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I shuddered. My whole body feared what lay ahead. What had I agreed to? What had I expected? How did I not know that it would hurt this much? I tried to swallow down the lump in my throat but it wouldn’t go away. I tried to blink myself somewhere else, anywhere else, just not here. But nothing changed. I was immersed. And the only way out was through.
I felt like a page in a novel, the page where the main character watches scenes from their life just before they’re going to die. I saw my mother braiding my hair on my first day of school. I saw her tears when I got on the big yellow bus, her hands clutching her heart. I saw my father teaching me how to ride a bike, and the pride in his face when I finally figured it out. I saw my brother and I on our swing under the big pine tree, and my other brother shooting road signs with his paint gun when I drove him to school. Ok, maybe I wasn’t going to die.
“It’s only a year.”
Was that supposed to comfort me? I used to complain about December 26th being the worst day of the year because Christmas couldn’t be further away. I knew the truth. A year might not be that long for an adult, but for a kid, especially this 18 year old kid, a year stretched out to eternity.
“Thanks, Dad,” I managed to squeak out, wiping the tear away before anyone saw it.
Where was my strength? Why did I ever think it would be exciting to leave my family and everything I had ever known to live in a foreign country by myself? Where was that vision now? I looked down at my heart, a pile of broken shards at my feet.
“You can do this, honey. I know you can. And you are going to come out on the other side, too. Better, not worse. I know you will.”
I nodded, my lips sealed, my face dripping with tears.
The flight attendant asked for my boarding pass. Her hands were metal jaws. Behind her was a tunnel of raging fire waiting to consume me. One last hug from my dear mother and I would walk forward. Alone. To find what lay beyond that raging fire . . . within.
* * *
That’s how it always is, isn’t it? No matter how much we like to think otherwise, no matter how often it even looks otherwise, the fires we most fear aren’t outside us. The biggest monsters, the biggest fears, rage within. And until we find the courage to walk through them, we will never know what lies beyond. Beyond our limited sight. Beyond our limited emotional capacity. Beyond our limited vision for what our future might be.
Leaving my family for a year as a teenager changed me, and changed me in ways I never could have imagined. I learned that Newton’s law of every action having an equal and opposite reaction, applied to matters of the heart, too. For every time I chose to walk through my suffering, I also grew in equally uplifting and pain-free ways. That is, none of my pain was ever in vain. All of it, ultimately, grew me, expanded me, opened me in beautiful ways that nothing else ever could.
Ever since that day almost 30 years ago, I’m often reminded how important it is to continually press myself forward. Everything in nature experiences a constant state of change so why then, would we humans be any different? Why do we try to prevent ourselves from changing? Is it because we are afraid to walk through those fires? I know I still am. And I’m not even sure it gets that much easier the more I do it. But I do know that the treasures awaiting on the other side cannot be found any other way.
Change is painful. Growth hurts. But a life without them isn’t truly rich. And I would like my one wild, well-lived life to be filled with more treasures than I can possibly imagine.