Story by Joni Sralla Turken
As I stood alongside the casket of my grandmother, my eyes locked onto the dance ticket stapled to the sash of her dress. Others mourners surely caught sight of the “Admit one” ticket pinned to her dress and wondered just what kind of sense of humor the Sralla family had. Despite the tears in my eyes, I had to stifle a giggle at the thought.
Just the day before, I had been at home on my boat at the Fort Myers Yacht Basin. It was the first rainy morning in months and I was about to run up to our ship’s store for a cup of coffee when the phone rang. “Bad news,” my mother said. “It’s Grandma.” The funeral was scheduled for the following day, and that evening my husband and I were on a plane leaving rainy Fort Myers, headed for Texas.
My grandma was not a subtle person. She would grab my brother by the ponytail and threaten to get the scissors. She wouldn’t hesitate to mention your recent weight gain, to point out that your casserole was salty, or to drill home the fact that if you didn’t hurry up and get married, you were going to be an old maid for the rest of your life. She hated to see her grandkids and great-grandkids throw out perfectly good clothes, so you might see her wearing a rock concert shirt and a pair of Converse sneakers with the usual pedalpushers she donned for years. And even far into her eighties, she still liked to go to Czech dances and do the polka to the accordion, fighting the other widows for a chance with the few exhausted men who never got to sit out a number. And yet still, she never forgot Grandpa. Though he died in 1979, I had seen her burst into tears at finding a long lost photograph of him.
She was 91 when she passed away and having been sick for several years, most aspects of her funeral had been decided long ago. One of the few unknowns left was what she ought to wear. The hastily convened funeral committee, made up of my parents, aunts and uncles, looked at a variety of dresses suggested by my oldest cousin Linda, until one of Grandma’s favorites was found. It was a dress that bore witness to her passionate nature, for aside from the beer spills and perspiration stains that were no doubt hidden in its richburgundy folds, there was a ticket to a local dance event stapled to the sash. Before anyone could tear the ticket off, Linda intervened. “Going to the Czech dances was something Grandma loved, why not leave the ticket be?” What was not said was surely a thought in everyone’s mind. Had this ticket been from Grandma’s last dance?
When we look at a person like my grandmother who lived a long full life, we are tricked into the belief that we have plenty of time to live out our desires. Retirement will be the time to finally do the polka, or write a romance novel, or go to Siam. How many people do you know who dream of building a cabin up in the woods, who save their pennies for an RV so they can see the country, or even those who dream of coming to Florida to live on a boat? Everything is going to work out later, they say. Well, what if later never comes?
Lately, down by the river, this question has come up a lot. Last year, in a matter of seconds, we lost a young friend from the Yacht Basin to a careless driver. Joe was in his thirties and one of the most jovial and caring people you’d ever want to meet. What did he do for his last dance? He volunteered at his church, he drove a school bus, played in a jazz band. He had recently completed a college degree that would allow him to teach music to kids and he lived on a sailboat named after his mother. He affected so many people that his funeral was standing room only.
One day I noticed a familiar boat for sale at the marina brokerage. It belonged to a couple we had met in Tarpon Springs, so I asked the boat salesman why they were selling it. “The husband got bone cancer,” he said. “It only took three weeks and he was gone.” Yet still, I pick up boating magazines and I see Bill’s byline. As a former ad man, he was delighted by his new hobby of writing stories and selling them, and judging from the stories that have appeared even after his death, I can see he was prolific, and probably tickled pink to have placed those stories.
Joe and Bill were enjoying lives they chose for themselves even before they knew their days were numbered. But sometimes, there is warning. Another friend told me he is living his life in “fast forward.” He says he doesn’t have time for naps anymore, there is too much to do. He lives his life in 90 day intervals, the days between mandatory doctor’s visits that tell him if the cancer is still gone, or if it has spread. In the past 90 days, he flew to the South Seas, he bought a bright yellow Volkswagen Beetle (in which he’s been caught drag racing down Route 41), he flirted with dozens of women half his age, and he tried a bidet for the first time. He may live to be 91, or he may not, so he is doing what he would want to be doing if his last day on earth were approaching. He is, of course, dancing his last dance.
We all are. The difference is, he’s had his wake up call.
I think we all recognize where this is going, so I won’t bore the readers with spelling out the moral of the story, I’ll just ask you to consider the following question:
What will you be doing for your last dance? This could be it.