“In your light I learn how to love.
In your beauty, how to make poems.
You dance inside my chest where no-one sees you,
but sometimes I do, and that sight
becomes this art.” -Rumi
When my sister Caitlin and I were little girls we would twirl and whirl and spin—around the house, through the yard, wherever and whenever we could. Laughing and out of breath, she would turn to me with her huge grin and exclaim—“Eri! You are suuuch a good dancer!!”
When we got the news that, even while we were hoping and praying against the odds, her brain had lost too much oxygen and would no longer function, I found myself at the end of a long corridor of the ICU, one palm up, twirling, although this time, sobbing in agony.
A month after her death, when the grief was too much to bear and I found myself alone on the coast of California, where I fled to the wilderness to finally feel it all, to cry and rage my prayers to an empty sky and endless sea, I heard her laughing. I heard her whisper, “Dance, Eri, dance!”
So I did—I sobbed and I raged and I laughed and I danced along that coastline, mystified but obedient.
For a while after that, in the dark days of victimhood and survival, I stopped dancing. I stopped moving much at all, except to take long walks in the Berkeley hills, to find my breath somewhere in my body and because someone told me beauty would save me. Dance was too much—too much heart, too much her. Too much of a living connection between us.
I tentatively tiptoed my way back to dance floors—once every few months. A practice that is central to my spirituality, to my health, to my way of being me in the world, had to take a back seat.
I knew it wasn’t gone forever, but I didn’t know that when I would find myself dancing again, she would be everywhere.
Caity came, to whirl and twirl and spin with me. She came in dark corners to hold me as I sobbed. She smiled into my fear, daring me to keep living. She came to massage my shoulder blades, allowing more breath and creating more space for my heart’s slowly mending brokenness. She kept urging me into the dance.
Almost a year exactly after her death I found myself at a 5 Rhythms workshop in St. Charles, MO. It was the most I had danced since she died, and I was raw and seeping, everything porous. She was there, as always, persistent and persuasive, calling me deeper and deeper, again and again, into the dance. Still afraid, still in the deepest of sorrows, I relented. Slowly broken open by the dance, I found her following me, insistent on something, trying to give me something. She was strapping it on my back, strapping it to the very place that ached with pain, the back of my heart. She was telling me to not just dance, but to fly. In that dance, my sister gave me wings.
One of the other dancers, witnessing and moved, wrote a poem for me:
With the edge of her plastic tiara,
my sister chipped away this hole
in my heart, packed it tight with light
and lightness of laughter, airy tunes,
wild hope, her high happiness
winging me into sunshine even as
her dancing shoes sank pink
into shadow, into unbearable
granite heaviness of gravestone,
a black hole twinned in my throbbing
chest. This rabbit hole of sorrows fills,
spilling tears where she comes now to
splash and play, chase away blue devils.
Turn around, my sister says,
fastening these sparkly wings
to my shoulder slump. A gossamer
flutter sifts glitter across a path
bright with remembered light.
(Kathy Cotton, 2014)
My sister gave me wings.
I’ve known since then that they are there. I’ve used them sometimes, but tentatively. I didn’t quite trust them, this magnificent life they were calling me to, rainbow and sparkling. I didn’t know yet that the other side of grief is expansive love and the most joyous praise.
This past weekend was the seventh anniversary of my sister’s suicide attempt. Seven years since her family, her beloveds, rushed to the hospital to be with her. Seven years since we midwifed her into death.
Things often happen in sevens in my life. Every seven years, it seems, a significant shift occurs of one kind or another. This year, seven years after my Caity’s death, I found myself on a dance floor, sweating my prayers, led by an urban medicine man and dancing shaman. His Zen teaching pounded into my soul—keep going, keep dancing, you have it in you, they have called you to this, dance your dance, live your life! Yes, yes, yes! I danced and I danced, sweat pouring down my body, anointing me, lubricating this surge of pain and praise, moving straight out of my heart, into my dance, medicine for my life.
Every seven years, the body renews itself. Every single cell is new—not one cell remains that was present seven years ago. Even the deepest parts of this humanness—the very marrow at the center of our bones has regenerated new cells. I realized in a rush in the dance that this meant the very last of my cells alive when Caitlin was alive—that smelled her skin, hugged her tight, heard her voice, saw her beauty—almost all of those cells are gone. I danced in a threshold of letting go—my very body was letting go of this life with Caitlin. The truth wrecked me anew. It hurt and hurt and I wept and I wept but I kept dancing—dancing and dancing and dancing, as she called me to do. It felt like all of it was leaving my body in my sweat—the cells that knew her, the cells that lived through the trauma of losing her—purged in the outpouring. I let the pain come, I let the pain move me and move me, wring itself out of me. Every searing regret, every memory, every moment of guilt and anger and fear and utter despair over the trauma of losing my baby sister. I let it all go, I let it empty me. I kept dancing. Pulsing in the beat. Pushing through. Breathing out, out, out.
Suddenly, somehow, it was all lightness and being. The effort of continuing disappeared. I felt lifted and everything shifted. I let myself go totally—into the pain, into the breath, into the emptiness, into the dance itself. Something was dancing me. It was effortless, joyous, buoyant. I felt held and suspended, every breath filling and renewing me. I felt invincible and stronger than I ever thought possible. I cried with joy and love and release now, still dancing and dancing and dancing. My feet were there, the pain of long dancing present, but it didn’t matter. I knew I could keep dancing, forever if I needed too. I knew I would keep living—full heartedly and joyfully. I knew it was Caity, lifting me— that everything, everything, every last cell in my body had turned into resurrection. I flew—in the dance, around the room, weaving in and out of the other dancers, laughing and crying, giddy and full of delight.
Seven years ago I danced in the hospital as she was dying. Her Spirit reminded me to dance only one month after her death. She gave me wings in the dance all those years ago. Yet finally, finally, I was able to fully strap them on, to feel their lift, to move fully into the rising. I giggled and twirled and became the dance. Caity was right there, beaming and smiling, like when we were girls, whirling and twirling, wings stretched and laughing.
Moving toward stillness it was all grace. Washed and anointed in my own sweat, released and birthed by the dance, ushered into life.
I bowed, and I bow, to all that is. To Caity, her death that becomes life. To the One who births us constantly, calls us into more and more of who we are made to be in this world. To the grief that has become and is always, one with praise. To the Dance, that holds everyone and everything, living and dead. To the breath that keeps us participating in the dance, and the Breath that carries us beyond this life into Life.
May we live it well. May we choose life. May we dance!