Monday, June 11, 2012

The accidental torchbearer

This past weekend I attended a Relay For Life event.  I have a passing familiarity with it because an old friend had told me of her involvement a couple of years ago, and she made a luminaria bag for me at the event she attended while I was sick.  

My daughter's boyfriend is a cancer survivor of nearly six years. Right as he was entering his teens, he was diagnosed with Non Hodgkins lymphoma.  Because of my personal history with cancer, his mom invited me to join them at a Relay held about a half hour from my home. 

I need to stop here and beg for your indulgence. I'm afraid that some people are going to finish this post, and think that I'm really just a jerk. But I need to be honest, because I have a point to make behind my story. So, please read my entire post and try to understand where I'm coming from. 

Many years ago Nancy Kerrigan won a silver medal in the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics, and then went to Disney World for a pre-arranged publicity parade. During the parade, she was caught on microphone saying "This is dumb. I hate it. This is the most corniest thing I have ever done." She later said her remarks had been taken out of context: she was commenting not on being in the parade, but on having to wear her silver medal in the parade because showing off and bragging about her accomplishments was something that her parents had always taught her not to do. She went on to say that she had nothing Disney or Mickey Mouse ( "Whoever could find fault with Mickey Mouse? He's the greatest mouse I've ever known.")

That image popped into my head the other night, as I was carrying a tiki torch part of the way around the track. I felt wildly out of place.   It was Friday, and after a long week of working and not ever really sleeping well, I was already exhausted and it wasn't even midnight. I knew I had all night ahead of me. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I think that part of my issues and general admitted crankiness was that there were several factors that had drained some of the enjoyment from the start, for me.   When we left our house for the relay, we were disorganized and trying to hurry, and forgot a few things that I REALLY wished I had later. And it rained... and rained...  but I'll get to that later. 

The Relay opens with a ceremony, and at the event I attended a very young breast cancer survivor told her story and cried through at least half of it. I wanted to flee. My friend asked me conversationally later, So did you cry during that speech, and I said yes, because it did bring tears to my eyes, it was very sad... but I didn't go on to say that I am always uncomfortable when emotions are used in a fundraiser setting.  Tugging at the old heartstrings turns me off. 

She then lead all of the survivors out onto the track for the first lap.  I was somewhat uncomfortable with everyone else just liniing the track and clapping for me.  I didn't feel like Rocky, pumping my fists in the air.  It was so hard for me to explain - because I'm not shy and I certainly enjoy being the center of attention.  I struggled with what was going on in my head, and decided that a "victory lap" of sorts didn't feel right to me, because I didn't cure myself... I had about 50 medical people who treated me, and I managed to stumble over my cancer and get it properly diagnosed and get through everything in relatively good shape.   

The caregivers joined us on the second lap, and I have to say, that was very nice, to acknowledge a few of the people who took care of us survivors. Then everyone else joined in. 

The track was lined with small white bags, each holding a small piece of tile and a votive candle.  Walk participants can decorate a bag in honor of a survivor, in memory of someone lost, and so on.  The wind was quite rough that night.  Some of the bags were blowing over, but they weren't lighted yet. 

After a short time, the rains came.  It was a MONSOON. I am not even kidding.   I didn't remember my rain jacket.  I was siting under one of the large pavillions that belonged to my friend's team, so I was able to get out of the rain. It thundered and I questioned the logic of sitting under a canvas and metal structure, but the lightning never got too close. 

The luminaria looked a little rough after that.  On my next lap around I noticed how many had been ruined... carefully written sentiments were streaked and washed out. It was very disheartening and almost a little bit morbid. 

There were volunteers assigned to light the candles in the bags, and they were working carefully.  I really didn't understand how the bags didn't catch fire. I guess the tile keeps the bag stable normally. 

Soon it was time to dim the lights and have the luminaria ceremony. Someone grabbed me and asked if I would help carry the torch. What? Me? Oh here we go again.  I'm not brave and noble. I went to the doctor and shit happened and I got out by dumb luck. I was stoic, but not a plucky heroine. 

