A man sits on the edge of a little girl’s bed, singing a song in German about a little sparrow perched on a ledge. He strokes her hair with the back of his hand. The song ends on a whistle, a last-round note echoing into the darkness of the room. In five years, the smiling, singing man will be dead, but that doesn’t matter yet. Right now, this is what matters: the river of foreign words flowing in the space between them, the soft smile on the young girl’s face as her eyelids flutter slowly closed.
The original version of the ballet Swan Lake culminates in a battle, the prince and the sorcerer fighting viciously over Odette, the swan queen. In a final moment of righteous anger, Siegfried tears Von Rothbart’s wing, sapping him of his magical powers and releasing Odette and her maidens from the spell that bound them forever in the bodies of swans. Returned at last to her human form, Odette rushes toward her hero. The two figures embrace as the curtain falls, the full moon glowing brightly behind them.
I never danced with my father. He was an eager but unschooled presence in the audience of dance recitals, waiting in the lobby year after year for my sister and I, bouquet in hand. He did not know the names of the steps we spent hours repeating in the studio, but he loved to watch us soar across the stage. Mostly, he loved how happy it made us. Holding my final position as the lights went down, I always tried to pick out the insistent rhythm of his hands amid the cacophony at the end of the show, scanning the rows of seats for his smiling face in the darkening house.
The more modern ending of the ballet is far less pleasant. Seduced by Von Rothbart’s daughter Odile, who has been bewitched to look like Odette, Siegfried loses his love. His mistaken vow to marry another woman constitutes a betrayal so deep that Odette is condemned to remain a swan forever.
This is a fate she cannot bear. With a last look to her prince, Odette throws herself into the water. Sick with guilt and grief, he follows her into the lake.
In the end, he was the one who would order the chest X-ray that revealed something dark and shadowy, a lurking question that became a definitive answer blooming across the left lobe of his lung, the result of a single unnoticed dot in a constellation of similarly-sized freckles.
Sitting in our living room, his hands folded in his lap, he told us about a shadow on a scan, about not being concerned. I closely examined a clump of cat hair trapped in the carpet and listened to the baritone of his voice thrumming steadily over the uneasy frequency of my own heartbeat, so reassuring I almost believed it could be a blip, a mishap, an easily reversible error.
On the morning of my fifteenth birthday, he gave me my last birthday card, dictated and written in my sister’s elegant, sloping cursive, all of it except the final word: D A D, floating near the bottom of the page, a squirming, childlike scrawl. That afternoon, he slipped into a coma. He was gone two days later, one day after my parents’ wedding anniversary.
My mother has a recurring dream about my father. In it, he is alive, walking in the front door or standing in the middle of their bedroom as if nothing has changed. She is surprised but happy to see him, happy he isn’t dead after all. He is annoyed, rifling through drawers that used to hold his shirts and pants and the closet where I now keep some of my clothes. “Where are all of my things?” he says. “Did you really give it all away?”
I retreat into the studio. I do not know it yet, but this is an excuse. I spend hours before the mirror, drilling my technique, the line of the neck, the curve of the wing, the buoyant grace of the fingertips.
// Tilt your chin upwards, find the light with your cheekbone / stomach growls / engage your abdominals more deeply / press into the floor, find stability in fourth position / push from the backs of the legs / I am shaking / you can have water in a moment / why don’t I feel weightless yet / push push push use your legs now double pirouette / don’t forget to smile let the music carry you yes that’s good again again again //
In the picture I have, my father is relaxed, smiling and leaning back, the river winking blue behind him. For once, he is not directing me from in front of the camera, just waiting for the shutter to click. And the cancer is there, too, already inside him, hidden somewhere deeper where we can’t see. Just waiting.
On the two-hour train ride from New Haven, my mother naps with her head on my shoulder. When I see the skyline I press my fingers to the smudged glass of the window as if I might hold the whole city in one hand, the gunmetal spires of the Chrysler and the Empire State building poking out between my knuckles, Lincoln Center a pearl in my open palm.
In our un-air-conditioned one bedroom, my sister and I construct loft beds using a tiny Allen wrench, fingers slipping over hollow metal in the August heat. It is roomy for New York standards, with a pint-sized kitchen and a bathroom just beyond, conveniently located between my ballet school and Columbia, where she is starting in the fall.
At eighteen I am the oldest student in my level, surrounded by lithe twelve-year-olds, all of us in burgundy leotards. In the mirror, my body stretches sideways until my hipbones touch both sides of the studio. I exhale my ribs in tighter, beginning to doubt myself.
“You look like girl in painting”, my Russian ballet teacher tells me, scowling. “Beautiful, but no emotion.”
Traditionally, the parts of Odette and Odile are played by a single dancer at the pinnacle of her career. To manage four acts of exacting choreography, the ballerina must be at the peak of physical endurance and technical mastery. To be truly convincing, she must be a chameleon, melting seamlessly from the sensitive woman imprisoned in the body of a bird to the conniving seductress who seals her fate.
In my first production, I am cast in six different roles, the most I have ever had to learn at one time. A few weeks before curtain, we perform in a studio showing. The school’s faculty and directors line the front of the room in folding chairs, hawk-eyed, taking notes.
// deep breaths / it’s been a while / stay calm / but you know this / you’re a flower blooming in the sunshine / listen to the music / arabesque, waltz 2, 3, 4 / oh no no I never got to run this part / flail / is it left or right / god I’m so tired / I don’t know this don’t know anything anymore — “Sonya, out!”
The record of my inner monologue cuts, scratches and I choke, stumbling over choreography I have hardly internalized. The teacher yells, ushering in another dancer to take my place. I rush from the room, the first sob already rising in my throat.
