by Alan Bell
An article in Local Life last week told the story of Jai Chestnut, who recently died of lung cancer at the age of 75 at Keystone Hospice in Wyndmoor. Jai, a former professional ballet dancer, previously entered Keystone Hospice in June of 2004 with a diagnosis of AIDS. The medical experts were sure he would not live more than a few months, but Jai made a miraculous recovery, left the hospice, resumed life as a dance teacher and lived for almost 11 more years. Jai’s best friend, Alan Bell, co-founder of the dance company ArcheDream for Humankind, wrote the following tribute for the Local about Jai:
I met Jay at the point where he was discharged from the Keystone Hospice in 2004, and we became fast friends for the 10 years remaining to him. We lived together for the first four years during which time he became deeply involved in our dance company. His choreography and attitude upgraded our dancers and brought a cosmopolitan vitality into the dance presentations. He performed in many of the shows at the time.
He moved on to teaching children and offering his services at community centers and churches. Jay was a great planner of dance programs, a perfectionist whose ambitions exceeded the possibilities of the more ordinary dance groups he offered his services to. He became obsessed with the ideal of an after-school program where students were trained in dance, computer literacy, language skills, homework assistance, even cooking, deportment and fashion/cosmetology.
The truth is that he was rather overwhelming to the people in charge, and he intimidated them with his language skills and ambition. His standards exceeded their possibilities. He waited and waited for replies to his propositions which never came. This did not stop him as he continued with his visualizations of a dance score for Black History Month which would incorporate actors to speak the phases of the history of African Americans in the New World. He researched the history which he set into music and drew up charts for the choreography all the way into the modern world. But here again his vision exceeded the imaginations and budgets of those whom he so desired to work with.
He was essentially fusing an ideal or new way to bring up children and prepare them for entry into the world, which in his view was so much better than anything they could possibly receive in public schools. He was refining himself, essentially discovering his own self. What we saw were his ideas, but he was undergoing a metamorphosis or reevaluation of his single lifetime. He was collecting everything that he had learned over his lifetime, the knowledge, values, worthy ideals and standards required for the good, productive life. Parallel to this process, he was writing his autobiography, searching for clues of his maturing over a lifetime, a work in progress.
Throughout all these phases of coming to terms with his lifetime career as a dancer, I was his companion and witness, friend and mentor. When Jay was not on stage, he was desperately trying to find something to do and keep his mind occupied. We were both avid book readers and loved to discuss the topics covered. He loved a good conversation and always had so many questions for me. There was no censorship; we were too old to censor truth for fear of missing the relevant points or pertinent issues to be comprehended. He loved to learn about history and often said that as a young man he wanted to be a teacher, though obviously not in the tradition of the present teaching schedule in schools.
He loved to watch Masterpiece Theater on PBS, and his interest in cooking was limitless. He told me the story of the genius French cook, Escoffier, who invented the restaurant procedures, menus and appropriate wines for each meal and proper manner of serving the food in 19th century France! He loved the Cooking Channel. He also loved to watch Jeopardy and answer the questions. This was his favorite way of keeping his brain active and quick.
As he comprehended that his cultural ideas were not going to materialize in any church or community center, he attempted to turn his living room into a hairdressing salon, complete with chair, mirrors, shampoos and conditioners, brushes and combs, scissors and razors, dyes, weaves and various colored hair extensions. He even got me to design his business card and sign for the front window! That venture brought some customers but was not a busy salon with all the gossip and high jinx of ladies at leisure. The next idea was the lunch food to be served to people at work. But even though he assembled his kitchen utensils, menus and where to get the basic supplies for the food, nothing came of it. The venture lacked a delivery service. Jay’s car broke down.
His last idea was to set up a day care for five children in his house. He devised an extensive schedule for the children, all detailed in the brochure he came up with. He hoped to work with a niece as his aide. Time was running out. The day care never materialized. Alas, his family barely had any time for him at all. He never gave up hoping for his place among them until he had been for many months in the rehab hospital with barely a visit from them.
He asked me to be his Power of Attorney to get him out of the rehab place, but to where? I wrote to Keystone Hospice to see if they remembered him and would take him in. He was in a bad way and was not being cared for at the rehab. Everything we had given him for his comfort was gone, stolen or lost, a real disgrace! To my great relief, Keystone Hospice replied right away, and he was brought there to live in peace and quiet after the turbulent days in the rehab. Within 10 days he passed. He was ready to die, for he had done his homework and fulfilled his lifetime on earth. I can truly say that he earned his death and was content to depart peacefully.
For more information, call 215-836-2440 or visit www.keystonecare.com.