When my husband died, I sold our homes, bought a condo, and moved within the year. The following summer I booked a tour to Cuba, knowing no one on the trip. My friends told me I was brave. Don’t make me laugh! I’ll show you brave.
My son is sixty and has had ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, for seven years. It’s a neurological horror show that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. The average life expectancy is only two to five years after diagnosis, and symptoms get worse over time.
He was athletic into his fifties, but now he can move only his head and one hand. He breathes through a ventilator but can still talk and eat. Despite this, he doesn’t seem bitter or angry. His outlook floors me, while I wonder why this had to happen to him.
My younger daughter, fifty-three, underwent a double mastectomy just months before her wedding four years ago. A year later the cancer spread to her spine. After trying chemo and a program that coupled drugs and exercise, she went on a trial drug that almost killed her. Her vision weakened, and she couldn’t use the bathroom or even pick up a pencil. Overweight and dieting all her life, she lost sixty pounds, but not her sense of humor.
“I’m finally thin, Ma,” she told me.
Brave? Not me. But my children are warriors.
Clay and I had been dating for several months, and I had fallen in love with him despite the fact that he sold cocaine for a living, had no place to live, and did not love me back. That Sunday we had driven to Elephant Butte and rented a pontoon. I had graduated with honors from college the day before and would soon be packing up my apartment and leaving Las Cruces, New Mexico, forever. I’d probably never see Clay again. Would he miss me? Would he regret not begging me to stay? If I couldn’t be his girl, I at least wanted to be the one who got away.
That meant making a lasting impression.
When some cliffs came into sight, I jumped out of the boat and swam to shore, then scrambled up the rocks. Only once I reached the top did I realize how high up I was. I could have clambered back down, spent the day drinking and smoking pot in the boat, and later that night recklessly fucked Clay without a condom. But three other boats pulled up, and the passengers raised their drinks to me, chanting for me to jump.
As I stared at the water, searching beneath its surface for the rocks that had recently killed another jumper, I saw Clay shaking his head. I looked up at the cloudless sky. Please, I whispered to a God I had recently begun to doubt, I know this is going to hurt. Just don’t let it kill me.
Then I took a running leap.
I spent the next four days in the hospital, where the staff were decidedly unimpressed.
Elizabeth Johnston Ambrose
Rochester, New York
My father was a Marine during World War II. He took pride in his service, hanging out at a fraternal lodge with other veterans. He traded in his car every three years, like clockwork, and he always put a SEMPER FI sticker on the bumper of each one.
He enjoyed talking about his past, but not about his time in the military. We knew he’d served in the Pacific and had spent time in China and Japan, but even my mother didn’t have many of the details.
I was a teenager in the Vietnam era and was too caught up in the antiwar movement to take any interest in this country’s military past. To me that sticker on our car was an embarrassment, nothing more than mindless flag-waving.
At eighty-six my father died. I went through his belongings, including a military-issue metal container where he’d kept important papers. Inside, as expected, were orderly stacks of documents in his precise handwriting.
I also found a yellowed newspaper article from The Philadelphia Inquirer. Headlined “Courage,” it recounted the story of PFC Gilbert Wolfson, my father, age twenty-five, one of a group of volunteer stretcher-bearers “whose courage resulted in the rescue of twenty-eight wounded Marines on Iwo Jima.” Another article described how more than forty Marines were killed or wounded trying to save their comrades. My dad dodged snipers from morning until night to bring those men out alive.
It is impossible for me to reconcile this young soldier who rushed into gunfire with the father I knew. I am sad I never tried to know him better.
On occasion I still drive my father’s last car, an old Pontiac. Recently a stranger in a parking lot spotted the bumper sticker and thanked me for my service.
“Not me; my dad,” I corrected. “He was a hero.”
Santa Cruz, California
A volcano had just erupted, killing hundreds and sending thousands fleeing down the mountain in Escuintla, Guatemala. I was the program manager for a humanitarian-aid group that was building shelters for survivors.
This job was everything I’d been working toward for a few years. I idolized aid workers’ ability to jump into action during natural disasters, famine, and war.
