Tiny Dancer by Mitos Suson
Hold me closer, tiny dancer
Count the headlights on the highway
Lay me down in sheets of linen
You had a busy day today
Lyrics by Elton John
It was a normal hot humid afternoon at the Zara residence in Cebu. Loud thin sounds blasted from the stereo tempting family and friends alike to dance to the rhythm of the beat on the cool marble floors that surrounded our pool.
Candy, my tiny 9-year-old sister, sporting her hair in a Chinese bob and a red princess dress that accentuated her fair porcelain skin, twirled, and swayed her body in waves, a beautiful Japanese Geisha doll come alive. Her synchronized hip movements were perfection, timed with the music continuously playing in the background. Everyone skipped towards the dance floor and swayed with the sounds from the record player. My family and all our guests cheered aloud. Candy, so young, so adroit, knew how to take the stage. Everyone in the room formed a circle, moving and clapping. Candy, in charge at nine, motioned everyone to the middle of the dance floor; her movements captivating all of us. The music was on a continuous loop, and she was lost in her dance, totally in the zone. Everyone applauded and sang the familiar songs. And Candy was our star – our tiny dancer.
* * *
Fast forward 50 years.
“Mita, I just got home from the emergency room.” My sister, Candy called me from California, with a raspy tone and labored breathing.
“Oh my God, what happened?”
“They said, ‘I’m alright’. They sent me home; nothing is wrong with me, just a panic attack.” She sounded sad.
And so, it went week after week. I would get frantic calls from Candy who’d have crises every other day. She was overwhelmed and our distance only multiplied my helplessness with each call.
“I didn’t take a shower today.”
Sarcastic me, “So? If you don’t want to take a shower, it’s no big deal!’
“Yes, it is. This is not my normal self.’
“You don’t have to go to work and punch in a time clock, do you?”
‘Some days.’ I thought to myself
“I stayed in bed all day today; I literally have bed sores.”
“Why can’t you just get up?”
“I’m too depressed!”
“I am so skinny now, but my stomach is swollen. My bones are protruding.”
“Well, you can’t allow yourself to waste away, order some delivery.” Sympathy waned as the days went on.
“I can’t! I am too weak to stand up. I fall. I have bruises all over my body.”
“I’m in the Behavioral Health Unit.”
“Aw c’mon… How’d you get there?”
“I checked in. I needed help.”
“Help me. They are holding me here for 21 days. It’s so terrible here. Pray for me.”
Days like these, I don’t even know what to say or do. Sometimes I avoid her phone calls altogether because they are disarming and make me feel so helpless. While she talks, I look at my cellular; It’s 7, 125 miles away from Northern California to Dumaguete City. My guilty hands are tied.
Other days, I passed the phone to my husband, Edgar, who’d been a mental health counselor in a previous life. Somehow, he knows the right words to say when he puts his social worker cap on. He had a practiced patience when he talked with her, admitting his frustration, he tells me that he’s reminded why he’s retired.
“Can you get up?” Edgar waited. “Now let’s walk to the kitchen and make yourself something to eat.”
And like an obedient child, Candy magically obeyed.
Oh, some days, she’d get pissed and just hang up on me. She’d hung up on both of us. She’d tantrum at our inability to help her and we’d both end up frustrated.
There was one call, one I couldn’t avoid though, it wasn’t because I hadn’t tried.
“Mita!” Candy called in a panic, hyperventilating. “I just got back from the emergency unit.”
“Another panic attack… I am so scared! Maybe I won’t make it home.” She was crying and broken, and disappointed.
I brought it to the attention of my family. They already knew. She’d been talking to many of them as well. We decided to work together to assist Candy in planning the flight home to the Philippines to be with us; it was scheduled from San Francisco, California to Cebu City and was just two weeks away. She was going to stay with Edgar and me.
“I don’t even have energy to pack my clothes or fill out these bloody health forms!” She complained.
Covid was still rampant and in the mix. The requirements for foreign travel were arduous with all the anti-gen tests, vaccination timelines, and universal health questionnaires. ‘Ugh!’
“Breathe,” was the only thing I could think to say. “We’ll get you here. Just breathe.”
