She Taught Me To Believe

A few people have asked that I share Dana’s eulogy.  Because Dana was so public and open about her journey, it feels like the right thing to do.  I am not able to capture everything that I said because I ad-libbed in several places, but I tried to modify this version to fit the words that were spoken.  My “little” brother Mike has assured me that this rendition is pretty close.  It is absolutely impossible to capture in writing all of the love for Dana that was in the room last Saturday.  My hope is simply that this tribute gives some solace to those who knew and loved Dana Michelle Todd.

All my love to you, Dana.  You are forever in our hearts.

Recently I’ve heard many people – even complete strangers to Dana – refer to my cousin as an inspiration.  Someone who forever changed their lives, made them see life differently, made each of them want to be a better person.  It is wonderful, touching, and… a little bit surreal.

Dana is an inspiration and I will talk more about that in a moment.  But I first want to talk about the memories I have of Dana before cancer came calling.  Most of my memories involve laughter.  In my mind’s eye, these are the images I hold close:  Dana falling out laughing, to the point of tears, with her sister Rachel at some joke from twenty years ago, some distant memory that just came back to one of them.  It’s a joke that only the two of them understand, but when you’re in the room with Dana and Rachel and they’re laughing like that – you have no choice but to laugh, too, out loud and full and real.  It’s just that beautiful and that contagious.

Dana was a straight shooter, a fiery spirit.  She never hesitated to speak her mind, call someone out in a lie or to stand her ground.

I see her running along a beach at sunset, galloping on a gorgeous horse across a meadow, maybe trotting a bit more slowly on a rescue horse named Bones.  Laughing at a family reunion.  Sitting with us on the dock on Rangeley Lake and watching for shooting stars.  Playing with the nieces and nephews who she adored.  Holding her father’s hand.

Above all else, I see her spending time with Jordyn and Ryan, running her hand over Jordyn’s hair and talking about butterflies, kissing Ryan’s head on the top of a mountain, just being in the moment, present, with her children.  Dana loved Jordyn and Ryan with everything she had, and she still does as we speak, as we come together here today to honor her spirit.

I also just learned a wonderful story about Dana from a stranger.  A neighbor of hers here in Connecticut rounded a corner in her car years ago and found Dana, with her car stopped in the middle of the road, chaperoning two baby turtles across the road to safety.  In the Todd family, the Todd women are known to have a genetic predisposition to stubbornness, and Dana seemed to receive those genes a hundredfold.  Dana was strong, and she was stubborn, and in her core, she was deeply generous.  She was abundantly kind.

My point is that before Dana became a Facebook phenomenon and an inspiration to so many people with her courageous fight for her life, she was first and foremost to all of us a Mother.  Daughter.  Sister.  Aunt.  Niece.  Cousin.  The former wife of a wonderful, wonderful man.  A true, devoted, and beloved friend.  She was – AND IS – so many amazing things, to so many people.

[I start to break down here and am not able to talk]…  As an aside, I just did something that I will probably do for the rest of my life.  When I am trying to do something I think is hard, I will tell myself, like this time – with everything that Dana went through and everything she did, I am pretty sure I can keep talking!

Our family reunions each year in Rangeley, Maine over the past almost 30 years have provided us many stories, and one that perfectly captures Dana’s strength.  We have hiked up Saddleback Mountain almost every year; it’s a seven-miles-straight-up steep hike.  You would think that Dana, after enduring massive injuries in a car accident the year before, would take hiking off of the “to do” list.  Keep in mind that the doctors told Dana that she might never walk again, she was likely going to lose her left leg completely.  They obviously didn’t know Dana very well.  She willed her leg to heal, so much so that she not only kept her leg, she was able to walk again.  Some would stop with this miracle.  Not Dana.

In the summer of 2010, she wanted to hike Saddleback Mountain again.  Despite her family’s protests – and for those who know her best, maybe because of them – she was going to climb that mountain on her healing-but-still-shattered legs.   So she did.  For hours, pretending all the while that she was not in pain, jaw set with determination, she climbed on and on, one step at a time, until she reached the top.  That stubbornness, that persistence, that striving – always – to reach the top of that next mountain.  That is our Dana.  She was always our PowerGirl.

