay the ten dollars to, and he tells me there’s no charge. On the verge of a major meltdown, I take Marika’s Heart Drive and flee.

My son, on his way out just as I arrive home with the somber little black box, offers to blast it apart at his next shooting session. Remembering how proud Marika had been of her brother shooting a shotgun off the deck during one of her parties, I give it to Greg. After all, maybe he needs some closure.

 

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 24

Duetting: Memoir 24 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops Andrea Riddle and Marika Warden wearing headwraps and hoop earrings, as cancer patients.

There is always some anxiety as I wait for guests to arrive. My friends are so different from one another. They range from Marika’s age to my mother’s age. For the Feed and Reads I’ve gathered them from my hiking group, from foodie endeavors, former workplaces, and past mother-daughter relationships. One friend’s daughter will join us, and also a woman I’ve never met who felt linked by loss. And Rachel. If I can reach her.

“Hey Rachel, where are you? You haven’t called or emailed me in over a month. I’m getting worried,” I leave multiple messages on her cell, “You’re coming to the Feed and Read aren’t you?” Rachel usually communicates with confidence, like she’s the Mayor of Cool. But when I last spoke to her she’d sounded almost suicidal. Too wrapped up in my own pain, I’d never really considered how Marika’s death affected her best friend. 

Soon I’m more warmed than worried, looking around the first assembly of my readers. They introduce themselves and talk like they are old friends. And in the months to come, they will be. In their courageous effort to help me, they will discover familiar connections and create new ones. But there are two who are missing. One is Andrea. She had often “borrowed” my children over the years, spoiling them and stretching their minds. She’d visited Marika several times in the hospital. Andrea had given me my first teaching job, knowing what I could do long before I did. Two months ago we walked in the woods as yellow leaves fell. What kind of horrible joke was it that she was recently diagnosed with cancer herself? I wanted to be there for her. But wearing her head wrap and hoop earrings, she so resembled Marika, I could hardly look at her. Now Andrea is too sick from chemo to join the Feed and Reads.

The doorbell rings and I run to answer it. Rachel.
“Sorry I’m late,” she says, all bubbly at the door.
“Look at you!” I gush. “Your hair. You look adorable. You look – happy.” She looks like she owns the world and has just walked into her own birthday party. Her makeup and manicure are gone. And her hair is shaved off except for a bit at the top.
“It’s a Faux-Hawk,” she says, brushing at her almost bare head. “Do you like it?” It’s freezing outside, but she’s wearing a wife-beater undershirt, neon Michael Jordan sneakers, and low rise baggy khaki shorts that might be her dad’s. She looks like the beloved janitor from some old TV show. But she still has on the fragile silver necklace that was Marika’s.

“I’ve been sober for fifty-six days,” Rachel announces at the table as we feast on butternut squash soup, cheeses, salad, sushi, and shrimp cocktail. She proudly shows off her tattoos. One particularly huge one spreads across her ribs on her right side, “Be strong when you feel weak,” a quote of Marika’s. I’m very aware of how different Rachel is, from before, from the others. And I’m proud of her, like she’s mine.

When the meal is over, we move into the small living room for the reading. A photo of Marika sits on a tiny table next to me. Next to it is a box of tissues. And pencils and notebooks, for comments.

The Feed and Reads will go on for over a year. Whenever I have a couple of new chapters to share we will feast. My work is the focus at these gatherings, but everyone here knows grief. Before and after I read, we share our stories.

“It was just like that for me when my husband was in the hospital, before he died,” says Jane, the friend-of-a-friend I hadn’t known before. Next to her, Barb, who will host most of the Feed and Reads, sits stunned, holding a tissue in mid-air between her lap and her face.
“After my husband died I wrote him letters too,” says Annette, whom I’ve known over twenty-five years, “It was a powerful healing tool.” Celia, who remembers everything, brings the group back to my story saying, “You forgot to mention the prom. You have to write about the prom.”

It’s as if they all know I need them here. They somehow sense the best way to support a grieving parent is to show up and listen. So I keep writing and rewriting. To read aloud my daughter’s story. All a bereaved mother really wants is for her child to be remembered. For the rest of my life I will listen patiently while friends ramble on about their kids graduating, getting their first real jobs, getting married … and there will be no more news of Marika that I can contribute to the chatter. But here is my time to tell about my beautiful brave girl, her accomplishments, and her extraordinary passage through the bloom of her short life.

 

 

 

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 23

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a collage of her daughter's ashes in an effort to heal her broken heart.

In late July 2011, I bring home the sealed black box containing my daughter’s ashes, and assemble a small altar in the living room, above the TV. Around the box I place photographs, daisies, chocolates, Marika’s stuffed Puppy, and two Lonely Planet Guides to Australia. The first summer without Marika is half over when I finally end my travels. I hadn’t found her anywhere else in the world. The box is where she lives now. Each day I stand before it wishing Marika good morning and goodnight. Her ashes are not just dust. The ashes are her, humming and dancing inside the box, watching me come and go.

With Rachel’s help, I clear out most of Marika’s bedroom in the house. Then, in a reckless determination to purge, I attack the attic, my son’s sprawl of accumulated stuff, and my own closets. I sell off my father’s stamp collection and deposit carloads of clothing and toys at the Salvation Army. It all has to go. The only things I want are Marika’s words. And once they are photo-copied, I send the original journals off with Rachel to give to Marika’s father. Then Rachel and I empty Marika’s bedroom at the apartment she shared with friends.

