Tag Archive: heroes


remember

remembrance march

Photo Credit: big-tom-84; Licence: Public Domain

We visited a cemetery today to pay respects.  Although we had no family members buried there, we located a soldier’s grave and placed on it poppy wreaths the boys had made.  The man buried beneath the headstone had been 20 when he died.  In a quiet moment with my eldest, I recited In Flanders Fields… and explained what it meant.  He’s 9 and I suppose he understands it all about as well as I did at that age, when the overwhelming beauty of a person sacrificing their lives for the values we as a country hold sacred is still a pretty abstruse concept.  But this is why we remember on Remembrance Day.  It’s not that we shouldn’t remember every single day we draw breath, but having one day devoted to remembrance helps instill our children — and re-instill us — with an understanding and appreciation.  Maybe they don’t “get it” at first, but eventually they will.  This is how we pass “the torch” and “hold it high.”

Every day, thousands of men and women risk their lives to protect us, keep us safe, and guard our freedom, and there are hundreds of thousands before them who have risked — and, far too often, lost — their lives in service of our country with the same noble objectives.  Some of those who have died have been almost children, the incandescent glow of youth still visible on their skin.  Those who have fought have been separated from their families, subjected to grueling conditions.  They have witnessed horrors most of us could never imagine.

Today, I am thankful for them.  Today, I remember.

alive

baby

Photo Credit: Carin Araujo; Used with Permission

Shortly after I turned 1, my mother was holding me in her arms while I burned through a fever.  Suddenly, my eyes rolled back, and my body began moving rhythmically. I was having a seizure. While my father held me, my mother ran frantically to the house of a neighbour, who was a registered nurse.  My father has told me that, while he held me, I stopped breathing.  My mother returned with the neighbour, Vedra, who took control of the situation and, before long, I began breathing again and recovered.

A few months later, I had another seizure.  It was my brother’s birthday, and my family was planning to go out for dinner, but I had a fever and my mother suggested that my father and brother go out without us.  I began having the seizure and, again, Vedra came to the house and I recovered.

It was the last seizure I had.  I do not have epilepsy and the seizures were febrile, meaning that they were caused by a high fever.  It’s not an uncommon thing to happen to young children, who sometimes lag in developing the nervous system mechanisms to effectively control body temperature.

When my son was born, I was a worried that the problem might be genetic.  Every time he had a fever, I was terrified that it would happen to him.  What would I do?  During my first seizure, I stopped breathing.  Without a combination of several factors, I very likely would not have started breathing again, and what if my son wasn’t so lucky?

Today, I am thankful for a lot of things.  First, I am thankful for timing.  I had the seizures while I was being held by a parent and both my parents were present. My second seizure happened just as my father was about to leave the house. A few minutes later and my mom might have been alone, and I might not have fared so well, because it would be hard for one person both to respond to my needs in the moment and also seek help.  When my son had his fevers, I kept thinking: what if he has a seizure while he’s in bed?  He could stop breathing and I would never even know.

Second, I am thankful that my parents had the sense to run for help.  I think my mother rebukes herself for not really knowing what to do (I always say that perpetual guilt about one’s children is a sign of a good parent) but, really, which of us thinks straight when we perceive our children are in danger?  Once, while camping with Gregory (my eldest) and my friend Sarah, I asked Gregory several times not to walk along the seat of the picnic table, because I had the Coleman stove running, boiling water, and I was worried he might fall and either knock the pot of boiling water on himself, or set himself on fire.  Moments later, while he started walking along the bench again, he fell, with his arm hitting the stove.  That was when I made a complete departure from sense, which is a nice way of saying I went nuts.  I started alternating between screaming at him about needing to listen, and hugging him and asking him if he was alright.  He was perfectly fine, but in my mind, I had already decided he had burned himself, and I was panicking.  In the case of my seizures, I think that having the good sense to run to a neighbour who could handle the situation was the best anyone could expect.

Third, I am thankful that a registered nurse lived nearby, and that Vedra was able to help.  She is one of those every day heroes I like to talk about in this blog.

Without all of these things, I don’t know that I would be alive today, and that is certainly cause for gratitude.

ordinary heroes

building collapse

Photo Credit: Tannoy; Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Many months ago, I stumbled upon the Carnegie Hero Fund, a fund started by wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who wanted to honour civilian heroes.

