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dancing with mortality
by mary etta perry

Degenerating Disc Syndrome has been confirmed, and thus has my mortality.

Surely significant, but somehow surprising to me, are the things that I find most sobering. Of course, we all know that one day we’ll not be able to do this, that or another something…and if we’ve watched our elders before us as they have become old, we know that aging is not a selective process. (What, indeed, would I or you or we choose to eliminate from our lives?!). In this, my season of reckoning, I find that I am keenly grieved to lose the joy of anticipation. I cannot again anticipate the exhilaration of unfettered excitement in many quite ordinary, yet important, activities…a hike to Skinny Dip Falls or to Twin Falls or to Moore’s Cove or to Coon Tree hiking trail. I reckon it has been three years since last I hiked a mountain trail; two years since I’ve walked a comfortable mile. But, I’ve never before known that I cannot again do so! This year, two turns around Straus Park was like gift and high achievement in the same package. And of course, I then expected that more challenging hikes would be forth-coming. I cannot now entertain that sweet thought!

It is no longer realistic for me to anticipate the rush of soul-freedom which is the fuel for running an easy mile just for the joy of running. I cannot again anticipate hitting a 3-point basket from the right corner of the court…or of feeling the sound of my bat as it connects for a solid outfield hit. These things I have done…but not for many years…nor have I grieved the not doing, for it never seemed too far fetched to feel or for me to think of having improved joints and bones and restored agility that would allow me again to do all the things that I have loved doing. These are only some of the many things I have done and would barter a small slice of heaven to do again! All these, and more! And for all these and more, I’m glad to say: “THESE things I have done”…and with tingling joy I remember them often. But memories do little or nothing to fill the spaces allowed for anticipated achievement. I grieve the gone-ness of that element of my life.

There are other things I have never done but have faithfully dreamed of doing, and in dreaming, have known the joy of expecting to do them. High on this list for me are:

1. At least one bungee jump.
2. One para-sailing flight.
3. A long cross-country ski hike on virgin snow.
4. One deep sea scuba dive.
5. One dance with and a kiss from a dolphin.

…..and I have long expected that I could, and therefore would, learn to pitch a split finger fast ball. All of these things, I must now learn not to anticipate. And that means the loss of much good pleasure!

When faced with the loss of some pleasurable activity, there is a tendency for a shocked response such as, “I just never expected…” or “it’s just too sudden!” I now know, though I may again forget, that natural losses are usually not sudden. To belabor my reflection of anticipation, the loss of that joyful exercise feels like a sudden and smothering loss, but in truth, all of my current recognizable losses are natural and they came about in subtle ways and at snail’s pace. Perhaps luckily, we just don’t attend our daily pleasures in ways that allow us to notice that they jolly well are growing old along with us. Indeed, they may be a few steps ahead of the ways we view our aging. For days, weeks or years we may not even answer their reminders until suddenly something opens a window, giving space for them to show into the garden of the present… into the very now of where we are, and into the light where they can no longer be over-looked, ignored, camouflaged or denied. And then we acknowledge them---and hear them say, “I am here, now, embrace me!” …and so, we do because we must!

When recognizing a personal loss, I believe it unlikely, if not impossible, that the first impulse will be to reach out and embrace the message…or the messenger. The MRI opened the window for me and forced me into the light, but I did not immediately pick up my pen and write pretty words. At first I was speechless, struck dumb as it were. I trembled and I tried to feel a prayer. I trembled more and I prayed less, until I was able to ask of God and of myself: What can I do with what I have just learned?

It is my nature to be analytical, and so I had to be. That is the best tool for processing even my small problems. And it was the first step toward accepting grace to meet the challenges of this staggering situation. I had to have time to match up what I believe about life against what dependable diagnostic technology had just confirmed about my body. Standing there between my good doctor and my best friend, staring at the lighted box of x-ray views, I did not think: “Oh wow! What fine poetry is slipping through those intricate MRI messages?” I only felt thought and then knew that factually the messages were advising me that I can no longer ask my body to jump, climb, gyrate, bend, squat or kneel in the manner of my heretofore agile performances. Those natural and wonderful dances must now be reprogrammed. Even on days when I feel able, I must ask my body to refrain, lest I risk imposing damageor pain, neither of which could afford any redemptive rewards.

When pain is the single most present power in any moment or day, creative energies are simply not available. Contemplative meditation and prayer are just beyond the reach of one in the hold of real pain. So if I am to find pretty words that help me define in a personal way this dance with my own mortality, this the most intimate dance since my birth, in all of my life…I must use the time of my able days for orderly thinking, processing and writing. In order to embrace that by which my diminished able-ness allows, I must gather, hold fast and celebrate all that the able hours provide. I pledge my energies to that goal, and I commission those who love me to remind me, should I forget, that the painful days are under girded by the new Dances I have now begun to learn!

Mary Etta Perry is an octogenarian and a poet. She was a professional nurse for fifty years and is now retired and dancing in Asheville.

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