There was a time when I believed that the mark of a true hero was when in the face of certain death, he still chooses to do the right thing. This was illustrated in an event very close to me a few years ago. One of the outbound airplanes of a cargo airline I was working for at the time, had a sudden shift in its weight and balance upon takeoff - the locks which hold the large metal pallets where the cargo is secured came undone, allowing the carefully distributed weight to run helter skelter across three empty pallet positions - and lost its lift, crashing down less than half a mile away from the landing strip.
The crash took place in a highly trafficked area, where there were not only congested streets packed with lunch hour drivers, but also warehouses, restaurants and other assorted small businesses. The potential for a tragedy of biblical proportions was quite real. Instead, the pilot and his crew used their final seconds on this earth to steer the plane clear from the crowds and into the only clear spot which was available - an empty field which ended at the lateral side of a major avenue - limiting the casualties to the crew, a security guard who was traveling along, and an unfortunate driver who was caught by the nose of the plane.
The ball of fire was unbelievable. Eighty percent of the cargo on board was denim headed to the Caribbean, and it burned like crazy. But only five people died in what could have been so much worse.
I always thought of what was going through the pilot's head in those last few seconds. When your knowledge of the laws of physics show you that there's simply no way out alive, do you still hope beyond hope? When he maneuvered in such a way as to miss as much as possible did he still somehow hope to survive? Otherwise, why opt for the most humane approach instead of cursing the world for your bad fortune and going out in a blaze of glory. What guides a person to make that decision at such short notice?
I don't know. Its not something you can tell about yourself until you find you're in a similar situation.
That is indeed true heroism. As are the actions of firemen who jump into danger daily, disregarding their own safety for the benefit of strangers.
But those heroics do not diminish the importance and value of the strength shown to a smaller scale daily, by spouses forced to deal with having to put up a strong front before their sick or dying loved ones. Not to overlook the valor of the sick people themselves, which has its own undeniable and incalculable merit. But having to show a rock hard facade when inside you're crumbling, only so your loved one has something to hold onto, is an admirable and lonely quality. It leaves you with only the wall as a sympathetic listener, and only emptiness and despair to look forward to when your loved one finally moves on.