The fund was founded in 1904, and the stories of the numerous awardees of the Carnegie Medal are truly inspirational.  Spend a day reading or listening to them and your heart will be full.  Don’t forget to stock up on tissues.  They are the stories of people who have risked their own lives to save others, many times people they did not even know.

Out of all the selfishness in the world, it’s moving to see so many people who become heroes when their circumstances call them to action.

I can’t share all the stories, so I will share two:

On 17 August 1953, Theodore Henderson (aged 39) was fixing a flat at the side of a highway in Florida, when a 19-year-old woman drove by, lost control of her vehicle, slid off the road, and landed upside-down in a 12 ft. deep murky canal.  Henderson arrived to see the tires of the vehicle slip below the surface of the water. Avoiding an 8 ft. long alligator near by, he swam into the canal and managed to open a door, but the car shifted and the door closed on two of his fingers. He yanked free, tearing a tip off one and breaking the other.  He swam back to the bank, grabbed a tire iron, then swam back down to the vehicle and smashed the rear window.  After swimming to the top to take a breath, he swam back down, dragged her out, and swam to the bank, where she recovered.

On 17 November 1960, Joseph Granahan was relaxing in a bar when he saw clouds of dust.  A building had been recently demolished, but the foundation of the adjacent tenement building had not been adequately protected and the building was collapsing.  When Granahan arrived, all the tenants had managed to escape, except one elderly woman named Helen Giles, who was screaming for help from the fourth floor.  Granahan did not know the woman, but he kicked out the glass panel of the front door and climbed the stairs.  When he reached the fourth floor, the power went out and the building shook.  He managed to find his way to the apartment and carried Giles down the four flights of stairs, with the staircase pulling away from the wall as he descended the last flight.  Moments after he had exited the building with Giles, the entire building collapsed into rubble.

Today, I am thankful for heroes.  We live in a world of survival.  Everyone is committed to his or her own interests.  And yet, when circumstances call for it, sometimes ordinary people become heroes. It’s the type of thing that restores my faith in humanity.

legs

In July, I saw a woman walking her dog.  It’s an important part of the story to note that, at the particular moment I saw the dog, it was defecating on a patch of grass on city property.  It was a little white dog — a poodle, I think.  When I say I saw a woman walking her dog, I should clarify that the dog was walking, but the woman wasn’t: her legs did not extend beyond the upper third of her thigh.  And the reason I am mentioning that the dog was making a deposit on the lawn is because, when it was finished, the woman went to great effort to align her wheelchair with the poop, lean over, and stretch her arm to collect the dog’s “gift.”

Man fishing in wheelchair

Photo Credit: Steve Hillebrand; Licence: Public Domain

In my job, I see a lot of people who get pets for companionship, but who are either ill-equipped to care for them or end up treating the animal like it’s some sort of toy: cute and fun when it’s a novelty but, after a month or two, completely forgotten.

I once called an animal shelter to inquire whether they had any space to accept a cat.  I had finally managed to get a woman with whom I was working to acknowledge that she couldn’t care for the cat, and I wanted to find a home for it before she changed her mind.  The woman at the shelter was quite friendly, but sadly reported they had no room.  I explained the circumstances, not in any attempt to pressure her, but simply to determine if she had any alternatives I might pursue.  Unsure, the woman asked her supervisor.

To put it plainly, the supervisor was jerk.  He cut her off and wouldn’t listen to what she was asking, and kept telling her, “it’s not our problem.”  The woman tried to tell him that I understood it wasn’t their problem, and that I was simply seeking their expertise on another solution, but he wouldn’t listen to any of it.

I was rather put off by the supervisor’s treatment of the employee (who probably wasn’t even an employee, but a volunteer), but later I granted him a little bit of grace.  I still think his boorish behaviour was inexcusable, but I tried to place myself in the shoes of a person who works in a “dump zone” for animals. I could understand why he might be a tad cantankerous.  Not that it was an excuse to treat the woman so poorly, but at least it was a bit understandable.  So many people get puppies and kittens when they’re cute and adorable; then, when they realize that some work is involved, the animal is dumped off at the local animal shelter.  It’s sickening.

This post really has nothing to do with pets.  This whole convoluted story was to lead up to noting that one of my biggest pet peeves (pun fully intended) is when pet owners do not clean up after their dogs.  I am frustrated by people who, to save themselves a few seconds of effort, or who feel they are too “grossed out” by poop to pick it up, decide that it’s entirely fine for the rest of us to have to step in it.

