Dance with death

Marianne Rogoff
Kentfield, California, USA

 

“All that is important is this one moment in movement.
Make the moment important,
vital, and worth living.
Do not let it slip away unnoticed and unused.”
― Martha Graham

Stephanie lived alone in a rented cottage at the back of a garden path. When she was dying at age fifty of ovarian cancer, her only vow was not to die alone, so she assembled an army of friends to sign up for two-hour shifts, 24/7, to keep her company. She was not a close friend of mine but it felt like I owed her big-time for teaching me Latin dancing, which had brought me back into my body and helped to ground me post-divorce. She taught me to move from the belly and introduced me to new people, other mid-lifers surviving the crisis. I signed up for shifts because everyone in our dance class was doing it but soon felt I was in over my head.

I would do this differently, I thought, I would be alone more.

Pre-diagnosis, Stephanie was just as judgmental. We were having coffee at the Book Depot one day and I was a little shocked when she began criticizing the dazzling headscarf on the balding woman at a nearby table.

Stephanie whispered, “I’d be bald and proud of it, if it came to that.” She thought it was ridiculous, trying to hide something that could not be disguised, like cancer.

I did not say anything but it seemed to me it was brave and bold for the woman to drape her naked head in bright colorful silk, out in public. The scarf exuded joy of life and she was laughing out loud at something she was reading as she sat there alone.

Going bald was not what happened to Stephanie; her long, straight blonde hair remained but, day-by-day and so fast, she lost her ability to move. Why her, a regal salsa dancer who embodied sexy grace and dynamic energy? What we are most proud of, is this what we will be called to surrender: dementia for those with brilliant minds, skin cancer for the attractive, muscle atrophy for the strong? I had been smug enough to believe my marriage was impenetrable. Regarding cancer, we all had opinions. This will never happen to us. We eat salmon and avocado, we exercise, we abstain. Stephanie knew the Serenity Prayer by heart and got stage 4 cancer: “the thing you cannot change.”

In the beginning, she rallied “the courage to change the things I can” and when we visited her in the hospital told us to shut the hell up when we asked how could she stand the noise, all the monitors buzzing and beeping over her bed, the wheeling nurses’ carts and ragged shouts from down the hall. In “the kingdom of the sick,” the dying have no choice but to accept the sounds and indignities; unable to taste, swallow, or shit, let total strangers roam parts of your body previously reserved for lovers.

Following a hysterectomy and other cuts, results all in, Stephanie was released home to her cottage, to die. I was assigned to pick her up and arrived with my good intentions in place, aiming to be kind then feeling annoyed that she was not fully packed and ready when I got there, and began ordering me around. I had to haul more than a dozen bouquets down the elevator and into my car, go up and down with suitcases, books, and hospital paraphernalia, while she made friendly rounds with everyone at the nursing station, thanking them. For what? I was thinking, you’re dying. I was surprised how easy it was to be ungenerous. Health was coursing through my body and I had other places to be. At least I managed to hide my annoyance and Stephanie’s gratitude was profuse as I helped settle her back in at her cottage.

Later when I reflected on that day I felt ashamed of myself. I thought about how, when I first showed up in her dance class, I was a total wreck, stunned by my husband’s desire to end our long marriage and clumsy as hell on the dance floor. I had grown up undulating in crowds to rock music; Stephanie taught partner dancing. Learning to follow the lead, maintain a frame, keep my shoulders aligned while my hips moved freely to the beat of the music felt impossible. Stephanie saw how desperate I was and encouraged me to stay in the class, buy new clothes and shoes, feel the turning rhythms of the earth in the soles of my feet.

A month after I brought her home from the hospital I was there with her on my shift, in her boho-chic living room, feeling grateful for my miraculous, ordinary, bodily functions, and did not realize I was staring. I sat cross-legged on one of her stuffed chairs while Stephanie stood in front of her mirror, which took up an entire wall, a dancer’s mirror where she could choreograph moves, refine gestures. It no longer made sense for her to get dressed, wear underwear; she wore an oxygen tube in her nose, no makeup, and a soft, floral nightgown in daytime. She lifted it to apply salve to wounded places all over her so-thin skin, trying to soothe and befriend the body now betraying her. She had the gown up in the back and I could not help staring at the wrinkled, drooping contours of her formerly proud dancer’s ass, which now appeared as two hanging pockets of flesh over bones.

She caught my eyes in the mirror and just said, “Please.”

Now my relationship to everything changed. I tried to be nicer to everyone, including myself; I was more kind to others and I became more selfish: the sicker she got, the more I thought, buy this dress now, wear it now. Now is the time for vanity. Get all dressed up, dance now, because I can and Stephanie cannot.

On the day she died I was in Mexico. Heading out to some jolly dinner gathering, I stumbled going down the three uneven cement steps outside the front door, lost my footing, and fell on my substantial ass to land hard on the cobblestones. I’m such a klutz, I thought, always will be, but was scooped up immediately into the arms of a strong and gallant Latin man who saw me fall, and I went on my way, not even bruised, just fine. Back in California I learned Stephanie died that day, at home, surrounded by loving friends. I must have sensed it in the soles of my feet when she disappeared.

 


 

MARIANNE ROGOFF, PhD, wrote the memoir Silvie’s Life, which has been translated into Portuguese, adopted to teach medical ethics, and optioned for film. Six stories in her collection Love Is Blind in One Eye were nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2016. A novella-in-flash “Apprehension” made Shortlist for the International Bath Flash Fiction Award in 2017. Her travel stories have appeared in The Best Travel Writing and The Best Women’s Travel Writing. She has published numerous essays and book reviews in The Rumpus, The Critical Flame, San Francisco Chronicle, and Bloomsbury Review. Visit mariannerogoff.com to read more.

 

Winter 2018  |  Hektorama  |  End of Life