Courage, dear heart.

I’m tracing my thumb over the smooth, soothing surface of a necklace sent recently by a dear friend. Beneath a bubble of glass, it features a silhouette of a lion’s head and a quote from one of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books: “Courage, dear heart.”

I’ve cherished those books since I was a child, but it’s been a while since I’ve read them, so I had to look it up to remind myself of the context. I was glad I did. It’s from a chapter called “The Dark Island,” in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and it seems a very apt metaphor for what I’ve been up against lately:

The dark mass lay ahead, much nearer and larger, but still very dim, so that some thought it was still a long way off and others thought they were running into a mist.

About nine that morning, very suddenly, it was so close that they could see that it was not land at all, nor even, in an ordinary sense, a mist. It was a Darkness.

They end up stuck in a terrifying place, rowing in circles and running out of strength. Just as they are losing hope that they will ever get out, Lucy, the youngest, calls on Aslan, the creator of Narnia.

Lucy leant her head on the edge of the fighting-top and whispered, “Aslan, Aslan, if ever you loved us at all, send us help now.” The darkness did not grow any less, but she began to feel a little—a very, very little—better. “After all, nothing has really happened to us yet,” she thought.

“Look!” cried Rynelf’s voice hoarsely from the bows. There was a tiny speck of light ahead, and while they watched a broad beam of light fell from it upon the ship. It did not alter the surrounding darkness, but the whole ship was lit up as if by a searchlight. Caspian blinked, stared round, saw the faces of his companions all with wild, fixed expressions. Everyone was staring in the same direction: behind everyone lay his black, sharply-edged shadow.

Lucy looked along the beam and presently saw something in it. At first it looked like a cross, then it looked like an aeroplane, then it looked like a kite, and at last with a whirring of wings it was right overhead and was an albatross. It circled three times round the mast and then perched for an instant on the crest of the gilded dragon at the prow. It called out in a strong sweet voice what seemed to be words though no one understood them. After that it spread its wings, rose, and began to fly slowly ahead, bearing a little to starboard. Drinian steered after it not doubting that it offered good guidance.

But no one except Lucy knew that as it circled the mast it had whispered to her, “Courage, dear heart”, and the voice, she felt sure, was Aslan’s, and with the voice a delicious smell breathed in her face.

I had great hopes for the new drug regimen I started this month; a cutting-edge combination of bimonthly chemotherapy infusions and daily immunotherapy pills that targets the specific genetic mutation (BRAF) in my cancer. The first infusion threw my digestive system into hell almost immediately, which I expected, but what I didn’t expect is that the immunotherapy pills would induce such severe joint pain that I could barely walk after a week on the stuff. My oncologist told me to stop taking them, at least until our next appointment, and I’ve spent most of the last week in bed and on a lot of drugs to manage the pain. I feel like I’ve failed. My body is just beaten down after a year and a half of treatment, I guess.

I try to remember, sometimes, what normal used to be like.  Just a few years ago, I used to hike and bike and snowshoe, or at least walk a mile to the metro without thinking twice. We used to while away weekends rambling through Rock Creek Park and tromping across the city to new restaurants. We used to travel; somewhere beneath the army of little orange pill bottles that’s overrun my dresser there are souvenirs to prove it. Heck, a few months ago I was hopping a seaplane to a remote island on the coast of British Columbia to report a story.

I use these memories not to feel sorry for myself but to try to remember that I am not actually as old as I feel sometimes; I just turned 37. There’s plenty of life left in me yet.

And I look forward, following that whispering voice.

In a few moments the darkness turned into a greyness ahead, and then, almost before they dared to begin hoping, they had shot out into the sunlight and were in the warm, blue world again. And all at once everybody realised that there was nothing to be afraid of and never had been. 


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