Spiritual Awakening My ASS! A report from the Relay for Life


I have entered this essay in The Great Experiment!

I know, I know… it’s long, even for my loghorrific standards. But I think it goes somewhere interesting, if you’ve got the time to go along too.

If you like it, please click over to The Girl Who and vote for me — there’s $175 on the line, and Mama needs a new Moleskine.  Thanks!!


I write two blogs: Sub-Urbane, of course, and The Stacey Report. I started The Stacey Report shortly after my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer, to inform family and friends of the latest news… mostly so Stacey wouldn’t have to field the million and one phone calls.

We all felt, of course, completely useless — I could keep the blog for her (lame) but I started to cast about for something more concrete I could do. Enter the Relay for Life, one of many sponsor-based breast cancer events. Each team raises money in the form of pledges… I will give you X amount if you finish whatever Sisyphean task you have set yourself.

After the Relay, Stacey Report readers wanted to know how it went. I was reluctant to tell them until I realized that they really didn’t want the money back — so I laid it all out. It isn’t pretty.

Spiritual Awakening My ASS!

The American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life is usually an outdoor event here in beautiful Suburbia. It’s held on the track at the High School with bands, raffle stands, and information booths around the outside, tents and sleeping bags in the center. The event begins with a “Survivors’ Lap”, a procession of people who have had cancer and are still very much alive, thank you. Then the Relay starts, and for the next 12 hours the track is full of teams walking all night, switching off as they get tired. As it gets dark, they light the luminaria — candles in brightly decorated paper bags — to guide the walkers, who can no longer see but can sense each other, everyone marking time and distance together until the sunrise.

My friend Carol told me all this. Carol has done the Relay every year for ten years; I was really excited to be going for the first time.

Aaaaaaand… it rained. Everything had to be moved indoors at the very last minute. Now, this must have happened before; the event has been going on there for years. But this was the first year at the entirely NewNewNew! High School (yes ma’am, paying some taxes for that!) and also the first year it was run by actual students of the NewNewNew! High School, which may have had something to do with…

Well. Here’s the story.

We arrived at the high school a little late, so when we walked into the foyer of the brand-spankin’ gym the opening ceremonies had already begun, and we were face to face with the back of a crowd listening to a fife and drum corps. (We gotta do the fife and drum thing here in New England. For everything. I’m pretty sure it’s a law.) Then there was a brief but indecipherable speech: the sound system was completely inadequate, and the crowd was pretty unruly (although nothing compared to… nevermind, you’ll see).  The fife and drum corps finished and marched out…

I will pause here to describe the High School’s new gym. It is not a gym. It is an utterly massive system of tile-floored hallways connecting not two, not three, but four gymnasiums (gymnasia?) plus smaller classrooms for yoga and chi gong and Brazilian kickboxing and what have you.  The foyer, however, is distinctly non-massive, basically a wide part of the main hall large enough for between-class re-combobulating but not much else.

Ok, got the image? If you look right… there, you see me there? Next to Carol? OK, and you see the fife and drum corps (in full-on Minuteman regalia, mind you) marching “out”, which is to say, “into us”? We scrambled out of the way and the company swung a left (just before crushing us like bugs) and marched down the hall toward Gym II where all the tents and sleeping bags were set up.

After the fifers and drummers came the Survivors, and that is quite a sight: a huge purple banner and a LOT of people (mostly women) grinning and waving to the universal sound of female approval: “Woooo!” Behind the Survivors, all the relayers shuffled into line and began to walk down the hall toward… another hall, where we turned a corner onto… another hall, after which we turned the corner into… the foyer again.

Now, I’m thinking “this brand-spankin’ gym must have a full-sized indoor track somewhere,” but they sure weren’t telling us where. It swiftly became clear to me that, yes indeed, we were going to be walking around and around the hallways all night. I got the feeling that the last-minute move indoors had wapsed up a whole lot of things… this was confirmed when, at about the third lap around, we saw the teeny set of risers in the corner attempting to contain a very… enthusiastic high-school rock band, which began to commit loudness three inches from my head. Each time we turned that last corner, we were blown ever-so-slightly off course by the thrumming vibrations, and when I asked the t-shirt lady what the deal was, she said that they were supposed to set up over in Gym III… but there weren’t enough outlets.

About this time I was getting pretty cranky. (You might have noticed this.) But, you know, what can one say: I was definitely among the old fogies at this event, the majority of the relayers being high-school students, and good for them, right? And although many of them were motivated by the prospect of staying overnight with the others of them who were motivated by the prospect of staying overnight with the first ones… still, a whole lot of them were absolutely serious and dedicated to raising as much money as possible for cancer research. Of course, none of them were averse to indulging in a very entertaining hormone-fueled giggle-fest, which is exactly what ensued.

By 9:00 I was positive I was the only person actually walking the track. That wasn’t true, of course — for one thing, mobs of students were chasing each other up and down, cutting through classrooms, hurling each other at huge stacks of blue vinyl mats (and occasional walkers. Named Deb). For another, I did catch occasional glimpses of my fellow fogies, shaking their heads and rolling their eyes at the effervescent adolescence. My loneliness was probably caused by the lack of visibility: it’s one thing to walk and walk while you can see others walking and walking, it’s quite another to walk and walk through high-school halls alone, on and on, feeling like you’re in one of those stress dreams where you forgot your homework and you can’t find your classroom and you’ve never even been to class and the exam is tomorrow…

I began to wonder why on Earth we are motivated to participate in events like this (aside from the money, no small consideration…) What, exactly, am I accomplishing by walking these hallways? I mean, frankly, I could have asked all those nice people for money and not even gone to the thing. As far as you know, I could be making all of this up!