But despite that, and despite my sheer annoyance with people who get pets when they can’t take care of them, I think I might just have let the woman in the wheelchair “get away with it” had she not collected the dog’s waste.  I thought: this woman is up against enough barriers in life; how humiliating and degrading would it be for her if she were to tip the wheelchair over trying to pick up dog excrement, and then be stuck there until someone came to help her?  Surely, we can spare this one woman that indignity!

The fact that she didn’t shirk her responsibility was a bit inspiring. It made me realize how lucky I am to have full use of my legs.

Some day, I’d like to get my hands on a wheelchair and spend an entire day in it.  I want to get a first-hand idea of the pure struggle it must be to get aroutnd in a world filled with stairs.

Right now, if I want to buy a widget, I look up “widget” on Google and I go to the closest store that sells widgets. But if I’m using a wheelchair, I have to determine whether I’ll be able to enter the store once I get there and, if I can, whether I’ll be able to move down the aisles of the store and, if I can, how I am going to get to the store in the first place and, if I can do all of that, am I going to have to ask for help to get the widget off the shelf, etc. Because, even though I have every right to ask for help, I still feel as if I’m inconveniencing everyone by doing so.

I feel exhausted just writing that sentence.  Imagine what it must be like to live it?  And that’s not the half of it.  I also need to find a place to live that has a ramp to allow me to get in the door, and enough wheel-around room for me to be able to move my wheelchair around, and which is set up to allow me to bathe on my own, and get in and out of bed on my own, and get dressed on my own, and whose countertops are not so high that I can’t prepare food on my own because, like anyone else in the world, I would really like to be independent.

And here’s hoping I can find a job I can do, and one where an employer will not discriminate against me, because receiving a disability allowance really doesn’t pay the bills unless I want to live in squalor or unless I can idle on a wait list for a place with subsidized rent.

And on weekends or vacations, it would be nice to get away from it all, but I can’t drive anywhere, and the intercity buses have those very steep stairs I can’t climb, and the hotel isn’t set up to accommodate people using wheelchairs. Or maybe I’ll go to a cottage, or go camping, and maybe someone will go with me — someone with a car — except that now that I am there, I can’t go on any walking trails because nature wasn’t built with people like me in mind.  Or maybe I’d like to go to the beach with my friends, except my wheelchair wheels don’t move through sand very well and, besides, it’s really tough to get in and out of the water.

Today, I am so very thankful that I have the use of my legs.  Life is hard enough with them; people who get through life without them are nothing short of courageous and amazing.

patronus

I am a capitalist… with a few socialist ideologies.  I gather that is sort of like being a vampire who doesn’t like the taste of blood.

[I’ll interject here to note that, if you think — from the title of this post — that I’m going to be talking about how to fight off Dementors, you’re about to be really disappointed.]

I think socialism is a really beautiful idea.  I can get behind the from each according to his ability, to each according to his need philosophy that summarizes socialism.  But socialism fails when it runs up against a universal constant: greed.  Whether it is a desire for money, a desire for power, or a desire for fame, I feel that any human culture can only provide socialism barren, infertile ground for growth, and that it is only through tyranny — a greater evil than capitalism — that socialism can be sustained.

My golden compromise is to espouse the ideals of social responsibility, which I will oversimplify as: rich people care more.

In ancient Rome, when a slave was freed by his master, a patron-client relationship was often forged.  It was understood that a wealthy master was bound to provide for his former slave in some capacity.  Similarly, I feel that the haves of our society have a responsibility to give to the have-nots.  By haves, I don’t mean millionaires; I refer to those who do not struggle to put food on their tables, those who can afford a family vacation, etc.  When I write have-nots, I might mean the poor, the downtrodden, the sick, the disabled; I do not mean the lazy.

The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence of Rome

Title: Martyrdom of St. Lawrence (1592); Artistic Credit: Pellegrino Tibaldi

Have you heard the legend of the martyrdom of St. Lawrence of Rome?  It’s an inspiring story.  Upon the death of Pope Sixtus, St. Lawrence was ordered to turn over to the Prefect of Rome the riches of the church for which Lawrence was deacon.  Lawrence requested three days to comply with the instruction.  He proceeded to distribute the riches of the church to the poor.  Then, on the third day, he went before the Prefect accompanied by the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the suffering and said, “these are the true treasures of the church.”  For his audacity and irreverence, he was gruesomely martyred.

