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That Which We Admire

There are all sorts of heroes, from the well-known ones – people like Mother Theresa, Oprah Winfrey, Harvey Milk, Martin Luther King and so on – to the everyday ones, like your local firefighters, police officers or the troops fighting for their country in terrible places.

Once in awhile, someone comes into our lives that serve as an inspiration. They may not necessarily change the world by what they – they may not even have the effect that the everyday hero has on our lives – but they change our worlds nonetheless.

I want to tell you about one such person who has come into my life. Her name is Ann and she lives in Wisconsin, Madison to be specific. She would be the first to tell you that there’s nothing heroic about her, but this would be one of the few points on which she’d be mistaken.

Getting out of bed can sometimes be a heroic bed and Ann has less reason to get out of bed than most. She has had to overcome the kind of adversity we can only guess at. For starters, Ann’s mother passed away when Ann was only 20. It’s very hard for a young person to lose a role model, but that’s exactly what Ann had to do. Still, she’d already had plenty of practice at grieving at that point; she’d had to cope with the passing of two grandparents, an uncle and a cousin already by that point. Two of her friends had also died violently by then.

Still, she managed to survive and even thrive. She also found herself a great guy. His name was Eric and they’d met in March of 1997 through a cousin of his. By September 2000 they were married. Nearly five years after that they still hadn’t had kids yet, but they were madly in love and Ann was pretty content with the direction her life was going.

That all changed on July 1, 2005.  Ann had fallen asleep on the couch after work after saying goodnight to her husband in the bedroom. She was awakened by the alarm going off and got up to find Eric lying apparently asleep in their bed. It became apparent that something was terribly wrong; he wasn’t moving at all. She checked further and discovered to her horror that Eric wasn’t breathing. She immediately called 911 and began administering CPR to her husband, but it all went for naught. He was gone, dead at 31. He’d had an immune system issue that had led to a chronic low white cell count. That immune system issue had led to an enlarged heart which had in turn led to scarring on the heart itself, which caused the arrhythmia that killed him.

How does one go on when all your dreams are shattered? How do you live in a world where the best thing in it has been taken from you long before it’s time? It’s a question most of us don’t ever want to have to answer, but it was the one that was confronting Ann.

People react differently to that kind of tragedy. Some withdraw into themselves and shut the world out, a kind of protection against further pain. Some lash out, angry and bitter and trying to find something or someone to blame. I’m sure Ann felt those things and the siren call was probably pretty strong. However, that’s not the route she went. She chose to embrace life and keep living. She chose to help others and live her life with a smile on her face.

She is one of the most positive people I know, even given all the things she’s been through. Her friends have said at they don’t know anybody who smiles as much as Ann does and I can believe it. She is cheerful more often than almost anyone I know. That’s not to say she doesn’t get irritated and pissed off about things, or that she doesn’t have her occasional pissy mood. It’s just that she is cheerful and positive more than anybody I’ve met.

Perhaps part of that comes from where she works. She is a night nurse at a nursing facility in the Madison area. Her job involves caring for the (mostly) elderly in a facility where they are often alone, without family or friends to comfort them. She is a ray of sunshine in their lives, treating them with compassion and respect, flirting with some, comforting others, but always bringing her love and laughter as part and parcel of what she does.

She’s also dating again, although nothing serious has developed so far. She hangs out with friends and chats regularly on Facebook, which is how I met her. She is full of hope and optimism for the future and has managed to continue living without letting her tragedy define her. That takes the kind of courage and strength of character that is rare in this world, but is seldom applauded when it occurs.

Which is why I tell her tale here. She isn’t toiling away in Africa taking care of the impoverished, nor is she struggling to overcome a physical handicap. She doesn’t put her life on the line day after day. What she does do is make things a little bit better, the best she can. She has taken the worst that life can throw at her and still keeps moving forward, with hope and love and a smile on her face. That is what inspires me, her ability to give of herself to those who need it, despite the blows she has taken.

We can all learn something from that. Life throws things at us, some good, some bad, and some horrible. Coping with those terrible things is one of the challenges that define us all. We can shut the world out, crawl into a hole, numb ourselves with alcohol or recreational drugs, or lash out at those around us. We can also learn and grow, celebrate those we have lost and cherish their memory by not just continuing to live our lives – because that implies that we stay in the place we’re at for the rest of our existence – but to continue to grow as we do. We honor those we love by living happy lives, because that’s what our loved ones would want for us.

God forbid that something happens to me, but if it did, I would want Doreen to move on. Not necessarily to forget about me – I hope that I’m memorable enough to prevent that – but to find happiness elsewhere with someone else if possible. I have a feeling that those aren’t words she would particularly want to hear from me; in fact, from my own perspective if something were to happen to her, I’m not sure I’d want to move on – but in the end, I know she’d want me to be happy even if she wasn’t around to share it. That’s one of the hardest things to do, to be happy in the absence of our loved ones. We have to give ourselves permission to be and that’s not always easy. Survivor’s guilt can be a bitch.

Ann is a hero to me because she has overcome all that, and quite frankly, I’m not sure I could if something happened to Doreen. It may have taken her some time, but she’s carved out a life for herself and she is hopeful that she will share it again with somebody someday. I hope that she finds someone worthy of her; she deserves it. Hell, we all do but she does in particular. There should be a happily ever after for heroes. For what it’s worth, I have learned a great deal about ordinary courage from her. I hope I take those lessons to heart.


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