I Hope You Dance

Janet S. Dwyer in Connecticut, Oct. 2015
Janet S. Dwyer in Connecticut, Oct. 2015

Do you remember Lee Ann Womack’s hit song “I Hope You Dance?” One of the lines goes, “… And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance.” Here’s a story that I hope makes you not only want to dance, but just as importantly, to extend your hand to someone sitting on the sidelines.

A year ago, I went to my high school reunion in Connecticut. Although I ignore invitations to college and graduate school events, I never miss it when my class gets together every five years, way more fun than actual high school ever was. Go figure. We’re a bunch of passionate achievers who separated for distant colleges and lives, but never lost touch. Marked by the Vietnam war years, we’ve shared pain and too many terrible early deaths. We’ve also shared some unspeakably beautiful memories and moments.

One of these times now involves a star of our class, Jan. Smart, popular, she even did sports and was on the committees that make things happen. Homecoming Queen and Prom Queen junior year. The kind of girl who knew all the new dance crazes and actually did them, and then, when the slow music started, danced with her eyes closed, arms around her boyfriend’s neck and his around her waist while her gardenia corsage got crushed between them and even the air grew heavenly. I really think everyone liked her. I certainly did. I remember very dark hair–it must have been long (wasn’t everyone’s in high school?)–and perfectly arched eyebrows, not too thick, not too thin, color-matched to her eyes and hair. I can’t remember where she went to college, nor where she went after. New York City, maybe, or Washington D.C. where she ended up. She was a consultant to commercial architects on sustainable building practices. She didn’t marry. Six years ago, at the reunion before the most recent one, she and I talked for quite a while but I have no memory of what it was about other than that she told me I have pretty teeth. She was gorgeous as ever, dressed exquisitely, her hair still long and dark. She wouldn’t have been out of place at a reunion for people fifteen, even twenty years younger than we, always one of the cool kids, but warm, fun, real. She loved Broadway shows, New York City, and all things French, which she spoke beautifully.

As I’ve confessed in another post, my class is an exuberant (okay, maybe rowdy) bunch when we get together. Last year, Jan’s younger sister brought her to the Friday night gathering and then to the big Saturday night dinner dance, because Jan was on a walker, unable to make the trip by herself. She didn’t want to miss the main event, even though she was almost indescribably frail, rib-thin, being ravaged by something I’ve since heard was Lou Gehrig’s disease (but am not positive that’s correct information). She was cheerful, engaged and engaging. After dinner, there was, again this year, an open mike for us to honor the classmates we’ve lost. This time, the Choraleers reprised a song in their memory, one we’d done in concert our junior year, “Brother James Air.” After that, well–I told you we’re a rowdy bunch: a live rock n’roll band, The Tire Biters.

Then, the dancing. We are dancing fools. Not that Jan sat alone; people variously sat one out clustered at tables, talking, having maybe just a little more from the bar. Jan talked and watched the dancers, maybe remembering, keeping the beat with her hand on the table. At one point–I really don’t remember who started it–and my memory of this is not sharp, warmed and fuzzed as it is by time and her smile, but we noticed what looked like longing, and encouraged her to stand and dance, meaning just bounce a little to the music however she wanted, using the walker. A bunch of us danced across from, around, and with her to our old, fun music. She was radiant.

It lasted a couple of songs before the band switched to ballad tempo and she sat back down. People cut in on old friends, couples switched up partners; every song was one we knew. These were not songs to which a person on a walker could feel comfortable dancing by herself. Not when everyone else on the floor was slow dancing in couples.

Jan with Bill Hartman
Jan with Bill Hartman

Then a classmate, Bill, went over and picked her up. He just picked her up, held her against his body, her feet not touching the floor, not needing to. No need for her walker: all she had to do was hold on, and let him do it. She did. He isn’t someone to whom she’d been very close in high school. Just a good man who saw her and risked kindness. I saw her close her eyes for a while, her head on his shoulder. And I saw the light on her face as they slow danced.

That night, Bill lifted her, and Jan danced. Now I have a note from our class president that Jan has died. I hope that in this climate of frequent unkindness, more of us can be like Bill who saw someone alone and moved toward a different possibility. “When you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance.” She could have said no; he could have held back–but neither one of them sat it out. They danced. Let’s all of us, whenever we can, be kind. And dance.

