As soon as I heard the first pair of lyrics, I made a beeline inside where the dance was taking place. It was our song, our joke, and I knew Dan had requested it and would be scanning the dance floor for me.
I don’t remember how ‘Lady In Red’ became our song. I don’t recall either of us ever wearing red, or for that matter, acting like ladies. And trust me, that song was cheesy even when it was popular. I guess that’s what made it perfect because we, too, were pretty cheesy. I was a gangly teenager and he was a fatherly peace officer who often carried stickers in his pockets.
I caught a glimpse of Dan from behind and watched him for just a second as he looked for me. I tapped him on the shoulder, he turned and bowed, I curtsied and we both smiled at this ridiculous routine that had become tradition. As we danced, holding our chins high and our frames locked, for that song I was his daughter and he was my dad.
Over a wide span of years, we staffed many youth conferences together and at the requisite dance on the last night, one or the other of us would plead with the deejay to play our outdated, cheesy song. When the song came on, we left conversations mid-sentence and danced together, giggling like school kids at this ridiculous song that became the soundtrack of our friendship.
Throughout my high school years Dan I and I wrote letters back and forth, his always on colorful paper with stickers in the corners, of course. Dan’s letters always seemed to arrive just when I needed a fatherly presence in my life, when I needed someone to encourage me or to tell me that they were proud of me. Dan’s blocky handwriting spelled out belief in me. I’m lucky to have many father figures in my life who speak wisdom and kindness into the broken places I otherwise keep secret. Dan was one of them.
Dan died of cancer last week and although we hadn’t seen each other in years, the loss leaves a sad metallic taste in my mouth and a vacant space in my heart where he used to be.
After finding out about his passing, I tried to write something to honor him, but none of the words felt right in my mouth. None of the words felt adequate in describing a man who inhaled the pain of those around him and exhaled compassion.
When people die, the survivors are prone to exaggeration, our brains are prone to protect our hearts and only allow the good memories to surface. But the true testament of Dan’s character is that he was as beloved in life as he is in death.
As I sat trying to write about him, my fingers just wouldn’t type the words. And so I did what all writers do when paralyzed at the keyboard, I went grocery shopping. So there I was in the bread aisle pondering the difference between ‘whole grain’ and ‘whole wheat’ when ‘Lady In Red’ came over the loudspeakers. I turned my face toward the towers of loaves on the shelves and cried, wishing for one last dance with my old friend. A particular lyric caught like a sob in my throat.
I’ve never seen you shine so bright. You were amazing.
And then I laughed because that song, our song, our ridiculous joke broke my writer’s block and in that moment I knew just what to write to Dan, one last link in our chain of correspondence. When I got home, I shoved the bags of groceries into the fridge, not bothering to unpack them. I dug down deep into my special basket of kept notes and letters until I found Dan’s letters.
He spoke to me once again in the words he penned to me. And now at the close of his life I speak them back to him.
The community you live in is a better place because of you.
This is a better world because of you.
You are a treasure, unique, a natural at anything you do.
I’m very proud of you.
It’s been great because you were here.
You are where you should be.
You are a bright light for all of us on Earth.
You smiled upon us and spread your magic.
My wish was answered.
Cancer can take the body, but it can’t take the spirit or the memories we possess of our loved ones. It can’t erase Dan’s gracious words to me. Most of all it cannot wipe away my sweet memories of dancing with Dan.