An Unsung Hero of my Own

This post originally aired as a commentary on Tri States Public Radio. To listen, go here.

NPR has started airing a new series called My Unsung Hero. Produced by Hidden Brain Media, its mission is to provide an antidote to the despair brought on by the daily news, with the goal of renewing faith in humanity. According to the HiddenBrain.org website, each episode reveals everyday acts of kindness and courage that have transformed someone’s life.

I know first-hand how daily news can cause despair—the issues are too many and too depressing to bother listing them—but after listening to a few episodes of My Unsung Hero I’ve started focus not on what’s wrong with the world, but what is good about it—not just what is good but who—because I have an unsung hero of my own: my partner, Doug Seyb.

A third-generation farmer, Doug grew up on his family’s farm in Donnellson, Iowa. While many others have traded rural life for an urban one, Doug chose to stay and nurture the land of his ancestors. He grows corn and soybeans to feed the nation. He also raises cows, who may be the most well-cared-for in America, given their access to fresh grass. Doug works hard, building his own fences and baling hay, and never complains, even when his body aches from the physical labor.

He serves on an education foundation board for the local high school, offering financial support to kids who want to go to college or trade school. He donates a large portion of his income to causes like Doctors Without Borders and Camp Courageous, a summer camp for the disabled, and also to public radio stations like this one. He contributes more than just money. He’s given 25 gallons of blood—so far—to the Red Cross, he recently delivered a year’s supply of firewood to widow on a nearby farm, and he subscribes to the Storm Lake Times to support the survival of local journalism, even though we live 500 miles away from the region the newspaper covers.

For 13 years, he hosted a music series, renting out Donnellson’s American Legion Hall and booking bands from all over the country to provide entertainment to our otherwise quiet community. He’s in the process of creating a new music series to raise money for the Democratic party and for Ukrainians, demonstrating just how much—whether in his hometown or on the other side of the globe—he cares about people.

He also cares about me. He has supported me during the many hardships I’ve faced in the seven years we’ve been together. He provided his muscular shoulder to cry on when my dad died, and when my 15-year-old dog died soon after. He has driven me to the airport every winter, braving icy roads, to save me from my Seasonal Affective Disorder. He has listened for hours as I’ve voiced my struggles over my career as a writer. He has also been there to celebrate every special occasion—birthdays, anniversaries, and sometimes just an ordinary day—quick to show up with a bouquet of flowers, a good bottle of wine, and a card that says “I love you.”

He finds joy in the simple things, like walking the creek after a rainstorm to hunt for arrowheads. He pays attention to minute details that most of us miss, like the patterns in the clouds, the sun shining through a spider web, and the way snow melts in stripes on the barn roof. He notices the butterfly on the fencepost and points out the trumpeter swans in the distance. He feeds the hummingbirds religiously and protects the meadow of wildflowers remembering how much it meant to the previous landowners. He cares about nature and the planet. To Doug every day is Earth Day.

He’s a man of few words, but when he does offer advice, his counsel is wise, and for someone who doesn’t travel often, his world view is expansive and all-inclusive. When I spin like a cyclone with worry or fear, he grounds me. As a farmer who plants seeds and waits for them to grow, he has taught me to be more patient. As a big tipper at restaurants, explaining, “That waitress needs that extra dollar more than me,” he has taught me to be more compassionate and generous. His practical way of wearing T-shirts and jeans until the threads disintegrate, and gluing the soles of his shoes together before even thinking about getting new ones, has taught me to be more conscious of waste and to buy less, which is better for the environment. And in his reticence to seek attention or praise—qualities of a true hero—he has taught me about humility. The world needs more unsung heroes like Doug—and like the others featured in Hidden Brain’s radio series.

The news will continue to cause anxiety and despair, which is why I encourage you to think about the unsung heroes in your own life. They’re out there, whether they’re strangers, coworkers, friends, or family. They may be old or young, have opposing beliefs, or speak a different language; Kindness does not discriminate. There is still so much goodness right in front of us. We just have to change our focus to see it.

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Beth Howard is an author and essayist. She blogs at www.theworldneedsmorepie.com. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.

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Past posts you might also like:

Need Hope? Jane Goodall Will Give You Some

Forget First or Second, I Am Third

Forget First or Second, I Am Third

(You can also listen to this on Tri States Public Radio)  

I hear myself saying a little too often these days that I’m glad I grew up when I did, before cell phones and selfies. Before the internet became a runaway train of disinformation. Before being famous was valued more than being a good person. Before this current era of entitlement where the prevailing attitude is “It’s all about me.” Me first. America first. Look at me. Like me. Follow me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. 

https://happyhooligans.ca/gods-eye-craft-weaving-for-kids/

I’m starting to feel like my grandparents, when they expressed their disapproval of modern ways by starting sentences with, “In my day…” I get it now. It troubles me to see the Christian values I was taught when I was young devolve into the so-called Christian values demonstrated today.  

