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Non Fiction

Courage - A Life Well Lived

Polly Frank

I have always believed that an act had to be extraordinary to be called courage. It has to be something that most people would not do. Like grabbing a person out of the path of a car. Or like showing no fear when faced with a gun-wielding intruder. Maybe I always equated it with a threat to oneís own life in order for a behavior to be courageous. It had to definitely be out of the ordinary. But perhaps that definition needs expanding.

I now believe courage can also be a quiet demonstration to the world of grace under difficult circumstances. Not instant, not epic, but in some way exemplary. It is one thing to continue living when tragedy strikes, but quite another to rise above circumstances and stand out.

When I was twenty-four, my husband was killed suddenly in an accident. I was thrown into a life I could not have imagined or prepared for. I did the best I could to raise my sixteen-month old daughter, Stacy, by myself and to go about living for the ten years I was a single parent. It was different from the life I had planned, but my daughter helped to give me focus, and I loved all the stages she went through as she grew. People told me they admired me for making a life and creating a warm and stable home for my daughter. They told me they couldnít do it, but I just smiled. I knew I was just doing what I had to do. Life can be hard, but that does not make it courageous.

Along the way, I faced many difficult decisions, but everyone does who raises a child. One decision concerned psychotherapy: Stacy exhibited some behaviors at home that were not normal. I believed therapy could help her, but neither set of grandparents was supportive; they saw a well-adjusted child who had lots of friends. Nonetheless, when my mother-in-law asked how she could help us financially, I suggested paying for our therapy, and she readily agreed. Looking back, perhaps it was courageous of me to stick to my decision when it was not supported, but I just remember feeling alone and longing for that support.

I have also known the fear of death. In 2005, my second husband, Jerry, age 66, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, subtype mantle cell, stage IV. Everything we read said that he would live only three to five years. I was afraid for myself because I felt inadequate to care for him and because I didnít want to be left alone. I wanted to be near my daughter, three hundred miles away, for mutual help and support. She had an infant and health problems of her own.

I began to urge Jerry to make the move we had been planning for years. He was retired and I had a job I would love to leave behind.

It was different for him, however. He had a close friend who had had a serious heart attack. They supported each other and Jerry didnít want to leave. He also loved and trusted his oncologist. His unwillingness to consider the move became a source of conflict between us. We were living in the Virginia countryside, on twelve acres in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I accused him of not caring, envisioning myself left with a log home I could not possibly maintain.

He was not ready until his friend had a fatal heart attack. By that time, Jerry was a six-year survivor, two and a half years into his second remission. Ten months later we sold our house and moved closer to our daughter. Jerry is still in remission and is now a ten-year survivor who has been released from future checkups. In essence, he is cured.

I look back on those years preferring to remember the support I gave him in understanding and fighting his disease, rather than the struggle to get him to do what I thought was best for us. I am grateful for his survival, but it does not feel like courage to me.

A few months ago a friend in his mid-60s died after a year-long struggle with pulmonary fibrosis. I believe one can define courage by the way he and his wife lived that year. I donít believe they consciously planned it that way, but the result was exemplary. In this case, they chose to live an ordinary life; they kept on keeping on, despite knowing his disease was terminal. They went on outings and various social events. They traveled to visit family. They socialized a lot. Barry would sit in a chair and talk to people while Mary Lou visited with others. It was the way they went on living, not complaining, just living, right up to the end, that amazed me. It made all of their friends feel better: he couldnít really be that bad off, could he, if he was out so much? His death was a shock to us because we continued to hope, long after Barry and Mary Lou knew there was no hope.

So perhaps it was their plan to allow us to care for them by being so accessible to us. Early on, a relative initiated a fundraising effort online because the drugs Barry needed would be prohibitively expensive. Many of us made donations, bought T-shirts, and took pictures of ourselves wearing the shirts when the relative requested it. Mary Lou was so grateful for our support. Grace is the word that comes to mind. She was never too proud to admit she needed us.

Now I want to laud their efforts, to sing out to the world, ďYes! There are people who know what it means to have a life well lived.Ē Maybe the key here is attitude - how you adapt to your situation; how your behavior affects those you see regularly. They exhibited a generosity of spirit that was impressive to all.

Mary Lou will tell you that Barry socialized so much to please her, to take care of her, because that was what she wanted. He made that choice for her while he still could. I heard that he was pushing himself to do things and he would collapse when he got home. For whatever reason he did go out, and I know I was always amazed to see him.

What I also know is that Barry gave people the opportunity to show him they cared. They didnít have to go to his house and sit around his bedside; he came to them. He has a lot of friends who are mourning him now, but they are also filled with warm memories of a man who went out with grace and style.

That took courage.

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