As soon as we disconnected, I immediately called my brothers to put them on alert. One was living in Washington, USA, another in Sri Lanka, and two others here in the Philippines. My message was the same to all of them.
“We have an emergency here. If we don’t act right now, I don’t think Candy will make her flight at the end of the month and I think her life is seriously at stake.”
In a rare moment of sibling unity, my brother Alfonso stepped up, arranged a zoom call, and assigned us, tasks. I was relieved. He was the eldest and he got a lot of respect from all of us, and not just out of seniority. He came off as casual in almost all situations. He was comfortable with big decisions. He’d been a union organizer for over half of his life in the US and in third world countries where unions were more than just frowned upon, and his life was regularly threatened.
“Manu, can you fly to California and help her with what she needs? Get her packed and on her flight in San Francisco?” Manu lived closest to here in Seattle.
“Sure. No problem.”
“Mita, can you and Edgar meet her at the Manila airport? The way she sounds, I don’t even think she can make her connecting flight… or better still can you fly her with you and host her for a couple of months?” Then he added, “I’ll pay for your tickets.”
“Mmmm…” I gulped.
We’d just moved to Dumaguete City after our house was destroyed by a super typhoon Rai. We’d dipped into our nest egg moving twice in one month just getting here. We hadn’t even really unpacked.
Sensing my hesitation Alfonso added, “I will release the necessary funds if you need?”
“Maybe we should hire a caretaker to attend to her personal needs? What’s family for, to use and abuse, right?” My brother Jason reassured. He was only half kidding, but he joked mostly to get me to smile. We both knew it was serious; both our hearts were breaking daily.
Of course, I said. “Yeah. Okay.”
* * *
Manu flew from Seattle and helped her pack. He assisted her with the necessary documentation which was no mean feat.
I called him. “What’s up, Manu. Is everything okay at your end?”
“The moment I saw Candy, I felt like I was seeing a junkie off the streets. She looked empty, like a skeletal shell. Her bones are all sticking out. Her eyes are glassy. Even her stomach is bloated.”
Then he dropped the bomb.
“I went to the pharmacy to get her medicine and requested a copy of the list of medications she was taking. The pharmacist gave me six pages of all the medications prescribed in the last couple of months. There are several opiates and sleeping pills from a lot of different doctors. I yelled at the pharmacist and threatened them with malpractice!”
“God damned!” I swore. “You know that all these meds can kill her?”
“Yeah. Even the pharmacist agreed on that, but he said, ‘if the doctor prescribes it, we have no choice but to comply with the order’.”
“When I got home, I asked Candy to let me see ALL her meds in the house.”
“She surrendered whole bags of medications. She’s on a huge cocktail of drugs and I am sure she’s allergic to one of them… I don’t know which one, though. After she surrendered them to me, I caught her still hiding a stash in her son, Rod’s room.
“Every time she goes to the emergency room, a doctor prescribes her something different, so she’s got the old meds mixed with all the new ones, … a whole barrage of pills. One of them is giving her the epileptic fits. She needs to go to rehab!”
“I don’t think so.”
Edgar explained that discontinuing her medications just before a flight and relocation was bad idea as she could have serious withdrawals symptoms in flight. He was in favor of having it done under a doctor’s supervision when she arrived, but we weren’t there, and Manu was. He was really at the end of himself. He was in charge. He was the one that was there not either of us.
On the last day, Manu packed all her bags, filled in all the necessary forms, took care of all her bills, making sure that Bentley, her Yorkie puppy had a good home and that her car was sold.
A few hours prior to flying, she had another attack.
“I thought I was watching a scene from an exorcist movie when Linda Blair was having a seizure,” Manu confided that he cried and yelled and even screamed. He was afraid for her. We all were. He went through a thousand emotion all at once.
He confided, “I am grateful that my wife, Pilar was here with me. She handled everything with so much composure. I don’t know what I would have done without her.”
“I didn’t know what to do, whether to bring her to the emergency room or take her to the airport? If we went to the emergency room, she would’ve missed her flight for sure… and I can’t stay another day longer here in California. I’ve been here over a week. I was so angry with her but at the same time, I pitied her. All I can do was hug her and cry.”
