A walk in the park

I spent all day Saturday recuperating from Friday night’s Relay for Life, which was, as usual, an emotionally and physically draining event.
The 12-hour, overnight fundraiser for the American Cancer Society draws more than 1,000 people. There are live bands, lots of food, tents, signs, banners, and more than 5,000 luminaria bags filled with sand and candles lining the track. All of this needs to get cleaned up at the end of the night. Coincidentally, roughly 97 percent of the event’s volunteers — which aren’t too numerous to begin with — vanish into thin air when the aforementioned cleaning up commences. It’s a friggin’ phenomenon, I tell ya.
I’m not complaining (too much) about the hard physical labor, because I know that the cause is definitely worthy of a lost night’s sleep, sore feet, lower back pain and a bruised wrist. Also, this year in particular I knew I’d slacked off a bit on the front-end planning side of the event. So I offered my energy and brute strength (ha ha) as sacrifice to appease the Relay gods (otherwise known as my own conscience).
Despite the physical labor, the Relay always gives me time to reflect, and to observe life at its most fragile, and most poignant. I lit the first candle of the night — the one with my mother-in-law’s name on the bag, as she was diagnosed with breast cancer just last week. It crushed me to have to write her name on that white paper bag, but it somehow warmed my heart to see that name illuminated in candlelight.
Every year there are more names to write on bags, more friends whose loved ones are suffering, more hospice patients I’ve lost to the disease. It’s an odd thing to read names of those who’ve triumphantly beaten cancer, often more than once, alongside names of those who lost their lives to it. I watched a pair of cancer survivors in jovial conversation walk right by a teenage boy who was sitting on the track, tears streaming down his face, staring at a luminaria bag with the name of someone he missed dearly.
Late in the evening, I trailed two chemo nurses as they did a lap, pausing to read countless names of people they knew and had treated. If you closed your eyes and just listened to them, you might have thought they were thumbing through an old yearbook. But then they came across the name of a 28-year-old cancer patient they’d treated just last year. Above his name were the words “In Memory Of,” and they were stunned by that news.
I knew who he was, I’d actually just spoken to his mother that afternoon, so I stopped and told them what I knew — that he’d died about a month ago in South Africa where his mother lives. For two women who deal with suffering and death far more than the rest of us, this news was a blow that put a serious damper on their night. They were teary-eyed and sullen as they walked away.
Later, I was thinking how that’s exactly the kind of nurse I’d want — someone who never expects anything but recovery, and who takes the loss of every patient as if it was a death in the family.
Cancer is one stubborn son of a bitch. If we are to beat it for good, our tenacity has to be so strong that one single “In Memory Of” luminaria stops us in our tracks as unacceptable.
I was reading an article about Lance Armstrong last week and he was saying something similar. The problem, he said, is that cancer “has been around so long, people have grown accustomed to it. They say, ‘It’s a shame. He was 75, he had prostate cancer, he didn’t make it, but he had a good life.’ Well, bullshit! He could’ve been 90 and been to another graduation, met his great-grandchildren.”
I’m with you, Lance.
(Thanks to all friends and family who sent donations to help with my Relay effort. Your generosity always inspires me!)

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