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The inspiration for Never Stop Dancing came to me in the swimming pool at my athletic club. The imagery of water and rebirth is obvious, now. Then, I was floating on my back in the water, buoyed by Gina’s hands under my shoulders, letting my mind wander over my life, my purpose, my fate. I was in a graduate program at the University of Maryland; something I knew I should be doing for my career. But was it enough? Was it right? I was starting to feel the press of time, and I wondered if I would be able to accomplish the goals I had set for myself, among them, writing five books over the next twenty years. My thoughts drifted to John and his recent loss of Amy, and I wondered what his life was like now, him a widowed father with two young boys, what he was doing, how he was coping. I knew people were helping him as they could, with food and laundry and child care. These were all physical needs. And I wondered what anyone could do—if anything could be really done—to help him in his grief, where he was living now. What can I do about it? I thought. How could I possibly help?
Something clicked in my head.
Immediately my thought was to interview John about Amy’s death not in one interview session but over time, over many days, spanning the first full year after her death. I thought back to that terrible day when Gina and I visited John in the raw first week after Amy’s death and what he had shared in the midst of his grief. Dread mixed with excitement from the first time this idea occurred to me. My hunch was that this would be an important project. I didn’t think anyone had ever done such a thing, let alone thought of doing it. Who would? On the surface, the idea itself felt wrong. Intrusive and disturbing. Even grotesque. But I wanted to hear more of his language of grief, and how he might possibly describe it. I wanted to know how someone could experience such a loss, put words to it, and come back from it. I wanted to know his experience of losing someone so close, so beloved. At the heart of it, I wanted to know the breadth and depth of love, and love lost. But I also wanted to know what it would be like for him living through it, as it seems that the older I get the more I realize that much of life is about survival. In a way, too, I thought John’s grief might inform others’ grief—how they manage it, how they talk about it, and how they process it—and, ultimately, how they move on. Perhaps, too, then, I was hoping to re-find some lost part of me. And I knew that these insights and stories John was experiencing might be forever lost if no one captured them. As I got out of the pool I knew I had to call John right away to tell him I needed to see him as soon as possible. I wanted to make the proposal before I changed my own mind about it.
I drove to his house the next day. It was Friday evening, July 30, 2010. His boys were over at a friend’s house. We were in his living room, alone. Too nervous and excited and hopeful, I stood to explain; I can still see John leaning forward on his living room couch, listening intently. Listening as I laid it out. When I stopped talking John sat for just a moment, and I could see him thinking, and then he looked up at me, wiped his eyes, and said, “Yes, let’s do it.”
I think we were both shaking.
My first thought was, this is good, he’s not going to punch me in the head. In my nervousness I shifted gears. I explained quickly some thoughts on how it would proceed. It was a safe conversation about dates and schedules, so as not to lose momentum, so he wouldn’t change his mind, so I wouldn’t change my mind. And throughout, even though John had agreed, I felt like I was trying to convince both of us there in that room in his home where Amy had lived that this was a good thing to do, that we needed to do this.
We settled on a date for the first interview.
Then we shifted focus. We talked a little bit about his boys, how they were handling the death of their mother, the family’s new life and schedule. It was small talk, and we both knew it. When we said our goodbyes we hugged a bit tighter than usual, and our goodbye looks to one another on his front porch felt heavier than normal. Of course. Nothing we’d dis- cussed that night, nothing about this situation, was normal. And yet, I think we both knew it was very much normal, for us, for what we were about to do. What we were about to do was talk—simply talk—as two good friends. It’s what John and I have always done.
I kept telling myself this as I left his house that evening. We were just going to talk. As we normally do. It’s what we’ve always done. I was relieved. And unsettled. Because now I had to make it happen.
The Sunday before Amy was killed, I’d gone to the gym and come back; we had dinner, and it was getting on about 7:30, 7:45, a school night. Our routine was to leave the TV off and just hang out and do family stuff. Some Sunday evenings we would have what amounted to a family meeting. Maybe discuss how things were going, talk about an issue that had come up or make sure everyone was clear on the rules for something, like keeping rooms clean, screen time, or wrestling in the house. Just a way for Amy and me to feel like we could assert some control over our lives. On this particular Sunday, after our meeting time, I put some music on, jazz, I think, and we were all milling around the living room.
Bryan said, “Daddy, put on some rock music we can dance to. Play the ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ song.”
I was kind of tired and hoping to get the kids to bed on time for a change, and in the back of my mind I knew if I honored Bryan’s request I could say goodbye to an on-time bedtime. But that didn’t seem like a good enough excuse to say no.
For my fortieth birthday the year before I had treated myself with a wireless audio system in the house. Any music I can stream from the Internet or play on my computer I can play through the house. I convinced Amy this was a good idea because I could get rid of the stereo, stacks of CDs, and speaker wires. I picked up the controller and searched for Twisted Sister, selected the song, and turned up the volume just a bit. The boys got into it, started jumping up and down in the living room. Adam was playing air guitar.
“Dad, play the Shrek song.”
I queued up “Rock Star” by Smash Mouth.
Then we just started going through songs: “Chumbawamba” by Tubthumping, Michael Jackson, Madonna, other songs the kids liked. Then Amy started dancing with the boys. She took little Bryan by the hands, and they started jumping and dancing in circles, and Bryan’s blond hair was bouncing right along with him. Adam looked like rubber with his lanky arms and legs going in all directions. I was still sitting on the couch, thinking of the next song to select and starting to think, oh man, it’s getting on toward eight o’clock; we should really start wrapping this up; I’ve got stuff I need to prep for work tomorrow.
Amy started dancing toward me, kind of tilting her head, and she reached her arms toward me, and said, “Is something wrong? Why aren’t you dancing?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” I half-lied. She smiled and raised one eyebrow skeptically at my response, and I shook out of my head the list of things we had to do the rest of that Sunday night—baths, dishes, laundry, lunches for the next day, email for tomorrow. I queued up more songs and got up, and we were all dancing, right there in the living room, jumping up and down, raving like we were at a nightclub, spinning around. Adam would drop down on his knees and play his air guitar and toss his head up and down. At one point Bryan took his shirt off and swung it around his head and kept on dancing with his skinny naked torso. Then Adam took his shirt off, too, so now there were two skinny kids with no shirts on. Amy had a blouse on over a halter top, so she took off her blouse and tossed it on the floor. I got caught up in the moment and took my shirt off, too.
Before our wedding Amy and I had taken ballroom and swing dance lessons. I took Amy and swung her under my arm and twirled her around. I grabbed Adam to get him to try, but he was too busy with his air guitar. Bryan wanted to try, but we settled for him standing on my feet and grabbing my legs as I danced around.
It was getting dark outside. And I wondered if people could see us inside, half-dressed, playing fake guitars and singing into invisible micro- phones. See us jumping up and down like maniacs. I wondered if they could hear our music from outside.
It was great.
That’s my last memory of us as a family. Four days later she was dead.
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