Real Simple Essay Contest Winner 2015 Dancing

I spent my first night in Birmingham, Alabama, on a vinyl bench of the neurosciences waiting room at UAB Hospital, in a dress I’d worn to a party three hours away. A day that ended in shadows had begun with so much light.

The sky on that June morning, 2010, was a flawless periwinkle, and the breeze warm and willowy. My car was packed with all I needed for six weeks in Sewanee, Tennessee—about 100 miles from my hometown, Nashville. I was going to begin an M.F.A. writing program at the Sewanee School of Letters, a dream I’d never felt good pursuing until I knew my son would be all right on his own.

Ryan and I had always been a family of two, listed in the school directory or smiling in our Christmas-card photos—and now, at 20, he was pursuing his own dreams. He loved singing and acting, but dancing was his life. The years he had spent channeling Frank Sinatra, Usher, and Justin Timberlake had paid off when he was awarded a performing-arts scholarship to Samford University, in Birmingham. He had just finished his freshman year, had been initiated into Sigma Chi, and was going to spend the summer on campus for his first professional theater role. If there had ever been a time when I felt I could shift my gaze, it was then.

Before I left that morning, I got a call from Ryan telling me that he and his girlfriend were going water-skiing with her family. “Be careful,” I said. “I love you.” Eight hours later, while sitting in the Sewanee banquet hall for the welcome dinner, I got a call from an ER nurse in Alabama telling me my son had jumped off a 60-foot cliff into a lake, had broken his back, and was paralyzed from the waist down.

My memories of what happened next hang like portraits in a gallery of grief: the whispers above his bedside; the cracked eggshell of his MRI; the bowed head of the intern who said my son would never walk again as I begged, “But he’s a dancer, he’s a dancer, he’s a dancer!”

The impact had shattered Ryan’s T12, one of the vertebrae just above the small of his back. After eight hours in the OR, the neurosurgeon warned me that Ryan would suffer excruciating pain for weeks. He also believed that he would be paralyzed for life but added that every spinal-cord injury was different—like a snowflake. Although Ryan might regain movement, he had an 18-month window and would need countless hours of rehab. He also said it was crucial that Ryan return to school in the fall to be with his friends.

I was given a place to stay for the summer, and when Ryan stabilized in August, I said good-bye to my parents in Nashville, found a two-bedroom apartment in Birmingham, and moved Ryan into the Sigma Chi house. I didn’t give a rip if he ever graduated; I just wanted him around the piranha-filled fish tanks and his pledge brothers chanting him out of his wheelchair on the “fratio.”

That fall, my days were spent care-giving. I investigated clinical trials; struggled with the insurance company, which canceled Ryan’s policy anyway; encouraged him as he fought for mobility in his daily physical-therapy sessions; and shopped, cleaned, and laundered for him.

Occasionally I would end up in Whole Foods to get dinner to go. One October night, as I was leaving, a little voice said, “Go back and talk to someone.” Turning slowly on my heel, I took my rubber-banded container of pot roast and salad and parked myself at the grill.

That dark horse of a decision changed my life.

At first, I was mortified: “Oh please don’t anybody look at me. I know I’m middle-aged and alone. I’m just here to have a meaningless conversation, I swear!” But that was a lie. I needed someone to hear me say, “You have no idea what has happened to us.”

Right then, a blur of blond hair and four-carat bling sat next to me with her husband—and before long, I knew her life story. Her name was Susan Flowers, but her nickname was “Mermaid,” because her first job was swimming with dolphins at Sea World. She had moved to Hawaii in her 20s, married a plastic surgeon, and moved a year before to Birmingham, her husband’s hometown. She had hiked the Swiss Alps, been showered with cherry blossoms in Tokyo, and gotten baptized in the Jordan River. She had even hosted her own radio show.

She asked what had brought me to town, and I told her briefly about Ryan. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “You listen to me: We are going to be best friends, do you hear me? Best friends.” I was dazed. Who talks like that besides Anne of Green Gables? I had honestly never met anyone like her, so exotic yet so guileless.

We exchanged numbers, and soon after, she invited me to a small gathering in her home. I remember thinking how lovely it was for her to include me, but my life was challenging and I didn’t want to impose on her good nature.