The fever came on suddenly. One minute I was talking to the mayor about potable tap water; the next I was lying in the back of a vehicle. “Just heat stroke!” I croaked whenever someone opened the door. I was fine, I insisted. This would pass.
Back in my hotel room, forty-eight hours passed in a blur of sweat, vomit, aches, and nausea. My supervisor called to ask if I needed to go to the doctor. No, I said, I was getting better. But the next day doctors diagnosed me with cerebral malaria — a potentially fatal illness. As I passed into and out of consciousness, I heard bits and pieces: “We will have to quarantine her.” “She may die or go into a coma.” “Who is responsible for her?” Unsure what else to do, the nurses left me alone in a large, empty room.
When lucid, I sent messages to my anxious parents: “No big deal! Only malaria!” Then, “It’s cerebral malaria, but it’s fine. The doctors are here.” At shift change the new nurses avoided me, afraid I was contagious. They removed my IV and stopped giving me pain medicine. I was dehydrated, alone, and dying.
Finally, seventy-two hours after the fever started, it became too much. I yelled for the nurses until someone responded, then called my supervisors and told them they needed to come help me.
The next morning I was evacuated, which saved my life. Bravery, in this case, was not showing up at a disaster area; it was asking for help.
As a woman working in the male-dominated field of wilderness education, I confronted grizzly bears, dragged novice climbers up thirteen-thousand-foot peaks, and rescued capsized kayakers from rapids. The lifestyle that came with that career meant spending winters in remote parts of Central America, living in a pickup truck, and driving across three states to hook up with men I’d only briefly met. I could never settle on a place or a person or a job, so I reinvented myself over and over.
People called me courageous, but I knew I was just trying to outrun my own brain. Feelings of inadequacy and isolation threatened to return me to the deep depression that had started in prep school. If I paused long enough, I would have to explain to myself why I’d squandered my privileged upbringing and justify my use of the planet’s precious resources. And I wouldn’t be able to do that without the bottle of pills I kept handy, supposedly for backcountry emergencies.
I’m almost fifty now. While I was treating my mental illness with constant movement, others started families and set up homes. I can no longer live my old lifestyle, so I’m reinventing myself again. Every day I wake up alone, sit down in front of a blank screen or canvas — at the same desk, in the same room, in the same small city — and try to write or paint my way into meaning.
No one calls me brave anymore. But now I know I am.
My mother was a Latin teacher who loved to travel but was deathly afraid of flying. She had driven all over the American West, including the Canadian Rockies, and traveled to Mexico by train from her home in Pennsylvania, but she would never fly unless it was some sort of emergency.
In 1966 my family got an opportunity to take a six-week tour of Europe and the Middle East, including Rome. There would be about a dozen flights. After some deliberation my mother agreed to go.
Our first flight was from John F. Kennedy Airport direct to London on Air India, but our departure happened to be in the middle of a huge airline workers’ strike. Our entire tour group was stuck in New York City for thirty-six hours, and we were put up at a hotel by the airline.
In the middle of the night we got a call that a new flight had been arranged. But rather than a big, modern plane, we would be on an old British Eagle prop-jet, and we would stop in Newfoundland to refuel. My mother was pale as we walked across the tarmac to board our first-ever transatlantic flight in a plane that looked like something out of World War II.
As we took off over Manhattan at night, my mother clutched the arms of her seat in a death grip, eyes shut, missing the beautiful lights below.
I now realize that I was witnessing the very definition of bravery: doing something you’re terrified to do. My mother endured landing and takeoff in a thunderstorm in Newfoundland. She steeled herself through every flight on the trip. When we flew to Rome, she finally peered out the window as we circled over the city she had dreamed of seeing all her life. As the Colosseum came into view, I had never seen her more excited.
We took four more European trips together, and after I married and left home, my parents traveled to all the continents except Antarctica, taking countless flights in all kinds of weather and in some fairly sketchy aircraft. My mother likely gripped the arms of those seats, too.
