Falling Awake: A familiar story

Provided to the QAM News

It’s a familiar story: I met someone who became my friend. And though this someone was a man, we were never more than a friendship. From his first dance class in my studio, there was something between us that might have made people think we were more, but it was never like that.

I remember the first time we talked, really talked. After rehearsal, we leaned against the barre with our arms folded, our thoughts freed, and from then on, our conversations ranged from crucial issues (prejudice—he was the only Black man in town—personal history, politics) to the everyday (films, books, the absurdities of small town life). “That woman,” I said to C. once, upset about a comment made by the graphic designer working on my new book cover, “had the nerve to say that I dressed too showily for a small town. What kind of an artist would say that?” There was a long pause. “Someone ought to tell that woman not to walk around in yoga pants unless she enjoys her backside looking like a mattress folded in half,” C. said. I loved him for saying the words, for being a man who could deliver a line like that. He always did know how to make me laugh. Part of why was that, like most joking between close friends, ours didn’t need apology. C. wasn’t a man for groupthink sensitivity. I found it a buoyant freedom to be with someone whose sense of humor grounded me and seemed to rival my own.

These were the kind of moments between us that still come back to me. We laughed about so many things. And when he got cancer, once or twice we even tried to laugh about that, but it fell flat. I kept working on a piece of choreography with a frantic tenacity, as if I could outpace what was coming, which right there is the worst lie you can tell yourself. If only I could compose the fear, I thought, I could handle it. Whatever I thought I knew about coping, I had no ability to admit that the choreography may have been a desperate counter to loss and grief, but it wasn’t working.

Meanwhile, C. got weaker.

If there is one sink hole you never want to go down, it’s this one: I started to read everything on-line about cancer.  But what those websites never tell you is that the only way to deal with loss is to, first, surrender to its intensity—which is like the seven major plates of earth shifting in your chest—and secondly, you should take all the time you have left and love others as much as you can. There are so many people in need of so much love.

The year after C. was gone, when I struggled the most with anger and sadness, it felt as if a lot about life held no security. Losing someone intensifies the feeling of being cut off from solid connection. It’s like reaching out for a safety net and falling through the mesh. I still feel a loneliness so deep when I look at a framed photo of C. dressed as Othello that sits on a shelf in my living room. But we are equipped to move on, wired to recover. And so we do.

But we don’t forget. In fact, memories sustain us. They can be emotionally draining and keep us up at night, but like emotions, they are often good, just as often bad, but they are always key to our well-being, basic as trust and hope. Words I couldn’t have articulated when my friend was dying but just now they literally wrote themselves.

And today, when I drive from the ferry to teach dance in Port Townsend, I give myself extra time to stop in Chimicum because that’s where C. lived. I like to shop at the farm store that sits by the four-corner stop, but mostly I want to get out of the car, stand, stretch, and breathe in the air that surrounds a place C. loved.

I know metaphors are an old, old, writing tool, and I like most the ones that help me address something that hurts while calming me at the same time. And when I walk by the yarn store on the ground floor of my building with its window full of colorful skeins, I can’t help but compare weaving to, well, us. That two threads need to bind in order to knit is just so metaphorically perfect.

So in all of life’s metaphors, this one stands out for me: I was bound to C. And in so many ways, I’m still at loose ends without him.

But I’m stronger. The strength I’ve gained may feel more like a knot than a knit, but the point is it holds. And though I’d like to say this hold comes from having known C., it’s not. It’s from having the courage to risk letting him know me.

This is the line I say to myself every time I reread this piece: There are no half-ways when it comes to love, it’s always about risk. I believe it is trying to tell me to end right here.

Mary Lou Sanelli is the author of Every Little Thing, a collection of essays nominated for a Washington State Book Award. Previous titles include fiction, non-fiction, and a new children's title, Bella Likes To Try. She works as a speaker and a master dance teacher. For more information about her and her work, visit www.marylousanelli.com.