Clean and Elegant

Clean and Elegant

Monday, 17 September 2012


In Niagara Falls, Ontario,  there is a museum full of wax statues of dead people.  My parents took me and my sister there during spring break when I was five.  Some of the dead people had suffered horrific and violent deaths which were depicted in elaborate dioramas:  prisoners of war with their heads at the guillotine, their captors holding axes, frozen in mid-air, right above their necks; tortured artists hanging by nooses; soon-to-be assassinated politicians at gunpoint.  My sister, nine years old at the time, was rightly terrified.  I however, remained stoic and brave.  Until we passed by the glass cage of a wax man named Terry Fox. 
Terry Fox at the Wax Museum, Niagara Falls, Ontario 

Terry Fox was a young man with brown curly hair, focused eyes and a mouth that gaped open.  He wore dark coloured shorts, and a white T.shirt, with a red jacket on top.  Behind him was a Canadian flag.  His face looked pale, stunned and half-dead, but at five years old, I didn't know what a dead person looked like so this didn't really concern me.  The Terrifying and Traumatic part was that in contrast to the rest of Terry’s wax skin-coloured body, his left leg, from the top of his thigh and down, was made out of wood. I froze and stared.
“What happened to his leg?” I asked. 
My parents told me the story all about the Canadian hero who had lost his leg due a disease called CANCER.  To try and raise money to find a cure for this disease, he’d decided to run 8000 km (5000 miles) across Canada, completing a whole marathon distance every single day.
I wasn’t very interested in Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope.  I was consumed by the word CANCER.
“Canker?” I said, still staring at Terry’s leg.  I had cankers on the insides of my cheeks from biting down my skin to hard and drinking too much orange juice.  Maybe it was related, an early stage in the journey towards losing my leg.
“Can Sir,” my sister corrected me.  I did not feel consoled.
After the wax museum, we went to a film about the legend and mysteries of Niagara Falls.  For awhile, a number people had thought it would be a good idea to get in a barrel and roll down the Falls which were 173 feet high.  I hardly paid any attention.
 Niagara Falls, one of the world's great wonders. Some people roll down in barrels with their cats.
One woman went down in a barrel with her kittens.  When they opened the barrel, I’m pretty sure the woman was dead.  And her kittens had turned from black to white.  

I wasn’t scared or surprised.  I was thinking of Terry Fox’s wooden leg.  And cancer. 

When we got home, my sister wrote a speech about Niagara Falls, and the people who rolled down it in barrels and all the places there were to see around it.  I think she won second-place in a public speaking contest.

I made my mother take me to the library and find all the movies and books that there were about Terry Fox.  She called the Canadian Cancer Society who sent me a big package in the mail.  Now I had a big folder full of pamphlets and fact sheets all about cancer, and about Terry Fox.

I remember sitting on my couch watching the video from the library.  When Terry started his run across Canada, his cancer was gone, but so was his leg. He ran by placing his right artificial leg on the ground, drawing it back with what was left of his right thigh, and then crashing forwards on to his left leg which he hopped onto twice before landing again on his left.  Double-hop, step, double-hop, step.  It looked excruciating.  Terry started his run in Newfoundland. As he hobbled across the country, people met him at the sides of the road, handing him money. 
Maybe this would be a happy story, I thought from my couch. Then I remembered Terry’s statue in the wax museum.  I looked down at my own five-year-old leg and imagined it disappearing, ending just below my hip and then attached to a long foreign contraption that ended with my running shoe.  I kept worrying about this for the rest of my life.

The film continued. Terry hobbled down to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec.  Every single day, he covered a marathon distance-26 miles, or 42 km.  He arrived in Ottawa on Canada Day where there was a huge celebration in his honour.  His goal was to raise at least $1 for each of Canada’s 24 million people.  Big corporations started to sponsor him, and things were going very well.

Then Terry got tired.  Northern Ontario is lined with hills and rocks and trees, and a very cold lake called Lake Superior.  It’s pretty at first, but then the roads become monotonous and endless.  Watching Terry run past the trees on the tv screen, I could tell that he was wearing out.  His face was pale and he kept having coughing fits.  Just outside of a city called Thunder Bay, Terry had a long, drawn out coughing fit, and he bent over clenching his chest.  An ambulance came. 

Later they showed Terry on the road, still wearing his t. Shirt with the weird broken up Canadian flag on it.  A bunch of microphones were held up to Terry’s face.  Terry looked clammy, exhausted and sad.  After running 143 days and 5,373 kilometres (3,339 mi), and raising 1.7 million dollars for cancer research, he had to stop his marathon of hope.
“The cancer has spread to my lungs,” he said, his voice cracking.  I leaned forwards on the couch, clenched my jaw, and felt nauseous.
(CBC footage: the end of Terry's run. Not available on Youtube. Alas.)

“Are you okay sweetie?”  my mother asked.
“I think it’s the cancer,” I said to her.  Terry Fox died less than a year after he began his run across Canada.  He is one of those heroes you are not allowed to insult.  Saying that Terry Fox was a quitter is kind of like saying that Ghandi was an asshole. You should never say either of these things. Terry Fox and Ghandi were both great.
Since Terry Fox’s death, every year around this time in September, close to a million people all over the world participate in what’s called “The Terry Fox Run.”  They run or walk as far as they can with as many legs as they have, raising money for cancer research in honour of Terry.  I’ve participated in this run or walk several times, grateful for Terry’s inspiration and for the fact that I still possess both of my legs.  For now.
Our bodies are not like a worm’s.  Everyone knows this.  I often dream that my arms or my legs fall off.  Because I have the same cancer as Terry Fox, or because of diabetes, or because of some terrible accident.  In my dreams, I wish desperately that my arms and my legs will grow back, but I know that they won’t.  I also know that I won’t be able to be as brave and heroic as Terry Fox.  I will be scared, and sad and ashamed. 
Then I wake up, and none of this matters.  All of my arms and legs are there.  I poke around the edges of my knees, looking for bumps. 
“Is that a tumour?” I ask the Boatman.  The Boatman keeps sleeping.  I will have to figure out the answer for myself.  Probably the bump is just the end of my thigh bone.  Probably I am safe.
No one is going to build a wax statue of me.  Not anytime soon. I hope.

The End.

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