The holiday season has a way of offering painfully sweet reminders of loved ones who have left this world. The lights, the music, family gatherings, dances around a decorated tree. My earliest memories of my grandmother are filled with holiday scenes. Visions of the short-statured, independent, creative and curious woman on a quest for continual learning and knowledge, bubble up in me in the space of a moment. To me, she was a force of inspiration and determination. While I wouldn’t say she was directly responsible for my decision to pursue a graduate degree in dance/movement therapy, her influence was certainly a guiding light.
Though I sort of knew it at the time, in all honesty, I had no idea how important my training, embodied knowledge, and the power of dance would be in maintaining our relationship.
As I was applying for grad school, my grandmother was confronting her dive into dementia. I lived with her during this time, watching her descend into this new reality. Her fears were spoken to me in halted rhythms – the eloquently flowing words of her past now hovered just out of reach. I witnessed her panic manifest in her body and behavior as she wandered and paced, relentlessly moving furniture and objects around her space, hiding things, losing them, clenching her jaws, searching for me through lovely, desperate, scared eyes. When I left her to begin my new adventure, we wept together, knowing we were traveling into uncharted waters.
It was an interesting time. I was soaking in new information, learning about the psychotherapeutic use of movement, leaning into dance and creativity as healing art forms while she was losing her ability to speak, connect with, and engage in the world around her. I inhaled this scholarly wisdom; she curled tightly into herself.
With space and geographical distance separating us, I was only able to be with her during the holidays. Now, without verbal language to connect us, I leaned deeply into the language of movement and dance, exhaling all I had learned into my grandmother’s body. With a keen sense of my own internal rumblings – my grief in watching the woman I adored slowly and painfully lose her fierce grip on a life once known, my desire to reach in and pull her back to me, the tension in my jaw, the fast flipping beats of my heart, and the tender heat that bubbled up through my throat – I was able to attune to her and find a way in.
At first this meant being with her, holding the space for both of us. She peered at me through teary eyes, incoherent words tripping from her mouth, hands clenching together, as her shoulders tightened up into her ears. I gazed back, softening my face, holding her hands in my own, breathing deeply into my body to find the ground. I pulled the air into my bones, inviting her into my presence, silently wishing for her to find some peace. Most often, she would settle and begin to breathe with me.
Other times, this holding was not enough, as the circular expression of panic, fear, and anxiety had wrapped itself so tightly around her. In these moments, I sang to her. Singing first in quicker rhythms to meet her where she was, then slowing down to help calm her. Always, as I sang, she turned to me and began to dance. We danced alone at first, singing and humming together, our rhythms connecting as our movements joined. Holding her hands, twirling her gently, we danced together connecting as if for the first time in a long time. In this space, my grandmother would emerge again, her eyes brightening, and I could feel her presence beside me. The dementia pulled her down further and I continued to reach in and pull her up for air using movement and song.
In her last few years, movement was her only language; it was also my only way to connect with her. I am forever grateful for my decision to study dance/movement therapy, as it taught me how to be with her, how to help her communicate her needs to the outside world, and how to create a new relationship with her when our old ways of being together no longer worked. This holiday season, as I receive the sights and sounds moving through me, I find myself humming softly, recalling tender moments of swaying around a Christmas tree, her hands in mine, dancing the dance where we always managed to find each other.