“Grandma,” the boy called. “Grandma, I need your help.”
A few minutes later, his grandma entered his bedroom and sat next to him on his bed. “Yes, Xavier?”
“I have a school assignment due at the end of the week where I have to write a short story about something heroic, and I don’t know what to write about.”
“Ah. That sounds like an important assignment,” Grandma said with a smile.
“It’s the hardest assignment we’ve had in third grade so far.” Xavier sighed. “What should I do, Grandma?”
“Well, what do you want to write about? The assignment will be easier if you enjoy it.”
“I was thinking of writing about some guy who goes on a quest and kills a monster to save someone. That way he’d be a hero. What do you think of that?”
Grandma smiled gently. “You could certainly go that route. There are plenty of stories like that, featuring heroes like Odysseus, Theseus, and Hercules. I think you would be able to tell a wonderful story with that theme.”
“The only problem is,” Xavier continued, “I think all the kids in my class will write stories like that. And… I just think mine could be different, you know?”
“I was hoping you would say that,” Grandma said. “I think you should write something different. Something more meaningful. And I have an idea I think you’ll like.”
“What?” Xavier said eagerly, sitting up on his bed.
“It’s past your bedtime, so how about you get into bed and I’ll tell it as a bedtime story.”
Xavier considered himself too old for bedtime stories, but he was willing to take his grandma’s deal. He quickly changed, brushed his teeth, and slipped into bed.
Grandma sat on the edge of Xavier's bed and brushed his bangs out of his eyes. “This story happened three years ago, when you were only five. And it’s about a man who was a firefighter. He was courageous, kind, and virtuous. Sure, he was no Odysseus or Achilles, but his story wouldn’t be the same if he was.”
“What does ‘virtuous’ mean?” Xavier asked curiously.
“It means he believed in good things and did what was right.”
“This man did well as a firefighter. He worked hard to provide for his family and risked his life every day to help people.”
“So he was a hero?” Xavier asked.
“Yes. As I hope you’ll learn by the end of this story, not every hero needs a sword.”
“What was the hero’s name?”
“I’ll let you try to guess at the end. But for the rest of the story, I’ll refer to him as “the hero.” Returning to the story: this man was already heroic. But one day in August, he did something for which he would forever be remembered as a hero.
“That summer was very hot and dry. The hero was driving home from putting out a small fire with three other firefighters when they were summoned to put out another fire nearby. They hurried to respond, and when they arrived, they found a small house burning rapidly.
“There was a young woman in great distress standing on the sidewalk. Three of the firefighters started gathering tools to put out the fire, but the hero asked the woman what had happened.
“She said that she and her husband awoke to the smell of smoke and discovered a fire had started in their kitchen. The woman’s husband sent her out the low bedroom window while he went to save their toddler, who was sleeping in a nursery across the hall. The woman made it out fine, but the fire was spreading rapidly, and her husband and child were still in the house.
“The hero didn’t hesitate before running into the burning house. Thankfully he was wearing his suit and was properly equipped, but he wouldn’t have let it stop him if he wasn’t. He searched the house and soon found the nursery. The doorway had collapsed as flames licked at the ceiling, so he forced his way through the wreckage and found a man lying on the ground. Fortunately, the man was alive, and he later told the firefighters that he had run in to get his baby but had been knocked out by a small piece of ceiling that crumbled due to the fire and struck him.
“The hero heard the baby’s wails before he found her lying in her crib, screaming and red-faced but unhurt. He picked up the girl and shielded her from the smoke and flames as he hurried outside.
“After bringing the baby safely to her sobbing mother, the hero rushed immediately back into danger to save the woman’s husband. By this time, the other three firefighters had begun putting out the fire, and one of them followed our hero into the burning house.
“The smoke was so thick the other firefighter could barely see, he later said, and the house felt like a sauna. But he managed to follow the hero to the nursery, and he helped the hero lift the unconscious man and bring him out of the house.
“But even with two of them the firefighters struggled to carry the unconscious man, who was built like a boxer, and they were about halfway to the front door when the other firefighter decided to run ahead and come back with backup and a stretcher. So the hero waited as flames ate up the house around him.”
Grandma paused and looked mournfully at Xavier, who listened anxiously.
“Sadly, the entire roof collapsed as the other firefighter got help. When they had put out the fire entirely and sifted through the rubble, the firefighters found the hero dead, his body shielding the other man. Miraculously, the other man survived, since the hero had selflessly sacrificed himself to save the man instead of running when the house started to collapse.”
Grandma was misty-eyed now. “The dead firefighter was given a beautiful funeral and will always be remembered as a hero. He wasn’t a demigod, he didn’t slay a dragon, and he never went on a quest. But he was a hero because he gave his life to save another. And if you ask me, being a hero boils down to doing the right thing no matter the consequences.”
Xavier nodded, and his big blue eyes filled with tears.
“Have you guessed the hero’s name?” Grandma asked quietly.
“It was Dad,” Xavier said, tears rolling down his cheeks. “Wasn’t it? That’s how Dad died.”
“Yes, Xavier. The man was your father, Michael Booth.”
“Dad’s my hero,” Xavier whispered. “He’s always been. I should’ve thought of him before.”
Grandma hugged Xavier. “There’s nothing wrong with needing a little reminder. You were so young when he died.”
“You’re right, Grandma.” Xavier sniffled and wiped his wet eyes. “And you know what? I’m going to write about Dad. I don’t care if the other kids’ stories are more exciting than mine. I want my story to be… what word did you use?”
“Meaningful,” Grandma said, her soft voice breaking. “And I’m so glad to hear that.” She sat with Xavier in silence for a few minutes while he cried softly, and then she gave Xavier another hug and kissed his blond head. She stood up and said, “I can’t wait to read your story. Goodnight, Xavier. I love you.”
“Goodnight, Grandma. Love you too,” Xavier murmured sleepily. Grandma tucked him in tight and turned off the lights, taking a final look at the boy before she shut the door.
“Your father would be proud,” Grandma whispered. Then she left Xavier to the gentle embrace of sleep.
✣ ✣ ✣ ✣
When the teacher said his name, Xavier’s heart started pounding even harder, but he remembered the words of encouragement his grandma had given him when she dropped him off. He stood up, straightened his papers for the umpteenth time, and took a deep breath. He walked to the front of the classroom and stood to face his classmates.
They all looked expectantly at him, no doubt waiting to hear a story like the ones the kids who went before Xavier told: stories of heroes slaying dragons, going on quests, and making noble sacrifices to save entire villages.
But Xavier’s story was different. Being a hero boils down to doing the right thing no matter the consequences, his grandma had said. Xavier wanted to make his dad proud by breaking his classmates’ trope of heroism and sharing his dad’s story. He wanted to pay proper tribute to his dad’s heroism, because even if he couldn’t do anything to bring his father back, he could ensure that his father’s legacy would live on; that no one would ever forget Michael Booth.
This is for you, Dad, Xavier thought, lifting his eyes heavenward and feeling for the first time since his father died that he was here with him.
Xavier cleared his throat and began. “My father’s name was Michael Booth, and he is my hero…”