I was eleven years old when Terry Fox began his Marathon of Hope in April 1980. The same age as my daughter is today. I remember so much about the summer of Terry’s run. I remember when he announced what he intended to do. As kids we thought he was awesome. We completely believed it was possible. Many adults thought he was a crazy kid with a nutty dream. But that changed as the year wore on. As the summer waned so many of us believed that Terry would accomplish the impossible.
I distinctly remember September 1, 1980 when he quit the run. I remember my mom, the onocology nurse, saying that he was dying. I think that’s when I first realized that we are all mortal. But I didn’t quite believe he could die, after the success of his run, something would intervene and save him. I remember watching the news the following June as they annouced Terry had died. Shock, disbelief and deep, deep sadness.
But Terry Fox was more than memories of a long ago summer. He has become a defining figure in my life. A piece that is always there. For many of us, he’s become a part of who we are as Canadians of a certain age, old enough to remember a time when Terry Fox was not taught as part of the K-12 curriculum, when the Terry Fox run meant a young man attempting the absurd on lonely roads in Eastern Canada.
I did my undergraduate and graduate work at Simon Fraser University – Terry is everywhere at SFU. The run on the hill every September holds a special meaning – running in memory of one of our own. Right outside the Faculty of Education is a man-sized trophy box. It is lit from within. Inside is a picture of Terry, his old t-shirt and other memorabilia. I walked past that display every day for a decade. I’ve lined up twice for Convocation beside that box. Outside past the koi pond is a larger than life statue of Terry that all three of my children climbed on as toddlers. Each of them at one time or another, pointed upward and said “Terry Fox – he was a hero, Mommy.”
Twenty-eight years after his death, Terry Fox has become a legend. But, despite the fact that I never met him in life, he has become something far more personal to me. A hero, yes. But also a brave young man who defined part of my youth. Cancer became a real possibility – if Terry could die from it, any of us could. But he also gave a sense of hope and a belief that the impossible just might be possible.
Two years ago I sat with my sister-in-law as she lay dying from breast cancer. She was the first of us “real” people to go. Someone in my cohort, whom I loved deeply. But I never felt surprise that one of us could die from cancer. Terry Fox was a reminder that any of us could at any time. But more than that Terry defined how one reacted to terrible odds. Both Terry and Nancy never gave up “the hope trying.”