by Cathy Arden on June 8, 2015

I knew it was the last day. I had known for a week that it was coming, although no one had told me. Not the hospice nurses, not the Board and Care aides, not the hospice doctor. But I had told them, “She’s dying now.” There was a change. This was the end. I knew.  I mean, how closely had I been watching my mother for eleven years? There wasn’t anything about her physical presence I was not aware of.   We were connected at the hip when I was a child, merged in ways I had to break away from when I was an adult, and then merged again when she became ill and I was the only person she had left to rely on. There we were in her last years, an amalgam of mother and daughter sinew, devotion in its most primal elements.

It is impossible to count the goodbyes. But count all the days there are in eleven years. Then multiply those days by many more numbers because sometimes I’d have to say goodbye to my mother more than once a day. Leaving her was always a treacherous endeavor. This could be it. Today. Or tomorrow. Or tonight. Maybe this is the last goodbye. Maybe it’s this goodbye. Maybe this one. Maybe. Tell her you love her. Rub her head because she loves that. This may be the last time you have that chance.

And if I had to travel out of the country, I had all the details arranged, the details of her death. Mortuary contracts, caregiver instructions, financial papers organized, estate lawyers informed, my own personal lists of who to contact – her friends, my friends. Call me at any hour. That was my mantra for eleven years. I slept with a cell phone on the mattress next to me. No matter where in the world I was, there were only inches between me and a cell phone at all times.

I moved through my mother’s last day as if it wouldn’t end, as if it wasn’t the last day at all. Just as I had the past eleven years of days of her dementia and steady physical decline and illness. Although I expected my mother to die on a daily basis for so many years, so many days, I also didn’t expect her to go. I anticipated it. I just didn’t expect it. I believe there is a difference. This was the dichotomy that absorbed my psyche for eleven years. Emergency after emergency, procedure after procedure, ICU’s, ER’s, surgeries, round the clock care. For eleven years, close calls were the norm. Doctors and nurses and aides preparing me for the worst was a common occurrence. I believed I was truly prepared. But like an expectant mother who is soon to give birth for the first time, you know birth is inevitable but you don’t know what awaits you on the other side of that event. And you certainly don’t know what that event will be like. Anticipating death is like that. I had experienced the deaths of loved ones before — my sister, my father – but my mother’s MO was not to let go. It was to hold on, to survive against all odds over the course of so many years being ill and unaware of her own illness.   And my MO was to be the forever caregiver, the staunch trooper, the soldier who forges ahead under any circumstance, dealing with all the details of illness and care and impending death. I had every detail under control. Over the course of eleven years doing a job, you become quite expert at it.

“Only a bazooka will take her out, “ my 22-year-old son declared after the last time he saw his grandmother, which as it turns out, really was the last time. “I used to think she was going to die,” he said, “but now I’m not so sure.” And he added, “By the way, Mom, if this ever happens to you, you’re outa here.” “How so?” I asked. My mother had always told me that if she were ever to become “non compis mentis,” as she liked to put it, “Just shoot me.” I remind my son that euthanasia for humans is illegal. “No,” he explained, “ I’ll just put you in the backseat of my car and drive you to Oregon if that’s what it takes. Not to worry.”

My son believes I kept his grandmother alive for more years than she should have been on this earth, given her compromised mental and physical condition and the fact that she never wanted to live in such a dependent state.  It’s interesting to me that he believes I had this kind of power and control over my mother’s life. “Did you want me to kill her?” I ask him, in all seriousness. “Come on, Mom, you kept her alive.” He says it like it’s an accusation.  He’s as horrified as I am that my mother continued to live in such a diminished state for so long. And yet the light remained in her eyes until the end, and although her raucous laugh became subdued, her sense of humor never wavered. I could always get her to smile. And if her appetite waned, a hearty bagel, lox and cream cheese sandwich with some herring in cream sauce resolved that issue every time. Miraculously, when so much of her mind went into hiding, she still knew who I was and who her grandchildren were. She’d be transformed whenever she saw us.  “You’re so handsome,” she’d tell my son, continuously.  And when she saw my daughter, whose birth she had always said healed her heart after the death of my sister, a smile would stay plastered on her face for the entire visit.  So shoot my mother? She simply continued to live all those years.  She looked near death to all of us, but she lived in some sacred space that continued to breathe life into her.  Either this world held her, or she held this world. I don’t know which power was greater.