In Fall 2010, when fate dealt her an impossible hand, an inconceivable cancer diagnosis, Dana could have handled that news so many ways.  She could have wallowed in self-pity. She could have given up when the pain became too great.  She did none of those things.

Instead, Dana shared her journey publicly and fought her disease head-on.  Dana focused on and taught us all about the things that matter most in life, the little things that are not so little, after all.  When Dana was no longer able to eat solid foods, she wrote to tell the rest of us, in her own words, “ENJOY everything you put in your mouth. Savor it. You have no idea how good food tastes until you can no longer have it.”  More recently, when she was too weak to move and could not get out of bed – what she shared with the world was, “I am sooooooo happy that the weather allows the fresh air to come into my room.”  She described the fresh air as “beautiful.”

What an incredible world we would live in if each one of us lived life the way that Dana did.  If every day each one of us was grateful for each bite of food we eat, the fresh air we breathe, the pain-free steps we take as we walk down the street. Dana lived life with gratitude and grace under circumstances none of us can fully comprehend.

Yes, she is an inspiration, but that is only part of the story.  Dana taught me to believe in the power of the human spirit, the soul.  Dana defied virtually every prognosis about her length of time on this earth.  In February she noticed that the maple trees had been tapped, and set her sights again on living to see and feel one more Spring.  As Dana put it, she wanted to “see everything in bloom one more time.”  She willed herself to live first until Spring, then until her 45th birthday, all months beyond the date her doctors told her that her body should fail.

She always lived life on her own terms.  Dana Todd made her own rules.  She showed us all that the power of the human spirit, the power of the soul, is greater than we ever could have imagined.  With a soul that strong, I have to believe that Dana’s soul carries on forever, that life is truly eternal, she is still with us now and always will be.

She has taught me to believe; that there is no time other than now to believe in yourself, stand up for yourself, and appreciate every moment of this life.  Some of Dana’s favorite quotes say it best:

“One day at a time–this is enough. Do not look back and grieve over the past for it is gone; and do not be troubled about the future, for it has not yet come. Live in the present, and make it so beautiful it will be worth remembering.”
“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”

I live my life differently now because of Dana.  I think I always will.  Each time I force myself to run just a little bit farther or faster, I’ll feel Dana’s spirit.  Each time I call someone out for saying something mean or wrong and speak my truth, I’ll know that Dana is there.  Each time our family holds on, hugs on, and loves on one another, each gale of laughter at a family reunion, each time we appreciate the precious moments of life, of love, of family, the things that really matter most… Dana is right there with us.

To paraphrase Dana, life is about giving the gift of your time and your love to family, friends, and loved ones.  Truly, in the end, nothing else matters.

If we can hold onto those precious moments, hold onto Dana’s passion for life, and live in some small way with half of the gratitude and grace that Dana lived in her time here on this earth, then we can hold onto the beauty of her spirit and keep her right here with us.  Forever.

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Dana Michelle Todd: What is the measure of love?

“The measure of love is loss” comes from one of my favorite books of all time, Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body.  I have pondered those stark words during many a relationship breakup.  We so often don’t appreciate our loved ones until they are already gone.  The author goes on to describe the loss of the love of her life in heart-rending terms:

“This hole in my heart is in the shape of you.  No one else can fit it.

Why would I want them to?”

Indeed.  We all have those few unique people in our lives; the ones who got away, the ones who will always be irreplaceable.

This brings me to Dana Michelle Todd.  Mother of beautiful eight-year old twins, Jordyn and Ryan, sweet children who inherited the best qualities of both their mom and dad.   

Daughter of my Uncle Ed, a man of humor and compassion.  Sister of Rachel, one of the kindest people you could ever hope to meet.  Niece.  Cousin.  Sister-in-law.  Funny, sweet, warm and dear friend.  Inspiration to many who have never even met her but who have watched her share her struggle against cancer so openly and courageously in that most public and ubiquitous of forums, FaceBook.

