The Face of Courage

            Last night, the first Tuesday of the month, was book club night.  As they’ve been doing once a month for nearly twenty-five years, the ladies gathered at one of the members houses for tea, desserts and a discussion of their latest read.  It’s a serious discourse too.  These are after all, university and professional women, librarians mostly, plus a Chancellor of the University, a Dean of women students, a pair of professional women . . .a banker, and a financial advisor.  This night, on the heels of the most devastating and costly fire in the state history, the book was The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht, and the meeting was held at the home of June and John McKenna.

No one thought Rita would be there, she’d just lost her house after all, and all of her possessions, even her prized little green Mini-Cooper.  The turnout was going to be light, some were inEurope, others had guests or were visiting kids in other states, five or six was all that were expected.  But not Rita; her husband was in the hospital, recovering from a heart attack brought on by the stress of the fire and dealing with claims adjusters.  The fact that he and Rita were living as refugees, having escaped the fast-moving inferno with only the clothes on their backs, two of their four cars and some critical financial records probably added to his blood pressure as well.  So Rita was not expected; she had her hands full.

But Rita isn’t so easy to classify.  She had survived breast cancer and a double mastectomy, the loss of her hair and sense of well-being during her chemo and radiation treatments when she suffered acute weight-loss and chronic vomiting.  And she had even survived the rapacious, bloodthirsty invading army of Saddam Hussein in 1990  . . . when she was inKuwait, helping to set up their National Library System . . . by hiding, like Anne Frank, in basements and attics until she was rescued by the American Armed Forces during Operation Desert Storm.

It was an unexpected, but pleasant surprise then when Rita was the second member to arrive.  She was greeted by June with a hug and the words, “It’s so good to see you, Rita!  We’ve all been so worried about you.”

“I wasn’t going to come.  Then, I thought, ‘No I’d rather be here with my friends, than back at the kids place letting everything get to me.”

So began the nurturing and the healing, the tears and the tales for this indefatigable woman.  For me, she is a tower of strength in the presence of the unfathomable, rising to meet every challenge or adversity.  She is the spirit of determination and the face of courage . . . for yes, Mr. Hemingway . . . she displays grace under fire.

–JDM