Have I not commanded thee?
Be strong and of good courage;
be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed:
for the Lord thy God is with thee
withersoever thou goest.
“I am sorry that your father could not come to say goodbye. It would arouse the Russians’ suspicions if he did not arrive at work on time,” she said. The tears were already threatening to spill from her motherly, bright blue eyes.
“I understand,” her son said. “Give him my love.” He adjusted the rough satchel on his shoulder, the only possession he would take to America.
“Come here,” she said, wrapping him in her arms. As the two stood on the dusty road listening to the grass rustling in the predawn glow, they let the warmth of their embrace penetrate their woolen coats. The words that had been building up inside her came rushing out. “I wish the Russians would just leave. I wish they would not conscript eighteen-year-olds to do their dirty work. I wish that Lithuania was free from their vile…”
“I know. I know, but there is nothing we can do,” her son said. The silence hung in the air as they continued holding each other, the son patting his mother’s back gently.
“Promise me this,” she whispered into his ear, “that you will never again try to contact us, that you will never again use your true name, and that you will never forget our love for you.”
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
After a time the two let go of each other. “Can we say a prayer?” his mother asked, her eyes wet.
They bowed their heads and his mother spoke to the sky. “God in Heaven, I have tried to be a good mother. I have struggled at times, but I need you now, more than ever. Please bless my son, that angels will safeguard his journey and future. We love thee and thank thee. Amen.”
“Amen,” her son said.
They gazed at each other for a moment, letting the quiet speak the words their hearts could not.
“Be brave and trust God, that he will send His angels to be with you, my son. Goodbye.”
“Goodbye,” he said, turning. “Thank you, Mother.”
Before he had walked five steps his mother called out, “One last thing—” He turned back, taking in her sturdy confidence and love-worn silhouette one last time.
“Thank you, Mother.”
And then she watched her son walk down the road toward the docks. The docks where the ship that would take him far away from Lithuania forever waited patiently in the hopeful haze of dawn.
His small, cold hand slips into mine and I give it a little squeeze to let him know I am listening. Parents and teammates crowd the deck cheering Go! Go! Go! as the next heat of swimmers churns their way through the water, but my ears listen only for the uncertain voice of my youngest brother, Ryan.
“How do I be brave?” he asks. I turn to look down at his blue eyes and white-blond hair sticking up in a soggy porcupine crown. His name, Ryan, is a family name. It is Gaelic for ‘little king’, though, in that moment, he looks more ‘little’ than ‘kingly’ to me.
Barging into the conversation, my middle brother, Matthew, makes two fists. “You got to get mad. Angry. Like the Hulk.” Matthew flexes his stringy arms and swings at an invisible adversary. “And then you just do it. Nike-style. You feel the rage and DOMINATE.” In his best slow motion, Matthew punches his fist into his palm. “Ryan SMASH.”
Ryan grips my hand tightly, and I shake my head and raise an eyebrow at Matthew, whose name is Hebrew for “Gift of God.” Perhaps imagination is his gift. I strain to picture Ryan as a meaty, green eight-year-old with domination on his agenda. Chuckling to myself, I feel a tug from Ryan’s hand.
“Why are you laughing?” Ryan’s eyes are searchingly honest and confused. I stop. Nearly choke, incredulous. He doesn’t actually believe Matthew, does he? He must know that bravery is not about compulsive rage, right? But the question in his eyes tells me otherwise.
I suppose it takes experience to understand where true courage comes from.
“Success comes with experience, Walter,” she said, taking his hand in hers. “Starting a new life here in Iowa, starting a tailoring shop in our garage,” she pulled his hand to the tiny heartbeat in her stomach, “and starting a new family with me—it seems like you are doing a whole lot of starting. That means the success and experience are still coming. Just be patient.”
“I am not the patient type and you know it,” her husband said, leaning in to whisper in her ear, “but since it’s you… well, I might be persuaded—just this once,” and he planted a quick kiss on her cheek, smiling.
She reached behind her back, grinning, and smoothly swiped an envelope from their tiny kitchen table. “This came in the post today, forwarded from the government,” she said. “It looks important, but I don’t recognize the recipient. It says ‘Wladislaus Roniceros’.”
The smile disappeared from his face. “How?” he muttered to himself grabbing the letter. “They knew better than to contact me. No one is supposed to know that name!”
His wife planted her hands on her hips. “What are you talking about, Walter?”
“That was the name I used coming to America. It was made up. Only my family and I knew it. Contact was a last resort because we couldn’t risk the Russians discovering that I had left.”
