Over the past weeks we’ve redefined the word ‘hero.’
It used to be reserved for characters of comic book fiction, or those extraordinary individuals who hold a position under fire, snatch a baby from a smoke filled nursery, or otherwise put their own lives at risk to save another.
We see heroism in broader terms now. It’s also showing up for your regularly scheduled shift at the care home, or the stock room at the grocery store.
Recognition long overdue, as it turns out.
Reflecting on heroes, I’ve only been saved once by that cape-sporting sort of stereotypical ‘super person.’
That said, there’s been the occasional emotional rescue.
One or two times I was more than grateful to see a police officer. And I’ve witnessed, on the job, acts of distilled courage and selflessness.
My damsel in distress moment is many years past. I was just old enough to order a beer in New York City, and the recently-appointed editor of a small newspaper in Paris, Ont.
It was Easter weekend. The newly-married DeMeers were driving home from a family lunch in Kitchener.
That something serious had occurred was apparent as we approached town. Rescue trucks and cruisers lined the highway along the river, lights flashing. A quick check-in with officials confirmed a person was presumed drowned.
The volunteer fire department launched a search along both sides of the river. It was a recovery, not a rescue.
Reaching for the always-present camera bag from the back of the car, I instructed Mr. DeMeer to go home and pick up different clothes. I was wearing a shift dress and heels.
‘Wait right here’ was the last thing he said.
The missing man had been kayaking. A witness reported seeing him go under water, and not surfacing.
Speaking ill of the dead, anyone who kayaks on the Grand River in April is a fool courting disaster who puts the lives of first responders at risk.
It was my first drowning.
Over the next decade I covered dozens of similar tragedies. The Grand claimed lives almost every spring and summer. A year without a drowning was headline worthy in its own right.
I learned to respect the Grand for its beauty and danger. But at 21 I was a fool courting disaster.
Mr. DeMeer was taking so long with the clothes, and I didn’t want to miss that shot of firefighters searching for a victim.
With care, I picked a path down to the river’s edge, hoping to find a place to follow it safely.
But rivers in flood are deceiving. Trees, rocks and debris extend over and from the water, making it impossible to determine what is land and what is not.
Mud sucked the shoes right off my feet.
I comforted myself with the knowledge I am a strong swimmer.
Tell a river you’re a strong swimmer and it hollers back: Hold my Jack Daniels.
A series of missteps was disorienting. Each time I tried to make for shore or some kind of high ground — lured by vegetation — I got in deeper water.
From that unfortunate vantage point, I observed the firefighters packing up their gear, climbing into their trucks and heading back to the hall.
They had no idea I was still out there.
Dusk settled. I was wet, shivering and scared.
FINE. I was also crying.
My hero was only a shadow at first, but one most definitely making its way through the thigh-high current.
Mr. DeMeer is not a strong swimmer, but he reached me, scooped me up and lugged me back to safety, all the while uttering a blistering string of expletives.
Later at home, there was a warm bath, blankets, a generous glass of Jack Daniels and further profanity.
Needing a hero can be humbling, even humiliating. But when you are frightened, it’s nice to know one is around.
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