Are heroes born or are they made? This question has been asked many times over the years. Many believe heroes are made, but I disagree. The act of heroism is far more complicated than the moment in which it occurs. Experience, personal, is on which I base that finding.
When I was a young girl, I enjoyed being outdoors even in the winter, something for which I’ve since lost the appeal. What drove me out of doors was the desire to explore and experience wildlife. Quite lucky, I grew up on a few acres surrounded by forest on all sides. There were deer, fox, coyote, birds, cranes, a frog pond with cray fish, and even fishers. I remember the moles that would lie dead on the green after a particularly heavy rain. It was sad to see them layed out so, but it was the only way I ever saw a mole. They’ve got these amazing front shovels and they’re about as cute as the one in Wind in the Willows. Crayfish were a different kind of fascination. Hooking up glass jars with rope to catch tadpoles would almost always net a crayfish. I’d squeal with horror when I caught a full grown one, his great red body magnified by the glass. The little ones could efficiently clamor back into the mud of the pond bank to protect themselves. While they were not appealing to me visually, as frogs and tadpoles were, they were pretty neat for that quick digging ability.
In winter, the pond that was the usual focus of my time was frozen over, so I would need occupy myself elsewhere. Bundled up, I went into the cellar, probably in search of either the toboggan or sled. The snow was pretty deep, and it was still light, about gloaming. The snow would be crunchy and ready for a slide. Sometimes all you’d need was your butt, if the ice was up.
In the cellar, I heard a commotion out where the cars were parked. Dad had gone out, probably away at National Guard weekend. The basement was wide open. And, in the middle of it, this great black bird was flying back and forth, knocking himself senseless on the glass of the garage door, desperately attempting to get out. Exhausted, he fell on a pile of 2x4s (our house was always in remodel, or had scraps from the last time around). Going over, I assessed the situation. He jumped up, perching above me on the lamp that hung on the back end of the room. Speaking low, I tried to assure him. There was no way out like he was trying. But, reasoning with a crow in human English was futile. He gave it another go, banged up to the glass and fluttered back to the pile of wood. He’d had it.
At the time, the bird was probably about a quarter of my size. I was very young. Thus, I was just as intimidated as he. that long beak could probably hurt me badly if he wanted to. Then, I remembered, I had my thick mittens on. I carefully gathered him up from the wood, opened the garage door and was about to release him, when I realized that I had a great treasure to show my mother. She’d be very proud of my saving this creature from her basement.
Instead of letting him go, I hurried around the house to the backdoor and knocked, holding the bird in both hands, wings safely tucked, up in the window for her to see. She stared a moment, incredulous at the site, but then realized what was going on. My mom is a great woman, and very caring about her children. She freaked out, concerned I’d be covered in disease and awful for handling this crow. After all corvids love to eat dead things on the side of the road, and that is the majority of our experiences with them.
Tearing open the door, mom implored me to explain what I was doing and I stuttered out what happened, surmising her fear as anger. The crow was quickly taken from me and set free, and I was rushed inside to wash my hands, despite their having been in my think winter mittens. I got quite a lecture about not touching wild animals because of germs. I defended my actions, saying I saved him from dying in the basement, and I’m not germy.
The crow defended my actions, too. When I went outside after that, they would gather and call to me for years. I’d call back. They’d follow me all over the yard, my personal army. It wasn’t until later that I learned corvids remember things as well as humans, including faces. Their gatherings ceased after I went to college. I was gone almost always for two years. My outdoor excursions also dropped to nil. Likely they figured I had gone.
Over the last few years, I have not seen crows on the land anymore. I miss their presence, and reminder that I knew the right thing to do, because I had been raised with empathy.
A few years later, I was treated to my first puppy. He was named Max (like my later Jack Russell) and a golden retriever and Labrador mix. He had a long golden coat and was a complete bull in a china closet. He also had some food aggression, so we had to stay away from his bowls. Other than that, he was a super peach. We’d go outside together and have so much fun.
One winter, I was outside seeking distraction with Max in tow. I made the poor choice of going up onto the pool deck. I knew better than to go out onto the pool ice, but Max was not so educated. I called to him, but he ignored me. finally, he came back and was just about to step onto the decking when the ice cracked and he slipped into the pool.
Keep in mind that I was about 7 years old and this was a full grown male, golden. He probably weighed up to 90-pounds. Quickly, I reacted to his fall and grabbed his front legs before he disappeared completely below the water. It was freezing out, but I all I knew was I had to help him. Mom was inside, and wouldn’t likely hear me. Besides, I would be in trouble for getting up there and causing this. Somehow, in the fear of losing my dog to the water, and fear of getting in trouble, I lifted Max free of the water and onto the deck. I grabbed his collar and hurried to the back door. Fessing up, I asked for a towel.
