I'm blogging over at Write in the Shadows today about heroism in honor of the upcoming 9/11 anniversary.
My 9/11 memories are fuzzy.
I was already at work when the first tower was hit, and only found out something was going on after the second. My dad was in the last downward spiral of COPD, and would die within a couple of weeks. That was taking most of my personal attention and about all the emotion I could muster. Then, as my coworkers gathered around a small TV in someone’s office to watch the 9/11 drama unfold, I was called to the university president’s office to start crafting a strategy for what the university could do for its students from New York and DC, and writing a speech for him to give at an afternoon convocation to help our students put the whole thing in perspective. I wrote about it all week, working long hours. I missed all of the TV coverage except in small spurts over a quick dinner as I worked late hours. I then went to my hometown to watch my father die. For me, 9/11 is a blur, like a movie I watched from a distance.
I missed most of the shared consciousness of 9/11. The first time I really thought consciously of what makes a real-life hero came after Hurricane Katrina. THAT tragedy, I didn’t miss.
In fiction, our heroes are usually strong macho guys (or women) with overwhelming sex appeal. They are larger than life, can figure a way out of any dire predicament, and do it while cursing like a sailor.
Real-life heroes, I learned, are not like that. They might be old, or young. Handsome, or not. They don’t have blind courage or superpowers. What they have is integrity, some solid inner core that, when tested, hardens and refines. My hero was Scott, a university president who, faced with a demolished campus and students and faculty scattered across the continent, swallowed his fear and despair to wade his way back into the void to save his university. My hero was Irene, who at age 80, with her family home in ruins, was sitting resolutely in a church pew in New Orleans six weeks after the hurricane and helping other people. My heroes don’t even know they were heroes.
I think that’s what we all admire about the 9/11 rescue workers as well. Firefighters and police officers who were probably scared as hell, but sucked it up and did their jobs. Who lost loved ones and colleagues, but set their panic and fear and grief aside and did what they were sworn to do.
That’s a hero.