Less than a month after September 11th shattered everyone's world, I did a most healing thing. I flew to Atlanta (strange and somewhat scary, being on a plane then) and joined 3,000 other people for the Avon Breast Cancer 3-Day. It changed my life. This year, I'm going to do the Chicago walk (sure, you can contribute to my fundraising -- I'm not proud!), but in the spirit of inspiring others to get involved, I wanted to share what I wrote to my friends and family when the walk was through. I started this on the back of an envelope at the United gate at Hartsfield, waiting for my flight home. In person or in spirit, I invite you to walk with me.
Monday, October 8, 2001
Friends and family:
I’m back. The Atlanta Avon Breast Cancer 3-Day is now a memory. I wish that all of you could have been there with me to experience it firsthand, but here’s a recap:
It was amazing. I had no idea what I was in for back in March when I registered for the 3-Day. Well, no. That’s not right. I knew I was in for a lot of walking. I knew I was in for camping. (I am not a camper.) But nothing could prepare me for what I experienced over those four days: so much kindness, so much emotion, so much raw endurance of the human spirit.
I had an early flight out of O’Hare on Thursday morning. My good friend Gemma (and her “good friend” Dave) were my Wednesday-evening hosts. She made dinner for me. And she insisted I sleep in the bedroom instead of on the futon in the living room. She trumped up some excuse about her brother who would be visiting needing a good night’s sleep before the Chicago marathon, and how she needed me to sleep in the room and alert her to any distractions. I protested. She held her ground. I slept in the bedroom.
We were up in the darkness, Gemma and I. The drive to O’Hare is nearly pleasant at that hour, as long as you don’t spill your Dunkin’ Donuts coffee in the car on that damn-bumpy Irving Park Road. Gemma left me at the United terminal curb with a hug and two pieces of advice: “Lots of Kleenex” and “Surrender to the schmaltz.” At the gate, I met Sherri, fellow walker. She noticed my casual clothes and waist pack.
“Three day?” she asked.
We talked until we boarded the plane.
In Atlanta, we met up with her friend Shannon. The three of us met Pat and more walkers at the Marta station in the airport. And then we met more walkers on the platform. I thought about what this must look like from the aerial view, so many people starting from so many cities, slowly congregating and moving toward Atlanta, all of us toting our luggage and sleeping bags, all of us eager and maybe a little apprehensive.
We arrived at Day Zero at Lake Lanier on a big coach bus. We “checked” our luggage (we put it under a tent in a parking lot) and began the registration process. Pallotta TeamWorks, the event organizer, is comprised of logistical geniuses. Everything runs insanely smoothly and everything is thought of. By the time I was done registering, I was wearing four wristbands: green for the shuttles, purple for towel service, pink for walk participation (imprinted, smartly, with my walker number and a 1-800 number to call in an emergency), and neon orange for safety. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, can be accomplished during a 3-Day if you’re not wearing the orange safety band. And everyone with the event makes sure you know it. Safety isn’t spoon-fed at a Pallotta event, it’s crammed down your throat. And that makes you feel better. Quells the nerves.
In a huge darkened tent, we watched the “safety” video. It was about safety, but it was also a call to action. One of Pallotta’s slogans is “Humankind. Be both.” (The other is “I’mpossible dreams.”) Pallotta’s theme music is a haunting string composition, a sort-of New Age lullaby. As the first words began to scroll up the screen in that makeshift theater, tears began streaming down my face. There would not be a tear-free day. I had already been crying every day leading up to the race in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. But these were different tears. These were tears of pride, for myself and the hundreds of other people in the tent who had come together in a spirit of love to help others, most of whom we will never meet. I don’t know about the others in the tent with me, but in that moment I offered up a silent prayer that I will never need to avail myself -- or anyone I love -- to the benefits of the research our effort was helping to fund. On the way back to the hotel shuttles (for the last good night’s sleep me and Sherri and Shannon and Pat – and everyone else – would have for a couple nights), I ran into my friend Adam. Adam is one of my best friends from college and one of the best people I know. (I know a lot of “best people.”) Happy screams. Hugs. More tears.
In Friday’s early-morning darkness, we arrived back at Lake Lanier. We left our gear at the gear trucks; we noshed on a bizarre breakfast of Danish, bagels, apples, cold cuts and cheese. We did a group stretch, and then we held hands while a circle of women – breast-cancer survivors – walked slowly through the center of our crowd of nearly 2,800 walkers. The emptiness that was created by the circle of their bodies and clasped hands represented all those thousands of women who have already been lost to breast cancer. Pat, my new friend and tentmate, had armed me early on with a Kleenex. But I was holding hands with strangers. My hands were unavailable. Tears ran down my cheeks. I was unembarrassed.
And then, with the words, “The 2001 Atlanta Avon Breast Cancer 3-Day has officially begun,” we streamed under a huge banner and down a hill, a river of walkers in identical 3-Day T-shirts, walking toward a cure. The P.A. was blaring “Now We Are Free.” If you’ve seen “Gladiator” and stuck around for the end credits, you’ve heard it. It is one of my favorite pieces of music. Kismet.
Friday’s course was about 22 miles. The area surrounding Atlanta, much to our collective walking chagrin, is not flat. But we walked on, stopping occasionally at Pit Stops and Grab & Gos, well-stocked with water, Gatorade (Ugh.), snacks, medics and more Port-A-Potties than I’ve ever seen in my life. All along the way, people cheered. Some sat on the hoods of their cars, some set up chairs and coolers as if ready for a parade, which, in a way, they were. Single-file or in groups of two or three abreast, it takes a long time for 2,800 people to walk past a single point.
