This time of year, because of events and anniversaries, personal and national, my thoughts often turn to heroism. I have debated the definition with more than one person, and keep neatly folded in one of my files a favorite Letter to the Editor I fired off in response to a column written by an editor of the Opinions Page of my hometown newspaper regarding heroes, or her belief the term hero is used too loosely. She and I disagreed then, and still do today.
I think on all those I have known, or have known about, who qualify as heroes to me, and believe it was not so much their achievements or noble qualities, their great courage, or their role as a central figure in an event, period, or movement that made them heroic. It was their lifestyle and the manner in which they approached the smallest issues of their lives, in addition to the big things, that made them remarkable. Consistency, integrity, loyalty, generosity, patience, selflessness; characteristics that make up the total person, not merely a random act of accident or intention, but effort day in and out of responsible faithfulness to being as authentic a person as possible.
As a child, I once was called a hero. It was during the summer between my fourth and fifth grades, and I remember how uncomfortable it made me feel. At that time, I did not hold philosophical opinions on anything, nor did I really understand a lot of adult responses to behavior or kid actions; my siblings, friends and I just believed we were normal junior grade people having fun doing what we did best: playing, exploring, and testing everything on a daily basis. For kids in that frame of mind, things we did were never premeditated, situations were simply acted upon as occasions presented themselves.
My heroism was nothing more than an extreme curiosity about everything, which resulted in saving a baby’s life. Our family was visiting the Mystery Spot outside of Santa Cruz, California and it was the end of a long, hot July afternoon when my grandparents, mother, and I were walking through the parking lot toward our car. I do not know where my dad, brother and sister were, but the four of us were strolling slowly through the sea of parked cars, looking for ours. As usual, I was lagging behind, because I loved looking into the windows of cars we passed, wondering along the way, based on what, if anything, was left inside, whose car it was, what the family was like, if they had any kids and what the kids would be like.
Little did I expect that day to peer through the window of a particular car, and see an infant, left alone, face down in the crack between the back seat and the back rest, covered in blankets. Once I comprehended it was indeed a baby, and I could hear its weak cry from inside the car through a window rolled down approximately three inches, I called to my mother and grandparents to stop and come back to me. My mother’s initial response was not a positive one, but I was unrelenting in insisting there was a problem, and they needed to come fast. Finally, they did, and when I showed them the helpless baby in the backseat, things got loud and chaotic. That was due to my mother’s somewhat typical response to most everything stressful; she never was calm in the midst of a storm.
Other tourists came running to the scene, and were shoving and elbowing to get a look at the trapped infant, some just curious, others trying to find a way into the car. I recall my mother being dispatched to go locate my dad, who always was the family’s go to person in an emergency. She took off running to find him, and the next thing I heard was a man asking if there were anything he could put through the rolled down crack of the window to get the door open. In the midst of lots of adults jabbering about not having the right tool, and some rising hysteria over the weakening cries of the baby, I stepped forward and said matter-of-factly, I had a skinny arm, and thought it would fit. It was like the Red Sea parting in that overheated parking lot in Santa Cruz; grownups all around stepped to one side or the other as my grandfather silently escorted me to the cracked window, lifted me, and I slipped my thin, slinky-like arm through it, and down to successfully pull up the door lock.
People shoved me out of the way, and rescued that little baby from the oven-hot car, still alive, but definitely worse for its experience. An ambulance and police had been called, and both were arriving, sirens blaring and lights flashing. The parents showed up at the same time in utter horror that their baby had been put in danger by their thoughtless, ignorant actions. My dad loped into the crowded scene breathless, but relieved he was not going to have to save anyone’s life that day, and finally, my mother and siblings arrived, having pretty much missed the whole drama.
The authorities had everything under control, so with no fanfare, or even a faint thank you, my dad ushered us all to our car, loaded everyone in, and headed back to our valley town. It was on the ride home, after the adults had hashed and rehashed the experience, my grandmother hugged me close, and told me I was a hero. I squirmed under the attention, and smiled at her approval, but did not feel special at all. My one abiding thought was how for once my skinny arms actually were useful, and I felt grateful I was able to help that little stranger child, trapped and struggling to survive in the backseat of its car. In my mind, I was not heroic, I had been curious, thin, and practical. That was all.
There is, however, a plethora of heroic people in my family, again by my definition, and one at whom I am particularly amazed whenever I think on her life. Emma Kate, my great grandmother, orphaned before she was a teen, married and mother of two Deaf boys before she was twenty, who by the way, in that day were called deaf and dumb. Insulting and derogatory for a mother to have her two sons labeled intellectually insufficient because they signed instead of speaking. In addition, she suffered the loss of twin boys, and then birthed my grandfather, all while slowly moving west with her pioneer husband, away from the comfort of home and extended family in Pennsylvania.
They ultimately arrived in Oklahoma, and participated in one of the Land Runs, believing they had secured the future for themselves and their boys. But, time and life had a different plan for Emma Kate. Her husband died one spring day while plowing a field, and she was left to run the farm and raise the boys, alone. She did both, including sending her two Deaf sons to Gallaudet University. She was a tiny, hardworking, determined woman who did not, nor would not, consider any option but to complete that which she started, and to succeed. Yes, I believe she was by all means heroic.
I do not think we wake up planning to be heroes, or slay the assorted dragon of the day. We have moments and even lives where demands produce in us heroic actions; but I think, for the most part, we wake up and plan to accomplish those things set before us, using those means and tools we have at hand, and with love and hope and our sincerest effort maintain those things important to us, and forge for ourselves and families the best we can, carving out of our circumstances legacies for those yet to come. I do not think we have to roar, or beat a loud drum, we do not have to risk life and limb to be a hero. Personally, all I have to do to recognize and appreciate the depth of a hero’s heart is look toward those in my life who are out there everyday facing the world as courageous warriors for family and home, unyielding and unapologetic in their dedication to those in their care and keeping. They are brave soldiers, as they stay the course on each of their journeys; true and sure, every one of them paving new paths, protecting, guiding, and assuring the way for all those entrusted to them. Yes, they are my heroes, and I am more than grateful to call them my own.