When I hear the word "hero" images of people I know and admire break over me. I could tell you of my mother's life and how beautiful her strength is...I could write about my sister's stubborn refusal to succumb to her sorrow and how this inspires me. I could write about M. and how his heroics have taught me what love is...The only thing is, so many heroes have made a difference in my life. Directly, by offering me support and kindness...and indirectly, by sharing their stories, their vision, their art--and drawing the sky down so that I can almost touch it myself.
What has been harder for me is the acknowledgement of my own heroic efforts in life. I look at the little girl in the picture here and I want to reach back over the years and tell her I'm sorry...life won't always be gentle and you won't always treat yourself with the love you deserve. Hero...what this word means is tenacity, the fight not to give into whatever trials are laid out before you...sometimes, it means getting out of bed every morning, brushing your teeth, and moving through the day. Sometimes, it means saving a life beyond your own. I can say that I have done both, with the story to prove it...
One teenaged summer, I thought that being a lifeguard would mean I could sit in the sun by a pool and feel the season's warmth sink into me. What's more, I'd be paid money to do this! It was, actually, much more about scrubbing nasty yeasty floors with a brush and Lysol and mixing toxic chemicals that burned my throat in the pump room. But, I didn't realize this until it was too late. August came and I was burned out on this job...disillusioned at how the summer was ending. When they asked if I'd be on the list for next year I shrugged. I was unsure. I sulked by the pool watching the bees blaze in and out of the honeysuckle on the chain-link fence...my partner for the day had gone into the pump room on her shift to fix the PH balance and the water was crowded, I was feeling annoyed.
I saw a little scrawny boy, about four years old, the age I was in this photo above, with a young babysitter even younger than me. She was busy lotioning herself and tossing her hair over her tanned shoulder and not paying attention the boy at all. He had the darkest eyes--unexpected with his fair skin and red hair. Even more unexpected was the way they watched me--open wide--as he sank beneath the water, open-mouthed just like a fish. I stood up. I waited one heartbeat to see if he was playing or not. I looked around frantically for my partner--I blew my whistle as they told us to in training. Three short blasts of sound, exploding from my breath. She didn't come out of the pump room...the little boy didn't come back up...the babysitter didn't notice.
I went in after him. By now, the few mothers present poolside that day realized the fifteen-year-old lifeguard had a problem. I didn't know this--I only knew I had to reach that boy as he sank like a stone away from me, his eyes never leaving mine. It was only twelve feet deep, still, the bottom seemed to go on forever. My lungs were bursting, but I grabbed him around the waist, pushed hard off the pool floor, and rocketed to the top with the boy in my arms. He was limp and this terrified me...I did the cross-arm carry, swimming over to the side and heaving him up with every ounce of strength I had. The moms covered their mouths, but no one did anything. I remember thinking they're the adults here. But, I turned the boy onto his back, checked his respirations and pulse like I had been taught just a few months before. I gave him two quick breaths when I realized he needed them...and that was it, he coughed and spewed water like a geyser and I turned him over onto his side and started to cry. Everyone at the pool had huddled around us, including the errant babysitter and my vanishing-on-duty partner. The boy sat up and looked at me again, biggest eyes in the world.
"Am I in trouble?" he asked me, and I shook my head.
The babysitter interrupted, "No, but I am."
Someone gave us towels and eventually after people telling me "Good job" and the babysitter thanking me so profusely she'd broken out into a sheen of sweat, I sat back down, a hero in my plastic chair, and resumed my observation of the chlorinated death trap and the delirious bees.