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Essays

What My 64-Year-Old Mom’s First Dance Recital Taught Me About Grief

After my dad died, my mom worried about being alone. Her unexpected new hobby showed me how far we’ve come.

by Graham Isador
Jul 10 2019, 2:01pm

Photos by author. 

“Before I hang up there is one more thing I need to tell you.”

Mom sighed into the receiver and took a long pause. On the other end of the phone my heart started to race. I began going through a mental rolodex of potential problems. Earlier in the year Mom had undergone surgery. She was vague about the prognosis. When I pushed for details she said lady business and refused to elaborate, but the treatment laid her up for a couple of weeks. My brother is in the navy. He is assigned to one of Canada’s four submarines and his day-to-day involves intense military training. I’ve got a grandma who just celebrated her 100th birthday. I was sure mom's info was death or cancer. Potentially death by cancer.

“For the past three months I’ve been taking dance lessons,” mom said. “We have our recital next month and I was wondering if you wanted to maybe come watch? You definitely don’t have to though.”

An invitation to a dance recital was not what I expected. Ma is 64 years old. Until that moment she had never expressed an interest in dance. The only time I can remember her dancing was during a cousin’s wedding. She attempted the “Achy Breaky Heart” steps and quit halfway through. Mom is smart and empathetic. Caring and perceptive. I could list off dozens of her positive attributes, but I would never describe her as rhythmic. I didn’t know where the idea of dance lessons came from.

“Truthfully I have been feeling a bit lonely,” she explained. “This was a way to make some new friends. I’m the worst in the class but they think I’m funny! Isn’t that great?”

I put the dance recital in my calendar, booked a bus trip back home to Niagara, and happily wondered what the hell I’d agreed to go watch.

•••

The dance classes are one of many activities Ma has taken up in the past few years. She’s volunteered for women’s organizations. She’s taken the train across Canada. She makes up short songs about our family dog, then sings the songs back to the dog (the best of which was an adaption of TLC’s “Waterfalls” about avoiding skunks). The woman has been making the most of her retirement, enjoying some well-earned leisure time after a life spent working as a teacher and principal. I’m always amazed by mom's adventures. I’m proud of all the ways she gets herself out there, but it comes with a grain of salt. The activities are a way to pass the time since my dad died.

My parents were together 32 years before my pops was found lying face down in a local park. Paramedics tried to revive him but by the time he got to the hospital the writing was on the wall. That was eight years ago. A couple of days after the funeral we sat around the dinner table picking at a mayonnaise-based salad dropped off by a kind neighbour. Ma listed off all the things her and Dad had planned to do together. She'd retire early and he'd cut back his hours at work. There were going to be trips across Europe. Cooking classes. Patiently waiting for grandkids. Mom scooted a macaroni around the plate and lamented the fact that now she'd be doing those things alone, if she did them at all. I would have been worried about her but at the time I was too messed up to worry about anything at all.

For awhile I got kinda lost. I had trouble getting out of bed. One of the ways I kept track of the days was by phone calls home. Mom and I would chat and inevitably end up talking about how we both missed Dad. But little by little she started to do things amongst the grief. After however long Mom volunteered at the local theatre. Then she began visiting art galleries. Soon there were solo weekend getaways. Seeing her do stuff gave me permission to do the same.

It is only in retrospect that I understood how much courage it took to continue on after the enormity of loss. All the little things in tandem added up to so much life in the wake of death. I am immeasurably grateful that Ma continued to parent in such an overwhelming time. She led by example.

In the years since losing my father I've tried to support Mom’s activities, dance recital included. During our phone conversations she’d recount that week’s class, going on about costume choices and the difficult choreography. Inevitably there’d be some dance-related joke ( What type of dancing happens in a sink!? TAP!). Mom was genuinely excited about performing but reassured me over and over that I was under no obligation to come. Truthfully, there was no way I was going to miss it.

•••

The day of the performance Mom was up early. She had been speaking with her friend Janice about eyeshadow. The two of them had found a “disco makeup” tutorial on YouTube and had also convinced the rest of the group to invest in gold body glitter. As I stumbled into the kitchen for coffee I caught mom going over her steps. She laughed, clearly embarrassed, but continued on all the same. We got ready to go.

“Step, ball, change! Step ball change!” she repeated.

The venue for the dance recital was a high school. Mom scooted off to a classroom doubling as backstage. As I sat outside the auditorium someone handed me a program. I scanned through the names and found out a few interesting facts. When Ma had told me about the event I assumed it was an afternoon of performances by adults. This was not the case. The majority of the dancers that day were under 10. I had also assumed that the whole thing would be over in about an hour. Not the case. The recital would last three and a half hours, no intermission. Mom’s number was third to last. I found an empty seat in the front row and strapped in.

The first number of the recital was a showcase for one of the few male dancers. He was maybe 14, dressed in red jacket and spiffy top hat. In the first 30 seconds of the act he did some spirited jazz hands then was handed a baton from an assistant. The dancer put his fist in the air, twirled the baton behind his back, then proceeded to smoke himself directly in the eye. He was visibly wincing from the pain but went for the trick a second time. Buddy hit himself in the face again but soldiered on through the rest of the routine. I clapped hard and shouted encouragement as he wrapped his number. There were only 44 more acts to go.

For the next three hours and 15 minutes I sat as countless children performed their dances. The song choices were mostly jams from the ’90s and early aughts (“Barbie Girl”, “Waterfalls”, “All Star”). There were also a number of kids who chose to wave to their parents rather than go through the moves. Most performers were fine, which meant I didn't even have the trainwreck quality to keep me entertained. It was all very adorable if boring. Midway through the recital I started to realize that if I had stayed in my hometown rather than leaving, I could have had a kid old enough to be dancing on stage. I tripped on that idea for a couple of songs and then it was time to watch Ma.

•••

It’s weird getting to a point in your life where you are supporting your parents in the way they once supported you. Mom spent countless hours watching me play sports. She attended concerts by my unlistenable bands and gladly supported my half-ass attempts at acting. And there I was about to return the favour. I was surprised at how nervous I felt. The dance had been tremendously important to her. I desperately wanted it to go well.

The lights dimmed. In the shadows Ma and her group took the stage. Madonna's "Vogue" blared from the speakers. Spotlights hit revealing the red flowing togas of the dance crew. Their makeup was wild. There was gold body glitter all over. They looked great. For the next three minutes—the track had been edited for time—Ma shimmied and shook. She clapped and spun in circles. The whole crew was nailing it, and despite mom's constant reminders that she was the worst one in the class, she was holding her own. The only discernible difference between Ma and the other dancers is that while they were all smiling mom's expression looked like she was concentrating really, really, hard.

If you had asked me when I was a teenager how my parents would age I wouldn't have been able to tell you. I never thought about it because I didn't think I needed to...but in my wildest dreams I wouldn't have expected a dance recital. Not a chance. But, you know, things change. There are so many different ways Mom has come into her own since losing Dad, and while both of us would trade anything to have him back, I am proud enough of Ma's accomplishments as a widow that I voluntarily sat through almost four hours of dancing from pre-teens. It means a lot.

After the show I found Mom taking selfies with her friends in front of the photo wall. She rushed over and gave me a big hug.

"Thanks so much for coming. Did I do OK?" she asked.

"You did great."

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Tagged:
death
family
Parents
dancing
aging
loss
retirement