Tag Archives: parenting

Duetting: Memoir 10

Duetting: Memoir 10 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops layers of a word cloud to illustrate the stae of her home at the time of her daughter's cancer diagnosis.Our home is Ithaca, New York. It’s a small town, a perpetually young town between Cornell University and Ithaca College. Bumper stickers proclaim, “Ithaca is Gorges.” It’s true. At the south end of Cayuga Lake, the largest of the Finger Lakes, Ithaca teems with frothing waterfalls and dramatic cliffs. Fractured rock continually crashes down these steep craggy gorges, occasionally smashing and rearranging the landscape.

To grow up in Ithaca is to be intimately familiar with Purity Ice Cream, the Stewart Park Carousel, swimming at Buttermilk Falls, and picking out pets at our local no-kill SPCA shelter. Teenagers in Ithaca attend the Winter ChiliFest, the Ithaca Festival, and the nearby Grass Roots Festival, yearly events that draw thousands to the region. Many teens dare to party on Cornell’s beer-flooded Slope Day, and sneak down to swim illegally at Second Dam, a popular swimming hole. They know their way around the ethnic eateries of Collegetown. Ithaca is environmentally, politically, socially, alternatively, and healthfully conscious. Bumper stickers peg Ithaca as “Ten Square Miles Surrounded by Reality.” It suits me. It’s the special place on earth where I fit in.

In 1976, I followed my first husband here when he landed a teaching job at Cornell. We bought land in the countryside and built a palatial home with a pond. There, I started Silk Oak, a small silkscreen-printing design business. I finally learned to drive. Too busy with our careers, we did not have children. After ten years we split, and I got most of the land. I built a small house and another pond. A few years later I married my plumber, the God of Heat and Hot Water. We made the house bigger, and had Greg and Marika. Then I gave away my 20-year-old home business so I could be with the children, to take them swimming, on vacations, to birthday parties and summer camps. No longer in need of the space for Silk Oak, we sold the house and built a third, smaller house with a third, smaller pond on the same land. And when that marriage fell apart, I paid a lot of money to have my second husband’s name erased from the piece of paper that said the house and the pond and the land once belonged to us both. But I couldn’t erase him completely. He was still the father of my two children.

I don’t believe you can own land, the land you live on, pay taxes on, and love. I believe the land owns you. The land I call home claimed me long ago. Here, high in the hills surrounding Ithaca, it feels secluded from the world but is only a five-minute drop down the hill to town. The green hills, the gravelly soil that tries to contain the ponds, the wind which causes frequent power outages. The woods and the abundant wildlife. The valley, and its view of Ithaca College where at each year’s end the dormitory windows are lit up to display the changing digits of the New Year. This land holds me when I’m home. It calls when I’m away. Wherever I travel, my inner GPS is set to the hill west of Ithaca, to Go Home.

To go home in the spring of 2008 was to follow the long driveway from the turn off State Highway 79, just over the crest of the hill after EcoVillage, our local intentional community. Home was the wreck we abandoned each weekday morning, fleeing to our schools. Marika’s was Ithaca High School where she was a senior; mine was Lehman Alternative Community School where, after years of subbing once the kids got older, I’d been hired as a special education teacher. Home was the sweet mess we gratefully returned to late each afternoon, to scurry away into our individual corners until dinnertime, our time together.

It was just Marika and myself then. My son Greg was in the army, always far away in Iraq or at Fort Lewis in Washington State. And there was Laurie. Our ever-present encyclopedia and sounding board, Laurie was always lodged in the phone, the landline. And in the message machine that still held a twelve-day-old recording of her singing Happy Birthday to Marika in her calm low voice, drawing out the final line. We always counted on Laurie for either a short version or a lengthy, but engaging, exposition of the truth. She always gave you choices. She could explain quantum physics in terms a preschooler would understand. She planted cannonballs in your gut, spouting twenty reasons to go see a primary caregiver about your searing pelvic pain. She made you cringe in horror describing the fish-flesh texture of tissue invaded by lymphoma. Or she could get you to relax in grateful relief, telling you the pain you were sure was ovarian cancer was most likely gas.

“Laur, is leukemia related to cancer?” I asked on that first night.
“What’s gonna happen to me?” Marika asked at the same time. Over the phone, sandwiched between Marika’s and my ears, Laurie said,
“Don’t you know anyone who has leukemia?” like everyone on earth has at least a dozen friends walking around hijacked by their white blood cells. Marika, in a squeaky voice on the verge of crying, said,
“Yeah. He died.”

