Walking and Loving Each Other Toward a Cure

I wrote this 7 years before my own diagnosis, while we lived in Hawaii.  It still feels good to remember.  And it feels good to have such loving friends who mustered up a team to walk together in Calgary, in my name, last year.  Whether we find a cure or not, this togetherness and love is always a good thing:

Saturday, March 17, 2007, I forgot many things. I forgot my nephew’s birthday, I forgot it was St. Patrick’s Day, I forgot it was my husband’s only day off, I forgot myself. The only thing I could remember was that I was going to try something very important that day – I was going to try to stay up from 6pm until 6am on Sunday, and to walk in memory of Mom, to walk in support of Aunt Barbie, Doreen, Debbie, Jon, and all the other cancer survivors being helped by the American Cancer Society.

My friend, Doreen, just finished her chemotherapy for breast cancer. She is blessed in many ways: that she has a huge family on this island, that they surround her with love, that she received support and education from the American Cancer Society during her diagnosis and subsequent treatment, and that she is STRONGER than her cancer. Her family decided to form a team for the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life. They used Doreen’s middle name for the team: KA’ILILAUOKEKOA’OKALANI. In Hawaiian, this name means “The Heavenly and Precious One.” If you ever had a chance to meet this warm, loving woman, you would understand how fitting that name is. She has over a hundred relatives on this island, hundreds of friends, has a demanding job as the Director of Human Resources at the Fairmont Orchid Resort, and a husband and three children, yet anytime you have a chance to speak with her, she seems to slow down the spin of the planet so she can spend time with you and give you her total attention.

Cancer really threw things off balance for Doreen – all of a sudden she had something in her life that she couldn’t approach in her usual way. Her usual way is to handle things almost single-handedly, to open another section of her heart and make room for one more thing, for one more cause. This time, she realized that it would take all her strength to fight the cancer. All of us around her, accustomed to leaning on her, had to adjust and ask her to lean on us. Her incredible husband and children, after years of Doreen taking care of them, stepped right into their new shoes with such grace and strength – more blessings for Doreen. And Doreen’s extended family – wow. I feel so awkward and happy at the same time when I am with them because I am not blood-related, and come from a smaller family, yet I always yearned for such a bustling, crazy, laughing family such as hers. It reminds me of childhood visits to Taiwan – aunties and uncles, cousins, sisters, brothers, everyone talking and laughing at the same time, playful teasing, drinking, eating, the closest arms grabbing and comforting any crying babies… To be included on her team was such an honor!

On Saturday night, as we all gathered in Kamehameha Park for the 10th Annual Relay for Life in Kohala, I looked around a sea of light blue Team Ka’ililauokekoa’okalani t-shirts, and realized that Doreen had the largest team! With her family, her husband’s (Malone) family, her best friend’s family, and mine, our team came to about 75 people. Doreen’s shirt was purple – all the survivors wore purple shirts. She topped off her outfit with a black-and-white polka-dotted bandana and a great big smile. As part of the opening ceremony, the survivors took the first lap – it was heartwarming to see them smiling and walking with their arms around each other. The “track” was set in a large green field, surrounded by huge, feathery trees that swayed in the gentle wind. Little white paper bags marked the boundaries of the track, with a set of bags spelling out the word “HOPE” in the middle of the field. These were luminarias that people could buy in memory or in support of loved ones. Markus, Emmy, Hanna, Simon, and I bought a candle each for Mom, Aunt Barby, Doreen, Debbie, and Jon. With Doreen’s family candles, we ended up taking up a large part of the circle. Our team was so big we were given two batons to walk with (we were called K Ohana Team I and K Ohana Team II). While those who held the batons walked, the others strolled around the track, visited with family under the series of tents erected for our team, ate our potluck dinner, danced to the live band, browsed the booths, and set up camp. The children ran around like crazy people and played on the playground. Markus and I held hands and talked while we walked around the track in the beginning – that was our date night Later in the evening, the stadium lights were dimmed and the Luminaria Ceremony began. The candles we had purchased to honor our loved ones, were blessed and lit and we carried them to the little white bags we had marked with our loved ones’ names. Call me crazy, but Mom was there. I carried her spirit to that little white bag, and her candle stayed lit until I blew it out in the morning. And it rained – it poured. Only Mom’s and Jon’s candles stayed lit. One of the Uncles and I re-lit our candles whenever they blew out, but we never had to worry about “Nai-Nai” and Uncle Jon. After Markus and the kids went to sleep, and I began to walk in earnest, with the baton in my hand, those little lit baggies kept me going. I would circle the track, reading the messages that different people wrote on their bags.

Through the rain, we kept walking. I purposely didn’t wear a watch – only wore Mom’s wedding ring. I didn’t want to keep track of the time in minutes, I wanted to keep track with memories. So I don’t remember what time it was that I walked my first set of 25 laps, and I don’t remember how long it took me – I was only able to mark the laps with the little rubber bands that the nice old man getting wet in the rain gave me. Every time I passed him, I would hold out my baton, he would snap on the rubber band, I would smile and say “thank-you” and be on my way. And I don’t know what time it was when I was waiting for a team member to finish her walk so I could walk again, and it was raining, and I sat next to Doreen under a watertight tent. She was all snuggled up in a warm blanket, on a sea of pillows on top of a cot. We watched her elderly parents walking side by side, slowly around the track, never faltering, walking for the love of Doreen. With tired eyes, she smiled and told me lovely things about her family, and about her husband and daughters, while her mischievous son snuck his way onto the cot, like a dog at the end of the bed. She told me about her treatment, her upcoming operation to remove her uterus, and how her hot flashes come at such un-opportune times like in meetings with the hotel General Manager…and how she would have the urge to rip off her hat or scarf, but didn’t want to shock the poor man with her bald head. And as we speak, she has another hot flash, and looks so uncomfortable there with her wooly hat on. I told her to take it off and cool down, that I think she is beautiful without hair. So she shyly takes off her hat, and she is just that – beautiful. I don’t know what time it was, but she was eventually tucked in by one of her sisters, and went to sleep. I nervously made my way to the outer tent, where her husband and the other hardier folks were staying awake. They are joking and laughing, speaking so quickly in the local style, so I can only understand half of what is being said. They are very kind, though, and offered me a Nos – an energy drink. Woo! That is when I ran off to do my next set of 25 laps.

