Mary Elizabeth Isabell Manville was a ballerina.
That is how all her friends and family describe her. Her arched feet, her long and elegant legs, her strong back, all created the illusion of weightlessness and endless length when she danced. Her love of ballet and her dedication were showcased in her seemingly effortless movement, the way she appeared buoyant while suspended in arabesque, the way she could sense the music and make a move before anyone else heard it.
Maybe you saw her in December, swirling across the stage in a mesmerizing pattern of flower petals in “The Nutcracker.” She looked like she was born to be on that stage, wearing her pointe shoes and a tutu, her long, curly brown hair slicked into a perfect bun except for a few baby hairs that curled around the nape of her neck, her cheeks lifting toward her squinting blue eyes and exposing her two large front teeth in a bright, excited smile.
It was her first “Nutcracker,” and her last.
She was born on Feb. 4, 2004, but her family always jokes that she must have been born in 1961 because she was so good at classical French ballet.
When she was a toddler, she mastered her shape sorter toy — she knew how to correctly put the star through the star-shaped hole in the yellow box and the moon through the moon-shaped hole. That day, her dad, Paul — realizing his daughter was gifted and needed a way to develop her talent — opened the phone book and went to the dance section.
He started in the back — because he always started in the back — found the Southeastern School of Ballet, called the director, put her in the program and created a “ballet monster.”
She danced at the Southeastern School of Ballet in Columbia, South Carolina, and she graduated in the summer of 2022. She joined IU in August to study ballet.
In Columbia, when she wasn’t at school or at dance, she liked to go star gazing with her friends in the field behind Kroger and watch the sunset by the lake. She was the first person in her friend group who could drive, so she would give her sister, Annabelle, and her friends rides and drive around her neighborhood by Lake Carolina.
She and Annabelle were closer than most siblings, but like any sisters, they often had fights about stupid things they couldn’t even remember afterward. She was bad at apologizing, so she would laugh, and then Annabelle would laugh too, and then they would go get food.
She and Annabelle created a nine-hour-and-54-minute Spotify playlist named “hozier bound” with songs from Harry Styles, The Lumineers, Greer and, of course, Hozier, to listen to when they drove from South Carolina to Indiana.
In Columbia, she liked to eat breakfast at Chick-fil-A and buy soft drinks at Sonic and get corn dogs at QT and eat lunch at Chipotle and Tokyo Grill. Her favorite drink was Dr Pepper.
In Bloomington, she ate at the dining hall in Forest, and she always drank Pibb Xtra — her dorm didn’t have Dr Pepper, but she swore Pibb Xtra tasted exactly the same.
She always rolled her eyes when her friend Stanley Cannon gave her hugs. He liked to give her the biggest hugs, and he thinks he probably gave her more hugs than she could have wanted in 20 years.
She started getting sick when she moved to IU. She didn’t think it was anything serious — she and Annabelle called it “Hoosier fever,” and her friends at Jacobs called it the “frat flu.”
In mid-February, she started coughing up blood and went to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with pneumonia. On Feb. 27, she went to the hospital again because she couldn’t breathe and was airlifted to IU Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis.
There, she was diagnosed with Granulomatosis with Polyangiitis and Diffuse Alveolar Hemorrhage disease, a rare form of vasculitis, an autoimmune disease where a person’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissues and blood vessels. The cause is not currently well understood by medical professionals.
After weeks of fighting, at 3:56 a.m. on April 4, Mary Elizabeth died in the hospital, surrounded by her family.
At IU, Mary Elizabeth renewed her love for ballet. She had had an intense experience with dance at the Southeastern School of Ballet, with three-hour technique classes and strict lessons every week that shocked her friends at Jacobs.
Her renewed excitement for dance, her extensive technical training and even her feet garnered the attention of her classmates and professors. It’s normal in the dance community to notice and comment on each other’s feet — and Mary Elizabeth’s were especially strong and flexible.
The faculty showed Mary Elizabeth they were paying attention to her by putting her in the first cast for the “Spring Ballet,” which meant that unlike most of the other freshmen who would only perform once, she would perform in two of the three shows — front and center.
“Her last moment, she was truly happy and in love with ballet,” Stanley said. “She was in love with her life.”
Between ballet classes, academic classes, rehearsals and performances, the freshmen at the Jacobs School of Music Ballet Theater spent very little time apart, especially after winter break.
The month of January, when they weren’t rehearsing for the “Spring Ballet,” they were watching a season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” in Stanley’s dorm. It was also then that they noticed Mary Elizabeth’s cough worsened.
She had a cough on and off since August, but she kept dancing. She had trouble hearing out of an ear during “The Nutcracker” in December, but she kept dancing. She was still sick when she celebrated her 19th birthday on Feb. 4. Mary Elizabeth never stopped dancing.
