Margo Astrachan/Courtesy of Leo Holder
Geoffrey Holder and his son, Leo.
Margo Astrachan/Courtesy of Leo Holder
Shortly after the death of dancer, choreographer, actor, painter and director Geoffrey Holder, his son, Leo, composed and shared this letter about the end of his father's life.
This Is A True Story
Geoffrey Holder 1930-2014
A little more than a week after developing pneumonia, Geoffrey Holder made a decision. He was calling the shots as always. He was done. Two attempts at removing the breathing tube didn't show promising results. In his truest moment of clarity since being rolled into ICU, he said he was good. Mouthing the words "No, I am not afraid" without a trace of negativity, sadness or bitterness, he sincerely was good with it. He had lived the fullest life he could possibly live, a 70+ year career in multiple art forms, and was still creating. Still painting, a bag of gold (of course) fabric and embellishments in his room for a new dress for my mother, sculptures made out of rope, baseball caps and wire hangers. New ideas every second, always restlessly chasing his too-fertile mind.
A week of breathing tubes and restrained hands had forced him to communicate with only cryptic clues which I was fortunate enough to be able to decipher at best 40 percent of the time. The fact that we all struggled to understand him enraged him to the point that he could sometimes pull tantrums taking up to four people to restrain him from pulling out the wires. He was headstrong (understatement), but he was also physically strong. Iron hand grip that no illness could weaken. Nine days of mouthing words that, because of the tubes, produced no sound, forcing him to use his eyes to try to accentuate the point he was trying to make.
But this didn't mean he wasn't still Geoffrey Holder. This didn't mean an end to taking over. Holding court as he always did. Directing and ordering people around. Choreographing. Getting his way. We still understood that part, and the sight of his closest friends and extended family brought out the best in him. Broad smiles in spite of the tubes, nodding approval of anything that met his standard (which was very high), and exuding pride and joy in all those in whom he saw a spark of magic and encouraged to blossom. The week saw a parade of friends from all over the world checking in to see him, hold his hand, rub his head, and give him the latest gossip. But he was still trying to tell me something, and although I was still the best at deciphering what he was saying, I still wasn't getting it.
Saturday night I had a breakthrough. After a good day for him, including a visit by the Rev. Dr. Forbes, Senior Minister Emeritus of Riverside Church, who offered prayer and described Geoffrey's choreography as prayer itself, which made him beam, I brought in some music. Bill Evans with Symphony Orchestra, one of his all-time favorites. He had once choreographed a piece to one of the cuts on the album ... a throwaway ballet to fill out the program, but the music inspired him. From his bed, he started to at first sway with the music, then the arms went up, and Geoffrey started to dance again. In his bed. Purest of spirits. Still Geoffrey Holder. Then he summoned me to take his hands, and this most unique dancer/choreographer pulled himself up from his bed as if to reach the sky. It was then I broke the code: He was telling me he was going to dance his way out. Still a Geoffrey Holder production.
If it had been up to him, this evening's solo would have been it. The higher he pulled himself up, the higher he wanted to fly. I had to let him down. Not yet. There are friends and family coming in from out of town. He resignedly shrugged his shoulders, closed his eyes and went to sleep. I got it. Really. I got it. I walked out of the hospital elated. Ate a full meal for the first time in days, slept like a baby after. The next day would be his last. I was not sad. It wasn't stressful for me to deal with him in this state. It was an honor and a privilege to tend to anything he needed. This impromptu dance was his dress rehearsal.
Next morning, I show up early. Possible second thoughts? Should we wait? What if he changes his mind? Did he understand what we were talking about here? Thoroughly. Mind as clear as crystal. "You still game for our dance tonight?" A nod, a smile, and a wink, with tubes still down his throat. We're still on. But he still wants to do it NOW. NOT later. He's cranky. Sulks a while. Sleeps a while. Eventually snaps out of it.
From noon on, a caravan of friends and family from all over the globe comes through the ICU wing. Ages 1 to 80. Young designers and artists he nurtured and who inspired him. Younger dancers he encouraged to always play to the rear balcony with majesty. The now "elder statesmen" dancers on whom he built some of his signature ballets. His rat pack of buddies. Wayward saints he would offer food, drink, a shoulder to cry on, a couch to sleep it off, and lifetime's worth of deep conversation and thought. Closest and oldest friends. Family.
