I Can’t Afford the Grace of Failure. I’m a Survivor.

I stare down at the sink to avoid eye contact. The only sound between us is the lazy drip of water on porcelain. I can’t take the silence, so I look up at her. “When did you become my worst enemy?“ Her cold, blank expression stares back at me in the mirror, radiating hate for the person she sees.

A seven-year-old Cierra Becker with her mom and dad, Army Staff Sgt. Shane Becker, who was killed in Afghanistan shortly after this photo was taken. Photo courtesy of the author.

A seven-year-old Cierra Becker with her parents. Cierra’s father, Army Staff Sgt. Shane Becker, was killed in Iraq shortly after this photo was taken. Photo courtesy of the author.

It’s difficult to develop a personality outside of grief, especially when that grief began at the age of seven. There’s not much you know about the world yet, except that it decided to slap you like a misbehaving child. Things start to look different when you’re forced to see through the kaleidoscope of grief.

 *   *   *   *

I’m standing next to my mother, who’s holding my cooing newborn sister. I reach up to hold my mother’s hand out of habit but swiftly revoke it when I remember her arms are full. She’s holding the most important thing in our world right now—I need to be strong—so I put my small hand back in my pocket. Suddenly, a sharp, frustrated cry rings out echoing off the tile. I look up and see another kid throwing a fit over candy in the store. His childish distaste for his mother’s decision seems eons away from the depths of pain I’m experiencing.

I would never throw a fit like that for candy, I think to myself. I need to be an example for my sister; I need to be strong. I need to be her hero.

Army Staff Sgt. Shane Becker with his two daughters, Cierra and Cheyenna. Photo courtesy of the author.

Army Staff Sgt. Shane Becker with his two daughters, Cierra and Cheyenna. Photo courtesy of the author.

Heroes don’t cry for candy. I studiously stand there, maintaining my composure despite my secret desire for candy as well. My mother glances down at me, her eyes tired with grief, sleepless nights, and difficult phone calls. She smiles understandingly at me.

“Would you like some M&M’s?”

When big things happen, little things seem small, and when catastrophic things happen, big things become microscopic. It’s a cycle most humans navigate as they grow up, the expansion of your tolerance to the world. I went through the same thing, just on five times the speed and half the support.

READ MORE
Even Democracy Requires Constant Vigilance From Corrosive Attacks Within

It is summer 2014, an arid Texas day. My mother is outside building our new house. Cicadas screamed as the sun beats down, reflecting the blinding heat off the aluminum trailer. I’m 14 now, and my baby sister is seven—the age I was when I lost my father.

I’ve now lived as long without my dad as I did with him.

I’m a lot taller now, still lanky like I’ve always been, and wearing a lot of flannel. I feel the AC unit blow cold air over my sun-kissed, freckled face as I construct three sandwiches instead of four. I look at my baby sister; she’s smart, funny, cute, strong, and innocent. Her long beautiful brown curls surround her face, and she angrily swipes at them when they drift into her view of the screen on her Leapster tablet. Her little legs swing forward and backward in tandem as they hang off the futon. She tosses her head back in frustration at the game and then looks up at me.

Cierra Becker as a teenager. Photo courtesy of the author.

Cierra Becker as a teenager. Photo courtesy of the author.

“You do it!” she says, frustrated, and hands me the tablet. I audibly sigh and set down the mayonnaise.

“It’s OK to ask for help, Cheyenna. You’re only seven.”

She pouts in my direction and grumpily waits for me to solve her problem. The screen is black as I wait for it to load, and I see my reflection. She stares back at me, hurt and confused.

I sit and ask myself how I was so naive, how I didn’t see the repercussions of my father’s death coming. But my mind has always been my worst enemy, and I’ve never shown myself the same grace I show others.

My mother always taught me the only person that will always be there for you is you. I believed her, but I never understood what she truly meant until I got older.

Award-Winning Journalism in Your Inbox

  • Email address
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

At 19, I abandon my pursuit of a biomedical engineering degree and decide instead to become a firefighter.

The first step of my journey was becoming an EMT. School lasted four months, and I knew from the beginning I loved it. But I was eager to prove that I could achieve the more physically challenging goal—Fire Academy—despite my small frame and asthmatic lungs. I met my mental match when performing something called a consumption drill, meant to work you as hard as possible for as long as possible until you run out of air.

Cierra Becker struggled for years with self-hatred after her father, Army Staff Sgt. Shane Becker, was killed in Afghanistan in 2007. Art by Cierra Becker.

Cierra Becker struggled for years with self-hatred after her father, Army Staff Sgt. Shane Becker, was killed in Iraq in 2007. Art by Cierra Becker.

