It had been a long exhausting week, and Nancy looked forward to the end of her Friday shift at the nursing home where she worked as a nurse’s aide. All she wanted was to take off her mask and gloves, scrub her hands, and get home. But when her two-way radio crackled and a voice called her to the front desk, she sighed, sure there was another room to wipe down. The staff had been hypervigilant. Every cough, every small wheeze, could mean coronavirus, and they worked with a population that was at the highest risk.
Nancy and her coworkers were tired, their hands red and raw. They worked without N-95 masks, which were in short supply, and even gloves were sometimes designated for “critical exposure areas” only, depending on the supply at hand. Each shift, Nancy went home afraid, afraid she might have the virus, afraid she might transmit it to her children who were now schooling from home, afraid of how she would pay bills if she were ill.
And yet she kept working, kept taking care of those who couldn’t care for themselves, kept answering each radio call with an energy that felt in shorter and shorter supply. This time was no different, but the situation was. She was met not by her supervisor but by the director of the facility, who handed her a stack of envelopes. Inside each one was a card with a personal note from local high school students and their parents, expressing the gratitude they felt for the quiet heroes like Nancy.
What Does ‘Hero’ Mean?
That word has stuck with me, “heroes.” It’s a word we assign to the bravest of our communities, the doctors and nurses, police, firefighters, military. People who put their lives on the line in dangerous situations to protect others. But I’m reminded during this time of crisis of all the ways we can (and should) think of heroes, of acts both great and small that remind us we are a community, that remind us to think of each other, help each other, not just to survive but to keep living meaningful lives even as we close down more and more of the connections between us.
Heroes like Nancy can be found in the supermarkets stocking shelves with food and cleaning supplies even as customers shove past them to claim their own. They can be found on the curbs outside restaurants in the form of the masked and gloved wait staff who bring food to our cars so that we can feel some sense of normalcy. They can be found in the unemployment offices, the banks, the gas stations, and all those other venues where workers keep our lives running when all they want to do is stay safe at home.
But there’s also another level of hero at work in the wake of COVID-19. Those generous, kind-hearted people who give of their time and skills to make us feel cared for and to find ways around the problems we encounter in coping with the disease. I have heard stories of airline workers that threw an impromptu graduation for students who had discovered their college ceremony had been canceled; of a couple whose wedding celebrations had been disrupted but whose friends and family arrived by car and honked in a show of love; of a woman whose bat mitzvah was canceled so she and her family boxed the party food in individual portions and gave it to those in need. Aren’t these people who are thinking of others in a time when the easy thing to do is lock our doors and turn inward? And isn’t that a type of heroism?
Learning to Be the Smallest Heroes
And, yes, even in my own life I’ve seen these small acts of heroism. My husband has spent time in our garage sewing mask covers that prolong the lives of healthcare worker’s masks. We’ve gathered food from local stores and taken it to the foodbank. And those notes that Nancy received, some of those notes were written by my friend’s children.
We’re not heroes in the traditional sense, but I hope my daughter is learning something about reaching outside herself. The coronavirus has literally driven us into shelter. But I want them to know that the worst of times means finding the best in ourselves and that no act of kindness or assistance is too small. The Nancys of the world are painting the bigger strokes of heroism, but I hope we as communities can keep digging deep for the things we can do to make them feel appreciated and supported. Because when our time comes to face down corona or something like it, I’m sure we all hope there is a Nancy at the other end of that radio.