You’ve Got to Play If You Want to Win

You’ve Got to Play If You Want to Win

From Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor's Soul

You’ve Got to Play If You Want to Win

We all have big changes in our lives that are more or less a second chance.

Harrison Ford

Since my friend Pat died in 2000, there has not been one day that I have not thought about her. To hear me say that, you’d think that she and I were really good friends . . . best friends. But the truth is that Pat has played a bigger part in my life since she died than she ever did when she was alive.

We met in 1998 at a very special kind of support group. It was a dance movement therapy class, and only breast-cancer patients and survivors could sign up for it. There were just ten women admitted into the group, and we each had to commit to attend every one of the twelve classes. We were there to support and encourage each other.

Now, I had participated in other cancer support groups, but this one was different—and not only because of the commitment to the other members of the group. The name “dance movement therapy” said it all: we were not going to just sit around and talk. Fortunately, there was very little dance involved—otherwise, I wouldn’t have made it through the first class! But there was a lot of movement, and that was tough enough.

That first day, I was very nervous about looking foolish in front of the other women. So, when the music started, I just stood in place—feet firmly rooted in the ground, knees locked, body stiff, eyes shut tight—swaying slightly with the beat.

When our instructor told us there were drawing materials available if we wanted to express our feelings using that medium, I was horrified. As far as I was concerned, the only thing worse than “dancing” in front of a roomful of strangers was drawing in front of a roomful of strangers. From the expressions on the other women’s faces—and from the way their bodies hadn’t moved either—I knew I wasn’t the only one wondering how I could get out of the commitment I’d made.

But one of the women, Pat, moved with ease right from the very first moment of the very first class. She wasn’t self-conscious at all about using her body to express herself in front of an audience of strangers. In fact, she seemed to be having fun. Not only that, but several times during the class, she walked over to where the art supplies were and used them. I was in awe that anyone could feel that free, that safe, showing who they really were and how they felt in front of a group of strangers. My desire to feel that comfortable kept me coming back every week. That, and the promise I’d made when joining the group.

By the end of the twelve weeks, with Pat as our role model, we danced, moved, wrote group poetry, drew and played with each other without a second thought. It wasn’t a surprise, considering our comfort level, when, several months later, Pat called all of us to say that she had been diagnosed with metastases to her bones and liver. She asked if we would form a special kind of support group for her, for as long as she needed it.

Most of us said yes, and Pat’s healing circle (which is how we referred to ourselves) met each month at different homes, with the original members from the dance movement therapy class. By the time Pat died almost two years later, there was a loyal group of five who were there for her every month.

In the beginning, because this was new for us—and, after all, what had happened to Pat could happen to any of us—we were very serious. Our monthly get-togethers would start with a potluck dinner, and then we would solemnly do light massage and other hands-on work on Pat while chanting or calling her name. It was a somber and dark experience.

Before long, just as in dance movement therapy class, with Pat leading the way, we loosened up. She said she was open to whatever the group wanted to do, so we started having theme nights. Once we each brought a video and voted on which one to watch. We drummed or toned or sculpted with clay or made masks. One time we went on a field trip to walk a labyrinth. When Pat lost her hair again, we decorated bald caps—and each of us wore one. The same night, we hennaed her bald head. And, of course, we played music and moved and danced. No matter what we did, Pat was game. She was always the most enthusiastic of us all.

During the time we got together, sometimes Pat felt great, and sometimes she felt terrible. But, no matter how she felt, she was there, physically and in every other way. Her lightheartedness, her open attitude to embrace all that life had to offer and her willingness to play gave the rest of us permission to be the same way. And so, instead of being somber, serious and self-conscious, Pat’s healing circle became a respite of light and joy and fun. We played.

During the last two weeks of Pat’s life, there wasn’t a day when one of us was not with her. And, at her memorial service, fittingly called a celebration of life, the healing circle was there. I spoke and sang in church, in front of complete strangers and, along with the rest of the members of Pat’s healing circle, I danced my heart out. In front of all those people we had never seen before in our lives, we played in Pat’s honor.

I don’t know where Pat was born or where she grew up. I don’t know what her favorite color was or what her favorite song was. I don’t know if she was a Democrat or a Republican, and I have no idea if she went to church. Our friendship wasn’t like that.

Pat and I—we were heart friends. We had a connection that came from the soul, a place where no one is self-conscious, no one is afraid to look foolish. It is a place where you can use words or music or art or movement or touch to show how you feel.

A few months after Pat’s death, I joined another dance movement therapy class with nine other women, all of whom were strangers. Right from the very first moment of the very first class, when the music came on I was moving around the room with ease. I wasn’t self-conscious at all about using my body to express myself in front of an audience of strangers. In fact, I was having fun. I couldn’t believe how free, how safe, I felt showing who I really was and how I really felt. When the music stopped, I used the art supplies, and I knew then that Pat had helped me much more than I had ever helped her.

Every day since she died, I hear Pat’s voice saying to me, “Remember to play.” And I play. I play.

Lori Misicka

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