Hero of the day…Finding Hope

Have you ever wondered why certain people enter and leave your life at certain times?  Is it God or the Universe’s plan to guide the people who shape us to come into and out of our lives at the precise time to teach us lessons?  There is a Buddhist belief that we are all spirits that travel together, living this life over and over again.  It is thought that we ask to learn a certain lesson and then our spiritual pack enters and leaves this life together to play certain roles to help each other gain the knowledge we were seeking. What makes this belief so fascinating to me is the possibility that I get to meet up with and love the same people over and over again, for eternity!   If this were to be true, I am quite certain that this life’s lesson for me must be to learn about perseverance and forgiveness.  My journey so far has taught me so much about these character traits.  Yet, it makes me a bit nervous to think I am coming to the end of my lessons, and then what???  What would my purpose be? Would I have to leave this life if I served its purpose?  I decided that if this was a true outlook, I am going to seek new lessons to learn to borrow some more time. Lately, I have found myself drawn to the unsung hero.  These are the common people in our everyday lives that face incredible adversity, yet, essentially go unnoticed by most, but not me, at least not anymore.  I make it a point to notice them.  And when I do recognize them, I smile and think, “This is my hero of the day.” And I try to burn the memory of the encounter into my conscience, so it stays with me forever, shaping me into a better person. 

I love this new adventure… finding the hero of the day. But what constitutes a hero in my view you may be wondering?  Well, clearly there are the heroes that society recognizes without questions…The soldier, first responder, the doctor and nurse.  But the past 2 years in particular, I have discovered that I am learning about strength in the unsung heroes.  My unsung heroes are the people who fly under the radar.  The ones that take on their challenges with dignity and respect, but somewhat quietly…privately.  The ones that refuse to take what life has given them and who confront their pain, fears, barriers head on to create their own destiny, a better chapter of life than the one they have been dealt.  Maybe it is simply survival for them.  Maybe these people have no choice.  But for a person from the outside looking in, I stand in awe and learn more about who I want to be by witnessing their displays of valor.  These are the people I admire the most.

Let me start by acknowledging that the recognition and appreciation of those in need is a lifelong passion…thus the career I chose. But this passion is a bit different, as my appreciation is not focused on those who have needs but rather those my life needs.   There are certain people who impact your life, both negatively and positively.  Up to this point, my blogs have been mostly about those negative people who haunted me and my journey of healing the past.  Those blogs have outlined the ugliness that broke me and the kindness of my husband’s love that allowed me to brush myself off and move forward.  But now, I would like to shift my blogs into living in the present.   It is ok to glance backwards to learn from the past, but the past is a terrible place to live. It no longer exists.  To survive and ultimately thrive,  we must live in the present, right here in this moment, in the second that is, well, real.  My life has shifted towards trying to recognize my blessings as they are occurring and as a result my existence has shifted to one of gratitude and admiration.  I would love to tell you that this was an intentional shift.  However, events in my life sort of forced me to become more aware. Nevertheless, I have begun to set new priorities and goals for myself for the future. 

Bizarrely, there is usually some sort of silver lining in our most heart-breaking events.  For me, almost 2 years ago to the day, without any notice or warning, my husband was diagnosed with advanced Laryngeal Cancer.  To say that I was angry was an understatement. I had spent my lifetime trying my best to be good and kind, despite how poorly others treated me, and yet I was faced with disappointment, heart break and challenged after challenge.   Oddly, I had found a gift in the journey his illness took us on.  It was a gift in that my eyes were finally opened to the fact that, although my life up to that point was completely tarnished by complete assholes, those people and events meant nothing to me in the grand scheme of things. I was now blessed with a life filled with people, who I believe, were sent into my life to teach me great things:  Lessons in love, compassion, hope, admiration and strength.

