Tag Archives: writing to heal

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 26

Duetting: Memoir 26 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a collage of a tiny book made years ago by her daughter Marika Warden, who died with cancer.

For my holiday gift I’d asked my son for a shooting lesson. So on the unseasonably warm afternoon of Christmas Eve 2011, Greg comes downstairs with two long guns. Trembling, I wrap up in scarves, earplugs, earmuffs and hooded jacket, and follow him out the door and across the lawn. He stops just short of the pond, props his shotgun against a tree, and hands me the rifle. Remington.22, he tells me. And then he shows me how to hold, load, and ready it for shooting.

“You don’t pull the trigger,” he says, “you squeeze it. You hug it with your whole hand.” Willing my eyes to stay open, I squeeze and shoot. It’s not nearly as loud or as jarring as I’d expected. Marika would have said, “LikeBAM!” Hardly drawing a breath, I shoot again. Bam! The sky echoes with each ferocious bark. Handling this loaded rifle, cradling it so close, and then blasting the air—LikeBAM! —I am spellbound, conscious only of being just on the cusp of control or calamity.

We had placed two targets against a large willow tree across the pond. The targets were a gift I’d painted for Greg. The one I’m to use is a cartoon image of a rotund woodchuck with a bulls-eye bellybutton. We train the scope, first focusing far, and then zooming in so every breath and movement I make is exaggerated in the scope, and the woodchuck bounces in a dizzying scene. When it settles, I hug the trigger. LikeBAM! With no movement of my target, no trace of a hit, I aim and shoot again. BAM! I continue to load the magazine and shoot. My woodchuck hasn’t budged. Greg fires his gun and with each shot creates small clouds of smoke before his target.

When our bullets are spent, we walk together around the pond to inspect the targets. Surprisingly, the bullets sped through mine without moving it and I’ve hit the woodchuck’s belly twenty-six out of twenty-eight times. Pleased with myself, I’m hooting and cheering. Until we remove the targets from the base of the willow.
“Oh. No,” I wail, “I’ve been shooting clear through to the tree. We’re killing the tree.”
“Oh, well. ‘Goes with the territory,” he shrugs.

Some things, like the differences in our respect for life and living things, will never jive. I say a silent apology to the tree and then follow Greg into the kitchen. He takes the two rib-eye steaks I got for our supper, pierces them several times, plants them in plastic zip-lock bags, and marinates them in Johnny Walker whisky. He pours two glasses of the whisky over ice.

“Did Marika ever shoot? What’s the best prank you ever pulled on Marika?” I ask, thinking I’ve got him relaxed and ready to chat. “What would you fight for or even die for?”
“Mom. Just enjoy the Johnnie Walker. Okay?” And then, “Do you still have my extra passport photo somewhere? I need it back. I’ve got a job in Afghanistan as soon as I get my papers cleared.” He’s leaving again. Whatever holiday I’ve been avoiding is now totally shot.

Later that night, on the first Christmas Eve without my daughter, the single drawer of the small night table next to my bed is stuck open. I rarely use this drawer but I had rummaged through it for Greg’s passport photo. Now the drawer is jammed and I can’t get it to close shut. I slam it and it breaks. When I wrench it back out, a tiny green cloth packet falls to the floor, and I remember a Christmas long ago when Marika had no gift to give me. She had scurried upstairs, bounced back down, and handed me this small pouch of jeweled sequins. Now I empty the contents into my hand. Sparkling butterfly-light jewels catch the lamplight that blurs through tears. The remaining sparse contents of the broken drawer lay on the floor. And in the middle of the small mess, bound with shiny red holiday ribbon, sits a tiny book written and illustrated by Marika in 2001, when she was eleven years old.

Book of Wonderful Memories. From: Marika. J.W. To: Robin Botie
1.The costume parade. You were there for me every step of the way! I’ll never forget your face when I got 4th place. You were so happy! 2.That one teddy bear that you would look at when we were fighting and tell me a story of you. Mom … 5.Even with the most boring books, it seems so exciting with your voice. … 6.When I’m scared you are always there for me … 8.Always loveing even when I’m a brat.

