‘I Am Not Afraid, I Was Born to Do This’
How friends helped a young woman fight a crippling disease — and find the strength to push on through God
It was a chilly spring night of this year, my family was out of town, and my skeletal body was drenched in pain. I was sitting with my friend in my parents’ kitchen, feeling the pressure of my bones against every surface, trying to eat a sweet potato. But I did not have the strength to use a fork. I glanced at my friend.
“Can you help me?” I asked him, hating to do so.
We cannot help you. We do not know how to save you. We cannot lend a hand and heal your body.
My friend responded with a joke and loving enthusiasm, saying, “Of course,” with his eyes, trying to alleviate my terror of my body and my red-hot embarrassment. He peeled apart the sweet potato and mashed it up. As he continued to smile and joke, saying things like, “This is my time to shine,” smashing my food, his humor dismantled my disbelief that a 24-year-old body, once so able and strong, was collapsing.
And then he fed me.
This man — a former Army Ranger sniper, tall, with a rough exterior, torn flannel shirts, and a big lumberjack beard, someone who could break me in half with a flick of his finger — was gentle in that moment. He scooped small bites of food and made airplane noises as he brought the potato to my mouth. And, although tears were burning up my eyes, I could not help but laugh.
And when I laughed, I forgot my body and felt my heart relax as my friend fed me dinner and nourished my soul.
It is almost comical how something so simple as this can change someone’s life, as it did mine. It is funny how, as I write this, the memory of it gives me goosebumps and swells my heart. My core, my very being, was hungry for truth and ready to be fed.
And a person aching for new life cannot be fed from an empty soul.
Some months earlier, before I needed to be spoon-fed like a baby, I was driving up the winding road to our cozy home in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming. Nature was lush with color and life before its impending fall; but inside of me, winter had already come. I had lost my health, my work, my sweetheart, my certainty, my purpose, my future. What I had known to always and absolutely be mine suddenly was not.
And what was left of me, at first glance, was a charming woman, a quick-witted woman, a playful woman — but in her core, a woman so stark, bitter, bewildered, vain, isolated, dead. There was nothing left to be broken.
And what was left of me, at first glance, was a charming woman, but, in her core, a woman so stark, bitter, bewildered, vain, isolated, dead. There was nothing left to be broken.
So that autumn day, nearing our home in a neighboring pasture, I saw a scene that prompted me to pull over and park the car. I stepped out of my silver Honda and stood in front of it with arms crossed and eyes transfixed: not blinking, feeling a lump in my throat and a burn arise in the bridge of my nose.
I saw a dead horse, a Blanketed Appaloosa, bleeding from his side, with a perfect circle of mares and colts crowded around him: silent, unmoved, watching the corpse and keeping vigil over him. Alive, their noble nostrils flaring, their strong equine hearts beating, the multiplicity of their colors vibrant against the darkening sky — chestnut, bay, roan, grey — these horses mourned and quieted themselves, gazing at their lifeless companion. They could not lend a hand. They could not save him.
Chill wind reddened my cheeks. Still, I could not avert my gaze, and I did not know I was crying until I felt the wetness melt into my collarbone.
How many times had I lay below, looking up at the white coats and purple scrubs of the nurses, the orange woolen coat draped over my mother’s shoulders, the gray sweater snug on my brother’s torso, the blue blouse wrapped around my sister’s pregnant belly, the bubblegum pink blanket my friends held tightly as they looked down at my disfigured appearance? How many times had I laboriously breathed, wondering if I should even have hope, wondering if this temple of my body would ever be rebuilt?
Doctors cried, nurses panicked with unbridled fear, my friends wept, my siblings mourned, my parents grieved and could not even say my name.
We cannot help you. We do not know how to save you. We cannot lend a hand and heal your body.
So, that brisk fall day, I soaked in the image before me of this dead animal, and I understood. Loved ones gazed on my life helplessly. And though my body was failing me — as it still does — my soul, my core, my being, my essence was destroyed, and died.
And not a day goes by in which I do not thank God for that. External forces — illness and loss — rattled my little world, and once my tiny soul had shrunk to a minuscule nub with an almost invisible spark of love, it could be rebuilt. Maybe my body never will be. We pray, we hope, we beg for a miracle. It is not wrong for us to pray for good health.
