I slept soundly. I was dreaming. A vibration churned inside every cell in my body. Still I did not wake. Glass crashed down, shattering on the floor. Still I did not wake. Wood splintered, snapping with a crack. Still I did not wake. A pounding slammed upon a wall. My name shouted out. My eyes flew open. I sat bolt upright on my powder blue futon. I was awake.
The voice called to me, “Get out of the house.” Everything shook around me, the sound of the walls groaning and snapping filled my ears. Lights flashed. “It’s an earthquake,” I thought. Pulling on my robe, I ran into the hallway. Orange reflected in the glass fronts on the picture frames lining the wall. My bare feet flew across the melting pink carpet beneath me. And then I was in the flames. Just for a moment, I passed through the red tongues of fire. Blindly, I landed on the slate before our front door.
Reaching for the handle, my lungs filled with hot liquid air. The light flickered all around me. Working the deadbolt with my right hand and the white-hot handle with my left, I was desperate to escape. I watched out of the corner of my eye as grey smoke sucked into my mouth.“Please,” I thought. “Please, let me out.” And then, “I’m going to pass out.” Another breath of cloudy air trickled into my mouth. My eyes fluttered, obscuring my vision, blackness pressing in. Just then, the deadbolt released and I ran again, screaming for help.
That voice from earlier pierced the night air. I could hear her calling my name again, in hysterics. My tender toes skimmed the dew covered April grass, flying to her. Her face, framed by a slim vertical window looked back at me, engulfed in panic. And then I saw the shadow of a tiny figure in her arms and I remembered. This was not a dream. Pieces of ceiling fell behind her, my mother with my baby niece in her arms.
No thought crossed my mind. My body moved of its own accord. Hands tearing into the cranked out, buckling, white window frame, I broke it off from its hinges. The screen was ripped out next. “Give her to me,” I demanded, and snatched the scrawny three year old from her arms. Eyes wide as saucers, the little brunette wrapped herself around my torso.
“Come on,” I shouted through the narrow opening. The blue eyes staring back at me were fixed in resolve. “I can’t fit, you have to get help.” So again, my feet, strong from years of rock climbing, raced back across the grass, then blacktop, then gravel, then blacktop, then concrete. All the while,my peanut hanging on for her life, shaking with fear.
Help came next and just as the house began to explode into five alarm flames, help saved the life of the woman who gave me life. I was the saved savior. Later, my name and hero were set down right next to each other. My name, and the words courage and bravery, forever linked. That small child getting to grow up because of a miracle, a force stronger than me.
That Spring night determined how I saw myself forever. What my mind defined as brave, as courageous. Coming of age, I’d been told to be strong and courageous on a daily basis. As a kid, it meant to me, doing something I didn’t want to or think I could do. As a sixteen year old, it meant preserving life.
Over the years, my courage manifested in many forms. Along the way, I saw faces of determination day after day. Everyone has a unique story, and learning them redefined my ideas of the tenacity within myself.
I started to ask, “What is the bravest thing you’ve ever done?” And they answered.
Sitting with my mother in her last days, at age twenty-five. – J age 42
Moving across the country (away from home for the first time) with a man I only knew for six months. – L age 25
I saved an injured kitten on the highway, after watching it be hit by a car. I brought him home and back to life. He lives with my sister’s boyfriend now. D age 25
The bravest thing I’ve ever done is raising children. – J age 38
I answered a Dead On Arrival call [as a firefighter] to someone I have known since I was born, and mustered the strength to not cry with the family. – N age 38
I told a close friend that I could no longer help or enable their alcoholism. – R age 36
Surviving rape by my uncle at age six, and going on to become an EMS and homeless services worker. I could’ve gone either way, but I helped instead of hurt. – Tage 40s
Giving birth was so scary. Getting divorced was a doozy. – M age 38
Getting married. – J age 60
Being strong for my wife and family during every one of my daughter’s open-heart surgeries. Courage came from crying in front of my parents because I was scared. – E age 38
Becoming a full-time caregiver and letting go of career dreams. [Knowing] When my caregiver duties end, someday I will have outdated skills, I will be too old to start over… – T age 40s
I woke up every morning…and did not take my own life even though I wanted to. I forgave the people who did me wrong even though they weren’t sorry. I was still kind to others even when my kindness was used as a weapon against me. I still loved… -L age 28
Leaving a salaried job to start my own little business. The bravest things I’ve done are the scariest and least comfortable. – J age 41
I walked 15 miles through Berlin in the middle of the night at age seventeen. I never thought about waiting… I just walked. – R age 30s
Marine Corps Boot Camp…all of it. – R age 38
Telling my Mom when someone started to molest me. The shame was terrible. – S age 50s
I found the ability to forgive those that wronged me as well as forgive myself for failing…And to learn from it to become the person I want to be. – S age 39
I trusted a 115lbs person with my life as I was rappelling down a cliff for the first time, while I had 40lbs of camera equipment on my back. – D age 36
I decided to quit rowing… It’s what my whole world had become and quitting was truly something I did for myself, going against what everyone else including family wanted me to do. S age 19
In 1969, I came upon a car accident in the dark. The car had flipped over and was on top of a young woman, crushing her throat. Another person and I lifted the car off of her and she lived. – R age 86
[Before] deploying to Afghanistan…I cried while writing my 2 year old daughter an “If I don’t come home” letter and hid it in her scrapbook. – K age 30s
When asked how to describe courage itself, someone said that it’s the willingness to do what is not required. Another said it means to stop worrying about what the world will think and start listening to yourself. Somebody else said that it is what you feel when you throw caution to the wind and go for it. It was described that bravery is wild and savage; it is the process of creating courage through overcoming fear. It’s said that bravery is doing the right thing.
Long after being labeled a hero as a result of following my instincts, I realize that there has been no one bravest thing I’ve ever done. Brave is different all the time.
I’m a grown up now, and I no longer sleep soundly. Yet, I still dream. I dream the dreams that do not catch fire into nightmares. I allow myself to live and love and dream, and that is courage to me. What is courage to you?