When the music is playing in ballet class and dancers are waiting on the sidelines and don’t step forward to do the combination, it wastes everyone’s time. I know sometimes it stems from dancers not being sure of the steps or feeling afraid, and I can totally relate. When I am teaching, they laugh when I remind them – “dancers don’t let dancers dance alone.” I kid, but I’m serious too. If you don’t dance when the music is playing, you miss the opportunity, and the moment will be gone.
My dad died when he was 65. He was a huge part of ballet for me because he drove me to class and picked me up afterwards. I remember him sitting and waiting in a corner of the studio, his head bent over the book he was reading. I was grateful that he never criticized or made comments like other parents made. I liked that he didn’t even seem to watch. Ballet was mine, and he respected my art because as well as being an English professor, he was also an actor. Some nights after dinner he would practice reading the poetry that he planned to read for his class the next day. His deep voice lured me out to the living room. “Read it again,” I would say, over and over every time he finished, lost in the cadence of his resonant voice, until finally he’d hand me the book – “Read it yourself, kid, I’m going to bed.”
I went to see him in every play at the University Theater department, and Shakespeare in the Park. For The Misanthrope, he surprised us by appearing in a red wig. For As You Like It, he grew a beard. He sang as The Mikado in the Gilbert and Sullivan production of that name, and in each role his humor and use of language was a delight. But his best role was as Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman. This character is one of the most complex and demanding in the theatrical canon. I can still see his performance in my mind, his character’s death a challenge to witness as a thirteen year old who idolized her dad. I still beat myself up that I couldn’t make myself see every one of his performances. It was too painful. He was a great actor.
He was also an incredible teacher. When I was in fifth grade, we had show-and-tell, and I brought my dad. I grew up in Hawaii, where kids were shy, and answering questions was rare, reserved only for those who knew they were unequivocally right, and usually not even then. No one wanted to “make A” (make as ass out of themselves) by being wrong or standing out. But my dad’s energy and passion whipped my normally reserved class into a frenzy. The subject has faded from memory, but not the way he bounded around the room as my classmates shouted out answers – “Good,” he’d yell, “but there’s something more!” I was amazed at his effect on us as another kid chimed in and another. “Yes!” he hollared, “But one more thing!” We were all in it together, we wanted to get it right! Most of the class was standing up now. I couldn’t believe it – I’d never seen my class so hyped. It seemed everyone had tried an answer – “Who else,” he hollered, “who else?” Finally the shyest kid in class raised his hand. I’d rarely heard this kid speak. He got the answer right. “That’s IT!” My dad slammed his hand down on the desk. Everyone jumped and then everyone laughed and Quincy beamed. My dad was a big hit.
He supported my onstage efforts too. He and my mom came to every ballet performance, every play, every show. “Laugh at anything remotely funny, I would instruct him.” I didn’t have to. He had a big, loud, generous laugh that infected the rest of the audience. As an actor, I knew if I timed a joke just right. Backstage the other kids would hear him and say “Who is that guy out there?” “That,” I’d say proudly, “is my dad.” But when my parents took a night off, the audiences just didn’t enjoy themselves quite as much without his booming guffaw to encourage their own giggles.
There was one Christmas performance he missed when I was a senior in high school. I looked out into the audience, and saw my mom singing the Hallelujah chorus with us, standing tall and alone. My dad was in the hospital for treatment for prostate cancer. Although he had a slow growing variety, five years later he developed a secondary cancer, an aggressive melanoma that was terminal. We found out in September of that year. In October, I moved home to help my mom take care of him. “You are my Cordelia,” my dad had said then, a reference to King Lear, and I wonder if he regretted never getting the opportunity to play that part.
My dad refused chemo which would have only prolonged his life a few months and would have made him very sick. He hated nausea above all else. “What else can I do, doc?” My dad asked the Oncologist. “Nothing you can do. Eat, drink, and be merry,” was the reply. “Can I eat bacon,” he asked? They were once concerned about his cholesterol. “Eat all the bacon you want,” the doctor said, so my dad ate bacon every day.
I helped my mom care for him, cooking and cleaning while my dad told the same three (mildly dirty) jokes to everyone who came to visit, much to mother’s embarrassment. He enjoyed keeping us laughing, while he got weaker and new tumors appeared daily. One day my mother shrieked to find a giant cockroach in the living room, lying on it’s back, apparently dead. I had already helped Dad walk out to the kitchen table for breakfast and I wanted to wait until after breakfast to deal with the cockroach. Once the dishes were done, I started in on the laundry but heard her yell for me. “Did you kill it?” “No.” “It’s gone! It’s loose in the house!” Horrified, we ran around looking for it until we realized that Dad was back in bed. “Did you take him back to bed?” “No.” We went to his bedroom where he lay laughing at us with delighted glee. “Well someone had to get rid of the cockroach,” he chuckled. He needed help walking so I have no idea how he managed it, but certainly with a twinkle in his eye.
Since I’d moved home I began dancing again. One day after class I was practicing a port de bras forward over a pointed foot. It was just before dinner and Dad watched from the couch in the family room where he was resting. “What does it feel like”, he asked. He must have wondered, all those years picking me up from ballet. “Joy,” I said, as I began to bend, and upon reaching the limit of my flexibility, I added …”and pain.” He nodded, tears in his eyes.
My dad died two days before Christmas twenty-two years ago. It still hurts. I know a lot of people lose family members around this time of year. It can be difficult amidst the celebrating to navigate the sorrow — the joy, and yet the pain. Time takes us too soon, so if the music is playing, take a deep breath, take your turn, and dance.
*My Dad and me backstage in the greenroom after The Misanthrope, at the University of Hawaii at Hilo theater.