Tag Archives: traveling with ashes

Duetting: Memoir 52

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops old and new photos into a collage  to tell the story of her journey to Australia with her daughter's ashes.

In southeast Australia, in the tiny town of Port Campbell, in the room with the bay view, I wake to sunlight and sounds of birdsong. I wake from dreams of carrying too much in too many pieces, endlessly trying to hold on to what I have.

What I have is an explosion of memories. And Marika’s poems. And a couple of photographs to guide me to where, in Australia, Marika had been when she was here two years before. And it’s Friday, so there’s a V-Line bus that runs along the Great Ocean Road. If I time my day right and catch the bus coming and going, I can ride over twenty-two miles back and forth and, in-between, spend the day walking trails in and around the sites Marika had photographed. If I hop on and off the bus like Marika did I won’t wear out my feet and energy just in traveling to all the places I want to go.

The bus lets me off near the Loch Ard Gorge, and I climb down countless sets of wooden stairs to stand in the place Marika had stood, posing with a finger to her lips, a dubious expression on her face. Loch Ard means ‘high lake,’ but I am low down in the sand between two caves and a blue bay. ‘High’ are the two massive walls of stone that surround the small beach, leaving open only a narrow gap to the sea. “Eva’s cave,” I remember from the legend, and head toward the larger cave.

When I first saw “Eva Carmichael and Tom Pearce” written in Marika’s scrapbook, I thought they were the names of rock stars. I didn’t know Loch Ard was the name of a large clipper ship that sank in 1878, leaving these two the sole survivors. Inspired by tragedy and romance, Marika had written a poem about the two eighteen-year-olds. I, too, am captivated by the story of the apprentice sailor Tom swimming out in the dark, in strong winds and huge waves, to rescue Eva who clung to a floating part of the wrecked ship in only her nightdress. He carried her to a cave and at first light climbed the high cliffs of the gorge to find help. Tom was heralded as a hero, and the townspeople hoped for a romantic union of the two, but they went their separate ways. “She’ll stay forever alone, ‘cause it’s her way, she’s going back home,” Marika wrote twice in her short poem. From the local literature, I learned that Eva fainted, was weak or unconscious for hours, hid terrified in the cave awaiting Tom’s return, and had to be carried with difficulty up the cliffs. But Marika saw her as strong and in control. I saw Marika as strong and in control. I wonder how she saw me.

For a long while I stand watching, trying to see into the long dark cave. I do not enter. My courage has not yet replenished itself from the rogue wave at Bells Beach. Luckily the waves are small here. I finally roll up my pants and wade into the shallow water. No one is at the Loch Ard Gorge this early in the morning so I sing lullabies to Marika as I toss her ashes in small sprays. Then, gathering strands of seaweed that litter the beach near Eva’s cave, I arrange them to spell MARIKA in large letters. Soon people trickle down the stairs into our space. I wait to hear them say her name aloud when they see the seaweed letters. This past year friends hadn’t mentioned Marika, afraid they would upset me, and I’m desperate to hear her name and talk about her. But I don’t want to make people sad, ruin someone’s day with the intrusion of a pathetic mother who lost her daughter. I pack up to go. Except for my footprints in the sand and Marika’s name in seaweed, I leave no trace of us.

It’s a short walk east along the Great Ocean Road to Gibson’s Steps where 86 stairs are carved into the face of the cliffs high over crashing waves. Supposedly, if I climb all the way down, I can walk on the beach and see the giant rocks rising from sea level. But I see rising frothing water below, so I sit on a step halfway down, and picnic on a cold beef-and-Guinness pie from my pack. I consider how one journey leads to another, and how in every place there is a story waiting or some lesson to be learned. If I were traveling with another person I’d be braver. I’d cover more territory and do more things. But then, I wonder, anchored to another, how much of the story might I miss?

Backtracking west a short way along the rugged cliffs from Gibson’s Steps, I reach The Twelve Apostles, the major highlight for many travelers along the Great Ocean Road. Here, twenty million years of marine organisms’ skeletal fragments have built up into steep limestone towers. Endlessly attacked by blasting winds and the savage Southern Ocean, their cliffs crack and erode into caves and gorges. These eventually collapse into towering stacks of rocks. Not quite twelve of these rock giants stand in the teeming surf where time, wind, and water continue to gut their softer spots, giving them character. Isn’t it always the most common universal elements, like pain and loss, which shape human lives as well? I wonder. In pounding waves, I picture the rock stacks as giant matriarchs bellowing thunderous laughter. Life constantly crashes down around them while nesting seabirds find comfort in the nooks and crannies of their capstones.

I throw Marika’s beaded bracelets off the overhang as hard as I can to reach them. The giants gobble up the jewels, adding the bits of glass and plastic to their accumulations. Then I spend the rest of the afternoon with them, thinking of time, ongoing life, and the hearty women back home who saved me by listening. Now over thirty women, made stronger by life’s poundings, share my stories with their daughters, cousins, and friends. They’ve sent me encouraging words. I hug the last quarter of my daughter’s ashes in awe of the greatness that surrounds me. And worry, what will I hug once the jewels and the ashes are gone?

 

 

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.