Hero

 What characteristics must someone have to be a hero? Are there other characteristics that cancel out the “hero-positive” ones?


When I was around 17 years old, the family physician told my father that he had to walk more. Rainy or snowy, sunny or cloudy, the doctor wanted my father outside walking everyday. The season was balanced on the cusp of late winter and early spring. My father and mother headed to a nearby state park to walk, rather than stroll alongside the road.  To get to the park, they had to descend the north side of a steep hill that still had ice on the ground. My father failed to see a patch of that ice, and slipped. As he fell he stuck out his right hand to catch himself.  The wrist broke. He jerked his hand back, calling out, “I broke it!” When the rest of him slammed into the side of the hill, his hip broke, too.

Although my mother was unwilling to leave him there helpless and crying in pain, she knew she had to find help. This was decades more mobile phones, so she climbed back up the hill and ran toward my grandparents’ house which was immediately across the street from where we lived.

While she was gone, the neighbor who lived two or three miles up the road drove by in his pickup truck with his father-in-law in the passenger seat. The two men saw my father, pulled over to the side of the road and hiked down the hill.  Like most country men, they were dressed in heavy, everyday work clothes, so the neighbor sat down in the ice and snow beside my father to hold him so that my dad wouldn’t slide farther down the hill, or re-injury himself somehow.  The father-in-law went back up to the road to stop traffic so they could gather together enough people to carry my 6-foot-tall father up the hill.  By the time my mother returned with my grandparents, my brother and myself, a small collection of people were there.  My grandfather, a retired police officer, wanted to roll my father onto a ladder and use that as a stretcher to get my dad up the hill.  None of the rest of us wanted to move my dad, but we were women and children to my grandfather and he dismissed our objections out-of-hand.  The neighbor is the one whose refusal convinced my grandfather to simply wait for the ambulance. 

It took the ambulance a goodly while to get there – out in the country few things are convenient by city standards – and with the help of everyone whom the father-in-law had recruited, my father was hoisted safely up the hill and into the ambulance.  Afterward he was laid up for several months. From time to time he would say, “Once I can walk again, I’m going to [my neighbor] and shake his hand.”

He never did, though.  He recovered. He walked first with crutches and then on his own without any problem. The thing that kept him from expressing his gratitude was that several months after my father’s accident….a year or so…the neighbor was arrested for attempted murder.

So there’s my question.  What is a hero?

In fairness, I must tell you that the neighbor was never prosecuted. All the charges were dropped. The story came to me at least third-hand, so I won’t say where it happened or who was involved, but apparently teen-age friends from school were visiting the neighbor’s children and one of the visitors was stabbed. The victim had no memory of the attack and couldn’t say that the neighbor did it.  Remember how I said this was gossip that had passed from ear to ear for a while?  The story as it came to me was that the real reason the victim couldn’t remember the neighbor assaulting him is because the assailant was the neighbor’s wife. 

Did the man allow himself to be arrested as a way of protecting his wife? 

I don’t know. I’m not even sure I conclusively know what a hero is.  I think that in some ways all of us are heroes, and all of us are not.

Random memory on International Women’s Day

Back in the 1980s I was managing an office staff of about 4 and a cashiering staff of about 40. It was Spring, which was our busiest time. It was Saturday, which was our busiest day. Lines at the checkouts were long and relentless. The husband of one of the cashiers phoned me. He had unexpected company and needed his wife to come home immediately to make coffee. I told him that I would talk him through making the coffee, but that I wouldn’t let her go home. I explained what happened to the cashier and she said that she agreed with my decision and that her husband was being unreasonable. She finished the day, then never came back.

Random Family Memory: Mom’s Alarm Clock

As far back as I can remember, my parents’ alarm clock was displayed front and center on top of the television in the living room.  At the end of every evening no matter how angry my parents were at each other, my mother would rise from her chair, pull the switch on the back of clock, then stroll over to kiss my father good night.  She told me over and over, and long before I ever asked, that they had agreed they would end the day with a kiss no matter what the day had been like or how they felt about each other in the moment.

Come 5:30 in morning that alarm clock would go off.  My mother would leap from their bed in a confused panic, realize that the alarm in the living room was ringing, and run down the hall into the living room to shut it off.  Every morning: thud, thud, thud, swear, thud, thud. If she hadn’t tossed on her bathrobe, she would go back into the bedroom to get her bathrobe. If she had, she would sigh audibly, catch her breath, then go into the kitchen to make black coffee and four pieces of toast for my father before waking him up.

After I was grown and married my husband complained because I wasn’t waking him up early enough in the mornings.  H1 insisted that I was responsible for waking him up because I was his wife and told me that I had to do better.  I tried leaning into the problem: at first, making it an intimate joke between us for a while, then I began flipping on every single light in the house and playing the stereo. Eventually, I simply grabbed him by the ankles, hauled him out of bed onto the floor, and dragged him to the bathroom.  He wasn’t happy with that solution.

I took the problem to my mother who empathized completely. She told me that she had the same problem as a newlywed, then she explained to me, for the first time in my entire life, the reason she kept the alarm clock in the living room.  If it were beside the bed, she would turn it off and go back to sleep, causing my father to be late for work.  She tried turning up the volume. She tried putting the alarm clock on a metal pie tin so the sound would echo.  Neither worked. That’s when she put it in a completely different room so it would force her to get out of bed to turn it off.  My father came into the room at the end of the conversation and agreed that my mother’s solution was the best.

I drove home with that conversation on my mind, turned over everything she’d suggested, and thought also about what I’d witnessed for myself while growing up. Did I move the alarm clock to a different room? Of course not. I told H1 to get his own ass of bed in the morning.