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.
For more information on Vicky Collins visit http://teletrendstv.com.