I had two appointments on that last day. I felt foolish and somewhat crazy keeping them.  But although I knew this must be the last day, I also didn’t know this. One appointment was with a couple interested in renting my guest house, and another was with my dermatologist.

My mother’s caregivers did not get her out of bed for a shower or breakfast that morning.   She was sleeping, they told me. The night before I had called the hospice nurse to come and give her morphine. I knew she was in pain. I saw it in her eyes. She grabbed my hand and looked straight at me. And for the few weeks before that she had been doing the same and saying the words, “Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me.”

I stayed with my mother for awhile that morning as she slept. I thought perhaps she’d wake up after the morphine wore off. But a hospice nurse told me she wasn’t sleeping because of the morphine they had given her the night before. My mother wasn’t waking up and she had always woken up. Every morning. If it wasn’t the morphine, then in my estimation, it could only be one thing.   This was the day.

My appointment with the dermatologist was at 1PM. I could have canceled the appointment but it was within walking distance of my mother, so I decided I should go. If you act normal, perhaps life will normalize around you. I kept the phone in my hand as the doctor froze whatever it was on my face.

I ran home to walk my dog. I had to meet the prospective renters on a street corner near my house as they didn’t have my address for various safety reasons.  I stood on that street corner with my dog and I waited and I waited and I waited. I tried to reach them but they didn’t pick up, they didn’t respond to text messages. In fact, they never showed up. “You fucking idiots,” I said aloud, standing on that corner with my dog.  “My mother is dying and I’m standing here for no reason.”

The hospice nurse was due to arrive at 4PM. I knew I couldn’t park on my mother’s street again until that time due to street cleaning and parking regulations.  My plan was to make it there by 4 as well. The hospice nurse would be arriving to begin what they call continuous care. Continuous until the end.

I arrived just minutes after the hospice nurse.  When I walked into my mother’s bedroom, I heard the sound I had never heard before. My mother’s breathing. Like deafening ocean waves breaking on boulders. So loud, so demanding. The sound took hold of me. There was nothing else. I saw the nurse standing over my mother’s hospital bed. I managed to climb into the hospital bed over the metal rail and wrap myself around my mother. I was sandwiched between my mother and the wall. I spoke softly into my mother’s ear as the nurse spoke calmly and consistently to me, explaining what was happening because she knew I was in a panic state. “She’s in pain,” I kept repeating to the nurse. “Please give her something. You have to give her something. I don’t want her to suffer.”

This. This had always been my prayer. PLEASE DO NOT LET HER SUFFER. I said that prayer as many times as I had said goodbye.

I had to speak loudly above her breathing to the nurse because her breathing was louder than anything else in the world. “Listen carefully,” the nurse said with great compassion. “That sound is your mother exhaling. If the sound occurred on the inhalation, she’d be in distress. She’s not in pain. This is normal. This is how it happens. The sound will get softer and softer as her breathing slows down. It will get slower and quieter. Until she takes her last breath.”

Somewhere in that hour I called my daughter from my mother’s bed. I started crying when she picked up.

“She’s dying now.”
“Are you sure? We’ve thought this before.”
“No. This is it. It’s happening right now.”
“Tell her I love her,” my daughter said, crying with me. “I’m getting in my car now, Mom. I’ll be there in a couple of hours.”

My daughter lives in San Diego, my son was living in France at the time.  I didn’t call him at that moment as it was close to 2AM in France. But we had spoken earlier and he had relayed the same message. Tell her I love her. I was telling my mother we all loved her as I stroked her arms, her face, rubbed her head, soothing her with my hands, my voice, my body, speaking softly into her ear to be heard above the sound of her loud exhalations during that last hour. I named every person I could think of whom she had loved and who had loved her and all of those people who were waiting for her on the other side. “It’s okay, Mom, you can go now. I’ll be okay. We’ll be okay. We love you. We will always love you. Please let go now. It’s okay. You can go.”   And maybe, just maybe, even though she could not express it during that last hour, maybe her humor was still inside. I repeated what I said to her hundreds of times over the last years, as it had always made her laugh. “Mom, you’re going to see the whole mishpocha! They’ve been waiting for you for so long!” Mishpocha is Yiddish for family. Come to the end with humor. That can’t be bad. I pulled up one of the few Yiddish words I knew to bond with my mother one last time before she died.

