Friday, June 14, 2013

In Search of Bravery

Resounding in my head are those same familiar words, “You are so brave.”
I feel the doctor’s hand on my arm.  An oxygen mask is being placed over my face, muffling the voices in the room. I see the doctor’s lips moving and the syringe, milky white with medicine, poised over the IV port on my left hand.  I pray a quick prayer for my children. Again, I hear the words, “You are so brave.”
The sound snatches me back to reality. Ugh, what horrible aching in the back of my head.
Darkness fills the room, a face is nearby. I hear words. Muffled words I don’t recognize.  Damn my head hurts. I try to speak, unable to make my voice come out. Tears roll down my cheeks, yet I can’t move my arms to wipe them away. I can’t move my neck to either side, so they puddle there, beneath the oxygen mask.  I hear the words again in my head, “You are so brave.”
Now, five months later, watching a news report about a “brave” little girl who just received a double lung transplant, the report says the ominous words, “She is so brave.”  Immediately, I take issue with the comment, my suppressed rage surfacing.  At the television screen I blurt the words, “No she isn’t! She didn’t have a choice! That is not bravery! That is necessity! That is survival!”
I quickly Google the ominous word. gives me the following definition:  Bravery: 1. “possessing or exhibiting courage or courageous endurance”. Upon reading this, I cross-reference courage: “the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear; bravery”. Aha!  I’m right…!
Don’t get me wrong. I am not minimizing the tragic life of this little girl. In no way do I wish to minimize her struggle or her resilient story. My issue is more personal. My issue is rooted in my own experience. Earlier this year, I had brain surgery. Last year, I was diagnosed with a rare brain disorder, Chiari Malformation Type 1. Within ten minutes of getting the diagnosis, the wonderful world wide web had secured in my mind the scary reality that I faced brain surgery.
The weeks and months that followed are a blur of doctors’ appointments, MRI’s, lumbar punctures, dizzy spells and headaches. There were also many comments or referrals to my courage, to my bravery. People actually commented on how “strong” I was.  I remember thinking, “Really? All the while, I just forced a smile on my face, saying nothing to these comments. 
People need a way to comfort others. I understand this. I know they meant no harm. I may seem callous or cold for taking this stance against the misuse of the word “bravery”. My intention is not to be argumentative. My intention is to give bravery, and those worthy of the label their due respect. Bravery is a young boy joining the U. S. Army, choosing the Infantry, knowing he will be sent to Afghanistan to face possible death. Bravery is a firefighter charging into a burning building to save a stranger. Bravery is a regular person stopping a robbery. Bravery is a son standing up to his father saying, “You will not hurt my mother any longer.” 
Double lung transplants, brain surgeries and chemo treatments…these are not the makers of brave people. These ordeals, events, illnesses…these breed survivors, survivors with no choice other than to press forward, to work the plan, to give in to the process. Many, possibly all, having no interest in becoming another lab rat of the medical community or their names added to the prayer list of every local church, or fundraisers held in their honor.  No option was given to not participate. Participation was thrust upon them.
Call me a fighter, call me a survivor, or call me a winner. I’ll even take the label of resilient or long suffering. Just please, I beg of you, when it comes to my weird brain thing-don’t call me brave. 
Bravery doesn’t cry in the night while the rest of the world sleeps. Bravery doesn’t snivel and cower its head, apologizing for being such a burden on others. Bravery doesn’t scream, “Get me out of this MRI machine, I can’t take it anymore”. Bravery isn’t lost on the unwilling, unconscious choices of victims.
Bravery does face a jury and say, “He raped me.” Bravery does lead police officers into bad neighborhoods to rescue the innocent. Bravery does risk everything to escape from an abusive husband. These things bravery is made of. Bravery combats fear, and beats it to a bloody pulp.
Have I been brave? Oh yes, I know I have. I have brave moments no one will ever see. Moments I know I showed courage. I just submit that facing, undergoing and surviving brain surgery was not the work of my bravado. Having Chiari was not my choice. I am not brave in that respect.
Sometimes I’m ashamed of my weakness. Chiari weakened my spirit. I felt it, but could not stop it. I felt my self-worth, self-esteem and self-respect slowly drifting away from me. I gave in to the process of surgery, healing and recovery.  I became victimized and depressed. I felt alone and abandoned. I felt anything but brave.
Now, five months into recovery, as health and normalcy slowly return, I am repulsed by my previous weakness, my sadness, my despair. I’m embarrassed by the tears I shed and the time I wasted being angry with my body for being so flawed. In my mind the words of many people reverberate, “You are so brave.”  I think of this and I just want to throw up. “If they only knew,” I think, “If they only knew”
