Fearful Courage

“Scared is what you’re feeling. Brave is what you’re doing.”—Emma Donoghue

Ten years ago this month, R and I visited a friend in Lubumbashi, which is the second-largest city in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Lubumbashi is also the mining capital of the country, and has its own small airport. I was excited to visit because they had Western food items in their markets such as Nutella and chocolate that we could bring back with us to Zimbabwe.

One morning when our friend was at work, R and I went for a walk to visit the national museum. Along the way, we were stopped by soldiers who said that we had broken the law by stepping on their grass. They grabbed R and escorted her into their compound. Having heard some horrific stories about the treatment of women by Congolese soldiers, I was immediately concerned for R’s safety. I managed to block the gate door from closing by sticking my foot into a small gap and then squeezed the rest of my body into the doorway.

The soldiers appeared drunk and carried rifles, so I did my best to be as assertive as possible without coming across aggressively. I told the soldiers that R needed to stay with me and asked them to release her. Since R’s French was much better than mine, she also told them repeatedly that we could not be separated. I’ve never been more scared in my life or as quick to pray to God for help.

I’m not sure whether the soldiers were just playing games with us or they simply changed their minds about taking R, but eventually they let us leave the compound together without further incident. Hours later, my heart was still pounding feverishly. Even a decade later, the memory remains vivid and intense.

It’s possible to be fearful and brave simultaneously; they’re not mutually exclusive. In fact, far too many people in the world must embody some form of fearful courage every day in order to survive their personal circumstances and environment.



When I was younger I used to joke that I was only afraid of three things: clowns, needles, and country music. Now that I’m older and wiser, I’m still terrified of clowns, as every sane person should be. However, I’m no longer scared of needles, thanks to receiving a multitude of them before moving to Zimbabwe, and I’ve also developed an appreciation for some forms of country music, mostly because I went through a Johnny Cash phase in my early 30’s and more recently binge-watched three seasons of Nashville with my wife.

The unfunny thing about my fears is that I have many more than three. Without spending too much time thinking about them, I can easily make a lengthy list, such as:

  • Dying before my kids are old enough to take care of themselves
  • Dedicating too much of my daily life (and vacations) to my work and my phone
  • Wondering when people will realize I’m inherently lazy and inefficient
  • Messing up my kids with inadequate parenting skills
  • My shyness being interpreted as arrogance
  • Having to network in a room full of strangers
  • My crazy puppy racing out the door and getting hit by a car
  • Not investing enough into my older son’s social and academic development
  • Realizing that I’m a sell-out who got a desk job instead of writing a novel
  • Squandering my resources instead of giving more to people in need
  • Not being suitably qualified to find a new job or career opportunity
  • Staying in the same job because I lack the courage to try something else
  • Becoming seriously ill or losing my mobility
  • Cutting open my hands while washing the dishes
  • No longer being useful or valued in my professional life
  • Participating in a system that marginalizes or devalues others
  • Moving into a greater leadership role … and not moving into a greater leadership role
  • Being fake and insincere around others and with myself
  • Caring too much about things that don’t truly matter
  • Admitting to my constant struggle to believe in God
  • Embracing too much public transparency and vulnerability

But mostly I’m afraid of getting into my car one night and discovering there’s a clown in the back seat.



In Grade One, I received an assignment which required completing the following sentence: “I was most surprised …” I filled in the blanks by writing, “when my parents told me I was adopted.”

Although I classified it as a surprise, I can’t recall ever not knowing that I was adopted. While we never discussed it much as a family, this fact about my birth was never kept a secret from me.

However, my parents made a point of never telling anyone outside of our immediate family that I was adopted. In fact, I don’t think there are too many people who would even know this about me. My brother, James, was not adopted, but my parents never treated us any differently. I can remember many occasions in which people would say to my parents that I looked so much like my dad. The response from my parents would always be something like, “Thank you” or “He sure does.” But there was never a secret wink or nod from them during these encounters. I think that at the heart of it, my parents adopted me as a nine-week-old baby, told me that I was adopted as soon as I was old enough to understand, and then, for the rest of my life, I was totally and wholly theirs without the need for any type of public disclaimer or asterisk.