 

 

 

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 8

Duetting: Memoir 8 Robin Botie of ithaca, New York, photoshops purple bruises big as peonies on her daughter who died of leukemia.

“Mom! Get a life!”    
Marika always said this. It was her self-preserving way to end a losing battle, a clean exit that always rendered me speechless. Rolling her eyes, she would bark, “Mom. Get. A. Life.” My just-turned-eighteen-year-old daughter enunciated each word sharply. Like four smacks to my face.

On a spring evening in May 2008, soon after we’d had one of our regular disagreements, she shoved the phone at me. It was my sister. Again. The sister who’s a doctor outside of Boston, Marika’s longtime ally and confidante. She called Laurie every time monster-mom did something disagreeable, like say No. So I was ready to hear the retelling of my latest offenses.
“Put your glasses on and look at Marika’s face,” Laurie said, with no greeting, no preamble. “You’re looking for tiny burgundy snowflakes the size of a pinhead, around her eyes maybe.” I peered closely at my daughter’s pouting teenaged face and peeked at her neck and shoulders, aware we hadn’t been on touching terms the past decade.
“Laur, those burgundy snowflakes? They’re all over her. Hundreds. Everywhere.”

Geese were nesting. Hundreds of spring peepers, tiny frog-harbingers of the season, cheeped loudly into the night. Blooming lilacs perfumed the air as irises poked through growing bursts of greening foliage. And tiny burgundy snowflakes blossomed all over Marika. Along with purple bruises, big as peonies. Amid the budding and blossoming, disaster hit home. It had chewed on Marika for who knows how long. It shot darts through her head, planted renegade cells in her blood, rooted itself and grew.

I didn’t know. The past two weeks, when Marika mentioned headaches and being tired, I thought she just didn’t want to do her homework. But that evening, when she could no longer blame soccer for her excessive bruising, and couldn’t ignore the headaches or the fatigue, she’d phoned my sister. On the phone, from over three hundred miles away, Laurie could paint a clear picture of anything. Like petecchiae, the burgundy snowflakes running rampant over Marika.
“Get to the hospital now,” Laurie said, after listening to our dozen reasons why we wouldn’t be able to see a doctor in the morning. So we dropped everything and made a mad dash to our local emergency room, where Laurie phoned in a request for tests. An hour later she called back. And then—BAM! Leukemia.

It whacked the life we knew inside out and upside down.

Everything always revolved around Marika. She had a way of using up all the oxygen and energy within a considerable radius around her. She’s the one who got picked from the audience whenever a volunteer was called for. She was the one who came home with prizes: a bottle of champagne, a huge stuffed teddy bear from a local carnival. Her fierce determination landed her jobs and favored roles in school plays. Her smile, or maybe just plain luck, got her into situations where I could only shake my head in wonder.

I fretted about how soon she would leave home for college. I savored each soccer game and every opportunity to be a part of her life as she inched farther away, fighting to be free of me. The last stretched-thin string of glue tying us together was our connection to a strong tribe of mothers and daughters who, after years of play dates and carpooling, still got together for theater, out-of-town adventures, and dinners. Paula and her daughter Silviana came over with DVDs and chocolate the first night of leukemia, when the hospital sent us home to pack our things. Overcome with fear, Marika had called them. I was surprised to find them at our door. For me, oblivious to medical crises since Laurie always handled those, it didn’t register right away that here was something to be afraid of. We stayed up watching movies with Paula and Silvie all night before we left home again to enter our new reality of hospitals, doctors, and drugs.

The next morning, at Cayuga Medical Center, a mile from our house, Marika’s friends piled onto the bed with her. Her long hair shone, her cheeks blushed. She laughed. She had played soccer just the day before having next to no platelets and fifteen times too many white blood cells. This whole mess must be a mistake, I kept thinking. But I knew Laurie didn’t make mistakes, not like this. And she was working diligently now on the phone, with us, with the hospital, with her colleagues and resources in Massachusetts. What was leukemia anyway, I wondered? Something to do with bad blood? I didn’t understand a thing about what it meant but I felt my insides steel against some vague looming catastrophe. I sat stunned, immobilized. It wasn’t until the tall, dark storm that was Marika’s father lumbered into the hospital room, that I knew this was real.