Robin, Camila's mom

My Safe Place

Camila’s bluebird, third grade.

When Camila was a girl, she often drew stories, simple narratives about a girl who had a dog or two friends or a love of dance. She never invented broad fantasy, never positioned herself in the center of another world. Her fiction was based on what she knew, the known world.

Perhaps she inherited my own predisposition for realism.

I am not good at imagining what I don’t know, what I can’t perceive, or what I can’t believe. I am tactile, concrete, grounded in a reality so predictable and solid that it is hard for me to ever fantasize about what I’d rather think or feel or imagine. I am subject to my own limitations and they are sometimes… limiting.

When I try to imagine Camila as being somewhere else, somewhere mystical and unknown, my imagination becomes faulty. I don’t have a knack for invention and have a very weak mystical bent. I have, instead, a history of skepticism, a failed sense of faith, and – certainly since my only child’s death – a faltering sense of predicable outcomes.

So when I seek comfort, I don’t generally seek conventional quarters. My props are very concrete. Visible, obvious – and dear. Since my girl’s death, I have selected some of her things to call my own. They surround me like totems.

I have three favorite things. All three are art work Camila made at various times of her life. And I have many more things. But the one thing I really appreciate is that I can see all of them from the vantage point of my bed.

If my bedroom door is even slightly opened, I can see Camila’s painting in the hallway: the Amate “bark” painting, done on a crushed paper bag. It is a painting that followed her own scale, placing images of a green bear, a yellow deer, a purple jack rabbit, an orange cougar, and bright colored birds all on the same plane, in a tree or beneath it, in water or on mountain top – all within close proximity, harmonized and balanced in a way only a ten-year-old could perceive and achieve.

In my bedroom, above and to the left of my dresser mirror, is the drawing Camila made in third grade – the bluebird, flying away from its birdhouse. It depicts the mother bird going to seek food for the younger bird that remains on top of the birdhouse. But over the years and into her young adulthood, the bird became our symbol for Camila’s leave-taking: we both came to interpret it as her journey to college and into the world beyond. I gazed for hours at that drawing in the months of her freshman year, her first time away from home for an extended period.

I appreciate the third drawing within that same context. Her junior year, Camila received a job offer she couldn’t refuse, so she chose to come home, take a year of general education classes at our local community college, and have the benefit of forwarding her career while completing required classes outside her major. It was a good plan – and it brought her home.

This third drawing shows two birds on top of the birdhouse, one slightly smaller than the other. This drawing is more rigid, more self-conscious, and, in its way, more dear, because this is the drawing my college girl made to acknowledge what her return meant to me: My bird had come back. She was home.

There are other treasures, photographs on my dresser, a collage of photos on the adjacent wall. There is a bookmark she embroidered for me when she was five – a sweet mess that spells the word “MOM” in small uneven slanted stitches.

Also from my bed, when the door is open, I can see into my walk-in closet. And there, on the shelf above my clothes, are the over-sized pictures I keep of my smiling girl. There is one of her in her first high school performance, a still shot taken while she and her partner performed a waltz. Her back is straight, her neck turns gracefully above her shoulders, and her arms are slender, long, and elegantly angled.

There is another photo of Camila at the top of a jump, doing a pose for a theater’s High School Musical poster. She is smiling, her arms are raised above her head, and her young girl stomach shows a small round rise at the top of her jeans. She looks excited and happy, full of energy, her knees bent and her body free of the ground.

I also have there one of her head shots, a professional photo that wasn’t her favorite but mine. And an image of her standing with her head tilted casually to the side, a black-and-white I took of her the day of her senior photos in high school. I took the shot before the photographer arrived. She is looking directly into the lens, and she looks comfortable and confident.

The final photo on my closet shelf is one I took last December. We were home from one hospital and headed to another after the holidays. She is lying on the couch with her dog on her stomach. Both look to the camera – and both look happy and comfortable and content. There is no fear, no concern, not even as she looks at me with a head made bald by chemo. She is smiling, her face filled with love. Ours was a happy, balanced, safe world, even after her diagnosis.

And that is what my safe place feels like: A place where my balance can be restored. It is a place that reminds me of our world and her love, a place that supports me when I feel overwhelmed, offering me concrete evidence of my motherhood and of her happy life. This vantage point reminds me of her love, of her laughter – and of my joy. These are images that can sustain me.

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