We walk through the night, sometimes in pouring rain, sometimes in sweltering heat. We walk for our mothers and brothers, cousins and friends. We walk for ourselves.
My Relay for Life team gathers on the chosen site early on a Friday evening, as we do one Friday evening every June. We set up our campsite alongside the other teams, then head to the stage to listen to the stories of some of the cancer survivors. Then we watch them take their celebratory walk to kick off the event.
From very small children to the elderly they pass by us, arm in arm. Cancer takes no prisoners.
Throughout the night into morning we take turns walking the prescribed route, two team members at a time. At one event organizers used the wall of a large house onsite to project the photos of loved ones fighting the disease or those already gone. One after another, all night long, the faces appeared. They were pictured with their children, or their toys, or their dogs. In their cribs, at chemo stations, in playrooms, and in their hospital beds. Some were bald from treatments, others thin and spent in the late stages of their sickness. So many were smiling. Some looked so utterly beautiful and full of life it made me wince: I marvel at the incalculable strength demanded from so many of us.
My team is made up of women from across the spectrum – all types, ages, stages, occupations. Members come and go as schedules and commitments allow. In our ranks this year are a social worker, a bus driver, an ultra sound technician, a real estate agent and one who counsels the parents of troubled teens. We have teenagers who pitch in every year, daughters of past and current members. One 13-year old recently had her long hair cut in front of the crowd at the event and donated her beautiful ponytail to the cause (for wig making for chemo patients): Character shaping moments to be sure.
With every relay and my time spent with them on various projects in our village and beyond, I have come to know and admire each one. We’re all crazy busy, a given these days. But every year we manage to pull together whatever needs doing and show up the night of the relay, our fundraising target met or exceeded, outfitted in our chosen theme garb, ready to walk.
We raise the money through several channels – our annual gargantuan garage sale held in conjunction with our village spring festival, donations online from friends and families, and raffling off baskets of assorted goodies at community events. One of our teenagers announced ecstatically that she’d raised $262 after going door to door in the village. This year we held a Fisherman’s Breakfast in Whitevale’s community centre and raised $700 feeding ravenous fishermen and trail hikers. That’s a lot of bacon, trust me. And every November we stage a Trivia Challenge Night in the community church basement, where the competition among villagers is, to put it politely, keen.
Teammates do what they can as they can. For our golf theme one year we decided to recreate a golf course landscape to serve as our banner for the walkabout and the site backdrop. All 10 of us assembled in my garage on a rain-soaked evening in front of a large white sheet spread out at our feet. Each of us stepped up in turn over the course of two evenings with a brush in hand to help build the scene. There was never a more quintessential communal effort. The sky needs to be bluer. How can we ripple the sand in the sand traps for effect? What about darker green in the valleys to create shadow? 3-D effect came from red felt flags glued onto greens and for perspective (ask Michelangelo) a tiny lighthouse stood on a distant hill striped in red and white felt. “Whitevale Duffers” was spelled out in multi-colours on another flag in the foreground.
Was it realistic? I’ll only say that while it dried on my driveway 12 people came up and asked me if they could play through. It turned out our little masterpiece earned us the Best Site nod at the event.
One year our theme was Rosie the Riveter, which we saw as the perfect empowering icon from 1940’s wartime. We showed up in overalls, vintage jackets with padded shoulders, polka dot bandanas, and rouged lips and cheeks. Inside our tent onsite we set up a vintage kitchen, complete with a retro fridge and stove made from cardboard boxes and tons of spray paint. The next year we were the Blues Sisters and broke out the fedoras, Ray-Bans, shiny black suits and skinny ties. Soul Man and Aretha Franklin played loudly throughout the night as fellow relayers visited the makeshift blues club inside our tent, with dry ice creating the requisite smoky atmosphere.
Another year we were 12 runaway brides, complete with gowns, flowing veils, and plastic bouquets. Our tent was bedecked in toile and linen as befitted our theme. A wedding guest book awaited our visitors’ signatures. Someone even brought a chandelier, which we managed – somehow – to suspend from the tent’s ceiling. The temperature dipped to 30 degrees that night. We took the stage at three am to perform “Goin’ to the Chapel,” wearing our chiffon finery along with wool gloves and toques.
We’ve all been touched by cancer in one way or another. Not long ago we attended the funeral of one of our team members. These days, one of us is a cancer survivor, and one recently lost her brother to it. My young brother is currently in remission. My lovely mother was ravaged by it at too young an age.
But we take heart. There is always promising news in the cancer fight. I read about the genetic testing of tumours, which can redirect doctors to the exact protocols needed for cures. And of a woman with advanced lung cancer and scant months to live who, after this type of leading edge testing, was treated with therapy for skin cancer as opposed to lung. She is still with us. And she is utterly cancer free.
We have to beat it, together. Meanwhile, we walk.