Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Terry Fox, the hero.

I'm a few hours late, but let's pretend it's still July 28th. Terry Fox's birthday. I'm up at my usual hours, watching a documentary put together by his family, and it's dawned on me that this is the first time in my life that I've allowed myself to know too much about the man who many consider the most famous Canadian to have ever lived...and certainly among the most noble and extraordinary. I think the subject has always just saddened me so much that I didn't let myself explore who he really was, and what he's really done. I was only about five years old when he died, and yet - just like the day John Lennon was shot - I have a remarkably clear set of memories surrounding the tragic news.

I'm not going to go into pages and pages of everything Terry accomplished. There've been hundreds of people before me who've said it better. But I feel like I should pay homage to him in some small way, because we - my family - have lost people to cancer, people who meant the world to us (and, oh, how egregiously that phrase is overused; one only really grasps its meaning when one has truly lost what we have. Many of you, sadly, know that to be all too true, having lost someone who mattered that much to you, too...). And Terry Fox, just some kid from Winnipeg, stands for the hope that, someday, others won't be lost the way people like Rose Marie O'Leary Stewart and Michael McCluskey were lost. In fact, there's little doubt in anyone's mind that what Terry did has already made a remarkably significant impact on cancer treatment and education...all because he decided to go for a run. And all he asked was for each Canadian to donate one dollar to the cause. I'm so proud, when I think of the movement he started, to be Canadian. Proud that his name is associated with my country.

I guess I'm just writing this because there's this fear that I have that people outside of Canada don't know who he is. Is that the case, I wonder? I'll have to ask my international friends if they've heard of him, and of what he did. In the meantime, though, a primer:

Terry Fox was an athletic young man with a lot of plans for himself, all of which got derailed at the age of 19, when he was found to have osteosarcoma. Despite a lower leg amputation to rid him of the original tumour, the cancer had already begun to metastasize, and yet still he decided he would run across our enormous country, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, on a prosthetic leg and in failing health. He began his run in April 1980 in St. John's, Newfoundland, and while the tumours in his lungs forced him to stop in September of that same year, he'd still managed to run an astonishing 5,373km (3,339 miles) in 143 days. He'd made his way through Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Québec, and came to a stop here in Ontario.

(An aside: It still sickens me to know how Québec treated him. He was forced off the main roads - allegedly because "nobody spoke English and didn't understand his message" - and left to run on a barren, unpopulated path alongside the St. Lawrence River. Because of that, despite the 100+ kilometres he ran through that province, he raised only THIRTY-FIVE DOLLARS from "La Belle Province". The only thing that makes me able to swallow the horror and disgust I feel about that is the knowledge that, when he stopped at Toronto's City Hall many weeks later, he was handed $100,000 for his charity.)

In the end, even after he had to stop the Marathon Of Hope in September 1980, he continued to lobby for donations. CTV held a telethon while Terry was hospitalized to receive chemotherapy, and the most amazing thing happened: the total donations that had poured in from his run and from the telethon reached over $24 million...which meant that his dream of having $1 from each Canadian had been realized.

And though he died in June 1981 from pneumonia, he'd lived long enough to see that, while the marathon had stopped, the message had not. His efforts alone had doubled the projected annual budget of the Canadian Cancer Society, and for that he was presented with the highest honour our country can bestow: the Order Of Canada.

I have friends who still run the Marathon of Hope each year (now simply called "The Terry Fox Run"; it takes place all over Canada each September), and while I've never done it myself, I think I should. I was born with deformed legs that cause me pain every day, but my god... What is that, really, in the face of what Terry Fox did? I'm ashamed that I've never done it. It's high time I did. I can't run, but I can walk, and the physical price I'll pay in the days following are nothing compared to what one 22-year-old boy did for millions of people.

I should end this on a lighter note. (I'm sure you're wondering how that's possible, but if anyone could add levity to a story, it was my Grandma, who herself would be a casualty of cancer only 6 years after Terry Fox lost his battle.) I'm sure I won't get it quite right, since I was so little when it happened, and I've not heard the second-hand version for a while, but I laugh every time I hear it:

On the day that Terry Fox made it into Toronto, his arrival caused people to gather in droves alongside his route, and his police escort always brought traffic to a halt whenever he would reach a highly populated city or town. My Grandma didn't drive, but she took a taxi to and from work, and on this particular day I suppose she'd gotten up too early to catch the news that Terry would be coming through our city that afternoon. When she got home from work, much later than usual, she and her Irish temper were on fire; she railed at my Mom and my uncles about how there was "some stupid bastard jamming up traffic and running down the middle of the bloody road!"

You can imagine the completely inappropriate laughter that would have come from her audience, and the horrified, sheepish expression on my grandmother's face when she was told who it was, and why her taxi ride had been so torturously long. And needless to say, my family has since been very supportive of the Cancer Society, all of us readily donating every year, our house always brightened by those annual yellow daffodils, and my Mom volunteered actively for our local chapter; my cousin Kristin also runs for charity and is a personal hero of mine for that.

And Terry Fox? Well, if he wasn't a hero of yours before reading this, I hope he is now. Maybe this year you'll want to join the Terry Fox Run, too. Or perhaps support me when I do it.

I can only imagine how proud that boy from Winnipeg would be if he could see what he started.

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