“A slow section of a pas de deux requiring great skill and strength by the dancers”

The title of this post comes from one of the definitions of the word “adagio.”  Years ago, a dear friend of mine – J – finally succumbed to the ravages of HIV after living with it for more than 15 years, a rare feat in the 1980s and early 90s.  After J died, I wrote a poem called “Adagio” to try to figure out how I would live without him.  J was the minister of music at the first church I felt at home in since I stopped going to church when I left home for college.  His humor, his courage, his musicianship and his theological perspectives were like life support for me in those first few years that I struggled with returning to church.

J’s conversations were always peppered with puns, wry observations, and piercing insights.  I was on a church committee with him once when we were discussing whether the cross was too prominent a focal point in the sanctuary.  Someone on the committee said, “Well, I don’t know why we’re even having this discussion.  The cross IS the focal point, the starting point, for Christian worship, isn’t it?!”  J responded with an intensity that stunned everyone in the room.  He leaned forward and said with a quiet ferocity, “No.  No.  The focal point of Christian worship is the communion table.  We don’t gather around the cross.  We gather around the table.  The table is what makes us a family.”

In J’s last weeks, my then-partner and I were on the rota of bringing in food to J and his partner.  J especially loved pie – which he called Vitamin P – and so we made sure that a pie was always one of our menu items when we brought dinner to J and his partner.  Sometimes we would just sit and watch him sleep while we swapped J stories.  Often a group of us would sit around his bed and sing to him.  It was a long goodbye, and yet, like every death, there was still a shocking suddenness to it when he was finally gone.

I had to do some digging to find that old poem, “Adagio.”  My search was prompted by what in our household is now a double whammy of June 6 and 7.  June 6 is the birthday of Mary, a long-time and much-loved friend of PW’s and mine, and a mothering tower of power in Sheerah and Lulu’s lives.  Mary died this past December after a lifetime of challenging health issues that stemmed from being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 15.  At age 18, Mary was not expected to live six more months.  For years, she told people she had surpassed her expiration date.

Mary died at age 46, leaving behind an enormous and heartbroken galaxy of family (her wife and their three children, plus Sheerah & Lulu, her mother, her siblings and their families, her in-laws), friends, former co-workers, and neighbors. Mary’s Facebook page lives on without her, and many of us posted birthday greetings to her yesterday.

June 7, the back half of the double whammy, is the 19th anniversary of the death of PW’s father.  He died suddenly at age 54, a mere three years older than I am now. And if the universe weren’t already strange enough, June 7 is also my parents’ 57th wedding anniversary.  I suspect that some of those 57 years of my parents’ marriage have been long, and some have flown by.  But a death year doesn’t vary in its interminable-ness, in my experience.  So I’m guessing that the 19 years of PW’s dad being dead feel longer than any number can measure.  At least that’s how it looks in her eyes.

I’m not one who cares for that whole “He/She is in a better place” stuff.  For me, the “better place” idea is one of the many theoretically helpful things people say to console someone else, or themselves. I know it’s usually well-intentioned, but I’d rather just have someone stand next to me and say nothing, or say, “This sucks.” Or, “I’m so sorry.” Or, “There are no words, so I’m not going to say anything.  I’m just going to stand here with you and breathe.”

Living on after losing a loved one feels to me like trying to dance with a missing partner.  Like the title of this post, it’s slow, and it requires great skill and strength.  While nobody knows what comes after death for the ones who leave us, I do believe that on our side of things, it is still possible to tend to an evolving relationship with a dead person.  We have to invent new moves, new words, new ears for listening more deeply than we’ve ever had to listen before.  In my experience, the relationship doesn’t die with the person, but the change is so mind-boggling and heart-shattering, it can feel like the relationship is also dead.

For anyone else out there who is mourning, trying to figure out the new steps to this strange dance of loving someone who is no longer here, here’s a little poetic offering for you, one of my many attempts over the years to cobble together some shards of meaning out of incomprehensible loss.


