Loss and Healing

If We’re 65

Turning 65. It’s not necessarily anyone’s favorite milestone birthday.

So many things about getting older are annoying. Vanishing hair, for instance. Those silver ones are fine, even attractive if the light is just right; it’s all their friends and relations that have disappeared who are the problem. Or joints that start to creak when you move and stiffen up when you don’t. And skin that begins to look and feel somehow too big for you.

Even worse are the reminders that, at 65, you have suddenly moved into a new demographic category. One populated by “those to be condescended to.” Continue reading

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Dance Lessons

One, two, three; one, two, three. With its irresistible, sweeping rhythm, the waltz feels like joy in motion. Nothing is more fun than swooping around the floor in grand circles and elegant turns.

My husband, Wayne, was six foot four. His long arms windmilled with such energy when he got into a passionate conversation that his elbows became a public menace. His long legs could cover a lot of ground in a hurry, across a construction site or across the dance floor. During a polka we would lap everyone else two or three times, with Wayne driving and me hanging on for dear life and trying not to lose my shoes.

Our favorite dance, though, was the waltz. Waltzing, Wayne was grace itself in size 15 cowboy boots.

We took dance classes. We went to dances. Once we crashed a wedding dance in Pukwana, South Dakota. For several years, we had great fun on various dance floors. Then, as so often happens, we got busy. His job required more and more travel. Almost without our noticing it, dancing became one of those things that we were always going to do more of—next week, or next winter, or when we had more time.

Then, on September 3, 2002, just before midnight at the end of an ordinary Tuesday, the doorbell rang. Standing on the step were Wayne's business partner, his office manager, a highway patrolman, and a priest. They were waking me up to tell me that Wayne's small plane had crashed a few hours earlier. He and his good friend and employee Chuck Pemble had died in a North Dakota pasture.

The waltz that we considered our special song was one made popular by Anne Murray: "Could I Have This Dance For the Rest of My Life?" We did have that dance. We just didn't realize that "the rest of his life" would be quite so short.

When someone you love dies, that huge loss is surrounded by a great many smaller ones. One of the things I lost along with Wayne was dancing. At first, just hearing a waltz was enough to bring me to tears.

Eventually, time and love and living did their work, and my broken heart began to heal. Even dancing made its way back into my life, with a new partner who also loves the elegant, swooping grace of the waltz.

Life is a dance, done to complex music. Sometimes the steps are difficult, and the rhythm can change when we least expect it. Each of us has our own music, and we never know how long the song will last.

But while the music is playing, we have choices. We can sit to one side and watch because we think dancing is only for the stars. We can become so busy and distracted that we don't even hear the music. Or we can get out there on the floor and dance—for the rest of our lives.

 

In loving memory of Wayne Christopherson. Unbelievably, it's been ten years. Whatever the occasion, wherever the dance floor, a part of you is always there for every waltz.

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The Dancing Cowboy

It was a small-town dance, in the American Legion Hall, with music provided by six enthusiastic musicians—five accordion players and a drummer. They were good, too.

I’ve always loved to dance. Old-fashioned ballroom dancing, that is—more "Lawrence Welk" than "Dancing With the Stars." It’s great fun, not to mention great exercise, to spin around the floor in an energetic polka, a rhythmic foxtrot, or, best of all, a graceful waltz.

Yet now, dancing breaks my heart. My husband and dance partner, who waltzed better than anyone else I’ve ever danced with, died four years ago. One of the things I lost along with him was dancing.

Recently, I got a little bit of it back. I was visiting my parents and went with them to a dance. They’ve done many a mile around a dance floor, having surely waltzed across Texas a couple of times and probably Oklahoma as well. At this stage of their lives they can’t dance much, but they still enjoy listening to the music and watching other dancers.

As I sat with them, my heart was aching. I hadn’t forgotten the pleasure of waltzing with my tall husband, following his sweeping strides and being swung around in great swooping circles by his long arms. He was a foot taller than me, so when we danced I couldn’t see over his shoulder. We used to joke that I needed a periscope so he could safely dance backwards, and that it was lucky he always wore plaid shirts so I had some scenery to look at.

Despite my memories, part of me was enjoying the music and the sight of the dancers. I soon picked out one of the best dancers in the room, an older man who had come in with the band. His name was embroidered on his shirt. It was the same as one of the old-time movie cowboys; let’s just call him Roy Rogers. He was out on the floor for nearly every dance, first with women from his own group, then with the others who sat on their folding chairs around the edges of the room. There were many more women than men in the crowd, and it looked as if he were making himself personally responsible for seeing that every woman, partner or not, had an opportunity to dance.

Eventually, he got around to me. At first I was surprisingly nervous. What if I had forgotten how to dance? What if I couldn’t make conversation with this man I had never met? What if I stumbled or slipped or made a fool of myself?