They know they are here to say goodbye. He knows they are here to say goodbye. He greets them beaming with joy to see them. By this time I'm reading his lips better and am able to translate for him as much as I can. The last of them leave. It's time for his one true love to have her time with him. His muse. Her champion. This is their time. 59 years distilled into 5 minutes of the gentlest looks and words as she caresses his noble brow one last time. She puts a note she wrote to him in is hand. She leaves.
Everyone is gone except me. My moment. I will be with him as he goes.
One more time: "You good?" Nod & faint smile. "You ready?" He is. I have asked the doctors to not start the morphine drip right away, because I want him to have his solo on his own time. Knowing him, he might stop breathing right after his finale. For dramatic effect. He's still Geoffrey Holder.
They remove the tube that has imprisoned him for the past nine days and robbed this great communicator of the ability to speak. I remove the mittens that prevent his hands from moving freely.
I start the music, take his hands and start leading him, swaying them back and forth. And he lets go of me. He's gonna wing it as he was prone to do when he was younger. Breathing on his own for the last time, Geoffrey Holder, eyes closed, performs his last solo to Bill Evans playing Fauré's Pavane. From his deathbed. The arms take flight, his beautiful hands articulate through the air, with grace. I whisper "shoulders" and they go into an undulating shimmy, rolling like waves. His Geoffrey Holder head gently rocks back and forth as he stretches out his right arm to deliver his trademark finger gesture, which once meant "you can't afford this" and now is a subtle manifestation of pure human spirit and infinite wisdom. His musical timing still impeccable, bouncing off the notes, as if playing his own duet with Evan's piano. Come the finale, he doesn't lift himself off the bed as he planned; instead, one last gentle rock of the torso, crosses his arms and turns his head to the side in a pose worthy of Pavlova. All with a faint, gentile smile.
The orchestra finishes when he does. I lose it.
They administer the morphine drip and put an oxygen mask over his face. And I watch him begin taking his last breaths.
I put on some different music. I sit and watch him sleep, and breathe ... 20 minutes later, he's still breathing, albeit with this gurgling sound you can hear through the mask. Another several minutes go by, he's still breathing. Weakly, but still breathing ... then his right hand starts to move. It looks like he's using my mother's note like a pencil, scratching the surface of the bed as if he's drawing. This stops a few minutes later, then the left hand begins tapping. Through the oxygen mask, the gurgling starts creating its own rhythm. Not sure of what I'm hearing, I look up to see his mouth moving. I get closer to listen: " ... two, three ... two, three ... " He's counting! It gets stronger, and at its loudest sounds like the deep purr of a lion, then he says, "Arms, two, three ... Turn, two, three ... Swing, two, three ... Down two, three ... "
I call my mother at home, where she was having a reception in his honor. She picks up. There are friends and family telling Geoffrey stories simultaneously laughing and crying in the background. "Hi, Honey, are you all right?"
"Yes, actually ... he hasn't stopped breathing yet." I tell her about his solo, which brings her to a smile and a lightening of mood. I continue:
"Can I ask you a question?"
"Sure, Honey. What?"
"Who the hell did you marry?"
"What do you mean?"
"You're not gonna believe this. He's got a morphine drip, going on over half an hour, an oxygen mask on, his eyes closed, AND HE'S CHOREOGRAPHING!"
This brings her to her first laugh of the day. She now knows we will be all right.
He continues on like this for quite a while, and a doctor comes in to take some meter readings of the machines. I ask the doctor if this is normal. As she begins to explain to me about the process, his closed eyes burst open, focused straight on us like lasers, and he roars with all his might: "SHUT UUUUUUUUUUUUUP!!! YOU'RE BREAKING MY CONCENTRATION!!!!!!!"
We freeze with our mouths open. He stares us down. Long and hard.
Then he closes his eyes again, "Arms, two, three ... Turn, two, three ... Swing, two, three ... Down, two, three ... "
He continued counting 'til it faded out, leaving only the sound of faint breathing, slowing down to his very last breath at 9:25 p.m.
Still Geoffrey Holder.
The most incredible night of my life.
Thank you for indulging me.
Love & best,