A month or so ago, my ten-year old and I were perusing the shelves of a local bookstore in search of a Winston Churchill biography. My son idolizes and idealizes the great War Prime Minister for reasons both understood and unfathomable to me. When I was ten, my Ken doll was hot and feathered hair was my one goal. However, support him I do, in all his frivolous schemes. So there we were, thumbing through lives of the rich or famous when a lovely photo-biography of Terry Fox caught our attention.
Of course, we’d both scraped pledges in the annual school runs; even at his tender age, my son has participated in no less than 5 Marathons of Hope. My own September primary school memories are grazed with a diaphanous image of “our” tousled-hair Terry and his endearing gait. Now, in our hands, was a touching, and in the way only photographs can be, painfully honest record of Terry’s life and achievements (I say and write “Terry” here as most Canadians do, as if he is a member of our own families, and, mistakenly, as if I knew him, knew his struggle, knew his heart).
I lie. The biography was not really honest or truly painful; it was no more honest than my knowledge of Terry is first-hand. It presented images of people and items from Terry’s short life and worthy dream: family barbeques, running shorts, the sock. In a small voice squeezed through the pinhole my airpipe had become, I declared to my son that it was a beautiful book about a beautiful and courageous young man. And it was and it is. Yet it is dishonest in that, however poignant, the clean images are as far removed from the stench of terminal illness as the glorious swath of school children streaming down the street each mid-September morning “marathon” are.
Within a few minutes of reading some perturbing reports of death and anarchy after Katrina and her ferocious waves tore through the bowl of a city known as New Orleans, I found myself humming a particular Hip tune. You know the one. I wondered to myself if it was getting some renewed airplay in light of events down south. I read several days later, to my indignation, that, in order to show sensitivity to those who have suffered great loss in New Orleans, “New Orleans is Sinking” by the Tragically Hip had been pulled from some radio playlists. First of all, I’m fairly certain it’s a clever metaphor of a song. Second, since when do the media decline to play or print stories that may be insensitive? Did no one see the photographs of floating bodies or catch the sensational headlines: “Katrina survivors screaming for help”, “All I found was a shoe”? Third, it’s true. New Orleans is sinking. Was and is. Besides, when your heart is broken, you don’t sing love songs, you sing down and nasty saaaaaaaaaaaad songs. With broken homes, hearts, souls and bodies, maybe that’s just what some New Orleanians want to sing and maybe, just maybe, they don’t wanna swim either. Gord and the guys just got too darned close to the truth, the honesty of the stench.
So here it is: we’ve wrapped up Terry in a beautiful branded box. This true hero: Brand Fox. A man who believed his struggle to raise awareness and hump his broken body across Canada paled in significance to the realities of the cancer ward.
A man whose name may be behind Adidas' The Terry Fox Limited Edition Replica Shoe, but who, in the words of Ken McQueen, was "even uncomfortable with the trademark three stripes on his running shoes".
Middle-class North America could use some down and nasty to desensitize their delicate souls just as it would behoove them to remember that fresh-faced youngsters are not the face of a devasting disease. They are symbols of Hope.
Though I never knew our Terry, he is remembered for igniting Hope but also for not wanting people to wander too far from the broken hearts and bodies. I think that’s what concerned him about corporate involvement and potential exploitation. The point is to raise awareness, to make the lucky hear and help those much less so, not to create a pretty distraction. I’m guessing Terry would have liked a little more Hip and a little less brand. I never knew our Terry, but I sure wish I had.