Twenty four years ago today, my husband and I shared our first dance as a married couple. We wed in March 1992 — before YouTube elevated the humble wedding dance to choreographed performance art — and so we simply swayed awkwardly back and forth for what seemed like an eternity on an empty dance floor.
Truth be told, I was eager for the party to end: I hated the suburban New Jersey venue that my parents selected, seethed at the incompetent DJ who defied every one of my requests (no generic piano music for the procession -check! no blabby commentary — check! No kissing circle — ugh, check), and couldn’t stand my gown that resembled a white brocade tablecloth that I’d chosen solely because it was the only in its price range of that era that didn’t have puffy sleeves and a high-necked lace collar. My husband, on the other hand, disagreed. “That place had amazing food,” he raved — and besides, you looked gorgeous.”
Our divergent views of our wedding set the tone for much of our marriage: I complained, he was content, I was the glass half empty, while he was half full. And that was fine, because we balanced each other out throughout our marriage just as we did on the dance floor: one step forward, one step back, push and pull, yin and yang, on and on for eternity.
Except we never got that far. Twenty two and a half years after our first dance, the song cut short. After my husband endured a week of blazing headaches and double-vision, we learned the reason: a brain tumor that settled dead-center in my husband’s beautiful and brilliant mathematical mind. Inoperable, only treatable with radiation and chemo. The tumor impaired my husband’s cognition, sapped his energy and took away his sense of humor. No longer equal partners, I had to learn to lead without my husband’s platter-sized hand to steady my back.
For ten months, we tripped along like that, no longer one step forward, one step back, but up and down and all over the place. For a glorious six weeks a year ago, the husband that I married largely returned with his jokes and optimism and devotion. But as quickly as the pre-cancer version of my husband appeared, he vanished again.
Finally — and surprisingly only to me, since for ten months, I’d been waking up deluded with hope so that I could get through another day — time grew short. Not even two months after our 23rd wedding anniversary, a visiting hospice nurse confides to me in a hushed voice, out of earshot of my girls, that it’s just a matter of days, if that long. But for now, my husband is still here — I have my partner — and that’s all that matters. And even though he can’t speak and hasn’t roused in the three days since he arrived home home the ER, I don’t want to waste a moment of the tiny sliver of time that we have together.
So that evening, I abruptly stop work on a pleading that’s due the next day; I’ve decided that I’m simply not going to finish it — something I’ve never done before. Instead, I climb into the hospital bed next to my husband, I rest my head on his chest and take his hand. I press the YouTube app on my iPhone and Suzanne Hoff of the Bangles illuminates the screen as the tinny strains of our song, Eternal Flame emerge and I’m transported back to that first dance so many years ago. Except now,the tablecloth dress and the suburban venue slip from my memory, and in my mind, there’s only my husband looking dapper and strong, and me young and fresh and so very happy, and maybe it’s hindsight’s rosy glow, but I see so clearly just how uncomplicated and joyous our wedding and our life together was — and even now, in these last desperate hours, still is. And so I hit the replay button, and in the darkness on that sultry May night, surrounded by the flickering light of my phone, and the familiar refrain of our song, only the two of us, one step forward, one step back, push and pull, yin and yang, I danced my husband out of this world.