Heroes: A True Story
God becomes believable when life becomes unbelievable. *
Anne was an abused child. When she grew up, she did what many abused kids inexplicably do: she married a man who turned out to be an abuser. When she realized the scope of the damage her husband was inflicting on their three children, Anne took the children and fled.
Life has not been easy for Anne. Although she is a college graduate, she cannot use her diploma since she is in hiding under an assumed name. She supports her children by cleaning houses and taking in ironing.
Money is scarce. Half her meager monthly income goes to pay psychotherapists for her children. The kids, especially the boys, are aggressive, belligerent, and rebellious. They feel they got a raw deal in life. Since their father is not around, they blame their mother. It doesn't help that she has no money to give them to buy the things the other kids have, not even treats. The oldest, 14-year-old Nate, was caught stealing candy at the local supermarket.
A strong, strapping boy, Nate often gets into fights with the neighborhood kids and with his younger siblings. Verbal sparring matches between Nate and his twelve-year-old brother Donny sound like a script out of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
Like many people who were abused by their fathers, Anne has a hard time forging a relationship with God. Since moving to a Jewish neighborhood and living among religious people whose lifestyle she admires, Anne has set new goals for her family. They now keep Shabbat and kashrut, and the children go to religious schools. As much as she appreciates the beauty of Judaism, however, Anne has a host of gripes against God.
Anne has a host of gripes against God.
"I don't blame him for the marriage," she says. "I went into that with my eyes open. But why did God have to give me such monsters for parents? And why, even now, does He have to make my life so difficult?"
Anne suffers from a battery of minor health problems. Frequently, she must choose between buying a new pair of shoes for one of the kids or paying the electric bill. The telephone company recently disconnected her telephone. "It's easier to live without a telephone than without electricity," she explains to me. "My kids are afraid of the dark."
Last Friday, Anne called me. (Someone lent her money to pay her phone bill.) "I'm about to have a nervous breakdown," she told me grimly. "On top of everything else, my iron broke. How does God expect me to earn money without my iron? And I can't afford a new one."
On Saturday night, after Shabbat, I telephoned Anne with the good news that a neighbor of mine had an extra iron which she was willing to give her. She informed me that over Shabbat the plumbing in the upstairs bathroom had broken down. She had no money to call a plumber.
"I just wish God would lighten up on me," Anne complained.
I didn't know what to say. She certainly does have a difficult lot in life, I thought. I tried desperately to summon up a spiritual perspective which would lift her out of her depression.
"God does give you a lot of challenges," I said finally. "But who knows? Even all the stuff you suffer -- the broken iron, the broken plumbing -- may be God's mercy instead of giving you something worse like..." Here I faltered. What could be worse than all the hardships she has endured?
NOTHING CHANGES; EVERYTHING CHANGES
The next morning, Sunday, Nate needed to go to the nearest big city. He stood at the entrance of their small town in order to hitch a ride. A white Mitsubishi with three women he knew stopped to pick him up. Nate got into the car and asked them where in the city they were headed.
When they told him, Nate had second thoughts. He didn't really have money for bus fare in the city. Maybe he could get a ride which would take him closer to his destination. On the other hand, maybe he couldn't. For a split second, he vacillated. Then Nate thanked the three women and got out of the car.
Five minutes later, the father of one of Nate's friends picked him up. They had traveled no more than a few minutes down the highway when the traffic stopped dead. Nate got out of the car to see what the trouble was.
He saw the road splattered with blood. Then he saw a hand lying on the road. Then a foot. Horrified, his eyes moved to the two vehicles which had collided: a bus and the white Mitsubishi, now crushed like a discarded tin can.
All three women were dead.
All three women were dead.
As soon as Nate reached the city, he called his mother. His voice was shaking. "I was in the car," he repeated over and over again. "Five minutes before the accident, I was in the car. I'm not even sure why I got out." Anne could not remember the last time she had heard Nate crying.
When Anne called me a few hours later, she was still trembling so hard I felt like the telephone wires were shaking. "Do you realize how close he came to being killed?" she asked me, trying desperately to convey her sense that her son had been miraculously plucked out of the doomed vehicle just in the nick of time.
She had one pressing question for me: "How do I thank God?"
