Growing Up, Growing Old

by Julia N.

“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing…”

I tap my feet to the music, chat with a guy named Robert who had some kind of photography business, and try to ignore the smell of urine in the room. I’m anxious to meet my date.

I’ve helped organize a Senior Citizen Prom for Quaker Gardens, a retirement home in Westminster, California. My friend Emily is already on the floor with a man in a bow tie who would give Derek Hough a run for his money, despite being 80 and dancing in slippers.

As he’s teaching her a fancy dip, a nurse wheels in a woman wearing an old nightgown and a mostly blank look on her face. The nurse tells me her name is Ilene, and that she cannot talk, but that I can still talk to her. I’ve performed in a Carmen Miranda hat while singing the Chiquita banana song in front of a thousand people, yet I feel awkward.

I introduce myself and wheel Ilene outside for a stroll like the nurse tells me to. She scolds me as I start off, saying that if I hurt the chair, the chair hurts Ilene. So we walk at a snail’s pace, and every time we go over a crack I cringe. “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back” rings in my ears. I wish I could dance with Ilene. When I dance, all my problems disappear.

We finally go back inside. The nurse from earlier is nowhere in sight, so I sneak Ilene onto the dance floor. She starts to make an “ahh” gurgling noise as if she’s trying to talk. I wheel her alongside the other dancers, and she smiles for the first time all night. We rock back and forth and spin in circles. Ilene doesn’t like to pick up her feet so this takes some muscle. Fourteen years of port de bras in ballet are paying off. The band plays, and Ilene and I become part of the music.

Suddenly it’s 5:00 and time to take Ilene back to her room. It’s very plain—no presents or pictures of family like some of the other residents. I was told Ilene used to be a teacher. I wish for the hundredth time she could talk so I could ask her about her life.

It occurs to me that we all grow up, grow old, and get pruney hands. I think about the life I hope to lead, and how I would like to be defined at the end of it. I want to stay healthy, and to always have the love of friends and family. Just like Ilene must have wanted.

I take her hand in mine, and she smiles a little again. I think about what I love most about dance—the beauty, the elegance, the miracle of it—and how it can be found miles from any stage, wheeling an old woman on a dance floor and seeing her smile.