Liss MacCrimmon never felt more alive than when she was about to step onto a
stage. As she waited in the wings, she drank in the essence of the theater
hosting that night's performance, inhaling the mixed scents of freshly ironed
costumes, stage makeup, and rosin. Even the slightly musty smell of the old
velvet curtains delighted her senses.
Just behind her she could hear the soft creak of levers moving a bit stiffly on an old-fashioned light board as one of the crew tamed the antiquated system to his will. The members of Strathspey had presented their show on all sorts of stages. This venue, in a forty-year-old high school in a medium-sized town in New York State, was no worse than most and better than many.
The rest of the troupe - Americans, Canadians, and Scots bound together by their passion for Scottish dancing - wedged themselves into the cramped backstage area as their introductory music blared through the sound system, effectively drowning out audience chatter. Liss had peeked out earlier. They had a good crowd, considering it was mid-week and they were in an area without a large population of Scottish descent.
The company had launched its first tour eight years earlier on the premise that those who loved the romance of bagpipes, Braveheart, and kilts would take to the idea the way the Irish, and everyone else, had embraced Riverdance. Strathspey - named after one of the traditional Scottish dances - had fallen far short of the phenomenal success of that show, but the troupe still managed to get bookings in small venues fifty weeks out of every year.
To Liss it didn't matter where they performed, or for how many people. She got the same tingle in her toes, the same giddy rush of pleasure and excitement, whether they were in Boston, Boise, or Boca Raton. At the age of twenty-seven, she felt as much anticipation, as much enthusiasm for her career, as she had on the day she turned pro at nineteen.
Out front the recorded music came to an end. An expectant hush fell over the assembled spectators. Liss's pulse quickened and her heart beat just a little bit faster as she waited for the first stirring notes to be played on the Great Highland Bagpipe. She flexed one leg, then the other, rolled her shoulders, and took a deep breath. Leading the others, she flowed with the music, her feet performing the intricate steps as they had thousands of times before. The rest of her body automatically assumed the familiar poses and her face wore a radiant smile. She whirled and leapt, reveling in the freedom and beauty of the dances. The company performed a variety of Scottish standards, from strathspeys and reels and jigs to sword dances and Highland flings, all woven together in a loose story of Scottish immigrants finding a new life in the New World.
When she danced, Liss was aware of nothing but the music, the other dancers, and her own joy. If she was short on sleep, or stiff from too much traveling, she could easily ignore those minor distractions. She was accustomed to performing in spite of aches and pains. Dancers lived with both day in and day out, taping up ankles and knees as necessary so the show could go on.
But this night, as Liss launched herself into the final round of step dancing, the "Broadway kick-line" the company counted on to bring the audience to its feet, something went terribly wrong. Her left foot came down awkwardly on the hard wooden stage. She heard a loud pop. Excruciating pain shot through her knee. If her arms hadn't been linked with those of dancers on either side, she would have collapsed.
Her smile frozen in place, Liss stumbled through the next moments of the dance, literally carried by the others until they could spirit her off stage. From the wings, while anxious members of the backstage crew got her to a chair, elevated her leg, and applied ice, Liss watched the company dance on without her. Although she knew they had no choice, she felt as if they'd abandoned her. When another wave of pain swept over her, it was deeper and more agonizing than mere physical torment. It was accompanied by the terrible fear that this injury was the one all dancers dreaded, the one that could end a career.
was Liss MacCrimmon's besetting sin. As a child,
she'd opened her Christmas presents as soon as the brightly wrapped packages
appeared beneath the tree. Even when what she was waiting for might be bad
news, she always wanted to hear the worst quickly and be done with it.
She sat in Doctor Kessler's examining room, twisting a lock of dark brown, shoulder-length hair between her fingers, wishing she'd brought a book with her to pass the time. She suspected she'd be too fidgety to take in a single word she read, but anything was better than staring at bigger-than-life diagrams of the hand, the elbow, the knee, and the ankle.
The sound of the door opening brought her head up with a snap. Her heart sank as she read the expression on the orthopedist's jowly face. He hadn't been optimistic when he'd operated on her injured knee two months earlier, but she'd made such a rapid recovery after surgery that she'd convinced herself there was still a chance of resuming her career. Hadn't she just walked into the doctor's office under her own steam and with only the hint of a limp? She'd been hoping for a green light to go back on the road with Strathspey before the summer was over.
Her gaze dropped to the x-rays he carried under his arm.
"Give it to me straight," she said.
Dr. Kessler's expression turned even more grim and Liss felt the knot of tension in her chest pull tighter.
"For someone in almost any other profession, this would be good news," he told her. "You're healing well. Remarkably well. But you have plastic and metal in there now, Liss." He tapped the long, still-livid scar on her left knee. "A partial knee replacement is not designed to stand up to the high-impact step dancing you do for a living."
Liss held herself perfectly still. "If I continue with the physical therapy, surely I can - "
"If you keep up the strengthening exercises, in another month you'll be ninety-nine percent back to normal and flexible enough to do almost anything, but if you go back to dancing, that knee won't last. You'll end up needing more surgery. And every time you have work done on the same area, healing becomes more problematic. There are no two ways about it, Liss. You're going to have to find a new career."
Her hands tightened over the front edge of the chair as emotions flooded through her. She was on the verge of tears but she refused to let them fall. "No. Damn it, no! It can't end like this. I don't know how to do anything else. I don't know how to be anything else."
"Do you want to end up in a wheelchair?"
Liss's usual self-possession deserted her. She was adrift. Dr. Kessler's blunt assessment left her without an anchor.
For a moment, she couldn't breathe, couldn't speak. "Scottish dancing isn't just my career," she finally managed in a choked voice. "It's my life."
"I'm sorry, Liss, but you have to face facts. And you must have known all along that dancers don't keep working until they reach the normal retirement age."
"I know that. I do. But some of the others in the company are in their thirties. One is forty-one. I should have had years left."
"I realize this is hard," Dr. Kessler said, "but it isn't the end of the world. You could teach dancing." He registered her automatic moue of distaste and shrugged. "Manage a dance company, then. Anything but perform night after night." He leaned forward, his gaze intense. "With normal use, this new knee can last ten to twenty years without giving you much trouble. But if you abuse it, it will give out on you. Make no mistake, Liss, your days as a professional dancer are over."
the next month, Liss continued to exercise religiously to strengthen her knee.
She alternated between feeling sorry for herself and making plans. Most of them
were impractical, but she told herself she might as well dream big. It wasn't
impossible that she'd win at Megabucks. Then founding an institute to promote
folk dancing would make perfect sense.
She was almost through all the standard stages of grief before she realized she'd been in mourning. By then, she had acquired two things that promised to make her adjustment to life without performing a little easier. The first was a car, a quirky, three-year-old P.T. Cruiser. Liss had never owned a car before. She hadn't needed one. She'd lived in cities or been on tour since she was seventeen. The second was the offer of a job - temporary, it was true - but in a place Liss had once loved almost as much as she'd loved being part of Strathspey.
On a sunny Friday in July, Liss MacCrimmon returned to Moosetookalook, Maine.
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