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.