Nothing had changed. Anne still had no money, no good job prospects, poor health, broken plumbing, and three scarred kids. But suddenly, in the split second that it takes two vehicles to collide on the highway, everything had changed. Her eldest son was alive.
She felt like a woman blessed beyond words.
GIVING IT BACK TO GOD
The accident was Sunday. On Monday evening, while Anne was washing dishes in the kitchen, her eight-year-old daughter came running in. "Mom, there's a flood."
Anne rushed upstairs to see two inches of water covering the whole upstairs floor, gushing out from under the bathroom door where Donny had gone to take a bath. All she could think of was the electronic game always sitting, plugged in, on the floor of her sons' bedroom. Yelling to her daughter to stay downstairs, she ran to the bedroom. Water covered the floor except for the corner where the game lay.
Flinging open the door, she saw Donny floating face down in the tub. Her heart stopped.
Next she ran to the bathroom. Flinging open the door, she saw Donny floating face down in the tub. Her heart stopped. She grabbed his body and yanked him out of the tub. Donny burst into laughter. He had been playing dead. He had not noticed the bathtub overflowing.
Anne took a deep breath and surveyed the damage. They were in the process of moving to a smaller apartment; packed suitcases and boxes lay all over the floor of the hallway and bedrooms. Now everything was soaked. She would have to unpack, hang up every item of clothing, every sheet and blanket, and throw away what could not be salvaged.
She returned to the bathroom and motioned Donny to come to her. Donny knew that look on his mother's face, that look of tension, of being so overwhelmed that she lost control. People often parent the way they were parented. Donny put his hand over his face and flinched.
Then something miraculous happened. More miraculous than Nate getting out of the car. More miraculous than the water not reaching the electronic game. Instead of slapping her son, Anne cradled his face in her two hands and said, "I'm really upset about all the work you caused me, and all the ruined stuff. But you're my child, and I love you no matter what you do." And she bent down and kissed his forehead.
All she could think of was: "Thank God my children are alive."
That very same night, Nate was rehearsing for a school play. During the break, one of the teachers gave Nate money to go to the pizza parlor and buy pizza for all the performers.
Nate was chosen to go because he had a spiffy new bike. His aunt had sent him $250 for a super-duper bike, a Bar Mitzvah present that was a year late, because it had taken her a that long to save the money. Nate had purchased the bike, the only truly wonderful object he owned, two weeks before. Because there was no money left over to buy a lock, Nate never left the bike unattended.
That Monday night, Nate took the bike into the pizza parlor with him. A gang of kids, a year younger than Nate, was hanging out in there. Nate knew them. A couple months before he had helped these same kids drag a load of wood up a hill. He had seen them struggling, and because he was bigger, he had helped them.
Nate did something so momentous its effect will be felt for generations.
When Nate turned to order the pizzas, the kids grabbed his bike, took it outside, and slammed it against a wall so hard they demolished the bike. Nate came running outside after them to find his precious bike a mangled carcass.
Nate's first thought was: "How could they do this to me? I helped them!"
His second thought was: "I want to kill them."
His third thought was: "I promised my mother I won't fight or swear anymore."
His fourth thought was: "Violence doesn't help. Even if I cream them, it won't bring my bike back."
Then Nate did something so momentous its effect will be felt for generations: Nate refrained from beating up the boys who had destroyed his bike. In so overcoming his past and his tendency toward violence, Nate picked up a machete made of his aspiration to become a better person and, with one mighty blow, severed a chain of violence which stretched back generations. The Talmud says: "Who is a hero? He who overcomes his own self."
Nate left the pizza parlor dragging the remains of his new bike. If I were a filmmaker, I would shoot the scene in slow motion, like the climax of "Chariots of Fire," when the Olympic runner breaks through the finish line. I would play a score of triumphant music in the background, with lots of trumpets. I would have fireworks going off in the night sky above Nate and his mangled bike.
And that's probably how it looked in the higher worlds. But in this physical world there was simply a tearful boy dragging home the mangled mess that had been his most prized possession.
One thing is certain: Few happenings that took place in the world that Monday night, including the events that grabbed the next morning's headlines, were as significant as Nate's and Anne's victories over violence. They are models of true heroism.
Heaven on Earth.
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