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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

Jeannie Learns to be Brave

I have many wonderful memories of my father. One day, while at the top step of the stairs to an attic storage area, my father stood below me instructing me how to carefully get on the landing and then turn and crawl backwards down the steps. I was small, maybe three. After my constant begging to go up into the room inside the steeple, he knew one day I would find the door unlocked and go up by myself. He knew this because it was just who I was.

While standing and looking down at my father, he said, “Be brave Jeannie.”

There was an edge without a railing, and I had a healthy fear of heights, but he was there carefully guiding me. He was teaching me to take care of myself.

The stairway was not the only time he asked me to be brave. On another day, I could not stop crying and my mother was in distress. Something very bad had happened to me, and she was unable to stay in the room. My father said, “Jeannie, I need you to be brave. I need to go help your mother.”

From somewhere deep inside of me, I can still feel myself gather up strength in order to be brave for my father. We never talked about that day, but I always sensed him asking me to be brave.

While on a recent trip to Indiana, the nurse called to tell me my father had passed. He had chosen full-body donation and would be gone by the time we could catch a plane and get back home to Colorado. The dreaded words rang in my ears as I got out of the car and began running across a park.

“I wasn’t there! I wasn’t there! He died and I wasn’t there!”

There had been so many days when I was there. We had celebrated his 100th birthday. We were there every day for the four years he had lived with us, but we weren’t there on this day. We told him we would be back in four days, but he left when I wasn’t there.

A group of firefighters taking a break at the park stopped to watch me. This was oddly comforting and embarrassing all at the same time. It was important to keep breathing.

Then the memory of my father’s voice came to me, “Be brave Jeannie. Be brave.”

He had been proud of my life. He always counted on me to be brave.

There was no way to tell my father I had repressed the memory of that tragic day (along with many other soul-wrenching memories). My life was one of someone who appeared to have never experienced trauma. The pain didn’t explode from my fractured soul until after age 60. While processing ever-surfacing painful memories, during week after week and month after month of therapy sessions, this small self had gathered strength to be brave. My father left this world never fully understanding how brave his daughter had truly been, but he was proud anyway.

Now as I take the first step down the scary attic stairway—no longer backwards as a small child, but with the confidence of a woman who was brave enough to find her true self under layers of protection, my father is no longer here to catch me.

Still, as I begin to tell my story, I can still hear my father’s voice, “Be brave Jeannie. Be brave.”

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