Am I Dying to Dance, Or Am I Dancing Because I’m Dying?

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There were reminders everywhere last week, things telling me that one day I’d be gone from this world, something thought of fondly in memory like the 8-track or the Lite Brite.  First off, I was sick.  My body felt weak and I couldn’t eat.  Secondly, probably because I was sick, cigarettes were making me cough a lot, and that reminded me that smoking is bad.  Thirdly, I was depressed.  There is no greater reminder of death than depression; sometimes I’ll think about the CDs in my collection and the girls I’ve dated and I’ll be dumbfounded, slowly grasping the idea that I have terrible taste.  Similarly, when I’m sick, smoking, and depressed, it suddenly dawns on me that I might not live forever.

Plus I have bad circulation and cold weather makes my feet go numb.  A few months ago I was having coffee with a friend, in the smoking section.  The windows were all open for ventilation, making the smoking section so cold they could’ve filmed the sequel to March of the Penguins there.  In a flash, I couldn’t feel my feet.  The sensation of it, of having no feet or maybe that my body had cut my feet off like a bartender cutting off a drunk at last call (“Listen, feet, I think you’ve had enough blood…I’m going to have to stop serving you tonight”), made me terribly lightheaded and I started freaking out.  I felt faint.  I told my friend I had to get out of there, go home, and in a crazy haste I fled to the subway.

“You’re not dying,” I sternly told myself.  “Stop it.”

Part of my brain wasn’t listening.  I knew exactly why.  I’d thought I was dying before.  It was Professor Ruby and her lecture.  How she said the feet and the hands get cold.  I hopped up and down on the subway, not caring if people stared at me.

I saw my reflection in the subway mirror.  All the memories were there, in a jumble.  Professor Ruby, the ambulance, the freak outs, and, of course, my dance moves in the bathroom.

*

In order to get my Bachelor’s Degree, I had to take two gym classes.  I was 20 years old, young and sprite and healthy enough and moving towards being a college graduate.  The new semester was about to begin and the woman in the counseling office was making my schedule.

“You need a gym credit,” she said.

“I took golf last year,” I told her.  “That was pretty good.  Is there anything else easy like that?  Maybe yoga or something?”  What can I say?  I was a skinny, chain-smoking artsy nerd with a pony tail.  The last thing I wanted was to take basketball with a bunch of jocks.  It wasn’t my idea of a good time.  It would make me as miserable as the frat boys who somehow got signed up for poetry electives and looked, every class, like they were in the fourth quarter of a game they were losing badly.

“Um, sorry,” the counselor said.  “Yoga is filled.”

“Frisbee golf?  I heard there’s Frisbee golf.”

“There’s Ultimate Frisbee.  Is that what you mean?”

“Hmm, that involves a lot of running.  What else do you have?”

“Well, the basics, really.  Soccer.  Basketball.  Football.  Running.”

“Running!  Football!  Oh God no!”

She could probably sense the dread in my voice and so, with a sigh, she pitched me an alternative suggestion.  “You can take Death and Dying.  It counts as a gym credit.”

“Sign me up.”

In summary, at my school, you could either take an active sport or, for those not so physically inclined, you could choose to take Death.  And I, happily, chose Death.

If the Grim Reaper ever approaches me with similar options, I’m going with football.

To no surprise, Death and Dying turned out to be taught by a new-aged loony named Professor Ruby who had big glasses and a pet wolf.  Yes, a pet wolf.  She’d come into class frazzled and say, “I couldn’t get any sleep…Eli was howling all night.”  I’d nod and think, “Well, you do have a wild animal living in your house.  Maybe Eli the wolf is getting a little stir crazy.”  The structure of the class was simple: we would learn about the process of death itself and about how we, as humans, deal with it.  We had to read books on grief by Elizabeth Kubler Ross and we’d be taking a variety of field trips.  And we would be forming a support group for each other, should anyone in the class suffer a loss, or should Professor Ruby be eaten by her pet wolf.

There were about twenty students and we all dove right in.  Professor Ruby talked about her mother’s death and encouraged us to openly share our own experiences.  Many students did, telling the class about friends or family who had gone, and it was then that I realized what a stranger I was to death.  My whole family was alive (with the exception of my grandfather who died when I was really little) and I’d never lost any friends.  I felt almost embarrassed by it, like a poser or something, sitting there all naïve in a classroom full of people who had authentic Bridge to Terabithia experiences.  Why hadn’t anyone in my life died?  What was God waiting for?  Didn’t he know I needed material for class discussion?

After a few weeks, I started getting massively bummed out.  The class  wasn’t a fun and easy cake walk like I’d thought it would be.  We were given the exasperating assignment of writing our own eulogies and I really struggled with mine.  It made me think about my life.  If I died that day, what good would anyone have to say about me?  My roommates noticed how melancholy I was getting.