Mareek! Are you here? I cry out. Are you helping me get through Christmas? What the heck am I doing in this drawer anyway? It’s almost midnight and I’m holding the most precious gift, now received twice over. Why does it feel like you’re watching me? Sometimes it’s hard not to believe in ghosts, in after-life. Here I am, holding this tiny book you made ten years ago, before all the road trips, before cancer. Before our mother/daughter divide. Ten years ago when you adored me—Maybe you never stopped adoring me—Maybe you just stopped showing it.

She’d made me a book. And now I am making a book for her. She wrote. So I’m writing. Words are my new medium and I’m using them to paint our portrait, mixing words like I used to mix colors. All the sweet or savory, whispering or roaring, bland or bewitching words that dance in my mind. Like : meandering, infinitesimal, crimson, petechiae…. Reading my book aloud at the Feed and Reads, occasionally I glance up from the pages to peek at my audience, their jaws dropped and eyes begging me to continue. My gift to Marika, I tell myself. Really, though, she has gifted me, and is gifting me still.

My first manuscript is a plot-less lament to my dead daughter. But that doesn’t matter. Because, daily, I lose myself and find myself in what I write. Some new determination to live, lives on. And I feel hope. It’s back. And hope implies future. So I continue to write, and look forward to the sharing. And I love my book like it’s my daughter.

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.

 

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 15

Duetting: Memoir 15 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York photoshops a poem written by her daughter who died, placing it over an image of silhouettes.

Marika’s classmates and teachers had been sending notes of support, and “Marika Kicks Leukemia” tee shirts circulated throughout Ithaca High. In a daze, but smiling, Marika listened to her benefit concert over my cellphone held to her ear. The guidance counselor called daily to see if she could attend the graduation, but no one knew for sure if Marika would be able to walk, sit up in a wheelchair, or even tolerate the trip back to Ithaca. At the last minute the Roc Docs said yes. In a stupor of disbelief, I drove her home.

There was plenty to worry about. Marika could pass out at any time. It was hot, and the red wig was heavy under her cap. She could barely walk, but insisted on walking. There were stairs. Her last name beginning with ‘W’, she would shake the same germ-riddled hands that shook all four hundred classmates’ hands before her. Concerned about her meager immune system, I presented her with a pair of purple latex gloves. She ignored me. She was uninterested in instructions on how to gracefully avoid handshakes and hugs. How would she hold up during the half hour wait in line the students had to endure before claiming their seats? She was determined to do the whole thing the way she’d always expected. So I left her off as close as I could to the stadium at Cornell University where the event was to take place, where there was already a traffic jam, long lines, and huge tangles of people and germs.

We were all there at Schoellkopf Hall. Laurie. Greg. Rachel. Marcus. Marika’s father and his wife. Our mother-daughter tribe. Teachers Marika hadn’t seen in weeks. People I hadn’t seen in years. I was hugged repeatedly as Laurie and I made our way to the spot high in the bleachers that Rachel had staked out for us. The band began to play and the class of 2008 filed in and filled the expanse of seats below us. Teary-eyed, I kept my gaze fixed on Marika during the speeches. Then, finally, the students rose from their seats.

Marika stood. Soon, she was walking. She was next. The stairs—suddenly I couldn’t see through the crowd—she’d somehow climbed the stairs when her name was called. There was a burst of applause. There was thunderous clapping, cheering. She smiled, embarrassed, up on the stage. I had to stand to see. People all around were standing. She stopped before each of the graduating officials to receive their blessings. The audience stomped and roared. Marika stood there, astonished, surveying the scene for what seemed like forever. I clapped hard as I could. I cried.