“I feel you, brother. Hang in there. We’ll get through this together.” Tears streamed down my cheeks too, my heart beating fast. Even now I’m grateful Manu was there for Candy because he was so much stronger than I would have been.
* * *
Finally, Candy arrived in Manila. She was reduced to a pale and very fragile ghost of herself. She was dressed up in a track suit as she was wheeled from the terminal to the exit area where we were waiting. Her son, Rod accompanied her and held their carry-ons. And for the first time, she was in public without makeup. She wasn’t my glamorous little sister who’d never leave the house without perfect layers of makeup, gone were her jewels and glittering accessories. My heart melted when I embraced her. After more than 20 hours of air travel, she made it home like a refugee from a war zone weak, broken, and compliant.
“Welcome home, sis!”
* * *
Seeing her in the airport, I thought about our conversation a couple of months prior to all of this. She’d said, “I’ll dance til’ I die.”
She’d been preparing for a belly dancing show. She was already very ill, coming and going out of the hospital, she’d had a car accident, she regaled me with delusions about being a millionaire as soon as she sues the BMW factory, she was confused most of the time. She was very manic, occasionally angry, but not depressed. She’d go for days without sleep, and she had a breakneck schedule. Dance was the only reason she woke-up each day, it was her best reason to participate in life. If anything, she was frighteningly optimistic.
A couple of days prior to flying home, she’d an actual ‘real’ fight with her husband, Keith.
“He had me in a chokehold. He crossed the line of no return. Do you expect me to go back to that monster?” She said with finality accusing him of abuse and battering.
“Yes, after she beat me in the head with a flashlight! I threw a glass of water on her trying to shock her out of her crazy talk.” Keith rebutted.
And before we knew it, a restraining order was in place, Keith was escorted out of his own house by a Police Officer, and Candy’s mania had wilted like a flower into full blown depression. She sank into it until she hit rock bottom, she could barely walk let alone dance. Her daily deterioration was nearly complete.
By the time she was back in the Philippines, she was without an ounce of energy and clearly needing help to do nearly everything. I still don’t know how things could get so off track, so quickly.
“I am sick. I need compassion not judgement.” She wept.
* * *
Adjusting to my sister at home was quite challenging.
“Can you help me with online banking? How am I going to do my taxes? Can you help me draft a letter to my lawyer?
She worried about everything, and my constant reassurance that things were going to get better, that things would be okay fell on deaf ears.
She complained about everything. Living with us was in no way good enough. Nothing could be enough.
“It’s too hot! Your house is so tiny.” She endlessly glorified her life and home back in California. “I miss my house in California.”
“You mean you miss your husband’s Keith’s house? You kicked him out of his own house with a restraining order.” I reminded her. “Are you happy now?” I was so frustrated.
“California is better than this. Everything is dirty here and it’s so hot I can’t breathe!” She whinged peevishly and whined unceasingly about everything, about restaurants, her caregiver, her food, the living expenses, tips, service, and of course the cramped living conditions in our home.
“I am sorry, this is all we can offer you.” I said defensively. “We barely escaped that super typhoon with our lives, don’t you remember?” She’d arrived only weeks after we’d begun to settle in after being displaced!
“I miss my Mercedes Benz, and Bentley (her puppy), and my jewelries and perfume, etc. I had to leave in such a haste.”
“What do you mean? You had a couple of months to get ready when you bought your ticket?”
“Candy, we just barely survived a super typhoon. For almost 2 months, we had no electricity and water and Wi-Fi. Many people lost their houses and roofs! Some people died. We were just grateful that we came out of it alive.”
I thought and shivered when I recalled what we had just experienced a few weeks ago, hidden in a small laundry room with our three puppies, scared that the roof over our heads would crush us and bury us alive.