I have always recoiled when hearing adults introduce a child as their adopted son or daughter. This is especially true when birth children are included in the mix. “This is our daughter ___. And this is our adopted daughter ___.” If you’ve adopted someone into your family, they are now your son or daughter. Why is it necessary to clarify to the world how they’re different or separate from your other children? I suppose that if it is more obvious physically, then people will likely know that a child is adopted and might ask questions, but my discomfort lies not in whether people could/should know if a child is adopted (it doesn’t need to be kept a secret by any means) but rather with how an adopted child is generally viewed, treated and named by their new family unit.

I acknowledge that I’m a white person who was adopted as a baby into a white family. It is likely that I would view the adoption process quite differently if I was an indigenous child who had been removed from her family of origin (or even community), had joined a family through an international adoption process, or was welcomed into a home as an older child.

I know a number of other adoptees who grew up with a deep longing to know more about their birth family. I did not grow up with this desire. Except for when after-school specials about adoption would come on the TV (I could never watch those), I never much thought about my origins. That is, until I turned 34.

At 34, I became a father to my first son. K’s birth was terrifying; there were serious complications and an emergency C-section was required to keep him alive. But then the chaos ended, and I got to hold him close to my chest and to kiss his beautiful face. At that moment I realized K was the first blood relative I had ever met. He came from me.

In the days that followed, I started to think a lot about my adoption. I didn’t feel any sense of loss or pain about not knowing my birth family. My mind wasn’t focused on my needs at all. What I reflected on, and hadn’t thought of before, is how emotional it must have been for my birth mother to carry me inside of her for nine months, to go through the intense and painful process of childbirth, and then to give me up for adoption. Even if surrendering me was the best decision for her, and done without any sense of loss or regret over the years, she must occasionally wonder about me and how my life has turned out. I don’t see how you can go through pregnancy and childbirth without the experiences having a lasting impact on your life.

Without knowing whether my birth mother wanted any contact with me or not, I decided to reach out to let her know I was alive and well and to say thank you for giving me life. I connected with the appropriate government ministry in Nova Scotia and received some documentation about my birth. As I read through the material, I was completely taken aback by the story that unfolded. Although I didn’t think much about my adoption growing up, I realized then that I’d carefully constructed a personal narrative in my mind that had explained it all neatly. Now I was faced with a real person’s story with factual information and a family history. I also understood that once I reached out, I would not be able to control what, if anything, might happen next or how this could impact my life and those closest to me.

The documentation from the government included instructions on how to write to my birth mother through the ministry’s social worker without giving out any of my personal information, such as my new name and address. A month or two later, I received a second letter from the ministry to see if I needed any help writing the letter to my birth mother. After another few months, I received a third letter asking me if I wanted my file to remain active.

K turned nine a few months ago. He has a brother, B, who just turned six. I’m doing my best to raise them to be kind, compassionate and brave.

I still haven’t written to my birth mother.



“I want to unfold.
Let no place in me hold itself closed,
for where I am closed, I am false.”—Rilke

As an adult, there are certain memories from my childhood that I can remember more clearly and readily than others. These are mostly pivotal moments which have influenced the trajectory of my life and shaped the development of my character, behaviour and personality.

One of my earliest memories is of me sitting at the top of a slide at a playground while singing made-up songs to the sun and the trees and the flowers and the birds. I am six years old and I love to sing outside. It’s at this point that a group of older children approach and start mocking me. I don’t understand what I’ve done wrong, but I quickly learn that something I’m doing is not normal.

“What are you singing about?” “Why are you all alone?” “You’re a weirdo.”

I turn away from them and then run and hide.

The soft blanket that I wrap around myself for comfort hardens to become an impenetrable shield. My simple and honest expressiveness is replaced with something false yet tough and sophisticated. I no longer sing. I am closed.

There are places within me that remain shut.

I want to unfold. To be true. To sing again.