Fighting the Beast 2016

Today is our Relay for Life. Usually I drive folks crazy in the weeks leading up to Relay with exhortations and incentives to donate, but life intervened this year and I've only issued the one plea. This is probably why as of now, I've raised $10 toward my personal $300 goal, and my team is still nearly $1,000 short of its $3,000 goal.

I am speaking at tonight's Survivor Dinner (no, I'm not a cancer survivor, I just run my mouth a lot.) Below is the speech I intend to give. Please read it, and if you are so moved, consider donating before 10 p.m. CST. It reflects the number of people in my life who have been touched by cancer - at times, it feels like it is all around me. And if you're reading this, I imagine it has touched you, too.

Thank you for your time.

Fighting the Beast

I’m Elizabeth Donald, captain of the St. Andrew’s team. I’ve been walking Relays off and on for 18 years, most of them here in Edwardsville. And I feel a little funny being the one to speak to you today, because I’m not a cancer survivor or caregiver. You are fighting a battle I’ve only observed, which definitely makes me a civilian.

But I am angry.

I’m angry because there’s a list of people in my life I should be able to introduce you to, and they’re not here anymore.

I want you to meet David Black. I met David when I hired him to be my son’s tutor, at a time when Ian was struggling with middle school, ADHD and generally being a teenager. He was very good at being late to class and not paying attention; he was very bad at passing the seventh grade. His teachers were pretty much giving up on him.

David was more like Ian’s warden than his tutor, and that’s exactly what we needed. He picked Ian up every day after school and took him to the library, where they studied English and fractions with an extra dose of study skills and work ethic. A nontraditional student on his second career, David had just graduated from SIUE with his teaching degree, but it was the depth of the recession, and he hadn’t snagged a full-time job.

So Ian became his classroom of one. David had worked extensively with ADHD kids as a student teacher, and his glowing recommendations were right on the money. He found ways to motivate my child I would never have thought of. He was funny and dedicated; but he was also tough and did not put up with any tween shenanigans. Thanks in large part to David, Ian passed the seventh grade and is now on the verge of his senior year in this very high school.

David became a friend, an advisor and guide through the most difficult years this mom ever had. He was also a writer, and asked my advice as a published author on publishing his books. I gave him the advice I’ve given so many, about the best ways to hone your craft and how to approach publishers, with lots of patience because publishing is a slow industry.

In the end, David decided to self-publish his book, because it turned out he didn’t have time to wait for the publishing industry. See, in a fair and just world, I’d be introducing you to David Black the schoolteacher. He’d be standing before a classroom of kids, snarking at them as he opened their minds to the really cool stuff in history and literature. He’d be finding new ways to reach kids that other teachers gave up on, because that’s what he did. He truly had the gift.

I wish it had happened that way.

Not long after he ceased being Ian’s warden, David was diagnosed with a fairly aggressive cancer. And he fought it just as hard as he fought Ian’s attitude, as hard as he’d worked his way through college. He wrestled it for years, and we all watched him fight the Beast as he and a few of his buddies taped a live podcast every week. They called it Fade to Black. They wanted it to be a chronicle of their friendship, of David’s life, funny and profane and occasionally angry. 

He must have invited me four or five times to appear on it with them. I asked him if he wanted me there as an author - usually the reason people ask me to speak - or as a journalist, or as a Relay for Life team captain. All of the above, he said. 

And I always meant to do it, you know. It taped on a difficult night for me, but I always meant to clear my schedule just once, make the time, arrange to be there. I wanted to be there.

Time ran out. David Black lost his battle two years ago May. He never got his classroom. The Beast won.

And it really hacks me off. 

I’ve been angry since Rachael died, and David rose up my fury all over again. See, Rachael was a dear friend of mine who had been fighting breast cancer since she was in her early 20s. Rachael was proud not to be what she called a “typical cancer patient.” She believed that we hide illness and ailments behind closed doors as if it’s something to be ashamed of, and too often cancer patients are expected to wane quietly in private as though they must shut themselves away and not upset anyone.

But in all her life, Rachael was never typical, folks. She had a personality you could see shining across a room. She shared the details of her illness willingly, hoping to demystify it, showing anyone her battle scars. She loved life, she loved her friends, and she loved her husband, author Bryan Smith.

Rachael was a dear friend and a voracious reader, even if our tastes did not always cross paths; mine tend toward the creepy, hers to the literary. But she had a wicked sense of humor. She knew that I am completely squicked by anything happening to the eyes - hey, everyone’s got a phobia - and since there was a particularly grotesque eye scene in Bryan’s latest book…. let’s just say she special-ordered squishy candy eyeballs for the book release party because she knew I was going to be there, and she wanted to demonstrate the scene for me in her mad-scientist coat.


