She sat exhausted on the couch, her head in her hands and tears down her face. It was the week between Christmas and New Years and my dad was in the hospital after suffering from a mini-stroke. We still weren’t entirely sure what was going on, let alone the prognosis.
“I guess I’m not as strong a person as I thought I was,” my mom said as the emotion poured out of her.
Fast forward to June. While my dad steadily improved and recovered from his stroke over those six months, my mom’s health deteriorated. She finally went to the doctor and was diagnosed with lymphoma. Scheduled to start her chemotherapy she was hit with another setback — a nasty bout of pneumonia, exasperated by decades of smoking, which landed her in the hospital.
She went into the hospital a year ago today.
And as scary as that was, it was the beginning of a blessing.
She has nearly kicked the lymphoma with one round of maintenance chemotherapy treatment remaining. And since today is the one-year anniversary of her going into the hospital it is also the one-year anniversary of her last cigarette. See, she couldn’t smoke for the week she was in the hospital, so what better time to quit smoking than when it was, well, required.
She came home and needed the assistance of home oxygen until her lungs cleared and started working more efficiently. She had to slowly rebuild her stamina and learn how to deal with the side effects of the steroids.
There were days when it was difficult. Days when she felt like complete crap, had no energy and still had trouble breathing. There were days when she thought, “What’s the point? Why not start smoking again?”
But in those moments she sat at the kitchen table, remembering what it felt like when she couldn’t breathe. She remembered that horrible, terrifying feeling. And that was enough of a deterrent.
I’ve thought of my mom’s statement back when my dad was sick. “I guess I’m not as strong a person as I thought I was.” And I think that we’ve got this idea of “strength” all wrong.
We define strength and courage as the absence of fear. Sometimes we call it black-and-white thinking. Academics call it “binary” thinking. It’s that either-or mentality. We are either strong or weak, courageous or fearful.
But what if being strong has nothing to do with the absence of fear? What if it means standing in the fear, feeling it completely, and choosing to move forward anyway?
Strength comes not from eliminating fear and doubt. Strength comes from allowing yourself to experience it without being defeated by it. By themselves fear and doubt do not make you weak. That only happens if you let those feelings define you. And the one bit of wisdom I’ve picked up in this life journey is that you get to decide how you feel.
My mom was right that December night. She’s not as strong a person as she thought she was. She is, in fact, much stronger.