All that changed a few weeks later. As I was folding Ryan’s clothes, I had what they call in the South “a total come apart.“ For months I’d had two choices—feel or function—and I’d had to function. But now, without warning, the anguish from what my son had endured so overwhelmed me, I thought I’d stop breathing.

I curled up in the dark on Ryan’s old bed and cried so hard the room spun. I thought of calling Susan but was afraid of running her off. By the third sleepless night, I didn’t care. When she answered, all I could do was sob. “I’m on my way,” she said—and in 20 minutes she was at my door with a CD player and homemade soup.

I collapsed on the couch. She stood a ways off, and I thought how the whole wretched scene must have freaked her out. Here was a woman she hardly knew, unraveling before her eyes. Then she said one of the bravest things I have ever heard: “Diane, your sorrow doesn’t scare me.” And she sat on the floor as the CD filled the room with what only the stricken can truly hear and only a dolphin whisperer would know to play: The Book of Job.

I closed my eyes and slept.

In February, Susan joined me for a fraternity singing performance at the Wright Fine Arts Center, at Samford. Sigma Chi members had their own act, but Ryan wasn’t there—until the end. He wheeled himself to the side of the stage, rose slowly to his feet, and—taking his first few steps in eight months—sang the finale.

Three thousand people rose to their feet with him.

With the aid of a walker and eventually forearm crutches, Ryan covered more ground every week. And although he will always need foot and leg braces, on August 7, 2011—14 months after his accident—he offered me his crutches and walked hands-free into the rest of his life.

Susan’s proclamation came true: We became best friends. And sometimes now when we are sitting on her back porch, I’ll think, I’d have left. I’d have taken Ryan out of school and gone back home to Nashville. I could not have stayed here without her. But I did stay—because one night in a grocery store I turned around, ready to receive what is sometimes just on the other side of hope.

About the Author

This year’s Life Lessons contest winner, Diane Penney, is a reading interventionist who works with children with dyslexia. She lives with her son, Ryan, in Birmingham, Alabama, where she enjoys volunteering for a golden retriever–rescue organization, lingering in crafts stores, and giving away Miraculous Medals, Catholic sacramentals.

I was dressed as a rabbit and he as a vampire. As we converged, he put out his hand to meet mine. “Has anyone ever told you how well you rock a tail?” he teased, tracing the lines on my palm with his fingers.

“You should really get those bloody fangs checked out,” I replied, suddenly conscious of my bitten-down nails.

As Maroon 5 blasted in the background, he murmured drunkenly in my ear, “I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you, too,” I murmured back, standing on tiptoes.

Under the muted flashes of a strobe light, we shared our first kiss.

We stayed in touch for the rest of high school, mostly by text message. But we also met up in person when his school’s basketball team played ours and when I ventured from New Jersey into Manhattan for academic events or to attend another warehouse party.

I was eager to move on from high school, and talking to Jeremy was an escape, a peek into an alternative universe where shy boys with moppy brown hair and clever minds seemed to care about more than their next hookups. When I published an article about my struggle with Crohn’s disease in an obscure online magazine, he wrote with praise and to tell me it moved him, lessening the shame I felt.

Every time his name popped up on my phone, my heart raced.

Still, we were never more than semiaffiliated, two people who spoke and loved to speak and kissed and loved to kiss and connected and were scared of connecting. I told myself it was because we went to different schools, because teenage boys don’t want relationships, because it was all in my head.

I told myself a lot of things I never told him.

Two years after our first kiss, we were exchanging “I’ve missed you” messages again. It was a brisk Friday evening in our first semesters of college when I stepped off a train and into his comfortable arms.

He had texted weeks earlier on Halloween (technically our anniversary) to ask if I would visit. We had not talked since summer, and I was trying to forget him. We had graduated from high school into the same inexpressive void we first entered in costume, where an “I’ve missed you” was as emotive as one got. I decided to leave him behind when I left for college.

But he wouldn’t let me. Whenever I believed he was out of my life, I’d get a text or Facebook comment that would reel me back in.