I grew up in Iowa in the 70s and spent my summers at Camp Abe Lincoln, a YMCA camp on the Mississippi River, just south of the Quad Cities. “The YMCA is a non-profit organization whose mission is to put Christian values into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind, and body for all.” This mission was incorporated into every camp activity. As we sat around the nightly campfire, the counselors told stories of peace and love, and led us in songs like “Kumbaya” and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” When we rode and groomed horses, we learned about respect and care for animals. Archery and riflery were a means to teach focus and hand-eye coordination, with an emphasis on safety and non-violence. And when we did crafts, braiding lanyards and weaving colorful yarn around popsicle sticks to create a “God’s Eye,” counselors artfully worked in messages of morality.

More than 40 years later, one of those messages still sticks with me. It was about humility and selflessness delivered in the form of a quote by Gayle Sayers, a Hall of Fame football player for the Chicago Bears. The quote was, “The lord is first, my friends are second, and I am third,” though I didn’t remember it in those exact words. I thought it was “God is first, others are second, and I am third.” I like to think my version is more all-encompassing, as every religion, not just Christianity, worships God, even if they call it by a different name. And by declaring “others are second,” it can include making an outsider feel welcome, helping people less fortunate than you, or simply being nice to strangers, like letting the person with only one item go ahead of you in the grocery line when you have a full cart. All of which leaves you open to making more friends. 

God is first, others are second, 

and I am third.”

Sayers lived his life by this credo, which you can learn more about in his autobiography titled “I Am Third: The Inspiration for Brian’s Song.” He passed away at the age of 77 this past September. If he were still alive, I would reach out to him to ask what he thought about the world today. 

What do you think about people hacking pipeline computers causing others to hoard gas in plastic bags? What about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, how instead of sitting down to talk things through, they’re firing missiles at each other? How about antivaxxers refusing to wear a mask during a global public health crisis, claiming it infringes on their personal rights? What about mobs storming the Capitol because their candidate didn’t win? What do you think about the suppression of voting rights, the bullying on social media, and the proliferation of guns, as if we need to arm ourselves against our own neighbors? How about people—church-going, God-fearing Christians at that—closing borders in an outright refusal to aid poor and hungry immigrants, ignoring the fact that not only are these our brothers and our sisters but that we are all immigrants ourselves?

What happened to “I am third?” And how can we bring that message back? 

We can’t all go to a YMCA summer camp, and Gayle Sayers is no longer here to lead the charge, but ironically there is another football player, a coach actually, who is trying to help. His name is Ted Lasso. He’s not a real person; he’s the main character in the charming Apple TV series of the same name. Ted, played by Jason Sudeikis, is hired to coach a soccer team in England. But to everyone’s astonishment he doesn’t care about winning. What’s more important, he insists, is to be a unified team. The problem is, the star player is egocentric and refuses to pass the ball to his teammates; he makes all the goals himself so he can reap all the glory. His selfishness erodes the morale of the team, until Ted finally gets through to him, teaching him, like my camp counselors taught me, the most valuable lesson in the game of life: I am third. 

There is no “I” in team. For a safe and healthy planet, we need to work together. For a more unified world, we have to put others first. Life is better and less lonely when it’s not all about me, me, me. The solution is easy. All you have to do is pass the ball.

Sleep Well, Don

This is not how I thought it would end. I thought I would get to talk to you again, to say goodbye to you. You called on Saturday morning but I was on the other line. I texted that I would call you right back, but I didn’t call until early evening. You didn’t answer. I called Sunday. I called Monday. And when you still didn’t answer, and I wasn’t getting your nightly text messages with your always cleverly chosen Bitmoji, I contacted your daughter. 
I haven’t heard from your dad. Is he okay? 
No, he’s not, Rhonda replied. He’s asleep most of the time now. He’s basically gone. 
Sleeping? Basically gone? No. He just called me.
I replayed your voicemail. 
This is Don. I’m just calling to see what you’s up to. Nothing important. I’ll talk to you later. Love ya, hon.
You sounded okay. Well, okay considering you are 85 with bone cancer. You had already beaten prostate cancer, kidney malfunction (by having those two tubes permanently attached to your back), and, most recently, you recovered from COVID-19. Recovered!
I got mad at you when you complained about having to quarantine for 14 days after they let you out of the hospital. I reminded you that I have friends who lost family members to the virus, and that you’d be quarantined in your apartment regardless since it’s in an assisted living building, you live alone, and you’re not that social anyway. You’re right, you said. I’m just depressed.
I don’t blame you for being depressed. I know you don’t feel well and that you ache everywhere. Not to mention, this is a depressing time in the world. I’m sorry for getting mad.
Ours is a funny friendship. You’re the same age as my dad would be if he hadn’t succumbed to cancer three years ago. But you’re not a father figure to me. You are the neighbor who welcomed me ten years ago to my new home in an unfamiliar rural town. 

