Nelson Mandela spoke the famous words, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
Until recently, these were just words to me. I appreciated their sentiment and acknowledged their vast significance in context, but had no way of contextualizing it for myself. Conquering fear was just a metaphor for “sucking it up” and getting things done. My revelation came on March 6th, 2013.
I drove the hundred miles that separated me from my parents late March 5th. I went into a dark house with only a faint light flickering in my parent’s room from their TV. My mom lay in bed, hand over belly, trying to sleep while Nettie snuggled next to her with one arm around her.
“Hi Colie.” She whispered, “Want to lay with us?”
I joked that I wanted everyone to keep rolling over until the bed was all mine—a reference to a song my mom would sing us “Ten in the bed and the little one said, ‘Roll over. Roll over.’ So they all roll over and one fell off.” The four of us daughters often piled into bed with my parents. Their California king was barely big enough, so we’d cuddle up to one another and it would be perfect.
I cuddled into bed next to Nettie, my arm over her, hand touching mom. We slept like this until my Dad came home, and then Nettie went to her house and I sleepily wandered over to the guest bed. At this point we had thought my mom had a terrible bacterial infection, though no antibiotics seemed to relieve her awful nausea or stomach pain. The next day we would be taking her to the gastroenterologist for her fateful colonoscopy.
March 6th, I woke up in a sweaty jolt. I ran to my parent’s room, my mom and dad were ready to go.
“How did you sleep, Mami?” I asked hopefully.
“It wasn’t a great night, Kiki. But I’m okay.”
My Dad drove my Mom, and I went separately so that my Dad could leave for work on time during the appointment. My stomach, perhaps in sympathy, growled and groaned. They called her in. The Today Show was on TV and I remember feeling upset—specifically at Hoda for no valid reason—that life was so normal around the world, when my life felt in such disarray.
In the blink of an eye, my Dad had to leave for work, he paused as if his whole heart were telling him to stay, but I assured him she was in good hands. Not long after, they called for me to come see her. The nurse handed me a paper, and in few words told me to wait for the doctor. The paper read “Refer to gastric surgeon.”
Though she could barely sit up from drowsiness, she held herself upright as the doctor gave us the news of a malignant tumor. He told me “there is no reason to think that we can’t just cut this tumor out and cure her.” I held my mom and looked her in the eye. “We’ll fix this Mami, don’t worry! We’re okay.”
That was when I learned that we can all be brave. That Nelson Mandela had struggled through things that I could not imagine, but now my family was going through something of our own, and we had to be brave, just the same. I learned that bravery and courage do not only come from conquering fear, though. Bravery comes from an overabundance of love. Because in those moments, looking at my mom and trying to imagine what she was thinking, I felt this all-encompassing desire to hold her in my arms and kiss her forehead, and tell her that I would carry the weight of the world for her. The weight of the world was nothing compared to the weight of my heart. I would be brave because she needed me.
She taught me that fear is weak in comparison to love. Fear is conquerable. Bravery is easy if you have ever felt that amount of love.