After a performance of The Actual Dance not so long ago during the discussion with the audience someone asked me if I felt lonely during the time I was caring for Susan, my wife, and I thought she was not going to survive her breast cancer.
It had not occurred to me that I was feeling “lonely.” Yet, as is often the case, even after nearly 150 performances of a play that I wrote, I learned something new. Of course, I was lonely. I was there being strong with Susan as she might die, having these incredible mental trips to another place and time in the Universe, which I call “The Ballroom.” No one else knew. Just me. It was where I would “go” because I could not handle the “real world.” The world of holding Susan’s hand as she would take her last breath.
Susan, on the other hand, developed a different mental posture. A fierce determination to survive and a welcome, when should could, to anyone who shared that belief in and with her.
We, Susan and I, are now enjoying telling the story of our different approaches following performances of The Actual Dance. There is even a short video produced by some students at American University a few years ago where Susan and I articulate our different approaches to that existential moment. It is called “Our Story.” You can watch it here.
Thanks to that question to me after the show, I now understand that the ritual of caring for someone you love through their end of life can be among the most “lonely” moments of our lives. I could not share with anyone my deepest fears and the terror of having to “be there” for Susan when it came time. The most frequently repeated idea in the show, I now realize, is a variation of: “I can’t imagine I can do what I know I have to do.”
So often an obituary is written something like: “She passed away quietly surrounded by her loving family.” It sounds warm, comforting and together for a sad but gracious transition. Yet, my experience in preparing for that moment was stark fear. It didn’t matter who else was in the room with Susan and me when things were going bad, I was alone in the Ballroom experiencing a phantom orchestra warming up for what would be the waltz Susan and my soul would dance until she slipped away. Talk about lonely!
At the moment, I am aching because I know a friend is engaged in this existential ritual with his wife. In the play, I refer to these moments as people “watching” from either the darken walls of the ballroom staring into the brilliantly lit dance floor, or perhaps from a gallery above the dance floor as someone else is going through the ritual of end-of-life with their loved one.
What I am discovering now too is the pain of not being able to help in any real way. I desperately want to sit and hold his hand and talk with him and hug him and to let him know he is not alone. I don’t think that is possible. It would not have been possible for me to have allowed someone else, even my children, on the dance floor with me and Susan. They could be in the “gallery” but only I could be on the dance floor with Susan.
The opening lines of the play: “There is dance. A dance that one day each and every one of us will dance.” What I have learned is that no matter who or how many people are “crunched around the darkened walls of the Ballroom” sharing their love and watching this existential moment: We – the one’s whose essence have become intertwined with the one we love – will always dance with them alone. It will be the ultimate consummation of our love.