A number of years ago the wonderful writer Frank McCourt wrote an essay for the New York Times on Mother’s Day weekend, about women in his adult education writing class who were struggling to get an education, care for their families, and live decent lives every day. (http://www.nytimes.com/1997/05/11/opinion/mothers-who-get-by.html) He made the point that they were heroes, especially to their children. The women were indignant – they were doing what they should do and what they could do, and there was no heroism in that.
We are taught to think of a hero as a great man doing great things, conquering mountains and winning battles, and not someone who simply carries on and does without fanfare what needs to be done. This crossed my mind recently after spending time with an old friend of mine. He is a long-time survivor of HIV and has been on every clinical trial for that disease; he has suffered from severe depression and other psychological illnesses; he has battled with addiction his entire life; he has been unlucky in love and in life. And he is a hero, as sure as a man with a big “S” on his muscle shirt. I know no braver person.
As gay a gay boy as ever there was, born to a stern, homophobic and alcoholic father in a rough and tumble western state, my friend got the message from Day One that he was not good enough and that his parents were disappointed. His mother was loving but herself troubled with alcoholism; his siblings either hostile or indifferent. He struggled through high school, probably with undiagnosed learning issues, and was out on his own at 18. A kind aunt and uncle in another state extended their hands to him, and eventually he found his way to his profession as a florist. His life from that day to this has been an unceasing roller coaster of lost loves, physical and mental health crises, crashes in self esteem and rolls off the wagon, hospitalizations, financial catastrophes, criminal attacks, and betrayal. What sustained him? Talent and humor.
His creativity comes from someplace very deep within. He has a poignant and overt love of beauty. His gifts with design, with color, with texture and space, have a music that is absolutely clear – even when he himself is suffering, his work shines. His popularity as a society florist, as a wedding designer, as the go-to guy for galas and balls, is due to his unerring eye and fine taste. And accompanying this talent is an infectious and wacky sense of humor, buoying him through every disaster in his life. He is a joy to be around.
What miracle provides warmth and love in a person through intense adversity? In some faiths there is the tenet that souls return to earth, each time working towards enlightenment. In some, those that suffer the most or are the naughtiest are the ones most beloved. One can see this in Christian new testament parables, the Prodigal Son, the Lost Sheep, and there are similar tales in other faiths. Here on 21st century earth, we tend to condemn those people, call them “losers”, write them off as deserving of their fates.
I’ve had every advantage and yet often overreact to minor irritants and wail over the trivial. It is easy to lose perspective. How lucky I am to know this one true hero. I am humbled by my friend’s courage and can only aspire to his grace.
©Poets Sinews, 2014. Reuse with permission.