I kept hearing the nurse’s soothing explanation of what was happening. My mother’s breathing grew quieter and quieter and slower and slower. And as it did my body relaxed into hers. I felt less frantic. We were both letting go. Everything stopped. My mother was lying next to me. She was still my mother. But she was no longer there.

Eleven years and now I have stopped counting. Eleven years of illness. Eleven years of caretaking. Eleven years of questioning why. We want to make sense out of everything. Name everything in our midst. Control the universe with explanation and definition. Why had my mother lived in such a diminished state for so long? Why did my sister die of breast cancer at age 33? And if we can’t make sense of it, at least, we hope, we can learn from it. I am someone who has always been searching for clues to the meaning of tragedy.

I was expecting an abyss of grief to envelop me when my mother died. Perhaps the way it did when my sister died. But I have discovered that grief caused by tragedy is very different than other types of grief. The deaths of loved ones are not created equally.  I am relieved I no longer have to say goodbye to my mother. I have never felt anything like that in the thirty-four years since my sister’s death.

My mother was 91 when she died on January 27th, 2015. My sister was 33 when she died on March 22nd, 1981.   I have carried my sister around with me all these years, and I will continue to do so I’m sure. This is not a burden. It has breathed life and hope and optimism and courage into every part of my life, everything I do.   Grief from her loss will also stay with me until the day I die. It can be no other way. When I scattered my mother’s ashes last month, I seemed to have also let go of grief over losing her eleven years ago. I’ve been mourning that loss for eleven years. My mother and I are merged in imperceptible ways now that only people who were close to us both would notice.

I am the spiritual caretaker for my sister. It was meant for me to carry her in this way.   I am rightfully obligated to do so. I am no longer the caretaker for my mother. I don’t need to be.   She was able to live her life fully and leave behind a legacy for so many.   I held her close, we shared our breathing up until the end. And then I let her go.


At midsummer before dawn an orange light returns
to the mountains
Like a great weight and the small birds cry out
And bear it up

–W.S. Merwin

Sherry beach Israel


THE PROMONTORY/National Sibling’s Day

by Cathy Arden on April 10, 2015



in memory of my sister, Doren

Rubbings of balsam and basil

and the tiny gold wishbone, the pearl

move further down

It is your voice

folding into the supple ground

into a trail of months

catching up with the intimate songs

we sent spinning in lake water

to compensate, somehow, for your pain

You still attend to me

and I have been holding you

close to my moods

like reassurance

unaware of world news

as if you might still come around again

in your high heels and pearl necklace

with information and fun plans for the day

We said, “We look alike except for

our mouths.” It isn’t exactly true

that the dead separate from obvious places

Your expressions coming up on my face

stray animals appearing in the glass

keeping warm



In memory of my sister, Doren Arden

It’s already happened, something that occurred
before now
someone’s foot (my foot) slipping into
the yielding forest floor
(there was only rock
on the north side of the mountain
where I have come from)
ankle-deep in fresh growth
ferns bending at my waist
and then the other foot
slipping in too

It is harder this way, climbing down
to a place where I imagine
(all that I had to do, living close
to the jagged peak, was imagine)
lily pads floating around my bare legs
rainwater; warm pools settled into the valley

How impossible to confuse fatigue with desire
but it has only been one year
out of hiding
(timberline; ice water)
and every time I put my ear to the ground
I hear the progress
of your descent on another trail
the long silences during the day
the night struggles

We echo into the same earth

the lakes
have been coming down from the mountains
for a long time



by Cathy Arden on January 27, 2015

Mom, Doren and me at camp


My mother died today.  I wrote this for her when I was 27 years old.  It hung on her wall for all these years, framed with photos of the two of us, and of my sister.  Today we needed to let each other go.  And we did in an embrace.  I love you, Mom.  Forever.

