The late afternoon skies above New York City on Tuesday were a dull and lifeless shade of gray. Small raindrops fell from the sky with no real force or purpose behind them, as if they were the remnants of tears that rolled off a large face somewhere in the heavens. I held an umbrella in my hand as I walked to the train station, but did not bother to open it. There was something that felt right about the cold raindrops that clung to my face. They served as the tears I was too shy to openly shed in public.
Earlier that morning, my Godfather died suddenly from a heart attack. He was 62.
In stark contrast to the day he passed, yesterday’s funeral service took place on a picture perfect early summer day in Philadelphia. Pillowy white clouds slipped effortlessly across the shiny blue surface of the crystal sky. A soft breeze blew from time to time, just strong enough to rustle the leaves of the surrounding trees and curve any blade of grass tall enough to do so. The air was sweet with the scent of nearby blooms and was invigorating to breathe in. What was more beautiful, however, was the moving eulogy delivered by my Godfather’s son that day.
He spoke about the amazing parent, inspiration and friend he had in his father. He shared how his father would set anything aside for him if he needed his help. He moved us with an account of how his father not only eptiomized strength in his eyes, but instilled within him the belief that he could be just as strong as his father, if not stronger. Then, with tears in his eyes, he proclaimed to the gathering this his father was his hero.
I knuckled the tears out of my own eyes and glanced over to my left. There, across the aisle, sat my own hero. Though a slightly smaller and diminished version of himself, my father is still a giant in my eyes and every bit a hero to me.
For the next few moments I wondered what it is that makes so many fathers heroes to their children. Not many dads possess above average, let alone superhuman, physical strength. Few dads find themselves in situations where they need to rescue their children from burning buildings. And I can’t think of any dads who are faster than a locomotive or can leap tall buildings in a single bound. So why is it that the word ‘hero’ comes so effortlessly when we describe how we perceive our fathers? I searched my memories trying to get to the bottom of it – looking for some amazing, out-of-the-ordinary, pivotal event in which my dad became my hero. Surprisingly, I couldn’t think of even one. The eulogy ended shortly thereafter and my musing along with it.
Late last night, my 10-month-old son woke up in his crib and started screaming hysterically. He was extremely tired from the day’s activities and travel back home, so I was surprised he woke up so soon after I put him to bed. I rushed to his room and scooped him up in my arms. At first, nothing seemed to appease him. My only guess was that he had some horrible dream that tore him away from his slumber. He held himself upright with his eyes closed tightly and kept screaming. Tears covered his plump cheeks, now red and flush from his cries. I brought him into the bathroom to gently wash his face with some cold water, hoping that would calm him and help him snap back to reality. It didn’t work. My wife came over and tried to calm him by cradling him, but that didn’t work either – he kept twisting and turning with his arms outstretched in my direction. I took him back into my arms, walked down into the living room and just started talking to him. I started rambling on about how Daddy and Sam were going to check everything in the house and make sure we were safe. We opened cabinets and the refrigerator looking for any signs of trouble. We turned lights on and off to ensure that everything was working properly. We ended up stepping out the front door into the cool night air to make sure there were no bears on the prowl and that our street was safe. While we progressed through this hastily concocted safety protocol, my son’s screaming came to an end. The redness in his cheeks subsided and his tears dried up and disappeared. At one point, I saw the trappings of a smile on either side of the pacifier in his mouth. We locked up the house, turned out the lights and went back to our bed. His eyes closed the instant his little head touched my pillow and he drifted off to what seemed like a better dream world – one that was not so frightening.
As my son’s little hand rested on my face and I heard the faint whistle of his breathing while he slept, I felt like I was starting to understand how children come to think of their fathers as heroes. It doesn’t begin with a grand gesture or death defying act. It begins with a father simply being there for his children in their hour of need.
Thinking along these lines, I could recall hundreds of situations in which my father was a hero to me. It became plain to see why I regard him as my hero to this day.
Watching my son sleep peacefully, now safe from whatever terrible dream had plagued his slumber before, I smiled thinking that maybe his perception of me as something more than just his father had already begun. I found myself hoping that he too might use that short little word to describe me one day: Hero.