Some small kids from a school came to the route to cheer us on and offered their small hands for high-fives. One little girl, missing her front teeth, said with absolute 5-year-old conviction, “You can DO it!” Some of us were beginning to have doubts. She gave us what we needed to go on. Later, at an intersection, we slowed. We weren’t stopped by traffic. In fact, we needed to turn right to continue the route. But it took a little longer to get through that intersection because a small, gray-haired lady (she must be somebody’s grandmother; she’s too cute not to be somebody’s grandmother) was hugging every walker as they approached her. No one declined the gesture. No one went around her. Everyone waited for their hug. And then we walked on. More tears.
The walk had begun at 7:30 a.m. as the rising sun painted the sky, appropriately, pink. We made it into camp about 5 p.m. Eight and a half hours. 22 miles. About a 23-minute mile. Not bad, considering rest stops, stretching and Atlanta’s hills. We got our gear. Our tent had been set up by some unknown angel. Pat and I shoved our gear inside and collapsed. Hard ground never felt so good. But we knew we had to stretch. We had to eat. And boy, did we need to shower!
We had dinner. The cook in me was impressed by Pallotta’s ability to provide pleasantly edible and abundant food to 4,000-some people per meal. Lights out in camp is 9 p.m. I’m surprised anyone can stay awake that late. I was dozing off when Pat returned from the medical tent. She was having trouble with her hip and the physical therapists were trying to tape her to alleviate her pain. We tossed and turned. The hard ground was becoming much less pleasant than it had been when we first arrived in camp.
And then it started raining. Condensation was already building on the walls of our unwaterproofed tent, but now it was raining. Inside the tent, too. We tossed and turned and dozed. We slept a total of two hours or so. In the morning, still dark, we all started our day in soggy tents. I had puddles in my shoes. We struck our tents in a downpour that didn’t let up for a couple hours. The field was nothing but mud. But nothing stops an Avon 3-Day.
I had pretty much blown my left knee on Friday’s hills and uneven terrain. Pat’s hip wasn’t in great shape. We managed four miles on Saturday before admitting that it was best to cut our losses for the day to conserve our ability for Sunday’s final installment. We were swept (picked up and transported) to camp. To assuage my walker guilt, I set up our tent and 12 others. It had been a chilly day for walking, so the crew had handed out Mylar blankets. Saturday night, the mercury dipped to 39 degrees. But it was dry. Cold, but dry. I was surprisingly snuggly covered with my Mylar blanket inside my sleeping bag, even if I did feel like a Reynold’s Wrap recipe. All around us, all night long, as sleepers shifted, we heard the “rustle, rustle, rustle” of the Mylar. We’d wake up long enough to hear giggling throughout the camp. Rustle, rustle, rustle.
Sunday. Cold. But we were rested and determined. Pat and I promised each other that we’d sweep if we had to, but only as an absolute last resort. My knee was killing me. Pat had slowed her pace a bit but she smiled and kept walking. As we approached Piedmont Park and the holding area from which we’d make our final Victory March, the guys of the MotoCrew cheered. All along the route, all three days, the men of the MotoCrew and their cool bikes swept the route, checking for those in trouble, and blocked intersections for us to pass. Think Hell’s Angels crossing guards. They were awesome. They kept us going. And they were there, at the end, cheering us one more time. I stepped through the gate to the park and turned to watch Pat walk through, too. We hugged each other tight. We were both sobbing.
We made our way through the park and people cheered. When we arrived at the holding area, at least 1,000 fellow walkers and crew were there, forming a chute that had to be 500 feet long, cheering and clapping and high-fiving each walker as they made their way through. It was the closest I’ll ever come to feeling like Michael Jordan.
After some lunch and some rest, we assembled for the final leg of our journey, the walk to where our friends and family were waiting. The walkers went first. We were wearing navy-blue shirts. The survivor-walkers followed. They wore pink shirts. There were a lot of pink shirts. The crew lined the last part of the path leading to the celebration area. They cheered us one last time. And we cheered them. Once the navy-blues had had their moment of glory and had taken their place near the stage, the survivors walked in. Every navy-blue walker held one shoe aloft in salute. Tears? Please. A collective downpour. The speakers on stage spoke with their voices cracking, even Dan Pallotta, especially Dan Pallotta, the genius behind it all. It was an awesome event. No one can stand in that space and be unaffected. So many of us were walking because someone we know has had breast cancer. Some have been able to survive it. Others have not. We walked for all of them.
And until a cure is found, we will walk again.
My deepest thanks and all my love to all of you who so generously supported me in this effort. I encourage all of you to experience a Pallotta event. While I’ve been away from the traditional working world, I’ve been trying to decide in which direction I should proceed. I want to help people, so I thought about politics. Trouble is, I detest politics. I vote, don’t get me wrong, and I know that despite the pallor that’s cast over politics much of the time, I could be the person to get in there and change the system. But my heart’s not in it. I wasn’t in Atlanta 4 hours before I decided that I should work for Pallotta TeamWorks. Because the spirit at their events is one of absolute good. People selflessly helping people. As Gemma’s sister and two-time 3-Dayer said, “I want to live in the 3-Day universe.” It is a universe filled with the best humankind has to offer. It is a small, three-day universe, but you emerge from it forever changed. And if everyone could let themselves experience it, at least once, the kindness of humanity would move up a notch, and from there perhaps kindness could become the rule, not the exception. It’s worth a shot. If you’re interested, visit www.pallottateamworks.com. They’re hosting 27 events next year. Take a look.
I hope this finds all of you well. Thanks again. I’ll see you soon. It already applies to all of you, but it bears repeating: Humankind. Be both.