It rained on and off throughout the night. We were constantly either taking off or putting on our little ponchos. I finally got kind of sick of that, so I just walked through the occasional showers – it was refreshing. Somewhere along the way, I was in the middle of my 3rd set of 25 laps, when I found myself really slowing down- my hips started creaking…. Sleep deprivation…Malone was a few yards ahead of me…I had been passing people with my speed walking all night long, so I thought I could pass him with no problem. Ha. I never caught up with him Then, Doreen woke up – someone told me it was about 5am, and that the closing ceremony should be beginning, with awards, and the final lap. Doreen took the baton and walked a long time with her sister-in-law. Slowly, but surely, she and her fuzzy white hat made their way around that track – I lost count how many times she went around – it looked like she was having a nice long talk with Malone’s sister.

Finally, we were all called to the main tent, and awards were handed out – so many I can’t remember. Best costume, most money raised, team that walked the most, individuals who walked the most…I actually won something! I walked 60 laps, the most on K Ohana Team II. Woohoo! One lady raised about $14,000! Including donations I expect in the mail, I raised about $400. Humble beginnings. I hope to double that next year.

Finally, we all stumbled out of the main tent, to do our final lap, and found ourselves greeting the sunrise. By then, things felt very strange and fuzzy…I don’t know if it was the good feeling in my heart, or the lack of sleep, but I left with the determination to do this every year. When my mom got sick years ago, I was a selfish teenager. When she got sick again, I was a selfish adult. I did next-to-nothing for her. All my good intentions amounted to little more than a few trips to chemotherapy with her, a few visits to her house, and in the end, long letters sent from my home in Hawaii. When my friend Debbie got sick, I prayed for her, but she lived down the street from me, and I still did nothing to help. When my friend Jon got sick, I prayed for him, I took care of his children or his dog while my friend Georgie, his wife, flew to Honolulu to be with him for his treatment, but that only happened a couple of times, and they live right next door. When Doreen got sick, I vowed to do more, to make a difference in her life, to be there to help her to the doctor, or cook for her, or whatever she needed. I only ended up taking her to the doctor once, I never cooked, and I never cleaned. I asked myself, when am I ever going to grow up and do what I say? When am I ever going to do more than talk or write? On Saturday, for the first time in my life, I feel like I made a real difference in the world. It looks so stupid in writing when it is on this piece of paper, but even though that $400 was just a drop in the bucket when you look at the $25,000 price tag for one chemotherapy treatment, my presence did something. All of us gathered on that grass on Saturday night, we put something out there in the world – a pulse of love so great – it was felt by others. I saw it in Doreen’s eyes as she slowly looked around her and saw the warm hearts all gathered in one place for the love of her. I saw it through the filter of my own tears as we lit our Luminaria and thought about our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, friends – it was on each of our faces as we quietly walked around and around.

It has been days since we walked together. When I came home, I slept for a whole day, not speaking except to help the kids with the essentials. I found myself not able to express myself – it was as if those 12 hours had taken more than my physical strength. I could only remember the night inside of my head, couldn’t talk about it, almost as if the memories were too precious to let them escape from my lips. This morning, I realized that if I didn’t take the time to write this, to share this, I would be doing what I have done all my life – I would have all the good intentions of helping without actually putting those thoughts into action. I can’t do that anymore. I need to share this experience with everyone, because it is important. I know it is annoying for people to ask for money to help causes. I felt the same way. I don’t expect my efforts to cure cancer. But the American Cancer Society does more than fund cancer research. They help the victims with the cost of medicines, with the cost of transportation; with loving counseling for the victims and their families…these are things that anyone might need someday. Nobody is expecting a huge donation. We are all regular people with other needs in our lives. But a good friend with a newborn baby managed to send $20. Just the action of finding an envelope and stamp and putting that together is huge, considering our E-society. And Simon, my little boy, age 6, earned $3 helping me with laundry, and put it into my donation box, instead of his piggy bank. Markus’ family in Germany sent actual Euros in an envelope – the bills just fluttered out when I opened the letter. My big sister couldn’t wire money from Australia, so she sent it via PayPal. So resourceful, these people with loving hearts and active intentions. And my next-door-neighbor? The friend who I didn’t have the wherewithal to help? His family walked over a check for $100. My best friend, over the ocean, whose own Mom died of cancer, sent me a donation in honor of both of our moms.

As for me, I am sure I will continue to be lazy when it comes to putting my good intentions into action. I am sure I will make everyday commitments and fail in some way. I am sure I will continue to procrastinate when it comes to doing what I must. But in one way I have been changed forever. The love that was shared on Saturday night, by Doreen and her family, by the cancer survivors, and by their supporters, that is permanently in my heart. That love makes me stronger – it strengthens my resolve. I am going to continue to help. Even if I don’t have a lot of money to donate, I will donate my time. I will walk again. Next year, I hope the team is even bigger. And if any of you are able to make it, I hope you will walk with me. Do it for someone you love, do it for someone you don’t even know. Just don’t forget to do something, no matter how small.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: