• Sandra Thoma

The Myth of Bravery

Updated: Jul 24

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Except for cougars. Cougars will kill you. So will cancer.


My grandmother shoved aside her breakfast and grabbed my hand. Her fine, wrinkled fingers wrapped around mine. Sunlight moved across our nestled hands and warmed the yellow-flowered, vinyl tablecloth. I clasped my other hand on top of hers.

“You’ll survive this.” Her blue eyes held mine.

“I pray so, Gramma. The doctors say—”

“Can we go to the swimming hole, Mommy?” My four-year-old, Sierra, charged into the kitchen, bumped against my elbow, and snatched the uneaten remnant of waffle off my plate. She leaned on my arm and gave me an impish grin. Messy blond pigtails stuck out from her head.

“Go ask your sister if she wants to go.”

Sierra hopped through the opening between kitchen and living room, bounced onto the sofa, and clambered onto her sister's curled-up lap.

“Hey, watch it.” Gaela sat watching cartoons just around the corner from the dining room table. I watched her hold her sticky waffle out of the line of attack.

“Gaela, let’s go swimming!”

My grandmother patted my hand, then pushed away from the table and picked up the greasy-bacon plate and bottle of syrup. “If you gals go up there to the falls, you best watch out for cougars. Marsha had one go through her yard jus’ las’ week.”

Gaela pushed her sister off and they both hopped into the kitchen. “Are there cougars, Gramma?” Nine-year- old Gaela, led the charge.

Cougars felt like the least of my worries. “They need to get out and be kids, Gramma.” I stacked plates and carried them to the sink. “They haven’t gone anywhere except school and home in the last six months.” I rubbed my bald head.

Since I started chemotherapy to beat back whatever cancer remained in my body after the surgeons removed the tumor from my breast, our lives had revolved around doctor visits, school, work, and daycare. Every third Friday, after chemotherapy, Sierra had sat in bed beside me and read to me. Sometimes she had stroked my bald head. “Just rest, Mommy-no-hair,” she’d whisper. Gaela had sat quietly nearby reading. When I’d wake up, Gaele and Sierra would help me with meals and bits of housework. My daughters' shouts and laughter no longer carried from the swingset through the screen door, and their small feet no longer pounded a dolly-carrying path from the bedroom they shared to the kitchen.

Sierra hopped on one foot behind Gaela. “Are cougars at the swimming hole, Gramma? I don’t want no cougars.”

My grandmother's curved shoulders moved about the kitchen. “Gaela, gimme that jar of peanut butter, will ya? Your mama’s right. You gals get your swimmin’ suits. Gonna be a hot one today. And no, you two, cougars won’t come out in the heat of the day.”

“Yay, swimming!” Sierra sang. She danced across the kitchen linoleum and over the carpeted living room to the screened-in porch, where we slept when visiting my grandmother. Gaela busied herself, putting away butter and syrup, and wiping the table, before following Sierra.

My grandmother took a plate from my hand. “Leave the dishes. Now, what ain’t you telling me?” We stood at the kitchen sink, the shoulder of her petite frame rubbing my elbow.

“We made a mess, Gramma.” I took back the plate. “I’m done with chemo. The doctors want me to rest and my blood to recover. Next, there’s radiation. Then, I don’t know.”

I hated myself for the half-truth, but I lacked the capacity to explain probability, statistics, and maximum lifetime dosage.

She reached up, cupped my face with her hand, and studied me. “Don’t stay out in the sun too long today. And enjoy your girls.”

“If we ain’t back by lunch, send the ranger ’cause we probably got et by a cougar.” I chuckled, leaned over, and hugged her.

A fly buzzed in the kitchen, aggravated by dishes in soapy water. I followed the tinkling of wind chimes and my daughters out to the porch. I pulled my swimsuit over my remaining breast, folded my prosthesis, and attempted to wedge it into the flap in my bathing suit. The thing slipped out of my hand like a bar of soap, flew into the air, hit the low ceiling, and flew past Sierra’s face.

Sierra, thinking it was an enormous silicon bug—the child was terrified of bugs— let out a blood-curdling scream as the blob flew past her face and landed at her feet in front of her. We looked at the prosthesis, then at each other.

“Mommy?”

“You okay, Sierra?”

We erupted into a fit of giggles. Gaela, witnessing the event, picked up the fake breast and held it out to her sister. “It’s not a bug.” Causing the giggles to erupt again.

“You two are so weird.” Gaela rolled her eyes.

“We’re off Gramma,” we chirped. Like freed creatures, we pushed past the screen door, through the gate, past the rose climbing over the fence, and out to the road that led out of the tiny town of Paisley, Oregon.

“Wait for me,” Sierra cried. The sticky, chip-sealed road slowed her pace and she jogged to keep up with her sister. Her fine, blond hair curled about her face, and her pumping knees and elbows made her look like a little bird.

Pungent sage soaked the dry, high desert air, but my lungs found it hard to swallow the heat. “Gaela, pumpkin, please slow down. I’ll faint on the side of the road at this pace.” I wiped the sweat off my bald head.

She fell back. “Mom, you forgot your hat.”

“Good thing you remembered our towels. I’d forget my head if it weren’t attached.” Gaela, slender and sturdy, dark-brown hair falling about her shoulders, carried herself like a princess, with our towels folded over her arms.

The pavement turned to gravel at the abandoned lumber mill which denoted the end of town. From there, the forest folded up dry hills blanketed with pine and scrub juniper. The river ran to our left, wide and earnest, up to the dam at the millpond. Another dam constrained part of the river for irrigation. The free part of the river bent away and widened again, curving to the open range side of town.

Gaela turned, walked backward, and egged her sister on. “I’m gonna get to the swimming hole before you.” Then winked at me.

“No!” Sierra cried, “Wait for me!”

“Come here, Sweetie Pie.” Sierra clutched my hand and surveyed the willow brush. “Mommy, are there any cougars out there?”

Willow brush grew close to the millpond, creating a dense blind for the forest beyond.

My daughter's small palm felt sweaty. “I don’t know, Sierra, but I’m pretty sure the cougars don’t want to see us, any more than we want to see them.”

Sierra tilted her chin up to look at me. “What if we do see a cougar?”

“Run.” Gaela grinned over her shoulder at her sister. “You’re the bait, so I don’t have to run fast. I just have to run faster than you.”

“Mommy?” Sierra teared up again.

“Gaela, seriously?”

She held, squatted in front of Sierra, and hugged her. “Just teasing.”

I leaned over to hug them both, and catch my breath. The clouds broached the sun, and for a moment, the three of us leaned in, Sierra’s hair like summer grass brushed my nose, and Gaela’s brown eyes, so different from my blue ones, contained her anxiety.

“If we happen across a cougar, do not run.” I stood and rolled my shoulders back. “If we see a cougar, we stand where we are and make ourselves look very big, like this.” I raised both arms in the air. “Then, back away slowly.”

My daughters raised their arms and waved them in the air.

We three paused, and I imagined cougars crouching, hiding in the willow brush that lined the road, poised to leap and attack. I wanted us to feel brave and unafraid.

I’ll wave my arms, stand big and tall, shout, stick needles in my arms, die a little every three weeks, scorch my skin with radiation, shake my fist at cancer, till it slinks back to the wilderness, away from my children, from their dolls and books and sleep-overs and popcorn with movies, and grassy backyard somersaults.

The clouds uncovered the sun. “Now, you two, let's go swimming. It’s roasting out here.”

Gaela jogged in front and Sierra and I brought up the rear. Half a mile along the road, the river fell away and slowed in a wide curve between boulders.

I knew the location of the swimming hole and where to turn onto the narrow dirt path between boulders, as did all the kids in town and all the parents and grandparents who grew up around the mill and ranch. I made sure my children knew, even though we lived over the mountains in suburban Portland.

“Here we are.” We climbed down a short hill to a large, flat rock that jutted out over the quiet bend in the river. I peeled my t-shirt over my sweaty head, kicked off my shoes, and perched on the river's edge. “Cannonball!” I plunged into the cold, clear water.

“Me too!” I heard Gaela. She plunged in after me. We emerged to find Sierra standing toes curled on the rocks. “Catch me, Mommy.” And I did.

We swam to the head of the pool, where the river cascaded between beach-ball size rocks and over a worn ledge that created a perfect platform for us to sit and let the river cascade over our shoulders. We stuck our feet out, wiggled our toes, and marveled at rainbow diffraction from a billion drops of light.

“Watch me float.” I let go, slid into the calm pool, and rolled onto my back. The summer sun warmed my face, the river burbled in my ears.

“Float with me, Mommy.” Sierra paddled up and I pulled her shoulders onto my belly and let my breath hold her on the water. A quail chirped from the brush and a Steller's Jay shouted his approval from an overhanging pine. I felt Gaela’s delicate fingers hook onto my own and her out-stretched foot bumped against mine.

The three of us floated, allowing the current to move us in a lazy, clockwise swirl, downriver, then back again till our feet bumped the rocks. We swam until we started to shiver, then sunned ourselves on the rock ledge.

“Want to take the trail on the other side of the river back to Gramma’s?” I asked.

“Where does it go?” Gaela balanced on one foot, then the other as she pulled her shorts over her bathing suit.

“Up that hill, where it looks onto town. Then it comes out at the end of the road, near Marsha’s pasture.”

“But Gramma said Marsha saw a cougar in her yard.” Gaela looked at me. Her eyes widened and she clapped her hand over her mouth and looked at her sister.

Sierra froze in her tracks and grabbed my leg. “Mommy, I don’t want to go into the woods where the cougars are.” Her face turned red. “I don’t wanna be the cougar bait.”

Gaela knelt in front of her sister and hugged her. “I’m sorry, Sierra. As Mommy said, cougars are shy, and anyway, I’d never let any mean ol’ cougar get you. Let’s be brave explorers together. Maybe we can find a pretty rock for Gramma’s collection.”

Sierra wriggled away. “Is it true Mommy? Was the cougar in Marsha’s yard?”

“Gramma said so, but remember, cougars don’t want to see us any more than we want to see them.”

Sierra reached for Gaela’s hand. “Let’s be brave explorers. Is it explorers or exploders?”

“Explorers, Sierra.” We wiped pebbles off our feet, pulled on our socks and shoes, and marched up the path into the woods.

On the other side of the river, the path disappeared under willow brush and juniper, then reappeared in long stretches around chunks of ancient lava. I grabbed stems of fragrant sage as we walked along, pulling the bushes with my sweaty palms, wiping my hands on my shorts, and letting the perfume linger there. The houses of Main Street lined up below us as we climbed the knoll and the river disappeared from view.

“Mommy, look, a deer.” Sierra pointed. “And another one. And three more over there.” The deer looked up, and, finding no threat, returned to their grazing.

“Check out the view. We can see to…” I caught my toe on a root, and found myself falling forward, with an “ohhhh!” I twisted as I fell and landed on my butt under the outstretched branches of a juniper.

Perhaps it was the sudden stench of death that jarred the memory of stumbling over a curve on the Hawthorne Bridge in Portland during the Komen Foundation Race for The Cure earlier that spring. I had tripped on the curb because of tunnel vision—darkness that consumed me because of what—or specifically who—had walked in front of me. I didn’t know the man holding hands with two young girls, but they could have been—or possibly would be—my spouse and daughters. The three of them had walked slowly, carrying a sign and wearing placards on their backs that read: In Memory of Our Mother.

“Mom, are you okay?” Both my daughters swooped to help me up.

“What is that?” Sierra spotted what filled my nostrils.

“I’m okay, just a sore butt.” I picked myself up and brushed the dust off my shorts and hands. “Deer bones, Sierra.”

