Back in 2004, the CBC aired a TV series called the Greatest Canadian. The pride-filled audience had a chance to vote from 10 deserving nominees. Among them were hockey player Wayne Gretzky, environmentalist David Suzuki and Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. McDonald. But I couldn’t believe any of those names would even be considered next to a man who set out to run across the country on one leg to raise money for cancer patients. To me, Terry Fox has always been and will likely always be our greatest Canadian. Hands down.
I guess that’s why I felt so full of emotion the day I was privileged enough to walk through the Terry Fox Exhibit: Running To The Heart of Canada at Victoria’s Royal BC Museum.
At the entrance, a video plays of him, out there, on the highway running. You can hear his breath and see the mixture of discomfort and determination on his sweaty face. Hop-hop, click. Hop-hop, click. The sound of his gait followed me all through the exhibit. Terry had to throw his artificial leg out in front of him every couple of seconds to keep putting one foot in front of the other in his goal to draw attention to a horrible disease, that has taken away the dreams of so many. He was only 18 years old when he was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma (bone cancer). He had his right leg amputated 15 centimetres above the knee in 1977.
Hop-hop, click. Hop-hop, click. Inside the exhibit, the first few images and displays are from a place I know well, St. John’s harbour. Terry Fox dipped his artificial foot and leg into the Atlantic Ocean on April 12th, 1980. A jug of salt water from that very moment sits in a case. Mayor Dorothy Wyatt was at City Hall to meet him and wish him well on his journey. In the guest book he wrote: “Running across Canada on only one leg to raise money for the Canadian Cancer Society and to be an inspiration to all people.” He’d been training for 8 months, running almost 24 kilometres a day. “To be an inspiration to all people.” Wow. Little did he know.
Hop-hop, click. Hop-hop, click. I remember standing behind a group of Chinese students. They were looking at a map of Canada that showed Terry's route. They traced, with their fingers, from a star at the starting point in St. John’s to another star at Terry’s end goal in British Colombia. They gasped when they saw the distance he had set out to run.
Standing tall in a glass case was his artificial leg with a white sock tucked inside a dark blue Adidas running shoe. On the wall nearby, a letter Terry wrote to an executive at Adidas, prior to his run, asking for sponsorship in the form of 26 pairs of running shoes. “The running I can do, even if I have to crawl every last mile. But there are some barriers I cannot overcome alone. I need your help…” His letter concluded with this: “I’m not a dreamer and I’m not saying this will initiate the definitive answer or cure to cancer, but I believe in miracles, I have to.”
Hop-hop, click. Hop-hop, click. My eyes certainly weren’t dry after reading that plea but when I saw his pair of small grey shorts, the tears full-on flowed down over my cheeks and I wasn’t alone. This man’s marathon of hope still touches people so deeply.
During his run, the nation threw their support behind him in whatever way they could. One full wall at the museum showed letters, audio tapes, drawings, quilts, hooked rugs and more. All of them sent to Terry to let him know they were rooting for him in their small corner of Canada.
As we all know, Terry Fox’s dream was cut short outside of Thunder Bay, Ontario. His cancer had spread to his lungs. After 143 days and 5373 kilometres, the Marathon of Hope was over. He had raised 1.7 million dollars for the Canadian Cancer Society but more importantly, how many millions or billions of hearts has he inspired all over the world?
Terry Fox died on June 28th, 1981 at the age of just 22. Had he lived, he would have been 60 on July 28th, 2018. Behind the bronze statue, in his memory, at the base of St. John’s harbour, there is another of Terry's quotes: “I just wish people would realize that anything’s possible if you try. Dreams are made if people try.” Canada’s greatest Canadian. Hands Down.
Until next time,