What is courage?

I realised my favourite aunt was a lesbian by the time I was 14. Before that, I just thought she had really close friends. My mother tried to broach the subject by taking me to a screening of La Cage aux Folles when I was 16. Afterwards, we talked about how delightful the film was but never discussed my aunt. We didn’t have to; by then I was already skilled at understanding my family’s coded messages.

Like many people, I grew up in a family that didn’t know how to communicate. The first time my mother said I love you (hastily and awkwardly, more like ‘love ya’) was safely at the end of long-distance phone calls from across the Atlantic during my year abroad in Paris. Taboo subjects were never openly discussed; growing up, it felt like there were a lot of taboos.

Hypocrisy has always infuriated me, probably because I grew up with so much of it around. As a teenager, I judged my aunt harshly for not openly embracing her sexuality. I thought she was a hypocrite and, worse, a coward.

I came of age in Toronto, a city which I proudly considered very tolerant and accepting of people of all stripes. I knew about the Gay Pride parade and that Toronto’s gay community was second only to San Francisco’s, and I assumed that was a reflection of a wider acceptance. What my liberal young mind didn’t realise was that in the early 1980s, homosexuals – especially gay men – were still treated viciously by much of society, including the police who were supposed to offer protection. Being openly gay could cost people their jobs, their family and, in some cases, their life.

“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”

~ E.E. Cummings

It’s only in retrospect that I see how brave my dear aunt was. She courageously lived her truth, discreetly yet without hiding it, in the context of a morally conservative family and society. She had to put up with snide remarks from most of the men in our family and perhaps endured even more in her personal life. Luckily, her natural grace, charm and terrific sense of humour won her a lot of friends too.

Our popular culture tells us that courage comes from superheroes or soldiers or someone like them who perform glorious acts of bravery. For many people, their simple, everyday life is an act of courage; like just getting out of bed when it feels like there’s no good reason to do so, managing each day despite pain, or loss, or despair.

In 2019, merely existing in a world where looking different or living an atypical life still requires courage, despite our presumed sophistication as a species. How cruel and bizarre that someone’s very existence should require daily acts of bravery to sustain!

Be kind to yourself and those around you; it’s impossible to know what people are dealing with every day, just as we can’t know how a simple act of kindness can contribute to a person’s life. Embrace the hidden heroes in your life–and if it’s you, then take this message as an embrace from me.

My aunt has struggled with her health and needed special care for several years, and has borne her vulnerability and total dependence on others with her usual grace and humour. The staff at her seniors’ home have adored her and take good care of her because she is always so grateful and kind to them. Just a few days ago, she cheerfully celebrated her 81st birthday with them, surrounded by close family.

Some months ago, she was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer and has been in palliative care ever since. In a final act of courage, she has chosen to die on her own terms in a couple of days. She will be listening to Bach, dignified to the very end.

Much love and light,

As life would have it, a dear friend sent this podcast to me just this morning, and because it resonated so strongly with what I’ve written here, I wanted to share it with you, too.