Dancing with my mother
Len Goodman, Sol Hoopil and me
“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.