Taken with the title – from an e.e. cummings poem – another literary/music reference will make this post ridiculous. So I’ll roll with that.
It’s a song that’s clung to me since early childhood: Puff the Magic Dragon. My mom used to sing it on long car trips when we were all half aleep. Aside from Rush Limbaugh’s terrible, uncouth, offensive, and yet oddly hilarious parody, one line rings through my mind.
“Dragons live forever, but not so little boys.” In context, Puff, a larger than life, brilliantly beautiful mythological creature loses his best friend to old age. But in my reality, not even 6 months ago, we were all met with the harsh realization that dragons don’t live forever. Sometimes dragons get sick, and you never see them again.
We – and here I refer to my family, friends, and community – were faced with the loss of a brilliantly beautiful dance teacher, mentor, friend and performer who was adored by everyone he came into contact with.
I wrote about it, couldn’t stop writing about it. Even if his life and death had no real relevance over my current activity, it dictated my actions and reactions. I wrote about it for my final paper in a lit class, associating it with the feelings in Theodore Roethke’s Elegy for Jane (my student, thrown by a horse). My point, such as it was, was that the principle was the same: student or teacher, you almost feel guilty mourning someone over whom your claim is tenuous. I’m not ashamed to say that I almost sobbed at the last lines:
If only I could nudge you from this sleep,
My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon,
Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:
I, with no rights in this matter,
Neither father nor lover.
I also wrote a long blog on the subject, but, until now, it hasn’t seen any sort of publication. It was too raw, too scattered, too full of feeling to be anything other than a dark footnote to my writing, to help me express, to work through. I teared up just now, typing Elegy for Jane, the words took me right back, and the sadness I felt wasn’t remotely comparable to the wave that consumed me originally.
But Monday was my teacher’s birthday, the first one he wasn’t here for. It would have been his 31st.
I was thinking about him a lot, both because of his birthday and our annual dance concert that preceded it, and I thought that maybe it was time to let people know how much I, at least, missed him.
Written in December of 2006:
So Someone I Love Very Much Just Died
So someone I love very much just died.
He was – the tense almost dissolves me again – the man who taught me to dance. The man who always had a hug for me, or a smile. The man who was, to my thinking, arguably the sweetest man on the face of this earth.
It’s a funny thing, grief (as Madeline L’Engle once said, “Not funny ha-ha, but funny peculiar.”). A meeting was called at our dance studio to tell everyone that he was sick. Kikki and I just sat there. Normally so self-sufficient and straining at the bit to do things for ourselves, we now wanted no responsibility. Grief makes us all as children, insecure and unsure of ourselves, wanting to turn the harsh realities of “dealing with it” over to the real grownups. This behavior is acceptable in Kikki and myself, at fifteen and sixteen, the difficulty arises when the real grownups are having all the same sensations, and finding no one older to turn to.
Jules couldn’t make it to the meeting, and no one wanted to leave her a message about what was going on. I stepped up to the plate at one o’clock in the morning, my voice leaving two messages in a flat, tired monotone, communicating that he was very sick, and in the hospital, and it didn’t look good.
Jules called me the next day, didn’t get me, left a message. She was almost unintelligible, she was crying so hard. We got ahold of each other eventually, Jules sounded better, and asked that I call her the minute he got worse or better.
I’m not sure exactly when he died, but for most of us, discussing it later, that was less important than when each of us found out about it. I found out at about 10:45 Monday morning. “He’s gone.” My mother said.
I sighed. Why am I not upset? I wondered. Shouldn’t I be upset?
I called Jules and left a message, numbly repeated my mother’s words: “He’s gone, Jules. He’s gone.”
I went to class (I transferred a drawing from 1/8” scale to 1/4” scale). I went to lunch, saw friends, and my boyfriend Calvin. I read the paper. I laughed at the police briefs, for godssakes.
Meanwhile, Kikki was having a breakdown in third period. “I think I need a minute.” She said through the tears. “I just had a feeling,” she told me later.
About ten minutes before Calvin had to leave to get to class, he caught the glazed look on my face. “Are you okay?” he asked, not for the last time that day, putting his arm around me and pulling me close. “He’s dead, Calvin. How is that possible?” I whispered. And that’s when I started crying. And I couldn’t stop. I could only find one napkin, left over from lunch, which I had to use both to dry my eyes and wipe my nose, which always goes into overproduction when I cry.
“We probably need to go,” Calvin said. “Are you okay?” “Yeah, sure, I’m fine.”
We walked across the campus, tears still making their way down my face, where they were inadequately wiped by my one pathetic napkin. Calvin squeezed my hand, guided me along, made sure I didn’t run into any walls. “Are you going to be all right?” he asked as I dropped him off. I raised my red-rimmed eyes and managed to eke out a smile. “Sure. I’m fine.” He appeared unconvinced. “Find somewhere quiet to be, okay?” he told me. “Yeah.” I agreed.
