Three-and-a-half years ago, I found out I had to have surgery to remove a malignant tumor in my shoulder. And then, there were complications during the surgery, and I woke up with my right arm partially paralyzed, and the doctor told me I’d have to have a second, even more complicated surgery to remove a length of nerve from my lower leg and graft it into the damaged area in my shoulder.
The nerve graft went well, and though I will never have full use of my right arm, I have enough mobility to get by. But just as I was recuperating from the surgery and preparing for radiation to start, my grandparents returned from their yearly winter in Florida. It was late April. They didn’t know about my cancer; my grandfather had been in failing health over the previous year, and my grandmother was overwhelmed with worrying about and caring for him, so I was reluctant to add to what was already on their plates. And I wanted to tell them in person instead of over the phone, so they could be with me when I delivered the news. My strategy was to visit them for Mother’s Day and tell them at the end of the weekend. But we all know what they say about the best-laid plans.
I got the call from my sister. My grandfather had taken ill within days of arriving home, and was admitted to the hospital. He was not expected to live through the week. Within an hour, I was on a train to Connecticut.
I hid the still-healing surgery scar on my neck from my grandmother by wearing a series of creatively-draped scarves. I made the twice-daily pilgrimage to the hospital with my mother and sister and grandmother and sat at my grandfather’s bedside, watching him labor to communicate with us, to breathe, to live. I did my best to console my inconsolable grandmother, who was praying every hour on the hour and lighting candles and pacing, when she wasn’t sobbing at my grandfather’s side, begging him not to leave her. I did my best to be there for my mother, to do whatever she needed. And when the time finally came, I wrote my grandfather’s obituary, helped to carry his casket, and delivered his eulogy.
Within days after the funeral, I started radiation, which lasted for three months. I had a one-month break to heal and re-energize before I started chemo, and I paid a visit to my grandmother that month to finally tell her about the cancer. It was hard to deliver such terrible news when she had already been through so much. But I did it, as calmly and as carefully as I could. And she received the news as well as could be expected. Once she knew, I felt relieved, and free. Finally, I didn’t have to keep my cancer a secret anymore. I could stop wearing those stupid scarves, which had begun to look ridiculous in the blistering heat of July. I could reveal my situation to the world. I spent the next few weeks doing just that, calling clients and friends, posting the news on Facebook, airing the truth as I aired out my scar and the irradiated area around it.
I could tell you about the chemo, but it’s another story for another time. It was arduous and debilitating and seemingly endless, for me and for those caring for me, and it took (and took, and took) every ounce of strength I had to get through it. But eventually, I did.
On each of these occasions, someone, at some point, referred to me as brave. My response to them has been pretty much this. I couldn’t NOT have the surgeries, or be at my dying grandfather’s side, or tell everyone about my cancer, or receive the recommended treatments for my life-threatening illness. To me, being brave is being faced with actions that have more-scary and less-scary consequences, and choosing the former. In my case, it’s not as if I was faced with whether or not to run into a burning building, or stand up to a bully, or jump out of an airplane. Each time, I didn’t have a choice. And at many other critical moments in my life, I have chosen and will choose the less-scary option and wimp out. Especially when it comes to my writing.
Creatively speaking, I am a HUGE coward. I start novels and abandon them when they start to get too complicated, when I feel intimidated or not good enough to bring the ideas in my head to life on the page. When I do finish a piece, I hesitate in sharing it, and sometimes I don’t even share it at all. I’m afraid that my agent won’t like it, or that no one will want to publish it, or that someone will want to publish it but no one will ultimately think much of it, let alone buy it. All of this has happened before, many times, and the devastation that comes with those rejections feeds into my fear and insecurity. Unlike many other experiences in life, failure does come with a choice: you can try and potentially face that failure, or you can not try at all. I’m ashamed to say that when it comes to my writing, I have a history of true cowardice, of taking the easy way out, of succumbing to my fear and self-doubt and the voice in my head that tells me not to bother, that this business has no room for weak writing or weak spirits.
Last year, I wrote a new story and shared it with my writing group, and received some positive feedback. And then? I sat on the manuscript, decided not to bother. But over the past couple of months, there’s been that back-to-school whiff in the air, which has made me me feel particularly energized and hopeful. A week or so ago, I decided to share the story with another trusted reader, and then…I summoned the courage to send it to my agent (okay, it was more like I said, “eff it,” closed my eyes and hit SEND). Wonder of wonders, he likes it and wants to submit it. And so, sometime over the next week or so, this manuscript will be out in the world, for better or worse. What does it say about me that I consider this one of my proudest moments?
What does courage mean to you? And when was the last time you felt brave?