For J

In a last spinning step
you glided through the door that is no door.
The remaining steps – the ones we do without you –
follow the rhythms of
“I remember when…”
“Once when he…”

It is good, the dance of remembering,
and we practice it momently.
We use intricate moves to step through sorrow,
broader steps to trace a bad pun.

This movement between your world and ours
now demands a syncopation that is new to us.
Sometimes we improvise, with dipping and twirling.
Sometimes we take comfort in a set pattern
of predictable movement.
Often the dance is hard.
We forget our steps, or we don’t know them at all.
We bump into each other.
We are afraid to lead, or too stuck to follow.

Still, somehow, there is grace in our clumsiness.
Ours is an awkward grace of heavy feet
moving by the sheer force of will.
We are down one partner now,
but we dance our memories into the future as best we can.

We dance.
We must keep moving.

© Joy Howard, 1993/2010

I had a different video picked out, Eddie Vedder and Neil Young singing “The Long Road.”  But then I found this one that is such a great connection to my previous post, and the lyrics are such an evocative portrait of what grief feels like to me.  The way they end the song, both the sound and the visual of father and daughter singing with and to each other, reduced me to a blubbering mess.  You may need a whole box of tissues.  I ended up needing a beach towel.

9 responses to ““A slow section of a pas de deux requiring great skill and strength by the dancers”

  1. Stunning and purely, absolutely True. Just as each death–no matter how expected–still stuns, so too each death calls our hearts back to past losses, perhaps so we can, with eyes cleared by tears, see life’s blessings with greater clarity.


  2. A beautiful poem. Thank you for sharing it.

  3. Oh, you got me. (Only two tissues, but still.) The poem is lovely.

    And I can relate to the feeling that when someone dies, I want solidarity, not platitudes about how they’re in a better place. Because while that may be true, missing them and wishing they were still with YOU sucks. Period.

    Big hugs to you and Miss P. xo

  4. Richard Howard

    Twenty-two years ago last Saturday my mother died after a very brief illness following a heart attack. She had just celebrated her 83rd birthday a few days earlier in ICU of the hospital. I mean, she CELEBRATED! That is who she was. The life of any party she ever attended, she was the essence of life lived fully, with no holding back. Her ebullient spirit is lived out in her granddaughter (and siblings, and their children) even now. So when I pay tribute to my mother in memory, I also celebrate the life force her DNA seals upon joyhowie, poet sublime, day after day, post after post.
    Thanks for the poetic call: “We dance. We must keep moving.”

  5. Loved every beautiful word. And your dad’s comment turned me into a blubbering fool. Thank you for sharing.

  6. barbara howard

    Dearest Poet, Your entry today reminded me of “Sweet Honey and the Rock” and the poem by Birago Diop,’ “Breaths.” Remember the line, “The dead are not under the earth. The dead have a pact with the living.”
    You introduced us to Sweet Honey as you introduced us to so many beautiful aspects of this wonderful world. Today as your dad and I celebrate 57 years together, we rejoice that out of our lives together have emerged four amazing children. Blessed seems an understatement. Thank you for today’s Word.

  7. Lovely, Joybells.

    We had a few candles lit for Papa Morrie a couple of weeks back, burning in a semi-circle around a picture of him and Jonah. And then our own 15th anniversary was Friday, so the love and death seem mixed here as everywhere else.

    But Morrie made it to 98, and was more than ready to go by the end. With these lives cut short, I don’t know that there’s ever anything in the realm of “healing” that applies. As you say, the relationship just evolves. A great way to think of it.

    And a great sister to think of, which I am. See you soon…


  8. No words, many tears, and deep, deep, breaths . . .

  9. All those unfinished conversations….Thanks.

    I’m partial to Millay’s Dirge without Music, which begins

    I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
    So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
    Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
    With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

    Those who know these things tell me that this is not, a Christian sentiment, but there are times it’s all I’ve got.

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