Dana has given us all reason to contemplate the measure of love.  As a family, we have watched my dear cousin/sister-from-another-mother spend years fighting back from a horrible car accident, only to then fight for her life against a rare form of super-aggressive cancer.  Dana’s journey has also made all of us contemplate mortality and the meaning of life; it has to.  So, what is the measure of love?  Is it really loss?  The point of Winterson’s quote is that we only truly understand the depths of our love when we are faced with losing someone, whether to a broken relationship or to death.

Is that really it?

To answer that question, let’s talk about Dana first.  She has always been a fighter.   She was born an old soul.   She never hesitated to call someone out in a lie or to stand her ground, not from the time she was a child.  I was always a little bit in awe of her.  I wanted to be like her, brave and fearless.

I remember visits with Dana and Rachel at our Grandma and Grandpa Todd’s house in East Bend, North Carolina, a small town of five hundred people plunked down in the middle of rows and rows of corn and tobacco fields.  The red brick Southern Baptist Church loomed large just a few steps down the road.  I can still taste Grandma’s home cooking; the crackling fried chicken, green beans with bacon, pecan pie, all rapidly consumed by a swarm of cousins buzzing around Grandma’s dinner table like honeybees at the hive.  Of course, no Southern meal would be complete without topping it off by guzzling the sweet nectar of fluorescent green Mello Yello.  I remember an afternoon after all of the cousins were flying high from indulging in this pure sugar heaven, Dana convinced us not just to explore Grandpa’s slightly dilapidated chicken coop outside, but to climb to the top of the roof and run around, just to see what we could see.  Who says no to Dana?  Not us.

When I was twelve, we started our annual tradition of joining Dana and her family for a week up in Rangeley, Maine, every year.  We’ve now been spending vacations together in Maine on and off for (gasp!) almost 30 years.  We rent rustic cabins on the shore of Rangeley, Maine and spend the weeks hiking mountains like Saddleback and Baldy, picking fresh blueberries along the way.  We canoe and kayak around the nine-mile-wide lake, swim in the arctic waters, play tennis when the mood strikes.  Some of my best memories with Dana involve all of us lying out on the dock at night, watching the sky and “Ooo’ing” and “Wow’ing” over the electric streaks of light left lingering behind by shooting stars.   We sat silently listening for the haunting call of the loons echo over the lake, à la Golden Pond.  Even sitting here now, I can close my eyes and feel the cool breeze over the water as we huddle up in scratchy wool blankets against the cold.  Those memories will always be a part of me, and Dana was always there.  I thought she always would be.

Maine gives us our best Todd family lore about Dana, the story that typifies Dana and her strength.  Sure, we have hiked up Saddleback Mountain every year in Maine; it’s a seven-miles-straight-up super-steep hike with sweeping panoramic views of the many natural lakes surrounding Rangeley.  Gorgeous, right?  Now, one would think that Dana, who sustained massive injuries in a car accident in February 2009, including the complete shattering of her left leg, would take hiking off of the “to do” list for the next family vacation.  Not so.  Keep in mind, of course, that the doctors first told Dana that she was going to lose her left leg completely to amputation, it was too far gone.  They obviously didn’t know my cousin very well.  She willed her leg to heal, so much so that she not only kept her leg, she was able to walk again.  Some would stop with this miracle.  Not Dana.  In the summer of 2010, she had in mind that she would hike that damnSaddlebackMountain again.  We tried to dissuade her.   We tried again… and again.   I’m not sure why we thought that anyone could tell Dana what to do.  She was going to climb that mountain on her healing-but-still-shattered legs – and so she did.   For hours, one step at a time, pretending all the while that she was not in pain, she climbed on and on until she reached the top.  That stubbornness, that persistence, that striving to reach the top of the mountain, always.  That’s our Dana.