I wound up sitting in front of the administration building with a roll of toilet paper I’d stolen from a bathroom. People passed by occasionally, it occurred to no one to ask the weeping girl what had happened, why she was all alone on a bench in front of the administration building. Maybe they were heartless, more likely incurious.
My phone rang, it was Jules. “Do you know anything yet?” she asked. “Mmmmmhhhhuuuuwaaaaggggggllllllsob,” I replied. “Did you get (heave) my (heave) message?”
“He’s dead. He’s – He’s –” Here I collapsed into more sniveling and crying.
“Oh, no. Oh, no. This as awful. Wow. It hasn’t really hit me yet.”
“Yeah, it didn’t hit me until about (sob) forty-five minutes ago.”
She got off the phone not long after, I learned later that she was on the bus from school, and about five minutes after talking to me, she dissolved.
I sat there, crying, for about an hour, listening to the Corrine Bailey Rae song “Choux Pastry Heart” over and over. My mom called and talked for a few minutes, until Calvin got out of class. “I don’t want you to be alone,” she said.
My tears tapered off after awhile. Calvin put his arms around me, made me laugh. I’d completely stopped crying by the time I got into my mom’s car. Then I got to the studio, and I completely lost it.
Kikki had gotten there a few minutes before I did, she hadn’t known. Well, she knew – that’s why she’d broken down in third period. She knew, even though she hadn’t been told. Her fears were confirmed when she walked into the studio and saw what I saw when I walked in, what made me cry all over again.
It was beautiful. There were red roses, candles. A plaque with his name. A collage of photographs, his smile beaming down on me. But what made me stop dead in my tracks? A pair of black tap shoes, sitting casually and peacefully as though their owner had just stepped out of them for a moment. The same black tap shoes that had been sitting in the studio for a year – he’d always forgotten to take them with him. They were a piece of him that always stayed here. And now he was gone for good, and here they were.
“My god, his shoes.” I whispered as my tears began to fall again. “I know.” Kikki said, rising and putting her arm around me. She was crying, too.
Other people came to pay respects, they all set up chairs and sat in a circle, doing some sort of groupthink grieving. Kikki and I retreated to the bowels of the studio, moving around any time people got too close. We were the proverbial dogs under the piano, hiding out and licking our wounds. “I don’t get the sitting in a circle,” she said.
“That’s not how I grieve – not with a lot of people.”
“I think we have a pretty good circle,” I said.
“Two people can be a circle.”
Jules showed up after awhile, we all cried ourselves out until we were completely dehydrated, then we started laughing. Because that is what you have to do. You can’t be sad forever. It’s true that there will always be a small piece of you that’s empty, a tiny place set aside for the person you’ve lost. But if you focus on it for the rest of your life, you’ve died right along with him – and he wouldn’t want that.
We had two poems written within our studio detailing the rampant grief we all felt at losing this great man. They are both amazing, but they must be taken together rather than alone. One is the overarching uplifted-ness inherent in moving on and remembering the life, not the death. The other reminds us that being uplifted is a state of mind, and that wounds will gape no matter how we try to heal the scar tissue. Grief, like joy, is a double-edged sword.
“Goodbye” by Darci
No matter how many tears escape my eye
I feel faintly happy, and ask myself “why?”
It’s because I see your shadow soaring free through the sky
With a halo as gold as the great eagles eye
And wings that flutter with a gentle sigh
Outside beneath the stars I lie
Goodbye, they whisper, goodbye.
And though, it is true, you are here no more
And something like this, no one could brace for
And though our hearts are still very sore
I know we’re all glad, you’ll feel pain no more
And we hope you lived just like you hoped for
You’re still with us, now and forevermore
Goodbye, we cry, good bye
You know, you not only taught us to dance
But to smile and perform every single chance
And to not spare our sorrows more than a seconds glance
And how to gracefully (but with attitude) advance in our dance
And you stood firm against all of our won’ts and our can’ts
Can’t forget all those times you gave us yet another chance
Goodbye, but most of all thanks.
Goodbye, to a great teacher, and a wonderful friend.
The Flipside of “Goodbye” by Kikki
I know you would say,
Don’t stand by grave,
And weep the days away.
All your tears you must save,
For the day when you don’t remember.
Save your tears for a day,
When someone feels pain.
When suffering is rampant,
Do not weep for me now.
But we cry all the same,
For these words cannot change,
These words cannot tame,
The raging grief which grips us now.
The wound that gapes with each embrace we make,
We think of a world without you and ask how.
But the days slide by,
And the truth sinks in.
And we try our best to move on.
But the subtle things which bring you to mind,
Like a word or a dance,
Like a step or a rhyme.
And even those people who at first glance,
Evoke floods of memories which are cheerful and glad,
Why now do we cry, why now do we feel so sad?
It’s because when we lose someone so close,
A person so contagiously joyful,
A part of you is changed,
And things that once held so much hope,
Now just seem futile.
But we are cheating you,
You and your memory.
We should be dancing,
We should be singing,
There we will find you,
Humming the melody,
And whispering to us,