I confess I’d never heard of Terry Fox before we came to Canada – yet another reminder of just how distinctive cultural identity is (even within broadly similar societies), that something so significant to one nation can be relatively unknown to others in the same hemisphere.
Expatriation exacts a steep learning curve in return for that ‘big picture’ perspective, and much of my hastily acquired Canadian cultural education came secondhand from my children. It must be so much harder rocking up in a new country with no kids to send out on reconnaissance.
Thanks to mine I learnt (after a fashion) the national anthem – “true pastry love, and all our suns come out” – and what to do when you hear it.They shared their discoveries of pioneer and First Nations culture, and gave me the lowdown on school lockdowns. After just two months in the country I also found Canada has a way of honoring her heroes that fixes them securely in people’s hearts, when a squadron of low-flying jets screamed overhead one day, leaving a trail of coloured smoke and one very bemused expat in their wake. (read what that was all about in ‘Back-To-School With A Snowbird Fly-Past’)
It was towards the end of that first September, through tidbits gleaned from classroom anecdotes, that I first began to hear of an ordinary boy who showed extraordinary courage – a boy who never gave up and went on to become a Canadian symbol of hope. This is the legacy of Terry Fox.
In 1977, Terry was an 18-year-old student at Simon Fraser University when he was diagnosed with bone cancer. His right leg was amputated 15 centimetres above the knee to prevent the disease spreading. Athletic and ambitious, the night before his amputation he read about an amputee runner and an idea took root in his mind.
Following his surgery he put himself through fourteen months of training then convinced the Canadian Cancer Society to sponsor him as he ran across Canada raising awareness and funds for cancer research.
Beginning his Marathon of Hope on April 12th 1980 in St John’s, Newfoundland, he averaged 26 miles a day. He ran across Canada for 143 days (over 37,00 miles) and the further he got, the more the country took him to its heart. But on September 1st 1980, just outside Thunder Bay, Ontario, chest pains revealed the return of the cancer he thought he had conquered. It had spread to his lungs.
Despite treatment, Terry finally lost his battle with cancer. He died at Royal Columbian Hospital, New Westminster, British Columbia – exactly one month shy of his 23rd birthday.
Although he didn’t complete his Marathon, Terry Fox raised $24.2 million for cancer research and became an inspiration to millions. He’s been voted Canada’s Greatest Hero, honored with an Order of Canada, immortalized on postage stamps and coins, and had everything from schools to mountains named after him.
Now the annual Terry Fox Run takes place in schools and communities countrywide and to date, has raised in excess of six hundred and fifty million dollars. It generates more money for cancer research than any other single-day event worldwide. Every kindergartener learns his name, and his story inspires young minds afresh each year. “If only Terry could come back alive and we could see him,” my six-year-old son sighed wistfully.
This year just like the last, my children joined their classmates on the school field, wielding hats and water bottles against the late summer heat and running their little hearts out for friends and family affected by cancer, and for Terry himself. Some ran in groups holding hands, others singly, determinedly focused on their goal. Laps were counted and totals proudly stated, and every flushed and happy runner got a ‘Freezie’ and a Terry Fox transfer tattoo. Swathes of flattened grass on the school field afterwards bore witness to the mass commitment.
A cultural icon, Canadians often think of Terry when confronted with adversity, but his story resonates in this expat heart too. He inspired people to achieve more than they could imagine. Determination and perseverance are qualities every ‘stranger in a strange land’ needs, and a mind open enough to accommodate the limitless nature of every individual’s potential, especially one’s own.
by Aisha Ashraf.
Aisha Isabel Ashraf is a freelance writer and author of the popular blog EXPATLOG – a collection of irreverent observations from her experiences as a "cultural chameleon". It's where you'll find her, strung out on caffeine, humorously dissecting the peculiarities of expat life for her own amusement and the benefit of future generations."
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