“Mommy,” our four-year-old daughter began, “When I grow up, I want to have breast cancer, too.”
I couldn’t blame her for making this statement. Amongst the pink ribbons and hundreds of people at our first Race for the Cure, she spoke with a childhood innocence that imagined cancer as a cause for celebration. As my wife, Heather, listened, she simply smiled and hugged our daughter. This small act of courage, like the many that she lives each day, sustain and nourish her. And, in turn, she sustains and nourishes our family. I believe in these small acts of courage.
Months earlier, after a lengthy first night in the hospital, her doctor greeted us with an invitation: “Heather, tell me your story.” She did. What followed spiraled from what we thought could have been something as simple as a bad case of the flu into a maelstrom of fear and confusion. Tumor. Metastasis. Radiation. Chemotherapy. As the steady stream of doctors, nurses, counselors, and, finally, family, poured into her room, Heather kept a calm demeanor and a steady tone, accepting no pity and leaving no question unasked. In our moments alone, as we hugged, wept, and cursed the universe, she quickly, boldly, turned her attention from “Why me?” to “What’s next?” She has continued to look forward since.
When Heather wakes each morning, she—like all of us—faces a number of short- and long-term challenges. What will I wear? What should I feed the kids for dinner? How can I be a good mom, and provide a happy and stable home? What she faces that many of us do not are a series of other questions complicated by her diagnosis. Will I catch a nasty bug if I volunteer at my daughter’s school? Will I be able to even eat, let alone cook, dinner tonight? Should I switch to the new chemo, with new side effects, or stick with the one I am on now?
She handles these daily tasks and extraordinary challenges with both grace and strength. Taking pills each day when before she hated to chew a multivitamin. Explaining to her co-workers that, when she takes time off, she sits in the cancer center, getting heavy doses of poison to stave off her tumors. Choosing to do the chores of shopping, cleaning, and cooking, when her muscles ache, her joints are stiff, and she has had enough chemo to rightfully want to stay in bed for a week. Heather mothers our two children, a task that she finds soothing in its own way, forcing her to pay attention to runny noses, coloring books, and head scarf fashion shows in spite of her own worries.
Now, I know that there are heroes who take up the banner of courage and change the world through political action, military prowess, or religious commitment. And we should celebrate them. Yet, there are so many others, like Heather, who live each day, each moment, choosing to suppress fear and engage in the small acts of courage that become the thread of their being. They deserve our congratulations, too.
Just beyond the finish line, as Heather embraced our daughter, I knew that there would be time for tears, for explanations, later. At that moment, like so many moments before and since, Heather’s small act of courage focused on our daughter’s need to be loved. To be heard. To be a child, wrapped in the warm embrace of her mother’s courage, far away from any other worry.