This obvious lack of control, lack of bravery, lack of courage has spurred me on.  Propelled into a realm of wanting to live up to the brand, I want to be brave. Visibly brave. Undeniably,  courageously brave. Not just a survivor of life. At the end of my life I don’t want to get a participation ribbon with the rest of my team. I want to be deemed a worthy contender. I want to win first place. Okay, I’ll settle for being in the top three.
 What brave thing can I do?  I am a middle –aged  grandmother living in Central Texas. I’m a registered nurse, but I checked  and I’m too old to join the military. Besides, with my medical history, I’d never get in.
Awake in the middle of the night, I’m looking at my new husband. Bravery exudes from him He is a total Boy Scout. His resume boasts military service, commercial airline pilot, former FFDO (Federal Flight Deck Officer), production test pilot. He is proficient with a firearm, or with any firearm for that matter.  I starkly compare myself with him. I’m a sniveling victim of a brain disorder. I possess a permit to carry a concealed weapon, but secretly hope he will be with me should I ever need to use it. He is brave. I am not. I am scared to be brave. I am afraid to choose bravery. I am anything but fearless.
Then, I make a decision. 
The next morning I approach the topic with him.  I want to become a pilot. We’ve talked about this before, but I had little resolve or real intent. I mean, my gosh. Flying scared the hell out of me. I pray every time I take off on a commercial flight, with every bump of turbulence and with every landing. I realize this is a choice. I realize in order to do this I must be brave. I’m not running into a burning building…but this is my own brand of bravery, mastering my will, conquering my fear.
A plan evolves. Once I am flying independently, I will make a cross –country flight to raise awareness of my disorder.  Zipper Flight (the scars of Chiari decompression surgery resemble zippers in the back of the head) will be the name of this journey. I will be brave for not only myself, but for every person fighting this disorder and for the countless lives lost in the battle.  Completion of this will deem me “brave”.  I now crave braveness like once craved chocolate.
On the morning of my first flight lesson, I’m shaking in my boots. I stand   in the office of the flight school with my headset, log book and flight bag. I know there is no way I’m getting in that airplane. Not today…not ever.  My instructor is running late. I look out over the ramp. I feel nauseous. What was I thinking? I’m not this person, I’m not brave. I’m okay with being a victim, really, I am.  Then I get a text from a friend that just had Chiari surgery. Chiari is destroying her life. She’s losing her job, her health insurance, facing second brain surgery. She’s thanking me for what I’m doing to raise awareness. Damn it!   I take a few deep breaths, go to the ladies room and splash water on my face.  I look in the mirror. I find some resolve. I scrape together a few bits of courage, squelch down the fear and  head  back out. 
Next thing I know I’m on the ramp next to the plane. My instructor is talking. My husband  is there to cheer me on. I want to run.  I make a choice. I get in the plane. I put on my headset. I fly.
I did it. I won. I know upon landing I never want to be that afraid again. I also know that if I am that afraid, I can conquer it. I tremble for the most part of the day. My fear almost won.  I keep thinking I may have made a mistake, I may not be able to fly. It’s too freaking scary. I re-live the moments of the lesson: getting into the plane, turbulence, feeling sick, feeling trapped, wanting  to get out, knowing I’m trapped in that little plane, the beauty of being up there, the magic of  flight, how blessed I am to be able to do this…
 Then I do something brave, I ask my husband to schedule my next lesson.  He did. The next lesson was not as scary, though I still had to coerce myself into the plane and had scary times with the controls.  But, I was brave. I chose to face fear. I’m proud of myself. 
My lessons will continue, as will my recovery. I will bravely pursue flying and I will give in to the process of Chiari. I may even  send a note of encouragement to the little girl with the double lung transplant. I won’t say she’s a brave little girl. I’ll say I hope she feels better soon. I’ll say I’m sorry she has been so sick. I’ll say I know the IV’s hurt and that the medicine tastes bad. I’ll say I want it to not be so hard.  I’ll say I know what it’s like to feel bad every single day.
 But brave, brave I will not say.
I won’t say it because she isn’t being brave. She is surviving, I refuse to insult her or diminish her struggle for life, her struggle just to breathe.
I will say that one day she will be well. One day she will have the choice of living in fear or showing courage.  I will tell her when this day comes, to be brave. I hope she will understand.
A still, small voice inside of me says that she will.  


  1. Awesome post! I probably shouldn't have read this post at work, I actually teared up a bit. I don't know if you meant for it to be such an emotional piece but it was, at least for me. It seems like I've been much more "emotional" since the surgery. Don't tell anyone, they might make me turn in my man-card. I hope you continue to feel better - Dave

  2. Thanks Dave..Your comments always spur me on to be a better writer. You keep that man-card. If anyone shows up to take it, just show 'em your zipper, they will back down. If they don't, give me a call. I've got your back.-M