“What are you doing man?” they’d ask.  “You’re just sitting here in the living room…did the TV break?”

“No, I’m thinking about my funeral.”

And then they would leave immediately.  In the following months, things got worse.  Professor Ruby was brutal, merciless.  We went on field trips to a hospice and a morgue.  We talked to people who were dying.  She showed us a videotape of a sick child passing away.  I was devastated by it.  Eerily, almost every student in the class had someone they knew die that semester.  More people cried in Death and Dying than they do at the Grammy’s.  It seemed like every class we were getting up and doing a group hug for so-and-so, because her grandmother just passed.  “This is a place where we openly share our thoughts on death,” Professor Ruby said.  “There is no judgment…only support.”

I wasn’t sharing my thoughts.  Why hadn’t anyone close to me died?  I thought I knew the answer.  It was because, I thought, I was the one marked, the person chosen.  I could feel it.  I thought of the dying child in the video – there weren’t any other members of his family struggling through something like that.  No, they all sat around him healthy as could be.  Maybe my whole life I was the sick child and I didn’t even know it.

That’s when the freak-outs began.  I’d smoke pot and totally lose it, convinced that my time had come.  On one occasion, I took the ice cube tray from the freezer and started sucking on ice cubes.  I thought that the ice cubes were the only thing keeping me alive and when the tray ran out I’d be dead.  On another horrible occasion, I got a nose bleed and called 911.  “I’m dying!” I shouted into the phone.  “Send an ambulance!  Hurry!”  They sent three.  By the time they got there, my nose bleed was gone and the paramedics kindly told me that I was okay.  It was humiliating and I felt like a crazy person.  I wondered what would make me call the ambulance next time – bad gas?  Maybe halitosis?

I started filling a flask with vodka and taking it to school with me.  I’d sit outside on a bench by myself, drinking.  Once in awhile someone would come up to me and go, “Hey party animal!  Starting the weekend early!?!”

“Nah, it’s just the only way I can deal with class.”

For all of my freak-outs, none of them had happened in the class itself.  Somehow I was always able to maintain composure through it and then break down afterwards.  That changed the day Professor Ruby gave the lecture on the signs of death our bodies show when we’re dying.  It was a long lecture, and I squirmed in my chair listening to it.

“First the hands go cold.”

“My hands are cold,” I thought.  “Oh my God, they’re freezing.”

“The feet get cold next.”

“My feet are ice cold,” I thought.  “This is it!  This is it!  Why hadn’t it dawned on me before?  All along…this was the plan.  IT WAS PREDETERMINED FROM DAY ONE THAT I WOULD DIE AN IRONIC DEATH IN DEATH AND DYING CLASS!”

I got up and rushed out of class.  I was hysterical.  My body was covered in sweat and I couldn’t breathe.  For about ten minutes I walked in circles down and around the hallways, and then I darted into the bathroom.  I threw water on my face.  I looked at myself in the mirror.

“I don’t want to die,” I thought mournfully.  “I won’t let myself die.”

If things weren’t totally bizarre already, they quickly got there.  Looking at myself in the mirror, I raised my arms and, without much logic behind it, slowly began to dance.  First it was my arms, then my hips and legs joined in.

“See!  You’re not gonna die!  You can move!  You can dance!!!”

I was possessed.  I began shuffling my feet and swinging my arms over my head.  The thrill of being alive filled me.

I was so caught up in the rush of movement and vitality that it took me a moment to realize the bathroom door had opened and two students from class were standing there, looking at me.  “Oh!” I shouted, abruptly ending my groovetastic gyrations.  “Hey!  What’s going on?”

“Um,” one of them said.  “Professor Ruby was worried about how you left class like that…she told us to go check to see if you were okay.”

I giggled nervously.  “Yeah…I’m good.  Just…you know…I’ll be back soon…”

What on earth could they have thought?  “Yes, Professor,” I imagined them saying.  “Bill’s fine.  He just had to dance.”

Before the next class I emailed Professor Ruby and told her I had some problems at home and couldn’t come in for awhile.  The semester was almost finished at that point.  Perhaps she could sense that the class was more than I could handle.  I went in for the final class and turned my exam paper in.  I was given a B and that was it.

Death was over.

*

How is it that human beings, despite all of our destructive behavior, can so often block out death?

It’s because, I think, our bodies and minds are so filled with life that it’s impossible to grasp any end to it.  Dancing in the bathroom, or jumping up and down on the subway, or even writing this, I felt strong and present, whirling with force.  Isn’t it like that all the time?  Even the small things we do, talking to each other or eating a grape or walking through the cold to get to work, they’re all complete with energy and being, the gravity of existence.  Isn’t that what keeps us from wandering into whatever other worlds we believe in?  Our movements, our ability to touch one another, the gift of being able to laugh, they all keep us firmly rooted with the wonderful weight of being here.

How can I possibly think of dying when everything inside of me tells me every second that I’m so very much alive?

