GRAND BAHAMA ISLAND -- I am reminded during this season that fitness is as much a state of heart and spirit as it is of physical condition. I would like to share with you the stories of three people who illustrate that.
The first is Kathy Edwards, 52, of Cincinnati. I met Kathy at the Ohio Star Ball dancing competition a few weeks ago, and watched as she won a second place in the pre-bronze solo foxtrot exhibition. As you can tell by the picture, she was pretty happy about that. What you may not be able to tell is that Kathy has had cerebral palsy since birth.
Three years ago, after seeing her two kids enter their teens, Kathy decided she wanted to learn to dance. She looked up the address of the Arthur Murray Dance Studio in Mount Healthy (what a great name), Ohio, and marched into the studio unannounced, not the least bit worried about whether the school, much less the other students, would accept her.
There she met met Barry Bernard, then 24. Bernard has been her instructor since the first day (he and his wife now own the studio), and danced with her in "showcase" exhibitions in 1985, '86, and '87 before taking second place in the Ohio Star Ball Competition.
"I'll bet her husband is proud of her," I said to Bernard. "Does he ever watch her dance?"
"Oh, he's proud of her and her biggest supporter, but he hasn't watched her dance since he's blind."
Kathy breaks into the biggest smile when you compliment her on her dancing skills. "I'm talking to the physical therapists at the hospitals about dancing, you know!" When she said this, Bernard nodded and added, "Each week she takes off in her car and finds someone -- a therapist, or a handicapped patient in a hospital -- to tell about the fun of dancing."
Kathy's disease has affected her speech somewhat now, and her movements, too, but she has chosen to ignore those inconveniences and to keep dancing.
The second person I want to tell you about is Mildred Louise George Sutton, my mother. She will be 78 on Jan. 26.
Mom, as some of you may remember, has leukemia, a reasonably serious heart problem, a steel ball and socket in her right leg (this is her second artificial hip in a decade), and in the midst of those little problems also managed to break her collarbone in St. Thomas (1980), crush her kneecap in Marietta, Ga. (1985), and end up in the hospital over this Thanksgiving for more major surgery.
When I arrived in Atlanta, fresh from watching Kathy Edwards place second in dancing in Cincinnati, Mom was packed and ready for the hospital. In her living room were 17 Christmas presents wrapped and separated for me to deliver should something prevent her from making Christmas this year. In the refrigerator were 14 jars of cranberry crunch, carefully labeled for delivery to friends who after so many years of receiving it wouldn't feel full at Christmas without it.
In her pocketbook, in a very neat handwriting characteristic of all my family but me, was a note about the joy all her family had brought to her, and very careful instructions about funeral arrangements. I happened to see it accidentally, the night before her surgery, and said nothing.
Shortly after that, a young nurse came into the hospital room to take her medical history. "Mrs. Sutton, could you please tell me if you've ever had any health problems?" the nurse asked brightly and calmly.
Mom smiled, then laughed, then said "No not really. I feel surprisingly well these days ... " She paused. "Of course, there is the heart thing ... and the leukemia ... " and on and on. Bunny Johnson, my cousin, and I both watched as the nurse tried to retain her pleasant, nonchalant, appropriately accepting demeanor as Mom casually dropped one health disaster after the other.
And then the next morning, about an hour after an orderly had rolled her out of the room, I answered the room phone. One of the many foreign adults Mom has taught English at her church was calling to send her love. Within another hour, the flowers started arriving, and then notes and letters.
Two and a half hours later, nurses rolled Mom back to the room. My brother, my cousin, and I were standing in the hall when the bed approached the door, and for a minute we thought Mother was still asleep.
But as the bed bumped the door, pushing it open, she looked in our direction for an instant, and said very softly, "I think I'm dead, and it doesn't feel good."
By the next night, life again had taken on long-term possibilities for my mother, and we sat by the bed talking about her plans for the tulips she had ordered for spring, and the bridge foursome she'd like to bring to the islands for a week or so and -- maybe -- the newer, smaller house, a lot closer to town and her friends. "I'm thinking about cutting down on my driving some," she said.
About an hour later, as my brother and I returned from dinner, Mom was trying very hard to reach her pocketbook on the low shelf next to the bed. I handed it to her. Without looking at us, she fumbled in the large, brocade bag until she found the farewell note, folded it carefully and tucked it into a zippered pocket. "Well, that's enough of that," she said lightly.
The third person I want to tell you about is Winnifred Sutton Mills. Aunt Winnie was 95 the night my mother tucked away her farewell note, and she died during that night. When I received the phone call, I felt relief, guilt, and sadness in about equal measure.
My aunt, the oldest of my father's seven brothers and sisters, had not been dealt the best hands in life. She finished raising her children alone and without much money after the death of her husband 44 years ago.
Fourteen years later, at 68, she broke a hip. Since it never healed properly, she became virtually housebound. About the only time Winnie went out was to attend the funerals of her brothers and sisters (she outlived them all) or that of a son.
But during all those years of dependence and -- at times -- tragedy, Winnie never once to my knowledge complained about her lot in life. Instead, she enjoyed living with her son and daughter-in-law and contributing to their household. (They enjoyed her presence, too). Up until two years ago, except for various stints in hospital and nursing home, she helped with the cleaning and cooking because she wanted to be active. And she continued to explore and share the world with others by letter. I think she had the most beautiful handwriting in our family, and each letter was a thoughtful, beautiful creation.
During all that time, she never lost her sense of humor, either. When Winnie was 92, we held a fancy dinner for her grandson and his fiance'e. Winnie was a sprite -- under 5 feet and as light as a wisp. As I walked her from the dining room, I leaned down and put my hand around her waist to steady her as we moved toward the door.
"You're getting awfully fresh, aren't you?" she said with a chuckle. We walked on.
"Aunt Winnie, don't you want to stop by the powder room?" I asked oversolicitously.
"Honey, I think I'm old enough to decide about that. Now, should we stop for you?"
I meant to visit my aunt last month, but I didn't. I planned to tell her how much her letters had meant, too. She would have admired Kathy Edwards, the dancer who has a few handicaps in some people's minds. She would have worried about Mom. And then she would have written us all letters.
I will miss her Christmas letter this year, but assume she isn't missing Christmas.
I hope your holidays will be filled with the same spirit and elan.