By Mark E. Smith
What’s the origin of courage? Is it a conscious decision or an innate response? And, how does it make us rise at just the right moment when needed most?
My soon-to-be 8-year-old daughter has spina bifida and autism. While I didn’t have the privilege of being in her early life – she’s legally my step-daughter – I’ve had the blessing of having her in my life in recent years, where she’s my daughter. And, while our relationship isn’t typical – autism never is – the love and understanding is, just as with my 19-year-old.
My little one has a lot going on medically between her two disabilities, but that all just makes her unique like any child. Due to spina bifida, she’s paralyzed from the tummy, down, and uses a wheelchair. Due to her autism, she has an astonishing vocabulary, but finds it difficult to use it in context and isn’t conversational. In simple terms, she makes us smile nonstop with her constant chatter – Please to meet ya, prairie dogs!, she recently exclaimed in the middle of dinner at a restaurant – but she profoundly struggles expressing what she wants or needs.
She’s also a fearless daredevil, where she doesn’t demonstrate self-protection mechanisms. However, this makes her love motion, including amusement rides. And, so when we recently had the opportunity to take her adaptive horseback riding, we knew she’d love it.
Inexplicably, my wife and I were wrong. As a team surrounded the therapy horse, and my wife tried to place our little one on the saddle, our little one was terrified. In fact, I’d never seen our daughter express fear, but as she clung to my wife, the fear was palpable. Yet, we knew if she could get past that fear, sit in the saddle and ride, she would love it. However, as I watched from the fence feet away, I knew that this had to be our little one’s decision. Yes, she was scared. No, you can’t force courage. But, could our little one find the inner-strength to ride the horse?
After many failed attempts, to the point of all of us adults about to give up, in one last try, our little one saddled up, clutching her mother. As the horse rounded the ring, the unimaginable happened. Our little one exclaimed, I am not afraid!
Was it self-reassurance? Was it a declaration to our group? Was it an affirmation of her life that we never thought she could express?
It was all of those. No, I don’t have the answers for the questions for which I began this story. However, I can tell you most profoundly, though, that all of us there that afternoon heard what few ever hear: the true, literal voice of courage.