*

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40 thoughts on “Am I Dying to Dance, Or Am I Dancing Because I’m Dying?

  1. I have tears running down my cheeks currently. Not because I am sad but because I am laughing so freaking hard!! I am picturing you dancing in the bathroom and it has got to be THE funniest thing ever…

    I took Thanatology in high school myself and it was taught by a crazy lady as well, though Professor Ruby sounds like she probably landed herself a story on “Fatal Attractions” (tv show about stories of owners who get mauled by their wild animal pets). My favorite memory of Mrs Seymour was singing “SuperFreak” with her at prom :)

    • Yeah, in retrospect it’s pretty funny. I don’t know what got into me…best I’ve ever danced in my life though. Wish I’d saved those moves for the nightclub.

      Super Freak is a great song. I’m actually an enormous Rick James fan…in a serious way too, and not because of Dave Chapelle Show or anything. He’s from Buffalo, which is pretty close to Rochester, and I got massively into him in high school. Come Get It and Street Songs and Bustin Out of L Seven are three of my favorite albums by any musical artist. I know I’m rambling but I love Rick James! You never should’ve mentioned him!

      Whew! Anyways, good to hear from you Cara! <3

  2. groovetastic gyrations lol! you really make my day :) thank you. i juz realized you’re like the twin i never had!
    dying is easy they say, quicker than falling asleep, and in my case i guess i believe that. i think you’re one of the lucky ones who never get to keep everyone close.
    hope you’re feeling better now and please cut back on the ciggies. -hugs-
    rooftop 82 <3 (^.^ )

  3. The “share” button only has the “press this” thingy and I’m not sure what that does, so I had to copy and paste the link to my FB page….can you add a FB share next time??? I don’t mind cutting and pasting links…it just makes things a tiny bit easier and I’m not sure, but I think sharing pumps up your stats, maybe. Thanks in advance. :-)

  4. For some reason, I feel a little depressed with this post. …. medical issues, loneliness issues, maybe love issues too, all rolled into one.

    I can see the symptoms, topiclessbar……..

    * le sigh *

    My sense of humour nowadays has gone AWOL.

      • Nah… I’m feeling a litt;e bit under the weather myself….

        Oh, and have that numbness checked, okay ?

        Then Whitney Houston died….. nope , she wasn’t a favorite, but I always feel sad, y’know. She did have a great singing voice. Such talent, now gone.

      • Get healthy, Renx! Go drink some orange juice. And don’t put gin in it this time!

        I have read on the Internet that dumbness in the feet during cold weather isn’t surprising, because the body sends all of its heat to the core, ignoring the poor feetsies. I bought some super socks and they seem to be working okay.

        Well…yeah…Whitney Houston. I guess she’s been out of the limelight so long I sort of forgot about her…but yeah, sad that all that talent went pretty much to waste. I don’t know what my favorite song of hers is…The Greatest Love of All? I dunno…I’ll go with that. I like the corny intro about how children are the future.

  5. That almost feels like a joke that got out of control with the PE department. “We need a class for people who hate exercise. Gloomy, out of shape, goth types. How about something called ‘Death & Dying’? Ha ha ha ha! Write that down!”

    • Lol – exactly. Either that, or they created it specifically to get the goths out of basketball (no one is happy to have the goth on their team) (everyone knows goths can’t rebound).

  6. Ha..i totally remember this when we were living together….and then I wrote my Abnormal Psych paper on YOU and your issues with your death and dying class.

    i remember the flask and odd 911 calls. classic. Didn’t we take you little water pipe away from you after all that?

    • Dude, that’s so freaking funny! I remember the Abnormal Psych paper hahaha. Completely forgot about that. And my little water pipe because I couldn’t figure out how to use a bong. Those were the days, my friend!

  7. I think about death all the time. In fact it is part of my job and almost on a day to day basis I have to deal with it. And I have accepted it along with the fact that I can’t die and will live forever ^^

    • Really? What’s your job? Whatever it is, I couldn’t handle it.

      Yo, I tried to follow your blog just now but I got rejected for having an “invalid” email account. What, am I not good enough for your blog?! Elitist!

  8. OMG. Apart from that dancing in the bathroom and taking the die and death class. Looks like I’ve been on the same ride for quite a while.

    Oh also cutting out the ciggis and alcohol. You should too cut those down.. Not good. *Don’t I sound like a nanny?*

  9. That class sounds intense! I took death: Myth & Reality as part of my Religious Studies minor and while nearly every class included crying, it was nothing like yours. Trips to a morgue? Holy shit. We had to read things like Tuesdays with Morrie and watch Hemlock Society films on euthanasia.

    • Haha – that’s a walk in the park! I just talked to someone who took a Death and Dying course and the professor actually died midway through. That’s one that can’t be trumped.

      Good to hear from you Alexa! Hope everything is going great for you. : )

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