My mother passed away quietly in 2013. Whenever I’m afraid to try something new, I think of her — and I just do it.
I was eighteen, fragile, and lonely when I admitted to myself that I was a lesbian. I had assumed that I’d be alone for the rest of my days when I met Nic. She was three years older and outrageously accomplished for her age — with a career in social work, a house with a yard, and an adorable puppy named Pogo. She was my first real girlfriend and my best-kept secret.
I remember how everything about Nic, including her home, made me feel alive. We’d pretend for days that we were the only two people on the planet, dancing barefoot to Frank Sinatra on dusty hardwood floors. I remember the beige fabric of the sofa, perpetually dampened by sex and sweat and wet dog.
I remember how quickly Nic took up residence in my life, crashing at my tiny midtown apartment despite everything she had. We’d talk until the sun came up, and I’d sleepwalk through long days at work, unshowered and hickeyed, then do it all over again the next evening. She would tell me dark stories of her past, then hide behind her black Ray-Bans or chop more of her hair off when she couldn’t take the memories anymore.
I remember how thrilled and terrified I felt as she gunned the gas pedal on the highway with one hand on the wheel and the other between my legs. I was too afraid to say no to anything.
I remember what happened when I tried.
I remember the unyielding weight of Nic, twice my size; the filth and the blackness of her bedroom; how her demons came earlier and earlier each night as autumn turned to winter.
I remember her face when I tried to leave her the first time; her flared nostrils and brow cocked in amusement and threat; the satisfaction in her eyes when, after several hours of guilt trips and prodding, she grabbed my face and kissed me hard. We both knew she owned me.
I remember how she laughed after whispering in my ear that if I ever left her, she’d kill herself, and Pogo wouldn’t have a mom anymore.
I remember hiding in her closet, wishing I had never come out of my own.
I remember the handprint bruise she left on my wrist, and then giving myself more blue and purple marks to cover it up. Despite everything, I wanted to protect her, to understand her.
It has been three years since I left Nic. Sometimes I am brave enough to snoop on her Facebook page, even though it makes me ill to see her face. I have to keep checking on Pogo. I wanted so badly for us both to get out.
The night before my first day of community college, I questioned whether I was smart enough to go. My family was working-class, and none of my relatives had graduated from a four-year university, but I’d always been encouraged to pursue higher education. It was something that my family wanted, and I wanted it, too — despite my fear of failure.
In English class the next day, I got my first assignment: to write an essay about why we were there, what we were studying, and where we wanted to go in life. I didn’t finish mine in class, and the teacher said I could turn it in online later.
I edited and proofread my work multiple times, because I thought she might find a mistake and think I was stupid. But when I went to the website, I couldn’t find a place to submit the assignment. College was too overwhelming, I thought. I’d never be able to handle five classes if I couldn’t even figure out how to turn in a simple essay. I’d have to drop out and be a waitress.
Although I was afraid she would ridicule or scold me, I e-mailed the teacher to ask how I could get her the essay.
I waited all weekend, but her response never came. During the next class period she explained that she had forgotten to open a place for us to submit online, and that we could give it to her that day. I was relieved — college instructors forget things, too!
I stayed in school, even when I did not feel smart enough. I kept asking for help, even when I was afraid my teachers would turn me away. And I earned my associate’s degree and enrolled in a university the following semester. A year ago I decided to go to graduate school.
In one month I will teach my first college English class, in front of twenty-five first-year college students, many of whom might be as scared as I was. I don’t feel I have much to offer them, but I know that I have to try. I will walk into that classroom and be brave for their sake.
Raised in a congested city, my father moved to the country a few years after he and my mother married, and they carved out the off-the-grid life I was born into a few years later. My preschool years were idyllic and immersed in nature, but when I began attending public school, I wished my family could be like everybody else’s.
My father cut an unusual figure in our conservative small town. Though a city boy by birth, he dressed like a farmer of his boyhood imagination, with blue overalls and a giant straw hat — way bigger than the straw hats local farmers wore. To get around, he experimented with horse-drawn buggies, carriages, and other conveyances instead of a car.