Ultimately, though, I do not care what happens to my body as long as that spark of love in my soul grows every day, and as long as Christ is constantly renewing Himself inside of this unworthy vessel.
It is possible to “put on a new man.” It is true God makes all things new. But first we have to die to ourselves, or we cannot live or love authentically. The soul I once knew shriveled because it had been sustained with things that did not last: physical beauty, human admiration, ambition for noticeable and good work. When this happened, the day I looked on that dead horse, I was desolate. I was that dead horse.
But I am not anymore. I am not a wounded animal. I am alive. Even if there is nothing left but a twitch in my eye — I am alive. And as long as I am breathing, my soul has a purpose: to know, love, and serve God. And that really means something. As long as I am breathing, I must strive to be holy. Even still, after death, my soul is worth fighting for. Through an unfathomable mercy of God, my soul disintegrated and my being was disarmed, and I let the pain of illness, loneliness, and longing enter inside of me.
As I let the pain in, then I could truly let God in, and as I truly let God in, He nourished me through His body, blood, soul, and divinity.
As I let the pain in, then I could truly let God in, and as I truly let God in, He nourished me through His body, blood, soul, and divinity. He does every day through the means He has given us: His Church, His sacraments, His saints.
And still, God nourishes me through His body on earth: through good and holy friends, through people who will tell me when I am wrong, who tell me that illness is no excuse for spiritual laziness, and encourage me when I make tiny strides closer to Christ.
My heart beats with gratitude as I remember the night my big, burly friend, a brother to me, fed me dinner. You see, when your soul keeps dying and rebuilding, when your soul is thirsting for something that will never evaporate — little moments of real love seal themselves into your memory and demand to be honored. They become, as my buddy says, the new minimum.
When you gravitate toward friends who have a light about them that you yourself do not possess, when God allows a multiplicity of friendships — ones that are decades old or fresh as dew or unexpected as daisies in winter — to flourish and teach you, you do not forget.
You do not forget the moments in which you are so vulnerable and exposed and someone loves you anyway. You do not forget when your Army veteran brother in Christ says “good” when you walk past a mirror and say you do not recognize yourself anymore. You do not forget it, because you know he sees the light and the purification and the goodness that you cannot yet see.
You do not forget when a friend touches your hand and sighs out, “Love is always fruitful” when you are crying because another doctor has told you that you will never have children. Nor do you forget when another says, “You are offering,” the day you realize, truly, you live in a body that wants you dead — and, of course, as for each body, its wish will be granted one day. You do not forget when a friend shows up at your house almost every day just to sit and talk with you again and again.
Things have been more uncertain lately than they’ve ever been. It seems every day I get a call with more news that my body, as my sister Lucia said a few days ago, is like that old Volvo we had that used to always break down — and just when we thought it was fixed, it would break down again. Of course, this is excruciatingly hard. I cry and I mourn. I may, very likely, die from this — when, I do not know. I hope it is far off.
But then I remember: I am not that dead horse, but I am surrounded — surrounded by people who live vertically, whose hearts are in heaven, who are Veronicas wiping the face of Jesus and Simons who help Him carry the cross, who show that love with falsehood is not love at all, who will never, ever leave my side, even if all that is left of me is that twitch in my eye.
“I am not afraid. I was born to do this.”
Perhaps that dead horse is who I used to be, who I pray I never will be again: I desire no pity, and I receive no pity as God encircles me with an army of those fighting for my soul, who point it to the Greatest Reality and feed my burning heart with love unshakable, immovable, and everlasting.
And, God willing, if I am ever to rest in heaven — I cannot wait to thank the varying and abundant souls who fought to bring me Home.
Until then, with praise in my heart, as I stand beside my brothers and sisters in Christ, who are striving so hard to live forever in the Beatific Vision, embracing the crosses they lift here on earth — I thank God. I thank Him with every fiber of my being. And I echo the words of the warrior St. Joan of Arc: “I am not afraid. I was born to do this.”
Monica Arbery studied at the University of Dallas and worked as the residential coordinator of Monica’s House in Chicago, a Catholic program for homeless single mothers and their children. She lives in Wyoming and is fighting Late Term Advanced Lyme Disease.