It is in the small things we see it.
The child’s first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone…
if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner,
you did it with only a hat to
cover your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there.
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing…
(From “Courage,” by Anne Sexton, In: The Awful Rowing Toward God, 1975)
Imagine a shiny quarter. On one side, the word “cancer,” and on the other, “courage.” Search the internet, and cancer and courage are inextricably linked in hundreds of blogs, articles, and books, the stories of men and women whose bravery and tenacity in the face of life-threatening illness humbles each of us. I doubt you need to look beyond your neighborhood or community to name more than one courageous cancer survivor, someone whose bravery in the face of a life-threatening illness has inspired you. It’s a reminder of how prevalent and pervasive cancer is in our modern-day lives. As I prepare to begin another expressive writing series at Scripps Green Cancer Center tomorrow, I remember other workshops and the faces of many who have survived and those whose lives were lost to cancer. What they all share in common is courage, strength they find in themselves in the face of a life threatening disease.
I remember one of the writers in my Scripps group of several years ago. Diagnosed with breast cancer, G. first attended an afternoon workshop I led at another San Diego cancer center in 2008. A year or more passed before I met her again, but she signed up and attended the expressive writing program at Scripps. Her cancer had metastasized since our first encounter, but she demonstrated extraordinary determination and spirit. Her writing had changed too, gaining depth and expressiveness, touching the hearts of her listeners when she read aloud.
“Writing is a courageous act,” I routinely tell the men and women who attend my workshops. It requires we go deep into the unexplored regions of our own darkness, write honestly and authentically, and most importantly, that we tell the truth. In these writing groups, the need to impress with showy descriptions or rich vocabulary quickly evaporates. Cancer strips away all pretense. Whether experienced writers or not, courage is a necessary requirement of being diagnosed with cancer.
And so to G. As the workshop series progressed, so did her cancer. Little by little, the toll on her body was increasingly visible. As she began to struggle to attend the sessions, another group member volunteered to drive her when she could no longer operate a car on her own. When she lost the use of an arm, she brought a laptop and tapped out her stories with one hand. One morning, G. lost her balance and fell as she tried to take her place at the table. Several of us jumped up and rushed to her side, but she assured us she was fine, got to her feet, took her seat and opened her laptop to write. By the final session of the series, G. was forced to give up her apartment and move to assisted living. For the next several months, she was absent from the group. We dedicated our series booklet, a collection of the group’s writing, to her, fearing she would not survive the summer.
Shortly before the fall series began, I was surprised to receive an email from G. Wheelchair bound, she was now living in a nursing home, but she asked to participate in the group via email. “Yes!” I wrote back. We began, and weekly, she emailed her writing to me to share with the group. They, in turn, responded to her via email. Her writing was rarely more than a single paragraph, but her tenacity, honesty, and humor were as present as ever in her words. There was rarely a time everyone’s eyes didn’t tear up when I read aloud what she had written.
G’s courageousness is only one example of the courage I witness week after week among the men and women in my writing groups. Courage, defined in the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus (2004), is a quality that endures through difficult times, as G. so clearly showed us:
Courage is what makes someone capable of facing extreme danger and difficulty without retreating…it implies not only bravery and a dauntless spirit but the ability to endure in times of adversity. (p. 187)
Courage endures. It doesn’t retreat despite great difficulty or danger. When G.’s life began to ebb well over a year later, she was surrounded by many friends—women who had also known cancer and whose lives had been touched by her indomitable spirit. I have often wondered, if faced with the same hardship as G. or others in my groups, would I be as courageous?
This week, turn that shiny quarter over and explore the other side of cancer: courage. What does it mean to you? Have you discovered courage that you didn’t know you had? Is there someone whose courage has inspired you? Write about the the other “c” word: Courage.