Decades after a life-altering tragedy, writer Michal Lemberger finds insight, inspiration, and a connection with her late beloved dad in ballet class.

By Michal Lemberger
Updated April 26, 2017
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Ballet shoes and leg warmers
Credit: NuriaE/Getty Images

Dance should have been part of my inheritance. My father, an architect by trade, loved dance so much that it colored his fantasies: When he imagined himself born into a different time, place, or family, he saw a life that could have allowed him to become a professional ballet dancer.

At family functions, he and my grandmother would glide across the floor in a Hungarian waltz no one else remembered. On Sunday afternoons, when he took my brother and me for bike rides in Central Park, he would stop at a group of folk dancers who gathered each week by the side of Turtle Pond.

We played on the rocks above the filmy water as he joined the circle of dancers under the stony gaze of Jagiello, the 15th-century Polish king. Sweat broke out across his face and darkened his T-shirt as his arms and heels rose in time to the music. He was both concentrating and losing himself as he spun. In those moments, he seemed utterly content.

When I was 21, I traveled from New York to Vermont with my parents. At 2:30 in the morning, as my mother dozed in the passenger seat and I slept in back, my father lost consciousness behind the wheel.

The car veered across the empty highway, crashed into the rock face that lined the road, and ricocheted back, coming to a stop astride the divider. By then, the shock of the impact had traveled up the length of my body. My mother, who was unhurt, scrambled out of the wreckage to flag down a passing truck. My father was dead.

Paramedics pulled me from the car, and I was rushed to the hospital. I had a shattered femur, a broken hip socket, shredded knee ligaments, internal bleeding, a broken rib and vertebra, and a concussion. Two surgical teams sliced me open. One sopped up the blood that had pooled inside my abdomen. The other inserted a titanium rod along the length of my thighbone.

In the hours after the accident, as I was X-rayed and prepped for surgery, my mother took my father’s body back to New York, where she and my siblings buried him and sat shivah. I stayed in the hospital in Vermont, furiously pushing away my grief as I tried to come to terms with my new physical reality.

Despite a steady stream of visitors, I was on my own much of the time. Because I was alone, I could tell myself, during those first few days of intermittent consciousness, that I would deal with my newfound fatherlessness later, after I had taken care of the more immediate fact of my body’s brokenness. It didn’t work that way. Within days, I was coming apart, crying into my starched pillowcase, dependent on the comfort of a young nurse and the woman in the next bed.

My father had taught me to draw and how to look at a building’s skeleton and see beauty there. We had talked about books and politics and how to remain good in a hard world. We shared more than that. I inherited his face. Even when it moved from male to female form, the likeness was extraordinary. Now that likeness was all I had left.

The next few years were dense with surgeries and physical therapy. My body was filled with metal hardware one year. The next, it was removed. I progressed from wheelchair to walker to crutches to cane, and finally to my own two feet. Through all that, no matter my state of mind, I had to gain strength. I had to learn to sit up unassisted, to grip a walker, to hop on my good leg.

I never regained my equilibrium: The surgery that had saved me also left one leg a half inch shorter than the other. I was permanently unbalanced.

Though I had inherited so much from my father, I did not get his feet. The notion of dancing had never occurred to me. A self-conscious kid, I couldn’t imagine moving so freely in front of other people (even as a child, I was more drawn to the dress-up potential of pink tutus than to dance itself).

But for all it took from me, the accident cured me of my unease. There were only so many times I could be poked and prodded by doctors, nurses, and physical therapists before I stopped caring who was looking. Later, years after I had watched my young daughters wobble through ballet classes, marveling as their confidence and coordination grew, I gave in to my curiosity, finding an adult-beginner ballet class for myself. I did so with no expectations. For so long, it would have been impossible for me to try at all. Just being there felt like an accomplishment.

In class, I totter unevenly across the floor. I do my best, and I even find moments to relish—I love rising up on the balls of my feet in relevé and stretching toward the ceiling. Still, I’m pretty terrible at this. If I stick with it, I will probably improve. But no amount of time and practice will give me any real mastery.

Ballet, I’ve learned, depends on the illusion of effortlessness. It never gets easy. Even the pros bloody their feet to perfect a certain line to a leg or propulsion of a leap. The illusion lies in us, the spectators, who never inhabit the dancers’ bodies or feel the control they must exert to articulate their movements. In this, ballet is like grief.

We expect to see a mourner in pain in the immediate aftermath of the death of a loved one. After that, grief persists invisibly. Others can’t see it, but it never goes away. Instead, you learn to live with it, to move through your days and years accommodating your new reality.

But the true tragedy of losing someone you love unfolds over time. There’s the loss itself, the empty space that used to be filled by that person—his voice, the sound of his footfalls in the hallway, the face you inherited from him looking back at you. And then there’s the fact that the sorrow you feel changes you, so that you are no longer the person he once knew.

My father’s death set in motion a series of changes in me such that I wonder whether he would recognize the person I’ve become. As the years pass, he is more and more lost to me. He died too soon to experience many important moments in my life. He wasn’t there when I graduated from college. He never met the man I married. He died long before I had children. And he missed out on seeing me overcome the injuries and mourning that his own death initiated. He never knew my strength.

When I walked into the dance studio for the first time, I had no idea my father’s ghost was coming with me. His dream of dancing was never mine. I don’t love dance as he did. I live in a body that’s permanently weakened and scarred. But in the studio, moving red-faced and awkward, I can return, however briefly, to those moments of his contentment. Because there it is in the mirror: his face, dancing.

About the Author
Michal Lemberger wrote the award-winning book After Abel and Other Stories. She lives, writes, and teaches in Los Angeles.