I miss her so very much.

Rachael fought her cancer to the end, but the Beast won in 2011. She was only 37. And I’ve been angry ever since, because Rachael should be here laughing and chewing candy eyeballs with me. Just as David Black should be in his classroom, ready for another year of thickheaded kids to teach.

And as Shorty should be mixing up another batch of booze. His real name was Stuart Bergman, but I never once heard anyone call him Stuart. Nearly seven feet tall, of course his name was Shorty. He was known to all us writers on the convention circuit in the midwest and mid-south - after all, he was hard to miss.

Shorty. A gentle giant with a bellowing voice and an omnipresent bottle of the mysterious Blue Stuff, an alcoholic mixture of his own devising that left your mouth numb if you were foolish enough to bolt the shot.

Shorty. The man who ran the authors’ hall, who corralled all of us in and out of the hall where we sold our books year after year, always willing to haul a box, and no one dared lift a book from your booth when Shorty was watching.

Shorty. Smoked like a chimney since long before I knew him, often sharing a pack with my future husband out on the loading docks before Jim quit. Sadly, it caught up to him. The cancer struck Shorty hard, robbing him of his hair and trademark beard before it robbed him of his life. 

He should still be here.

You know who else should be here? Patrick Swayze. Sally Ride. Alan Rickman. Farrah Fawcett. Jerry Orbach. Anne Bancroft. Eartha Kitt. David Bowie. They aren’t more important than the ones I know, than the empty chairs in this room, than the ones we’ve lost. But they’re the ones you also might have known. 

And Dick Adams. You don’t know who he is, and unfortunately, neither do I. In a fair and just world, he’d be my father-in-law. Dick married a woman with ten children - that’s love, folks - and one of those very young children eventually grew up to become my husband. Dick helped raise Jimmy and his siblings, and taught Jim what kind of man he wanted to be. Jim loved him deeply, enough that his loss still hurts, especially when we walk past his luminary on this night. 

Jim is my husband, a wonderful, caring and compassionate stepfather to my son, a blessing to our house. So sometimes I feel as though Dick’s spirit is in our home, through the man Jim became. 

But I never got to meet Dick, and he never knew me or my son. The Beast took Dick before Jim and I ever met. Another opportunity lost, robbed before its time. 

Then there are those who lost loved ones. Rachel’s husband. David’s fiancee. Jim’s mother, Pauline, who mourned Dick’s loss the rest of her life and now lies beside him. One of my team members has lost both parents, her brother and her son; a friend lost her mother and her life partner within a year, all to cancer. They all have been touched by the Beast, and they carry his mark.

And then there’s the folks who have fought cancer and won their battles. Like Macie and Gail, who both fought cancer within two years of each other. Like Sue, LaVernn, Rudy, Candace, and others from the St. Andrew’s team. My stepfather Curtis and my stepmother Karen, all survivors.

This year, there’s my stepsister Kristen, and friends like Shawn, Kevin, Joann, Hugh, Bob … all of whom have fought cancer this year.

Is there anyone, anywhere, who hasn’t been touched by it?

I often add David Black’s name to the luminaria, even though I can hear him groaning in that cantankerous way of his. David, you see… he didn’t have a lot of patience for the people who told him, “I’ll pray for you,” and did nothing else. He was a man in a pitched battle, and words just didn’t fix anything. Not for him, and not for his kids. He was angry, and felt cheated of the life he wanted. 

As a woman of faith, I do believe that prayer has meaning. But I also think David had a point. Prayer without action isn’t as useful as standing up and doing something about it. 

We donate. We hold fundraisers. We walk the track. And we share our stories, stories of the fight with the Beast. We remind everyone that cancer is the truly universal disease, the one that touches us all. We do not walk the Relay to torture ourselves in the heat, a sponsored endurance test. We do it to stand watch, taking turns into the night, reminding each other that we are all in this together.

It’s my hope that someday, this won’t be necessary. That they’ll make the breakthrough, and we won’t lose any more talented artists, brilliant minds, teachers, spouses, friends.

Because Rachel should be laughing with me. David should be hollering at his class. Shorty should be melting plastic cups with the Blue Stuff. Dick should be throwing a baseball with his grandchildren. 

It isn’t fair.
It isn’t right.
And it can be stopped.

I believe that.

I hope you do, too.