“Sometimes what we fear is exactly what we have to do.”
In 2010, when I was 26, my mom suffered the biggest and baddest stroke you can have and still survive. She was in the hospital for a year, and then in and out for several more. She lost her ability to communicate, was fully paralyzed on her right side, and cognitively very changed. At the same time, my family lost their house. Between hospital visits, we slept on friend’s couches. It was all heartbreaking–we didn’t know what my mom could understand, or how present she still was in her body. Instead of resigning their life to at-home care, though, my stepdad planned a trip for them–a long-delayed journey to Italy, a trip they’d always dreamed of, but never been able to take. They’d have to journey via trains and boats, since my mom couldn’t fly without the parts of her skull that were never reattached. They were going to go. Nobody thought they’d return.
I was completely panicked, afraid of what would happen so far away from medical care, terrified that my brother and I no longer fit into their plans. But it also changed something in me. When I was young, I was a very fearful kid. And then as they were planning their trip, I learned that there was one remaining traveling sideshow in the US, a traditional show with knife-throwers and fire-eaters and snake-charmers and sword-swallowers, a place where people stood in front of an audience and rebuked fear. Where they transcended the limits of their fragile human bodies. Where they performed fearlessness.
While my parents began their journey around the world, I learned to charm an eight-foot boa constrictor, lived in the back of a semi-truck as we traveled the country, and stood on stage and thought: what would my mom do?
She was, and continued to be, a wild, adventurous woman. The thing that kept me going, as I put a flaming torch deep into my mouth, and sat in an electric chair, lighting lightbulbs off my tongue, was knowing that my mom always, always chose the bold thing. And that sometimes – in both grief and sideshow acts – the trick is there is no trick. You eat fire by eating fire.
I believed for a long time that there were two kinds of people – those who were brave, and those who weren’t. And that which one you were was some kind of predetermined role.
When I had to face the slow, debilitating loss of the person I was closest to in the world, and the person to whom I had the most complicated relationship, I felt great fear. I stood sometimes in the hospital bathrooms, just shaking and trying to talk myself out of what I felt. But there was no choice – I was still going to spend time with my mom, and help how I could. I still had to show up alongside the fear. The same was true as I learned how to perform all the acts in the sideshow. Swallowing swords, for example, is scary – a wrong wrist twitch, and the blade may knick your lungs, or pierce your heart. There is no reason not to be afraid. But you do the act anyway. You practice. You breathe. You learn that fear does not always mean the thing can’t be done, or shouldn’t be done. Sometimes what we fear is exactly what we have to do. There aren’t special people who can face something scary and not feel fear. There are just us throngs of regular humans who mess up and get heartbroken and feel fear, and then do the thing anyway.
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