When you think hero, what image comes to mind? Is it a guy in a cape wearing his underwear outside his pants, maybe Spiderman or Batman? Maybe you see something else entirely. Maybe it's a woman of twenty in her military uniform, or a boy letting a stray dog in out of the rain.
If you'd asked me that question in the third grade, I would have answered Wonder Woman, hands down. But not anymore. Early in the morning on September 11, 2001 my definition of the word 'hero' changed.
I hadn't even begun to get ready for school yet when I walked out into the living room, rubbing sleep from my eyes. I stopped dead at the sight of my mom sitting on the coffee table, staring at the TV, frozen. I knew something bad had to be happening for my stoic mother to look so shaken. On the TV screen the tallest buildings I'd ever seen were silhouetted against the blue sky, belching black smoke. In my shock, I dimly noted that the newscaster sounded panicked.
"What's happening?" I asked quietly.
My mom explained that bad people had attacked America and Dad had to leave. I ran for my parent's bedroom to find my dad packing his duffel bag. I've always thought of the old duffel bag with yellow reflective tape on it as his work bag, the serious one. It's the one he packs whenever his USAR team deploys.
"Baby cakes," he explained, "I have to go."
I wanted to tell him that he couldn't go because I was scared, but I couldn't talk past the lump in my throat. He understood anyways and wrapped me in a hug. "I have to go help find people, it's my job."
"No," I managed to choke.
"Other people's daddy's are trapped Baby Cakes, I have to go help find them."
That stopped my tears. If I was scared for my dad, I could imagine how scared all the kids who didn't know where their parents were. "Okay, I guess you can go," I allowed.
My dad smiled and ruffled my hair, slinging his bag over his shoulder. "That's my girl."
Over the next few weeks I went from scared to proud. Proud of my dad, proud of everyone. Because after all of the tears something magic happened. There were flags flying from every house, for a little while we weren't Californians, Pennsylvanians or New Yorkers. We were all Americans, and my Dad was a part of that. Years later, it happened again. Hurricane Katrina struck the east coast, while my dad's USAR team searched for survivors I watched at home as the entire nation banded together to help rebuild.
When I think hero, I think of a guy in a black fire-department uniform and a graying moustache. He's a tall, patient man who always smells like aftershave and chocolate. I'd take him over some kid who shoots spider webs from his wrists any day.
Dad, I love you.