I agreed, however (not wanting to seem like a total asshole) and was placed at a spot where I would receive the torch from my daughter's boyfriend. I listened to the whine of a generator while the DJ said something over on the other side of the football field, and then the music started. There was a bagpiper, playing Amazing Grace. Over. And over.   I like bagpipers. I even like singing Amazing Grace.  But again, strings, pulled. Because in addition to that going ON AND ON, there was EVERY cliche song you could think of.  Tim McGraw, Live like you were dying (which I heard during a radiation treatment because a country music station was left on for me).  Whitney Houston, I will always love you.  And on and on. 

K handed the torch to me.  I guess I was thinking it would be a fancy torch of some time, and not realizing what an impractical image I had in my head. It was a tiki torch like someone would use during a garden party in the summer to keep bugs away.   That was when I heard Nancy Kerrigan in my head ".... this is so dumb..."  Then I was  REALLY angry at myself and my emotions were COMPLETELY mixed up. Everyone was SO into this experience... except me.  

I handed off the torch to the next woman, and walked along with the other people (everyone kept walking, instead of stopping when they passed the torch.)  Everyone was so quiet.  It felt wrong to me.  I wanted to be cheering, or SOMETHING. (Wait... didn't I say I didn't like it before when they clapped for me? I mean that  * I  * wanted to be singing some sort of victory song. I'm a survivor, dammit. I am happy to  celebrate but you don't have to pin ribbons of honor on me.  But I am ever mindful that many people do the Relay in honor of someone they have lost to cancer. So the sadness is very much a part of the event, and  I had to bottle up some of those thoughts and feelings. ) 

I did say to K,  Why is everyone so quiet?  He gave me a funny look  and explained that this ceremony was SUPPOSED to be silent except for the music. I hadn't heard that over the generator.  D'oh.  

I noticed that most people shared a brief hug as they handed off the torch. Obviously I didn't hug my daughter's boyfriend, and when I handed it off to the next woman, I didn't know any better. I guess that's good, because I would have been uncomfortable feeling obligated to hug a stranger. And yet..  watching the other survivors hug disappointed me a little, because they were sharing a little bit of something and it undescored for me how isolated I've been feeling about some of the lingering effects... the scars, the anxiety at pending doctor appointments approaching, the frustrations of tamoxifen... 

The night went on. And on and on. It poured. The winds attacked the luminaria again with a vengeance.  I saw some bags literally burst into flames and burn down to nothing.  I said to my friend at one point "Are they supposed to ALL burn?" because it seemed like I just saw so many on fire.  She was horrified and explained that she'd never seen ANY catch fire.  It was all the more troubling to really ponder the bags that were reduced to cinders, and volunteers cleaned them up as quickly as possible. 

It got down below 50 degrees around 3 am. By then I was just having trouble coping with it all.  It was freezing and the kids were noisy (hey, THEY were having fun... but at one point I was typing a note to myself that was basically SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP because I was cold and wanted to sleep in my chair a little while, huddled in my friend's sleeping bag, and there were teens near me being super loud.  Ohmygod-I'm-so-old. )

I felt guilty leaving, because I was so happy that the event was over. I was cold and achy and hungry and tired. I had walked seven miles before viscious plantar fasciitis set in. I went home and slept, and then talked to my sister. We concluded that I have moved on in a healthy way; I don't need to dwell on my cancer and talk about it constantly anymore. I guess that's why I don't blog as much lately, in addition to being crazy busy with my mother and father in law. 

 I did realize recently that when I meet someone I want them to KNOW what I went through, but then after one conversation I don't really need to talk about it or bring it up again. (I think that goes to where I am in life, my "career" and finiances not being what they were a few years ago, and feeling defensive about that. ) 

 I am always grateful to the American Cancer Society for the help I received while I was sick, such as the Look Good Feel Better workshop,  which was truly a wonderful thing that I really needed. I'm hoping that in time I might be able to embrace the Relay experience and enjoy an evening with the weather actually cooperating and me being properly equipped.   But I think next year I may do the fundraising page and just quietly not go to the actual relay.  Maybe Nancy would understand.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this, Ew/aK