I felt agonizingly conspicuous as people turned to stare at my peculiar family. Why couldn’t we fit in? Why couldn’t my father get a normal job and act like a regular, dignified person? I voiced these complaints to him at every turn, but he refused to change.
Newspaper reporters got wind of my unconventional father and would sometimes come to interview him. Once, some anonymous neighbor cut one of the articles out of the paper and mailed it to my parents, calling them “selfish.”
But such negative feedback was rare, and plenty of people were drawn to Dad. He became a kind of folk hero to some, living the sort of back-to-the-land life they dreamed of but lacked the courage to pursue. Or maybe they had too much common sense.
I gradually outgrew my embarrassment and learned to be proud of my parents. Later, as adults, we became good friends.
I am now two decades older than my father was when he first moved to the country and began homesteading. Though I have no children of my own to mortify, I have managed to disappoint and embarrass my brother, who doesn’t understand why I can’t overcome my social awkwardness and tendency toward nonconformity — inherited, I suspect, from our father. Couldn’t I be a normal person, my brother asked once in an e-mail, for the sake of him and his wife and their children?
I felt devastated. I’d never wanted to harm them or anyone else. It wasn’t even that I didn’t want to become the person they preferred me to be. I simply couldn’t. I knew any attempt to be “normal” would be futile.
If there was a gift hidden in that upsetting episode, it’s that it helped me understand my father. Maybe all those years I felt anger at him for not fitting in, he was equally unable to do it. Maybe he trailblazed in life because trying to squeeze himself into the stifling constraints of an ill-fitting mainstream existence would have cost him all his energy and crushed his soul.
To that long-ago anonymous letter-writer he seemed selfish. Others who knew him saw his nonconformity as brave. But maybe it was simply necessary. Freedom and autonomy are as necessary to me as air. I’m glad to be like my father in this way.
On Election Day, November 2016, I had the last of eight chemotherapy injections to treat a rare type of lymphoma. I woke the next morning to the news that Donald Trump was president.
Within days the effects of the chemo were in full force: my walking was slow and labored, my thoughts foggy. For weeks I wept whenever I read the news. I was filled with the fear that I was losing both my body and my country.
I sleepwalked through the December holidays; I don’t remember feeling peace or joy. I just wanted to escape. On New Year’s Day I sat down at the computer and bought a plane ticket to Spain. Four months later I loaded up my backpack and walking poles, said goodbye to my husband, and headed to Santillana del Mar to attempt a solo hike on the northern route of the medieval pilgrimage called the Camino de Santiago.
On the first day, I met steady rain and high winds. I was so busy trying to keep from blowing off the path that I didn’t have time to think about the trek ahead. That night at my hostel I fell into a deep sleep.
In the morning I was the last of several hikers to finish breakfast and strap on my pack. I opened the front door to a cloudless sky and a surge of cool April air. The intensely blue Cantabrian Sea was on my right; a flock of sheep wandered on my left. I navigated past the sheep and around a stone wall to a sudden view of snow-covered mountains. Tears began to slide down my cheeks. No one knew where I was, and I felt freer than I ever had.
By midday, at the edge of a dark-green wood, I paused, not sure that I wanted to leave behind the brightness of the sea and the mountains. My map showed that the path would slope downward for almost three kilometers to the bottom of a ravine, cross a small river, and climb another three kilometers up the other side. I remembered all the times in the last few months when friends and family had asked, with worried looks, “You’re doing this alone? Aren’t you afraid?” The only other people I had seen on this path were on horseback, and that had been hours before. There were no houses or villages in sight. What if I were to slip on the trail and break an ankle, or worse? Would anyone hear me shout?
I sat down on a large, flat stone and closed my eyes. Thoughts from a recent class in Buddhism drifted across my mind: Move toward your fear. This, too, will pass.
I did not know if my cancer would go into remission. I did not know if my country could survive the undermining of our democracy. But I knew that I would not let fear define who I was.
I stepped on the path into the ravine.