The first day at Penn Medicine’s Roberts Proton Therapy Center for my husband’s cancer treatment was a miserable day.  I was so angry, sad, scared and overwhelmed.  I was completely helpless in helping him.  I can say that it ranks up there with one of the worse days of my life.  I resented that we were there, resented being part of this terrible world.  Everyone in the room was sick, everyone had cancer…I couldn’t wrap my head around it.  My husband who was perfectly fine a few weeks ago was very, very sick and there was nothing I could do to change it or make it better for him.  As we waited for his appointment, there was a baby, no more than 2 years old who walked proudly across the waiting room with her parents on both sides of her.  Her bald head and chipmunk cheeks told the story of her journey.  But today was clearly a good day.  As her parents lifted her up, she giggled, reached out her hands and began pulling on a rope which rang the bell attached to it. She was ringing that bell to signify that she had just completed her last radiation therapy treatment.  I paused and noticed there were several more people with her, they were all smiling and clapping, some wiping away tears.  I started to look around the room.  Some people smiled and laughed excitedly for her.  Others clapped and looked nervous, perhaps wondering if their day to ring that bell would ever come. As people cheered, she rang the bell again and again.   Before I knew it, I was sobbing.  I never met this child, but I was so overwhelmed with emotions. My heart was thrilled for her while at the same time it broke for my husband.  As I looked between her beaming face and him barely able to keep his eyes open in the seat next to me, it hit me…yes, I am surrounded by sickness, but more importantly, I am surrounded by love and hope.  These people were fucking rock stars.  These people too, were indeed, heroes. And, yes, it was easy to “feel sorry” for them.  But I didn’t focus on that, I felt proud of them.  Proud to be blessed to witness this moment and stand in their presence. Strangely, for a few minutes, I no longer felt the despair in the room.  I am sure it was still there, but I chose not to look at these people with sadness and pity, but rather with admiration of their strength, bravery, and hope. 

The patients we encountered at Penn clearly left an imprint on my heart.  There were 2 very special children in my husband’s radiation loop who never leave my mind:  The teenager whose mother spoke only Chinese yet we found a way to communicate while we waited for our loved ones every day for 7 weeks and the young boy with the recurring brain tumor, whom which, the Eagles took to the Superbowl with them the year they won.  That young girl always had a sweet smile each day to greet us and would apologize, yes APOLOGIZE TO ME, on the days she would vomit in the trashcan because the chemicals of chemotherapy combined with her daily radiation made her violently ill.  And that little boy, he just had no idea of the battle he was in because he was no more than 7 or 8 years old and just wanted to go home and play. To date, these children occupy a huge space in my heart, but my, no our, unsung hero at Penn was not a cancer patient.  Rather, he was the young man who greeted us from the reception desk the second that elevator door opened each day.  

My drive to and from radiation and chemo were typically in silence.  We sat in traffic and I am sure there was a sea of noise around us, but my husband slept and I was numb.  We were exhausted.  Each day we would take the elevator up one floor to the radiation suite.  The doors opened and we would step towards the reception desk to check in.  On the second day of treatment, a young, very tall and stocky African American man greeted us.  My husband weakly stepped forward….” Footit”  he said to check in.  The man looked up and smiled.  “OK Footit’s, you are all checked in”.   We took our seats and waited to be called again for the Proton waiting room.  We carried out this routine every day for 7 weeks.  By the 4th day, the elevator door opened, and there was our friend…big smile on his face and he would shout out, “Hey, the Footit’s are here!” As the days progressed, we became the Foot’s and finally…”Hey…the Feet are here!”   It made us laugh every day.  There were days we were there for hours.  I watched this young man work the room.  He went out of his way to greet people by name.  When he had a break, sometimes he would pass out cookies left at the desk by other patient’s.  He would stop by and ask me if he could get me a tea or a coffee.  And, he was a football fan.  We found great pleasure in harassing each other about being Philadelphia natives yet I was a Cowboys fan, and he was a Patriot’s fan.  This was the year that the Pat’s and the Eagles went to the Superbowl together, the year the Eagles won.  This young man proudly wore his Pat’s jersey Superbowl week and he laughed at the harassment he received from all of the Eagles fans in that waiting room.  On the day after the Superbowl, the doors to the elevator opened and he took one look at us and we all laughed.  I handed him a card…it was a condolence card.  Expressing how sorry we were for his loss, haha!  Everyone got a big kick out of it.  The next week, our final week of radiation, he was gone!  I waited a few days to ask where he was, was he on vacation?? The other receptionist informed us that he didn’t work on that floor…he was just covering. I asked where he usually worked, and they responded they had no idea.   We were so sad, I never got to tell him how much he impacted our lives, how his smile made our miserable days better, how his kindness turned my bitter and angry heart into a gentler, more accepting heart.  I never got to give him the letter I wanted him to give to his parents to thank them for raising such a beautiful soul.  No one else seemed to notice his absence, but it was a hole in our day.  During this experience, this man was truly our ‘Hero of the Day’…maybe of a lifetime.  This gentle giant transformed a room of illness into one of humor and compassion.  If I live a thousand lifetimes, I will never forget him. 

