Hero: A Journal Entry

by Dan Simpson

I’m still going to write about discovering the song, “Hero” by Family of the Year. But I always label my journal entries by date, and when I typed today’s date, I flew away from the particulars of that song, back to May 2, 1978–a morning equal in beauty to this morning– the day my father died.

Yes, thirty-five years. It’s enough distance that I can muse on how 35 is the reverse of his age when he died. It’s enough distance that I can say factoids like lung cancer, oxygen mask, 8-month battle, 3 in the morning. And then the factoids run out, leaving the murkier feelings that require more words that still can’t quite get at things: the crinkling of a body bag as a man is maneuvered around corners like a piece of furniture, a cry like none I’d ever heard before from deep down my mother’s throat, the discombobulation of time—far away people suddenly arriving after an interminable wait, the heat and birdsong that promised so much for summer, and our next-door neighbors, Bonnie and Craig Sheets, giving the simplest, most genuine expression of sympathy as they stood just inside our screen door saying, over and over, thoughtfully and dumbfounded, “We’re so sorry.”

All of us in my family eventually moved on, just as my father moved on from World War II and from the surprise of finding out that his twin boys were blind. I was lucky to have had a dad who occasionally talked about his philosophy of life, and even luckier to have had one who then lived it. He said he went to church because it made him a better person. He loved and honored his father, but simply made a decision, lying in bed as a young boy, hearing his drunken father beat up his mother, never to treat a woman like that. He openly told our friends, “Any friend of my children is always welcome in this house.” He believed in keeping music in his life and romance in his marriage. He told us to move on with our lives after he died.

And so I did. I carry what I can of him with me. Still, on days like this, I look back, which brings me to the song. “I don’t want to be your hero, I don’t want to be a big man,” it says. It’s true, my father could have used a little more sense of himself as a hero. It’s also true that dying, in part from breathing platinum dust for fifteen years in a factory, where the owners cared more about capturing the precious metal residue that washed off employees in forced showers than they cared about providing adequate air filtering, can make you feel like a “little guy.” But the good part of him not thinking of himself as a hero was that he never postured as one; he just lived it naturally. (It’s probably the best example I got of the writer’s motto to “show, don’t tell.”)

When I first heard “Hero,” it didn’t take me back to my father. It took me to the early part of college, that time when I wanted so much to find attachment to a woman, yet struggled with how I could have that and keep my independence. It was a conflict that, I believe, came partly through my father, who told me and my brother that it would take a very special sighted woman to hitch her dreams to a blind guy for life. That hurt me and it set me back. Yet, other times, he would say things like, “Don’t let anyone stop you. If you think you want to do it, go do it.”

He was a man of some conflict, and I love him for that, too. He taught me something about complexity. “Cripes,” he would say of our neighbor on the other side, “that guy can read Winnie-the-Pooh in Latin, but he can’t fix his own lawn mower.” And yet, nobody ever beamed with more pride than my father the day my brother and I graduated from college.

He could have gone to college, but turned it down because, after putting his life on hold for the war, he couldn’t wait for the joy and responsibility of marriage and family. Like the singer of “Hero,” I was nowhere near ready for that kind of responsibility when I reached college age. I sometimes wonder if he envied my open options and the luxury of my extended time to get an education. If he did, I never knew it. No, from the things he said and the way he lived, I got the message he never wanted me to hold back from going after the life I wanted, no matter how different it might be from his. I got the idea he wanted me to have the fullest life I could have. That’s why, when I hear this song these thirty-five years after his death, I can imagine us driving with the windows down, the promise of summer in our hair and all around us, and him smiling, singing along with me to the radio: “We can whisper things, secrets of our American dreams. … Everyone has the right to walk with everyone else.”