I vividly recall the day I found out I had rheumatoid arthritis. I left the family doctor’s office and drove the short distance to Nonna’s (my Italian grandmother’s) house. Sitting next to her on the couch I calmly related what the doctor had said: my case was severe, it would cripple me, and I would not finish college much less get through medical school. Neither Nonna nor I cried. There was no flailing of arms, no weeping. No! Emotion or weakness was not the Calabrese testadura (hard-headed) way. We both sat in silence; eyes fixed on her taupe shag carpet.
Ever so quietly Nonna whispered, “Coraggio, Leeza. Coraggio.” (Courage, Lisa. Courage.)
It would be years before I recognized all the facets of that phrase’s immense significance. Yet on D-Day (Diagnosis Day) it sent a clear message. It was up to me what my life with rheumatoid arthritis would be. Our ancestors in the Old County were penniless and uneducated; living on what they harvested or bartered. They suffered tragic loss of limbs and loved ones; from babies to great aunts. They lost belongings and shelters from nature’s wrath of fire and drought. Yet they used none of their adversity as an excuse to deprive life of laughter, celebration of togetherness or love. I had grown up hearing Nonna tell me those stories.
In the stillness of Nonna’s three profound words was the power to push forward through life:
— Never allowing fatigue and bone-stabbing pain as an excuse for not finishing school.
— Never using daily wicked pain or an inability to walk as an excuse not to work.