I still live for the holiday season. I love hearing The Nutcracker Suite.
But it’s a different feeling now. I am not jolted by adrenaline but filled with sadness because something is missing. People still ask me if I will dance again.
When I was two, my mom enrolled me in ballet just to keep me busy. I would go twice a week. I was not a fantastic dancer, but I loved it.
My mom is an interior designer, a vibrant, domineering woman. She always looks nice, no matter what is going on. Hair and nails are done regularly, and she wears heels, never sneakers. Her wardrobe is full of color that matches her flamboyant personality. Although she is authoritative, she has a certain grace. She describes herself to others as the “architect of interiors.” It’s an accurate description. She has that architectural firmness but also a softer elegance.
My dad is a public defender for San Diego County. He is a tall, dignified man. He graduated from San Diego State University and is a member of Phi Beta Sigma, the black fraternity. He is a kindhearted person. He rarely raises his voice. He avoids conflict and would rather talk a problem out. His is the voice of reason, though no one except my mom can ever win an argument with him. His lawyer side not only made him a great debater but a great confidant. I can remember coming to him when I was younger and had a problem.
“Talk to your daughter,” my mom would say to my dad when he got home from work. It was something she said only when I got in trouble. It was as if she would disown me for that moment.
“Daddy, I have to go to bed early,” I’d whimper as I approached him.
He always started off with “Tell me what happened?” His voice was soft. In those four simple words I felt the comfort and concern he had for me. This masked his underlying curiosity to dig through the story to find out what really transpired.
“Nothing,” I replied innocently, hoping my sad appearance would make him go easier on me.
“That’s not what your mother said.” Dang, he knew. They must have talked about it before he got home. There was no use lying to him. He always found out the truth.
“I went to the store with Mommy and I, uh, accidentally knocked over a vase. I didn’t break it or anything. But Mommy is acting like I did.”
“Doesn’t she always tell you not to touch anything?” His voice was sterner, less consoling.
“But nothing. Why didn’t you listen to your mother?” Now he was becoming unsympathetic.
“I just wanted to see what it felt like. It had a pretty design on it, and I wanted to know if you could feel it. I didn’t think it would fall.” I started to cry.
“You shouldn’t have done it. I agree with your mother. Going to bed early is an appropriate punishment.”
I marched upstairs, unhappy with the outcome of this conversation.
I also remember him coming home upset and stressed over his new cases. He has defended murderers, rapists, and child molesters. He’s never done it for the money. He just wants to help people and do something he loves. With so much negativity from his job, we used the arts as an escape. The beauty from ballet and interior design offset the ugliness of crime that my dad worked with.
As an interior designer, my mom is involved in the visual arts. But, even as a lawyer, my dad’s court cases are like performances. Lines are practiced, witnesses are prepped, and the judge acts as the director, maintaining the flow. Dad is one of the performers.
My mom grew up in New York. She misses being close to the theater. She sometimes jokes about moving back East. Her favorite thing to say is “I am a city girl, and Temecula is too country for me.” She holds her head high, showing pride for where she was born and delighting in sharing it with others.
My dad did not originally intend to be a public defender. He wanted to be a district attorney. But he liked the freedom of making his own decisions rather than having to answer constantly to someone. He and I are similar in that way. We like freedom. That’s why I enjoy dance so much. There is nothing holding you back. It’s just you and the music.
In our suburban neighborhood, we are one of the few African-American families. Temecula is not known for diversity. There are Native Americans, because of Pechanga, but the area is predominately white. I did not have many African-American friends, maybe three or four in the whole 16 years I lived there. That was fine with me, though, because my family taught me not to see color.
Before each school year my parents would sit my sister and me down and explain the importance of doing well in school. My mom would stand in front of the TV in our family room as my sister and I sat on the sofa.
“You have to work twice as hard in order to be on the same playing field as all the other kids,” she would say, referring to the fact that we were the only black kids in class. She wanted to refute the stereotype that all black people are uneducated. Her speech always ended with “Education is the key.”
By the time my sister and I reached high school, we grew tired of this ritual. Sometimes she varied the words, but the message was the same. It was ingrained in our heads.
Although I lived in a white neighborhood, my parents made sure that my siblings and I were exposed to different cultures and lifestyles. We have driven to New York twice. On the way there, we saw that not everyone lived in nice houses like us and that there weren’t cities everywhere. In Kansas, there were miles and miles of fields, not a person in sight, just animals. We have taken a cruise and a trip or two to Mexico. And for my 16th birthday my mom and I went on a trip to France and Italy. Since we lived in between San Diego and Los Angeles, we had the option of going to either city to see plays. I was mesmerized by The Lion King, was enchanted by Wicked, and fell in love with The Nutcracker.