I was demonstrating in Standing Rock, North Dakota, standing face-to-chest with a young policeman wearing a helmet, face shield, and body armor, and carrying a truncheon and the zip ties that substitute now for handcuffs. He seemed pretty capable of taking me down: I was sixty-four years old and a foot shorter.
The protesters, a mix of Native and non-Native people, were calling for authorities to investigate the disappearances of local women. As the Natives stood at the tracks chanting and drumming, I was impressed that many were my age or older. Then the cops crossed the tracks and began to surround us. Something inside me snapped — I was furious that they would confront unarmed elders and women with military tactics.
They moved forward, pushing us back down the railroad berm, but we resisted by locking arms. Before we knew it, pepper spray, rubber bullets, mace, tasers, and truncheons were used. My hat and sunglasses were knocked off, and as I turned to pick them up, I was pushed to the rocky ground on my hands and knees. An officer ordered me to lie on my stomach, but I couldn’t — the berm was made of sharp stones that cut into my flesh. Eventually I was forced down, and my face was slammed into the rocks. I lost consciousness for a minute or two, and when I woke, there were zip ties on my wrists, with my hands behind my back. (I would later discover I had a concussion, two broken ribs, and serious contusions.) I was hauled to my feet and taken to a bus with my fellow arrestees.
After the court dates and medical issues, I asked myself whether I’d been brave or foolish. That day, I was merely pissed off. The elders who sang and drummed on the tracks, trying to save their nation — they were brave.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
My student Amanda had thick glasses, drooled a bit when deep in concentration, and wore metal braces on her legs. She was also smart, optimistic, and confident. Her parents had insisted from the start that she be mainstreamed with no special accommodations, even though our elementary school had many stairs and students traveled between buildings several times a day. She fell often, scraping her hands and face, but she always picked herself up.
When I looked out my art-room windows at the third-grade PE class running laps, Amanda was always far behind the others, alone.
One day, while working in the art studio, she looked at the clock and hopped off her stool.
“I have to go,” she said. “We’re running the mile in PE today.”
I thought, Why doesn’t she just skip it? She’s sure to be last.
“I want to beat my last year’s time,” she told me as she lurched out the door.
Silver Spring, Maryland
It took years of mixing medications and abusing alcohol before I could come to understand that I am one of the millions who suffer from crippling anxiety.
When I was younger, I made friends easily and worried less what people thought of me, but after I turned eighteen, I spent two years in an abusive relationship that had a huge impact on my life. My boyfriend locked me in a closet for wanting to go out and see my friends. To this day I’m unsure how long he left me in there: Minutes? Hours? But the fear of small, enclosed spaces hasn’t left me. It’s been more than ten years since that incident, and getting on an elevator is still a struggle.
He also used to grab me from behind. I never knew whether it was going to be playful or hurtful, so I began to get nervous if he or anyone else was behind me. My current boyfriend has to announce his presence before he touches me, and in crowded rooms the wall is my best friend. Sometimes I hear someone light a cigarette, and the flick of the lighter makes me flinch, because my old boyfriend would flick his knife open and closed, coming closer to my throat each time.
I don’t like reliving these moments. The few people I’ve shared this information with always tell me how brave I was, but I feel braver now when doing small things: riding an elevator, walking down a crowded street, or not letting the click of a lighter derail my thoughts. You can be truly brave only if you’ve been scared, and I’m still scared all the time.
I had just turned seventeen when I put an ad in the “alternative” Milwaukee newspaper, in the section for men who wanted to meet men. I was ready to start exploring a side of me I’d kept hidden growing up in the suburbs.
In the mid-1970s being gay usually meant being in the closet. Little was ever said about homosexuality, and if it was mentioned, it was in a joking or condescending way.
A guy answered my ad, and I picked him up and drove downtown. To a kid from a boring Midwestern suburb, downtown seemed like where people went to live different types of lives. We passed familiar landmarks like the Amtrak station and the First Wisconsin Bank skyscraper. I had a knot in my stomach as we turned a corner onto a street full of warehouses, which I assumed would be empty of people so late at night. But at the end of the street a lot of cars were parked in front of one building.
