Anyone who has ever known a person with Lyme disease can appreciate what a persistent, debilitating illness it is. Indeed, as writer Anna Penenberg learned, it can be an affliction that tests both patient and caregiver in ways they never imagined. In her memoir, Dancing in the Narrows, Penenberg recounts the eight years she and her younger daughter, Dana, spent fighting this disease—sometimes in desperation, frequently in hope, always in determination and love.
A life-long dancer who turned her passion for movement into a therapeutic practice, Penenberg was no stranger to trauma, either in her own life or that of her clients. But when Dana came down with a mysterious fever mid-way through her sophomore year of high school, her mother had no idea what to do. “The illness manifested as a heavy cloak that wrapped itself around her,” Penenberg writes. “It became part of her skin and seeped inside her body.”
Not surprisingly, the initial challenge was simply diagnosing the problem. Mono, Epstein-Barr, toxic mold—with every new doctor, every new diagnosis, every new treatment, Penenberg regained hope, only to lose heart each time Dana relapsed.
Part of what made Dana’s condition so devastating was the degree to which it changed her and her family’s very dynamic life. A recently-divorced mother with a growing therapy practice, Penenberg joined her daughters in school and community activities, encouraged their passion for dance and other artistic endeavors, and, perhaps most important, nurtured their sense of adventure and love of the natural world. “During this time in our lives, I would wake up every morning to the ever-present joy of endless possibilities,” Penenberg recalls. “We were living my dream.”
When Dana became sick, however, that joy evaporated. “A cloud of depression sat over our house, sucking up life,” writes Penenberg. “This silent desolation had no name, no warning, and no signposts.” After a month of traveling in this darkness, she stopped seeing clients and teaching yoga, giving those up in order to become Dana’s full-time caregiver and medical advocate.
Navigating the healthcare system is never easy, but Penenberg’s journey was excruciating. Indeed, a reader might be surprised to learn that it spanned only eight years, given the number of supposed remedies Dana endured. Some of those, such as heavy doses of antibiotics, were standard Western therapies. But others—the use of magnets, treatments with sound and light waves, energy healing—were much farther out of the mainstream. While many of these were available near their Southern California home, several required Penenberg and Dana to travel long distances, a feat that became increasingly difficult as Dana’s Lyme disease wore on.
Granted, this is Dana’s story of chronic illness and recovery. But more than that, Dancing in the Narrows is the story of an independent, creative woman who, having “found herself” in young adulthood, must do so all over again at the age of 60. “I entered my sixties with grace, wisdom, knowledge, fierce desires,” writes Penenberg. “I climbed out of years of shock and rediscovered the pleasure of freedom. I took off the cloak of survival and stepped into my life.”
Writing with courage, honesty, and, at times, humor, Anna Penenberg offers her readers an important glimpse into the world of those who must live with Lyme disease. Where it has shortcomings—the occasional abrupt end to a story that leaves the reader hanging, the odd absence of older daughter Cayla through most of the book—Dancing in the Narrows more than makes up for them in its depiction of a family surviving crisis and coming out on the other side, loving their lives once again.