Monday, April 26, 2010

Valdesca: On Cancer and Courage


"Fear is the field where courage grows"

Fifteen years ago, one of my best friends died in a plane crash.  We had been planning to meet for dinner that night; in fact, we and several others had planned a Halloween night party.  Instead, on the first leg of his journey, the plane, a turboprop used on short commuter hops, had been forced by a landing queue to circle in freezing rain for an hour.  Ice built up on the wings; the plane became unstable, flipped and slammed into an Indiana bean field.  Nothing larger than a bread box, it was said, could be plucked from the wreckage.  No identifiable portion of my friend's body was ever recovered.

In the weeks and months following this accident, I came, myself, disassembled.  The simplest things seemed difficult, even impossible; I did not know how or why I ought to struggle on.  I had not known death could strike so suddenly so near.  I had not known it would start to call me too.  I gave myself over to death in some way, even while it terrified me.

While I was in this state, another friend--an acquaintance really--came to visit and decided I needed a change of both scenery and ideas.  He packed a picnic lunch and drove us from Montreal to Lake Placid, in upstate New York.  There was someone there he wanted me to meet, he said, a man in his nineties, a veteran of the "Great War."

I don't remember much about that day--in fact I couldn't remember at all where we'd gone; I had to look it up in a road atlas and make probable guesses. I can't even remember either man's name: such holes in my recollection are signs of how terrible those days were, how far I'd dropped into sorrow.  But I remember the meeting--in the library of a private school--green and maroon volumes in wooden shelves ranged along the walls.  And I remember the story the old man told me, for it was about his own experience of grief.

He'd come home from the war, body intact, but mind utterly blasted, another shell-shocked survivor, unable to imagine how he might rejoin the legions around him simply living everyday lives and petty concerns.  "I knew nothing," he told me. "On my own, I would not have survived.  But there was this school here, and someone asked me if I could look after the primary students during recreation times.

I did not think I could.

Children terrified me.  They were fearless, wiggly; they moved erratically and asked questions.  They were energetic, alive, a kind of future--and I wanted nothing to do with them.  But standing with them while they played, that was my job.

At first I stood at the back of the playground, my face to the wall; I couldn't even look at those children.  But they would not and did not leave me alone.  They asked me questions, wanted me to throw a ball or look at a bloody knee.  And gradually, day by day, as they played, they returned me to the world. 

For you see," he said, turning to look me in the eyes, "fear is the field where courage grows.  If I was to live, I had to dare to walk there.  I was brave--I had been in the war--I'd seen terrible things.  And because of that, I was afraid.  I entered my fear like a shell and tried to hide there. But as the man who gave me the job of watching the children knew, I couldn't stay there and live."

When we left Lake Placid a few hours later, I felt as if I'd been delivered an oracle. But exiting the state I was in wasn't easy--it took years, in fact, of effort and therapy.  Grief casts a long shadow; once it touches you it never quite leaves, but always hovers just there, alongside you, over your shoulder, almost out of sight. 
Still, what I took from my meeting that day was a handhold, a grapple, a tool I've since used again and again when I've needed to haul myself back to hope, to reason, to the pleasures and accidental joys and engagements of life.

Often at sea I think of the old man's line--fear is the field where courage grows--and use it, like a mantra, to calm myself down.  For even if you set out feeling fearless, a match for anything, the sea will educate you otherwise.  An experienced sailor is someone who's been scared silly again and again but refuses to be paralysed.

Fear is the field where courage grows: you don't do brave things because you're somehow especially brave, but, in fact, because you're mortally afraid.

We go to sea in a stout, ocean-capable "blue water" keel boat packed full of survival gear and food and a watermaker and spare parts and tools and communications devices and elaborate medical kits--everything that Marike's lifetime of sailing experience and our combined foresight can imagine to put together. And still, often enough, I feel anxious, bounced around, at some edge.  So when I see people who embark on long voyages in kayaks or other small boats I am full of admiration--these people must be very courageous indeed.

One small boat in particular moves us--the Drascombe Longboat, a yawl-rigged open boat--in part because it is so pretty and so practical at once.  NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) operates a small fleet of these "teaching boats" in the Sea of Cortez, and it is a lovely thing to watch them come around the corner and into a sheltered cove.  They're versatile--one can attach a little outboard motor, or row or sail these 22-foot beauties.

This year, in San Juanico, we encountered another Drascombe, home for three months to Claudia, a geologist, and Tim, an artist.  Right away, Claudia asked for our story--how had we come to be sailing in the Sea of Cortez? What accident of life gave us the urge and the capacity to be away from Nova Scotia for a chunk of time and living on a boat there? Mix the feeling that life is short and not to be squandered--we'd left jobs we hated after too many friends had died and tried to make a new life-- with the wish for a boat, the chance that the boat we most wanted was for sale at a very good price in San Diego in 2003, and our story unspools from there.  Having answered, we turned the question around--how did you two come to be sailing a Drascombe here? we asked.

The answer was short, sharp, shocking and very clear: Claudia, a geologist who had worked for Los Alamos labs, had had three rounds of cancer.  Last April, everyone had thought she might soon die: she'd even registered for a place in a palliative hospice, so it would be available when the time came.  But then she got an idea. She'd quit her job and get into shape and they'd have an ADVENTURE in the Sea of Cortez, where she'd done fieldwork for her PhD. And that made her feel like living, which is exactly what she was doing. When we met her, she looked hale, tanned, strong; you'd never guess she'd so recently been so ill. 

In many respects, the way they were sailing took a lot more physical strength, planning and courage than the way we were sailing.  It could be much colder, much less sheltered; they were constantly closer to the elements, at risk of being swamped; they had to camp on the beach each night to sleep. But Claudia was clearly thriving--obviously much to Tim's relief.  To risk her life was, not to save it so much as to seize it and make it worth living; because she had courage, because they had courage, they were also utterly alight. 

Same lesson, different, thrilling, example.  Thank you, Valdesca, thank you.

For more on Claudia and Tim's adventure see

For more information on the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and their sailing program in the Sea of Cortez, see


  1. thank you Karin... very moving... I'm going to re-read this a few times...

  2. I'm deeply glad that this - meditation - is something I can now read in print. I heard it first in a cemetery. I have remembered it almost perfectly because I have summoned the memory some times since. But I'm glad to read it now. I second Catherine to thank Karin.