I was 27 years old when my daughter, my only child, Ellie, was born. It took years to conceive her, and then suddenly, on a pre-dawn Saturday morning, my water broke like the rainstorm that always arrives on days a meteorologist has confidently assured you, “Enjoy, folks. Today will be a sunny 70 degrees.” There were no signs Ellie would be a full three weeks early.
There was no packed bag. There was no gas in the car. I was down to two public-presentable maternity outfits. And the cute one was dirty. I was stunned to be so irrevocably out of time. I thought there would be weeks yet to locate the inner courage to properly and calmly and bravely bear a human life. Instead, I pulled wrinkled maternity jeans from the hamper and ran them through the dryer. My husband and I scraped toward the hospital on a quarter of a tank of gas and even less courage.
Labor contractions are big bullies. There is often no warning when they will hit you hardest, and once they begin in earnest, you are at their mercy. But that sort of unstoppable force can also be a kind of relief. There’s no thinking. There’s no planning. There’s just bearing. During birth, life leaks then shatters its way into the world, and you are the conduit through which it will pass. And it’s beautiful and joyful and terrifyingly unstoppable.
The next day, groggy and elated, I remember my husband telling me how brave I was during labor. I also remember looking at him like he had turned purple. This was not bravery, I thought. This was a matter of going on. A child ready to be born must be born. Bravery was something noble and solid that filled up a person from head to toe, that gleamed within like a warm, steady light. I was not brave. I was scared and tired and an absolute shaky mess of hormones and relief. I had even opted for the epidural.
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When Ellie turned three, I was rain-storm shocked again. This time, I found myself “single mom-ing” my life with her. Each day, I went to work, paid the bills, made the dinner, read the bed-time stories, drank too much coffee, and lay awake at night convinced at how royally I was screwing things up. Because I was always scared, I also believed that I was not really brave but simply acting, as I did in that delivery room, at the behest of life and doing my best to keep up and remember to breathe. Somehow, I had forgotten that bravery does not exist apart from the very fear that requires it to form, solidifying like a rock we sling against the darkness.
A few weeks ago and at eight years old, Ellie begged to have her ears pierced. At this, I caught my breath. I vividly remembered from my own childhood experience that ear piercing involves pain. My writer’s sense of imagery brought visions of needles. Sharp objects would make a space for themselves in her skin. I also knew she would be terrified once she sat in the chair, and the process began. So, I told her that maybe she should wait, that it was okay to take more time to gather up her courage if she wasn’t feeling brave enough right now.
But Ellie stepped into her own story like the heroine I want to be. “I’ve wanted to do this for a long time, Mommy, and I am really scared. But I can do it afraid.”
Already in the car from school pick-up, we rushed to the mall. I held Ellie’s hand, and quiet little tears fell down her cheeks. She squeezed her eyes shut. Her right hand shook in her lap while courage bloomed as two dainty studs in Ellie’s pink earlobes and caught slivers of the ceiling’s fluorescent light. Ellie smiled at her image in a mirror. I sucked in a gallon of air.
Ellie did it afraid.
What I have forgotten about courage, Ellie has reminded me. Courage is at its finest in the company of fear. Courage is at its most beautiful in the hands and heart of the underdog, of the grieving, of the single mom or dad, or in the brimming, tight-shut eyes and terrifically shaking hands of an eight year old kid. In his Narnia books, C.S. Lewis describes bravery in a passage I’ve often read and always forget to apply to my own life, “Peter did not feel very brave; indeed, he felt he was going to be sick. But that made no difference to what he had to do.” Thank God we don’t have to feel brave to be brave.
In a few weeks, Ellie can change out her first pair of earrings for another. I will take her to the shop where her ears were pierced. I will let her choose two shiny new pairs of earrings. I will help her slip them into the healed spaces opened up by both her fear and her courage, and I will watch her smile at the gleam she gives off in the mirror. Maybe, “doing it afraid” is the only kind of brave that matters.