5: The Last Dance

5: The Last Dance

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Hope & Miracles

The Last Dance

You can dance anywhere, even if only in your heart.

~Author Unknown

My parents married on June 27, 1942 in a beautiful stone church in upstate New York. The bride was seventeen, the groom twenty. After promising to love and to cherish until parted by death, they danced at the reception. They kept these promises and continued to dance for seventy years.

During their courtship and their entire married life they enjoyed big band music. They were beautiful dancers, commandeering a dance floor with style and grace. We kids grew to love the sound of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, conjuring up images of our parents gazing into each other’s eyes as they glided across the floor.

I was the oldest, followed by my brother Terry and three sisters Judy, Gail, and Joni. We grew up in a house filled with love and a strong sense of family. The radio was always playing music and at the first strains of Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” or “Sentimental Journey” our parents rolled the living room rug back and we sat cross-legged on the sofa to watch the magic happen. The hardwood floors of the farmhouse became a grand ballroom as we watched them move as one. Each of us grew up loving music of all types and dancing of all styles.

Tragedy struck in 1976 when our brother Terry was killed in a horrible accident. He was thirty and left behind a young wife and three-year-old daughter.

Having suffered rheumatic fever and subsequent heart damage as a child, Mom was beginning to have cardiac problems. Three months after Terry’s death, our mother had her first open heart surgery at age fifty. She recovered from surgery without a single complication in spite of grieving the loss of her only son.

She had heart surgeries again in 1992 and 2002, and Dad was her devoted caregiver. By her side day and night, he was her dance partner and referred to her as his Princess.

In spite of health issues, Mom and Dad’s dancing days weren’t over. Their love for big band music continued, but they could only hold each other and sway in time to the music. They both longed to twirl around the floor as in earlier years, but settled for the gentle swing and sway.

When my father, who had always been the hearty one, got sick, we steeled ourselves. The doctors at Duke Medical Center diagnosed aortic stenosis and at the age of ninety, Dad had open-heart surgery. For two days, Mom didn’t leave his side. She looked drawn and pale. We knew Mom was tired, but we didn’t know she was starting to have kidney failure.

On the third day of Dad’s post-op recovery, eighty-seven-year-old Mom was hospitalized. Our hearts were heavy. It was the end of an era. Despite the seriousness of each of their conditions, the Lord was not done with them. Their love and devotion would show the rest of the family the meaning of the words “for better, for worse, in sickness and in health.”

A week later, both parents, weak and tired, were discharged to my sister Judy’s home. Timing was critical for the surprise we planned. I had arrived with Mom and gotten her settled in bed when Judy came through the door with Dad. With her assistance, he headed for the bedroom.

Judy steadied Dad as he paused, gazing at Mom in their bed. He bent over and kissed Mom on the cheek. “Is it really you, Princess?”

She reached up with her hand and cupped it around his head. “Yes, it’s me. Are you really here?”

He answered by getting in bed with her. They nestled into each other’s arms as Judy and I stood in the doorway crying. We didn’t know how long we’d have either of them, but we knew we’d do our best to keep them together.

Six weeks later, Mom had a setback and died after a few days in the hospital. The family was devastated. It was as if we had the wind knocked out of us.

Living without her was a struggle for Dad. They had been married seventy years. A year after Mom’s death, Dad fell ill and began his downward spiral. Two months later, as he lay dying, he turned to me and announced in a weak voice, “I’m going to be with your mother for our anniversary on June 27th. We are going on a cruise and we’ll dance to big band music.”

It was one of the last conversations we had. He passed peacefully the evening of June 26th, right on schedule for their anniversary the next day.

Mom and Dad were both cremated. They requested that their ashes be combined and spread on my brother’s grave and then be committed to the waters in front of our summer vacation house. We honored their request, but added touches we thought they would both love.

For the entire four-day weekend we honored their memory. We gathered as sisters and our husbands along with Terry’s widow, experiencing the closeness that our parents had instilled in us.

Having combined Mom and Dad’s cremated remains, we returned them to a heart-shaped biodegradable box provided by the funeral home. We sealed it shut with superglue, as directed, preparing for a water burial.

On a beautiful sunny day in early September, we left the dock in two kayaks and a fishing boat, slowly moving into the deeper water of the Bay. Our youngest sister Joni paddled one of the kayaks, our brother-in-law Jeff accompanied her in the other. The rest of us were in the boat. Mark turned the stereo system on and big band music played. Strains of “Moonlight Serenade” followed by “Sentimental Journey” wafted across the water.

Gently resting the container on the gunwale of the boat, each sister placed a hand on the heart-shaped box for the last time. We said a prayer as we prepared to commit our parents’ ashes to the body of water that they loved so dearly.

Joni, sitting low in her kayak, received the box and reverently placed it in the water. It began to sink in exactly four minutes, as the directions said it would. We watched until it sank out of sight. “Sentimental Journey” was into the chorus.

Suddenly, two identical whirlpools rose to the surface side by side and moved in perfect syncopation across the surface of the water toward the main house. All of us watched in stunned silence as tears streamed down our faces. We looked at each other and said, “Did you see that?”

Dad had told me they were going on a cruise and would be dancing to big band music. He was absolutely right. At that moment, each one of us knew it was a sign from our beloved parents, a joyous sign of a couple in love gliding across the surface of a new dance floor in their last dance.

~Nancy Emmick Panko

You are currently enjoying a preview of this book.

Sign up here to get a Chicken Soup for the Soul story emailed to you every day for free!

Please note: Our premium story access has been discontinued (see more info).

view counter

More stories from our partners