Anatomy of a Universe
for my Mother
October 18,1923-January 27, 2015

What really did I know then
about the knowledge of flesh
the difference between mine and yours

I knew of bones
the way mine protruded at angles
I was sure were dangerous

No matter how cautiously I moved
through the house
my body would bump into the edges of furniture

I learned all there was to know
about the scraping of bones
and the ache afterwards

I recognized you by your flesh
blue rivers close to the surface
just like mine
I could put my hand up against yours
and know
where I would always belong
a place where I would always be permitted
the proof was the perfect
match of flesh against flesh

The difference
I thought
was in bones

There was something beyond comprehension
in the grace and power of your arms
that folded naturally
around my frailness
creating an embrace that could
hold me steady, rooted
or lift me to wherever I wanted to go

Hand over hand
I climbed you as a braver child
might climb a tree
resting brittle bones in the fold of your limbs
I could move, without moving,
if you moved
examine the geography of sharp corners below
without fear of collision

I am in the position now
of wanting to describe to you
the extension of my limbs
how my arms now have the power of embrace
my legs the courage of movement

My bones are rounded
they have joints
I ask them to bend
and they do

I climb the terrain
of my own body
it accepts the challenge
of exploration in a new universe

The geography of this separation
and emergence
might be unfamiliar to you
but if you put your hand up against mine
you will know
a place where you will always belong
a place where you will always be permitted entry

The woman you are facing
you will surely recognize

I offer you myself
a place you can return to




by Cathy Arden on November 27, 2014


I’ve been finding my children’s baby teeth in varied and dissimilar boxes tucked away in closet and dresser drawers. When I’m searching for something – one of those deep, frantic searches — I run into my children’s baby teeth. I always forget what is inside those boxes, given that my deep searches are few and far between. Some of the baby teeth boxes were formerly little white gift boxes that once housed jewelry. So I open one and assume I’ll see some old jewelry in there. Perhaps a pair of earrings from adolescence. Or a ring of my sister’s that I’ve saved but will never wear. Or a bracelet of my mother’s I keep meaning to show my daughter to see if she wants it. I open those small white boxes and small teeth appear. I see the teeth and I feel a twinge of guilt. Guilt that I never separated my daughter’s baby teeth from my son’s. Whose teeth are staring up at me? I have no idea.  As far as baby teeth go, my daughter and my son have merged into one being. One small child. One memento.

There is another memento, if one can use that term for this particular item, that sometimes appears in one of those searches along with the teeth. The one place they both turn up together is in the top drawer of my dresser, a dresser that has been moved to 2 different houses in 2 different states since the first time the items were placed there decades ago. Initially, it was designated as my underwear drawer, although now it’s simply my junk drawer.   Granted,  junk drawers often  house valuable items.  I began using my underwear drawer as a hiding place, i.e. for the baby teeth, and this small black journal I named my Black Book. They’d be stuffed carefully at the back of the drawer, under panties, hidden behind bras. Two vastly different items meant to be hidden, but both meant to be beyond reach of my children. After all, I kept the fantasy about the Tooth Fairy going way past the time my children knew better.   Even when they began to question it, I’d say, no, there really is a tooth fairy, and she isn’t me. I was adamant about it.   Even to the point that eventually my children would laugh at me, though I could tell they wondered if perhaps the Tooth Fairy was indeed the real deal.

The Black Book is not what you think. Although I did make a list at some point in my 20’s, or was it 30’s, of all the men I had slept with up to that point, this Black Book isn’t that list. And that list was never saved, at least it’s never turned up in one of my frantic, deep searches.  I must have thrown it away at some point, which is interesting to me that I’d do that. It makes me wonder — at what point in my life did I throw out that list? When I got married, perhaps? I don’t recall.

Okay, so the Black Book. It was my secret, dark journal. So dark that I can’t even bring myself to open it all these decades later.   I was 7 months pregnant with my second child, my son, when I started writing in this journal. My daughter was about to be 4 years old. In fact, my children’s birthdays are 2 days apart. The week I started writing in the Black Book was the week my husband revealed to me he was gay, and continued to reveal to me that he had been secretly having anonymous sex with men throughout our marriage. I had my little plaid diary that got me through a difficult childhood. Now I had my Black Book. It was the same size as my plaid diary. Very different from my many journals that were looseleaf size and housed single space, typewritten pages.  I filled the Black Book with anger, with fear, with feelings of betrayal, with guilt over my son being born into a broken family, with devastation for myself and for my daughter. I hid the Black Book in my top dresser drawer stuffed behind the bras and panties. Along with the baby teeth. Precious and secret. The myth of the Tooth Fairy snuggled up against the end of my marriage.

