Tag Archives: writing to heal

Duetting: Memoir 68 Epilogue

Duetting: Memoir 68 Epilogue Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops herself and her daughter who died wearing masks like they did back in the days of cancer and caregiving, and took precautions similar to those taken for the COVID pandemic.

On the tenth anniversary of Marika’s death, in the spring of 2021, I am once more about to re-enter a changed world. Gently, my dead daughter drags me from the table where I’ve been blogging and Photo-shopping for almost a decade. It awes me to consider Marika’s been dead for ten years. Dead but not completely gone, some remnant of her now coaxes me from the house and down the long rocky driveway to where it meets the highway.

At the beginning of 2020, I had wanted to be out with people more, to spend less time and energy writing. So, instead of having to come up with new material each week for my blog, I started sharing the manuscript I’d already written about our journey through the wilds of cancer. Over the course of the year I broke up the 200-page/21-chapter memoir into weekly blogs and Photo-shopped illustrations for each, “Just to keep in touch [with my readers] while I venture out to discover where life will lead me next,” I wrote in the first entry. Then, shortly after I began, the world broke out into the COVID-19 Pandemic. Life, as I knew it, ended once again. And I was stuck social-distancing at home, alone with Marika’s ghost, her dog Suki, my computer, and my manuscript. Reflecting on this difficult past year, I believe that what kept me going was the rewriting, illustrating, and sharing of our stories, with Suki and the sweet ghost of my daughter by my side.

This COVID thing. It takes me back to the days of cancer and caregiving, when Marika and I wore masks and avoided crowds, always fretting about germs. That was when I first learned to sing the birthday song twice-over while scrubbing my hands. I would scrutinize everyone we came into contact with for any signs of infection or possible contamination. Living with cancer was so lonely back then. If only we’d had Zoom. Marika would have been endlessly zooming parties from her hospital bed. Maybe I could have zoomed my son and Laurie instead of burying my head in novels so much of that time.

Because of the novel coronavirus, I haven’t seen Greg in well over a year. He texts and phones me regularly from California where he works in executive security. I am so proud of him, employed and keeping up his own apartment during these chaotic times when so many sons and daughters are struggling. “There’s always a place for you here,” I tell him, in case things change.

Laurie phones me. And sends gifts through the mail. She still practices medicine but works online at her home these days. I miss her and look forward to the day my sisters and I can all get together again in person.

And Rachel. I mean Ray. On the eve of the tenth anniversary, Ray texts me from his cozy home in Florida, “Sushi tonight,” and I text him back, “Sushi tonight and tomorrow. Wish it could be with you.” Ray is a very handsome man now. He’s worked hard to find himself and make a good alcohol-free life. Yet he readily talks about his beginnings. And when I mention the dream I recently had where he was still Rachel, he told me he sometimes dreams of himself in his old life as Rachel, as well.

My friend Liz is my COVID buddy. Throughout the pandemic we have shared meals in each other’s houses and formed a tiny safe pod to get through this time. On the morning of the tenth anniversary, we mask up and meet at Ithaca’s new Trader Joe’s where she tells me first thing, “You have to buy flowers for Marika.” Then I shop like in the old times, bringing home more than I can possibly stuff into the freezer.

Suki, my inherited dog, is eleven years old now. My constant companion during the pandemic, she’s still hiking with me several times a week in the remote hills around Ithaca. It’s eerie how Suki often stares intently out across the living room, tentatively wagging her tail as if she maybe sees the shadow of someone she once knew and loved. If Marika were to actually appear, that dog would go ballistic jumping and a-leaping, dog-kissing her and squealing in joy.

As for me, I try to be One Tough Cookie, an expression of my mom’s I adopted after she died two years ago. I don’t want people to look at me and see only the pathetic Mother Whose Daughter Died. Okay, I do now-and-then nosedive into my grief, needing to wallow in the pain. And sometimes a song or smell will trigger me into a meltdown. But most days I’m filled with gratitude. Even during these COVID times, the life I lead is one I love, is one Marika would be proud of, is one she would have loved to live herself. I am the Mother Who Swallowed Her Daughter. There’s something of her in me now that soars at each opportunity for adventure, that sings in the car on the way to and from home. I now view the world through two sets of eyes, Marika’s and mine. And I carry her with me in joy as much as in sadness. 

I’m still on the fence about religion and heaven. And angels. And where one ends up after dying. My best friend from childhood, who discovered God and became an ordained minister over the decades I lost touch with her, told me God is everything, is in everything. That works for me. To me that means God is in Marika. And that makes me less embarrassed about admitting that these days I pray mostly to Marika. That’s not meant to sound irreverent. But maybe if we all connected the people around us to God in that way, we’d end up treating each other a lot better.

It took me four years to even consider joining a grief support group. One day I became a volunteer making bereavement phone calls for Ithaca’s Hospicare and Palliative Care Services, and shortly after, I began attending a child loss support group through Hospicare. That group eventually became the Ithaca Chapter of The Compassionate Friends. TCF is a peer support community for families that have experienced the death of a child, at any age, from any cause. Through TCF, we see the many different ways to live—with and without—our children who died. A dedicated member, when I realized there were other bereaved parents having problems socializing, I organized an offshoot of our local group to gather over monthly potluck dinners at members’ homes. All these get-togethers have had to operate via Zoom during COVID. And that is how I ended Marika’s tenth anniversary day, zooming with good friends who “get me.”

In November 2017 I returned to Australia. Traveling solo again for that trip, I met up in Adelaide, Melbourne, and Sydney with other bereaved mothers I’d found and friended on Facebook. Bonds formed easily with these strangers on the other side of the planet as we shared our stories and photos. And in Sydney, after giving me a tour of the city and the university Marika was to attend, TCF New South Wales president Jenny Wandl brought me to a monthly TCF meeting before taking me to her home to cremate Marika’s stuffed Puppy in her outdoor grill. It turns out Puppy was made of polyester, not cotton. So her remains were hard black chunks rather than ashes. Which reminded me that we’re all made of tougher stuff than we think. With Jenny’s help I scattered what was left of Puppy in the rocky shallows of Sydney’s Manley Beach. Being non-biodegradable, perhaps Puppy’s remains are still floating there among the rocks.

In the winter of 2021, I got the two COVID-19 vaccinations, each time holding tight to the memory of Marika grabbing my hand whenever she got a blood draw or injection. Sometime after my second shot, I woke up early one morning having dreamed of her. But it wasn’t the dream that woke me. I heard her say, “Mom,” her voice, spoken distinctly, close to my ear as if she was standing right over me. Just the one word, “Mom.” It was almost physical, like I could feel the breath in it. In over ten years I had not heard her voice so loud or clearly. And Marika’s voice didn’t fade like most dreams fade. It kept me smiling for weeks. I can feel it still.

I don’t know what’s next for me. It’s been cozy and safe, staying close to home. But almost daily, something of Marika drags me out into the world. On the news now they’re saying vaccinated persons no longer need to wear masks. I’m still wearing mine around my neck and keep an extra in my purse, but the Marika in me is already tearing it off and applying Very Berry Lip Gloss. She tells me, “Mom, I want to eat INSIDE a restaurant,” and has me checking out menus online. With her encouragement, every day I inch out a bit further from the house in one direction or the other. No longer rolling her eyes at me, in gentle prodding she says, “Mom, get a life. It’s time.”

 

 

 

 

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 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.