“When bad things happen to good people, instead of asking ‘why,’ perhaps we should ask the question, ‘what do I do now?’” – author Rabbi Harold Kushner, from When Bad Things Happen to Good People
Sarah Abrusley sits sipping from a glass of sparkling water in the restaurant of the Maison Dupuy hotel where she works as guest services manager.
Abrusley lifts her left arm and clenches her fist. She smiles and does it again several times for good measure like a kid showing off a new move on the basketball court.
“Yesterday was the first time I was able to open and close my left hand since ‘this’ happened,” she says, repeating the move several more times.
‘This’ was the crippling stroke that the reed-thin blonde suffered sometime while asleep during the early morning hours of Sept. 7, 2007; the stroke that derailed a lifelong list of accomplishments as a ballet star. ‘Prima ballerina’ was written all over her accomplishments … and her future.
“I was born in New Orleans,” Abrusley says in a polished, almost New England gentrified speak that nearly belies that New Orleans bloodline that goes back to the very founding of the city itself. “I was an only child and my parents feared what would happen by not being around other children when I got to elementary school. So when I was 3 years old, I was placed in dancing school in our Gentilly neighborhood. It was a fantastic school and a wonderful experience for me. With my body type and my temperament I fit perfectly into the curriculum of ballet. But truly, it was all so natural. Although members of my family had performed at the New Orleans Opera House and I had a cousin who was a renowned ballet star, nobody every pushed me. Even when I was at St. Raphael Elementary and Ben Franklin High School. In fact, my mother was never the typical ‘stage mother.’ I was in my 20s when she got really involved in my ballet.”
When looking at the worldwide path Abrusley has traveled in studying the ballet, practicing endlessly and performing (not to mention graduating magna cum laude with a B.A. in Russian and Eastern European Studies from Boston University), the words “my ballet,” seem woefully inadequate.
The list of artistic accomplishments racked up by the 33-year-old Abrusley is mind-boggling: She has been a ballet instructor at Loyola and Boston universities, a principal dancer with various organizations including the Jefferson Performing Arts Society and she has toured Italy and Bulgaria as principal dancer for the Russian Komenka – the list is seemingly endless.
“When (Hurricane) Katrina hit we went to Houston,” Abrusley says. “Somebody was sending out photos online showing how the hurricane had devastated New Orleans. By sheer chance one of the photos I saw was my first dance school. It had been destroyed. That was the first time I cried about the damage the hurricane had done – the first time it really hit me. I decided to come back and work with nonprofit arts organizations as my way of helping to rebuild my city. In 2007, I became involved with the Overture to the Cultural Season and the first gala it was going to hold since Katrina. I was working with the gala (and) I was going to perform. This while holding down a full-time job at the hotel.” The “big show” as Abrusley refers to the gala, was set for Sat., Sept. 8, 2007.
Abrusley, who had worked so tirelessly to help rebuild the cultural scene in New Orleans, woke up expecting to get an early start to help put the finishing touches on the gala to be held at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
“I was happy to have awakened at 4:30 a.m. to get an early start on the day,” she says. “I had a terrible headache, a pain behind my right eye. But I figured it was just because I had worked and practiced so hard the days leading up to that. I had no idea anything was really wrong.”
It was when she “dressed” and walked out to the living room of her apartment on St. Charles Avenue and proudly announced to husband, Damien, that she was ready for the penultimate day, that things began to unravel quickly.
“He looked at me and his mouth dropped open,” Abrusley recalls. “My dress was hanging over my shoulder on the left. I thought I had put my arm through the sleeve. I hadn’t.”
Even after Damien placed her in the car and drove to nearby Touro Infirmary for a CAT scan and she heard one scan tech say to another, “Man, that’s a big bleeder she has on her brain,” the seriousness of it all just didn’t set in.
Nor when she was placed in an ambulance and whisked across the Crescent City Connection to West Jefferson Medical Center where she was met by a team of neurosurgeons already preparing for surgery did the danger she was facing come crashing down.
“I had just had a bikini wax the day before,” Abrusley says, “and now I was getting an angiogram. I thought that was funny. When I learned I was going into brain surgery I thought about the ‘up-do’ (hair styling) that I had just gotten for my role at the gala and thought that was funny.”
But hours later (“I’m not sure how many … but at least four, I’d guess,”) when she awoke with more tubes running into and out of her than abound on a space station, did Abrusley, ballet star to the world, realize that change was afoot in her life.
“They took a tumor from the frontal lobe,” she says. “It had been there all my life. The surgeon said it looked like a raspberry, with the little cells in it – just like a raspberry. It never really bothered me. But when I think about how sometimes I felt tired and maybe a little uncoordinated on one side of my body. I thought it was just because I had practiced and rehearsed so hard. That was all just part of it. I never thought anything about a tumor. The surgeon said as soon as he removed the tumor my brain immediately shrunk down to normal size.”
And then there was the follow up.
“I had physical therapy every day … and occupational therapy for my upper body,” she says. “One hour each (and) every day. Here it is, three years later, and I still go to occupational therapy. But it works.” She lifts her arm again and clenches her fist and smiles.
There is that awkward step, the lifting of one leg just to place it in front of the other, leading into a slow glide.
The arabesque is only a faint, glorious memory of Abrusley’s past now. But she doesn’t fret. Nor does she even look back.
“I want to help others, like injured soldiers who are returning home,” she says. “I do pilates and yoga three times a week. I speak to different groups and I’ve gotten some acting roles. I love it. Also, I’m writing a book. I’m hoping I can bring encouragement to others. To let them know this type of thing doesn’t have to be the end of the world. And … (There is a Pinter pause) I want to have children. That’s our spring project right now.”
One door closes. Another opens.