We have had more family reunions in the past year than ever before, for obvious reasons.  We just want to hold onto Dana, keep her with us, believe that the indomitable Dana who has bounced back from car accidents that would have killed lesser souls and massive brain injuries and everything else would simply kick cancer’s ass, too.   If anyone on this planet could have, it would be Dana.  In Dana’s own words, “I am quite certain if my cancer were able to manifest itself as a physical opponent, I could TOTALLY kick its ASS!  Think of the damage my titanium limbs could do!”  We all know it’s true.  But this cancer is too cowardly.  In the end, iron-clad will and stubbornness and guts and courage and all the love in the world are not going to be enough to defeat this internal cancerous demon.

As I reflect on our family memories, I wonder again – is Jeanette right?  Is the measure of love really loss?  Will what we carry with us be this aching pain of loss alone?  The answer has to be no.  No, the measure of love is NOT loss.  No freakin’ way.   Not on our watch.

Todd family love is measured first in laughter.  I always laugh more at our family reunions and vacations than any other time.

Todd family love is measured in Jordyn’s sweet smiles and butterflies and Ryan’s strong-but-gentle spirit.

Our love for Dana is measured in her feisty spirit, her laughter, her passion for life, and her kick-ass-can-do-it attitude.   She has taught me to believe; that there is no time other than now to believe in yourself, stand up for yourself, and squeeze every minute out of this life.

Most of all, Todd family love is measured in deep wells of love, pure and simple.

But Jeanette is right about one thing.  This hole in all of our hearts is in the shape of you, sweet Dana.  No one else will ever be able to fill it.  But we will always hold onto you.

So we do what we can.  Today, Dana is still with us.  Today, we love on Dana with everything we have.  Today and always, if I can hold onto just one iota of my sweet cousin Dana’s zest for life and belief in the human spirit and tenacity and fight, I can hold onto her forever.  I can always keep her with me, right here in my heart, holding her close right next to the big hole she will leave when her physical presence departs.

She will remain in our hearts because in all of our Todd stubbornness, we will hold onto the beauty of her spirit.  Forever.  That’s exactly what I plan to do.

What Makes A Life Well-Lived?

Our family received word several weeks ago that our great aunt’s health was failing rapidly.  She is 92 years old, so we braced ourselves for the inevitable loss.  My brother and I talked about our regrets.  “Why haven’t I visited?  I meant to write… why didn’t I write?”  The reality is that we let life intervene, that the tyranny of the urgent reigned.  When are work deadlines and immediate family needs not urgent?  But it’s no excuse.  The good news is Aunt Peggy has shown us, once again, that she’s full of surprises.  Her health has suddenly turned for the better, like the proverbial Phoenix rising from the ashes.  There’s no time like the present for telling Aunt Peggy how much she means to me.

Aunt Peggy was born in 1918, the year that World War I ended, one year before women won the right to vote.  She experienced the Great Depression during her formative teenage years.  She was part of a Southern family on the progressive, changing side of history during the Civil Rights Movement.  Her brother, Judge James McMillan, was the Federal judge who wrote a busing order that “played a pivotal role in ending the segregation of Southern public schools.” She felt the backlash of his courage in writing that opinion and (reasonably) feared for his life and the lives of her other loved ones.  Unbelievably, I have never asked Aunt Peggy about these things.  I don’t know why.  Maybe I was just too young at the time to realize their importance.  Children are curious beings, but we’re also little narcissists, aren’t we?

Besides, as kids, we harbored few thoughts about history and politics.  We just wanted to play and explore at our aunt and uncle’s home in North Carolina.  Sometimes it takes years and distance before we realize that the things we see and do as children make us who we are.

Aunt Peggy married an incredibly generous, kind and funny man (Uncle Gene), and had two fabulous children (our cousins would expect us to say no less).  During our childhoods, Aunt Peggy and Uncle Gene lived in a majestic white plantation house called “Lebanon” in Dunn, North Carolina.  Yes, in the South, the coolest houses have names.  Lebanon was used as a hospital for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.   As children, our cousin showed us an image of a ghost of a Confederate soldier, appearing in a photo of a broken window pane from one of the Lebanon buildings.  If you squinted your eyes just right, you could see a ghostly figure, reminiscent of Munch’s Scream, which caused young
hearts to palpitate every time.  I could swear that I even saw a blue-gray Confederate soldier’s hat in that frame, an image that returned to me late on sultry summer nights, as sleep escaped me.

