Esther’s Last Dance

Esther Heller tells me she used to be a dancer.  She says she won competitions in Paris and Athens and even Kamchatka (although she no longer is certain where that is.)  She used to teach dancing in Denver.  Waltzes and Polkas and Fox Trots.  She did it for free so people could learn to move their feet.  But now Esther’s feet have betrayed her.  Until a couple weeks ago, 90 year old Esther lived in her own apartment, overlooking the college where she also taught French for many years.  Over the past years she hardly went out but she led the life she chose.  Then she fell and broke her arm. 

Now Esther, who says she visited 200 countries and speaks 12 languages, lives in a assisted living world called Shalom Park.  She lies in bed and politely refuses to eat.  She likes Ginger Ale so she drinks a bit.  Each day she grows weaker and each day dementia takes more of the memories that have sustained her for a lifetime.  The memories of Poland and the family she lost in the Holocaust and how she didn’t go to school and how she was put to work at 13 and somehow out of sheer will she managed to go to college and eventually become a teacher at the Emily Griffith Opportunity School. 

I come in to visit her but she doesn’t remember who I am anymore or that I am the one who brought her the orange tulips.  She wants to know what day it is, what time it is, and why so many people keep coming into her room.  I show her pictures of places she has seen in Israel, Rome, Istanbul and Prague.  She looks at the Coliseum and the Western Wall in Jerusalem and says “I can’t place it.”  Now and then memories flicker by and she smiles sadly.  But she remembers she used to be a dancer and how she won competitions and taught people how to move.  From where I sit, in the chair across from her bed, Esther seems to be choreographing her last dance.  She has chosen not to follow.  She will do it her way.  She will lead as she dances out of the world.

NOTE: Esther Heller died peacefully in her sleep on December 3, 2009.  I was blessed to know her and am grateful that I had the opportunity to hear her stories. 

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2 thoughts on “Esther’s Last Dance

  1. Ms. Collins,

    My mother was Esther’s next-door neighbor at Brooks Towers, and what she has told me about Esther’s last days matches what you say here. (My mother did Esther’s grocery shopping, and had been bringing her that ginger ale for years now!) Thank you for caring about Esther, and sharing your memories here.

    I was curious as to how you came to know Esther. I can only imagine how many people over the years have been touched by her life.

    Katherine Bryant

  2. Hi Katherine,
    Thank you so much for reading my blog. I hope it gives others an opportunity to know and love Esther. I met her a number of years ago delivering Chanukkah baskets for Jewish Family Services. They gave us a list of shut ins to visit and my children and I visited Esther. There was an immediate connection and I recall sending an email to an old friend saying I had just fallen in love. Esther was particularly tickled by the fact that I too was a Phi Beta Kappa, although the accomplishment didn’t mean anything to me like it meant to Esther. Over the years she told me her stories and I spoke with her, wrote letters and visited. It got hard as her hearing failed. I am so grateful that Sylvia told me of her accident and I got to spend some time with her at Shalom Park before she passed away. I stopped in to see her every day. The last day I came to visit, on Wednesday, she just didn’t wake up. I hope to meet her other friends at the funeral. Thanks for all you did to care for her. Best, Vicky

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