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So long, Mary…and all the other heroes I forgot to have

September 22, 2009

The passing of Mary Travers this month brought to mind one more time the fact that I never particularly had any heroes, at least not human ones. My heart leaped at the escapades of heroic animals and fantasy superheroes, but not of celebrities or human characters they portrayed. Peter Paul and Mary, and the whole Folksong Army, were assumed to speak for movements — the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement in particular — that gave motion to the kinetic 60s. But they were not my heroes.

Okay, I did have one hero: Rudd Weatherwax. He was Lassie’s trainer.

The Kennedys gave my era heroic epic proportion. But despite the glamour and ability my parents saw in them, the Kennedys were never my heroes — until this week. Eunice Kennedy Shriver died only a couple of weeks before her brother, Ted Kennedy. Eunice’s passing was treated somewhat as that of a champion also-ran. I learned this week from an article at an Addison’s disease website that Eunice Kennedy Shriver, like her brother John F. Kennedy, had Addison’s disease. I also learned that she helped to launch the Special Olympics. She was a passionate advocate for the intellectually challenged, a passion driven by her love and admiration for her older sister Rosemary, who worked very hard to keep up with Eunice despite her mental disability. Eunice Kennedy suddenly moved in to the small compartment of my heart I had unwittingly reserved for the unknown hero.

I have to admit that I was always cynical about Special Olympics. The idea that anyone can win seemed very bogus. But that was never Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s point. She encouraged people to exceed themselves, to do everything they possibly could to be a good neighbor. That motive specifically elevated her to hero.

As with everything else in life, Addison’s disease distributes its vicissitudes unevenly throughout its population. Some people with Addison’s work seemingly tirelessly to make life better for others, and some people with Addison’s work tiredly just to bring in the mail. Eunice Kennedy Shriver was an advocate and I am an advocate, but our worldly resumes differ by orders of magnitude.

I can’t know how it simple or excruciatingly challenging it was for Eunice Kennedy Shriver to manage her Addison’s disease; I, and the only other person I know well who has Addison’s, find it difficult. I find Eunice Kennedy Shriver heroic because I have some idea of what she had to overcome to accomplish what she did. I don’t extend the same hero credentials to President Kennedy, because I can scarcely imagine how anyone could survive the high steroid regimen he was on. My protocol consists of a relatively low dose of only one steroid, hydrocortisone, because it is what I can tolerate; it sustains life, even if it doesn’t enable me to confront very much ordinary stress. But I am given days when I am able to help a friend, and go on to bring in the mail, and even do laundry, clean bathrooms, and take out the trash, which poses the risk of encountering a neighbor who wants to chat. Such days make me feel brilliant.

I have two graduate degrees and I’m very fortunate at this time in my life not to need to build a resume or collect more transcripts. I am taking a course on the history of the early church at a local seminary, mostly to get out and refresh my mind with other people in the accommodating, low-stress environment of a small, non-competitive class. I commend this as an Addison’s-friendly activity; but of course, everyone needs to find one’s own way to exceed one’s self, manage stress, and be a good neighbor.

  1. September 22, 2009 12:10 pm

    Heroes are so important; I am blessed to have many — my mom, her mom, the ladies at church who are faithfully bringing up children, certainly you — the world seems shining with people who are doing heroic things daily for love of neighbor (and as you say, just getting the mail and taking out the trash regularly seem like impossible feats of greatness!).

    She must have been a lovely, kind lady.

  2. September 22, 2009 1:15 pm

    Heidi, I think you’re absolutely right that our sublunary heroes probably impact our personal lives on a daily basis more than celebrities. These folks may not be those on whom a nation or a generation leans for its sense of greatness, but they arise to prove that there is access to the passage we must take if we are to exceed ourselves, and that people do this all the time.

    Vic sent me a link to a video in which a bank robber is tackled by a guy standing around waiting for his wife at the teller window. The tackler holds the robber to the floor until the police come. The tackler’s wife, at first distraught and running back and forth, comes up and gives the robber a kick while he’s down. It’s a heartwarming moment, and a heroic one. I doubt the tackler set out that day to deposit a check and make national news. He’s probably home eating popcorn, watching the video. He’s my kind of hero; and my husband and your husband would have done no less.

  3. September 23, 2009 11:56 am

    “These folks may not be those on whom a nation or a generation leans for its sense of greatness, but they arise to prove that there is access to the passage we must take if we are to exceed ourselves, and that people do this all the time.”

    –yes, that’s it exactly. & I loved the bank robber story.

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