The point is to push your boundaries not within the limits of survival but until turbulent failure. This strange new concept sends me on a spiral. I can’t afford the grace of failure. I’m a survivor.

My heart races. Hot heavy breaths barely gain depth in my chest as my lungs constrict from the inside out. I’m 21 now, a few pounds heavier with newly built strength. My muscles scream as I push them to their deoxygenated limits.

Keep going, you piece of shit, I tell myself. A dreadful sound stings my brain out of its weary confusion like alcohol on an open wound.

My low-air alarm has been going off. “Fuck,” I say aloud.

I take one last shaky breath before my mask suctions to my face, the sign of an empty air bottle.

Suddenly, light pours in, illuminating the environment as smoke clears out of the maze. The consumption drill is over.

“All right, all right, get up, Becker,” my instructor says.

I rip my mask off, breaking the seal of stagnant rubber as fresh cool air rushes into my lungs and sweat stings my eyes. I take a couple of hard wheezes and gasps as my instructor stares at me struggling with his arms folded. His distaste for my performance radiates through his body language and the annoyance spelled across his sneer-shaped mustache. I stumble upward to my feet, clutching my diaphragm as it spasms under my bunker gear.

“You think you’re gonna make it out there? You have asthma and you’re a female. You think people are gonna trust you with their lives? Get the fuck out of here,” he finishes while gesturing me toward my crew.

Cierra Becker, left, a Gold Star child, gave up her pursuit of a biomedical engineering degree to become a firefighter. Photo courtesy of the author.

Cierra Becker, left, a Gold Star child, gave up her pursuit of a biomedical engineering degree to become a firefighter. Photo courtesy of the author.

As I approach, one of them excitedly asks about my time on the consumption drill. I watch their expressions morph to surprise as we conclude I had the best consumption rate out of all of us. Yet over the excited conversations between cadets, the back of my mind burns with my instructor’s opinion of me. An opinion we share.

She’s not good enough.

Sometimes grief feels like an elephant in the room, but where a typical elephant in the room is collectively ignored because it’s collectively seen, grief is like having an elephant in the room that only you can see. If you acknowledge it, you sound insane. Ignore it and it drives you to insanity.

My life isn’t bad. I have achieved my dream career in a field that is not easy. My family is healthy and safe, and I am financially secure. I have friends who care about me. Life isn’t bad. Actually, it’s kind of fantastic. So why do I feel this way? What is this gnawing horrible dread? It consumes me. I’m drowning in it. I feel alive and I feel dead. My heart aches for the clarity my brain has tricked itself into believing it has.

 *   *   *   *

I stare down at the sink to avoid eye contact. The only sound between us is the lazy drip of water on porcelain. I can’t take the silence, so I look up at her. “When did you become my worst enemy?“ Her cold, blank expression stares back at me in the mirror, radiating hate for the person she sees.

“When did we become this way? When did we decide we weren’t good enough? When was that?” She shrugs at me, clearly annoyed that I don’t know.

“You have the answer.”

I sit in the silence of my realization, my heart paralyzed and sharp like frost on broken glass, time nearly standing still. My entire reality altered because—for some reason—I decided I wasn’t good enough for me.

Cierra Becker, her mom, and her sister, Cheyenna, today. Photo courtesy of the author.

Cierra Becker, her mom, and her sister, Cheyenna, today. Photo courtesy of the author.

I finally allow myself to take a breath. The shock of my own discovery still rings in my ears.

Gripping the edges of the sink I feel the need to bash my head against it to ground myself. For a brief critical moment, I stare at the counter with the intensity of a predator chasing prey. I’m spiraling.

I resist the urge and look back into the mirror. My eyes are wide and bloodshot. My throat tightens; my emotions pin me in a chokehold.

Our Journalism Depends on Your Support

  • Hidden

“I’m sorry,” I say to her, my eyes stinging with tears. “I’m so sorry for how I’ve treated you.”

My body seems to tremble to the core. My muscles writhe beneath my skin in anticipation. She stares back at me, her expression now calm and warm. Her small, confident shoulders square with stubborn strength.

“I’ve always believed in you.”

Tags: ,

Cierra Becker

Cierra Becker was seven when her father, Army Staff Sgt. Shane Becker, was killed in Iraq in 2007. She lives with her mom and sister near Houston,Texas, and works her dream job as a firefighter/EMT for Cy-Fair Fire Department. She enjoys geocaching, working out, quad skating, and concept art creation. She is a 2023 War Horse Writing Fellow.

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Do you value compassionate, compelling stories like this? Donate $15 so we can continue to dig in on stories that matter, and let us keep our reporting and writing seminars free for everyone.