My husband and I met at his family reunion. His sister (my best friend) invited me for a weekend of baseball playing and river dunkings and campfire sitting on an Oregon-green campground. I didn’t know my friend had a fourth brother. Gary.

Fast forward several years: Gary and I drove away from the annual campout a day early. He had awakened with a low-grade fever and flu-like symptoms which, if you’ve been on chemo and have tubes protruding unnaturally from your body, usually means an infection. We were experts at this.

I packed the car, got my husband settled comfortably and, before heading over the mountains for home, looked across the campground. It would be heartrending to attend this annual event without my beloved. And yet, I somehow knew I needed to not let the Johnson family reunion fall off my calendar.

Gary died that November. By the time the annual May reunion rolled around again, I had already established brave-making campaigns.

A brave-making campaign comes from hard places that steal my courage and hope. They’re designed to prod me into saying Yes to opportunities and adventures that infuse me with audacity.

There are three aspects to these brave-making operations:

1) Going places I’ve never gone without Gary. His family reunion falls into this category. The year after he died, I set my heart and mind to attend the camp-out, fearing it would be lonely, depressing, daunting. But it was life-giving, being surrounded by these magnanimous people who wanted me there, who treat me as if I’m a blood relative.

2) Doing things Gary and I talked about doing before we ran out of time. We had taken up hiking in our middle years because his particular treatment caused osteoporosis. We started pounding the pavement to strengthen bones, which eventually led us into the wilderness. After conquering the Oregon Cascades near our home, we took on the Colorado Rockies and Wyoming’s Tetons. Next stop: The Swiss Alps. Gary got his passport and I got mine renewed. But we ran out of time. And so, one year after my husband died, I flew across the pond by myself, and met up with twenty-three fellow Swiss trekkers. And it was an epic, life-affirming, courage-building adventure.

3) Signing up for experiences that frighten me. At the insistence of a friend, I applied to be an IGNITE speaker. IGNITE events take place around the world. Presenters get five minutes and twenty slides, which automatically advance every fifteen seconds. Gary and I had shared our story across the country—tag-team style—and I didn’t want to take the stage without my speaking partner, without his wickedly dry humor. I did it anyway. Because it scared me.

One of my brave-making ventures took me back to the Oregon coast, a favorite place of ours. I booked a small AirBnB during the off season, and settled in with a couple of books and a knitting project and my journal, and took long walks along Pacific waves, and built a fire in the stone fireplace, and reveled in the hard rain pelting the windows that overlooked a churning sea. A glorious emboldening weekend.

But I have a young friend, Charity, whose husband and toddler son were swept out to sea by a sneaker wave on that same Oregon coastline. Right in front of her. She spent the first two months on the couch – not suicidal, but not sure she wanted to go on living. My friend is amazing and brave and smart. She secured an internship to NASA last summer, had a research paper published in the Astrophysical Journal with her name as lead researcher, and is in her final year of earning her astrophysics degree. But she crawled under a blanket on her couch for two months and hibernated there with the Gilmore Girls.

Charity won’t be visiting the Oregon coast anytime soon. Perhaps never. Which is perfectly acceptable because she gets to choose how to grieve and how to live her life going forward. Not too long ago, she posted to my Facebook page: “Today I learned how to increase the temperature on my water heater (a job Jayson would have done), went hiking, and prepared for a public speaking engagement tomorrow (a fear of mine). Thanks for the brave-making inspiration.”

Brave-making campaigns will run the gamut from learning how to do something our spouse always did for us … to conquering a tall mountain or seeking to get a book published.

A brave-making campaign is designed to eventually route the bereaved away from burrowing under our blankets into places of discomfort. Until those places become more comfortable, and fear loses its advantage over us.

This I know from experience: The more I choose not-so-comfortable endeavors, the more fearless I become. And with our limited number of days on earth — but with courage — imagine what we can accomplish. 

What’s on your brave-making list?

Marlys Johnson

Marlys Johnson is a cancer widow, author, speaker and blogger. A member of the Advanced Writers and Speakers Association, Marlys is a regular contributing writer for Oncolink, Anti-Cancer Club, and Cancer Hope Network. In 2004, Marlys’s husband, Gary, was diagnosed with late stage prostate cancer and given two years to live. Eventually, the couple established a non-profit and presented at a variety of venues in all regions of the country, including the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, MD, sharing what they were doing to live well with terminal cancer. During that time, Marlys wrote a book, “Cancer Adventures: Turning Loss into Triumph,” featuring 28 cancer heroes who established purpose and found a way to give back. Gary lived ten good quality years with terminal cancer, much longer than the experts predicted. After he died in November 2014, Marlys took an early retirement from the St. Charles Cancer Center in Bend, Oregon, where she served as Survivorship Coordinator for a number of years. She is in the process of procuring a literary agent for her newest book, a collection of essays and stories – some humorous, some poignant – highlighting the lessons cancer taught them. Marlys loves getting outdoors; she would rather lace up hiking boots than go shopping. She also has a passion for repurposing old junk into cool new stuff and an even greater passion for showing others how to navigate life’s challenges, having negotiated a few herself.

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