As I continue to step through this lifetime day by day, I tend to encounter more and more people like this young man.  People who are making such significant impacts on those around them, but perhaps never notice or realize it.  My husband and I like to get up early and ride bikes at the beach.  As much as I enjoy it, there are some days I just am not in the mood for it.  On one of these days, as we rode, we came across a young girl, perhaps in her late 30’s, early 40’s.  She moved slowly and as we approached her and it hit me that she has a left sided paresis in which she held her arm to her chest, most likely due to a contracture of those muscles, and she drug her left foot a bit.  Despite her disability, she was out on the walking path, taking step after step to regain a lost function of her body and perhaps a lost time of her life.  Our eyes met for a split second and we exchanged a quick smile.  My heart sunk.  I instantly thought…” Hero of the day- The girl who has no limits!”  Here was another unsung hero who was working to overcome the obstacle life threw in the middle of her journey. Her spirit was totally ignoring the limitations her illness projected onto her body. 

A few days later, I had a brief conversation with a young man who lost his wife to an illness.  We talked about the children he was caring for and I erroneously said to him something to the fact that he was a great guy raising his stepchildren alone as I was sure this wasn’t something he signed up for.  His look was very sincere with a fierce love and commitment in his eyes as he corrected me.  “No, I absolutely did” he said. “I signed up for this the second I met them all.”  As a mom who is remarried, we are so grateful for a man who comes along and loves our children.  But this wasn’t the love of a stepfather, but the love of a dad.  It filled my heart. I immediately realized my mistake.  Not only did I now understand how lucky all those kids were to have him, but I recognized how blessed he felt to have them.  “Hero of the day…the man whose love breaks the barrier of blood and obligation.”  What an honor and gift for them all, especially to the special woman they all lost. 

As my summer progressed, out of the corner of my eye one day I noticed a much older man, well into his 70’s running on the beach in the soft sand.  Each stride he took was notably a challenge.  It was hot and his feet were trudging through the sand as if someone was pulling them backwards.  He was driven.  He kept his eyes fixed on his goal at the other end of the beach.  I pointed him out to my husband.  I said, “I am ashamed I do not exercise more and complain about aches and pains.”  This man is clearly struggling but the reward to perhaps persevere and maintain his strength is clearly more valuable to him than the discomfort or challenge he was experiencing.  And then it hit me again.  “Hero of the day…the man who refuses to accept age as a limitation in order to achieve personal satisfaction.”  Give me an ounce of this drive, please!

As the summer came to a close and the crowds left the beaches, I drove the empty streets of North Wildwood and noticed 3 teens walking down the street.  One of the young men was in a wheelchair.  I could tell from the size of his body in his clothes, the posture he maintained in the chair, and the paleness of his skin that he was nearing the end of his journey here on this earth.  The teens who pushed him along, talked and laughed, bending over to look him in the face in an effort to include him in the conversation.  I slowed down and quietly sobbed as I watched them for a few minutes.  These boys were clearly aware of their friend’s frailty as they pushed him along.    I sensed they knew the warm sunshine and gentle breeze was a gift to this young man when he pushed his head back to allow the sun to soak into his face.  What a beautiful friendship I had the pleasure to witness. “Heroes of the day- the young men who kept some normalcy in a day to spend time with a friend in need.”  Let me never be too busy to spend time with those who need it. 

I share just these few examples to show you that, yes, this life IS filled with sadness. And I have learned the hard way my best efforts cannot change that. But in the emptiness and despair we sometimes experience, there is still beauty. It is a collateral beauty that sometimes get blurred by our tears or hidden behind our huge pile of fear and heart break.  But it is there.  The beauty is concealed in these people who enter our life unexpectedly and teach us something we may need to learn in order to grow, heal, and forgive.  We need to find this beauty in the chaos of situations.  In order to do that, we must somehow learn to be present as much as possible.  Stop, breath, listen, see, and learn to feel the love and kindness.  These treasures are hidden in others and are yours for the taking, if you are open and willing to learn.  Look for the unsung hero who may be there to act as your guide in order to show you the way…the way to perhaps a better you.  One of my most favorite movie quotes seems to point in the same direction of the unsung hero…although she refers to it as “Ruin”.

“A friend took me to the most amazing place the other day. It’s called the Augusteum. Octavian Augustus built it to house his remains. When the barbarians came they trashed it a long with everything else. The great Augustus, Rome’s first true great emperor. How could he have imagined that Rome, the whole world as far as he was concerned, would be in ruins. It’s one of the quietest, loneliest places in Rome. The city has grown up around it over the centuries. It feels like a precious wound, a heartbreak you won’t let go of because it hurts too good. We all want things to stay the same. Settle for living in misery because we’re afraid of change, of things crumbling to ruins. Then I looked at around to this place, at the chaos it has endured – the way it has been adapted, burned, pillaged and found a way to build itself back up again. And I was reassured, maybe my life hasn’t been so chaotic, it’s just the world that is, and the real trap is getting attached to any of it. Ruin is a gift. Ruin is the road to transformation.”
― Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

Persevere Bitches!