Biographies & Memoirs

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Chapter 10

Lost and Found

Have you ever arrived somewhere that you expected to be full of people and found it empty? Like if you wrote down the wrong room for a test, or showed up to a party only to realize you had the wrong date? Even before you figure out what’s happened, there’s that feeling of something being off—too still, too quiet. It’s the feeling of something missing.

That’s how the house felt in the weeks after Dad’s death. I constantly expected to hear his laugh, or smell his cooking, or walk into the living room and find him tinkering with our stereo. Because everything else was so normal, it seemed like he wasn’t really gone, he was just somewhere in the wings, waiting for his entrance. I constantly felt like I was walking through a maze, with my father always ahead of me, just out of sight. If I could walk fast enough, or if I opened the right door at the right time, my father would be there.

But no matter how I tried, I couldn’t catch him.

I refused to cry, at least not when other people were around. I didn’t want them to see me, and more than that, I just couldn’t do it. When other people were in the room, that part of me shut off. I guess I’ve always been a pretty private person that way.

But at night, before I got into bed, I would say my prayers, and the tears would come. In my dark bedroom, listening to the quiet sounds of Matt’s deep-sleep breathing, I wrapped my arms around myself and cried. Sometimes I would call my dad’s cell phone, just to hear his voice on the message.

I miss you so much, Dad, I thought. Why did you have to leave?

One night, something stirred inside me. It was almost as though I could hear Dad’s voice in my head saying “I’m right here.” And it was true. I could feel him in the room with me. From then on, I knew that Dad would always be with me, no matter what. That’s when I started talking to him regularly. Every night, after I said my prayers, I’d tell Dad about my day: the dance classes I’d taken, the subjects I’d studied, the funny thing that Mom, John, or Matt had done. It was a way of keeping him in my life. If I was always thinking about him, then I’d never forget his face, or the sound of his laugh, or the way his hand felt when he ruffled my hair.

One of my biggest regrets in life is that I couldn’t speak at Dad’s funeral. Mom asked if I wanted to, but for the same reason I couldn’t cry in front of people, I couldn’t imagine giving a speech. Everything was too raw and painful, and I felt like I had to hold it all in. If I let go for one second, or let one tear fall, I worried I might explode. But I wish I could have gotten up there and told everyone how wonderful Dad was, the way John did. His speech was beautiful and moving. It was like he was saying good-bye, thank you, and I love you all rolled up in one. I wish I could have been as eloquent as John, but it just wasn’t my way.

But I wanted to do something to honor Dad, even if I didn’t know what. I racked my brain, trying to come up with a way to say good-bye that felt right. A few days after the funeral, it came to me: I was going to choreograph a dance for Dad. But it wouldn’t be just any ordinary dance. I was going to make the entire piece out of the things Dad and I did together, like riding bikes and fishing. Every step, every movement would be dedicated to Dad’s memory.

I don’t know how the idea came to me, or why I thought I could pull it off. I’d sort of taken a class in choreography once before, with Michael. She called it improv, probably because no six-year-old would want to take a class in choreography, but what we learned was the basics of matching a physical movement to a piece of music. That had been years ago, though, and I didn’t remember much. Also, I wanted the piece to have a lot of ballet in it, because I knew that would make Dad proud, and I didn’t know anywhere near enough ballet to choreograph a number like that on my own. And the only teacher I thought I could ask—Tad—couldn’t see me anymore.

Right after Dad died, my family and I went to California for over a month, this time with my auntie Kristin and uncle David and my dad’s family. It felt good to be close to them. We were able to go because my mom had finished teaching summer school. When we returned to Iowa City, we found out that Tad was worried I wasn’t going to continue dancing after Dad’s death, because I’d been gone for so long.

“Tad won’t be teaching you anymore,” Mom told me after they spoke.

“What?” I asked, shocked. “Why?”

“He says he can’t, and he had to take another student in your place while we were away,” Mom said. I could tell she was disappointed.

I didn’t know what to say. I felt lost. Tad had been the only anchor I had left in the dance world. I’d thought he was going to be my mentor in ballet, and now he wasn’t even going to be my teacher. I opened my mouth to ask Mom a question, but she beat me to it.

“We’ll find you a new teacher,” she said. “You need a male role model. And we’re going to find you one.” She hugged me hard to her chest. Her strength convinced me she could make everything right.

Without Tad, it wasn’t just my ballet education that ground to a halt. I was left without someone to help me craft my memorial to Dad. But I knew I couldn’t do it alone. I went to my mom.

“That’s beautiful, Alex,” she said, after I explained the idea. “Your dad would be so proud.”

I needed a choreographer who would make a piece with me, someone who would take it seriously, not just whip a premade routine out of his back pocket. On a tip from some friends, Mom called the University of Iowa Department of Dance and discovered that the Dance Forum had a new director whose husband was a professor of dance named Eloy Barragán. Mom called that very day.

When Mom explained what I wanted, Eloy asked us in for an interview. He spoke quietly and with a wonderful Spanish accent. He peppered me with questions about dance, my dad, and my goals in life.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, Eloy was a big deal. He was an amazing ballet dancer who had performed with companies all around the world, from his native Mexico to Beijing, Washington, and now Iowa City. More than that, though, he was a renowned choreographer. Just a few years before we started working together, the National Endowment for the Arts had given him a prestigious choreography fellowship.

At the end of the conversation, Eloy looked me dead in the eye. His mouth crinkled into a huge smile, his white teeth shining against his brown skin. He twitched his black, bushy eyebrows.

“I’ll help you,” he agreed. “And you’ll perform it here, at the university, on a real stage. If we’re doing this, we’re going to do it right.”

Like that, Eloy and I set off on the first step of what would be my new dance life.

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