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Courage, All Grown Up

Courage when I was younger came from many motivating places. But when I was diagnosed with cancer at 31-years-old, the audacious, cocky, egotistical girl of my youth seemed to disappear.
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When I was younger, my courage came from being a competitive, tomboy / feminist in training. If a boy in the neighborhood were going to climb a tree and tell me I couldn't do it because I was a girl, I'd do it anyway. I did things so that a boy would know he was wrong, not just about me, but about girls in general.

There was a steep hill in our neighborhood; so steep, we called it "Suicide". My best friend Sara and I used to sit down on our banana skateboards and fly down that hill screaming in both fear and delight. It was even scarier on our roller skates. I suppose the farther you have to potentially fall, the greater the fear you would fall. Sara and I would take a scarf and each hold an end. We'd race to the bottom of the hill together yet terrified and resolute we wouldn't slow ourselves down.

In junior high, I was the first girl in our Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) baseball league. I was a catcher despite the entire St. John's team standing behind me in between innings. I was only 12-years-old, but even then, I knew they were checking out my ass. I remember throwing out their fastest runner when he tried to steal second base. That runner looked back at me as we headed into the dugout. His look said, "Damn, girl, I was wrong." It was a quiet courage back then.

My 8th grade year I made the CYO All Star Team. In addition to catching, I also pitched. There were guys I had known most of my life who didn't think I deserved to make that team. I'll never forget how much that hurt my feelings, but that quiet courage came back when I heard a voice (or maybe it was my mom) saying, "Of course you deserve it. You're better than them." I was the only one on our team to get a hit that game. And when I struck out the first batter I pitched to, that quiet courage became a little more permanent.

I guess I've been chasing those moments ever since.

My freshman year of high-school, I made the Varsity basketball team, a feat few freshman before me accomplished, and one I was sure occurred because I hustled the most at tryouts. I won Defensive Player of the Year and the Coaches' Award, given for my work ethic and positive attitude, that first year. My junior year, we were caught at a hotel party with alcohol. Many of us never drank or attended parties, and when the cops came and hauled us off to the local jail, we figured the worst trouble we'd get into was with our parents. After all, the Varsity football team was caught on school grounds with a keg just a few months before. And they were allowed to finish their season despite signing the same contract we signed committing to an alcohol-free school year.

But, the school upheld our contract anyway and kicked every single one of us off the team. They brought the JV girls up to Varsity who lost every game by at least 60 or 70 points. It was humiliating to say the least. But, it was a chance for me to take that quiet courage a little more public.

My father pressed the local media, officials and even wrote to the National Organization of Women to help us fight the injustice of being made an example of when everyone knew the boys football team was protected just months before. I quickly became a spokeswoman for our cause and was quoted in print and television media. I've saved every one of those articles in the same scrapbook as all the media mentions about my "tenacious defense on the basketball court." The best outcome we received was the ability to play spring sports. The administration never admitted the injustice, but at least we could play Soccer, Softball and Field Hockey.

My senior year I was on the newspaper staff back when the AIDS conversation was just breaking school ground; parents were still questioning whether or not their children should drink from public water fountains. I petitioned our editorial board and journalism advisor to do a center spread on the AIDS topic and won. I found a speakers bureau in DC who set me up with Eric, an African American AIDS patient, who was available to conduct a roundtable discussion at our high school. I invited our principle, our editorial staff and a few other leaders in our school. We discussed the realities of HIV and AIDS, the psychosocial impact, prevention and educational needs in schools. Printing that issue was one of my proudest accomplishments in high school. I was indeed practicing a more public courage with bylines and all.

By college, I practiced enough courage to do something that truly sounded crazy to most of my friends. I joined an internship program where I sold books door-to-door 80 hours a week in a town where I knew no one, 3,000 miles away from home. Oh and I had to find a place to live that cost next to nothing in the first few days of arriving. I hated it so much; I went back for a second summer to do it again.

Two weeks after I graduated from college, I flew to Los Angeles from Washington DC on a round-trip plane ticket. I didn't have a place to stay, only an acquaintance with a casual offer to "crash at his place for a few days." My first night, I stayed in an International Hostel right by the airport. Since I was an American, I paid the "domestic" rate of $55/night. I was fairly certain that rats or roaches or unkind men hiding behind lovely foreign accents were lurking under my bed. Three days into my trip, I called my parents to tell them I was going to stay in Los Angeles. Two days later, I landed my first job in broadcasting. One month later, I signed my first apartment lease in the City of Angels. Ten years later, I'm still here.

Courage when I was younger came from many motivating places. I was cocky enough to think I could do anything. I was competitive enough to prove anyone wrong who said it couldn't be done, (especially those boys). I was brazen enough to stand up to injustice and audacious enough to believe I could single handedly change the world.

But when I was diagnosed with cancer at 31-years-old, the audacious, cocky, egotistical girl of my youth seemed to disappear. I had to dig deeper in my spirit than I even knew existed to get through the first round of chemo. I had to find another reason to feel beautiful when I was bald from chemo and nippleless from my double mastectomy.

I had to swallow all my pride to walk into social services, and apply for food stamps while sitting next to a woman who hadn't changed her child's diaper in a week, but managed to have fresh acrylic nails, the latest iphone and designer jeans. I had to swallow my pride and hold garage sales of my neighbors and friends possessions to buy gas and pay for utilities at a house I couldn't pay the mortgage on.

I had to find the strength to ask for help when I was so depressed and anxious, I couldn't walk out my front door when it was dark outside. I had to find the strength in humility to face a male judge with the all male court staff to discuss why my medical insanity from breast cancer treatment made it impossible to work a traditional full-time job.

Lately, it's the seemingly, simple, every day moments of life I find daunting, but do anyway. Recently, I had to impose an unpopular deadline for the non-profit I am building. I've had to say no to friends who wanted my professional help in their company. I've had to disappoint other colleagues who expected me to show up for a meeting I couldn't attend. I put the brakes on a budding relationship with a fantastic man when I learned he didn't want to commit to a monogamous relationship.

There are less simple moments of my life, daunting and heartbreaking at times. Like not too long ago, I had to bury the only kitty I've ever loved in a casket built for a preemie in my backyard, the same backyard the bank keeps trying to take back as its own.

My house is in foreclosure for the 3rd or 4th time since I was diagnosed with cancer. This time the bank actually scheduled an auction. I was participating in a trial loan modification for the last 6 months when the Obama Administration changed the rules and disqualified me; just days before the underwriting team were to finalize my new loan package. A friend of mine, who is a notary public figure, came to the Emergency Room, where I was recently being treated for severe stomach pain, to notarize my 8th loan mod application to keep my little house by the sea.

I'm still audacious enough to believe I am changing the world. I'm still competitive enough to catalyze conversations about the aspects of a young woman's cancer journey other's aren't talking about. I'm still bold enough to tell anyone who will listen what it was like choosing a sperm donor out of a catalog. I am still brave enough to fight for the life I imagine living.

That is what courage looks like for a scrappy little girl who wanted to prove the boys wrong; who is, apparently, all grown up now.