Over time I would learn that most gay nightclubs were in similar neighborhoods, where there was little chance of interacting with the general public.
I got out and walked to the front door. Loud dance music pulsed out as a few people waited to have their IDs checked. The drinking age then was eighteen, but I was waved in.
I would love to have a picture of my wide-eyed, seventeen-year-old self as he walked into this new world, where hundreds of men talked and danced together; where the closet door was no longer shut tight.
In Slovakia, in 1942, I lived in a small village with my aunt, her new husband, and his two grown sons, Tomas and Harry. Also living with us was Anna, their seventeen-year-old Catholic maid.
When deportations of Jews started, my aunt, her husband, and I went into hiding, but not the sons. They had presidential exemptions because their jobs were important to the government. Anna stayed to keep house for them.
One evening there was a knock on the door, and Anna answered it. Two Hlinka Guardsmen — the equivalent of Germany’s Gestapo — had come for Tomas and Harry. The presidential exemption, they said, was no longer valid. Anna would not let them in. Instead she screamed for Tomas and Harry to run. She stood her ground when one of the men reached for his pistol and threatened to shoot her.
Tomas and Harry jumped out of a window and made their way into the surrounding mountains to join the partisans. They survived the war and later told me their story.
Anna’s bravery was all the more remarkable given that she’d been taught by her church and her government that Jews were not human and whoever helped them would earn God’s punishment. Anna didn’t listen to the voices of authority. She listened to her heart.
I’ve always been afraid of rodents, especially rats. My house growing up was drafty and unsecured, so the rats and mice would occasionally get inside. The rats were rather large — about twelve to eighteen inches long, not including the tail!
Once, instead of putting the leftover chicken fricassee in the refrigerator, my mom placed a heavy lid over the cast-iron pot and went to bed. That night a rat got the lid off, pulled out the chicken, and dragged the carcass across the kitchen. We woke the next day to find the remains strewn across the counter and littering the floor.
Another time my father waited in the darkened kitchen for a rat that was almost two feet long — large enough to peer into our small kitchen trash can and sift through the garbage.
My family finally called an exterminator, who left large amounts of poison in key places, mostly in the basement. My mom would regularly pad down there in her stockinged feet to do laundry, and one day she came back upstairs, her face white. She had stepped on a dead rat. I was about eleven, and she and I were the only people in the house. It was up to me to do something. Touching the rat was out of the question, so I grabbed my dad’s rusted, green-handled pliers and went down to the basement.
Light was streaming in through the dusty windows, so I could see the rat was dead, but I was still petrified. Delicately I poked it with the pliers. No movement. Carefully, using the pliers, I raised the rat by the tail and carried it at arm’s length out the basement door to the trash can. When I got back upstairs, my mom gave me a huge hug and told me how brave I was.
A few weeks later another rat died in the basement. It was smaller, folded over the water pipes. My father was home, but, wanting to show off how brave I was, I said I’d handle it. As I readied the pliers, my dad stood back with a smile on his face.
“What?” I asked.
My dad explained that sometimes when a body has been dead for a long time, it suddenly stiffens, causing movement. When I lifted the rat off the pipe, it might move.
I slapped the pliers into my dad’s hand and ran upstairs.
El Sobrante, California
When I was a teenager in the 1960s, my parents did everything possible to mold me into their version of a woman. The raw material was certainly there. I was attractive and funny, and boys liked me, but they lost interest after I rejected their romantic overtures. To make my parents proud, I became a good girl who never got into trouble. My disguise also hid my secret: I was attracted to women.
The thought of acting on my urges terrified me. Homosexuality was considered a mental illness in those days; religious people believed it to be a sin. I was sure my parents would stop loving me if they knew and that my friends would reject me as well.
In my first year of college I fell in love with several women, but I never told any of them. I feared I was on track to meet a man, get married, and have a family.
Several years later I started dating a high-school friend, a kind young man who had dreamed of being a priest. After his first year in seminary, though, he’d decided against the priesthood. When he asked me to marry him, I said yes, even though my heart told me I could never be a good wife.
