Wheeling Mama into the gym is when it catches me, all the anxiety. When Coach first made the suggestion, I couldn’t be anxious because her idea was sweet. My mom is sick. Leia’s mom is sick. Doing a special dance team performance for them was caring. They’d both love it.

Then Coach made the announcement to the team. “Two of our team members need love, girls! Their moms need love!” Coach preached. “We have so much love for them! So much healing love!” Leia was jumping up-and-down and clapping, and the rest of the team was pumped up about do-gooding, and being anxious would have been ungrateful.

I kept ahead of the anxiety during the rehearsal, too. We knew the routine already, but Coach changed my part. The way Coach originally choreographed it, I danced on the side and in the back. For our special performance, Coach decided that me and Leia should be in the middle.

Leia’s part didn’t need to be changed. She was already the center of attention.

I had to concentrate a lot during the rehearsal. I was dancing Bonita’s part, and Bonita had to switch with me. Bonita’s a better dancer, so I had a lot of work to do. My wrists kept “breaking” the line of my arm, my toes weren’t pointed, and my hips weren’t level. Synchronizing kicks and pirouettes with Leia was hard. I might be too chubby for the steps that had been choreographed for Bonita. I don’t move as fast as her. I fell behind on the music. Leia was smiling and counting to help me.

“Keep your chin up, Raquel,” Coach advised. “Eyes bright. Smile. High energy, girl!”

All my energy went into focusing. There’s so much to do when you dance. I think all the stuff I had to do distracted me from anxiety.

But when Papa pushes the disability-access button that automatically opens the double doors and rolls Mama’s wheelchair into the gym, there is no escape. Everyone can see her. No one has seen her before. She stays at home with her aide, Lola. No one comes over. Everyone knows she has multiple sclerosis, but no one knows what that means.

Just like when a bully chases and corners you, that’s how I feel. Like anxiety is laughing at me because now I am trapped. Everyone is together in the gym, and I can’t run away from making comparisons.

Leia’s mom, Marie, is standing at the midcourt line, arm around Leia, and talking to Coach. Even completely bald, Marie is really pretty. She knows how to do her mascara. Her skin is light and rose-tone. All her make-up is perfect. She is dressed in civilian clothes, so you can see how feminine she is, thin, like a model, and naturally complemented by lavender and baby blue. Leia rests her blond head against her mom’s shoulder. They’re the picture of loving. If Marie wasn’t bald from chemotherapy, they could be the mother-daughter pair in the Army Wellness Center family posters.

Papa and Mama have gone over by the bleachers, but I am still at the gym entrance where the double doors closed behind me. I froze in place when I came in. I see Papa parking Mama’s wheelchair on the basketball floor. Mama’s arms are arranged with her hands folded in her lap over the brown shawl that covers the straps that hold her legs onto the wheelchair. She looks like what she is, withered. She’s not going to change her position the whole time she’s here because she can’t. I hope no one gets freaked out. She can give people the fright you get when you think something’s a rock, or a statue, and then it twitches or breathes and you realize, it’s alive.

Papa came from work, and he’s going back to work, so he’s in uniform, which sets a different mood. All of us on dance team are in our costumes—shorts and halter tops, in gem-tone rainbow colors—and Coach is wearing her silver sparkle hoodie, and the gym has been decorated with the Pink Army 5K Run for Breast Cancer Cure banners and silver-and-pink tulle. On base, Papa blends in, but here he sticks out, big and serious, his camouflage looking rough, like he’s an iguana in a flower garden.

I still haven’t unfrozen. I stand by the gym double doors, watching, feeling like I’m seeing the part of the horror movie that shows normal domestic life before the slashing starts. Papa gets a folding chair from a rack at the side of the bleachers, so he can sit on the basketball court next to Mama.

Leia unpeels from her mom and runs over to Bonita, who is doing chaine turns to warm-up. Yazmine and Selena are practicing fouettes. Kelly, JoyElle, and Zoleeza are stretching and doing splits.

Coach and Marie go over to Papa and Mama. Papa stands and shakes hands with Coach. Coach talks to Mama.

Papa turns to Marie. They know each other from work. They shake hands. It’s different than when Papa shakes Coach’s hand. Papa and Marie are both soldiers. They show each other mutual respect. Marie has a connection with my Papa that my Mama doesn’t have. And my Mama has a relationship with my Papa that Marie doesn’t have—that Marie doesn’t have with anybody. Leia doesn’t have a dad.

Papa and Marie start talking to Mama. Marie leans forward to be on face level with Mama. Papa crouches so he can put his arm around Mama. It’s hard to tell Mama’s response. Her facial muscles don’t show her real feelings.

“Raquel, is it okay for us to start?” Coach is standing next to me. I didn’t notice her come over.

I can’t find my voice, so I nod.

“It’s the first time your mom’s going to see you dance, right?” Coach whispers. Her face looks like a Christmas elf’s—she’s super happy.

I nod again.

“Oh honey!” Coach rubs my arm. “This is such a big deal. I’m so excited. You’re a star. You’re going to do great.”