The bleachers shook wildly when she stepped down off the stage. The rumpus continued as she headed back to her seat and was ambushed in hugs. And as the din died down, I scanned the crowd. How astounding it was to be held in the hearts of so many. I’m her Mom, I smiled through tears. Right then I knew I’d always remember the sheer glory and magnificence of that moment. What I didn’t know was how later, and forever, the memory of Marika’s graduation would stir up an ocean of pride and tears. Like it was just the other day.

 

 

Duetting: Memoir 3

Duetting: Memoir 3 Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, Photoshops an illustration for her memoir about her life with her daughter.I hold my daughter’s ponytail to my nose and sniff, then slip it back into the bag, and hurry off to the funeral home where I give it to her father.
“So you can visit her anytime you want,” I tell him.

Writing would become my way to visit my dead daughter.

But writing the story that pulverizes your whole world is like becoming a lifeguard when you’re terrified of drowning. I’ve done both though neither was ever in my plans. At the age of fifty, to afford sending my children to summer camps, I became a hiking counselor at Camp Scatico in Elizaville, New York, never expecting they would train me to be a lifeguard. Afraid of going underwater, it took all my courage to pass the part of the lifeguard test that required diving into deep water for bricks. Diving into my worst fears turned out to be good training for what was to come.

I never wanted to be a writer. The day my daughter died I sank, and then got my life handed back to me, unrecognizable, like I’d picked up someone else’s clothes at the cleaners. Then suddenly, I start writing a long letter to my daughter. Writing jolts memories. It dredges up painful debris. Alternately I sink and swim. I scramble up from great depths, cradling bricks in my arms, in search of the surface so I can breathe again. I let loose the bricks, one by one, on the pages I write.

In desperation one day, six months after I sank like a boulder dropped in water, I wanted to duet with my daughter. Too late, you can’t have a duet with a dead person. Someone who’d had her own heart broken told me this when I showed her the letter. I’d poured my heart out into that one long letter, for months, filling it with I’m-sorries, pleadings, and promises: When your tide broke, mine did too. Waves crashed over us. As they washed back out to sea, I was left alone with the sand seeping out between my grasping toes. Somehow, I am still here. So I will tell the story of our broken tides. I will cherish the words you left. Where your words and my words sit on a page together, we will have our duet.

I didn’t know about Marika’s poems until she was gone. If I couldn’t have a duet, at least I could riff off her words until I had a song of my own. So I put the poems, her side of what happened, in the telling of our journey as it unfolded. Then I responded to her words. What did I know about writing? I’m the one who drew and painted. But everything is changed now.

So I write to own what happened. She died. I let her die. To own this is to grow beyond it. I write so that someday I can look at a rainbow again or be hugged without crying my eyes bloodshot.

I write because she wrote. She left behind a brand new, otherwise empty journal with a single poem on the first page. In the bare pages that followed, Marika beckoned me to continue. No. She dared me to carry on.

And mostly I write to separate, in my mind, her story from my story. Because, before her death I was my biggest and bravest self as my daughter’s lifeguard. Before March 2011, my life was all about holding on and keeping her safe. Even as she fought to be free.

Eventually most mothers watch their children go off on their own. There are two stories as each one’s life takes its own direction. Two stories. They wend and wind. Tangling up at times. And then, unraveling. It’s not as if our two journeys were ever supposed to come out even or end up in the same place. A mother is lucky these days if her path intersects with her grown daughter’s for an occasional birthday or Thanksgiving. If a mother pines an hour or so each time her child leaves home, she is fortunate. One more countless sweet sorrow that is not forever. In a heartbeat, I’d give anything to have this be our parting rather than what we got.

Still. Separation was complicated enough before Marika died. From her earliest years on I tiptoed the tightrope between keeping her happy and keeping her safe. Regularly I’d hobble off, wounded, exhausted. But I always came bounding back. I was her least favorite person. But she—she lit up my life. Now I’m left to resolve the questions: Where is she now? Whose life am I guarding? Who am I, if not her mother? And how do I live without her?