Although life does turn on a dime, transitions take months and years to occur.  Something shifts and you notice.  I have always remembered the first day I didn’t cry after learning my husband was gay and knowing our marriage was over. At the end of one particular day, months after we separated when my son was a year old, my daughter five, I realized I hadn’t shed a tear. I was in my car, exiting the thruway onto Route 59 in Nyack, NY where we lived. I was stunned when I realized I hadn’t cried that day. It was a revelatory moment. Eventually, the shame lessened. The fear and anger subsided. I fell in love again. My children grew. My ex-husband and I became friends. The magic of a tooth fairy doesn’t seem that far fetched to me. If I needed to keep that fantasy alive for my children, then perhaps we all needed to hold on to magic, to faith. I keep the Black Book but I have no need to open it.   My children’s baby teeth spill out into the drawer, and the Black Book, although visible, remains unopened.



by Cathy Arden on October 14, 2014





Bring the girl dancing to the door
the persimmons that fell from the tree
too green, too soon
her leg as fresh timber
bending with hope and
not yet longing

Diane Keaton says she’s outlived love
I debate the tragedy
construct philosophy
there is no age that is the new anything
we love a fairy tale
the fiction of time
the poem like clay
Play-Doh even
it’s sweet scent like vanilla

I am still ravenous
tell no one
the girl in a sleeveless blouse
is afraid to walk home from school alone

She is the one
bring her dancing to the door
she tells no one
of her freedom
in her room
in the studio with patent leather
choreographing the dance
to Peter, Paul and Mary
ladybug, fly away home



by Cathy Arden on October 3, 2014



Martha Graham Loss




Who are you supposed to be
in the dream
always coming back to me
once a year
or every few years
in a crisis

you are holding me
in the present
in the dream
the always kiss

I have always been waiting
and you always returning
in the dream
we merely resume
the recalled love
it is expected
it is the only story told

the gates are closing
we are sacred
no matter how late
or how sad life may be
or how long

you meant to keep your word
so many years in between
marriage and children
relationships, death
people we love
who so rarely return now
in dreams

you are the recurring
the reunion
that never took place
and yet continues
in ghost magic, in prayers
when you kiss me

you stay
and you stay
and you stay



by Cathy Arden on September 4, 2014


“For it is by the way they live that elders teach younger tribe members about the tribe’s culture and traditional ways of life, and it is through the oral traditions shared by elders that social values and beliefs are preserved. Essentially, elders are libraries of Indian knowledge, history and traditions. They knew what to share in order to help the present generation learn from the wisdom of the past.”

(The Importance of Elders and Family in Native American Culture, by Patricia Clark and Norma Sherman)


The photo is of my grandfather, Abraham Waretnik.  He died when I was seven years old, and yet I still remember things he said to me.   And much of what he said was passed on to me by my mother, always quoting him.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the elder generation I grew up with. The community of elders who really did raise me. Native American culture seems to know a lot about this, and honors their elders in a way that perhaps we, as Americans, are slow in learning, acknowledging and incorporating into our lives and customs.

So with the death of Joan Rivers today, whom I didn’t know but whose determination, passion for life and humor inspired me from afar, I am left with a feeling of loss and grief again. You build your life at the feet of those you love and admire, and then the people you love and admire disintegrate and you feel the foundation is gone. There’s a special affect in movies now, related to witches, or future robots, something beyond human. The skin and bones crumble into powder and then disappear. A face falls off, becomes air. There’s nothing new about death. Only new technological ways to portray it.

My parents and their friends didn’t warn me about this. Or did they? Perhaps I wasn’t listening or I didn’t understand.   Most of the voices who have guided me through life are no longer audible.   Or are they?

I often begin making the list in my mind of my elders who are gone. The list keeps growing, and more rapidly than I care to admit. They were, for the most part, writers, directors, publishers, editors, screenwriters, actors, artists. They were my parents and my parents close friends. They were my mentors. I sat at their feet as a child, at their dining tables as an adult or in their living rooms, soaking in their wisdom, their humor, their encouragement, their warnings, their advice.   When they weren’t talking to me, I still listened. I loved their world. I loved everything they seemed to know. I wondered when I’d be their equal. And I discover that now when I have become their equal, they are no longer around.

