A Time to Dance

Erin Johnson, “A Time to Dance,” in Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium 2003 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2003), 123–129.

A Time to Dance

Erin Johnson

I died when I was nine years old. There was no elaborate funeral; no one delivered a eulogy. Nobody even knew that I was gone. Yet I could feel Death’s icy finger coil around my heart, squeezing until the best part of me turned gray and dead as coal, falling lifeless and dull from my existence. I had lost the innocence of my youth.

“And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye . . . become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:2–4).

When I was a young girl, my mother told me that I was “special,” that I was different from my friends. I knew I was different. I could see, hear, and experience things that no one else could. Every Saturday morning I spent hours on forays through the wilds of my backyard, a fearless explorer in pink overalls fighting bravely against gnarled branches that reached for me from the depths of my jungle. Neighbors’ voices became the hushed whisperings of secret agents, from whom I must avoid detection at all cost. Trees became horrific monsters, set to pounce on and devour me at every turn. I was a mighty huntress searching for treasures while evading the grasp of the looming woods.

Over time, I evolved from conqueror of lurking beasts to vaudeville entertainer, dancing and singing for fans that only I could see. With my Minnie Mouse umbrella in hand, I would wow the audience—consisting mainly of my golden retriever—with my amazing vocals and complicated dance moves. My old, weatherworn patio sprang to life with stage lights, curtain calls, and, of course, the standing ovations that always followed my performances. Sometimes I borrowed tunes from the most recent Disney movie, but more often I created a tune and improvised the words as I danced in the spotlight. I was incredible, a passionate mix of Sarah Bernhardt, Fred Estaire, and the Little Mermaid, singing and twirling across the stage, dazzling the audience with my fancy footwork. My little voice would crescendo to the climax of my song, at which point I always surprised the audience by pushing open my lacy, pink umbrella and twirling it as I walked off stage. Usually my Broadway spectaculars were followed by an interpretive ballet, in which I pirouetted to violins that played only in my head. I leapt from corner to corner, pointing my bare feet and arching my back as I had seen my older sister do so many times in her ballet recitals.

I could dance for hours. Often the sun would go down and I would continue my encores until Mom insisted that it was time for bed. I loved my stage; I loved the freedom and exhilaration of creation. I could be anything I wanted to be on that stage. One minute I was Shirley Temple, tap-dancing to jazzy rhythms, and the next I was Bette Midler, belting out the lyrics to “The Rose.” From the grace of “Swan Lake” to the energy of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” I was anyone but Erin Johnson.

But one day, the dancing stopped. My beloved escape from the world was put to a sudden halt when the phone rang the day after Thanksgiving. It was a wonderful day for dancing through dried leaves with the autumn air nipping at my naked toes. I was out on my stage, right in the middle of the most stirring part of “Wind Beneath My Wings,” when my mother called me.

“Erin,” shouted my mother from the kitchen window, “stop that dancing right now. We have to go to Mamaw’s retirement home. Come in right now, Erin, not another step. This is serious, come on.” She didn’t need to tell me it was serious. I could tell by the tightness of her voice that something was wrong. I ran into the house, leaving my umbrella on the stage for the last time.

As the whole family raced to the car, my mother explained to my two sisters and me what was wrong. “Girls, Mamaw has not been doing so well today. I don’t think she’s going to be with us much longer. Do you kids understand what I’m saying?” she said as her moist eyes focused on the road ahead of her and Dad gunned the motor. Of course I followed my older sister’s lead and said that I understood, but I really didn’t understand at all. What did Mom mean that Mamaw was not going to live much longer? This was Mamaw we were talking about. Grandmothers live forever.

As we entered the dreary hospital room, the smell of doctors’ gloves and medicine permeated the air and I felt a heaviness I had never known. Then I saw her. I saw my dear grandmother lying on the bed in the middle of this dark and musty hospital room. My confusion grew as I looked upon this seemingly lifeless form. Could this truly be my Mamaw? Could this helpless body, struggling for every breath, really be the woman whose lap I had sat on for hours, listening to stories of a grandfather I had never met? No, this tired face could not belong to the woman who had roared with delight at my silly songs and tales.

My Mamaw was not this woman, nor was she the smell of sickness found within these walls. She was the smell of delicious French toast frying on the stove and of bacon sizzling in the oven as I sat anxiously waiting for the morning’s feast. She was the pungent but familiar smell of mothballs hidden in drawers and closets. My Mamaw smelled of the chocolate treats in her purse, of Dairy Queens, of peanut butter crackers, and of the worn leather in her tan car.

The grandmother I loved would not resign herself to this bed but would get up and finger-paint with me until my little body would be covered in cool, colorful gel. Then she would chase me with a hose in her backyard, devilishly hiding behind a corner until she could sabotage me with the cold water. Or she would get out of that bed and go with me on a nature walk, pointing out different flowers and helping me spy on birds’ nests and anthills. Mamaw would not choke on her breath like this woman in the bed. She would not make that painful sound with every breath as if her throat were closing tighter with every passage of air. Instead, my grandmother would sing me an off-key lullaby and tell me involved stories of far-off lands and people that were close to her heart. The Mamaw I loved would say “isn’t that precious” as I danced on my stage; she loved to watch me perform. My Mamaw would get out of those stiff hospital sheets and wrap her arms around me, saying, “Give me a kiss.”

