The Actual Dance is a love story. It is about the discovery of what love really means. It starts in the middle – in our 33rd year of marriage. The real beginning is when “I first notice Susan. We had not met yet.” It was when we were 16 years old.
Meeting someone and eyeballing them in that “16 year old boy sort of way,” getting married and staying that way for 33 years was both the hard part and the easy part. Anyone who has been married a very long time knows that the path is not always downhill. It is often uphill and around blind curves. By 33 though it is pretty much an integral way of life.
So when in our 33rd year of marriage Susan was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer that spread to her lymph nodes, I was confronted with the prospect of losing her. What I needed to know, then, was “how am I going to do this?”
I turned first to the Rabbi of our Temple. This encounter is a seminal moment in my existential “dance” and is a featured scene in The Actual Dance. It was a meeting destined to go wrong. Not a carefully planned counseling session set up through the office manager; but instead I show up at the Temple on a Tuesday night at 9:30 because it is “committee night” and I expect the Rabbi to be there. As it turns out, I run into the Rabbi in the hallway – “Oh, Hi Sam?” An unspoken, “what are you doing here?”
I clamor into the Rabbi’s office exclaiming I need to talk and the Rabbi is packing up to go home. I write this back-story to explain the “disconnect.” I tell the Rabbi “I need to talk about Susan.” And in the moment the Rabbi expresses empathy: “Oh, you are sad that Susan won’t see the grandkids grow up.”
Sounds horribly wrong, right? Well 13 years after the fact that is how I have been treating that incident. Thanks however to the distance and perspective offered by the performance of The Actual Dance by Chuk Obasi, I can see that what happened in that room is arguably much different than I remember it. I respond in the play with internal anger: “NO NO IT IS NONE OF THAT, I scream silently.” Is the line. Then I say: “What I need to know is how am I going to do this. How am I going to dance the last dance with Susan?”
Two points. First, this IS the question that every lover, spouse, caregiver has when faced with being with the person they love most in the world as they take their last breath. Second, it isn’t obvious. It is the question in retrospect, but not in the moment. I now realize that back in the year 2000 as this was happening I did NOT really know what I needed. Empathy might have been in. Just an ear to listen; or maybe a shoulder to cry on.
The truth is I didn’t know what I needed to know until I needed to know it. This “aha moment” is a reminder of how deeply personal the ritual of this “dance” is and that the unfolding of it in real-time for anyone is confusing. My portrayal of the Rabbi scene in the show is in some ways deeply unfair to the Rabbi. I perform it as if the Rabbi made a stupid mistake; instead of the gift of simply being there for me and allowing me to find out “What I need to know.”