How I Accepted my Father’s Terminal Cancer One Plié at a Time

How traveling from hell to the barre, and then back again, helped me become a better caretaker and appreciate life

The room slid around us, unchained to gravity and reason. Multiple people entered, stayed a moment, only to overlap with others. All doctors, their staff, and other teams I had never even heard of regarded us with sad, heavy eyes. This was an ordinary Tuesday for them, a blip of their morning that punctuated their day. They would move on to lunch without skipping a beat. I would learn that this wasn’t a sign of the medical team’s callousness, but their belief in survival.

I remember I lost all feeling in the balls on my feet and the inside of my hips. My lips tingled and the tile floor threatened to rush up and kiss me if I moved too quickly. Being an only child, your parents come to be these pillars of your life, unchanging and constant. When you learn that one is about to die sooner than later, you become unearthed. Like a naked plant waiting to move into their new pot, you sit with roots exposed and flakes of dirt around you, remnants of your former life and surroundings.

Small cell lung cancer is one of the more aggressive diseases a person can get. It impacts both young and old, smokers and non, but there seems to be a growing population of ex-hippies and boomers finding that this is how they will meet their end. The Facebook support groups are littered with social media-loving 60-year-olds and their adult children, who are actually at this strange intersection of childhood and adulthood. They don’t have their own children just yet, some might just recently bought a house or gotten married, but most of them are unable to fathom a caretaker role this early in their lives. I remember reading dozens of posts and comments in the first 24 hours since diagnosis and noticed quickly that the adult children took their parents’ treatment by the horns with a vigor that rivaled that of the actual cancer patient.

This was an easy role for me and my husband to fill. Ambitious professionals who listened to podcasts and knew how to work Excel, we met oncologists that were five to seven years older than us head-on. We quizzed them, followed up constantly, probed for their recommendations and knowledge of emerging treatments. There is a level of consumption with it: when you’re driving, doing laundry, or sitting in a boardroom, you find yourself constructing an argument for a future appointment. Can we try carboplatin again? What about etoposide? Two weeks on and then two off?

It’s shaky ground to rest your sanity on. Treatments stop working, lab counts rise and fall, and before you know it you’re disoriented and facing an entirely new treatment direction. My nails bit into my palms daily, looking for something to grasp while we all floundered, something to anchor to so I could keep the illusion of forward movement alive for my parents and family. I grabbed the barre, and the cold metal bit me back, and it did not let go.

Being thin and sinewy to start with did not give me any advantage in the world of adult ballet, nor did I expect it to. I learned quickly the only way to experience any success in this art is to lose the concept of your own body, and then introduce yourself to it again, with focus and muscles. Weeks turned into months and I could soon register the feeling of my shin pressing against air, resisting and building endurance against the invisible.

My head learned to whip around and catch my own gaze in the mirror, again and again, and again. My legs learned to fall, or rather to tombé into the next series of motions. It was all as easy as walking for my instructors but was taken as seriously as possible for the class to avoid injury and increase our likelihood for new, positive associations for these basic steps and gestures. The clip of their words in my head, relevé, plié, two jumps, two jumps, were the only instructions I needed to focus on. Bend your knees before and after each jump, feel the motion and energy needed to launch yourself into the air, if only for a moment. It feels silly, and maybe even looks it, but it is magic.

I could now hear and feel the weight of piano keystrokes, similar to how I did for years as a child in the choir. Instead of my prepubescent voice warbling along with the others, we slid our legs down the barre together or repeated a waltz combination. I always asked for another repeat, as practice was the only way to cement this new art and language into my bones. I could harness it, and fight it until I spoke it. There was also comfort in knowing that once I did tire and start to forget my right from left, I could return to it later. It waited for me each week, manageable yet mysterious, and with none of the winding, cavernous nature my personal life had.

I rest the tips of my fingers on the barre now at the new recommendation of my instructor. My arches are stronger, and the balls of my feet know how to root themselves to the ground, ready for when I place all my weight over them. Ballet forces you to live in this stoic and invisible place where total control is possible, or perhaps more possible than it is in the real world. No one scoffs when you are trying to pursue it, nor do they when you fail to grasp it. They just chirp back all the instructions you need to get through that moment: relivé, plié, two jumps.


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