Last week, I attended a family reunion in Baton Rouge. This past weekend, I again had the pleasure of spending time with family, this time in Virginia. The occasion was my sister-in-law’s graduation from college. Lots of people are graduating from lots of colleges right now, but Lee’s graduation was a victory beyond just celebrating the completion of a degree, it was a moment to honor the strength and courage, tenacity and excellence of a personal hero for me.
Lee had her first child while the rest of her peers were guzzling beers and tailgating. She was a single mother until meeting my brother while her daughter was still a tiny tike. Before I met Lee, I warned my brother of the dangers of dating a single parent. I worried that my brother might have fallen for someone deeply in need of a daddy for her baby. The minute I laid eyes on this lioness of a woman, I clearly saw that she needed no one’s help, she just genuinely loved my brother.
Lee put aside any dreams she may have had for her own future, delivering pizzas and home schooling Elle while making my brother happy to be alive. Years went by before she finally decided to carve out some time for herself and attend university classes at night. She commuted well over an hour each way and got A’s in every class all the while holding down the fort and driving her growing daughter to her many after school activities. Then, at 35, she became pregnant once again. Matt, now 4, is a beautiful and delightful boy… and autistic.
Like so many others in the past few years, my brother was laid off. Though he was lucky enough to find another good job, he now works so far from home that he must live in another city 4 days a week. Elle, now an amazing teenager, has risen to the occasion of helping around the house while earning herself a scholarship to private school, playing sports, maintaining her extraordinary GPA and garnering a black belt in Taekwondo. Everyone in that house carries far more than their weight.
We all arrived for the graduation in time to witness Elle’s test for her 3rd degree black belt. She’d been testing at the gym since 8pm the previous night when 12 of us arrived to hog the benches at noon the next day. I was so proud of her as she displayed her talents with each weapon, her mastery of fighting 2 on 1, she even broke boards with her bare hands – all while wearing a brace on her sprained ankle.
The next day, even more of us arrived to cheer her mother on. After the massive graduation for the entire university, the different disciplines splintered off for separate ceremonies. The speaker asked all the graduates of the night program to raise their hands if they’d had a job while attending classes, many hands went up. Raise their hands if they had children. Lots of hands again. If they’d commuted more than 30 miles. Up went Lee’s again. Over 50 miles. Lee again. I began to choke up with pride while clapping hands with her son who was sitting on my lap.
Then came the awards. There were 3 people who’d managed to get A’s in every single class they ever took. When Lee stood to take her applause, I thought what an amazing example she was to her daughter, to all of us. She hadn’t just overcome, she’d triumphed. She wasn’t just a symbol of perseverance, she was an icon of excellence.
I value education and got my Master’s Degree in an impressive 10 months, but I can honestly say, I wouldn’t have done what Lee did. I’m not even sure I have it within me to do what she did. There were just so many convenient excuses for letting the grades slip, for quitting, for not trying in the first place.
Lee gave a wonderful speech at the party afterward, giving everyone in the room credit for the contributions they made to her success. But I think we all knew that only the lion-hearted can accomplish what she excelled at.
I’m so very proud of my brother for so many reasons. He’s a truly good man, a terrific friend, a loving husband and a patient father. I’m so very proud of my niece. The world is her oyster. Like her parents, she’s intelligent and kind and self motivated and talented. And I’m so very proud of my nephew. He’s a delight (except when he can’t be) who is triumphing at being a great kid and bringing joy to us all. He can write now and say his alphabet just like any 4 year old and has made friends, none of which was a given.
Our last evening there, a generous neighbor leant us their giant house on the lake and I was able to watch HBO’s Treme. The show often takes its stories directly from real life and the murders portrayed this week were no exception. Dinerral Shavers of the Hot 8 Brass Band was a local high school teacher who founded music programs for underprivileged youths. Helen Hill was a filmmaker and activist who’d moved to New Orleans after the storm along with her physician husband who’d moved to the city to create a clinic to treat the poor. Hill was murdered a week after Shavers. Her husband survived 3 gunshots while protecting their 2 year old. Hers was one of 6 murders that day.
Fed up with the violence seizing the city and the death of 2 everyday heroes, thousands gathered in the March Against Violence on City Hall. New Orleanians gather in the streets for many reasons but protesting isn’t usually one of them. It is because of the courage of those citizens who marched that day that the authorities called in police from other places to help take back the city and bring the crime rate down. I found myself, once again, grateful for everyday heroes and awed by their courage and strength.
On our last day in Virginia, Lee, with her cap, gown and honors sash hanging on a hook by the door, cooked a giant pan of shepards pie for the church to feed the needy. She was sorry to cut our visit short but had to drop off the food then pick up Elle from her routine of school and activities and my nephew from speech therapy. My brother cleaned the floor for the third time in as many days of gatherings before driving us back to the airport on his way back to his second residence to begin his work week.
The dictionary defines a hero as, “a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities, one who shows great courage.” I admire the achievements, noble qualities and great courage of everyone in my brother’s amazing family. It would be so easy to let it all go to hell in that house. Who could blame them for giving up on themselves given their many obstacles? Who would judge them for just holding it together and being average? But they all continue to take on new challenges, achieve and even give back to those less fortunate. They are my heroes.
Once back in my beloved New Orleans, I checked my email and found a letter from a cousin who’d recently visited saying, “You are so amazing inside and out. I wish I had half your strength.” Guess I get to be someone’s everyday hero too.