She wrinkled her nose and studied the remains. “They have fur on them!” There were bits of red meat, and strips of soft, brown hair attached to bones. “How did they get here?”

“The deer died here.”

“It died?”

“Circle of life, Sweetie. Leave it be. Something is probably saving it for dinner.” Gaela wandered a short distance away, surveying the brush and looking down the hill.

“What do you see, Gaela?”

“I found this antler. Can I keep it?” She held the smooth bone in her hand, but gestured to the side with her head.

“Cool find. It looks weathered.” I walked through the brush to stand next to her and followed her line of sight.

Something moved half way down the hill. Something tan, about the size of my grandparents’ Labrador retriever. The mountain lion curved through the rocks toward us. My heart stopped in my chest and I felt my eyes widen. My head snapped back toward Sierra, then I turned to Gaela and shook my head a tiny bit.

“If Sierra sees this she’ll freak out,” Gaela whispered. She turned and marched back to her sister. “Mom, I’m hungry. Can we hurry back?”

I followed her lead. “Gaela, you’re right. Grandma’s going to be wondering where we are. Sweetie Pie, hold my hand.”

My daughter looked from me to my mom and back again. “What are you guys looking at? Her voice quavered.

Gaela hop-skipped down the trail toward town. “I’m gonna get back before you doooo…”

“Don’t run, Gaela. Just stay in front of me.”

I imagined the cougar following us, slipping around the rocks and spying us from beneath junipers.

“Why are you guys walking so fast? Is there a cougar?” Sierra whined.

Gaela turned around and tickled her. “We don’t want to miss lunch. Hey, you guys want to sing a song? The Ants go marching one by one…”

We sang and clapped and stomped our feet all the way down the trail until we got to the pasture behind Marsha’s. There, we fell into a safe silence and followed the lane along an old fence back to the main road. The distant buzz of a chainsaw, the rush of the river and the hush of our breathing were the only sounds.


Babies crying. I woke from a light sleep and listened. Gaela climbed out of the trundle bed, padded across the porch, pushed back the quilt and climbed in next to me.

“Mommy, I hear babies crying.”

I wrapped my arm around her.

“It’s the cougar. She’s in the field, down by the river. Her cubs are calling.”

“The cougar we saw today?”

“Perhaps.”

“You were so brave.” Our whispered voices overlapped. I stroked my daughter's thick hair. Her warm tears fell on my arm.

“Why are you crying, Sweetie?”

“Because, Mommy. I’m not brave. I just pretended, so the cougar wouldn’t catch us and so Sierra wouldn’t be scared.”

“Gaela, you love your sister. Bravery is only love in motion. That’s not pretending.”

The night air held the distant rush of the river and the light resonance of wind chimes.

“Mommy, are you brave because you love us and so the cancer will go away?”

Now my tears fell and mixed with hers. “Yes. Because I love you both so very much.” My whisper cracked and broke.

My daughter stretched her legs down and wiggled her toes against mine. “Anyway, Sierra’s snoring will scare the cougars away.” She rolled over in my arms. “I love you, too, Mommy.” She fell into a sound sleep and the cries of the cubs faded off in the distance.

My heart clenched. The cougar had no awareness of our bravery and neither did the mutant cells in my body.

“What are you not telling me?” My grandmother's question echoed in my mind.

My heart replied, “That I am a living being, and subject to the same forces of life and death as all other beings.”


BIO

Sandra writes about journeys to enough-ness and belonging. She loves taking her readers along with her characters on adventures-the good ones and the knuckle-biters-in sailing vessels and tiny airplanes. Her journey through breast cancer, and her continued love of science color her work. She’s written a monthly column for Fresh Water News, has been featured in Voice Catcher, Sport Aviation and 48 North. In a previous life, she operated a Particle Accelerator.

She and her Husband are currently building a home in Northeast Tennessee, far from their Pacific Northwest roots.

Http://SandraThoma.com

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