Unlike with the crow, Mom didn’t yell. We dried him off and that was that. Maybe she was in shock that I had lifted him. I’m still in shock I was able to help him out of the trouble I led him into. All I knew in the moment was that I had not intended this, nor foreseen it, but that I loved my dog and would have gone in the water for him if needed.
Max only lived a couple years, struck by a car early one morning. He died on site. The driver didn’t bother to stop, and my father suspects someone did it on purpose. It’s possible they swerved to miss him? I don’t know. My town has some real winners. There were no brake marks, either.
About two decades ago, Mom started feeding the birds that congregated in our trees. It was the last year or so of high school for me. My brother was in college. I now had a Doberman for a little sister. The wound of losing Max was a quiet memory.
All sorts of birds began to show up to the feeder. Chickadees and gold finches were the first to brave being before the living room windows. Sitting for hours watching them was so relaxing. More fun, the squirrels that came became endless entertainment-especially the little red one that fended off three full grown grays as I tossed him peanuts.
Eventually, Mom had quite a colony of song birds out front. We learned so much about them and how to identify new feeders. I saw mice gathering seed on the snow beside mourning doves and jays. A favorite pair of mine were the rose-breasted grosbeaks. The male is quite showy, with his white speckled jet jacket and bib of rose red. I had no idea how special they would be to me in the coming years.
One summer, my brother was out front working on his car. He was never keen on the birds, unless there was glass or a cage between them. It wasn’t surprising that while working on the car, that he came to me when one of the birds had knocked himself out on a window of the house. Kevin wanted me to move it, dead or alive, because it was freaking him out. So, I followed him out, taking time to poke a few jokes at him. On the ground between the car and the garage was the still body of a rose-breasted grosbeak. It was horrifying. Hitting a window at the speed they do, it’s almost always certain that they are killed. Very rarely, do they survive the injuries.
Assuring my avian phobic brother that I had the balls to take care of this, I scooped up the bird and carefully brought him over to the porch. I sat for a long time in the afternoon sun, rubbing him gently, holding him, whispering assurances. He didn’t feel broken. His breast rose and fell with little breaths. I rubbed his back and continued talking to him gently. Eventually his little eyes opened and he stared at me empty of reason. I smiled and and encouraged him. Rubbing his head, I kept my hand loose on his body. He gave his wings a test, was wobbly, and settled on my hand, hardly aware of me as a danger. I’m sure his world was spinning. More assurances got him to perch on my finger. He stared at me, growing increasingly aware, but about as incredulous as my mother looking at a crow at her back door.
Mr. Rose-Breasted stayed with me for twenty minutes, I estimated. He breathed and fluttered and fixed his feathers. He took his time coming back from the major head ringing meeting that window gave him. Then, he started looking beyond me to the trees. Soon, that was where he perched. Another few minutes, he sat there watching me. I encouraged him more. To this day, I wonder what was going through his mind.
A few days later, the rose-breasteds came back to the feeder. Sitting on the sill of the window with his mate, he looked inside our house. I moved toward the window and he just sat there looking, and his little wife stared, too. This happened several times, and then annually they returned to take a look at the human that saved him. He would even fly around to the back to see inside the sliding glass doors if he couldn’t see me by the front window (I have a shot of that).
Perhaps each of these isn’t particularly heroic, but to me they are. It’s a series of events that display empathy in adversity. Certainly, I could have lied about Max or ran off and save myself leaving him to drown. Instead, I took hold of the moment that was made by my choices or by other’s choices. With it, I brought my history. I grew up learning to care for the less fortunate, and that included helpless individuals, and not just humans. Blame Disney or blame those anthropomorphic children’s novels, but they did their intended job, making me realize that I am not alone in experiencing this world, and that others are experiencing it too, with all the same feelings and fears. Imagine being Max, falling through the ice in that cold, or the crow that was trapped, a grosbeak knocked cold only to wake in the hand of a gentle giant. Can you feel their fears? Imagine your limbs freezing as you desperately claw to get out, but there is no footing to be had and you’re slipping and weakening. Imagine finding yourself trapped and facing certain death with no food or water. Would someone let you out? Or would they come and hurt you for trespassing? Imagine the pain of striking a wall at 30-60 mph, probably having been chased there. Your head ringing, you fall to the ground at the feet of a species known to yours for its cruelty, and the dude is cold freaking out at the site of you. Then you wake up in the hands of another, smiling and petting you, whispering. Somehow, you know it’s gonna be okay. This is one of the good ones. Check her out!
Imagine, because that’s how you connect to your empathy, and that is the seat from where heroism rises. Realizing that regardless of the hardship to yourself, someone is far worse off, and you can do something to alleviate their suffering, save them. Sometimes, you know it might not end well for you, but you make the choice that doing the right thing in this moment is all that matters. I don’t believe I was born to take action. I do think that the things that happened in my life and the things that I learned shaped me to take action. To do otherwise would be unnatural to all I know, while my genetics always try to convince me to preserve the self.
The act of heroism is far more complicated than the moment in which it occurs.