Finally, after several weeks, I started hinting that it might be time for she and Rod to move on. I suggested of places in the neighborhood or possibly in Cebu by Jason, our brother. I was reticent with her idea of returning to Comey Island because she’d be alone. What I was secretly worried about was her finding a ‘Dr. Feelgood’ on the island to write her any prescriptions, she sought. I finally realized that I could not be with her every minute. If she wanted to do that there was nothing I could do in the long run. At best we’d given her some respite. A reset. She did wind up going to her own house, the one she and Keith had recently rebuilt and renovated on Comey Island.
When she was with us, those were the days we fought tooth and nail.
Much as I find her recent behavior and antics annoying, I had seen better days when she was upbeat, gregarious, sweet, charming, witty, and babbled like sweet champagne. Since childhood, my parents always urged us to look after one another.
“You only have one another, so take care and protect one another.”
We were two sisters, amongst five brothers. Being the elder sister, Ate, I took this responsibility seriously. I couldn’t help but feel her pain, her anguish and despair as if she and I were one.
We were embroiled in childish fighting. She pushed back at us. At me. In her immature tantrums, she proclaimed herself with all the fire she could muster that she was a grown woman.
“I don’t need a caretaker and I’m not sick at all. I’m depressed! I’ve been on my own and making decisions since I was 15 years old!”
When she’d first arrived at the airport, she liked her helper doing things for her. She relished the fact that everyone was fussing, fetching, and carrying things for her. But within a month, she was clear she wanted nothing to do with being treated like an invalid.
It was in that moment I knew she was going to be alright.
I learned that ‘feisty’ meant ‘healthy’!
* * *
Candy is blessed in so many ways. She had a beautiful beach house in Comey Island to go to. She loved the beach.
She continued to complain. It’s natural, I guess.
“I am so depressed; I don’t leave the comforts of my bedroom. I don’t have a friend here, everyone around me are my employees, and I feel like a Ukrainian refugee in exile.”
“Really? Are you in a bombed-out train station with nothing but a cat to keep you company? No. You’re on a beautiful beach living everyone’s dream!”
How could I possibly have the temerity, how could I possibly understand? This kind of melancholy defies my understanding. Edgar tells me it’s biochemical, but I argue with her anyway as if it might mean something later.
“You have a house that’s paid for, a lifetime’s pension that’s more than enough for you and Rod and a litany of servants to cater to your every whim.”
“But I’m lonely!”
* * *
Keith, her estranged husband, emerged from the shadows after a month of pining away. He really does love her however ill equipped he is at dealing with her. It began again with a simple text, then regular phone calls.
“Honey, come home. I miss you.”
Comey island seemed to thaw the anger and hate that had lodged in Candy’s heart. She nurtured herself with daily walks in the sand and was greeted by glorious sunrises, hours basking in the sun, swimming in the ocean, and enjoying the blood-red sunsets right on her porch.
Nature is indeed healing.
* * *
Four months later, she’s been back in California. She calls and says ironically, “I hate it here; I miss the islands. I miss my house and my household of helpers. There’s no one here to help me. And I have to clean the house by myself now? No, way! I miss Comey Island.”
Here we go again. I thought. I just listened and chuckled. The grass is always greener on the other side.
“I don’t even feel the same way about my husband anymore,” They’d sort of reconciled after several months of phone calls. “I didn’t realize that it’d been almost a year since I’d seen him. We are starting all over again.”
“Don’t rely on your feelings. Emotions come and go. Remember your goals, hang on to your dreams. Hey, just take the next flight back!” I console her. I love her.
“You’re SO close to the finish line.” I added. “Nature healed you while you were here. It will surely heal your relationship when you’re both here. It’s a proven formula!”
“See you soon.”
“Okay. See ya’.”
* * *
As soon as I hanged up, I smiled and could hear her favorite song, ‘Tiny Dancer’ in my head. I remember happier times when we were driving from Seattle to California, and she played her favorite tune repeatedly. It dawned on me that I can never comprehend the depth of her despair. I could not dive and swim with her into the end of the tunnel, a dark space that she’s temporarily trapped in. And I can’t rescue her. All I can do is accept her unconditionally and love her with everything I got in me. She will always be my little sister, Candy – our tiny dancer.
Ballerina, you must've seen her
Dancing in the sand
And now she's in me, always with me
Tiny dancer in my hand
~Tiny Dancer, Elton John.