Wondrous is my favorite word. Its meaning is identical to wonderful but wondrous sounds fuller, its intention more poetic. To my ears, it implies even more splendor and surprise. Wondrous is how I describe the city I live in. Wondrous are the stories that hide behind faces we see every day, the ones we don’t stop for second thoughts.
N is one of those faces, an uncommonly beautiful, wide-eyed, willowy nurse with a ready smile and a welcoming personality, someone you would want by your bedside. N and I exchange pleasantries, when we cross paths most weeks, sometimes a small chat. I like her. The story behind her face has to do with two heart transplants she had to endure. Months and months spent in a hospital, weak and hopeful. We exchanged our stories briefly: some details poured out, a picture came to emerge.
“People would visit me in the hospital and would tell me I was brave because I seemed happy. But what choice did I have? I wasn’t being brave. I was simply dealing with what I had been dealt.”
I recognized that swagger. I felt exactly the same every time someone told me I was brave because I could talk about my cancer matter of fact; because I seemed somewhat intact.
“What choice do I have but to get on with it?” I would answer.
Bravery, to me, always implied a choice and the word was beginning to grate. I am not brave. A firefighter entering a burning building to save another person is brave. A soldier running through sniper fire to shield a comrade is brave. A child standing up to bullying is brave. A woman denouncing her rapist is brave. They all have a choice not to yet they do it because they feel, at heart, it is the right thing to do. Dealing with medical treatment is not a choice – the alternative leaves little room for maneuvering. Stop calling me brave.
N, and the story behind her beautiful and sunny face, gave me pause enough to re-evaluate bravery. I was compelled to look up the exact definition of brave which is “able to face and endure danger or pain” with a secondary (literary) meaning that lit me up “splendid, spectacular, admirable”.
In a lyrical piece in The Irish Times, Ruth Fitzmaurice writes about dealing with her husband’s motor neuron disease, which has left him completely immobile, and how she finds solace and the will to go on.
“My husband is a wonder to me but he is hard to find. I search for him in our home. He breathes through a pipe in his throat. He feels everything but cannot move a muscle. I lie on his chest counting mechanical breaths. I hold his hand but he doesn’t hold back. His darting eyes are the only windows left. I won’t stop searching. My soul demands it and so does his. Simon has motor neuron disease, but that’s not the dilemma, at least not today. Be brave.”
To be locked inside one’s body and mind requires enormous bravery to endure. To watch and care for and love such an individual without losing oneself also requires exceptional bravery.
Maybe the beauty of bravery is that it’s intrinsic to human nature, a by-product of our innate will to live and our ability to withstand whatever it is so we can go on. At different times in our lives, we will all be called to draw from our bravery – some more than others.
N, it turns out you were actually brave. It’s in the wondrous make-up of sentient beings, what helps us get through. If we can remember how those moments felt, how acceptance became easy and apply it consciously to other sticky areas of our lives, we might sail through more storms more intact.
Images by Kenny Scharf, whose work is currently on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles until May 22, 2016.