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Home of the brave


Heroes are in back in fashion and that's good. Saving people from burning skyscrapers, fighting terrorists--these are worthy deeds. But for the last couple of years, I've been privileged to spend time every week with a different kind of hero, a quiet kind of hero. She's the bravest person I've ever met.

Because she would hate the attention, I'll call her "Agnes," a Greek derivative of her name. She might forgive that--she loves puzzles and word games. Her intellect led Agnes to become a schoolteacher, one of the best. She started teaching in Durham during World War II. Young and single, she and two other teachers got an apartment together. One of them eventually ran off with a sweetheart who was fighting in Europe. The other two women waited out the war in Durham.

The years flew by. Neither ever got around to marrying. They were comfortable and compatible; eventually they bought a house together. Agnes became one of the most popular middle-school teachers in the city and retired as a vice principal. Her friend was also successful, serving as president of the local education association.

A lifetime dedicated to public-school teaching is heroic enough. But it was Agnes' twilight years that called for real courage. As time passed, her friend's health declined. She became bedridden, mostly blind, nearly deaf. Despite having no immediate family around to help, her housemate refused to go into a nursing home.

By now, Agnes was in her 80s, legally blind and in shaky health herself. Nevertheless, for the next two-and-a-half years, she became her friend's caretaker. Agnes held her hand, sang to her, scolded inattentive nursing assistants, worried over every ache and pain. She shopped for her, cooked and fed her, supervised all her medications. She read to her, plumped her pillows, brushed her teeth, wept silently over the occasional bouts of dementia. Agnes also juggled nursing-care schedules and paid the bills. Round-the-clock sitters meant she had help changing her friend's diapers, turning her and, she hoped, watching out for her safety.

A few weeks ago, her friend was rushed to the hospital with pneumonia. During this crisis, Agnes discovered that money her friend had squirreled away for nieces' and nephews' birthdays, savings for a bracelet and other rainy day cash was gone. They assumed it was stolen, but there was no way to catch the thief. When her friend came home, Agnes soldiered on, never showing how much worry and hurt were hidden behind her steady, loyal demeanor.

One week later, her friend died. The obituary listed nieces, nephews and great-great nephews as survivors. But Agnes, who had lived with her friend for almost 60 years, who had devoted her life and love and every waking thought to her care and comfort, was not mentioned.

She deserves mentioning. Agnes survived great sorrow, even treachery, in order to give dignity to her companion's final years. Her story is not over, and there may be harder days still to come. But her quiet bravery has made all the difference. She is a true hero.

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