Cartwheels, backbends, headstands, and piggyback rides were as much a part of my growing up as playing Barbie and fighting with my sibs. My personal favorite was cartwheels, but over time they went the way of Barbie—shelved and eventually forgotten. The Bicentennial, puberty, and college graduation passed between my last spins and their reemergence.
In June 1996, my sister Ann and Phil, her partner of twenty years, visited my husband, son, and me in Iowa. Having been diagnosed with terminal cancer, Phil was technically on borrowed time. One day, we planned to plant a magnolia tree (Phil’s favorite) and enjoy a bonfire at night, but Phil retired early. Ann and I remained outside, trying to imagine her life without him. In eventual need of diversion, we began twirling and somersaulting and then cartwheeling. Wobbly at first, we ended the night on solid ground. Still, sea changes in our lives had begun.
Two months later, Phil witnessed Ann having a seizure while sleeping. After CAT scans and MRIs, she was referred to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Hosting a tumor and twisted vessels in her brain, she needed surgery for both. The tumor had priority, and should she have five good post-tumor years, the doctors would then address the “vessel problem.”
As doctors removed a half-lemon-sized tumor from Ann’s frontal lobe, my family huddled in the Neurology ICU Family Room. Midway through the vigil, we got a call from a cousin who wanted to check on Ann but who also thought we should know that Uncle Bob had died that day, losing his own battle with a brain tumor. We didn’t need to know that—not then. We were all too well aware of the vulnerability of the brain. Years earlier, my brother’s wife had died of a cerebral aneurysm while giving birth to their daughter Katie. Hours after learning about Uncle Bob, a compassionate and exhausted doctor informed us that Ann had suffered a post-op internal bleed and had been “taken back down.” Things were not looking good.
Okay, back to the cartwheels (sometimes my mind spins faster than my body). Following the cessation of the bleed, Ann lay in the recovery room. Feeling helpless, I paced in front of the hallway window of her room and . . . did a cartwheel. That led to another. I told myself that one day we’d again do them together. I knew that when Ann opened her eyes, she’d see my legs flip and flail past the window and that would make her smile.
As often happens in such situations, my family bonded with others bunking in the lounge, and over the days that we spent there I had several requests for cartwheels on behalf of loved ones. A mother asked for one for her twenty-three-year-old daughter who was fighting for life after an aneurysm, saying it was exactly the sort of thing her daughter would do. Two sisters requested one for their father who’d suffered a stroke. They crowded in the doorway, clapping and crying as I spun down the hall. I was humbled by the hope they seemed to get from “the wheelies.” A nouvelle novena? Perhaps.
Phil died five weeks after Ann’s surgery, living long enough to see her through. My Grandma was next, dying one month after Phil. Packing the little black shift I’d just picked up from the cleaners, I took more family leave days and headed back to Chicago, longing for a reunion not draped in drama and cloaked in grief.
In the following months, Ann concentrated on regaining language and navigating the world as a single woman. The eventual passage of time brought with it strength, coordination, and a determination to reclaim joy. On the morning of her one-year checkup, she attempted a cartwheel. It was 6:15 a.m., and on the dewy lawn outside the clinic, we did cartwheels together and perfectly. We didn’t need an MRI to tell us—my sister was fine. If only the story ended here.
My mother’s brain hemorrhaged on November 15, 1997, the anniversary of my grandmother’s funeral. Earlier that day, she and Ann had shared a cup of tea from Grandma’s finest china, and, toasting her memory, gave thanks that this difficult year had passed. But it hadn’t. My mom was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and the rest of us were asked to partake in a study on the genetics of brain tumors.
As the only family member living in a different area code, I was spending far too much time on the road travelling to/from those I loved/those who loved me, whom I needed/who needed me. On rare days when not in transit, I could be found hurling fine breakables in my barn, for anger had settled in.
New Year’s Eve 1997 saw my father fall and break his leg and my niece Katie have what we thought was a seizure. Taking both to the hospital, I wished for nothing more than to be back in Iowa. I needed my husband, son, and animals and my space and my work. Not this. But instead, the evening passed with Dad being fitted for a cast, Katie getting an EEG, and Mom still hospitalized. Had I the energy at midnight, I’d have had more than one drink—and more than likely I’d have smashed the goblet. My cartwheels of that winter were sloppy, heavy, and slow.
After several surgeries and both traditional and alternative treatments, my mother died on August 31, 1998. The night of the wake, Katie and I were the last to leave the funeral parlor. Wanting to make sure she had as much time as she needed and yet not too much, I struggled with how and when we’d make our exit. Enter the cartwheel. I put my hand on Katie’s shoulder and tentatively suggested we secure the accordion doors, kick off the mourning shoes, and do one for Mom. Katie smiled. We did it. Perfectly.
Fast forward. Because Ann had been tumor-free for five years, the doctors could now address that vessel problem. Armed with the support of her new love, Mark, and a cartwheel or two in our hip pockets, we were ready. With her trademark courage, Ann braced herself for another round, and I hid tears while signing the “Do not resuscitate” form as a witness.
As Mark and I waited for word, we each did a cartwheel. Ann made it through the procedure. Except for minor, intermittent seizures, she’s since had many trauma-free years. We do not take this for granted.
I now believe that if I do one cartwheel a day, I’ll never forget how to do one. They’ve served me well in this life and are a comforting constant in a world of change. Backyards, hospitals, and funeral homes aside, I’ve discovered a host of places that call for their turn, including the Abstract Expressionist Gallery at the Met (monitors be damned), the terminal at O’Hare, shopping malls, cemeteries, and many streets in many cities. If the mood strikes and there’s clearance for my legs, look out.
Cartwheels are something for me to do when I don’t know what to say or what else to do. They are about dying and living and rage and joy. They are the result of despair and a sign of hope. As I fly through the air, they keep me grounded.