I hear their voices, though, all the time. They come back to nudge me into necessary philosophical thinking, to not allow me to lose my footing too deeply or for too long. Doris Schwerin, a writer and friend of my parents, and one of my many mentors, said to me once at a particularly difficult time in my creative life, “Honor yourself in all stages of the process.” Seems simple. But, for me, it was profound. At that time, I was berating myself for not being able to sit down at the typewriter and write. Doris informed me that all of writing doesn’t happen at the typewriter. That, in fact, the typewriter is the last phase of the writing process. Honor yourself in all phases of the process. Notice she didn’t say writing process. I only realized that decades later. Seems to me I’ve recently said these words to my daughter who is going through a particularly difficult time in her life. My daughter is hopefully learning something from me, but she is also learning from Doris. I let her know this. I give credit where credit is due. I let my daughter know the advice is being passed down.   And I can only hope the tradition will continue.

And, yes, I am the elder now. The baton is in my hand but I don’t know when it was put there. I hadn’t realized that grief comes with responsibility.

My loneliness informs me that it’s my turn.   Grief and lonliness turn to wisdom.   Pass it on.


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by Cathy Arden on August 31, 2014


I’ve managed a solo mission on Outward Bound in the freezing and snow covered Colorado mountains.   I’ve climbed Cardiac Gap in the hot prickly desert of Tucson, Arizona and triumphed when I reached Geronimo Meadows. I was told Geronimo hung out here. I thought of Geronimo a lot that day.   It was thrilling to be in a spot where he walked.

On both of these excursions in Colorado and Arizona, I thought I wouldn’t make it.   Going solo in the snow of a Colorado mountain was more frightening psychologically than it was physically. For some reason, I was confident I could keep myself warm.   I brought the right stuff. But how would I keep my mind safe?   I had brought a notebook and a pen.   This had kept me safe my whole life up until that point. It’s how I got through a difficult childhood.   So I relied on it now to keep my thoughts intact, to keep my mind from entering a black hole.

In Arizona, I looked up at the climb before me and respected that this trail was named Cardiac Gap for a reason. I came to a dead stop just below Geronimo Meadows. It seemed too far away from where I was now. I was bent over, gasping for air, soaked in sweat. This was harder than the NY Marathon I had run decades before. I was sure I couldn’t make it up this last section of switchbacks, leading to Geronimo Meadows.   I could see the people I had been climbing with, more expert than I was, relaxing up there. I had never felt so hot. I had never been so thirsty. I was dizzy. I was weak. I had nothing left.   Worst of all, I was convinced this was the end of the line for me. I’d have to stop here, in the middle of the trail, and face heading down the mountain before I had reached the summit. I couldn’t face the physical defeat. I couldn’t face the humiliation. Geronimo had been up in that meadow. I had to make it there. I kept going, in spite of my body telling me to stop. Don’t stop. Pain be damned.

I am all hokos-pokos when it comes to fear.   I may as well be performing magic tricks to make it disappear. Because it does feel like I’ve developed stunts over the years to keep it at bay. But there was a moment in time when what I used to survive was not magic at all, but rather pure instinct and the will to live. It was 31 years ago today, on August 31st, 1983. I was raped in Central Park at gunpoint. In so many ways, I was just plain lucky, as so many who are raped are not.   I survived, I healed, I became a volunteer Rape Crisis Counselor in two New York City hospitals, and I have many people to thank for this. No one can heal alone from a traumatic event. It takes a community of healers, and I was lucky enough to find those people and allow myself to be embraced and taught by them.   I wish for every rape survivor the same courage and determination to find the help they so desperately need.

So it is important to commemorate a day that has long past, that is a part of my life experience, that helps me to help others, that made me stronger and more resourceful and pushed me up real and metaphoric trails and mountains.   And to honor all the other rape survivors and the victims who did not survive, and to tell the truth which hopefully, in turn, will encourage others to emerge from their dark places of shame and sorrow.

