Sunday, December 04, 2005

Terry Fox

Sitting in the waiting room at the Health Center the other day, waiting for blood to be sucked from my arm for a PSA test, I saw Terry Fox's picture on the cover of Maclean's Magazine. I remembered the time I saw Terry run.

I was on the way to the Sudbury airport to catch a flight to Toronto in order to attend a meeting that at the time seemed important, but whose purpose I have long since forgotten. The bypass had not yet been built so I was driving through a light rain along the old two-lane road. Near Lively, the traffic slowed down. I saw flashing police lights ahead and thought, O damn, an accident, that'll make me miss my flight. And braked to a stop.

Then I noticed that the police car was approaching me, its red and blue lights reflected in the water lying on the pavement. Behind it I saw Terry Fox, I knew immediately who he was, even though his van was some 50 yards behind him. He shifted his weight onto his good leg, made a skipping hop, threw his prosthesis in front of him, and used it as a pivot to bring his good leg over to the front again. His good leg hit the pavement, and he raised himself again in that skipping motion to lift the prosthesis off the ground and bring it to the front again.

Step, skip, swing, step, skip, swing, he came towards me, step skip swing. I began to imagine how many times he must have done that since he'd left the East Coast, thousands of times, tens of thousands of times, and wondered how his leg stump could stand the pounding, how the heel of his good foot could tolerate the repeated thump into the asphalt, how his back could take that twist and lift needed for each step.

My line of traffic began to move again, and I briefly saw Terry's face as he step-skipped past me. A couple weeks or so later we heard that that he had to stop near Thunder Bay because the cancer had come back. I thought, He knew it even then, in Sudbury, that was not just physical pain that marked his face, it was fear that he might not finish his run. I knew then that I had seen courage in his face.

Before I saw Terry, I'd dismissed his run as mere publicity hunting. When I saw him I began to see that Terry knew he wouldn't make his mark as the rest of us have done, in our work, our families, our communities. He would never succeed at any career, he would never be proud of his children, he would not earn the respect of neighbours and friends, because he wouldn't live long enough.

He could have waited for death, worked with the doctors to delay it for as long as possible, no one would have faulted him for doing that. But he felt the need to do something worthwhile. What could he do? He had no skills, no special talents, no training or education. He had only his body and his determination. So he did the only thing he could do: he used his body, he used himself, to draw attention, to enlist the rest of us in the struggle to understand the disease that was killing him, and would kill many others, and continues to kill.

Terry used himself up in doing this. He died doing this.

Every time we drive west through Thunder Bay, we stop at the monument beside the highway, and I remember. We stopped there again this past summer. I sat and looked up at his face, a face that I remembered from a brief glimpse in the rain, and I noticed that people spoke softly as they read the inscription and gazed at the statue of Terry Fox.