On our visits to Lebanon, our family drove in an old brown Oldsmobile station wagon with a mattress thrown down in the back seat for my little brother and me.  On the ride I remember best, our parents had heard enough renditions of “Mooooom, she’s on my side!” “Nu-uh, I was here first, his leg’s touching me, ewww!” on previous trips.  Before turning the engine on, Dad clambered into the back seat, ripped off a large piece of masking tape with his teeth and put it down the length of the mattress, measured by our mechanical engineer father to be “exactly down the middle.” The masking tape border was as effective in reducing sibling tensions as the Gaza Strip is in creating peace in the Middle East.

After nine hours on the road, our plaintive, repeated mews of “Moooom, he’s still on my side!  His finger’s on my side of the tape!  Are we there yet?  [5 minutes later].  How about now?” were finally rewarded by street signs for Dunn.  As we drove out of Dunn city center, we passed mile after mile of corn and tobacco fields quilting the land in golden yellow and green.  The scent of pine consumed us as we drove down a rough gravel road spotted with evergreens toward the majestic oak tree that stood proudly in front of the large plantation house.  The oak tree rising out of the earth and looming above us added to Lebanon’s allure, as we imagined that this living being was once a young sapling during nights when the sky lit up with cannon fire and injured soldiers were hauled into the house.

Lebanon soon came fully into view, more breathing edifice than mere building, with its double-decker porches and Romanesque white columns climbing up the front.  It was easy to envision men and women of Scarlett O’Hara’s day opening parasols against the sun, swishing their petticoats as they strolled about the grounds.  Lebanon is a house with a soul, a soul breathed into the walls through the love of Aunt Peggy and Uncle Gene.  By the time our eyes took everything in as we hurtled up the driveway, our favorite porch swing was moving to and fro on its own.  Our uncle, its previous commander, ambled toward us with open arms and a carefree smile.  We threw our little bodies out of the already-open car doors and into the magic of Lebanon.

These are some of the childhood images that emerge when I think of Aunt Peggy, Uncle Gene, and Lebanon:  The red mahogany banister that connected the two floors, just wide enough for each of us to grip, straddle, and slide down repeatedly, screaming all the way.  Then, run back up the stairs.  Repeat.  Aunt Peggy playing the grand piano in the parlor, encouraging us to play the few notes we did know (Chopsticks, anyone?), then she would play glorious Beethoven and Mozart tunes time and again.  The music surrounded and cloaked the house, its beauty settling around us, coating our bodies like a fine mist.

A swarm of cousins on the porch, running helter-skelter around the yard.  Uncle Gene pushing four or five of us at a time loaded onto the porch swing, arm around neck and elbow under chin, one gigantic giggling human pretzel soaring over our uncle’s head.  He swung us as high as he could, then he’d run past the swing and our wildly flapping legs to the other side of the porch, laughing at our howls of delight.

Late summer evenings, circles of adult cousins in the living room lounging on the comfy couches by the fireplace.  The smell of red wine and sounds of quiet talking and comfortable laughter.  Uncle Gene lying on the floor, his head resting lightly on an old, squashed football.  Afternoons with Uncle Gene and Aunt Peggy reading in their study, with Uncle Gene always in his favorite, well-worn chair, legs crossed underneath him, the very picture of a wise swami.  When we had to say goodbye, a retreating image of both our Aunt and Uncle waving goodbye from the front yard, madly waving not just both hands but also one foot simultaneously.  These are the childhood memories that have become a living part of me, brimming under the surface of my consciousness.

Later in life, Aunt Peggy shared a moment with me that resonated deeply.  In my early twenties, I took a rather painful journey toward coming out.  As the last of our grandparents’ generation, Aunt Peggy stood not only for herself, but also for the approval I had hoped for from my grandparents.  They all passed away too soon.  On a cold winter’s day in Pennsylvania, with snow and ice coating the ground, Aunt Peggy agreed to take a walk with me out into the chill.  I will never forget walking along the road beside my aunt, tongue-tied and floundering, until I could finally say the words, “I’m gay.”  Aunt Peggy stopped walking, turned, looked directly in my eyes and said, “Well, are you still Amy?”  “Ummm… yes.” “Then I still love you.”  We just kept walking, hand-in-hand, me with a smile that warmed from the inside out and a lighter step.