The following is an excerpt from my upcoming novel, THE RED DIRT ROAD, in it’s final editing process:

“A rush of words. Any words. Keep talking. I had to keep talking. Try to get out of this. With words. My body was no longer mine. Words were all I had left…  I talked. I lied. Get him to respond. Make him feel sorry for me. Distract him. Confuse him. Maybe he’ll get so confused he’ll let me go. I kept thinking, thinking, thinking. How do I get out of this?  There’s a gun to my head. How do I get out of this? How do I stay alive? I left my body. I stepped into my brain. It was the only way out. “





by Cathy Arden on July 15, 2014


When four years ago, after taking my youngest to college, I decided to move across the country to re-dedicate myself to my acting career (whilst still pursuing my writing career), an old friend of mine wondered why I was revving up the engines just when most people our age were slowing them down.  Honestly, I don’t know anyone my age or any other age who is slowing down.  So I suppose this same friend will be startled to learn that now I have taken on a third career while still fully engaged in the other two.  And that my energy is threefold what it was ten years ago.  But various people along the way have not just thought me crazy.  Many have told me I’m courageous.  Which, as it turns out, is just as difficult for me to comprehend as the comments that I’m crazy.  Now that I am working toward my certification as a Martha Beck life coach, I’ve been wondering about this thing people call courage.  Are we born with it?  Do we acquire it?  Is it learned?  Is it inherited?  Why do some people seem more courageous than others?  And why is it that people we deem courageous don’t see themselves in the same way?  It’s clear that people who risk their lives for others are courageous.  It’s easy for us to define a true hero.  But what about the people we believe have courage in their everyday lives?  What do we consider courageous?  And do we think courage is difficult to come by?

My first case in point is my sister, Doren.  She battled breast cancer for 3 ½ years and tragically died at age 33.  My sister, however, didn’t describe her life during those years as a battle.  She gave up writing a novel she had a contract for, and she gave up a job in publishing because what she decided would give her the most fulfillment while she was ill was to teach and take care of profoundly mentally challenged adults.  Doren had been a counselor at a camp for special children when she was a teenager.  It was this type of care-giving work she returned to after being diagnosed with cancer.  She’d tell me often she felt these people were her children.  She loved them that much.  Friends and acquaintances would often tell Doren during that time how courageous she was.  Doren never understood this.  In fact, comments about her courage really annoyed her.  “What is courage?” she’d ask me.  “I don’t feel courageous at all,” she’d insist.  “What are my choices?  I could lay down and die or I can live my life.  Living my life is not an act of courage.  It’s ridiculous for people to think that it is.”

When my sister died, I didn’t feel courageous.  Yet people told me I was.  It began with her memorial service.  There were hundreds of people who attended.  I got up and talked about my sister.  People were amazed, and grateful, that I had done this.  They asked me afterward how I was able to speak, given my grief.  Aside from the fact that it wasn’t hard to get up and talk about my sister – it was, in fact, something I had planned and was compelled to do – and aside from the fact that as soon as I sat down after speaking I began to shake uncontrollably, I didn’t feel courageous in the least.  I did what for me was necessary.  I spoke for myself, and I spoke for my sister.  It was an act of love, not of courage.   I didn’t consider that the power of grief would get the better of me in this instance or any other.  Which isn’t to say I haven’t lived with grief.  The proverbial one foot in front of the other produces life, in spite of yourself, in spite of your grief.

And, as time has gone on, it’s been said about me at other transitional periods of my life that I have courage.  One such time was when I moved to Paris with my children who, in August of 2000, were eight and twelve years old.  I had been divorced and a single Mom for many years, and I had just broken up with my fiancé of three years. Why did I want to move to Paris?  As my plans were underway, I couldn’t explain it logically.  I was merely compelled to do this.  The plan emerged during a Spring break in Paris with my children.   And although I executed the plan in the time period of three months, it took a lot of pulling together and learning what steps to take after each step that came before.  I was pretty much winging it.  I knew nothing about getting the proper visa which, it turned out, was the most challenging task of all.  The visa didn’t come through until the day before our flight to Paris and after many crying jags – my own — in the middle of the French embassy in New York City.  I begged and pleaded with disinterested French embassy employees until I finally found a sympathetic ear.  I rented my furnished, modest suburban house in New York for an apartment in Paris that cost the same as the rent I got for my house.  The realtors were useless, so after a month I put my own ad in the NY Times and the first people who called, a young German couple, ended up renting my house.  How did I know I’d be able to rent my house for the same monthly cost as a Paris apartment?  I didn’t.  I was just determined to make it work this way.  I managed to get my children into a French bi-lingual private school I had heard about.  In fact, hearing about this school while in Paris on that Spring break and finding out that the French government subsidizes private schools – which makes them extremely inexpensive — is what first planted the idea in my head that this move was indeed possible.  And wise.  An affordable private school in Paris for my children and a year abroad with travel for them as well?  And for me a year to write in Paris and to travel throughout Europe? I had always said a writer could live anywhere.  Here was the perfect opportunity for both me and my children.  Seriously, who wouldn’t want to do this?