“What’s up with you?” I ask her. Rachel looks like a wounded animal. “Are you okay?” My eyes are drawn to the silver Tiffany’s necklace she wears, the one Laurie gave Marika for graduation.
“I’m not with my boyfriend anymore,” she says.
“Should I say sorry or congratulations? Well, either way, congratulations. ‘Cause you’re with you.” It’s what I say to anyone who tells me she’s survived a separation and is suddenly single or alone. It’s what I tell myself: You still have you. But I don’t recognize this as a gift yet. I feel I’m only a ghost of the person I was before. And it’s still hard to face people. I’m sure there is whispering and pointing just beyond my earshot and sight. Like last year, at a party, when my friend Andrea nodded discreetly in the direction of an acquaintance, “Do you see that woman? She’s been through hell and back, and she looks it.” I’d regarded the blinking, quivering woman who did indeed look like she’d fallen to Earth from outer space, breaking the sound barrier, her heart, and every moving part of her in the fall. Is that what I look like now? Floundering and crazed?

After Rachel and I bag the last of Marika’s shoes, I wash my hands singing “Happy Birthday” twice to Marika, and consider the strange haunted face in the mirror. Red rheumy eyes stare back. Graying roots jeer at me. Ugh. This has to go too.

Then, in early August, on a Sunday morning hike with Suki and friends, I fall in a slippery stream bed, and break my wrist. Right away I know it’s fractured although it is the first bone I’ve ever broken.
“Go. Get back to enjoying your Sunday,” I tell my friends who take Suki and drop me off at the hospital. “I’ll be fine.” But I am not fine. It’s my first time back at a hospital since Marika died. Waiting alone in the ER, I break down in howls. All the tears I had stuffed away for months each time I bravely faced the world beyond home, come gushing out of me. Marika’s supposed to be here, not me.

And then, as I bumble around the next several weeks in a cast, I suffer all sorts of snags. Mishaps. Glitches. Calamities. I get the flu. I mislay bills and incur late fees. By a hair, I miss hitting a deer on the road. Everything I cook burns. My keys disappear. My house is plagued by deferred maintenance. Skunks move in under my deck, and the pond is overrun with muskrats. I can’t sleep nights. And at the end of September, I get a traffic violation for failing to pull into the far lane when passing a blinking, parked cop car.

“Mom, you’re such a wimp,” I hear. And I know I’ve got to do better. So, I begin to drag myself out of the house and down the hill to the community that loved Marika. I start co-leading Chronic Disease Self-Management Workshops for the Tompkins County Health Department. I join a six-week hospice-sponsored group, Singing Through Your Grief, where mourners are supported as they share stories and sing. CompassionNet, a program serving New York State families of children with life-threatening illnesses, offers to pay for life coaching sessions.

“Why don’t you write a book?” asks my life coach, Marci Solomon.
“I would never,” I say, scrunching up my nose like Marika did when I suggested she wear shoes and socks in winter instead of sandals. But I enjoy writing responses to the questions Marci asks each week. And I eagerly do the homework from the Hospicare singing group.
“Your assignment is to pick a prompt from the list and write what you would tell your deceased loved one,” say Jayne Demakos and Kira Lallas, who lead Singing Through Your Grief. At the session that follows I read aloud what I wrote. A reverential silence followed by exuberant praise energizes me like richest chocolate.
“I will write for five hours this week,” I pledge at a Chronic Disease Self-Management workshop. Even the co-leaders are required to make and complete Action Plans, weekly contracts to do something for themselves, and then share their successes or failed attempts at the next meeting. The following week, “I will write for ten hours.”

It was just letters to Marika at first. Like on the TV game show Jeopardy, I teased out questions from her poems and songs, questions I wish I’d asked during our time together. What’s it like to be twenty and have cancer? What do you fear? How does cancer affect your relationships? … Memories swell up inside me. Words churn in my head. And when all the commotion is captured onto paper, I experience a thawing, a lightening. When I read aloud what I wrote, it becomes part of me. It makes me feel stronger. And it makes me sure this is not something I want to do on my own.

“Hey, Rachel, I’m writing a book,” I say over the phone. Then I call a dozen other friends. “I have an idea,” I say. “I’ve been writing a book and want to test it out. I want to do a series of simple dinners where I read aloud. Chapter by chapter, as I write. I’m calling these dinners ‘Feed and Reads.’ Would you come?”

It is so exciting to enlist listeners. With thirteen positive responses I begin two small groups that will fuel my energies over the next year with their kind and brave commitment. December starts out dreary. But I write for hours every day. Often by candlelight. For Marika, and now for the women who will gather together to hear me. Addicted to light, I line the driveway with solar-powered garden torches. I frame the mudroom door with rows of red mini-lights, and plant battery-operated plastic candlesticks in the windows up and down the house. I buy hundred-watt bulbs and full-spectrum therapy lamps to write by. Sweet light blossoms all around me, breaking the darkness as I write. Warm welcoming lights brighten the winter nights, the empty house, the long lonely driveway, and my dark heart. They beckon, they plead: come to me, come home.