What makes a life well lived?  The life of our Aunt Peggy is a radiant example.  Love for family.  A generous spirit.  A sense of humor.  Kindness emanating from every pore.  A gentle demeanor combined with inner strength.   And, of course, nimble fingers for incredible piano playing.

Families form people.  Aunt Peggy and Uncle Gene’s Lebanon created memories that will always be a part of me, not only as a glorious plantation home, with all of its venerable history, but from what that place was with the two of them in it.  In quiet moments, I can reach back, take those memories in my hands, pull them close and warm my heart with them.

Two Girls in a Bedouin Desert Camp

Most people spend the Christmas holidays with their families, eating turkey, drinking egg nog, revisiting old memories and making new ones.  This year, on New Year’s Day, my partner Jaime and I found ourselves in Aqaba, Jordan, having just crossed the Red Sea from Nuweiba, Egypt by ferry the day before.  Our cab driver picked us up in Aqaba to take us to a Bedouin camp in the Wadi Rum Desert, that big open space on the map you see at the bottom of Jordan.  “Big open space” was the sum total of what we knew about where we were heading, other than my aunt telling us that the Wadi Rum is where they shot the famous film, “Lawrence of Arabia,” and where they say that T. E. Lawrence hid in the desert before his siege of Aqaba during the Arab Revolt.

The cab driver pressed the accelerator down to the floor, shuttling his human cargo as quickly as he could.  Red desert, stark mountains, and the occasional camel flew past.  We stopped only for military checkpoints supervised by solemn men in military garb, large automatic guns slung nonchalantly on their hips.  We drove in silence.  Not knowing where we were going, I questioned again our decision not to wear headscarves.  The night before we saw women socializing in the streets of Aqaba, a welcome change after our week in Egypt, where we saw few women out in public.  Still, the women in Aqaba all wore headscarves.  I thought back to a previous visit to Cairo, when we walked up to an Egyptian friend that we adore, slightly uncertain of the silk headscarves that we’d tied on with varying degrees of success.  We knew we were faking it, but didn’t know what else to do.  Our friend smiled and asked, “Are you Muslim?”  Long silence.  “Then you don’t need to wear them.”  We haven’t worn headscarves since.

We pulled up to the Wadi Rum Visitor Centre where our guide Mahmoud* waited to greet us.  Mahmoud was young, charming, and looked more than a little bit Hollywood, sporting expensive Ray-Bans along with the traditional red and white-checked Jordanian headdress and robes.  Soon he had us in the back of his jeep hurtling toward camp down desert “roads,” which were actually paths in the sand carved out by other cars earlier in the day.

Camp was four tents pitched in the middle of the desert.  Mahmoud and his cousin Abdul were the only people around.

Arriving at camp

After drinking Bedouin tea, we were off on the back of a pickup truck flying across the red rock desert, like I imagine the surface of Mars must look, without the deadly chemicals.  We ran up a hill made of red sand and climbed to the top of different rock formations, including a huge natural archway.  We had lunch by a fire in our own private canyon, then watched the brilliant sun plunge into the desert sand, painting the sky with brilliant pinks and golds as it said goodnight.

Climbing up to the archway

We made it!

Desert sunset

We pulled back into camp expecting to see the six other guests supposedly spending the night, but it was still just us.  We settled in by the fire, mesmerized by its light, and relaxed while sipping Bedouin tea.  After some time passed, Mahmoud asked, “You ready for dinner?  Come and see.”  We trundled out into the cold and watched several men dig a large, steaming oven out of the earth, where our chicken dinner had been cooking in the dirt for hours.  Turns out, chicken cooked underground, along with fresh cucumber and yogurt and rice, is simply delicious.