“What does this mean then?”
“It means something is wrong.” Walter’s hands were shaking as he held the letter. “You should open it,” he said. He held it out to her.
“Are you sure, Walter?”
“Yes. Take it.”
Slipping the letter gently from his grasp she asked, “Do you want me to read it to you?”
“Yes,” Walter answered, making his way to the corner to sit in the old rocking chair. She opened the letter with a knife and he closed his eyes, eyes the same bright blue as his mother’s. She read:
Dear Mr. Roniceros,
I am sorry to inform you of your mother’s passing. She drowned when she fell off the docks on her way to return several sailors’ coats your father had tailored.
“Oh Walter! I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. It’s …” and her voice trailed off. The letter dropped back to the tabletop.
Walter just kept his eyes closed and rocked. And rocked. And rocked.
“What event are you racing today Ryan?” I ask.
“The 200-yard freestyle” he mumbles, shooting a glance at the pool where the older kids are confidently taking their mark.
“You want to know how to really be brave?” I ask. His eyes slowly rise to meet mine. “Let me tell you.” The starting blast sounds.
“In sixth grade I was terrified of butterflies,” I begin. Ryan giggles. “You know what I mean: swimming the 100-yard and 200-yard butterfly races.” As I continue, he begins shifting his weight from foot to foot.
“I spent all week praying that I would survive race day. When the school bell rang on Friday, everyone else celebrated the start of winter break; I didn’t want to leave school and have to face the butterflies.”
Ryan bounces from foot to foot.
“What’s the matter? Do you have butterflies in your stomach?” I ask. Ryan nods. “I know exactly what you are feeling.” I remember just how it felt as I stood on the icy pool deck that Saturday, the wind snaking around my knobbly knees and bare chest. My stomach felt full of boiling peanut butter—thick, goopy, and sick.
I remember focusing on one thought as I warmed up for my first race: Breathe. Just breathe. Then my coach was yelling at me, “Hey! Stop breathing so much! It’s slowing you down.”
“But I need air!” I yelled back.
‘You can breathe when you’re dead!’ he said and blew his whistle.
Ryan interrupts my thoughts with a question. “How do you get rid of butterflies in your stomach?”
“You swallow a butterfly net.” Ryan cocks his head to the side. “I’m just kidding. Anyway, the meet began and I swam the 100-yard butterfly. By the time I hit the finishing wall I felt like I might pass out. I did some quick mental math as I climbed from the pool.
100 yards x 2 = 200 yards
100 yard butterfly = me, breathless and near complete exhaustion
200 yard butterfly = me + 1 headstone reading:
EVEN IN DEATH,
HE HELD HIS BREATH
The little joke does nothing to relieve Ryan’s nervous rocking. He asks, “So what did you do?”
“Well, I ran to my coach, sobbing, and told him, ‘I can’t do the 200-yard butterfly, Coach. I just can’t do it.’ In my head, I said a little prayer. Please God, all I want for Christmas is an angel to help me.
“My coach grabbed me by the shoulders and stooped down to look me in the eyes. ‘Ok. That’s fine,’ he told me, ‘You don’t have to swim.’ I felt a glorious moment of relief. ‘But you still have the choice,’ he continued. ‘You can either swim this race and leave knowing you had the courage to try your best, or you can not swim the race and leave knowing you never tried.’
“That did it for me. My coach was the angel I had prayed for. He stood at the end of my lane hollering Go! Go! Go! for all eight lengths of my race. To me, it was a miracle. I asked God for help and He delivered. It’s just like the scripture says: Ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”
When I finish the story, I can tell that the gears in Ryan’s head are turning. Turning, turning, turning.
“Yes, Helen Marie?”
“Why don’t we celebrate your birthday?” The little girl in overalls and pigtails sat down on the bottom of the stepladder, resting her chin in her hands.
“Because I don’t know what day it is,” her papa said, carefully smoothing the pants he was ironing.
“That’s silly. Everyone has to have a birthday!” Helen said.
“Yes. You are right. I just cannot seem to remember which day is mine.” Her papa looked up from his work and knew by her face that she didn’t believe him; it was the same face his wife made when he told her he didn’t have too much work left to do. “How about this, princess: why don’t you choose a day to celebrate my birthday?”
“Me?” Helen’s eyes grew wide, “Ok.” She scrunched up her nose and stuck out her tongue in concentration. The two stayed like that for a minute or so, the father ironing clothes and the daughter pondering dates, as fleck-filled sunlight spilled through the garage’s open windows.
