Relay for Life luminaries represent stories of those affected by cancer

My neighbour asked me last week if I’d be going to the Relay for Life. When I heard the music still going strong into the wee small hours on Friday night, I put on my walking shoes and went over to the John Rhodes Community Centre, awed by the number of people still there.

For those who haven’t been to the event before, the Canadian Cancer Society Relay For Life is an overnight, non-competitive relay, celebrating cancer survivors and in memory of lost loved ones.

It is a truly magical sight to see the luminaries light the inside edge of the walking track. White paper bags are decorated with the names of those affected by cancer and lit up by tea lights, whose flickering makes them seem like they are floating.

There is a celebratory, festival feel to the event, with a live band on a big stage, dozens of team tents, and many participants donning costumes or matching shirts. I tried to stay in that celebratory mode, but found it increasingly difficult as I was overwhelmed by the number of luminaries. So many lives taken or affected by cancer.

After my first lap of the track, I realized that I had been avoiding looking too closely at the luminaries. I went around again, this time scanning the alphabetized names. When I got to “F” I didn’t have to see the name on several luminaries decorated pink with poems and Dora the Explorer: I knew right away they were in memory of Chloe French.

Chloe was my daughter’s good friend in daycare and in JK at F.H. Clergue. I remember Chloe having headaches at day care. The following year, I remember my daughter saying that Chloe wasn’t going to be in school for a while. Chloe, at four years old, had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour.

I remember my daughter making a card to go to Chloe in hospital, and us donating to the fund to help the French’s stay in Ottawa during Chloe’s surgery and radiation treatment. I remember trying to explain to Audrey that Chloe wasn’t going to be in her class again; and it was so sad, because she had been getting better and we all hoped to see her beautiful smile again. As if our request was granted, not long after Chloe’s death, she was featured as Kid Canada on TV and I taped it for my daughter. Every six to nine months she asks to see Chloe, and we watch it together.

Half a lap further around the track, there was Camp Chloe, where the French’s were hosting a bake sale to raise funds for cancer research. Their new adopted son was asleep in his own little tent behind them. I was touched to hear that he is keeping Chloe’s memory alive every time he hugs one of her stuffed animals or plays with one of her toys.

Another half lap around the track and I was back at the “F” section, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the luminaries representing one precious little girl who loved Dora and the colour pink. Chloe truly lives on.

Yet that is only one story. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people’s stories were represented around that track in those flickering luminaries.

I flashed to thinking about my grandmother, Doris Setchell, who was taken too soon by cancer. I wish I had had more time to know her and for her to get to know me as an adult.

Trying to focus on the celebratory aspect of the night, I turned my thoughts to some of those close to me who have won their battles with cancer: two phenomenal men I know on Barber Boulevard, and my friend Joan Foster.

The luminaries in the stands by the track that spelled out FIGHT BACK and HOPE then caught my eye. It was a beautiful sight, but heart-rending too. The luminaries sat there like spirits of our loved ones; watching over us from the bleachers, yet unreachable to us.

I left shortly after 2 a.m., the event still going strong, the music still playing.

The organizers, volunteers, and participants did a great job; and I thank them for the opportunity to think about Chloe, then to have a happy little cry over my grandmother and a smile at the thought that she’d be proud of me and adore my kids.

When I got home, I logged onto the cancer society’s web-site and made a donation. While on the site, I noticed the bulleted facts that during Canadians’ lifetimes, 39% of women and 45% of men will develop cancer; and approximately one out of every four Canadians will die from cancer.

If you didn’t take part in the Relay for Life, I urge you to donate as well. Let’s all fight back.

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