I’ve been pondering the nature of courage lately, and I keep thinking about something that happened at our house on an autumn night some years ago.
We were having a bonfire, probably for no other reason than it was a nice night for it, and my cousin Marty came over with his two girls. There were about twenty people, but I can’t recall who any of the others were. Marty’s wife, Wendy, had stayed home with the baby. We’ve been friends since high school, so I was disappointed we wouldn’t have the chance to catch up, but such is life.
We’d eaten hot dogs and scorched most of the marshmallows, and the grownups were sitting around warming themselves and chatting idly. The kids were all playing a game of tag, or hide and seek, or something. I wasn’t paying much attention, except to tell them to get back if the running and leaping brought one of them too close to the fire.
Then we heard the shriek. There had been a lot of shrieking — there was a pack of kids running wild — but this one was different. This one made your knees go liquid. It was the sound of a kid who was hurt. Scared hurt.
It was Marty’s younger daughter, Heidi. She was four. She’d been running toward the property line, seen a tree, and darted behind it, or tried to. Instead of behind the tree, hiding, she found herself flat on her back, and with a terrible pain on the left side of her face. She came running back toward the fire, screaming, and every adult heart there sank about a mile.
It looked so bad. There was blood streaming down her face, and I was honestly afraid she’d lost an eye. We didn’t have kids at the time, and I didn’t have any real experience with the way head wounds bleed. Her dad picked her up and ran for the house, and I ran for the first aid box. We sat her on a chair in the kitchen and tried to get a look at the damage. Both of us were worried, and maintaining a thin veneer of calm that wasn’t fooling anyone, especially Heidi.
“I wish my mom was here,” she sobbed, as I held gauze on her face.
“Oh, sweetie,” I said. “So do I. But it’s going to be okay.”
I had no idea if this was true, but what was I supposed to say? I wasn’t lying when I said I wished her mom was there. A mom would actually know what to do. (This sounds nice when you say it, but I have determined that it is bunk. I am a mom now and an alarming percentage of the time I am just guessing.)
The bleeding finally slowed enough that I got a good look at her eye, and I told Marty I was pretty sure it was only torn skin. He looked too, and thought that was probably right. It still looked awful, and she was going to have some mighty scabs, but both Marty and I felt calmer, if not exactly cheerful. Heidi’s tears had slowed along with the bloodflow, and she was sitting quietly, looking pale and scared. I hugged her, careful to avoid bumping the side of her face. “You are being so brave, sweetie,” I said. “SO brave.” Marty agreed. Then he got his older daughter and headed for home and mom.
We pieced together what must have happened. At that time, there was a single line of barbed wire along our property line. There weren’t cows in the backyard, but if they got out of their pasture somehow, that one line of fence was another bit of deterrent keeping them off the neighbor’s property. Heidi, rounding the big tree trunk to hide, hit the wire at exactly eye level. I will never stop being thankful that the barbs scraped the skin around her socket and avoided the surface of her eye.
I talked to Marty and Wendy the next day. They’d gotten her checked at the ER that night, because eyes are not something to fool around with, and she was going to be fine. No eye damage. Impressive scrapes, but they’d heal. The barbed wire, I told them, was being replaced by a single strand of smooth polywire more or less right that minute.
Marty said that he’d told Heidi again as they loaded into the truck that he knew it was scary and she wanted Mom, and he was so proud of how brave she was. She was quiet most of the way, but spoke up as they approached home.
“Dad?” she said.
“I … I wasn’t really brave. I was just pretending.”
Oh, sweet girl, I thought. That is what being brave is. It is being scared and doing it anyway.
It’s been more than ten years since that night — Heidi is almost old enough to drive a car now — and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve returned to this. A tiny voice in the backseat in the dark, dropping an adage to live by.
I am not very brave. I am often anxious and sometimes confused and frequently terrified everyone will figure out that I have no idea what I’m doing. But if Heidi, at four, could manage it, I always decide I can too.
Okay, I say, so you can’t be brave. You can pretend.
So far, it’s always enough.