British Columbia

The conquering hero moves on

MALCOLM GRAY July 6 1981
British Columbia

The conquering hero moves on

MALCOLM GRAY July 6 1981

The conquering hero moves on

British Columbia

Once again, when it concerned Terry Fox, the country was ahead of its leaders. Shortly before he died, the government gave in and announced it would issue a stamp honoring the 22-year-old athlete and his Marathon of Hope of last summer. “I like it,” Fox said to his mother of the idea, before slipping back into a fitful sleep induced by the morphine dulling the pain from his cancer. In the last days, as the daily medical bulletins out of Royal Columbian Hospital remained bleak, the government moved to catch up with the public yearning to honor Fox again—before he died.

There was harsh irony in the idea of a stamp to honor a man critically ill with cancer, since the government had maintained that stamps were for dead heroes only.* It was a close-run thing and yet the people who had pleaded for the stamp got their way: Terry Fox was able to savor the idea of “his” stamp while

he was still alive. It is doubtful if he, or they, cared about the legalistic compromise devised to keep postal tradition intact. “Strictly speaking, the stamp will commemorate the Marathon of

* In fact, there has been one living person on a Canadian stamp: in 1973 Toronto artist Peter Swan, commissioned by the post office to paint an eight-cent stamp commemorating the bicentennial of Scottish immigration to Canada, portrayed himself as one of the disembarking Scots. Swan was born in Scotland.

Hope and not Terry Fox alone,” Postmaster-General André Ouellet said. That ignored the fact that this was like trying to separate the dancer from the dance—or, in this case, the run from the one-legged man who made it halfway across the country last summer. A day later, Fox was awakened again to learn that a $1.6-million youth centre to be built in Ottawa will carry his name.

The latest honors showed that the country’s desire to respond to the courage demonstrated on his stubborn journey last year had not been exhausted. Months earlier, the ribbon-and-snowflake shape of the Order of Canada had been placed around his neck, and the premier of British Columbia dropped by his parents’ living room in Port Coquitlam to present him with the Order of the Dogwood, his native province’s highest honor. The hope was that he would live to enjoy these honors even as he weakened and lost weight and the cancer forced him to return to hospital. This spring, as the cold rainy weather made his coughing worse, Simon Fraser University, where he once studied kinesiology, held its convocation and presented the Terry Fox Gold Medal to the student who exemplified his courage

and character. Fox, who couldn’t attend the ceremony, was the first winner.

His death transformed a man, who had shown the human-enough traits of stubbornness and occasional irritability on his tiring run, into a symbol of the will to overcome. Fox had first caught the imagination of Canadians in the sour summer of 1980, a time when heroes and determination were scarce. The resurgence of cancer ended his run in Thunder Bay, Ont., last September, but it came too late to prevent Fox from

succeeding on his own terms. He had already raised the $1 million for cancer research that was his original goal. Eventually, the Canadian Cancer Society received $24 million in donations as the money rolled in as a remarkable outpouring of sympathy.

Fox returned to Vancouver refusing to profit from his new celebrity status, turning down the inevitable fast-buck promotional offers. There were few public appearances, and he retreated within his circle of family and friends to continue the fight in private. People were still concerned, though, as The

Vancouver Sun learned in February when its front page proclaimed what everyone knew. TERRY FOX IS DYING OF CANCER, the headline read, transmitting what Fox and his family wanted known about his condition. The reaction was swift. For hours after the paper hit the streets, the Sun’s phones rang with objections. Bags of mail, overwhelmingly critical of the words across the top of the page, came in for weeks. It was clear that many now regarded Fox as almost a member of their family and this was no way to publicize his condition. Generally, though, the press re-

spected the wish for privacy of a man who had made himself nationally known. There were no swarms of paparazzi trying for that last exclusive shot of Fox in hospital. His family came and went in the last days, almost unnoticed by the television reporters doing their stand-up shots on the wide lawns of the hospital.

Dr. Ladislav Antonik, the hospital’s medical director and a man who sometimes had trouble concealing his feelings for Terry Fox, delivered the medical bulletins in the last days. Interferon, the largely untested drug which was Fox’s last hope, didn’t help him, didn’t work against the osteogenic carcinoma, the secondary and relatively rare type of cancer that had spread from his bones into his lungs. Interferon, a protein substance produced by cells to alert other cells to the presence pf hostile viruses, may help other cancer victims; the B.C. government invested $22 million in a medical foundation in Fox’s name to test one type of the drug. But at the end, the hoped-for miracle drugs set aside, in constant pain, Terry Fox tried to keep smiling and joking with visitors. Self-pity was one affliction he did not have. -MALCOLM GRAY