Recently I re-read the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley. The phrases “I am the master of my fate” and “I am the captain of my soul” have always been part of my lexicon, but it wasn’t until the first time I read this poem that I realized from whence these phrases came. And it wasn’t until almost five years ago that I finally understood what they meant.
On December 31 of this year, my sister, Susan, would have been forty-five; but, five years ago, throat cancer became a brain cancer that ultimately led to her death. A few months after celebrating her 40th birthday with a family “Sooz Crooz,” my sister’s valiant battle ended.
I think it is typical that when one pictures a “bloody but unbowed” warrior the images that come to mind include perhaps a gladiator, or a Marine, or a knight medieval. And so it was for me for many years. A warrior was Amazonian in nature – a crusading figure full of strength and courage. However, when my sister was diagnosed with brain cancer, the picture I carried in my head of that “bloody but unbowed” warrior began to change.
In retrospect, I don’t know why I was surprised by the gladiator-like spirit she exhibited while battling her illness. After all, as a two pound, two ounce, three-month-early preemie born on the last day of December 1970, she had been fighting for her life from her birth.
At first she struggled to thrive. With under-developed lungs, breathing was a challenge. When she finally conquered the whole breathing thing and left the incubator that was her home for the first few months of her life, she had to wait for a family to claim her and make her their own – which we did. Towards the end of March in 1971, her adoption was finalized and she became my little sister.
Throughout her childhood she faced two distinct challenges. The first was her health. Being born prematurely contributed to a vocal cord virus that she dealt with all her life. The virus was rampant and prolific – it grew in her throat like a patch of wild strawberries. Because of its location near her airway, the virus needed to be surgically removed frequently so she could breathe.
As if dealing with a potentially life-threatening virus wasn’t challenge enough, she also faced childhood bullies. We all know that bullies don’t really need a reason to bully, but my sister was an extra-easy target for two reasons. First, the numerous surgeries had created scar tissue on her vocal cords. This scar tissue made her sound like Kermit the Frog (which ultimately led to her nickname of Froggy). Second, being premature, she was teeny-tiny, and she got picked on because she was so small.
Eventually her voice became more of an asset than a hindrance because it helped provide her with a sense of identity. And when she finally grew into her personality? Wow! Watch out world! People were often amazed at the moxie, chutzpah, and confidence that came from this barely five foot tall female.
Thankfully, it was this moxie, chutzpah, and confidence that strengthened her “unconquerable soul” while she went through cancer treatment. At all times she displayed a quiet dignity that was humbling to see. I can’t imagine that she was unafraid, but I know she never let her fear get in her way. Even as she was dying she was living her life to the fullest.
So now, when I think invictus, when I think warrior, I don’t see that gladiator of old. Instead, I see my barely five foot tall, froggy-voiced, spunky sister; and I give thanks that for her, “It matter(ed) not how strait the gate,/How charged with punishments the scroll./(She was) the master of (her) fate:/(She was) the captain of (her) soul.”