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Lessons From Michel Martin's Bad Break

Sen. John McCain speaks at a  Veterans Day ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul last year.
Massoud Hossaini
AFP/Getty Images
Sen. John McCain speaks at a Veterans Day ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul last year.

Last week, I broke my arm while I was ice skating with my kids. My sister happened to call me as I was on my way to the hospital, and she reminded me that our mother broke her arm in exactly the same way when I was just a little older than my kids are now.

When she reminded me of it, I remembered it clearly — not because it was the first time I remembered seeing her cry, because it wasn't — but because it was the first time I remembered thinking of her as brave.

I knew that she was born in that time in American life when just about everything around her tried to tell her what she could not do: "No, you cannot live in this neighborhood even though you can afford the rent or the mortgage. No, I will not take you and your kids to the hospital in my taxi," even though she had the fare in her hand.

I saw my mother experience many of these things and more, so when I saw her strap on those rented skates — wearing her fur-trimmed camel church coat no less — and I saw her inching along the side of the rink, something in me knew even then that it was her way of saying "yes." She was at the very least trying to show herself and us as much of the world as she could afford, or dared, to see. And when she fell and broke her wrist, I don't remember how we got home or how she got to the hospital. All I remember is being proud that she had tried at all.

The second person I thought about was Sen. John McCain. (I spoke to his wife, Cindy McCain, earlier.) He was shot down on Oct. 26 1967, during his 23rd air mission — a bombing run over the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi. He broke both arms and one leg in the crash, and after that, as I think most people know, was held as a prisoner of war for more than five years.

Being a journalist in D.C., I have seen him many times, often backstage at events where I have watched him patiently wait for someone to comb his hair or straighten his tie because, due to his injuries and horrific treatment after, he cannot raise his arms above his head. I have tried to put myself in his place.

So when the pain of that multiple fracture caused me to briefly lose consciousness — despite the tender ministrations of the very nice paramedics and a lovely nurse — I thought about him and what he went through. And I thought again about what men and women like him have been willing to endure for this country. And, yes, I was proud.

Then I thought of our colleague Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian reporter who was attacked last week in Tahrir Square as she tried to report on Egyptian elections. According to accounts, she was attacked by security forces for reasons that aren't clear. She was not only viciously assaulted, but also beaten with truncheons and broke both of her arms. I am told she went 10 hours without medical care before she was seen. She has tweeted pictures of herself to let us know she is OK. She is not OK, but I think she will be. But we are better for her willingness to tell the world her story.

Can I just tell you? The through line in all this is courage — small moments, like my mother's, unseen by anybody but those who love her; big moments like John McCain's and Mona's, noted by people around the world. The question I have is: Can we acknowledge all the various kinds of courage we need, to move this country and the world forward?

Too often, it seems as though we can only recognize one kind or the other. Those who would see the bravery of the soldier are too often indifferent to the efforts made by people like my mother to live up to this country's promise. They prefer to act as if everybody who isn't born rich is some sort of parasite out to take what is not theirs. But too often it seems as if those who do respect the will of the activist or the small triumph of the citizen refuse to respect the kind of courage and discipline it takes to do big things in the world.

We need to do all of those things — respect the citizen, the activist and the soldier. The sacrifices will never be seen exactly the same way. But the pain is the same and so is the courage — to endure it.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.