Grief, Dad and Dance

On relearning what it means to lose and love.

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A year and a half ago my dad was diagnosed with brain cancer. Before his diagnosis I had two healthy parents who loved, me, my sister and each other (most of the time). We went on family vacations, ate dinner together and had a dog. Growing up I went to dance classes and my sister played violin in her high school orchestra. I got good grades, went to college, came home for the summer and argued about borrowing the car. There had been no tragedies at home, no accidents or disease. My dad’s parents had died but I had the sense that neither of their deaths had affected him terribly. He didn’t speak about them much. My mom’s parents are still alive and I am close with them both.

I had experienced two dog deaths, a few fish funerals, been dumped and lost friendships but the grief and heart wrenching loss inherent in understanding the fragility of human existence was not part of my life, until my dad got sick. I was living in New York at the time and got on a flight home the day I found out. A year on, I am still living at home, taking care of my dad. Wild, unruly grief has permeated every area of my life.

My dad is still alive and for that I am immensely grateful but because of the tumor location he cannot walk on his own, speak normally, use his left arm, see out of both eyes, maintain balance and eat normally. He, and my family, have been in and out of hospitals, ICU wards, emergency rooms and rehabilitation centers many times over the past year. We have learned about the effects of; septic shock, infections, chemotherapy, radiation, feeding tubes, wheelchairs, low white blood cell count, tumor grades, tumor growth and infusions, MRIs, chest infections and more.

I am beyond grateful that my dad is still here. I haven’t lost him but I have been grieving the end of life as I knew it. One of the most shocking, visceral changes is his physical presence. Before his diagnoses my dad was 215 lbs, 6’ 1” and the most physically capable person I had ever met. He could and did, build houses, climb onto rooftops, fix electrical wires, navigate foreign countries in stick shift cars and lift sofas into the back of his pickup truck. In high school I decided to buy a huge new rug for my bedroom, but upon bringing it home realized my bedroom door wouldn’t shut anymore because the rug was too thick. He assessed the situation and without saying anything took the door off its hinges and brought it out to the backyard. He got out his circle saw and trimmed half an inch off the bottom and replaced the door on its hinges. It swung perfectly over the carpet. Now my dad is in a wheelchair and is relearning how to eat properly on his own, the smallest of hand movements are effortful. I love him so much as he is and simultaneously miss who he was.

Last September was particularly painful. I was with my dad 24/7, feeding and bathing him, ensuring he had all his medications and hardly leaving his side. I was terrified of what might happen if I left for an hour. I was in the throes of deep grieving and my reaction was to exert as much control as I could over the situation by being there for him at every moment. I would go to bed at night and pray to not wake up because I was so devastated and depressed. Despite the depression, one night, after aimlessly bouncing around the internet, I found myself looking at a local dance studios website. I checked to see if they had adult classes.

I felt as though another force, outside of myself, was pushing me to go dance. It was the studio I had attended growing up and was around the corner from my parent’s house. I saw they did offer adult classes and welcomed people at all experience levels. I hadn’t taken ballet since I was thirteen (I am 24)  so I went to an intro level class. The studio smelled the same as it had when I was a child, the wooden barre was just as worn and smooth. No one in the class knew what was going on with my family, the cloud of darkness that had become my constant companion lifted temporarily as I pliéd , practiced rond de jambe and attempted pirouettes. I was so so bad and full of  joy.

I have asked myself why I turned to ballet to pull me out of despair. Dance had not been part of my life for over ten years. In fact, I had actively avoided dance classes, performances and movies with dancing in them. I quit dance at a pivotal point in my life. I was thirteen and had been in ballet class since I was two. I wanted to exert the minuscule amount of independence I had and liked the idea of quitting something — there was a rebellious air to it. My dad was particularly disappointed because, despite his own very masculine demeanor, he appreciated the grace of ballet and classical music. However, I threw such a fit about it that my parents conceded.

Within a year I regretted my decision. I realized that I had let go not of an after school activity but of a community and a skill. I would try and do a grand jeté but my timing was off and had become awkward. I looked in the mirror and saw that my arms, which had been strong due to hours of holding them up in class were now weak. I missed being able to move through the air with a dancer’s agility. I knew, even at thirteen that I was never going to be a professional ballerina. I lacked the strength, discipline and innate skill needed to pursue dance full time, but in quitting, I prematurely closed one potential future path.  

At thirteen, I didn’t have the words to express what I was feeling. I would see people dancing in school shows or movies and feel a deep sadness at everything I had turned away from — the grace, artistry and physical strength. It wasn’t until the past year, when I was missing my dad, as he was before, that I was able to recognize the emotions I felt about dance were also a type of grief — about my own, far less extreme but painful physical loss. Quitting dance was the first definitive conclusion in my life, up until that point all avenues still seemed open to me.

This year, facing the possibility and inevitability of human loss, I can see that many things I had deemed “lost” to me are still there waiting to be rediscovered. I now recognize the privilege of being in a body that is capable of dancing and moving freely — even if it doesn’t look perfect. I am never going to be a professional ballet dancer, but I am a dancer because I dance. My dad may never walk on his own again but I love him just as much as I did when he was able to lift doors off hinges and throw furniture into his truck. Our physical ability or lack thereof does not dictate worth or worthiness — I understand that now.

I am still grieving all that has changed this past year but I am grateful for the grief. It has cracked me open. I have felt, and still feel, deep levels of despair but also more gratitude and love than I knew was possible. This new experience of love that is intertwined and influenced by grief doesn’t come from any physical action, ability or skill honed over years. It isn’t the love I felt after a dance performance or the love I expressed for my dad after he fixed something in the house. The love I experience for him now simply exists in its abundance and does not need to be earned or gained. It’s love that encompasses grief, joy and loss — it makes me want to dance.

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