My definition of a hero is simple: a person who lives through a moment or space of time that is beyond the imagination, and comes out of it with a story to tell.
Throughout my life there have been moments when I have felt that my little existence doesn’t really matter. I always thought that in the whole, vast configuration of things I’m just a dot, a speck of flesh in an awful, terrific world.
My thoughts changed when I watched an interview that my grandfather gave for a living history project. My papa, a veteran of World War II, was publicly considered to be one of the most beat up and cruelly treated survivors of the War. He was captured in the Philippines in the first year of the war and spent the consecutive years as a prisoner under the Japanese. In his interview, he speaks of his time growing up in the Chicago area, the death of his mother, his father’s shoe store, meeting my grandma, his four children, and five grandchildren, and how even though he lived through all of the terrible atrocities of war, he came out of it, and built a life.
My papa went into the army as a young, carefree man of twenty, a healthy one hundred and seventy pounds and came out physically, mentally, and emotionally beaten, five years older, and weighing only eighty two pounds. He spoke of things that I couldn’t even survive in my nightmares: the brutality of the work camps, the executions he witnessed, and the hatred and all consuming hopelessness that he felt while in the holds of hell ships and while walking a route comparable to the Death March.
Recently, my papa has been very sick and I look at him in hospital bed after hospital bed and wonder why life has to be so unjust. Before, I would have thought what a waste the whole of his life really had been. You’re born and then you die, that’s just the way it is. But the important part is neither the birthday nor the date of death, but rather the time spent between those years, what you do with it and how grand you make it.
My papa has taught me so much about life, how to live with honesty and humor, and to fight to the last, even if it’s the hardest struggle and all you want to do is give up. He taught me what a miraculous thing life really is, and you must take each day as a gift. I tell him that he is my hero but I do not know if he realizes exactly what kind of impact he has had on me and how much he has changed my feelings toward my own life. My papa believes that no matter what kind of difference anyone makes, everyone matters; each life has its own little part in how the world turns. Everyone can be a hero and this I believe.
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