I Was Dancing
by Francine Schwartz
There’s a photograph of the two of us. I’m two or three and wearing a big bow in my hair. We’re walking along a street bordered by backyards on either side. He’s holding my hand, and because I’m so little, my arm is lifted up towards him. He’s smiling broadly. I’m wearing a party dress that my mother had bought for me in France. I look happy.
Just being with him was good. When my hand was in his, everything was okay. His hands were usually cold, just like mine. Something that amused us both. When I felt sad or afraid, all he had to do was tell me that everything would be all right, and I believed him. Just because he said it. He made me feel safe.
That big smile of his whenever I entered a room was the same smile I would see all those years later. A smile that leapt right off of his handsome face like a rabbit from the brush. I’ll never know for sure if he knew exactly who I was when I went to visit him that last time. I have logical reasons to believe that he didn’t. But somehow I know that he did. He recognized something that he had known and loved for more than fifty years, and no doubt the idea of me even before that.
The image of how he looked that afternoon — so thin and fragile — still swims through my mind, cruelly and at the most unlikely times. Although my mother had tried to prepare me, the reality of being there and seeing him, with his sunken eyes, sallow complexion, and agonizing boniness, was something I couldn’t have been prepared for. It was difficult to even touch him. Because I was afraid that in my clumsiness I would bruise him, or otherwise hurt him. He seemed so breakable, as if he were made of rice paper. And he appeared hollow inside, weightless even, like a paper lantern. I feared crushing him.
He spoke to me conspiratorially about how they were rounding up all the Jews. He wanted to know how in the world I had gotten in. I told him it wasn’t like that anymore, that the world had changed and that Jews were safe in America. He stared at me for a while without speaking. His eyes, which used to be a mesmeric shade of sea green, were dull and distant.
I wondered if he had gone away, then suddenly he mumbled, “Well, look around you. Do you see any here?” There were no other people in the room except us.
We called my mother using my cell phone. This was something new for him and he seemed to enjoy it. After I had said a few words to her, I held the phone to his ear. He was delighted, just knowing she was on the phone.
“Josette, your sister is here.” he said, smiling.
My mother doesn’t have a sister.
When my mother arrived about a half hour later, his eyes lit up at least as much as they had when he saw me.
“The belle of the ball,” he said. “Look at her.”
She later told me that in the late afternoons when she would say goodbye before heading home, he would often blame her for leaving so soon.
“You’re off to go dancing with your boyfriend.” he would say. But sometimes he simply said, “Please take me with you. I don’t want to stay here.” That was difficult. Because she wanted to.
He asked me what my father did for a living. I smiled and told him he knew perfectly well what my father used to do. He reminisced about an aunt I was supposed to remember but didn’t. He was wearing a fleece vest I had purchased for him, a vest that he had pulled out of the closet that morning on his own. I doubted that he realized it was me who had purchased it for him. I wanted him to know. My mother, as if sensing that, reminded him.
Eating was a struggle. And with him being as thin and weak as he was, it was important for him to eat. Both my mother and the nurse were urging him to eat. And now me. The food looked terrible. He didn’t want it, and what made it worse is that nearly every bite or swallow led to hideous coughing and choking. He asked for water, which the nurse explained would make him choke even more.
I’m sure this scene had gone on before all too frequently. Finally someone brought him a small paper cup of water to which she added a powder that acted as a thickener so that he could swallow it more easily, without choking. He drank what amounted to a teaspoon or two.
And then he looked at me like his very old friend and confided, “All I want is a drink of cool water.” He drew out the vowels in the word “cool” as if savoring the thought of it.
I couldn’t hold it in any longer. The tears that had been there from the moment I first saw him were beyond my ability to hold back. “Oh God, I’m choking on something,” I explained feebly, smiling through my tears.
I got up and headed towards his bathroom, coughing several times as if trying to dislodge something. In his bathroom, still coughing, I ran some water in the sink. I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror. My eyeliner was a bit smeared so I rubbed some of it off with my fingers.
I saw the reflection of his bed in the mirror. The room was a dull wash of beige and white, accented by a streak of white sunshine that highlighted the particles of dust dancing above his bed. He would die here.
His face, which had been so handsome and strong, was now gaunt and feeble. A mean trick of time. If only I could reverse it. I thought of when his coming home meant hugs and laughter and sometimes even presents. I smiled, remembering. He wouldn’t be doing that anymore. He taught me about honesty, about not taking things for granted, about not making assumptions. He taught me about driving defensively and thinking about the poor. He taught me about saving for a rainy day and having a conscience.
But our ideas diverged. I was liberally minded and a free spirit. He was a child of immigrants, a businessman, and believed in the American dream. I had my own ideas, and he held on to his. As I watched his pained existence, I knew full well that all he wanted, even more than the cool drink of water, was a ticket out. And I wanted to give it to him.
When I hugged him goodbye, careful so as not to crumple him, I’m sure he knew it would be the last time. He looked at me as if he were seeing all the me’s that had been since the day I was born. It only took a few seconds, but I’m sure that he saw all that. And I saw the face of the man I had loved all my life, even though I’d forgotten about it for a while.
“Goodbye, Dad,” I said. He held me very tight and didn’t say anything at all. He didn’t have to.
A few weeks after he died, I had a wonderful dream. My dad, looking exactly as he had when I was sixteen and he was in his mid-fifties, was standing in a room smiling at me. He wore a white suit and stood very tall and proud. His silver grey hair was slickly combed back. He was strikingly handsome and looked so happy.
The room was something between a theater set depiction of the outdoor entrance to a club, or simply a big auditorium decorated for a festive event. Sparkly lights, moving spots. It felt nice there. He emerged from behind a door. Or maybe he just appeared. I don’t remember exactly. Dreams have a way of dissolving, even when you swear you’ll remember every last detail.
“I was dancing. I’m happy now,” he announced, his sea green eyes flashing and that smile that swept my mom off her feet the first time she laid eyes on him in Paris. When she was interviewing for a secretarial job and he was the army colonel hiring.
I smiled back. There was nothing that needed to be said. I knew he was all right and he’d come back to tell me. Must be because he wanted to let me know, as he always had, that everything was all right.
Copyright © 2008 by Francine Schwartz