When Mary Elizabeth went to the hospital in mid-February, her friend stood at her barre spot during ballet class — on the right side of the room at the very front — to keep it warm for her, she said. Stanley and his friends hadn’t watched another episode of RuPaul — they were waiting for her to come back from the hospital.
Hotel. Hospital. Hotel. Hospital. Hotel.
That has been her family’s life since February. That was all they knew.
It was chaotic at first, but Paul, his wife Mary Catherine and his mother developed a routine, like shifts. Mary Catherine spent every night at the hospital. Paul and his mother arrived in the morning, and she went to the hotel to nap.
Every day there was something new. Infections. Dialysis. Chemo. Colonoscopy. Internal bleeding. Ventilator.
The hospital became their whole life, and the quiet ICU floor became their home. They fell into its rhythms, learned its secret language, grew accustomed to the beeping of the machines and the steady comfort of the nurses' hushed tones.
Hospital. Hotel. Hospital. Hotel. Hospital.
They spent weeks like this. In every other room of the ICU, families came and went, but Mary Elizabeth stayed.
Paul looked at the other patients on the floor, most of them much older men. And then he looked at his little, teenaged, daughter.
“Why?” he thought.
He had seen other families get angry and yell at the doctors. But he just focused on the positive, one hour at a time.
They held on to the hope that the determination that had motivated Mary Elizabeth throughout her life would save her.
Pictures of her dance friends hung on the walls in her room, as “The Nutcracker” music played softly in the background. A physical therapist would move her ankles back and forth and curl her toes.
He doesn’t understand it completely, but he knew she had the perfect dancer feet. He has garnered so much knowledge about ballet from years of driving to dance lessons, attending performances, taking her to summer intensives. All the traveling he has done has been through Mary Elizabeth — Paris, Vienna, San Francisco, New York, Houston. All of it for dance.
“We're just looking at just another impediment toward her goal,” Paul said. “She's worked through every one of them.”
When Mary Elizabeth was 8 or 9 years old, she slipped in the locker room and split her chin open right before a dance performance. Paul took her to the emergency room to get stitches.
“I got to dance,” she said.
“You’re not dancing today.”
“But I got to dance.”
She missed the show that year, but she danced in the next one and the next one and every one since then.
“Work through it. Move on. There will always be another show, right? There's always another recital,” Paul said. “So you just keep going. Just keep going.”
That’s part of what ballet teaches you, he said. Just keep swimming, like Dory from “Finding Nemo.”
“That’s what she’s doing now,” Brandon Whitehead, Mary Elizabeth’s aunt said, sitting next to her brother in the hospital lobby. “She’s swimming.”
“Just keep swimming,” Paul repeated.
Brandon sat, staring off into space. No thoughts. Numb. Empty.
It started off as shock — Mary Elizabeth had a stroke on Saturday, on Monday the doctors said there was nothing more they could do, and on Tuesday, she was gone.
The shock quickly turned into disbelief — no one wanted to let her go. She was just 19. She was getting better. They didn’t want to accept that the bubble of denial and hope they inhabited for weeks had just popped.
It was a mind trick, Brandon said.
Late March provided a glimmer of hope, when the doctors lightened Mary Elizabeth’s sedation, and she was able to regain consciousness for the first time in weeks. The doctors were hoping to be able to start treating the vasculitis soon. She was still on the ventilator, but she could open her eyes and move her eyebrows. Although the doctors weren’t as optimistic, to her family, every twinkle in her eyes was a victory.
But that was just a mind trick.
Mary Elizabeth was never able to be treated for vasculitis. She was conscious but always in a sedated stupor. They could never know what she was thinking. She knew that she was sick, even if she didn’t understand everything. Sometimes, tears came from her eyes. Brandon knew Mary Elizabeth was frightened.
On that Monday, Annabelle and her aunt Carrie flew up to Indy. Mary Elizabeth looked a lot different than the last time her sister had seen her, just a few weeks before. All the color in her face had gone. She was jaundiced; her body looked weak and tired after weeks on life support. Her brain was still functioning, but her organs weren’t coming back.
She wasn’t coming back.
Brandon told Mary Elizabeth she was going to take care of the family. She was going to look after Annabelle. And then they let her go.
“She was the bravest person I have ever known,” Brandon said. “She was just so much bigger than anyone could imagine.”
The best way to honor her memory is to strive to be the person she was, Brandon said. To do what Mary Elizabeth would do.
On March 25, in Columbia, South Carolina, the dancers at Southeastern School of Ballet dedicated their annual showcase to their “Mary Queen.” Six days later, nine hours and 54 minutes away, the dancers from the Jacobs School of Music Ballet Theater performed “Spring Ballet” in honor of their “Meme.”
Mary Elizabeth danced her whole life. And now they live and dance for her.
Those interested in donating to help cover the costs of Mary Elizabeth’s hospitalization can visit the GoFundMe.