Today, St. Lawrence is a symbol of charity.  He reminds us that, no matter a person’s lot in life, that person deserves love, respect, care, and to have certain basic human needs met.

Today, I am thankful for philanthropy.  Whether it comes in the form of a few coins tossed into the Salvation Army kettle at Christmas; a sandwich given to someone who hasn’t eaten; a warm smile given to the marginalized; an anonymous act of kindness.  I’m also grateful for the more headline-catching acts of millionaires and billionaires giving hoards of money to charities.  Even if the money is essentially pocket change in comparison to the donor’s amassed wealth, it’s still an amount that will benefit others immensely and an amount the donor could just as easily have kept.

Charitable acts renew my sometimes dwindling faith in humanity, and instill in me a feeling of “oneness” with those around me: my companions on this tiny tilting blue planet in the dark expanse of space.

Do you have a story about charity?  Please share it with me in the Comments.

teacher

Who was your favourite teacher?  I know you had one.  We all did.

I had a few memorable ones, but the first and most memorable one was my grade 5 teacher, Mrs. Keating.  Before her, I was a goofy kid with my head in the clouds.  After her, I was still a goofy kid with my head in the clouds, but felt better about myself for it.  She instilled in me a love of writing and generally made me feel like I had a special place in the world.  A lot of who I am today, I owe to her.

Teaching has changed a great deal over the years, spanning back to the archetypal one-room school teacher: scholarly, poorly paid, highly scrutinized.  The chief and sole reward of the position was the opportunity to enrich young minds, to make a difference.

Child raising his hand in the classroom

Photo Credit: Michael Anderson; Licence: Public Domain

Sometimes teachers are yet another class of secret hero, changing the world behind chalk-dusted dockers and polka-dotted skirts.  Perhaps it doesn’t carry with it the diamond-studded glamour enjoyed by the “heroes” we raise up on pedestals.  But there is a small village somewhere in the world — it doesn’t matter where.  There is a little girl who is the first in her family to go to school.  It took a lot of work for the missionaries to convince the elders and her parents that there was benefit to this. Now she is bumbling off to the small school house built by the people of her village.  It’s her first day.  She doesn’t know it yet, but she’s about to meet someone she will never forget, someone who will give her possibly the greatest gift anyone will ever give her: education.  Maybe if we fast forward 25 years, that same girl is an economist, working with the government to bring a better life to people like the ones in her village.  Try to tell her that her first teacher, 25 years ago, wasn’t a hero.

Now the job pays better, thank goodness, although I think teachers put up with a lot more attitude and defiance in the classroom.  Like that one-room school teacher, though, the greatest reward for most isn’t the pay cheque at the end of the week but the possibility that, some day, one of those children will grow up to do something extraordinary, and the teacher can reasonably enjoy a brief moment of pride in knowing that he or she might have contributed to that.  Even better if that young mind — now older — looks back through all of the angsty years, the awkward years, the first kiss, the first love, the first thrill of learning something that made his or her mind explode with possibility, and says, “thanks.”

I haven’t done anything extraordinary.  I hope some day I will.  But no matter what happens, I still want to say: thanks, Mrs. Keating — today, I am grateful for you.

Who was your favourite teacher?  I know you had one.  We all did.  Tell me about yours in the Comments.

ability

Some of you might know Oscar Pistorius, a really inspiring person, possessing immense personal drive, confidence, and passion for life.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a photograph of him without a smile on his face.  He is athletic, fit, and a lover of sports, his passion for sports having started when he was 11, playing rugby, water polo, and tennis.  He is active and vocal in support of his beliefs.  He is pursuing a Bachelor of Commerce degree at the University of Pretoria.

Currently, he’s best known for being a sprint runner.  He did not qualify to represent South Africa in 400 metre race during the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing because his running time was about 2 seconds higher than the qualifying maximum.  He did qualify for participation in this year’s Olympic Games, so expect to see him on the track.

Oscar was born without fibias in either of his legs and he underwent surgery at 11 months to amputate the legs at mid-calf.  He runs with the use of some pretty phenomenal carbon fibre artificial limbs designed by an Iceland-based company, Ossur.