You are the one who shoveled the snow from my sidewalk before I even got up in the mornings. You towed my car out of the mud, tilled my garden every spring, peeled apples for my pie stand, and loaned me an orange cap after I almost got shot by a hunter. You defended me at the city council meeting yelling BULLSHIT! when our mean neighbors lied about my dogs trespassing on their property. You are the one I ran to when I discovered that six-foot-long snake in my bathroom. I can still hear you in there, one end of your hoe banging against the floor with the other end hitting the window, cussing out that snake as it fought you, while I held my breath on the other side of the door. 

You are the one who made me feel safe living in that old house.
Even after you and Shirley moved away, you came by to check on me, showing up in my backyard on your three-wheeled motorcycle. We would go out for dinner sometimes, but mostly we’d go out for ice cream. The best was that afternoon we went to Misty’s Malt Shop and each had a hot fudge sundae. We sat so long talking on the park bench overlooking the river that we went back and got a second one—yours always with whipped cream, nuts, and a cherry; mine always plain with just the hot fudge.
When Shirley died we spent more time together. As mismatched as we seem—you a retired railroad worker and semi driver; me a city girl and author with a college degree—we always have interesting conversations, even when we don’t agree on politics or the meaning of flags. We are both well-traveled and love road trips, especially in our RVs. I miss my RV. I know you miss yours too. 
We’ve been through a lot together in these past ten years. You lost Shirley. I lost Daisy. You lost the ability to walk when your knees wore out. I lost yet another piece of my heart when Jack died. You lost your will to live on more than one occasion. I lost my direction in life even more often. And yet with each other’s help we’ve always pulled through, always there for one another with a phone call or a spontaneous visit. 
One of the things I especially appreciate about our friendship is your nightly text messages. It may seem small, but that one small thing means a lot to me. Those little cartoonish avatars—yours with the beard and glasses, the plaid shirt, and belted jeans; mine with the blond ponytail, a few freckles, and red turtleneck—not only make me smile, they are a reminder that no matter how hard life gets, how busy or how far apart we are, there is one consistent thing I can count on: the presence of a loyal friend—you.
It is 9PM and I should be getting my nightly text from you. 
But you are asleep. 
And you might never wake up.
The bone cancer was getting painful, you told me. The doctors said it was the fast-growing kind. I didn’t believe you. I didn’t believe anything could touch you after all you had overcome (including the time the tractor rolled over on you and it took 100 stitches to sew your head back together!) I was sure you would live another decade at least. Last time we spoke, a few weeks ago, we discussed future plans. We talked about voting, me insisting you get registered in your new state. I teased you and said, Don, you have to stick around until at least the election in November!
You told many times since Shirley passed that you wanted to die. But when they found your cancer last year you broke down in tears and said, I’m not ready to go.
I was sure the virus restrictions would be lifted soon enough for me to come visit you. I was sure there was still time for me to bake you your favorite rhubarb cake. Shirley’s recipe is sitting on my kitchen counter and the rhubarb, already cleaned and chopped, is waiting in the freezer.
I’ll drive up to see him. I’ll come today, I told Rhonda this afternoon.
He’s asleep, she said. He won’t know you’re here. They’re only allowing family members, two at a time.
But I’m family, I wanted to say. You’ve even said so yourself, Don.
Today is Tuesday. You left me that voicemail on Saturday. You sounded okay. How can it be that three days later you are “basically gone?”
The hospice nurse says he’s failing fast, Rhonda texted.
Failing fast? That doesn’t sound like you. Fading, maybe, not failing. You are not someone who fails. Transitioning is how they described my dad in his final hours. However they describe what is happening with you, it seems your time to move on has come. I want to cry and tell you, no, please don’t go. But as your friend, I understand. Your mind is still so strong, but your body, stubborn as it may be, has a limit. 
So I guess this is our farewell. I can almost see you driving away on your motorcycle, waving goodbye and laughing as you head down the road into the sunset, kicking up a wake of gravel dust as you travel on toward your next adventure. 
Even if you can’t read them, I’ll keep sending nightly Bitmojis to your phone to let you know I’m still here for you, that I will always love you, and that I will always be so very grateful for your friendship. 

Sweet dreams, Don. Sleep well.

Love, Beth