Once a year, my mother and I would drive down to San Diego for my Cachets ballet exam. The trip down I-15 seemed to take forever. I was always so anxious. If I did not pass the exam, I could not move on to the next level, so it was extremely important. We weren’t notified of the results until weeks later, so the ride home would be filled with questions about the exam.
“How did it go?” Mom would ask.
“Good,” I’d respond, still nervous from the exam.
“How do you think you did?” I could tell she wanted more than a one-word answer.
“Well, I know I did well at the barre. But I fell out of one of my pirouettes. It’s okay because I landed the other ones. And, I don’t know how, but my arabesques were really good, I remembered to keep my heel down. I just want to work on my splits, so that my grand jetés are better.” I hoped this was enough information.
“Do you think you passed?”
“Yes.” And I did. I was feeling more optimistic and confident in my performance.
After that, the one-hour drive seemed to go much quicker. My hard work paid off when I received the certificates in the mail. I still have them at home.
Although I had a passion for ballet, deep down I knew I would never be a professional. As the only African-American dancer at the ballet studio, I could tell I was not built like the other girls. I was thin, but I was not a stick like them. My butt would stick out when I did pliés, and no matter how hard I tried, it would not be flat. My thighs were very muscular, but they were not as lean as a professional dancer’s were. I just did not have the physique to be a principal ballerina in a company. I was okay with it, though. I loved dancing. I was happy.
My friend Hannah DeMattia went from Temecula to the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. Hannah was good. She was always the lead in our productions, and we could all tell she was going to go far. Although she was only a year or two older than us, everyone looked up to her.
I can remember going to the studio early and waiting outside along with the other girls to see the Nutcracker cast list go up. Everyone was in the production, but not everyone got the main roles. As the instructor taped up the list, there would be tears from girls who would be mice for the third year in a row and cheers from girls who made it into the “Waltz of the Flowers.” I would run back to my mom waiting in the car.
“Mommy, I’m a soldier and a Gingerette,” I yelled through the driver’s side window, with my ballet bag hanging on my shoulder.
“Very good,” she said back with a nod of satisfaction and a big grin. It was a look I often saw when I did well in school.
“Thank you.” I smiled back, pleased that I made my mom proud.
But I would have been happy with any role. If I could have, I would have lived at the ballet studio.
We even practiced on Saturdays. The younger children rehearsed in the morning, and the older girls came later in the day. That’s how you knew if you were good, if you practiced in the afternoon. There were some disadvantages. The studio had no air-conditioning, so we had to dance with the doors open. There were only two entrances, and not much airflow. On a hot September day, it turned into a sauna, the air thick from all the energy in the room. Our black leotards hid most of the sweat, but there were still beads rolling down our faces. But I voluntarily went into this inferno. There were many times when I could have been swimming with my family or shopping in the air-conditioned mall with my friends, but I didn’t mind. I just wanted to dance.
The spring of my eighth-grade year it all changed. I was in ballet class doing jumps. I landed wrong and dislocated my knee. I thought it was nothing and tried to continue, but I could not put any weight on my left leg. The pain was excruciating. I did not go to the doctor right away. I decided to tough it out, but a few days later it popped again. The doctor said that I had dislocated my knee, and a bone chip had lodged itself in the socket and had to be removed. I feared that I would not be able to dance again. The surgery, followed by physical therapy, did not allow me to dance for the rest of the year, meaning no Nutcracker for me. The only thing that made the situation better was that I was going to see the performance that I should have danced in. At least, that is, until I got in trouble.
It was the weekend before the performance, and my sister and I were painting the fence. Because I was taller, I worked on the highest boards while she did the lowest. I accidentally got paint in her hair, but she told Mom I did it intentionally.
“It was an accident,” I screamed through tears.
“I don’t care, you should have been more careful,” Mom said nonchalantly.
“I was careful, it was an accident.” I choked out the words, barely able to breathe.
“Well, next time you’ll be more careful.”
“This isn’t fair!” I crossed my arms as tears streamed down my face.
“Life is not fair,” she said.
My mom decided that I was not allowed to go to the performance; tears and pleading did not change her mind. I was so upset I wore all black for the next three days and sat in the dark, crying.
Following months of physical therapy, I was able to participate in ballet again. But it was not the same. I was not the same. I worked hard, but I knew my knee was not as strong. Yet I was determined to dance, and I did. I performed in the next two Nutcrackers.
The summer before my junior year in high school, my mom insisted I get a summer job. She thought it would teach me responsibility, look good on college applications, and be an opportunity to make some money. I got a job at Panda Express. In order to get some hours, I decided to stop ballet for the summer. The smell of orange chicken was overwhelming, but getting a paycheck was nice.
