On Sunday evening, I completed the online check-in for the 2014 Ride to Conquer Cancer. the RTCC is a 200km ride from Toronto to Niagara Falls, with benefits going to the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, one of the top 5 cancer research centres in the world.
Last year the ride raised 19.1 million dollars, but more importantly, it gave us hope. As we rode through Ontario, we were surrounded by sadness – people peddling in loving memory of friends, family and peers no longer with us, but we were also surrounded by yellow flags. We were surrounded by survivors.
In 2012, my ride started like most. I knew someone that knew someone that was battling cancer. When I got the news, I did what we all do. I shared FB status updates, liked heartfelt posts and retweeted fundraising efforts before returning to the security of my own insignificant problems. I did the most I could without really doing anything. I cheered from the side as people I knew peddled for a cause or for closure.
Things changed when my Dad got sick. Aggressive brain cancer. Horrible prognosis. I started reading stats and tried hard to hold onto the hope that maybe he’d be the miracle case. I started raising money. Instead of doing everything I normally did (essentially nothing), I forced myself to believe that every dollar I raised could be the one that helped them find a cure. I organized concerts. I asked people for money. I asked people for help. I admitted weakness and fear. I was scared and RTCC let me think about something else. All my energy could be directed somewhere meaningful.
Quickly, I realized that people are amazing. Strangers, families, and friends rallied behind me. The stories they shared kept us believing. They gave me and my family hope… almost too much hope. Naively, until it was really bad, I still thought Dad was defying the odds. To be honest, until we moved him into a hospital bed that took up so much space in the family room that we had to move his favorite chair, I thought he was strong and stubborn enough to simply outlast this disease.
This year is different. Dad’s gone and I don’t know what these 200 km will be like. Instead of riding for his cause, I’m riding in his memory. It will be good for me in some sense as well; eight hours to think about the life he led and the times we shared. It’s a chance to say goodbye in a way that I know he’d respect.
Cancer is awful. I know that’s not a surprise to anyone, but it takes away your will to fight. This year, those yellow flags will be inspiring for another reason. Each time I see a flag, I’m going to see someone that refused to quit. They took the pain. They took the poison. They spent months, if not years holding on by a thread. They persevered.
My family has dealt with too much loss lately. Old friends. Fathers. Husbands. Mothers. Wives. Aunts. Grandmothers. Cousins. Despite all that, I’m encouraged by two people in my life that are fighting. They refuse to yield. They turn into the torrents and gusts and defy the storm to do its worst. Remarkably, I’ve never met either of these people in real life. I work with a woman that is everything you’d dream to be. She’s determined, hard working, funny as hell and a dedicated mom. I worked with her husband at my old job, and he and I shared sushi, beer and work drama almost every day. I looked at her picture on his desk every morning while I waited for him to get organized for a coffee run.
Somehow just from two pictures and casual stories, I felt like I knew her. Little did I know that when I switched jobs we would start working together. We shared jokes and work drama, and I realized that she was a f@cking rock star. She’s the type of person that makes you re-evaluate how you approach your life – plus she mailed me a Tom Waits shirt to say thanks for working extra hours. But suddenly, she was gone. Emails were going to other people. She was no longer in project meetings. I didn’t know until she was packed up and beginning her first fight.
She kicked cancer’s ass. She reshaped her life and did everything right. She even started drinking some blended green juice that made me physically ill to even look at. Now she’s fighting breast cancer for a second time, dealt a hand that would make even the biggest gambler toss away their two cards and concede their stack of chips, but her outlook and spirit is still unbreakable. She will not stop fighting and she’s showing us how we should live life (especially when ours is undoubtedly much easier).
Forget tattered leather jackets, skin tight jeans and high top Chuck Taylors. Carissa is punk rock.
Another man fighting this same fight is someone I’ve only shared emails with. We “know” some of the same people. We “love” some of the same things. We bonded through his talent and my appreciation. I guess if life were a Venn diagram, our circles would touch but only ever so slightly. Yesterday, I wrote to him about his new music and shared that I had given a few of my songs to my father – another music lover – and they were played many times as sitting in a chair or lying in a bed became more common.
Will was diagnosed with cancer in his mid-twenties. For a gifted word smith and peaceful man, it just doesn’t seem fair. He used music as his inspiration, documenting his treatment, his anger, his hope and his reality in eight beautiful songs that try their best to remove shock of the stark message they carry. Honestly, there are moments on this record that take my breath away, but their are moments that help me understand the torment my Dad went through and refused to discuss.
Both these people refuse to stop fighting. They were given something awful and turned it into beauty and inspiration. They take statistics and challenge them with heart and determination. They fight, and it’s why we should all fight. It’s too easy to think we have it bad, decide that life is trying to push us down. I’m realizing that most of us are lucky. We come home after work with money in our pocket and a house filled with love and warmth. We see life and it’s endless possibilities. We have the freedom to look back and laugh and the time to dream about what might be.
I’m sorry these two great people have to go through this, but selfishly, I’m thankful for them showing me how to really understand what’s important and what life can really throw at you.
I’ll be riding the 2014 Ride to Conquer Cancer with my Dad’s picture on my back and the memories we share in my heart, but Carissa and Will’s names will be attached to my bike frame to remind me that not everyone has the chance to ride 200km in beautiful countryside left only to complain about the pain in their legs.