I miss the stars in New Hampshire. I have lost more weight than I previously thought possible, no longer because I desire weightlessness, but because I cannot imagine ever weighing more than I do right now. I try not to think of my father. I write awkward poems about water flowing over dark stones and feel sad.
Why am I here and he is not? How can I be here without him?
My brain is betraying me, attempting to override the tide of voices in my head, the constant chorus: tea, water, always more liquid. My empty stomach sloshes like a water balloon. On my day off I drag myself out of the apartment and down seven flights of stairs to the street. I walk along Riverside Drive from 79th street to the Columbia campus and back again in the biting wind, listening to hours of podcasts until I forget my hunger, face and fingers numb.
I don’t want this. I don’t want to be here anymore.
I wonder how Odette felt all those years before her prince appeared, existing under the thumb of a sorcerer who controlled her every waking moment. Did she think anyone was coming to save her?
Lying on my back in my squeaking metal loft bed I wait for sleep to come, resting my hands along the curves of my ribcage or snaking my forefingers into the shadowy depressions beneath my hip bones. Checking, always checking for a ridge, a shallow, a place to call home.
How long before she lost hope? How long before she dove into the lake without him?
Back in my childhood bedroom I still hush over those familiar bony islands with my fingertips collarbone, hip, wrist but look different enough that my mother no longer feels the need to comment on the contents of my dinner plate.
Away from the necessary distraction of friends and schoolwork, I sink into the deepest blue I have ever known. I spend hours driving the same looping dirt roads, the ones my father took to drop my friend and me at a bar mitzvah party in 7th grade, only there was something wrong with the car horn, so every time we hit a bump it honked, and my friend and I giggled with our hands over our mouths in the backseat as he swore and tried to muffle the sound with a paper towel.
I am forgetting the sound of my father’s voice, the smell of his aftershave. I see his ghost everywhere I look, parking next to the lake we used to swim in each summer only to sit in my car and stare out the window. I dream of wading into the very center, rocks at my ankles.
The water remains undisturbed, placid, a silk skirt the color of the sky stretched from shore to shore, rippling slightly where it meets the sandy crease of the land. I look and I understand that it is a perfect thing, a beautiful thing, but it does not register. I am so far away I cannot feel it anymore.
On the drive home, going 65, I let my eyes close for a few seconds at a time, hands loosely gripping the wheel, hoping for an act of God, make it quick.
My eyes flash open. The gray ribbon of the highway stretches endlessly on.
Death is a funny thing. We cannot fathom that we are all only one degree removed from it, a single malformed cell, an unexpected abnormality, a momentary miscalculation in steering. We push it away, cloak it in metaphor. We say they passed away, passed on, kicked the bucket, that they’re pushing up daisies, in a better place, with the Lord now.
Sometimes a metaphor feels truer than the thing itself. It’s hard to believe any place is worse than a bed that is not yours where you lie for days that turn to weeks and then months, waiting, as the beep of machines grows familiar, moving in and out of uneasy sleep. Nothing changes in the room, except maybe that day by day, the people around you multiply and look sadder and more weary. You are both waiting for the end of the pain, yours and theirs. You are trapped by this knowledge, the inescapability of that airless room.
Everyone knows you’re going soon, that one day they’ll walk in and see a husk where you lay once before, and maybe they will nod silently or weep and hold it close and lie with it for the last time, but eventually they will have to rise and let go of that cold hand that used to be yours. They will fill out the forms necessary to do what you requested with what remains and pay the people who cared for it, but no one knows quite when these things will happen, or how they will happen, or how much it will hurt when they do.
I have abandoned my bird self, that city ballerina dream girl. Perhaps she is still floating somewhere over the Hudson in the West 80s, fingertips a little blue in the cold. I have decided it is not worth the fear in my mother’s face when she embraces me and her fingers meet the delicate crush of vertebrae beneath my sweater. I have decided to be human now, a thing of flesh and blood.
I will not always wish to die. One summer, my family and I will drive to North Carolina, the sun roof open so I can feel the wind lifting my hair off the back of my neck, and I will smile when Take On Me blares unexpectedly from the radio.
Some versions of Swan Lake don’t end with the death of the two lovers. As the final notes swell into the chasm of the theater, Odette and Siegfried rise skyward together, silhouetted against the rising sun, the corps de ballet watching in silence as the curtains hush closed. Then, from somewhere in the house, a single pair of hands begins a last, raucous round of applause.
I am not in love with my father, or the memory of him. He is not, was never the prince I hoped would save me from drowning, and I am no longer the bird-girl who could never free herself from the grasp of darkness, half-hoping for a blip, a mishap, an error that might not be so easily reversed. I thought disappearing myself would be easier than living with a ghost that followed me everywhere but never spoke, but perhaps I wasn’t listening in the places that mattered.
We cannot choose how and when the ones we love will leave us, but we can decide how we shape ourselves in their absence, how they continue shaping us. I am choosing to let my father live on in all these little fragments: the way his first finger curved slightly outward at the knuckle the same way mine do, his habit of buying multiple copies of his favorite books, just in case he wanted to pass them along to a friend. I feel him in the laughter that rolls out of me in tremulous, untethered waves, in the look my mother gives me when I fill in her blanks with his words, and in the tread of my slippers on the stairs, the sound I heard every night as he made his way softly to my bedroom door to check if I was sleeping, and I, reading under the covers, turned out the flashlight with a click.
It is all there, floating just beneath, waiting to be nudged to the surface with the next swelling tide.