That was the only benefit of that job. I did not like my coworkers. I was the youngest person working there, and I did not really fit in. I did not like the customers either.
“Welcome to Panda Express,” I greeted a tall, thin woman.
“Um, hi. Can I get a few minutes to decide?” She had an innocent smile.
A few minutes passed. A line behind her had formed.
“Are you ready to order?” I was growing impatient.
“Yes, I would like to get the chow mein, but without the cabbage.” The same smile was plastered on her face.
Politely, I responded, “Ma’am, I’ll try my best, but it is going to be difficult.” I thought, Are you freaking kidding me? The cabbage is mixed in with the noodles. How does she expect me to pick it out?
I began to put the noodles on her plate without the vegetables. I wasn’t really trying my best. If she wanted them out, she would have to remove them herself. When I was almost done, she said, “That’s too much cabbage, can you just give me fried rice instead?”
I gave her an evil glare and got her a fresh plate. My manager moved me to cashier. I could not believe I gave up ballet to deal with these people.
I resented Panda Express. I am not sure if it was because I had to stop dancing because of it or if it was the actual job. Maybe it was a little bit of both. As the summer came to an end, I approached my manager with the intent of leaving the job for school. She suggested that I work during the year, just a few days a week. I told her I would talk to my mom and get back to her.
When I got home I went upstairs.
“Mom, they want me to work during the school year.”
“That’s fine with me,” she responded as she faced the TV, not paying much attention to me. It was not the answer I wanted.
“But what about ballet?” I asked, leaning over the back of the sofa, hoping to engage her a little more.
“You can still go to ballet, it will only be a few times a week.” She had her feet up on the ottoman. She did not understand. I did not want to do both.
The next week I went back to work and informed my manager that I would be staying. Mom was happy.
My brother was always slow at performing tasks; he would forget to do things. My family knew something was off with him, but the doctors did not know what was going on. Finally one doctor took an MRI of his brain and discovered there was extra fluid.
No one wanted him to have brain surgery, so we tried alternate ways to relieve the pressure. This time was full of doctor visits. I now had more responsibility in the household while my dad was at work and my mom took my brother to different appointments. Malcolm also had physical, occupational, and speech therapy.
My brother was not getting any better. The last option was for him to have surgery. The first operation was just to poke a hole in his skull so the fluid could drain. That only worked for a while. Eventually, he had to get a shunt. That surgery was a success. Then my brother started complaining about headaches, and we took him back to the neurosurgeon. She informed us that the shunt had been set too high and was starting to drain the blood out of his brain. He had to have emergency surgery.
I was going to San Diego State at this time and could not be with my family. I would call almost daily to check on my brother. He needed several operations. Then he got an infection. After that was cleared up, he had another surgery to put in a new shunt. I visited him in the hospital.
“Hey, munchkin boy,” I said, looking down at him in his hospital bed.
“Hi, Cynthia,” he said meekly. There were all kinds of tubes. I could tell he was fragile.
“How are you?”
“Good, how is your day?” he whispered. He barely had enough strength to talk.
“Good. Dad picked me up yesterday from school, and we drove here today. It’s really hot outside. You’re lucky to be in an air-conditioned room.” I tried not to sound sad and worried.
“That’s good. So how was your day?” He had short-term memory loss.
“Malcolm, I just told you.”
“Oh, sorry,” he said. His teddy bear, Melmen, was by his side, and there was a prayer blanket to keep him warm.
“It’s okay, I love you,” I said.
Our conversations were short. I knew it was hard for him. He was such a smart kid, and now he could not even remember what I told him seconds ago.
My dad informed me that not only did he have memory loss, he had to relearn how to walk. The right side of his body was very weak. After several weeks, he was moved to Health Bridge Children’s Hospital for another month of recovery. Not even six months after having his last surgery, he ran a 5K race.
My parents have always had high hopes for my siblings and me. I am going to be the broadcast journalist. My sister is going to be the dietician to the stars. My brother will be a brilliant New York Times bestselling writer. However, when Malcolm was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, his dreams were put on hold. Although devastation was the primary emotion experienced by my family, we were also hopeful. My parents were supportive of my brother during his whole ordeal, taking off weeks of work to be there for him. Monday through Thursday my dad would be by his side, and Friday through Sunday my mom would be there. During the several months he was hospitalized, not once did Malcolm ever ask, “Why is this happening to me?” His humbleness was an inspiration to many. He fought and came out victorious. Because of my brother’s resilience, my family and I grew to respect and admire him even more than before.
On August 11, he started school as a freshman at Great Oak High School. My ballet dreams seem insignificant after everything my brother has gone through. I still hate the smell of orange chicken, but I would work at Panda Express again if it made it easier for my family. ■
— Cynthia Washington