And yet, this woman was indeed my grandmother and she would not get out of bed today. All of these beautiful sights, smells, and sounds would be hers and mine forever, and though Mamaw was temporarily sidelined by the limitations of a mortal body, she was in there somewhere, struggling to open her eyelids. As I reached to touch the hand that lay across her chest, I knew that Mamaw was with me one more time. Her fingers were cold in mine, and her soft, wrinkled skin was supple between my fingers. Young as I was, I could sense her vibrancy and will slipping from those precious fingers. As I laid her hand back across her chest, I searched her face and wondered if she knew my thoughts.

I left the room with my sisters, leaving only my mother to sit near the bed with her mother. They remained together as Mamaw’s spirit left that little room.

The funeral was a few days later at the ward chapel. Mamaw was buried at Arlington National Cemetery alongside her husband. I didn’t like thinking about my grandmother, closed into a wooden coffin, beneath the damp ground. So I just didn’t think about it. I tried to forget that Mamaw was six feet below the earth in a dark, lonely box. I tried to forget about Mamaw.

“But there is a resurrection, therefore the grave hath no victory, and the sting of death is swallowed up in Christ. He is the light and the life of the world; yea, a light which is endless, that can never be darkened; yea, and also a life that is endless, that there can be no more death” (Mosiah 16:8–9).

Life edged along as usual during the next few weeks. I had school every day, piano lessons on Wednesday, and church on Sunday. Life continued as if no one noticed that there was a brand new, shiny black tombstone among so many others. It was as if nobody noticed that the well-used wheelchair was put in storage or that I received one less birthday card that year. No one noticed that in a red brick house in Virginia, there was a little girl who had stopped dancing.

Dancing was a waste of time. Why should I spend my time frivolously performing for adoring audiences that I knew were only in my head? If life were really so fragile that it could be silenced in a moment in a musty hospital room, what was the point in wasting one second of it in childish play? My grandmother had died; I was going to die. I didn’t have time for make-believe anymore.

“Unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth of the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:19).

I now saw that my forested backyard was nothing more than a dozen trees—all old, unkempt, and withering. The branches no longer resembled the claws of ferocious animals, and the mysterious jungle with treasures and wild beasts had vanished, leaving only a grassy plain.

Nor was there a stage underneath the kitchen window. No lights or curtains decorated the patio. There was merely grass where a transfixed audience had once cheered me on, and a mossy stone marked where I had made my umbrella-twirling finales. It wasn’t that I couldn’t see the glittery floodlights anymore; it was simply that I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t allow myself to indulge in such childish fantasy anymore. It was silly. I didn’t want to be a child anymore.

“And again I say unto you, ye must repent, and be baptized in my name, and become as a little child, or ye can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God” (3 Nephi 11:38).

The winter passed and the flowery spring came, but still I did not dance. The years passed and I was soon in high school, occupying my time with projects, boys, and friends. I didn’t even think about dancing until one night when I heard the hushed sound of my mother crying in her bedroom. Curious, I crept alongside her bed and gently touched her quivering shoulder. “Mom,” I whispered, “Mom, are you okay? What happened?” My mother turned her face to me and I saw her reddened eyes and tear-streaked cheeks.

“Oh Erin,” she sobbed, “I want my mother.”

I was shocked to hear my mother say that. She, the impenetrable fortress, the woman who always held me and rocked me to sleep after a bad dream, was now revealing a part of herself that I did not know. She was more than my mom; she was someone else’s daughter, a forty-year-old girl who missed her mother.

I went back to my bed and cried. I cried because I had made myself forget my grandmother to stop the pain of acknowledging her absence. I cried because I had already forgotten what it felt like to dance on my stage and escape from the world. I cried because I wanted to act like a child again. I cried mostly because I knew that I had already closed that door forever.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized that there is a key to open that door again. There is a way to return to the wonder and joy of childhood. The key is the gospel of Christ. This wondrous key offers me a way to become like a child again, full of trust and faith, for it holds within its doctrine and promises a direct path back to the humility and pure joy of a precious child. It extends to me the gift, the extraordinary gift, of being able to be enfolded in my Savior’s arms as a little child. In the gospel, I am forever a child of God.

“And I am filled with charity, which is everlasting love; wherefore, all children are alike unto me; wherefore, I love little children with a perfect love; and they are all alike and partakers of salvation” (Moroni 8:17).

Before I left home for BYU, I actually came across my Minnie Mouse umbrella. No longer would it captivate audiences as it once did; the metal handle was by then corroded with the orange of time. The lacy edges were dirtied, and the silky canopy had been ripped by wind and animals. My heart ached as I looked upon the droopy stage prop that had danced with me for so many years. It had waited for me in the corner of a dusty garage—and now I’d finally found it again. At last I was able to recall the joyful dances of my youth without feeling embarrassed or feeling that I had wasted my time.

Instead, I knew that my grandmother would want me to dance, as does my Savior. He wants me to be as a little child, full of wonder, trust, and celebration as I embrace the gifts He has so graciously bestowed upon me. He wants me to find joy in my life and to learn from the pain, to feel humble when I stand on the shore of a giant ocean, to stop and spy on a bird’s nest, to laugh, to sing, and to help others do so also. He wants me to dance.

I still haven’t performed since that chilly November afternoon so many years ago. Yet sometimes I can still faintly hear the music, and I can’t wait to join my grandmother in that final and eternal ballet.

“A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:4).