When I was a little girl growing up on the southwest side of Chicago, I lived in a neighborhood of immigrants. Every day I heard accents – from Lithuania, Poland, Germany, England, and of course Ireland, where my parents and next-door neighbors were born. I loved hearing those accents as neighbors chatted to each other while I played outside. It was the sound of my childhood.
I can still hear the Irish brogue of our next-door neighbor, Mr. Martin Cunnane. He always had a smile and a helping hand at the ready for anyone who needed it. Mr. Cunnane was one of those salt-of-the-earth kind of people – the kind who work hard, raise their families with love, and give back in any way they can while they’re here.
For years as a young adult, I used Mr. and Mrs. Cunnane’s 1950’s kitchen table as my own. That table was very important to Mr. Cunnane. I remember he told me that when he and his wife Peg got married they had very little money but they absolutely had to own 2 key possessions – a kitchen table and a record player. When I asked why, he replied in that lovely County Kerry brogue, “Because you’ve gotta eat and you’ve gotta dance.”
Of course I didn’t really understand what Mr. Cunnane meant when he said those words all those years ago, but I do now. Some years later I had the absolute joy of studying piano with an extraordinary teacher, Mrs. Lili Simon, who was from Hungary. Mrs. Simon (pronounced Simone) shared stories of her Hungarian childhood, of studying piano as a child with the famous Bela Bartok, and of her struggles during the war, in which she lost her first husband.
She went on to marry again, and eventually moved to this country with her husband and their young son. By the time I knew her, Mrs. Simon’s son was grown with children of his own, and living across the country. She spoke of him often, and it was obvious that he had always been the light of her and her husband’s lives. I studied with Mrs. Simon for several years and I loved and admired her greatly. So my heart ached for her when I heard that her son was dying of cancer. She shared with me something he told her that I have never forgotten.
He said, “As I lie here dying in my hospital bed, outside my window the world is dancing.”
It remains one of the most poignant things I have ever heard. Of course it is beautiful and profound, but what makes it so heartbreaking is this. It’s not true.
How many of us are dancing?
Speaking for myself, as I sit here today, with so many aspects of my life in stress mode and many things simply up in the air, I am pretty overwhelmed. I am not dancing. Not physically, not metaphorically. And I know why.
I have allowed the stress and the uncertainty to overwhelm me. But sitting here thinking of those words spoken by a dying man years ago, I can’t help but feel a certain amount of responsibility. To dance. Right now. To get up out of this chair and shed the worry, the stress, and all the things over which I have no control anyway.
(One dance break later.) “You Should Be Dancing” by the Bee Gees if you must know. The irony is not lost on me.
Well, I must admit I feel quite unencumbered. I know the feeling of overwhelm will creep back soon enough, but at least I did something to tear myself away from the overwhelming stress that often takes over my life. Yours too I imagine.
And I must share with you something quite personal that made that dance all the more meaningful to me. For much of last year, due to illness, I couldn’t walk without a cane most days, let alone dance. As a matter of fact, up until recently I didn’t know if I would ever have the ability to walk normally again. I’m still not quite back to my old self walking-wise. So when I tell you what a great and extraordinary gift it was to embrace the moment and simply dance by myself, it is truly an understatement.
And though I don’t suppose Mrs. Simon’s son was being literal when he spoke of the world dancing outside his hospital window, the idea of actually dancing every day brings a smile to my face. I mean, while each of us is here, shouldn’t we acknowledge it with joy and gratitude in some small way every single day? Shouldn’t we celebrate being alive?
Mr. Cunnane knew what he was talking about. Even when the day came that he was on his death bed, with a twinkle in his eye he looked up at me and said, “It was a great ride, wasn’t it Mary?” It was indeed. Because Mr. Cunnane knew the secret. You’ve gotta eat and you’ve gotta dance.
Now please, for your own sake, go put on some music.