In his courageous battle with cancer, Terry Fox brought out the best in us, says DOUGLAS COUPLAND
IN MY WRITINGS ON CANADA, I’ve generally avoided referring to names and personalities as much as possible. The thing about Canada is that the moment you mention a name—any name—you begin to divide the country’s citizens. We’re a cranky lot that way. The one exception to this rule that I can think of is Terry Fox. There’s not a soul in the land who could feel anything but pride and goodwill toward the man’s memory. How could they not? Terry loved his family and his country, and he knew that as a people we have huge untapped reservoirs of kindness and strength. He knew that what keeps us apart—our country’s vast distances—is also what binds us so closely together. It’s a rare Canadian who doesn’t have family members thousands of miles away, and, equally rare,
a Canadian who hasn’t spent time trying to imagine what crossing that distance feels like.
Terry Fox was born in Winnipeg onjuly 28,1958. He and his family were living in B.C. in 1977, when he was diagnosed with bone cancer at the age of 18—his right leg had to be removed six inches above the knee. After this experience, Terry decided to do what he could to help find a cure for cancer. He decided to run across Canada, attempting the equivalent of one marathon a day, to raise money for and awareness of cancer research.
Terry began on April 12,1980, in St.John’s. There, he dipped his prosthetic leg into the Atlantic Ocean, hoping that, at the marathon’s end, he would dip it into the Pacific in Vancouver. Terry then ran
an average of 42 km (26 miles!) every day for 143 days. Hang on a second—running a marathon every day for over four months? Yes. You read that correctly. Most people I know who run marathons train for months and then book off days afterwards to recuperate. But to run 143 in a row? I’ve done some research and have yet to find any human being who ran even 100 in a row. Medically, Terry’s feat defies explanation. The only answer is courage.
On Monday, Sept. 1, Terry ran his last stretch. His bone cancer had spread to his lungs, and he was forced to stop just east of Thunder Bay, Ont. He died in June 1981 at the age of 22. Canada’s population at that time was 24.12 million people, and Terry’s wish to raise one dollar for every citizen had by then been realized. Almost 25 years later, it’s not implausible to say that over $ 1 billion will one day be raised for cancer research because of Terry. He is, by all measures, a hero.
Wait. I have to pause for a second here.
I mean—you really have to stop and wonder about what this guy did. And after doing so, at the very least, his story can only make any of us wonder about what’s true and what’s not—it makes us re-prioritize our lives. He certainly made me do that, and in the fall of2002, after mulling over the story of his life, I drove to the Terry Fox Library in Port Coquitlam, B.C. There, inside a Plexiglas display case, the library keeps Terry Fox’s prosthetic leg, his running shoe and his sock, all from his Marathon of Hope. With the permission of Terry’s brother Darrell, I was allowed to take the prosthetic leg, still clad in an Adidas runner, and photograph it in an activity room against a white seamless paper backdrop. The purpose was to include a photo of Terry’s artificial leg in my most recent book on Canada, Souvenir of Canada 2, as a means of reminding readers in a visceral way of what his run entailed.
The surroundings for the photo shoot were humble: folded-up tables, stacks of chairs and a polished beige floor. Terry’s artificial leg looked harsh and mechanical, an efficient combination of springs, gears and fibreglass. But with a prosthesis, you need to go beyond looks and focus on what works and what doesn’t. That leg got Terry over twothirds of the way across Canada.
The shoe on the leg was one of several pairs Terry wore during the Marathon of Hope. The shoe on his natural leg took most of the wear, so although he changed the shoe on his natural leg approximately eight times, the shoe on his prosthetic foot did not require changing. The underside of the shoe on Terry’s prosthetic leg is covered in what looks like soggy cornflakes, but is, in fact, decomposed squeeze-on goo used to extend the lives of running shoes.
After photographing Terry’s shoe, I photographed Terry’s sock. He had a special
attachment to the sock that he wore continuously on his prosthesis from the day he left home on April 7, 1980, to begin his Marathon of Hope. Terry became so attached to it that he continued to wear it for about three months after he stopped running. As it turned out, it was the photo of Terry’s sock, not the artificial leg, that ended up having the most power. The sock’s rips and stains bear witness to his ordeal better than words.
Anyhow, after contacting the Fox family and getting permission to use the sock photo in the book, I went on to other projects, only to have a close friend with cancer lose 50 lb. as well as most of his hair inside a month. When death knocks on the door,
we listen. The thing about cancer is that when people close to you have it, there’s almost nothing you can do. You can make their lives more comfortable or you can try to divert them for a short while, but basically, they’re now on the other side of the mirror, and you aren’t. It’s one of life’s most helpless feelings.
With this experience fresh in my mind, I tried to think a bit further about how to use the images of the sock, leg and shoe from the photo shoot to further Terry’s goals. As it happened, his brother Darrell was thinking the same thing. And so here I am now, not a year later, in the midst of creating a book on Terry’s life that will be published next April—the 25th anniversary
of the start of Terry’s run. For the past few months, I’ve been in and out of Vancouver-area storage vaults sifting through more than 100,000 archived items from the Marathon of Hope. There are too many to even begin listing, but the two categories I noticed most were the staggering number of get-well cards— floor-to-ceiling stacks of boxes filled with them—and the equally staggering number of letters and cheques sent in by schoolchildren. To read even a few of these items postmarked 1980 and 1981 makes my throat seize up and my eyes water. I’d thought that after spending a few hours of sifting I’d become immune to the sentiments expressed inside them, but no, I never did
and I doubt I ever will. Their messages are too pure and too loud.
Leeane from Victoria has breast cancer and is worried that soon she’ll be too weak to drive, and won’t be able to get her daughter to her violin lessons on time.
Mark from Fredericton had an osteosarcoma in 1975 and wants to tell Terry, You can make it, pal!
Tracy from Oshawa remembers her grandmother being sick from methotrexate and being unable to eat Thanksgiving dinner.
Greg from Edmonton lost his older brother to leukemia and wants Terry to finish his run—Greg is willing to come along to help!
And then there are cards to Terry from your mother, my mother—so many mothers wrote
to Terry, fathers, too, often unbeknownst to their children. All of these mothers and fathers wished Terry safety and health and peace, and they thanked him for his courage and for making our country a better home.
Helen from Toronto had five children who all left home decades ago. Terry, I think of you as the son who never left.
But here’s what floored me the most and what makes me write these words: signatures. In the Fox archives, signatures by the tens of thousands confronted me from every direction: on jumbo checks, on homemade cards, on huge rolls of paper sent in by entire schools, on pink floral cards like your grandmother uses—names and names and names of everyday Canadians, walls of them,
all of them yearning to count, to be made to mean something. I think I was on my second day of being in one of the storage vaults when suddenly all of the boxes and all of the paper fell away, and all that remained behind were the constellations of names, hanging in the air like stars, like a universe. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as safe as I did for that brief one-minute window on a Vancouver weekday, surrounded by the goodwill of so many Canadians. Collectively, those names testify to something divine—our nation, our home and our soul. Iffl
Douglas Coupland’s pieces from Canada House, an exhibit of what it means to be Canadian, will be on display at Toronto’s Design Exchange throughout the summer, beginning July 1.
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