I arrived at Combs High School about 5pm, with my son. I was waiting for my husband and daughter to meet me there so that together we could start setting up our site. For a couple different reasons, my husband and daughter were going to be late, which left my son and I to set everything up. It was hard work, carrying all our materials from the parking lot out onto the field but eventually everything was out of the car and ready to be setup. By this time, I saw a few members of our team. They started setting up their materials in our spot and before we knew it, the site was setup and we were ready to get started. I wasn't really sure what I was supposed to be doing which for me was a bit uncomfortable. I have a problem waiting around for someone to tell me what to do so I decided to venture out and see who I could help or what I needed to do. I helped a few people carry a few items out to their sites, hung up a few banners and then headed towards the stage so the event could officially begin.
The event started with a swarm of people in purple shirts, representing our Survivors. It took my breath away for a brief moment as I looked out among the faces, surprised to see how many of them I knew, or had seen around San Tan Valley. Then I noticed those in yellow shirts, representing the committee that helped to coordinate the event, and then the rest of us that were wearing anything "comfortable". We stood together, full of energy, ready to tackle the night. We heard an amazing story from Rosie, that brought most of those listening to tears. I could see heads nodding as she explained not only her struggle, but also her family's struggle as they battled this disease together. After Rosie spoke, the survivors all got on the track and kicked off the event with the Survivors lap, where only Survivors were allowed to walk, together. Once the Survivors were half way around the track, caregivers were allowed to join them and together they walked, some holding hands, others locking arms. As the rest of us lined the track, there was cheering and clapping. As you looked closely at many of the faces, you could also see tears, but these were tears of strength, frustration, desire and determination, sadness and loss. These were not tears representing a "poor me" attitude. You could see a bond beginning to form as these individuals, who were strangers before today, pulled together with a silent understanding that each person "understood" what each person had gone through, in a way that none of us, that hadn't experienced this disease could.
Once the Survivors and caregivers finished their first lap, we were all asked to join them on the track, and it was then that our "Relay" officially started. The mood was light, and you saw kids and adults walking and running around the track. The band was playing, people were laughing, talking, even playing catch. The weather was perfect, it wasn't too hot or too cold, no rain and only a light breeze. After a couple hours, you saw people pairing up. You could watch them dive into their own conversations as they walked and to many, the time seemed to fly by. Then the Luminaria ceremony started.
This was a beautiful ceremony. Everyone was given a candle. All of the Luminaria were lit and the lights that once lit up the field, were turned off. It was as black a night as you could imagine. There was a brief introduction to explain what was to happen next. We were asked to remain silent during this time as we listened to those sharing their stories and we remembered those that we were relaying for. A few lit candles were passed between each of us until all of our individual candles were lit. We then got back on the track and walked in silence. As we were passing the bleachers, I looked up and saw the word HOPE spelled out with Luminaria. It was a beautiful site to see. Both of my children were on either side of me and together, holding our candles, and each other, we walked. After a few laps, I looked back up in the bleachers and the word HOPE that was there now spelled CURE. That one word summed up the entire event. We were all there, to raise awareness, support each other and help to find a cure, so that one day, NO ONE would hear "You have cancer". This was another moment when that bond between strangers, grew even stronger. When the ceremony ended, the lights were turned back on, our candles were extinguished and though some left the track to dry their tears, we all continued on the track, relaying for life.
A few hours later, the event was preparing for "lock down". This was the time when the vendors that had set up booths and the participants that were not staying the night, were asked to pack up and leave the event. After they left, the rest of us seemed to "settle down" for the night. Some walked a little slower and some started running at a pace comfortable to them. Other places in and around the track, you saw friends and family playing games, eating, relaxing, even sleeping. Honestly it reminded me of the many times I had to sit in a hospital waiting area, trying to keep busy, waiting for news.
By around 2 or 3am, there were fewer and fewer people actually on the track. There were many laps, where I walked alone. It was during these times that my mind began to wonder. Everyone I knew that had been diagnosed with this disease, had fought back in a different way. Some survived, others did not. I was there when they needed me, but I could only relate on a certain level, as a caregiver, as a family member. Something changed though as I walked around the track. I started to put myself in the shoes of a cancer patient. I started thinking about the Relay for Life and how at the beginning of the event, over 300 people stood together, united, rallying together to fight this disease. Similar I thought to how I would want to fight, along side my friends and family, if I had heard those words. As the night progressed, the numbers started to thin out. Those that were there to support the cause, but couldn't stay overnight left, again like they would need to as they would all have their own lives and families to care for, with the cancer patient "continuing around the track" at times alone. By about 3am, my children were exhausted, and although I was beginning to become emotionally drained and tired myself, I put together mini beds for them to sleep in. Once they were asleep, I was back on the track. It started to get cold, I was thirsty, tired and honestly was checking my watch every now and then wondering how close to 6am it was. This reminded me of the appts waiting in the doctor's office, wondering if the news we were waiting to hear was good or bad news. I slowed my pace and took a moment to read each and every Luminaria that was along the track, each of which was dedicated to a special someone. Some bags were decorated with beautiful images while others simply read "In memory of" and the person's name.
I remember seeing a little girl, I'm guessing about 5 or 6 years old, who was so excited to see a Luminaria with her grandpa's name on it. Her mother who was standing behind her, was trying all she could not to shed a tear, even though they were filling up in her eyes. Her daughter spoke of some "remember when" times with her grandpa and I could see a smile starting to spread across her mother's face. What a beautiful moment to be able to witness as a little girl with memories, becomes the strength her mom needed during this painful time.
As the sun began to rise, we knew that the event was coming to a close. Those that had fallen asleep were starting to wake up. There was more movement around the track and on the field. Then we heard the final request for all of us to come back to the stage for our closing ceremony. As we were waiting for the ceremony to begin, I looked around at those individuals standing around me. As I thought back to the number of people who started this journey vs the number of people standing there now, it hit me. This really was a cancer journey. To think of the number of people diagnosed with cancer and to see the number of people that survive, I was reminded how many people this disease takes from us every single day. As my heart hurt for those that had lost their fight, the closing ceremony began and we able to celebrate those that were still fighting and those that had beaten this disease. Awards were given for a number of different reasons such as best costume, best site setup, and best spirit of relay. Then the news that we had all been waiting for was finally going to be shared. As of 6:01am, the amazing community of San Tan Valley, that had rallied together for its first Relay for Life, had raised $20,869! As the crowd started to applaud the results, we heard people yelling out, "I have more! Does it still count?" As the cheering grew louder, we were reminded that we could continue to raise money for San Tan Valley's Relay for Life, until August 30th. We thanked the amazing committee that brought the Relay to San Tan Valley and the committee thanked all of us for participating. The event was officially over and as I looked around, I was full of pride. San Tan Valley had pulled together, for an amazing cause. The event was a true success and to see the number of people already speaking about next year's event, brought tears to my eyes.
Thank you Relay for Life to coming to San Tan Valley. Thank you for allowing me to participate and thank you for your commitment to next year and the many years to come. San Tan Valley is growing, is developing its own culture, passion and quality of life. I couldn't be more proud to be apart of this event or to be a resident of San Tan Valley.