19 Mar Me, a Hero? An Excerpt from "Narcissus Blinked"
Gwen’s face was even kinder during Jacob’s second encounter with her as they sat in the ICU waiting room. Julia remained stable, but still not ready for visitors.
“It was scary to find her,” he told Gwen after she confirmed that Paul had spoken to her and authorized Jacob to visit.
“She’s lucky you did,” Gwen replied, without much emotion. “I guess you’re the hero today.”
Jacob felt almost nauseated at the sound of the label.
“You probably didn’t wake up this morning expecting to be one,” she continued, looking at him closely but not skeptically. Gwen seemed as if she were examining your soul without making you feel the burn of the laser. Her forehead was lined with some evidence of having mulled and concentrated over a great many things, and she possessed a poignant dignity that didn’t endeavor to call attention to itself. “But that’s when heroes are born—in the middle of everyday, normal life,” she continued.
Jacob pondered what constituted “normal” for him these days. If the word implied routines, he had broken his pattern today and stumbled into so-called heroism along a less-traveled path. Jacob decided to keep things generic while secretly addressing his inner turmoil in conversation with Gwen.
“But if most heroes are simply doing what any halfway decent, sensible person would do,” Jacob said, staring at the white, tiled floor as he began his words, “then are they really ‘heroes?’ When I think of ‘hero,’ I think of someone extraordinary, or an ordinary person who surprises even himself or herself by doing something extraordinary.” He offered her a slight smile.
Gwen shrugged. She had logged many hours, countless hours, of quasi-philosophical waiting room or bedside conversations with family members or friends of patients. Twenty-five years as a nurse—21 of those in the ICU—will do that for you. People became pretty easy to read after a while. The same patterns kept emerging. The hospital was a cross-section of people’s aspirations and despair, because their very presence there meant that life’s frailty had reared its head and demanded priority over the typical person’s roadmap of ambitions.
“You’d be surprised at how many ‘ordinary’ people don’t do decent and sensible things,” she said, more whimsically than cynically. “Sometimes heroism is graded on a curve, because lots of people bring the rest of the class down.” Gwen slowly stood up, and Jacob did likewise. “I’ve got to get back in there. She’s not ready for any visitors yet, but you can check back a little later if you’re sticking around?” Gwen studied him again.
Jacob nodded. “Yeah, I’m sticking around. Told her husband I would.”
Gwen smiled. “You’re a good friend to him. And to her.”
It was his turn to shrug.
“I hope so.”