It was the winter that I was 3 years old. Maybe 4. My mom had recently married Dennis, and we had moved into his little trailer, situated among soybean fields and curving country roads. That winter was one of wool mittens drying on the wood stove, their scent spicy and musty. The chill from outside seemed to leak into our house, and the floors and walls always felt chilly. I sat close to the stove, and my hair always smelled smoky.
A winter storm blew in, dumping snow, then ice. It hid everything that was familiar, the grass and mud, and drifted up to the bottom of the tall window in our living room. One morning mom put on my favorite blue coat, my brown hat with the pom pom on top, my fuzzy snow boots and my mittens. Dennis opened the window, removed the screen, and lowered me the few inches to the snow.
I held my breath. Everything was beautiful and glittering and terrifying. I could feel the thin sheet of ice settle under my feet. And the deep snow underneath was waiting. I couldn’t move.
I am a fearful person. The things that keep me up at night burrow deep in my mind. These are not unique things that I am afraid of. I am afraid that I will get sick. I am afraid that I will be hurt. I am afraid that I will lose loved ones. I am afraid of being alone. Some nights, in those dark seasons, the fears take my breath away.
It’s not always at night. I can be sitting across from a friend, laughing and talking, when I feel the icy cold fear. What if I mess up? What if they leave? What if I break things beyond repair? And just like the little girl in the bright blue coat, I am paralyzed by that fear. I can almost feel the ice shift under my feet, afraid that one wrong move will ruin everything. But then I remember.
I craned my neck and looked back towards the window where Mom and Dennis stood, smiling and waving.
“It’s fine,” Mom called. “You won’t fall.”
I took one small step forward, my boot sinking just an inch in the snow. The thick crust of ice held me up.
I took another step.
Slowly, slowly, I made my way. My steps were the first on the fresh snow, and everything, from our old shed to our skinny crab apple tree, was draped in shimmering frost. I explored the yard until my cheeks burned and my nose began to run, until the chill reached through my mittens and to my fingertips.
And then I came home.
At the window, Dennis leaned down and lifted me up. My mother peeled off the layers of bulky winter clothes and I listened to my mittens sizzle on the wood stove.
I don’t think I knew what the word brave meant as I sat on the couch, an afghan spread over my lap, and drank hot cocoa. But I do remember smiling so broadly that my chapped cheeks burned. I knew what it meant to be paralyzed by fear that day. To lose my breath and stand frozen.
But I also knew what it felt like to take the first step.