By Carolyn Stearns
A friend helps a dying woman connect with her self through sound and music, so that her being glows with newfound energy even as her body withers away
My friend Cynthia contracted leukaemia ten years ago. I interrupted my performing career and teaching obligations as a dancer and went from Connecticut to California (in USA) to teach her what I knew about dietary changes and visualisation as tools to combat the disease. She listened carefully to all I had to say, but finally rejected my message. She chose to stay with more traditional forms of therapy.
From that moment on, my main function was to be with her and to support her and love her no matter what her choice of treatment was, to be with her if she chose to get well or die. During the two months we were together, I watched while this debilitating illness took life-energy away from my beloved friend. I also watched as the cancer gave back a most remarkable and beautiful gift.
One spring day after I arrived in California, we sat on the beach three blocks from Cynthia’s house. It was a beautiful day—not too hot, not too cold, not too windy, not too still. Her dog, Tramp, a stately blue Great Dane, ran circles around us as we watched the gulls glide in the sky. Cynthia asked questions that I knew she had been thinking about for a long time.
“Do you believe there is a God?” “Yes,” I answered, “but not the kind of God I learned about in Sunday school. My God is in here.” I pointed to my solar plexus. “What do you call it?” I said: “Lots of different things. Never God. Sometimes I even call it, Who Ever You Are.” Cynthia looked sceptical. Clearly the answer I gave her was not the answer she wanted.
“After I’m gone, do you think we will ever see each other again?” Cynthia turned and faced me. Her red scarf slipped off her hairless head. She looked like a very sick and frightened twelve-year-old. “I expect so, but I don’t know for sure,” I answered. I reached over to my friend and we hugged and cried. Tramp came over and licked away our tears with her warm, pink tongue.
“Do you ever pray?” Cynthia asked. “Yes, dance is my form of prayer,” I said. “Dance?” she exclaimed. “Yep!” I answered. “I haven’t knelt or closed my eyes and pressed my hands together since I was a little girl.” “Why not?” she asked. “Because that kind of prayer doesn’t comfort me.” “Nor me,” she said wearily as she looked out onto the water. “I wish now, though, that I could pray. I think it would help.”
“I think you’re right. When I was growing up I used to turn on my radio and dance in my room every night before going to bed. I dance in my living room now. These moments with myself always make me feel better.”
“What did your parents say?” “Nothing. Although they tell me now that they were very curious to know what was going on behind my closed door!”
“Will you show me how you pray?”
“I wish I could. Unfortunately, I can only do this kind of praying when I’m alone.”
“But I’m your best friend!”
“I know! But the dance I do as prayer is different than the dance I do for fun, or the dance I do professionally. When I dance to pray, I need to get real quiet inside myself, so quiet that I don’t even know when I start to move. If anyone is watching me, I automatically start performing.”
Cynthia leaned her head against my shoulder. “If you were to watch me pray, first of all, you would be very bored—you would say, ‘nothing is happening!’ Secondly, you would have to be very patient. I say that because I have to be patient too. When I start to move I mustn’t be aware of the movement—that’s why I need to be alone. Instead of my creating a dance, I let the dance create me.”
“Is it hard?” “The hard part is relaxing and concentrating enough to let the movement be born. I need to clear my mind of everything I ever learned about dancing or making dances. I do this to avoid all superficial movements, you know, steps.”
“But you know so many!” “I know. That’s why I need to concentrate. I can show you something like a dance prayer,” I said. “Can you teach me to pray, you know, the way you do?” “I can try…”
“No, that’s okay. It probably wouldn’t work anyway. I’m too weak to try dancing,” Cynthia said disconsolately. Her head felt heavy on my shoulder. I could feel her fatigue. “Why don’t you create your own form of prayer?” I asked tentatively. “How?” I shrugged my shoulders helplessly. Had I ever decided that dance was going to be my form of prayer? I doubted it.
We sat silently for the next 20 minutes. The only sound was the water lapping gently on the shore. I could feel Cynthia silently teaching me about the beauty and the uniqueness of each passing moment. Suddenly, without a word, Cynthia stood up and walked down to the water’s edge. In that moment, she displayed more energy than I had seen since my arrival.
I was thankful I was wise enough not to accompany her, or interrupt her in any way. I watched and listened with amazement as she paused and then threw her arms up towards the sky and shouted: “Okay, God, if you’re up there, now’s your chance to teach me to pray!” Cynthia looked so frail standing there, the wind whipping her trousers around her thin legs. Her hands looked translucent as the reached toward the sun. And then, without any warning or discussion, she started to sing.
Oh my, how she sang! She sang a song that came from a place deep inside her, and it sounded very old. She sang in a voice I had never heard come through her lips before. Instead of words, she sang sounds, sounds full of power. And as she sang, I cried, because for the first time I could imagine her flying away.
When Cynthia stopped singing, she turned and looked at me with the same delighted smile that I saw when she rode her two-wheeler bicycle for the first time years before, and more recently when she received a graduate degree with honours. I’ll remember that smile forever.
Cynthia’s singing sustained her during the remaining three weeks of her life. It created a magical energy that made her soul glow, even though her body grew weaker and weaker. I believe the energy she received through her singing released the fear that kept her from letting go of her pain and kept her from dying. Once I heard the quality of her song, I knew that she would be fine—better than fine, and that it was only a question of time until she died. It felt as if she had received what she had been looking for her whole life.
Cynthia was still alive when I said my final goodbye. “Goodbye, dear friend. Thank you,” I whispered. I’m not sure she heard me. She was quietly humming a song, a song that was ushering her back into the life of spirit. When her singing stopped, she squeezed my hand and was gone.
Extracted with permission from Pilgrimage magazine. Carolyn Stearns is a writer, teacher of her own bodywork programme, hypnotist and massage therapist whose first language continues to be dance. She is author of Spirit Walking, a book about death and dying.
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