Six months later, while he was on active duty with the Navy, I met and had an affair with an older woman named Sharon. She was the first person to crack my heart wide open. When we got together that first time, I knew I could no longer hide my truth.
I was living with my parents during my husband’s time away, and one day I called in sick to work so I could go boating with Sharon. I felt like a teenager sneaking around behind my parents’ backs. When I got home that afternoon, my mother was still at work. She’d been acting odd, as if she suspected I was up to something. She called from the office, sounding cold and distant, and asked what I’d been doing all day. I told her I’d gone to the beach with Sharon.
There was an awkward silence. “Are you a lesbian?” she asked. I hadn’t realized she even knew what a lesbian was.
If she has the courage to ask me that question, I thought, I owe her my honesty.
“Yes, I am,” I said.
She slammed the phone down. When she got home that evening, she cried and screamed, telling me to pack my things and leave at once. I could no longer live under her roof.
Late that night I drove away, sad, angry, and overwhelmed. But there would be plenty of time later to sort out my feelings. First I wanted to savor the exhilaration of telling the truth.
Asheville, North Carolina
My father lobbied the Ethiopian Airlines representative until she upgraded our seats to first class. The wide, faux-leather seats would be like cocoons, encasing our tired bodies on the twenty-one-hour flight.
Thirty minutes before boarding, I gave my newly adopted daughter a Benadryl-laced bottle to induce sleep. She was almost two, and we had been living at a hotel in Addis Ababa for the past two days, getting to know each other. She’d had only one meltdown.
In hindsight I’m not quite sure what I thought might happen when she finally woke up on the plane. When we stopped in Rome to refuel, my daughter was still asleep, but shortly after we left, she awoke and took in her surroundings. She looked at me curiously, then began wailing. I offered her every item I could grab from my carefully packed diaper bag: animal crackers, Cheerios, organic puffed cheese balls, her bottle, a soft giraffe. I picked her up and paced, gently rocking and bouncing her up and down.
For the next fourteen hours she furiously resisted sleep or being held. At times she would hold my fingers and pull me past the first-class curtain dividers, as if she could somehow walk back to something familiar. Her guttural sobs and her small arms pushing me away threatened the fragile bond we’d formed. An Ethiopian flight-crew member held my daughter and whispered comforting words in Amharic, and another rubbed my back as I sobbed.
While my daughter and I braved this turbulent introduction to our new life together, my father listened to an audiobook, increasing the volume on his headphones every time he heard her shrieking.
“You’re so brave,” people tell me.
I don’t know how to respond. This is not brave. I’m just doing what the nurses say, letting the poison drip into me. This is work, like doing a math problem over and over, shooting from the free-throw line again and again, following instructions step-by-step. It is believing that if I do the work, the results will follow, because the alternative is unthinkable.
Everyone dies. But in the same way some people dread public speaking or deep water, I am profoundly afraid of death. When I spend hours with an IV connected to my veins, tracking hundreds of test results in my notebook, it is not bravery that motivates me. It is fear: I just don’t want to die.
At sixty-nine I am certainly not the youngest in my exercise class, but I’m not the oldest, either. Arriving before eight each morning, we gather in the foyer and lace up our tennis shoes. Over the years my fellow fitness junkies have amazed me.
These women are recent cancer survivors; they have osteoporosis; some have had hip, knee, or other bone injuries or replacements. Some have lost a loved one or have an ill spouse, and they acknowledge that those roles could eventually be reversed. But we don’t dwell on the future.
We laugh about how we forget common nouns and people’s names, and we joke about our husbands’ refusal to wear hearing aids. We bemoan our sagging flesh, chuckling over technicians’ efforts to lift our breasts up on steel plates during mammograms. We complain about the constant visits to the doctor, joking that they are the most frequent dates on our calendars. We share bouts of insomnia and episodes of incontinence.
Yet we face each day by challenging our bodies together. We’re not rushing into a burning building, but it is brave to confront this final arc of life with resilience and a sense of humor.