Bedouin Oven

Two other visitors arrived, a young couple from Mexico, bringing along with them their guide, who I will somewhat affectionately refer to as Scary Uncle.  We really enjoyed our time with Mahmoud and his cousin, but weren’t quite as sure what to make of Scary Uncle.  He didn’t help his cause when during dinner, with no prompting, he informed us, “Man is number 1.”  “What?”  “I’m number 1, my wife is number 2.”  Jaime responded, “I’m glad I’m not married to you.”  Ho, ho, ho…. I’m pretty sure he didn’t understand her, but it only made me love her more.  Scary Uncle then started communicating with us by crossing his eyes and making funny faces, like an Arab Larry or Mo who wandered off the set of a “Three Stooges” episode.  I became totally transfixed by my chicken plate, the fire, and the top of the tent.  But we laughed, what else can you do?

Later the hookah pipe came out.  [Mom, stop reading here – the cat’s REALLY hungry.  You should take care of him, seriously, he’s starving.  And the story is boring from here on out anyway.]  It must have been the hookah, because when Scary Uncle said, “Come outside, let me show you the stars,” the only rational reaction should have been, “Oh, nooooo…. nope, thanks, we’re nice and comfy here by the fire.”  Instead, thinking that others were joining us, Jaime and I moved toward the door and went outside.  We suddenly found ourselves alone with Scary Uncle out under the desert sky.  He moved off into the darkness and told us to follow him.   I reminded myself that one of the visitors at the camp happened to be from the U.S. Embassy and decided that the group back at the fire could definitely hear us scream.  We heard noises in front of us in the darkness, large objects being thrown onto the ground.  “Body bags,” I whispered, while we laughed.  Turns out that Scary Uncle wasn’t so scary after all, as he set up a nice little mattress on the ground for us, wrapped us in blankets, then jumped in his pickup truck and drove off into the night.  We watched his truck bump and hurtle over the sand, the headlights growing smaller and then disappearing into the darkness.

For two city girls, the silence of the desert was overwhelming.  We stopped laughing long enough to breathe in the stillness.  The silence had substance, weight.  It felt heavy, like the several thick woolen blankets that had just been cast onto our shoulders.  The night sky was scattered with the gold dust of thousands of stars.  We leaned into each other, feeling our warmth against the bitter cold air, and welcomed in the New Year.

* Some names changed to protect privacy.

The Night the Swiss French Danced

I had good reason for being in a foul mood that day.  My cousin Dana – young, beautiful, kind, funny, mother of two – had just been diagnosed with a rare form of intestinal cancer, stage four.  Only 70 people have been diagnosed with the disease over the past 25 years.  Now Dana is one of them – a winner of the worst kind, in some twisted version of destiny’s lottery.  She doesn’t deserve this; she should be laughing with her friends and planning the toys Santa will bring for her kids, not calendaring chemo treatments.

I heard this news while living abroad, far away from my family, compounding the inevitable feelings of helplessness.  My partner and I have been living in Geneva, Switzerland, for several months now, the land of breathtaking mountain scenes, happy cows, delicious fondue, and the Swiss French – a reserved and unsmiling people.

I learned early on that smiling at a stranger on the street here can be considered rude.  A gesture of over-familiarity, not friendliness.

Hearing bad news from home, I was feeling displaced and lonely.  Geneva can feel very isolating when, like me, you don’t speak the language well.  Finding the right words to buy a sandwich or replace a light bulb can feel like a major achievement.  On good days, I call this a “cultural experience” that is “good” for me.  I smile while reflecting on the odd split personality of a people who are warm enough to kiss three times when greeting for the first time, but who won’t smile at each other on the street.  On bad days, I’m easily annoyed with people for refusing to understand my broken French or talk to me in English.  I’m convinced that there’s a Great Swiss Conspiracy to pretend they don’t understand me, even when I’m sure they do.  I imagine that when I leave the store they make snide remarks in English, share a robust laugh at my expense, and revel in my frustration.

