More than a decade ago, my youngest sister, Amy, went through a divorce. It was a painful thing — the first in the family — and she was scared. “How will I live on what I earn?” she asked. “How will I manage everything that has to be done?” To me it was obvious. She already paid the bills, bought the groceries, cooked the food, changed the lightbulbs and took the car in for maintenance. As far as I could see, there was nothing she couldn’t do. “You’re better off without him,” I said. “Just do it.”
That was easy enough for me to say. I didn’t yet know about the screaming leap you have to make to get out of a bad marriage. I did not see that she was sprinting to the edge of the earth as she knew it, about to hurtle into the unknown.
But I did know that she was scared, so on a whim, I went to a sporting goods store and bought a bronze medal of Winged Victory. It was the kind of medal you give to an athlete on the winners’ podium, only without the ribbon. I mounted it on black velvet over a small brass plate inscribed with the word, “Courage.” I framed it, and on the back attached a handwritten note that read, “Like the Cowardly Lion, you had it all along.”
Amy opened it and cried. Then she laughed and she called me, still sniffling. “I do,” she said. “I do have courage. Thank you for reminding me.”
She hung it in her hallway, where she’d see it every day as she transitioned out of her marriage and built her new life. After a while she stopped noticing it. It was there, in the background, the easy hum of family love assumed.
Then our beloved stepfather died, and our family encircled our mother. We were there for all the hoopla, returning casserole pans, writing thank-you notes and keeping Mom’s house bustling. But then we all drifted back to our own lives, and our mother was left pouring just one cup of coffee, making up only one side of the bed, and bottling up the stories and observations and jokes she would have shared with her husband.
Amy lived closest and she saw the most. She knew Mom was lonely, but also frightened. So she took the Badge of Courage down off her wall, dusted it off and presented it to Mom.
The small plaque was a symbol of the close, loving family our mother had created. It stood for the phone calls she had bothered to make, the notes she had tucked into suitcases and lunch boxes, the hours on the bleachers, and the long drives to cheer or hold a hand. Mom was already brave, but the plaque gave her a touchstone, a reminder that her children knew it, too.
Over the years, that badge has moved among us, from my mother to my sister Pat, from Pat to me, from me to my sister Jane. It has been with us through divorce, infertility, illness and miscarriage. None of us really want it. We want the love and faith and encouragement it symbolizes, but to get the Badge of Courage, as we call it, means times are truly rough. Not just broken arm rough or flooded basement rough, but truly rough. The Badge of Courage arrives when life as we know it is at risk and we need to be brave to take the next step.
When I first gave Amy that simple bronze medal as a show of support, I never imaged we would lose her so soon. Two years ago my family needed every shred of courage we could muster when our baby sister died violently.
We displayed the Badge of Courage at Amy’s memorial service so everyone would know that she was strong and brave all the way to the end, and that her family was behind her every step of the way.
The Badge of Courage went home with Mom, but its message went home with all of us. We are brave, we are strong and we are loved.
Originally published in Woman’s Day, 7/6/04