Photos courtesy of Douglas Howe


44 Responses to I Hope You Dance

  1. Lovely timely story. We all need to embrace more, sing and dance more and be grateful for life’s many gifts…and challenges.

  2. This made me cry. Hot, sad, painful tears because I lost a BEST friend to ALS last month…Jean, my friend, was a dancer and we danced a lot over the last 60 years of our friendship. She told me “Don’t cry because It’s over, smile because I lived”. She made me laugh whenever we were together and I miss her.

    I love the Jans and Jeans and Bills in the world. Thanks for reminding me of what really matters in life.

    • Bonnie, I am so sorry about your friend Jean. She sounds like a dear, uplifting person. I hope you dance in her memory. Thanks so much for reading and commenting; it means a lot.

  3. This is so moving! It’s a story of Jan’s grace & strength, but what’s lasting for me is Bill’s role. How often to we hesitate in situations like that, not knowing what action is right? Or feeling too self conscious to act? He took a risk & made one precious dance last well beyond the music.

    • That’s what I took away from the experience, too, Debra. I’ll never forget it. Thanks so much for reading and for sharing your reaction.

  4. Beautiful post, Lynne, I felt like I’d been there with you. Brought me to tears, too.
    Love you and your lovely heart.

    • Thank you! One thing I didn’t write about was the closeness between her and the sister who brought her to the reunion. What a loving and beautiful thing for that sister to have done. She was right there, joining in and making sure Jan could. Made me think of my own sister, too.

  5. Lynne- Well darling you have moved me once again. Your writing does that to me. brought tears to my eyes. Thank you!

  6. Lynne – It was a privilege to be at the reunion and see Jan’s indomitable spirit going strong with never a complaint. She didn’t let anyone know she had ALS, just said it was something curable so she wouldn’t bring any sadness to any of us. And Bill Hecker also picked her up and danced with her. It must something about “Bill’s” – kudos to both of you for your kindness in bringing her joy. Thanks to Mary Chaney Manzin for pointing me in the direction of your blog. Proud to be a member of this great NCHS Class! Annie Bickley

    • I somehow missed seeing one of our other wonderful “Bills” pick Jan up, Annie! Thanks so very much for adding that.

    • Thank you, Doug, and especially thank you for helping by sending the pictures. And for all you’ve done for our class as president.

  7. This topic came up last night at a Christmas party. A group of us were talking about aging parents and how the tables had turned. A few had lost parents already and were troubled by the implication that they (and all of us) are now “the top of the food chain,” so to speak. When considered from that bird’s eye view, it makes a person realize that you have to live every bit of life that is given to you. Make everything count for something worthwhile. And that second chances may be few.

    • I’m so glad that’s what came across to you, Peggy. It’s exactly what I was trying for. Thanks for letting me know.

  8. Lynne, This is a beautiful tribute to Jan. It brought tears to my eyes. Jan was always such a lovely, friendly and kind person. I loved her in high school and also at the reunions. We had such a nice chat at the 2015 reunion. I will never forget her. hope you are well.

  9. Thank you so much Lynne for saying that so many of us think, but do not have the ability to put in words. I shall never never forget that night. There was so much love and kindness. I’ll cherish it forever. Jan’s spirit was like a bright light that touched us all. How appropriate of Ellen, Jan’s sister to describe hers as a Sleeping Beauty passing.
    May she still be dancing wherever she is now… her beauty, grace and kindness will live on in many hearts.

    • Amanda, that’s a lovely thought. You’re right about how magical the time seemed. I don’t want to romanticize it, but I do contrast it the tone with the vitriol in this country recently. I’m not aware of what’s going on in S. Africa right now but I hope it’s not as actively tense.