None of that happened, of course. He danced so smoothly that it was easy to follow him. He was a friendly soul who probably could have made conversation with a fence post, so chatting with him was comfortable. He even managed to introduce me to his wife, the lead accordion player, as we waltzed by. I sat down at the end of the dance, relieved that I had gotten through it and beginning to truly remember how much fun dancing could be.

He came back later in the evening for another waltz. This time, I wasn’t nervous. I wasn’t comparing this dance with my bittersweet memories. I wasn’t worried about keeping up or doing it right. I simply had fun.

This friendly man gave me a gift far greater than he could have intended or realized. He opened the door to the possibility that dancing is something I can enjoy again.

Thanks, Roy. Bless your kind heart and your dancing feet. May you waltz your way around many more dance floors.

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The Prairie

On a late afternoon in October, I drove across western South Dakota. I was on my way home from visiting my Aunt Marie, who was dying of cancer. I had wondered as I left the hospital what it would be like to lie in bed, able to see only the small, impersonal room with a little glimpse of grass and a spindly elm tree outside, knowing these would probably be the last things in this world one would see. I wondered if she missed the familiar surroundings of home.

Marie had lived in her house for over 25 years. Did she wish she had looked at it more carefully before she left for the last time? Did she think then that it would be the last time? Did she wish she could die in her own bed, in her own home? Would she like to look out her front door one last time and say goodbye to the neighborhood? Would she want to see all her things or go through a box of treasures one final time, or even look at the night sky or watch a flock of geese heading south? How important would all these things be? Would there be a sense of sadness, an awareness of how precious these things have been? Not the things themselves, but the life they represent or the beauty and wonder of them. Or would none of it matter? Maybe by now she was tired enough and in enough pain so she was ready to move on. Maybe the trappings of this life had ceased to have any significance. In a way I hoped so. I didn’t know, and there was no way to ask.

Because of this poignant wondering, for me the trip home was an experience of cherishing and appreciating what was around me. I realized again as I drove just how much I love South Dakota; not the state as a political or geographic entity necessarily, but the land itself. It was late afternoon, so the sun was low and the prairie was at its most beautiful even in late October. The long shadows molded the rolling hills into serene sculptures that extended on either side of the highway for as far as I could see. And I could see for miles.

One of the things I love most about this land is its size. Western South Dakota is sometimes described as bleak and empty. We joke that if it weren’t for the billboards there would be no scenery at all. But we know—those of us who live here because we love it—that this isn’t true. This land is one of the most beautiful places on earth.

The prairie isn’t a glorious spectacle on the scale of the Grand Canyon or the Rocky Mountains or even the canyons of our own Black Hills. Like many of its inhabitants, it doesn’t call attention to itself but waits politely to be noticed. It has a subtle beauty—muted variegations where fall-tinted patches of grass and brush shade into one another; rolling hills with inclines so gradual you hardly notice them until early morning or evening shadows throw them into vivid relief. Even in late fall, when the sparse grass is brown and dry, or in winter when the landscape is white except for the hills swept bare by the ceaseless wind, the placid shadings give beauty and dimension to the prairie.

I drove into the sunset on this day, the sun so far to the south that there was no glare in my eyes as I rolled steadily west on the interstate. This particular sunset wasn’t a dazzling one of bursting oranges and pinks. We have those often, but not on this day. Instead, the sun slowly disappeared behind a bank of deep blue clouds that flanked the Badlands almost as solidly as the ridges of rock themselves. The sky gradually turned pink and purple, the colors spreading across the southwestern horizon with a rich and serene splendor that filled up half the immense sky.

I had started out on this journey the day before, full of agitation. I was harried and hurried and stressed, rushing to meet a deadline in my work, worried that I wasn’t doing enough for a political cause in the last weeks before the election, grieving for my Aunt Marie even as I made this hasty visit to see her for what would probably be the last time.

But by the time I finished my drive across the state and back, most of my tension had dropped away. I was restored and refreshed, reminded both of my attachment to this  land and, paradoxically, of its reassuring indifference to me and to the rest of us who conduct our busy lives on its surface.

This land, like the people who live here, has its weaknesses as well as its strengths, its harshness as well as its beauty. It demands strength and toughness from those who presume to try to make a living on its broad back. One of the qualities it gives in return is the awareness of its endurance. This land has survived, adapting to or outlasting ancient oceans and ice ages, cycles of lush wetness and searing drought, and the ebb and flow of lives extinct and existing. It will continue to abide, long past the spans of human life that come and go like the never-ending wind that sweeps across the plains.

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The Cut (Fiction)

Today is the 39th day, and I am cutting my hair.

The girl at the salon—her own hair a gelled tousle of improbably maroon curls—exclaims over the length and asks me how long I’ve been letting it grow.

“Twenty-seven years,” I say, and she lets out a sound halfway between a shriek and a gasp.
“My God!  That’s, like, six years longer than I’ve even been alive!”

