Last fall, I entered an essay contest that asked the question, “What’s the bravest thing you ever did?” I thought long and hard about the question and how it fit into the events of my life. I though about cancer. I thought about education and career and choices about friendship and family. But I kept coming back to love. The courage it takes to put yourself at the mercy of another’s affection and commitment and fearlessly leave it all on the table. And to get up, to get back in the game, to truly make yourself vulnerable again when love has broken you…is there anything braver? Or more worth the risk?
I thought I’d share my submission with you guys…cuz why not? If I’m going to write about bravery, I should at least have enough courage to share the writing, right?
The Bravest Thing I Ever Did
I found it. But then I lost it.
987 days before I stumbled across it again, give or take a few hours.
I found it and it was good. Really good. So good that it was real. So good that it was imperfect and quiet and filled me with contentment so deep that I was sure it reached into places that had formerly been closed to the public. Had formerly been closed even to me.
It was so good that it was able to introduce me to versions of myself I’d never met before. Versions I didn’t know could exist. Versions I hadn’t even thought to aspire to. Versions that took my breath away simply by the shadow of their possibility.
One me hitchhiked to California. She soaked in the mist of Yosemite Falls and rested in the shadow of a great Sequoia. Another read aloud by candlelight from the dog-eared pages of a tattered anthology, singing a Song of Myself and a Song of Nature and secretly suspected that the universe did indeed care when she announced, “Sir, I exist!”
One ran a river in the grandest of canyons while another nestled into a sense of home that she’d scarcely dared dream of.
Yet another took his hand in hers and believed. Believed she could trust. Believed it could last. Believed it was so good and so real that we could build a life around it. Together.
So a question was asked and plans were made. A white dress bought. Friends invited.
But then I lost it.
I’m not sure where it went. His toes got icy and then it was just suddenly and inexplicably and irretrievably and devastatingly gone.
I was shattered. And each of those tiny secret places that had formerly been closed to the public caved in. Where once oxygen had entered and carbon dioxide departed, a polluted sludge crept and choked.
The shadows of possibilities became ghosts. Those versions of myself retreated. I was left with only a me that was eggshell thin and cracked at the edges. And I was afraid that he’d taken the others with him when he left. That I’d never be able to find them again. That they’d gone.
At first there was nothing but a burning hole and choking mire. I walked and talked and slept and worked. I tried to eat, but the sludge was too thick and I couldn’t quite swallow. Each day I awoke, surprised to see that the world continued on its axis and had eeked out yet another day. One that I must walk and talk and sleep and work and attempt to breathe and swallow through.
Then came the beatings. That song- that stupid, reminder of a song- would play, followed by what was surely a steel-toed combat boot to the chest. I would stumble across his forgotten book tucked in among mine, and then the one-two double punch to my gut. The smell of woodsmoke. The whisper of a name. That circled date on the calendar. Kick. Punch. Punch. Kick.
The beatings will continue until morale improves.
They went on for awhile. When it seemed like the jackass with the combat boots had finally tired and was maybe, just maybe, moving on…wham. A friendly look or an offer of dinner or a misty rain just a bit too much like a long ago waterfall. Roundhouse kick to the temple. Every. damn. time.
So I began to flex my gut when I suspected a punch. And to duck when it looked like a kick. And I got good enough at the maneuvering that I was able to avoid the hits. Most of the time.
Good enough to begin to look for those versions of myself I’d met so briefly. I wondered if they only showed up where it lived, or if they might be found and talked into joining just me, alone, for a drink.
They took some hunting and I found them in the oddest places. Midway through a long run in the woods I noticed the singer of poetry trotting along beside me, smiling shyly even if she couldn’t recall every line. Suddenly sitting in the passenger seat as I crossed state lines was the hitchhiker. She had adventures on her mind.
I couldn’t find them all. Some were too wispy, too spectral to take form without it. They required just that combination of me, and him, and it to solidify into real potential. They were as gone as it was and I wove their loss into my grief.
While I was hunting, I ran into a few new versions. These girls wore a little more leather and had a few more tattoos. They didn’t take crap from anyone. And they certainly didn’t need it in order to show up. They came and went as they pleased.
But even with this new crowd around me and my improving flexing skills, sometimes a punch got through and would bring me to my knees all the faster for the utter surprise. I just continued to bob and weave as well as I could and got back-up from the new girls, a few of whom could give as well as she could get.
And so we went, these versions of myself and I. Dodging the occasional blow and tossing the occasional punch. Some of them never grew any more substantial than the shadow of her beginning. With a wistful wave, she’d float away and I just watched her go. Others grew darker and more detailed until she began to take a form that I could grasp by the hand. Some solidified enough for me to embrace fully and realize her potential. It was these girls who warned me loudest when a hit was imminent and who learned to keep me on my feet when one landed. Who applied the vaseline so the blows would just slide off.
Then, 987 days after I lost it, I stumbled across it again. Give or take a few hours.
I wasn’t looking for it, so I didn’t recognize it at first. It belonged to a new owner and I saw it flicker for a moment in his sweet smile.
Then suddenly the combat boots came out of hiding and stomped me to a pulp.
In the 987 days since I’d lost it, my cadre of selves and I had beefed up. We’d tussled with some big cats and come out on top. We’d muscled up to the demons of a long ago sexual assault and wrestled them, claws and all, to the ground. We’d waged war against cancer and grappled it into tentative surrender. We were honed. We were sharp. No lightweights here.
But it? It scared the shit out of us.
Some of the girls begged to run. You can’t beat this one, they whispered. You cannot force it to submit. They pulled me by the arm. They reminded me of the beatings, of the sludge, of the gaping, searing, hole left behind.
If you let it in, you will never, ever be safe. Ever.
Even if he stays. Even if it’s real. If you let it in, it will break you. Somehow. Someday. It. Will. Break. You.
Even if he stays. Even if it’s real. A careless driver or a ruthless disease or a change of heart. If you let it in, it will, someday, somehow, break you.
You will never, ever be safe. Ever.
I gathered my corps around me and we tightened our laces. We cracked our knuckles, stretched, and prepared to protect everything we’d learned. With a biting remark or defensive assumption or caustic sarcasm, we dug our earthworks in.
Fool me once, shame on you.
But out of the corner of my eye, I couldn’t help but notice some shadows dancing at the edge. Barely there. The faintest whisper. The merest suggestion of possibility.
The thinnest hints at other versions of myself, of my life, singing their siren’s song.
I had a choice of course. My girls and I knew what this was. We knew all about the combat boots and the sticking, choking sludge. We knew how it could, how it would, in some way and at some time, eventually leave us. Break open the hole. Break us.
We thought about maneuvering. We considered a dodge. We balled a fist and looked for an angle of attack. We turned away, tried to ignore those hazy spectres and their murmured promises, their softly sung reminders of home and what it is to be truly seen by another. We really tried.
But then we took a deep breath and we reached out, this messy, disheveled, contrary group of me, and reluctantly waved those opalescent shades of possibility in. We unclenched the fist, one stiff digit at a time, and extended our hand. Shaking in our very own set of boots, we welcomed him, welcomed it, into a life. Together.
987 days after I lost it, I found it again, give or take a few hours.