Reflecting at 'Relay for Life' Helps Heal An Old Reporter's Heart
Citizen turns the camera on the editor as she remembers a young cancer patient.
You know it’s real when you get chills under the sweltering sun of an 80-degree evening.
Folks sign up in teams to raise money for the local chapter of the American Cancer Society and then walk laps all around Florida Auto Exchange Stadium all night long. The event is known for its moving luminaria ceremony, in which walkers craft paper bags honoring loved ones impacted by cancer. The field lights go out, and the track is illuminated with the handcrafted bags. Everyone walks a lap in silence.
The City of Dunedin coordinates with the Dunedin Blue Jays to put on the event every year.
Friday was my first Relay for Life event, and it gave me serious goosebumps to hear people’s tales of loss and survival and see the community come together. It also gave me time to reflect. Being on a baseball diamond held special significance.
Since I was volunteering my time and photography, most of my work will go to the event organizers. For this reason, I took a break and asked Dunedin High School student Katie Colin to turn the photojournalism reporting around on me.
She captured photos of my making of a special luminaria for a young boy named Josh Thomas, whose brief life put me on a roundabout path to life in Dunedin.
As a young reporter in Virginia I was assigned to follow Josh’s story. I met him when he was 8 years old. He’d just been drafted onto my editor’s Little League baseball team when he was diagnosed with childhood leukemia.
I followed the young ball player’s unfair trade. He had to give up a much anticipated baseball season with his friends to, instead, be carted to and from hospital appointments, doctors and chemotherapy and radiation treatments. He needed a bone marrow transplant, but couldn’t find a match. Finally, when it seemed like all hope was lost, a match came from a random donor from across the country. His family — Mom, Dad, older brother and infant sister — put everything on hold and moved into a temporary apartment near the North Carolina specialty hospital where Josh received his transplant.
I wrote about good news: doctors said the surgery went well. He stayed in the hospital for observation for a long while. During that time, the family’s apartment was robbed, rattling their sense of safety in an already unnerving time. Our community rallied around them, raising money for a safer apartment and other necessities. Josh’s health seemed to be improving. He regained his appetite, started gaining weight, and even had energy to play with his siblings.
On the anticipated day before doctors would give him a clean bill of health and send him home to Virginia, one of the tests results revealed troubling news. The bone marrow transplant didn’t take. The only option left was chemo, but his body was too weak.
The leukemia overtook him several weeks later.
All of his teammates came to his funeral and viewing. They released orange balloons — the color for childhood leukemia — into the air at his burial.
Following Josh’s story —the ups and downs of his battle, right to the bitter end — took a heavy emotional toll on me. Something about seeing a kid in a casket will do that to you. (In the surrounding weeks, I covered another big tragedy — the April 16, 2007, Virginia Tech massacre.)
Weeks later, I chopped off my long hair. Just eight months later, I left my position at the paper and took a long hiatus from community reporting. I turned to the comfort of a desk editing position to give my heart time to heal and my mind space to understand. It's here in Dunedin that I return to any sort of writing at all.
So under the lights at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium on Friday, I breathed in the ballpark, touched the soft grass and smiled to myself. Josh would have loved playing catch with all the other kids. I colored orange balloons on Josh’s luminaria. “I’m remembering you in a ballpark here on earth,” I wrote. “But I know you’re on the real thing up in heaven.”
I guess this is why people relay.
Maybe I should have told him I’m growing my hair long again.