  10. Dear Lynn – What a truly beautiful way you have captured such a tender, loving, and uplifting moment in life for Jan, which had turned so difficult in her later years. Thank you so much for sharing such a vision of enduring beauty and spirit of a girl we all knew and will never forget …. and yes, be kind and dance xo

  11. Hi Lynne, A friend forwarded this to me knowing I was a lifelong Jan fan. I met her in junior high when I was new in town. She was in 7th grade and I was in 8th. She was beautiful even then and as friendly as she was pretty. She was friends with my girlfriend in high school so we spent time together socially. I don’t think I ever knew anyone consistently more pleasant, in every sense.
    Many, many years later I was visiting my mom and took a walk around town. I happened on Jan, Sue and Mary on Elm St. They were laughing and happy and simply lovely. I got hugs all around (I wish they had been dances). And now two of them are gone and with them little pieces of our idyllic youth.
    Thanks for remembering her so beautifully. David

    • David, such incredibly nice memories for you to have shared, things we wouldn’t have known. You’ve added to the picture. Thank you!

  12. What a beautiful remembrance and lovely inspiration to all of us to dance, to be kind, and most of all, for those of us who knew Jan, to be uplifted by her courage and brilliant smile. Thank you for reflecting on that touching moment at our reunion and for reminding us how important it is to care, and to act.

    • Yes, you’re so right: when we see that it might be possible to change something, don’t hold back. Thanks, as always, Susan.

    • Couldn’t agree more about Bill–and others with similar generous impulses in our class. Thanks for your comment, Peter.

  13. Lynne, I was so moved by your portrait of Jan. It captured her spirit and her beauty so well. It is also a wonderful reminder to take risks when it comes to helping others know joy. Thank you so much. Ethel

  14. Beautiful article, it is definitely Jan’s personality, so kind and caring, optimistic till the end. As a nurse I have taken care of a ALS man about 30 years old. It was one of the most devastating cases I ever worked with in home care. Jan was such a strong person to show such courage and strength under adversity. The world has lost a beautiful lady, and we will miss her so very much.

    • Sharon, you more than most, would understand the disease and be able to contrast its cost with how cheerful, optimistic and caring she was when we last saw her. Thanks for what you have added.

  15. Wonderful comments about Our Jan. I will cherish that evening forever. For a few moments while dancing with Jan it seemed that she forgot her reality and was back at a High School sock hop .
    What a great picture of her with Bill Hartman . It was so special to be apart of our reunion. We are blessed to have each other if only for a few days every 5 years. May you all have a Happy and Healthy Holiday.

    • Thank you, Bill. Annie Bickley left a comment saying that you’d danced with her also. I’m so sorry I missed that. I wonder if someone has a picture? Such a thoughtful thing for you guys to have done.

  16. Tears in my eyes,too. How wonderful of Jan’s friends to give her this experience and how wonderful of you to record it.

  17. Hi Lynne, here we all are, dancing together again, sharing memories of a very special time. For those who attended, most would agree there was a spirit present, of love and caring. The bond we have from our school days was strengthened over that weekend. I know I took advantage of conversing, hugging and dancing with as many of my classmates as I could, and yes, I too danced with Jan, as I did with you, what a blast. You wrote about people encouraging Jan to dance, well I was one of those, we talked about it, looked each other in the eyes and saw, why not, let’s do this, how ever we can and we did, she danced, she let go and her countenance glowed, spirit moved her, you could see how much she was enjoying it all, being, being together with her classmates, finding a freedom and expressing it through moving as best she could, dancing to her hearts delight, how refreshing is that, it was, inspiring. That night love for one another was evident, it was palpable, you could feel it, see it in each other’s eye, we seriously were having a good time, reminiscing, being, together again, dancing in a myriad of ways. Oh God, how thankful I am for taking the time, then and now, to be a friend, to let each of you know, what your friendship means to me, one love, one heart. I’m reading a book about Hafez, a Persian poet, here, I read this today and I think this couplet expresses the way we feel towards Jan and others, ” Live your lifetime in the world in such a way that when you die, they won’t say that you died.” We have a chance to recognize this spirit in each other, here and now, and realize how eternal it is, we carry one another in our hearts, our minds eye, we are all present, in this One Spirit, for real and most assuredly given a reason to dance! May we all continue to tend this flame that burns within each of our hearts, now and forever. Thanks Lynne for sparking the fire, I love you my soul mates , one and all and look forward to reigniting one day soon, love Greg

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