To shake me from my funk, my partner Jaime decided we should go to see the Harlem Gospel Choir, visiting here from New York.  The suggestion wasn’t a perfect fit.  If Facebook asked me to declare my relationship with God, I’d have to say, “It’s Complicated.”  All the more so now, when I’m more than a little bit angry with God for picking my cousin out of the crowd for the wrong kind of special attention.  At the moment, I’m not much in the mood to hear from His/Her followers.  But Jaime’s already bought the tickets.  A little American holiday cheer may be just the thing.  So, off we go.

We arrive in the cold at a theater in Thonex, right on the French border.  The auditorium was set up like a high school gymnasium Christmas concert, with rows and rows of white plastic seats lined up facing the stage.  Soon after we settled in, the lights dimmed, and the founder of the Choir, an African-American man bent with age shuffled onto the stage.  His jokes hit the impatient crowd hard and bounced off, like hail hitting a car windshield during a Wyoming storm.  He started with jokes about race.  Here, where 99% of the people are white.  He then talked about the Choir’s recent audiences with the Pope, going into great detail about how important the Holy Father is to him personally.  The Pope, as you might know, is pretty Catholic.  He did this here, where they take great pride in the fact that John Calvin began the Protestant Reformation in Old Town Geneva over 400 years ago.

With the audience stirring restlessly, he trundled off the stage.  The choir troupe then exploded out into the theater in a vision of sound and light, dressed in traditional African garb shouting vivid blues, greens, reds and yellows.  They launched into a high-powered rendition of “Every Time I Feel The Spirit.”  The lead singer began clapping her hands in a large arc above her head, exhorting the audience with, “Alright, everybody, clap your hands together now!”  Jaime and I were up on our feet, dancing.  We discovered quickly that were the only ones up on our feet, with the exception of two couples up in front of the stage.  We saw about 5 people in the crowd of 500 clapping their hands.

We weren’t the only ones who noticed.  The music shrieked to a stop.  The performer walked to the front of the stage, hands on her hips, and looked out at the audience, “Can y’all not understand me?”  I wanted to sneak up on stage and whisper in her ear, “Psst… you’re kind of in France right now, soo, ummm… they might not.”  “I said to put your hands together, that means clap your hands!  This is how we do it in Harlem, let’s go!”  Nervous laughter, a few more hands in the air.  She walked to the front of the stage again, peering out at the audience to make sure they complied with her demands.

More people rose to dance after enthusiastic and continuing exhortations from the Choir.  The audience was slightly amused and willing, but also uncomfortable, like they were trying to move in a suit one size too small.

As the night continued, two people in wheelchairs were assisted with moving into a space behind us.  A man and a woman, both sitting because they could not stand.  These were not temporary wheelchairs.  Their faces were partially slack, their necks cocked back toward the ceiling.  These were people who had been using those wheelchairs for most, if not all, of their lives.  Their bodies were the victims of some internal rebellion, an uprising by nerve endings refusing to spark, rejecting their owner’s mental commands.  The older man caught my eyes and smiled.  I smiled in return, then we stepped out into the aisle to avoid blocking their view as we moved to the music.

The battle continued, Harlem Gospel Choir verses infamous Swiss French reserve.  A soul-wrenching solo version of “Amazing Grace” won the audience over once and for all.  They stepped it up one more notch with their grand finale, an up-tempo Christmas medley, and finally most of the people in the audience rose to their feet.  In that moment, I turned around to see the man and woman in wheelchairs holding their hands in a large arc, swaying to the music, dancing with everything they had.  They were feeling the music.  His mouth was open in a smile, eyes shining with unadulterated joy.  All we could do in response was dance harder, move closer, feel more.

I can’t get that image out of my mind.  That night, in a small auditorium, two people in wheelchairs held hands and danced.  Their hands clasped together, one human being connecting with another, arms swaying to the music.  They danced with every fiber of their being.  They restored in me a sense of wonder at the beauty of the human spirit.  Two people I could not speak to, but who gave me hope.  My beautiful cousin still has cancer, and there is nothing on this earth that can make that fair or right.  But she is still with us, and she will be today, and tomorrow, and the next.  As a family, we will feel the love and the music each day offers.  We will hold hands across the miles.  We will dance with everything we’ve got.  In this precious moment, that is all we have.  It will have to be enough.