So there I was in Paris, a mother alone with her two children.  Knowing no one.  I’ve always remembered the feeling I had my first day there.  I put my children to bed in our Paris apartment for some much needed sleep after our overnight flight and I went out to find cell phones for all of us.  I had been told of the market street nearby and stores within walking distance of our apartment.  When I emerged onto the street from our building I was consumed with fear.  I felt suddenly ill.  What had I done?  Was I indeed crazy?  I was in a foreign country with no friends, no family except my young children, and a vague and inadequate knowledge of the language.  I was alone and terrified.  The cars seemed to float above the street.  The world was surreal.  I did not feel grounded.  I didn’t recognize anything and I didn’t recognize myself.

But my first morning in Paris told me everything I needed to know.  When I woke up the next day with the shutters of my bedroom window open on that August morning, I heard the echoes of voices speaking French in the courtyard, I heard dishes rattling and the scent of baked goods wafted in.  I had an unfamiliar feeling I could not name.  It didn’t occur to me what that feeling was for the first ten minutes I lay in bed after opening my eyes.  And then it came to me.  It was so simple that I was shocked to realize it.  But I couldn’t remember when last I had felt this way.  I was, in fact, truly happy.  I knew immediately that I had finally come to a place where there was no separation between my internal life and my external life.  I knew then why I had worked so hard to get to Paris, ignoring what I knew most people felt, and what some expressed — that I was crazy.  I moved to Paris because I had to.  I had been listening to my higher self, or as I’ve now come to learn, I was following the pull of my essential self.  I was merely compelled to live the life that would make me feel whole.  What I had thought was a whim turned out to be a necessity.  It saved me.  Or, rather, I saved myself.  And as time went on, and Paris proved to be the best thing that had ever happened to me and to my children, the comments about my courage began to surface.

I’ve emerged from many tight spots, many dark places in my life.  And, each time, I credit my resourcefulness for being able to do this.  So does it take courage to follow the call of your essential life?   And if it does, what is this thing we call courage?  I have come to believe that courage is merely the ability and will to tap into your own resourcefulness and creative thinking and not let fear get in your way.  I’ll be the first to tell you I am a very resourceful person.  I’d be the last to tell you I’m courageous.  I’m no different than anyone else who knows they must put one foot in front of the other during the worst of times, and who follows an impulse and idea because not following it would feel like not living.

Overcoming fear is not as hard as you might think. I had come to know fear quite well over the years. When I first moved to California from New York, leaving the nest my children had emptied – why remain in an empty nest? — I knew I could trust the voice of my essential self as it had never led me astray before.  Once I was settled into my new home, I made this promise to myself.  Every day I’d do at least one thing that terrified me, one thing that would perhaps bring me closer to my goals in my new life. Sometimes it was a phone call to someone I thought would not be receptive at all.  Sometimes it was an email I was afraid to send.  Sometimes it was trying to get an appointment or audition that seemed one hundred percent out of reach.  The fear was there each and every day, and every day I made myself reject it.  And if the task didn’t bring the hoped for reward, it always brought the reward of conquering my fear.  And that, in itself, inspired me to keep moving forward.

Fear never stops trying to grab your attention away from what you really want.  It doesn’t go away.  But if you tune into what really matters to you, if you tap into the engine of your heart and soul and longing, fear doesn’t have a chance.  Only courage does.

Perhaps my sister taught me courage after all, although she hadn’t meant to.