The girl’s head popped up off her hands. “How about March fourth?”
“Yes. So you can celebrate it together!”
“I like it,” Papa nodded.
“We can have the party here, in your tailoring shop!”
Amused, he said, “You better talk to your Mama about that one.”
“Yes sir!” little Helen said as she stood and skipped out of the garage into the Iowa spring air.
A few weeks later, Helen skipped back into the garage and handed her father a piece of paper. “What is this?” he asked.
“It’s an invitation to your birthday party tomorrow!” Helen nearly shouted.
Her papa held the paper at arm’s length. “Ah! Now I see it. Yes, indeed it is.”
“I made it all by m—” and then Helen let out a sudden shriek of terror and scrambled up the steps of the stepladder, clinging to the top. Quickly setting down his needle and thread, her Papa came around his desk. “What is it?”
“SPIDER!” she screamed, pointing, while her papa calmly planted one boot on top of the scurrying bug, no larger than a penny.
He lifted his daughter into his arms. “It is all right. The spider is gone. You are going to be fine.”
Wiping her eyes and nose with grubby hands, Helen began to calm down. “How were you not scared?”
“I’m not scared of spiders.”
“Oh,” she said in a small voice as he walked to the corner of the garage where the old rocking chair now rested. Propping her on one knee, they rocked together. “Are you scared of anything Papa?” she asked, laying her head against her papa’s shoulder.
“Yes. Of course I am. Everyone is scared of something.”
“What are you scared of?”
Helen sat up straight, bewildered. “Water? That’s silly.”
“Not to me. You see, I have seen a great deal more water in my time than you may ever see in your entire life.” She still looked skeptical. “When I came to this country, I came in a big boat. It took many days to travel the whole ocean, and all I had was a satchel with my tailoring supplies and some money, neither of which could help me with my fear—my fear of drowning. I did not know how to swim.”
Understanding seeped into the girl’s eyes. “How did you do it then? How were you brave enough to travel the whole ocean?”
He closed his eyes, gently rocking the chair, breathing in memories. “I remembered something my mother had said to me: Be brave and trust God, that he will send His angels to be with you. So I said a little prayer. I said, ‘God, I am scared. I do not want to be scared anymore. Help me.”
“What happened then?” Helen asked.
“Well, God answered me. He sent me an angel. A friend. The man’s name was Ryan.”
“Hey! That’s our last name!” Helen said, surprised.
“Yes, it is. Ryan was a Scottish sailor aboard the ship, and he knew the most wonderful stories I have ever heard. Throughout the trip, whenever Ryan could spare a moment, we would meet and he would tell me stories that would take my mind far away from my fear. That’s why, when I had to choose a new name in America, I chose ‘Ryan’. The name reminds me that I can always be brave when I have God on my side.”
“I like that story very much Papa,” she said, resting her pigtails once again on his shoulder. “Thank you for telling me.”
Together they rocked, enjoying the silence in the cozy garage, until Helen whispered something that her papa couldn’t quite hear.
“What was that?” he murmured out of the corner of his mouth.
“Happy birthday Papa.”
“Thank you, Helen. Thank you.”
“You know what words can be spelled with the letters of ‘courage’, Ryan?”
“The words ‘race’ and ‘grace’,” I say.
Matthew, who possesses the gift of eavesdropping as well as the gift of imagination, holds up a hand. “Wait. How do you spell ‘grace’ from ‘courage’? There isn’t even a ‘g’ in ‘courage’.” He screws up his nose. Then he smacks his forehead. “Oh. Never mind.”
Ignoring Matthew, I turn to Ryan. “You know the story about how God helped Great-great-grandpa Walter Ryan have courage when he came to America, right?”
“Well, we can have courage too. When I raced my first 200-yard butterfly I learned how to be brave—you say a little prayer, and God sends an angel. The angel can be a person, an inspiration, or even a feeling of peace. God’s grace is shown when he sends us angels to lift us to success, even when we fall or doubt. If God helped Great-great-grandpa and me, God can help you too, Ryan. Would you like to say a prayer now? I’ll help you if you’d like.” His soggy, blond porcupine crown bobs.
Off to the side we three brothers kneel together, a sanctuary amidst chaos, and I cannot help but smile as the little king asks the Great King to send him an angel to help him be brave.
The Holy Bible, King James Version, Joshua 1:9. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1979. Print.
The Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Section 88:63. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1979. Print