Then, perhaps realizing that the exclamation has been something less than tactful, she draws herself together and becomes briskly professional. Am I sure I really want to do this? Yes, I am. I don’t want to take off maybe just half of it and see how that feels? No, I don’t. Shoulder length, for sure? Yes, I’m sure.

So she unclips the barrette at the back of my neck, loosening my hair so she can comb through the shining brown length with its threads of gray. Her neighbors from the adjoining chairs, clients and stylists alike, neglect their own hair in order to watch as she lets it flow across her outreached arm so she can reach the ends with her comb. Then she begins to braid it. I watch in the mirror as her slender fingers with their green-enameled nails flash deftly through the strands. Her young face, bent to her task, holds the solemnity of a novice priestess or a small child intent on a puzzle.

She finishes the braid, fastens the end with an elastic band, and snaps a second one around it near the top. Then she pulls the plait out sideways to its full length, nearly three feet, so I can see it in the mirror.
“Last chance,” she says, and her reflected image smiles at my reflected image, inviting me to change my mind.

I don’t smile back.
“Go ahead,” I tell her.

She takes a deep breath and reaches past my shoulder to pick up her scissors.  Gripping the braid in her small fist, she pulls it out away from my neck until my head rocks backward, then begins to chew at it with her scissors. I feel rather than hear the blades gnawing their way through the thickness of the braid, severing a bit at a time. The cropped strands fall forward one after another, curving past my ears until the ends tickle my jaw. In the mirror the girl’s mouth is twisted with concentration.

Suddenly my head snaps forward as the final tresses separate. The breath I had not known I was holding comes out in a deep sigh at the same time she says, “There!” in triumph and relief. She holds the braid—her victor’s trophy—high for a moment, then drapes it across my lap. I work one hand out from under the smock so I can hold it.

I stroke the glossy strands with my thumb while she finishes her work. Relief loosens her tongue as she trims and evens the ends, parts my hair on one side, shapes and combs it into a sophisticated bob that barely brushes my shoulders. She asks about my job, my children. I answer briefly but with courtesy. She is trying to put both of us at ease after the rite we have shared; the least I can do is respond to her efforts.

“How’s that?” she asks at last, her young eyes meeting mine in the mirror, wanting my appreciation. “It’s going to feel funny for a while.”

I shake my head experimentally, feeling the hair swing across the back of my neck and brush softly past my cheek, hearing the whisper as it sweeps across the nylon smock covering my shoulders. “Yes,” I tell her. “I like it. You did a good job.”

She brushes the hair off my neck and frees me from the smock, and I follow her to the cash register, clutching the braid that she obviously expects me to keep. What am I to do with it? Drape it across my bedroom mirror? Tuck it away in my underwear drawer? I imagine my fingers brushing against it as I reach into the drawer; it would be like finding an escaped ferret among my bras and panties.

I clutch at a dimly-remembered alternative. “Isn’t there an organization that collects hair to make wigs? For cancer patients or something?”

“Oh, sure. We have a cut-a-thon for them once a year. You want to donate it? We can send it in for you.”

By all means. I hand over the snake of hair, and she slings it over her shoulder.
Then it comes, with a bright smile as she counts out my change. “I bet your husband will be surprised. Think he’ll like it?”

My fingers tighten on the handful of bills and coins. “No, he won’t be surprised.”

I fumble for the door handle and go out blinking into the brightness of the day.

My friends will probably think I cut my hair now because Alan had wanted me to keep it long. That I am free now to do whatever I want with it.
If they believe so, they are mistaken. Yes, Alan had liked my long hair, had let its softness flow through his fingers, had tugged gently on the braid I often wore as a shorthand for, “Hey, kiddo, I love you.” But several months ago, when I had brought up the idea of cutting it, he had shrugged. “If you don’t like it short, you can always let it grow back. It’s your hair. Do whatever you want.”

That was the trouble. I didn’t know what I wanted. My long hair had been part of me since high school. It was unique. It was part of my signature. Yet I was tired of the weight of it, the sameness. I thought sometimes it labeled me as the leftover hippie I had never been. So I decided to cut it, changed my mind, waffled, fretted.

Then came the late-night knock and the patrolman at my door with his professionally gentle words. “I’m so sorry, ma’am; there’s been an accident. Your husband’s car . . .” My world shattered around me as I stood there in the robe Alan had given me for Christmas, my hair in its nighttime braid down my back.

Now, 39 days later, that long hair is gone. My friend Sarah always says, “A woman who cuts her hair is a woman in transition.”

Well, Sarah, I tell her in my mind, in transition I certainly am. But after all the indecision and fretting, I know now what cutting my hair really means. You know what, Sarah? It doesn’t mean shit. That’s why I did it now. Because I finally figured out that it just plain doesn’t matter.

I get into my car, stab my key into the ignition, start the engine, pull out of the parking lot toward my empty house. It’s just hair. It can come back.

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