Where Things Make Sense

Dance class still remains the one bright spot of my days, a place I can go where things make sense, where music and beauty are more important than death and sickness, where choreographed movement is powerful enough to tame even the chaos of my life. (Even though my abusive brother is gone, my 97-year-old father is still riding the rollercoaster of old age, alternating between neediness and the need to control, between accepting God’s will and clawing to live, between practiced saintliness and grumpiness.)

During the 3000 miles I traveled on my recent journey, I never once felt at home, not even when I returned to my home state (where technically I am still a resident). I certainly didn’t feel at home when I came back to my father’s house — for me this lovely house has always been a place of death and dying, mental imbalance and grief. (Only the grief was mine. The death, dying, and mental imbalance belonged, in order, to my mother, father, brother.) The one time I felt I had arrived anywhere was when I stopped by the dance studio after my trip. The teacher and my fellow students greeted me with delighted smiles and hugs, held me while I wept, took me to lunch. (Even though they didn’t all understand my tears, considering the abuse I’d been subjected to by my brother, they did understand grief.)

jazz shoesI’m still fighting an allergy-induced sinus infection that kept me from class yesterday, but I was determined to go to jazz class today. I’m glad I went. After we did our warm-ups, we started learning a new dance.

A year ago, when I took my first jazz lesson, I wasn’t sure I’d ever learn the steps. I couldn’t tell what the teacher was doing, couldn’t pick up her cues fast enough, couldn’t make my arms and feet do different things at the same time. By the end of the month, I knew enough so I could write down the first steps of the dance, and I practiced. Now I know that dance plus two others. And today we started a fourth.

During class, while she was counting out the beat as I’ve seen so often in movies — five, six, seven, eight — joy welled up inside me. I was dancing! Actually dancing. Me, who previously could only balter. (Means dance clumsily, for those of you who don’t want to look it up.) Actually, that’s not exactly true. I just wanted to use the word “balter”. I was simply a neophyte. My dancing up to a year ago had mostly been bobbing to a beat, though I did sort of know a polka step that my Polish mother had once tried to teach me before losing patience with my lack of rhythm. (Around that same time, my once-upon-a-time tennis champion father tried for an hour one day to teach me tennis before losing patience with my lack of talent.)

I don’t know where my life is headed. Well, obviously, none of us do. But big changes are coming and soon I won’t have a place to go, nowhere to call home, no place I particularly want to live, no one in particular to make a life with.

But for now, there is one thing I want (need!) to be . . .

Dancing.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

My Polarized Life — The Profound and the Profane

I’m sitting here trying to think of something uplifting to say. It’s not that today is a bad day, it’s just that like all my days, it’s too polarized — from the profound experience of learning to dance to the profane experience of life in my father’s house.

My father is 97 years old and is doing well — he gets up and can walk around by himself, can even take off the oxygen for a few minutes if he needs to go beyond the tether of the tubing. He mostly looks after himself, but the every day aspects of life are beginning to defeat him. He has a hard time concentrating and remembering, though these lacks are due to congestive heart failure and age, not Alzheimer’s. (He recently took and passed an Alzheimer’s test.) Still, there are always personal things that he needs me to take care of, such as shopping and cooking what few cooked foods he eats. There are frequent house matters for me to take care of such as bad television, phone, and computer reception. And there is my dysfunctional homeless brother who is currently camping out in the garage.

For some reason — perhaps because I am here — my brother delights in tormenting me, calling me childish names such as “Porky” and “Lard Ass” as well as more adult-rated names. He is obviously suffering, and I am trying to be kind to him, even when he graffities car and bangs on my windows for hours at a time, but I have no idea what he really wants. Even if I did know, I’m not sure I could do anything for him. His problems are way out of my ability to comprehend. His relationship with his problems is even harder to fathom. He likes his “evil” side. He thinks it’s the best part of him, and perhaps it is. His core personality seems to be humble and self-effacing, helpless, even, like a bewildered little boy stuck inside a grown man’s decaying body. For sure, he has no interest in getting help to balance himself out.

danceI sometimes think of moving on and leaving my father and brother to fend for themselves, but I’m not sure I want to be the sort of person who can walk out on her aged, increasingly confused father and leave him to care for himself. (My brother sure couldn’t do anything to help. He doesn’t seem to be able to recognize that anyone but himself needs help.)

Besides, if I moved on, I’d have to give up dancing. The irony is that by being here in this bizarre household, I have the freedom to indulge my newfound love of dancing. If I left, I’d have to get a job, which would leave me no time or energy for dance classes, and for now, dancing is important to me. It feels like a pilgrimage, a spiritual journey. It has lessons to teach me beyond the discipline of the basic steps and the joy of the choreographed dances I am learning, though I’m not sure what those lessons are. I might never know since much of dance is subliminal, needing the focus of both the body’s mind as well as the mind’s mind and perhaps even the soul.

As Shirley MacLaine said, “Dance is an art that impends on the soul. It is with you every moment, it expresses itself in everything you do.”

Whatever lessons I learn from dance will be with me long after the memories of this household have faded. Dance is that important. And so I continue this polarized existence, paying for the profound privilege of dancing with the profanity in the rest of my life.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.