Thursday, January 11, 2007

Muscle Memory

Walking into the ballet studio on 33rd and Harvard felt like walking into my soul. I wanted to somehow convey to my family that as they stepped into these hallways, dressing rooms, and studios, they were walking through me. Passing through my skin and beholding who I am. I swallowed instead.

The studio always hosted an odd mix of smells. The excessive amounts of resin used for point shoe traction lent a certain dryness to the air but underneath, girding all smells was the damp, pervasive odor of decades of perspiration. I am countless different people when I walk through the door. A scared 5-year-old at Nutcracker rehearsal, who is overwhelmed by the limbs and kicks and afraid of disappointing the fierce lady with dark eyes; a shy 8-year-old who never speaks to anyone, ironically longing for friends and yet cherishing the one place I can be silent and no one finds me strange for my silence; a gawky 13-year-old who is weak, struggling, jealous, and fighting the natural instincts of my growing body; a confident high school student who begins to take risks in both dance and life; a college student, who finally feels the proud eyes of Ms. Larkin doting on me and my dancing. I still felt unworthy, but basked in the glow of her pride.
And now she sits in a chair in Roman’s office/her old office and she does not remember. She is alone, and so I am alone. She forgets me, she forgets herself.

Roman walks us through the studio showing us the changes that have been made. I fight the urge to run to my place at the barre where I stood for so many years. The place where I sat fairy princess-style, watching Ms. Larkin skip around the room, a delicate crystal prism dangling from her fingertips. As the rainbows of light flickered in our eyes, she invited us to imagine that we too could be prisms, magically transforming music into movement. And so we’d stand at our assigned places, bending, stretching, kicking, and waiting to turn into rainbows.

Roman gently escorts his mother on our tour, she barely notices the change of scenery.

Alzheimer’s is a cruel, cruel disease.

Before we leave, I pause to write a note to one of the other teachers, Ms. Hope. I notice the purple d├ęcor of the waiting area and know that she must have played a design role, considering purple is her favorite color. Ms. Larkin stands behind the receptionist’s counter and I want so badly to see the true Ms. Larkin—just once, if only for a fleeting moment. It feels as though I have been dismembered when I no longer see the best version of myself in her eyes. I am left with only my stories and perception-clouded memories.

I receive a miracle. From my limited work with Alzheimer’s patients in Hospice I know that many times the only way to connect is to delve deep into the past to our earliest memories. The oldest memories are often the most accessible. I begin to tell her of how I am teaching ballet and how I use her “5 Positions Song” to teach the basic five positions of the feet and arms. She still looks blank but I forge ahead. I begin to sing and move, “First position and second position…” By the time I get to third position her eyes connect with mine and she begins to sing and move in synch with me. As we come to the closing pas de burre her eyes twinkle and she smiles at me—the true Ms. Larkin smile that always said to me, “I am pleasantly surprised that you’ve made me proud of you.”

Then she was gone, lost in her own world again. But I had received my miracle. What had been lost had been re-membered. As we left the studio, there was a quiet sadness within me and yet a breathless thankfulness for the gift of muscle memory that can re-member us when our minds have failed us, for the sinews that can hold us in community long after our minds have severed all ties to reality. To live she must stay at the studio, surrounded by the movement that has taught her to live fully in the present moment, thankful for this breath, this step, this person beside her, this dance that is the breath of life made visible.

I learned that hot August day to trust my muscles and the memories that lie buried within them.

“Night is drawing nigh. How long the road is. But, for all the time the journey has taken, how you have needed every second of it.” Dag Hammarskjold