And I wouldn’t let me, either. His affection, however sporadic, always loomed like a promise. So I accepted his invitation, asking myself what I had to lose.

I lost a lot that weekend: A bet on the football game. Four pounds (from nerve-driven appetite loss). A pair of underwear. My innocence, apparently.

Naïvely, I had expected to gain clarity, to finally admit my feelings and ask if he felt the same. But I couldn’t confess, couldn’t probe. Periodically I opened my mouth to ask: “What are we doing? Who am I to you?” He stopped me with a smile, a wink or a handhold, gestures that persuaded me to shut my mouth or risk jeopardizing what we already had.

On the Saturday-night train back to Manhattan, I cried. Back in my dorm room, buried under the covers so my roommates wouldn’t hear, I fell asleep with a wet pillow and puffy eyes.

The next morning I awoke to a string of texts from him: “You get back OK?” “Let’s do it again soon :)”

And we did, meeting up for drinks in the city, spending the night at my place, neither of us daring to raise the subject of what we were doing or what we meant to each other. I kept telling myself I’d be fine.

And I was. I am.

But now, more than three years after our first kiss and more than a year after our first time, I’m still not over the possibility of him, the possibility of us. And he has no idea.

I’m told my generation will be remembered for our callous commitments and rudimentary romances. We hook up. We sext. We swipe right.

All the while, we avoid labels and try to bury our emotions. We aren’t supposed to want anything serious; not now, anyway. But a void is created when we refrain from telling it like it is, from allowing ourselves to feel how we feel. And in that unoccupied space, we’re dangerously free to create our own realities.

My friend Shosh insists that I don’t actually have feelings for Jeremy.

“You don’t know him anymore,” she says. “I think maybe you’re addicted to the memories, in love with a person you’ve idealized who probably isn’t real.”

Maybe she’s right. Maybe my emotions are steeped in a past that never presented itself. Still, he envelops my thoughts. And anyway, Shosh has a Jeremy of her own, another guy at another school she holds both close and far away.

To this day, if I ever let a guy’s name slip out to my father, his response is always, “Are you two going steady?”

He means to ask if we’re dating exclusively, if I have a boyfriend. I used to hate it.

“People don’t go steady nowadays,” I explain. “No one says that anymore. And almost no one does it. Women today have more power. We don’t crave attachment to just one man. We keep our options open. We’re in control.”

But are we?

I’ve brooded over the same person for the last four years. Can I honestly call myself empowered if I’m unable to share my feelings with him? Could my options be more closed? Could I be less in control?

My father can’t understand why I won’t tell Jeremy how I feel. To me, it’s simple. As involved as we’ve been for what amounts to, at this point, nearly a quarter of my life, Jeremy and I are technically nothing, at least as far as labels are concerned.

So while I teeter between anger with myself for not admitting how I feel and anger at him for not figuring it out, neither of us can be blamed. (Or we both can.) Without labels to connect us, I have no justification for my feelings and he has no obligation to acknowledge them.

No labels, no drama, right?

I think my generation is venturing into some seriously uncharted waters, because while we’re hesitant to label relationships, we do participate in some deviation of them.

But by not calling someone, say, “my boyfriend,” he actually becomes something else, something indefinable. And what we have together becomes intangible. And if it’s intangible it can never end because officially there’s nothing to end. And if it never ends, there’s no real closure, no opportunity to move on.

Instead, we spend our emotional energy on someone we’ve built up and convinced ourselves we need. We fixate on a person who may not be right for us simply because he never wronged us. Because without a label, he never really had the chance.

When I realized I hadn’t misheard Maddy, I asked her to elaborate.

“You know what a Jeremy is,” she said. “You practically dubbed the term. He’s the guy we never really dated and never really got over.”

Most people I know have a Jeremy in their lives, someone whose consequence a label can’t capture. In years past, maybe back when people went steady, he may have been the one who got away. For my generation, though, he’s often the one we never had in the first place. Yet he’s still the one for whom we would happily trade all the booty calls, hookups and swiping right. He’s still the one we hope, against all odds, might be The One.

But until we’re brave enough to find out for sure, there’s life to keep living. Until he can be labeled ours, just calling him Jeremy will have to do.

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