The Face of a Hero

Published 9:46 pm Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Most of us grow up with a desire to look into the face of our favorite hero. Heroes give us strength and inspiration to persevere through the tough challenges of life. They personify for us the richness and potential of life itself. They show us not what life is, but what it could be.

The irony of heroes is that they seldom wear capes or distinguishing costumes, so they are often not easily recognized. Rather, every day they sit near us in our places of faith, they ride with us on our buses, and they order food at the same fast food restaurants we frequent. They teach our sons and daughters, and they treat our illnesses. They are our coworkers and our neighbors.

Three years ago a good friend of mine, Cliff Bernard, was diagnosed with cancer. The prognosis was dire. The options were few. Cliff knew from the beginning that he was knocking at death’s door. Yet, he refused to yield. Cliff was a teacher, a builder, a father, a husband, a friend. There were no notices scrolling across the bottom of our television screens announcing Cliff’s upcoming trials. If you saw him or if you knew him, you would classify him as an ordinary guy.

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For the next three years Cliff lived life. He underwent an adult stem cell transplant. He went fishing with his friends. He had nine chemotherapy treatments. He spent time with his wife. He had radiation therapy. He repaired the fence in his yard. He traveled out of the country for experimental protocols. He lived his live with intention every moment, every day.

At the same time, his wife Carolyn stood by his side. Carolyn is a successful high school principal. She loves her job and her career. The demands on her time are enormous. Yet, from the moment Cliff discovered his cancer, Carolyn made Cliff her first priority. When Cliff underwent an adult stem cell transplant, Carolyn moved to Richmond and stayed with him. When Cliff had chemotherapy, she was there. When he had radiation therapy, she was there. When he traveled out of the country for experimental protocols, she was there.

After they had done everything they knew to do, they stood firm with Carolyn supporting Cliff, Cliff supporting Carolyn, and their friends and family supporting them both – all on a foundation of faith that grew through the pain and the fear.

Last week, Cliff’s fight came to an end. His last requests were for Carolyn to call three of his friends who shared a mutual faith, and to tell them he was ready. He knew he would be in a far better place.

When a close friend or family member dies at the hand of a devastating disease, it is easy to get lost in the “if onlys.” If only the treatments had worked. If only we’d been a few steps closer in cancer research. If only we’d prioritized funding for more advances in adult stem cell treatments.

But there is one thing that neither Cliff nor Carolyn did during the last three years. Neither of them asked “if only.” Neither of them complained. There were no questions of “Why Cliff?” No finger-pointing. No blame. No self pity.

Recently, I wrote about Margaret Brothers, who lost her life to breast cancer. In that column, I discussed ways the federal government can invest in fighting cancer. When I got the news of Cliff’s death last week, I was reminded that while we talk about cures, discuss research efforts, and muse over great pieces of legislation we think are of enormous value, we must always be sure to never forget that the true greatness of America is most often found in the heroes among us.

In the last few moments of Cliff’s life, Carolyn continued by his side. He was too weak for words, but as Cliff and Carolyn stared into each other’s eyes in the quiet of their home, neither of them wore a cape, no bands were playing in the background, and no medals were to be presented at a later date. But in those last breaths, when words were no more, they each had something we all long for from our early childhood. They each knew they had found and were looking into the face of their greatest hero.