Lately, I've been thinking a lot about courage. Dictionary.com defines courage as a trait that "permits one to face extreme dangers and difficulties without fear." It is the ability to do something that frightens one; it is strength in the face of pain or grief.
Courage is the valor of a soldier at war. It is the young mother who tearfully prays over her seriously ill baby. It is the grade schooler who stands up to the playground bully, and the devoted caregiver whose spouse has Alzheimer's disease.
For my family, courage has taken on a whole new meaning, and it is reflected in the face of my niece. Tara is in the fight of her life against liver cancer, metastasized from breast cancer she battled two years ago. It is, the doctors euphemistically say, "incurable but treatable."
At 34, Tara should be in her prime. She should be at the top of her game. Instead, she endures the weekly toxic cocktails of chemotherapy. Once again, she is nauseous, tired and weak, and moves like someone much older. For the second time in as many years, she has lost her hair.
When she was diagnosed in April, I felt sadness and an anger that came as a surprise. My petulant inner child screamed, "But it's not fair!" while the adult soberly countered, "No one ever said life was fair." Tara never did anything to deserve this, but misfortune is a fact of life and it surely strikes everyone, in one way or another, at one time or another.
Fiercely independent, she lived in another state for many years, but this second round with cancer convinced her she needed to come back to her Western New York roots. Now that she is here, we've had the chance to spend time with her and witness her quiet courage.
Recently, I accompanied her to her chemotherapy appointment at Roswell Park Cancer Institute's Amherst center. Within the facility, a handful of patients watched TV, read or softly talked with family members. The tranquility and peacefulness was surprising, given the life-and-death war being waged there.
The nurses have all come to know Tara, and each one stopped by to greet her. "You look wonderful," one said brightly. Tara beamed beneath the bandanna tied around her head, then struck up a conversation about the drugs being pumped into the catheter in her chest.
She has become an expert on chemotherapy, and can easily recite the names of the various medications she's been on -- Taxol, Avastin, Adriamycin, Cytoxan, Neulasta. Her world is filled with CT and bone scans, blood work and doctor's appointments. She endures frequent needle sticks and an army of tests. She has every right to be angry and bitter.
But she isn't. And that's where her courage really shows. In this most desperate of battles, she is optimistic, and she smiles easily because she has hope.
As a family, we have come together to give Tara the support she needs, and in return she has given us this tender message: Never give up, even in the most dire of circumstances; fight the good fight.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do."
My niece has looked fear in the face and refuses to let it overcome her spirit, and that is the truest meaning of courage.