Danc­ing with my mother

Len Good­man, Sol Hoopil and me

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - OUR TOWN - SEY YOUNG

“We should con­sider ev­ery day lost on which we have not danced at least once.”

— Friedrich Ni­et­zsche

My mother didn’t say good­bye the night she died; she just went to sleep. It was a hard death; ter­mi­nal lung cancer will guar­an­tee that, es­pe­cially at 86 years old when it’s not even a fair fight. Doc­tors want to tell you that you’ve been blessed to have lived so long, now it’s your time, but she wasn’t hav­ing any of it. “I want to live!” she would of­ten tell me dur­ing that pe­riod. We spoke by tele­phone 30 min­utes be­fore that sleep came. My wife and I had flown to Florida to visit her from our home in Arkansas, and I called from a rest stop to let her know we were al­most there.

By my im­per­fect cal­cu­la­tion that was the 1,949th straight daily tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion we had with­out a break, but be­fore you raise your eye­brows at me, let me take you back five years ear­lier. A se­ries of small strokes had left my mother un­able to swal­low food. Men­tally, she was as sharp as a tack, which un­for­tu­nately made this ail­ment even more un­ten­able to her. An out­stand­ing south­ern cook, this was a tremen­dous blow not only to her psy­che but sense of self. A feed­ing tube turns eat­ing from a plea­sure to a cold and un­yield­ing process. She be­came in­creas­ingly neg­a­tive and bit­ter over her cir­cum­stances. Ev­ery day be­came a bat­tle against the jack­als of the mind. While sweet and adorable never were used si­mul­ta­ne­ously to de­scribe her, I loved my mom and re­solved to speak with her via phone ev­ery day as both a way to cheer her up and get to know her bet­ter.

My mother at 81 was not the mother I knew at 15 years old. We all change, and she was no ex­cep­tion. Never one to look back­wards, she pre­ferred the here and now. I had no un­re­solved is­sues with her, so we were free to ex­plore any sub­ject — of which com­plain­ing was typ­i­cally fea­tured front and cen­ter. While I be­lieve in vent­ing as much as the next man, if I was go­ing to keep my san­ity and pa­tience in­tact, a strat­egy was in or­der, and that is where Danc­ing With the Stars comes in.

She loved the show — a dance com­pe­ti­tion tele­vi­sion pro­gram that fea­tured mi­nor celebri­ties paired with pro­fes­sional dancers — and it be­came one of her lim­ited plea­sures. It dawned on me that since it was one of the few pos­i­tive as­pects of her life, I would go with it. So, ev­ery Tues­day it be­came must-see TV for me, even when trav­el­ing on busi­ness. Host Tom Berg­eron, judges Len Good­man, Bruno To­nioli and Carrie Ann In­aba all be­came as fa­mil­iar to me as close friends. My mom loved cer­tain celebrity dancers: Kelly Monaco, Drew Latchy and Ge­orge Hamilton were fa­vorites. Our daily calls be­came happy and chatty af­fairs, with her bouts of pes­simisms re­placed with who did the rumba best that week. Off-sea­son pre­sented a dilemma for me that I quickly

over­came by con­stantly check­ing for sto­ries and gos­sip on old and new con­tes­tants, which she ea­gerly di­gested. It was a way for her to hold onto a life that was

rapidly slip­ping away from her. Piv­ot­ing off those con­ver­sa­tions, we would talk about fam­ily his­tory, her life, her hopes and dreams and yes, even her fears. It was as much a gift to me as it was for her. I learned from her, I loved her, I for­gave her, I tried to get it right.

Go for­ward to the rest stop again. Plied with cof­fee, we hit I-75

for the fi­nal 20 min­utes when my cell­phone rings from the hospice nurse. The cancer had fin­ished its job while my mom laid asleep in a mor­phine-fu­eled dream. She played Hawai­ian slide gui­tar as a young girl; there’s a photo of her at 14 years old, her long brown hair fram­ing a beau­ti­ful bright smile, at a recital. My Lit­tle Grass Shack in Kealakekua by Sol Hoopil, she could play it note for note; maybe she was play­ing it then. I en­tered her room where she lay and looked at her one last time. Amid so much ruin, still the beauty.

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