Last weekend my husband was enjoying one of his favorite summer activities–an early morning bike ride, long before I awaken, on one of the wonderful bike trails in our area. The trails are not crowded at that hour and he doesn’t have to worry about car traffic.
There’s a break in the trail at one point, requiring a brief ride on a residential street. A large dog darted out of nowhere into his path, he swerved to miss the dog and took a very bad fall for his kindness. One arm and his entire side were bloodied and bruised.
A woman living nearby saw the incident and rushed to his aid, offering to transport him and his damaged bike back home. The only thing he knew about his rescuer was that her name was Sarah. In my book, Sarah was a hero that morning.
Our country loves heroes, though, typically, we laud heroes who are more impressive than Sarah. This week at the White House our country honored Staff Sergeant Leroy Petry with the Medal of Honor for his heroism in Afghanistan. Petry, severely wounded and under fire, picked up a live grenade and hurled it back at the enemy, just as it exploded, costing him his hand. It saved two of his men.
Petry’s heroism obviously deserves more praise and recognition than Sarah’s. And, instinctively, we know none of us will be Medal of Honor recipients. But, even if our heroism is destined to be more the Sarah-variety, we all long to feel that if a particular moment arrived that required us to “step up,” we would act.
In my yoga class recently, I thought I had a chance to be a hero. The first day of class I noticed a frail, older woman with long greasy gray hair, who walked into class wearing a black winter park with fake fur hood. It was 92 degrees outside.
Furtively, she unrolled her mat, never making eye contact with anyone. She wore black loose-fitting sweat pants about two sizes too big, a dingy white t-shirt, and a pair of even filthier men’s athletic socks, full of holes, with gnarly bunions peeking through the rips.
Once I got past the clothes, I noticed her face. She was very pretty, with fine chiseled features and beautiful eyes like oversized black buttons. During a break, I introduced myself and asked her name. It was Mary.
After that, each class I would try to place my mat near hers and say hello to her by name. She seemed such a lost soul. She started to smile when I spoke to her and, if she arrived late, she would come and place her mat by mine.
One day after class I asked if I could drop her off somewhere. She said she preferred to take the bus. I wondered if she lived in a homeless shelter and didn’t want anyone to know. Another time after class, I invited her to lunch as my guest at a nearby McDonald’s, thinking that might be a non-threatening option. She declined.
Despite the limits she placed on my efforts, I began to look forward to seeing her. I no longer noticed her clothes. It was her smile and her lovely lived-in face. I could tell she, too, looked forward to seeing me, glad to have someone to sit beside, someone who knew her name.
Then, before I had the chance to be any kind of real hero to Mary, our class was cancelled. The sponsoring organization decided it wasn’t cost-effective. It didn’t happen when class was in session, so there were no goodbyes. It felt like unfinished business.
It gnawed at me for days. I felt my path had crossed with Mary’s for a reason. I wasn’t sure what the reason was, but I was sure it had not yet happened. I e-mailed our instructor to see if she knew how to reach Mary. She didn’t.
As I talked to God about my disappointment, He gently reminded me He was the only rescuer in the room. My responsibility was simply to authentically connect with Mary and accept her. Mary didn’t want to be my project. She wanted to be my friend.
I’m embarrassed to admit I would rather have been her hero–to swoop in, make some noble contribution, then go home and watch “Dancing with the Stars.” It’s much harder to do the slow, tedious work of love.
In the end, it was Mary who was the unwitting hero, teaching me that unconditional love is messy and inconvenient and doesn’t happen in an instant. And it seldom comes with a medal.