There are certain things closer to my heart than others. There are certain things so close and so personal that they are actually quite difficult to write about, but letting them flow onto paper somehow also helps to heal them a bit. And sometimes those personal things tie into an event I attend in a way that wraps itself around my heart. That happened this past weekend when I spent all night at the 2012 Fort McMurray Relay for Life - an event that is a fundraiser for cancer research, a celebration of cancer survivors - and a memorial to those who lost their battle to a dreaded disease.
As I have mentioned in this blog before I lost my father to lung cancer just over six years ago. It was a horrendously painful experience, heart wrenching in every way, and one that while you begin to forget the small details you never forget the impact. So, when Krystal Ralph, one of the lovely organizers of this year's relay, contacted me to ask if I would consider attending the event it was an easy question to answer. I would attend, of course. I would stay all night, live-tweeting as I went, documenting the experience from my perspective. And I would do so in memory of my father, one of two people (the other being my mother) who had the most profound impact on the person I have become.
I was invited to attend the Survivor's Reception, and when I arrived I was handed a T-shirt and found a place at a table with local radio guys Nolan Haukeness and Jerry Neville. I always find these two entertaining, although I discovered Nolan gets even funnier with lack of sleep, and by 5 AM I decided he was the most amusing man alive (remember, no sleep and way too much coffee, my opinion may be suspect in this case). The Survivor's Reception is a bit daunting, because it is a sea of yellow t-shirts - and every yellow t-shirt is worn by a cancer survivor. Each one of those people have received a dreaded diagnosis that changed their life. Each and every one is a hero, in my opinion.
After the Reception we all headed over to the track at Father Mercredi for the Opening Ceremonies. There was a stunning cheerleading display from Norfort Gymnastics, and the Aurora Choir sang "Oh Canada" - and then it was time for the survivor's lap. It was again a sea of yellow t-shirts, this time walking around the track to smiles and a soundtrack of handclapping. They had fought, and they had won. They had survived a disease that too many do not.
When the teams took the track it was stunning - because there were 96 teams in total, an astonishing number considering every team has at least 4 members, and many have significantly more. They filled the track, in costumes and clever t-shirts, and they walked united against the disease that took my father. It was just the start of many moments that brought tears to my eyes, and just the very beginning of a night of memorable moments.
As the teams walked the track the entertainment began - the zumba class that I lost the Intrepid Junior Blogger to, and a band that played some pretty great cover tunes. I busied myself taking photos of the teams and the tents, the costumes and the faces, and then I screwed up my courage and headed over to the tent where luminaries were being sold. I had a luminary to make, and I knew it would not be easy to do.
I bought my luminary, took it to the table, grabbed a marker, and thought about what to write. How do you encapsulate an 81-year life in a few short words? How do you express the impact someone has had on your life? What words are adequate to explain it? In the end my words were not adequate, as not even a book would be enough to express it all. But I wrote it and signed it and then I took my luminary and placed it on the track in a spot where I would be sure to find it at 11 pm when the luminaries were lit.
Once again I went back to taking photos, and I drove the Intrepid Junior Blogger home (after discovering my car had been entirely blocked in at the parking lot at Father Merc - and I had to drive on the sidewalk in front of the school to escape!). I stopped for a coffee on the way back, and when I arrived dusk was beginning to fall. The track was lined with unlit luminaries, and soon, very soon, the bagpipes began to play and it was time for the luminary ceremony.
I was grateful that Phil Meagher was there to light the luminary in front of me as my hands were quite shaky. When it was lit I sat there for a few moments, taking photos and, admittedly, weeping. I was not alone, though, as there were tears around the track as family and friends remembered those lost. After a few moments I wandered the track and took photos of the other luminaries that struck me, each one with a message to someone lost, still fighting - or surviving. Seeing all those little bags filled with a glowing candle was almost overwhelming as I tried to comprehend what they meant in terms of numbers of lives touched by this disease. I stared around the track, watching the glow. I looked at the faces, many tear-stained. I touched my own cheeks and felt the tears. And I felt so damn proud of every person on that track who was doing what they could - raising some money and giving of their time, an entire 12 hours of it! - to fight this disease that has cost us so many tears and lives.
I continued to take photos and wander around, heading over to the Casman Centre for coffee refills and food (that midnight snack? Wow! I've never seen so many desserts in my entire life, people). Around 1 am another friend appeared, one newly arrived in the city and working at a local radio station. Graham and I did a lap around the track, he in memory of his grandmother and me for my dad, of course. We chatted quietly and I was happy for the company, delighted to speak to such a kind and warm soul at such a late hour. When we finished the lap I headed to my car for a couple of hours of sleep as weariness was affecting my tweeting. And while I did not sleep I did rest, and when I returned to the track at 4 am I found this:
Still moving. Quieter, slower. But the teams were still in motion, still walking that track as I had tried to sleep, still committed to their purpose. I had brought a cup of coffee with me. It wasn't for me, though. I took it to the still lit luminary I had purchased, and put the coffee cup beside it. And so in the early dawn light, as birds began to sing and members of my community walked the track, I had coffee with my dad one more time.
I walked the track again, taking photos of the giant squirrel that seemed a bit surreal at 4 am, and at about 5 I headed back over the the Casman and had breakfast with Nolan (and seriously, he is one helluva funny guy, especially when you have had no sleep and will laugh like a hyena at anything).
The food was amazing, and the company was terrific. This was crunch time, though, and many had begun to hit the wall:
Shortly after 6 am I headed back out for the closing ceremonies. I found a giant beaver (the "last beaver standing", as the woman with him quipped). I found a giant stuffed eagle.
I found a lot of weary people - and I found a tremendous sense of pride in every single one of these people who were curled up in sleeping bags and on camp chairs, each taking their turn on the track. Exhausted, so tired from a long and dark night - but surviving. Fighting. Just as those who battle cancer fight, often exhausted, often during long and dark nights. I thought of all the long nights my father fought, and the battle he eventually lost. I thought of all the times he was so exhausted, and when we fought for him when he was too weak to fight. I thought of all these people in this city - in MY community - who fight the disease themselves, or who support those who do. I thought of all those who walked that track all night. I thought of how this little community of ours has become so close to my heart, and about my love for it. And my love for my father and for this community and for all those in it tangled up together in my heart and I turned away to hide the tears that hit me once again.
At the closing ceremonies the fundraising total was announced - an amazing $450,000, not including matching donations. There were winners of various prizes announced, and then it was time for the final lap. Some walked that lap, and some even ran it. Some were carried across it piggyback style, and a couple fell when they crossed it, in heaps of exhaustion and laughter. And I stood there and watched it all, the morning sun warming my face as I smiled. And then it was over, and I climbed into my car and headed home.
I turned up my stereo and played the song they played during that final lap. I opened my windows and my sunroof and I blared it into the early Saturday morning. It was 7 am, and this song was never more meaningful than at this moment. The song? The video is at the end of this post. And it is true, every word. And while my father did not survive his battle with cancer he left behind a tremendous legacy - five daughters, and eight grandchildren. He left behind ambassadors who carry his heart - and his memory. He left behind me, a woman who feels the greatest compliment ever received is the one that said "you are just like your dad". Yes. Yes I am. I am his daughter, and that night he was with me every single moment as I saw darkness fall, and as I saw morning rise. He was with me when I walked the track, and he was with me when I lit a luminary in his memory. And he was with me when I drove away from that experience, forever enriched by a night in this community with a group of people who captured my heart. For this, people, was the 2012 Relay for Life - and it was a night I will never, ever forget.