How Letting Go of Worry Made Me Courageous, and a Survivor

I come from a line of strong women, who faced courageous battles like single parenthood, and cancer. But the biggest battle I’d ever seen fought by a woman in our family, was the one my grandma fought nearly every day of her life.

Grandma was struck with polio at the age of eleven. Even though she never had use of her legs, she managed to have a great life. She celebrated childhood (from what I’ve been told), married, raised five children, and helped raise me.

Grandma was strength and courage, resilience and grace. She could bake, cook, pull herself across a floor, and even swim the length of a pool. Her physical abilities never ceased to amaze me. But what amazed me more than her powerful arms was her ability to stay courageous in the face of danger.

One summer day, my dad took our family on a drive. We stopped at a park, and as I played on the swings, my grandma sat in the front seat of the car, door open wide, legs dangling in the sun.

A large German shepherd bounded across the grass, headed straight towards Grandma. It was too late for her to lift her legs and pull the door closed. The German shepherd was upon her, grabbing her flesh between his teeth.

I remember Grandma’s face right before that bite, how surprised she looked. Surprised, but never scared.

Grandma’s courage showed up again a few years later. While my mom and dad were out for the night, wild winds blew through our small town. Hail pounded on the roof. The sky turned green.

I clung to Grandma’s fleshy arm as she held my little brother in her lap. I began to sob. “I’m scared,” I said.

“There’s nothing to worry about. This, too, will pass.” Grandma said in a calm, even tone.

The storm increased in intensity. Winds blew harder. Branches snapped. The lights went out. Grandma picked up a pillow and handed it to me.

“Take your brother to the basement,” she said.

I knew Grandma couldn’t go with us. Her legs couldn’t carry her, and I couldn’t help. But I also knew I could never leave her alone.

I looked into her deep, dark eyes, the ones that matched my own. She was brave and strong, nothing like me. But she was everything I wanted to be. I stood up tall, and for the first time, I defied her. “I’m staying with you,” I said.

She smiled, and pulled me close. I stood next to the wheelchair, arms wrapped around her neck, my brother’s head close to her chest. She sang and told stories as the storm whipped around us. The storm damaged a lot that night, but inside, we were safe, secure, in the arms of a grandma.

Grandma passed many years ago. I was with her as she took her last breath. As her eyes closed for the very last time, they met mine, and inside, I swear she held a secret.

I’d always wondered about her secret, how she stayed so strong, how she always seemed brave, and wondered why I couldn’t be the same way. I’d never asked her, and she never told me. I think it was one of those life lessons she wanted me to learn. One day I would.

Over the years, I faced many battles. Threatened with cancer, and been the victim of a brain injury. Because of my grandma, I am here. Because of her secrets.

I looked for those secrets for a long time, tried to find strength and courage, but it wasn’t until I had a brain injury that it began to make sense.

The injury caused me to worry, more than I ever had. I used to worry about others, but after the accident, I worried about me. I worried about never getting better, and getting better but not being the same. I worried about being reinjured, about my brain failing, and pains that never went away. I worried about every little scratch and ding on my body.

One day, in the throes of worry, I realized something. Worrying wasn’t making me better. In fact, it seemed to be making me worse. Over time, I began to let go of worry.

A funny thing happened as worry went away. I became stronger. And when I got stronger, confidence arrived. With confidence came less fear, and with less fear, I found courage.

And then I got it.

Courage wasn’t about fear. Courage was about not worrying. Courage was faith. And faith was something Grandma always had.

I guess Grandma had to learn a lot about faith when she was little, when a disease removed the use of her legs. She learned to trust others when she was carried from a burning building, and learned to have faith when wheeled across a busy street. Because she had faith, she didn’t worry, and because she didn’t worry, she was strong and courageous.

Worry was pointless. It was better to be brave.

Because of my grandma, I am here today. No longer a victim, only a survivor. I have let go of worry, and I can tell you, it has truly let go of me.

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The Little Girl with Red Hair and What She Taught Me about Courage

I was five when my parents and I moved into our new home, a large bungalow on a quiet suburban street. My mom and I stood on the front lawn, taking in our new surroundings. Our next door neighbor walked over and introduced herself. Holding her hand was a little girl with long red hair, and a quiet, confident personality.

“This is Jean,” said her mom.

I hid behind my mom’s legs, clutching her trousers until my mom pried my fingers loose and made me say, “Hi.”

Our friendship was initially forced on us, but it didn’t long for us to become best friends. Jean became my confidant, the keeper of my secrets, the one who knew my every dream. We read the same books, played the same games, sometimes even inventing our own. We played dolls, built houses out of large cardboard boxes, threw Frisbees, rode bikes to the beach, and created many (often failed) concoctions in the kitchen.

But as much fun as we had together, Jean and I were completely different.

Jean could cut a worm in two, watch both parts squiggle across a hot sidewalk while she gave her scientific explanation as to why this worked. I sat by and watched, horrified and disgusted, trying hard to be brave like my friend. But I never was.

Jean had a bravery I didn’t know. Perhaps it came from being the youngest of many children, a kind of survival technique, or maybe it was because most of her older siblings were brothers, and she learned bravery from them. But whatever it was, compared to her, I was a pampered little girl, devoid of any courage.

Jean taught me my first lessons in bravery. She taught me to wear scars like badges of honor. Once I skinned my knee, and when I started to whimper, she said, “Don’t cry.” And I didn’t. I didn’t even cry the summer I stepped on a bee, or the time I stood on a pile of hot coals.

One summer Jean sat on her front lawn, holding a saltine cracker smothered in peanut butter. She stretched out her hand, waiting for a little gray squirrel to snatch the cracker from her fingers. I think Jean was afraid, but never once was she not courageous.

She was even brave the day her family was taking her on vacation. I clung to her, afraid to let her go, afraid we’d never see each other again. As she got into the station wagon, she looked back at me, and with tears streaming down her freckled cheeks, waved goodbye.

I learned a lot from the little girl with long red hair, that even in the face of fear, we can be courageous. That if you let fear lead your life, you will never truly live.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t met her. I wonder if I would have fought my fears the way I did, if I would have survived traumas, an auto accident, and a brain injury.

Through each event I was afraid, yet I had learned to move ahead anyway, to fight my fears with courage. All because of a little girl with long red hair.

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