This is where I confess with no small measure of embarrassment that I began this post with a paraphrase of that last paragraph before thinking better of it.  It’s a force of habit.  The quickest method of identifying a person is to point out a person’s most prominent physical feature, whether it be a set of beautiful eyes, their physical size, a noticeable difference in their gait.  But it frustrates me that I was so quick to define Pistorius by disability (double amputation) rather than his many abilities and positive traits (talented runner, great guy, smart cookie, etc.).

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newshound

Journalists are a nasty bunch of wraiths who will bully, deceive, cheat, and sell their souls to get a scoop on a good story.  And if they can’t get a good story, they’ll manipulate the truth until it’s something that will sell.

Leastways, that’s what popular media has always led me to believe.

I am perhaps a lonely one among the masses in that I have a great deal of respect for the noble industry of journalism. If you ever read, watch, or listen to the news, you should too.  Let me tell you why.

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goodness

Many of you are by now aware of a mass shooting that occurred in Aurora, Colorado earlier this week.  If you’re not, I apologize for making you aware, but I won’t offer any more publicity for the person believed to have committed this heinous crime by reiterating details here. It is sufficient to say that many happy and hopeful lives were cut short in a moment of terror.

Our newspapers have seen no shortage of mass or public shootings in the past year, or stories of filmed dismemberment, with body parts being mailed to government offices and schools.  I think I am bothered not so much by the idea that crime continues but that crime is becoming more and more disturbing.

Soldiers Hugging

Photo Credit: D. Myles Culle, Licence: Public Domain (Editorial)

I’ve started trying something new when reading accounts of tragedy. I’ve found that, often, in response to tragedy, humanity’s brightest colours shine. Foes put away enmity; people become more charitable and generous of spirit; those around us hold their loved ones a little closer.  After the shooting in Colorado, as police worked to remove a hoard of explosives from the suspect’s apartment, neighbours cooked the officers food and brought them water.  It was a small act, but an example of the way that a community comes together in response to tragedy.

Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion… love actually is all around.   — Hugh Grant in Love Actually (2003)

Despite all the horrors people might perpetrate against others, I do believe that there is considerably more good in the world than evil.  Today, I am thankful for the goodness that exists.

forgive

I recently stumbled across a website for The Forgiveness Project, a collection of personal and true stories of forgiveness. I encourage you to visit the site and read some of the accounts recorded there. In a world filled with violence and hate, forgiveness must at times seem a fantasy. And yet the human capacity for forgiveness is strong. One story — that of Kelly Connor, which she has also detailed in a book — is a good example of the difficulty of forgiving others for perceived wrongs, but also the sometimes greater struggle in forgiving ourselves.

daffodils

Daffodils, a symbol of forgiveness. Photo Credit: Yana Ray. Licence: Public Domain.

At age 17, while driving to work, Kelly was keeping her eye on another driver to ensure she could respond quickly in case he pulled out in front of her. Unfortunately, she was too late to notice the elderly woman who had started crossing at a pedestrian walkway.  The woman, Margaret Healy, later died in hospital.  Two weeks later, Kelly came home to find Margaret’s brother talking with her parents.  His message was one of forgiveness: neither he nor his family blamed Kelly for what had happened.

In situations of loss, it is a common and understandable response to be angry at the person whom the bereaved perceives to have been responsible for the loss. I’ve heard of stories of anger and bitterness directed towards emergency room doctors who tried in earnest to save someone’s life but did not succeed.  It’s an irrational but natural way of dealing with grief too great to bear.  For Margaret’s brother to make the trip to attempt to set at ease the mind of the person who was directly — though unintentionally — responsible for his sister’s death demonstrates an incomparable generosity of spirit.

Kelly was not as able to forgive herself, and the impact on her family was profound. She feels that it led directly to her her parents’ marriage and her own marriage falling apart. She kept the accident a secret from friends and loved ones for years until she disclosed it to her 14-year-old daughter, whose acceptance was a message that Kelly needed to begin working on forgiving herself. She has made progress but notes that it is a constant challenge. In her own words: “What I forgive myself for today, I don’t know will apply tomorrow.”

Today, I am thankful for the human capacity for forgiveness and, conversely, for the challenges we face in forgiving ourselves. Cripping though guilt might be, that people feel it is proof that humanity is not quite so in the gutter as I am inclined from time to time to believe. And that we can come out at the other end of guilt and anger and forgive restores my faith in humanity even further.

Do you have a personal story of forgiveness? Please share it with me in the Comments.

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