I’m surprised by Coach’s encouragement. I’m definitely not a star. I guess she means that I’m the star of the show for my Mama.

My teammates are lining up around me. I feel jittery when we line up at dance meet competitions, but right now I don’t feel anything. The frozen-up feeling has gone inside.

At center court, Coach is talking to Mama, Papa, and Marie, saying how honored we are to perform for them. Coach isn’t using a microphone, and it’s weird that we can hear her. Usually we perform for a noisy crowd, everyone screaming, clapping, and shouting. This is different. We’re not competing. We’re dancing for two sick moms.

When Coach finishes her introduction, Papa and Marie start clapping and cheering. We file onto the basketball court and take our initial positions.

“Raquel.” Bonita’s eyes are big, but twinkly.

Bonita is practically standing on top of me because I am in the wrong place. I apologize and scurry into the center of the formation, next to Leia, who smiles at me.

The music starts. It’s Chris Brown’s song, “A Lot of Love.” It’s one of my top favorites of all time. I make Papa sing it with me, and I was making up dance routines to it before Coach picked it. I’m not what you’d call a good technical dancer, but I get joy dancing, so people say I can dance. And I get a lot of joy dancing to, “A Lot of Love.” When Coach chose it for our routine, I felt like I was living in a good world.

The first words, “A lot of love,” reverberate around the gym, but I don’t feel the lift I expect from the song’s opening chords. I always get a tug that says, go on, Raquel, it’s ok to go out there and dance, Chris is gonna like your moves. That thing doesn’t happen. I don’t feel like dancing.

But Leia is dancing, and my teammates are dancing, and the group spirit snaps me to attention, and I am dancing. I don’t see anything in the gym, not Papa or Mama or Marie or Coach, or the light flashing off the silver tulle when we whip our heads around to spot our fouettes. I need all my concentration to focus. I am being pushed along by the formation of dancers, and I am fighting to stay on beat. I am counting under my breath, and then mouthing the names of the steps, jump, kick, stomp, pivot, hip swish, but it’s not helping.

When the chorus starts, Yazmine breaks out of the line to do a round-off back-tuck. I hope she’ll distract everyone from seeing that I didn’t kick the same height as Leia. Plus, wrong leg.

In the second verse, we’re in a tri-level formation around Kelly, who is doing a handstand split to represent that you’ll finally succeed if you open your heart, like the song says, and I leap into the chorus too soon. I do a triple pirouette and then a double, instead of another triple like Leia does. The big finale move is a hitch-kick jump into a landing lying on my back. I feel like I’ve completely wiped out. There’s still a smile, like, branded on my face. It hurts.

There’s cheering and clapping. I struggle to rise gracefully like Coach taught us. Papa, Marie, and Coach are on their feet, whooping and praising us. Leia dashes forward and throws herself into Marie’s arms.

I walk forward haltingly. My legs feel like tree trunks. I know what’s going to happen now. I’ll go to Papa and Mama, and we’ll be together, and no one else will come near us. We’ll be a unit by ourselves. Even when I step away from Mama, people will still avoid me, just in case. Because everyone’s seen it now. And who knows? Maybe what Magdalena has infected her daughter. I force myself forward.

Papa envelopes me. “That was so good, Raquelita. You’ve got life when you dance. You make everyone feel their joy.”

His voice sounds funny, and when I rub my cheek against his I am surprised. “Are you crying, Papa?”

He smiles. “No way.” And then, even though I’m twelve, and even though I’m chubby, he sweeps me up and sets me down, carefully, across Mama’s legs.

“Oh Raquelita,” Mama coos. I wrap my arms around her neck and rest my head against her cheek. Papa moves Mama’s arms so they rest on me, like she’s embracing me. “You’re dancing everything I feel,” Mama whispers. I kiss her slack cheek. Some tears trickle from the corners of her eyes. “I get my muscles back when I see you dance,” Mama murmurs.

I hug her more, and she tightens her arms, and I feel safe and normal, like a 12 year-old girl getting a hug from her mom. All my anxiety dissolves, and I don’t care that everyone sees me, lying in Mama’s lap, hugging her and being hugged, and sobbing. I’ve got so much joy in me, I can’t take it.

The joy is spilling out of me, like a magnet sending out its invisible force. Papa draws close, and Marie and Leia, too. Papa and Marie’s hands stroke my hair and my back, Marie rests her head against Mama’s, Papa circles his arm around Leia, and Marie says, “Magdalena, our girls are blessings,” even though the blessing is that Mama’s arm muscles are contracting around me for the first time since she went quadriplegic. I want to share the miracle, so I reach one arm out to Leia, and we hold hands. She’s crying, too. Coach squeezes her shoulders. JoyElle, Selena, Zoleeza, Kelly, Bonita, and Yazmine circle up around Mama’s wheelchair, and everyone’s arms are around each other’s waists and shoulders, giddy and beaming, all of us blossoming into this beatific hug.


© Maya Alexandri
[This piece was selected by Heather Cripps. Read Maya’s interview]