Several times in my life, I have been told that I was brave. When I took off for Peru with a group of strangers.
When I chose to speak words that would have been easier swallowed.
When I’ve done the exact opposite of what was expected in a difficult situation.
But lately, I’ve been holding courage up to a new light. Though my own embodiment of such fortitude has not been in the face of the epic, dangerous or daring, I know these are the kinds of circumstances we typically associate with acts of bravery. Yet, what of those who live every day with a quiet fierceness and determination, even as they hover close to some abyss, are clasped to searing pain or hounded by shadows that would shackle them to fear and doubt?
In the last year, I’ve watched two of my dearest friends struggle with excruciating heartache, one confronting the bitterly unexpected, the other the inevitable, yet both having their lives uprooted by such change. But it is because of them that I am learning about true courage, because of their resilience and unyielding hope that I have a model of valor to serve me in whatever dark passages the future may hold.
It was last spring, only a few months after she’d been married, that my friend Shannon was told she would never naturally conceive.
To say this news was devastating seems only to skim the surface of the anguish she felt. Having a child was not merely something she wanted; it was the answer to a yearning so deeply imbedded, her every cell hummed with a vibrant, maternal instinct. Children naturally gravitated to her and the joy she could never contain in their presence. And whenever a baby was around, she was the first to offer her arms, her face the picture of contentment with that little bundle nestled against her.
Yet here was her body betraying her by rejecting the one thing it was biologically programmed to do — and setting this confident, bright, vivacious woman suddenly adrift in feelings of worthlessness and imperfection, certain that her “brokenness” was somehow a giant, personal failure.
Eventually, however, a plucky resolve emerged and Shannon refused to take one doctor’s prognosis as absolute. She researched everything she could on infertility, from both traditional and nontraditional perspectives, sought alternative treatments, shored up her faith, changed her diet, and, in some ways, her lifestyle to accommodate the gift she knew would one day arrive. She considered that it may be through adoption or foster care, recognizing that sometimes what seems like an elusive dream requires only a reconfiguration, a willingness to trust in an unknown master plan. And from her sadness and despair, and a generosity that could never be swamped by either, she created a blog (infertilityawakening.com), a place where women facing a similar struggle could find comfort and communion. By sharing her own experiences, and a wealth of resources, she is not only inspiring others as they continue piecing together their shattered lives but healing her own tender, and occasionally still defeated, heart.
Our mutual friend Jennifer would call this journey one of being broken open. Last fall, Jennifer lost her mother to a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s. For years, her life had revolved around her mother’s care, and her father’s, too, as he remained devotedly attentive to his wife’s every need. My friend was a strong, efficient caregiver, the one who helped to navigate doctors’ visits and medication changes, frequently flying out to Chicago to be with her mom, and holding it together for everyone else. I imagine we never really know how we will handle the loss of a loved one until it happens, even if, as in Jennifer’s case, we are given months to prepare.
But I have been amazed at how she has entered this deep space of grief. Where she had moved on autopilot for so long, the tending of her mother a priority that allowed little space for her own vulnerability, she has been determinedly peeling back the layers of her sorrow. A few weeks ago, she surprised herself by joining a bereavement group specifically for women who have lost their mothers, an admitted risk for someone usually more guarded with her emotions.
Jennifer could have shut down and shut others out. She could have buried herself in her job, resumed her life with a false semblance of normalcy, while perhaps chasing after anything that would fill this staggering void. But somehow she’s seized an exquisite wisdom, recognized that she is being broken open — instead of down or apart — to create a new vision for her life. She is reassessing what’s important to her, retrieving those parts of herself neglected in the long years of caring for her mom, asking herself big questions and testing a freedom that sometimes feels frighteningly foreign.
My friends may stumble along the way, have days when it’s simply easier to stay in bed. They may quietly curl into their pain or succumb to a burning anger. But through it all, they continue to love, to give, to dream — to prove that courage at its mightiest can be a single, daily commitment to make peace with what we are given, while leaning into the unknown with a flickering hope in our hands.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times