Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Racing for a Cure

I want to take time out from my usual philosophy of religion blogging to talk about something else.

Just over a week ago my wife, Ty, raced in her first triathlon—the CapTex Tri in Austin, Texas. It was a wonderful experience for the family, since we all stayed in a hotel adjacent to the course, in a room with a view of the river where the triathletes would be swimming. The day before the race we went canoing on the river with one of my wife's old friends from high school and her family. We stood under the Congress Avenue Bridge at dusk, waiting for bats to pour out of their hidey-holes. We swam and ate and watched dogs cavorting on the nearby trail (this, I think, was my daughter's favorite part).

And then, before dawn on the morning of Memorial day, Ty slipped out of bed, bundled up her wetsuit, bike helmet, various racing shoes and energy "goos," and slipped down to the starting area. The rest of us woke up in time to watch the swimmers from the hotel window--although they were too far away to discern which tiny little bobbing head belonged to my wife. That didn't stop my four-year-old daughter from confidently pointing at one of them and announcing, "There's mommy!"

A little later we positioned ourselves at the finish area for the bicycling portion of the race, and were able to cheer Ty on as she swept down the hill and clambered off the bike in preparation for the final run. Then we hied up the road to a good spot to watch the runners, and cheered again as Ty came running up a blazing street that magnified the Texas heat.

About an hour later, I found myself standing next to an exultant triathlete.

For my wife, the experience (far less stressful on her body than the marathons she’s done before) was so exhilarating that she’s planning to do it again, and again, and again (with visions of moving up from the Olympic distance to the “half Iron Man”—which combines a half marathon with something over 50 miles of biking and some ungodly length of swimming).

But she didn’t train for months and run (and swim, and bike) in this triathlon purely for her own health or enjoyment--although these were part of the motivation. Like the marathons she’s done before, my wife trained and raced with Team in Training, which uses these and other sporting events to raise awareness of blood cancers and raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS). LLS funds blood cancer research as well as providing financial and other forms of support for families struggling with leukemia or lymphoma, and Team in Training is the most significant work-horse for LLS in terms of fundraising.

Each Team in Training athlete has an honored hero. Ty’s hero was a young man named Steven, recently turned 18, who fought desperately against lymphoma until the week before the triathlon, when his struggle finally came to an end. My wife had been hoping to run in his honor but found herself, instead, running in his memory.

Coincidentally, just a few days before we left town for the event the wife of a colleague from another department came up to me just as I was finishing lunch at Panera Bread. She told me that her husband, Stephen, had just recently been diagnosed with Leukemia and was now at MD Anderson in Texas, awaiting a bone marrow transplant. Apparently he’d successfully fought off Lymphoma a decade before, but the treatment which had saved him then was responsible for his current blood cancer.

While I’d been friendly with Stephen for years (he worked closely with one of my philosophy colleagues on a couple of projects) I’d gotten to know him better just a year ago when I led a Wednesday night book study series of my book, Is God a Delusion?, at a church here in town—where Stephen and his family are members. He, his wife, and son all participated in a lively and thought-provoking series of conversations about the nature of religious faith, the relationship between science and religion, spiritual experience, and the like. I’ve also come to serve as the outside member of a dissertation committee that Stephen chairs, so I’ve seen him and come to know him in that capacity as well.

And so, as my wife ran the CapTex Tri on Memorial Day in memory of her honored hero, she was also running it in honor of my colleague and friend. And as I stood near the finish line with the kids, waiting for Ty to cross while the Texas sun blazed down on us, I thought about my friend Stephen, whose wife and children faced the fear of loss tempered by the hope of a cure. I thought about the family of Ty’s honored hero, Steven, who were now in the depths of grief. And I thought about the father who’d spoken at the Team in Training dinner the night before, whose son had been diagnosed with leukemia when he was not much older than my own—the boy whose last words, before he died, were “Keep fighting.”

And I knew that boy could have been one of our children--an awareness made all the more vivid by an experience we had a little over a year ago. My son had an unexplained pain in his leg—possibly a sprain, but we didn’t know. When Ty took him to the pediatrician's office, the doctor noticed all the bruises on my son’s legs (he’s so exuberantly active he’s constantly battering his shins against things) and decided to run some blood tests. The doctor didn’t say what the tests were for, but my wife had by then run her first marathon with Team in Training, and she’d heard all the stories—most of which had started just like this. And so she sat in the doctor’s office, waiting in terror for the results, getting support through her Blackberry from facebook friends (since I was out of town, visiting my father who’d just had bypass surgery).

The results were negative. My son was just a kid with a sprain who happens to bruise easily. But every day mothers like Ty and fathers like me go to the doctor with their child, suspecting a minor playground injury and receiving a far different diagnosis. And so, as Ty swam and biked and ran, she was running also for all those other families who received a less encouraging diagnosis than we did.

My wife has finished her race, but she’s not finished fighting against these diseases. And she’s not finished with her efforts to raise money for LLS. She has a number of fundraising events planned for the coming weeks, and her Team in Training/LLS fundraising page remains active, for anyone who feels moved to make a donation.

1 comment:

  1. This blog is a very moving account. I'm glad she runs for the cure, and I hope they find it one day. I know Robert wishes they had it much earlier...I will never know my father-in-law. You may also recall that Mama and Papa went through a similarly scary wait back in early 2000's, when they thought Papa might have lymphoma. Thanks for posting this on your blog, Eric. -- Kirsten