(Stick with me, kids.)

I thought, the reason you actually go and run the run, or walk the walk, or pole-vault the… whatever. The reason you go is to have the experience of doing something, so you can feel a little better about not actually being able to do anything. You go because everyone else goes, and you all get to have an uplifting, inspiring, spiritual awakening because you’re spitting into the wind together. You go, looking forward to the feeling of gathering with other people who are plain old pissed off at cancer and doing something to fight it.

Yes, dammit, you go to make yourself feel better, ok?

And when such a simple plan suddenly goes all to hell and forces you into some pointless drudgery which, by its very nature, pretty much guarantees that you will NOT get what you wanted in the first place…

Well, it’s just flat-out disappointing.

I mean… imagine you’re doing whatever you do: raising your children, going to work, planting your garden, looking forward to things that are really not too much to ask, and then all of a sudden something drops out of the sky and screws everything up for you, something like… jeez, I don’t know…

(You see where I’m going with this.)

something like… cancer or something.



(Still with me?)

And suddenly everything that had seemed like such a freakin’ imposition turned sideways, and I found myself looking at a whole different slice of the cake, my friends. Nothing better for making you feel like a complete a**hole than kvetching all night about your chosen discomfort, the idiocy of others, the lack of respect for the sacrifice you’re making, the goddamn spiritual enlightenment that has been stolen from you… and then remembering that your sister has spent the past six weeks having actual poison pumped into her and losing her hair. (The hair was really pretty tragic: I have any number of physical attributes to be modest about, but the Bancroft girls did inherit some kickass hair genes. When Stacey’s started to fall out I asked her (fingers crossed) whether it would make her feel any better if I shaved my head too. She gave me her patented “What the hell is wrong with you?” look and said “No freakin’ way — I didn’t want to lose mine, how is it going to help for you to lose yours too?” Huh. Interesting.)

When we gathered in Gym I for the Luminaria Ceremony, suddenly this mob of giddy teenagers and bemused parents became a line of silent witnesses, walking past the candlelit bags decorated with name after name after name. Among many others, I saw five or six luminaria in a row, all written in the same hand — how many people had this one woman lost? There were curlique messages to grandmothers, multi-signature encouragements to friends, one stick-figure drawing that just said “I love you, Daddy.” All of these names belonged to people, with plans, dammit, all shot to sugar-honey-ice-tea because of some stupid haywire cells.

Now, my sister is the most stubborn, most practical, toughest old Yankee boot you ever met. It did not surprise me that she reacted to her diagnosis by saying “Cancer? F**k that, I got stuff to do.” That attitude is, I believe, one of the many reasons she is alive and kicking four years later. But even though her reaction would have been “Oh, stop sniveling!”… yes, I cried at the Luminaria Ceremony. But not because of all the people and all the plans. I cried watching all those rowdy kids rocked back on their heels by the nasty little secret no one had told them yet:  People don’t always get what they deserve.

I didn’t stay all night.

I wasn’t patient, I wasn’t understanding, and I made some pretty snide remarks. It was really hot, uncomfortable, pointless, and really, really loud. And it was not, despite many wonderful walkers, uplifting.  At all.

And next year, I’m going again.


6 Responses to “Spiritual Awakening My ASS! A report from the Relay for Life”

  1. This was fantastic the way you came full circle at the end there. And God bless your sister, she sounds AWESOME. Really well done. Yet another blogger I’m going to have to check up on!

  2. “And next year, I’m going again.”
    Love this.
    Good luck to you and your sister.

  3. A few years ago I lost my mother to cancer, so I completely understand that feeling of helplessness, and the need to try and do something, anything, to try and get some sort of control over things.

    I like that you found this whole event a disappointment, but plan to go again next year anyway. Events like this are important, as if they achieve nothing else, they at least give the kids that take part something to think about.

    And in this day and age, anything that makes kids think about the big issues in life is a good thing….


  4. 4 Sadie

    Very well-written story. Made me chuckle and think and be sad all at once.

  5. This is probably the most honest post regarding an event like this I’ve ever read. Most pieces written about these types of subjects all sound the same: I went to this event for (insert whatever cause comes to mind) and was blown away by the spirituality of it, it made me realize how precious life is, it was so moving, blah blah blah. And not to take away from those other experiences, but I like how honest you were in relaying (no pun intended, but it made me giggle anyway–I’m a nerd) your disappointment in the event, BUT you ended it by saying you were going to do it again next year. It’s just real, and I like it.

    Very well-written, and I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to read this while voting was still going on!

    • 6 Deborah Bancroft

      Thank you — I try to be as honest as possible about all this because the situation deserves that level of respect. (Also because if I didn’t, Stacey would vomit. On me.)

      Some years ago, the magnificent and irreplaceable Kirsten Shanks was murdered by breast cancer. It ate her. She died bald, jaundice-yellow, desiccated as jerky, and scratching every breath out of the air with her bloody fingernails. There was not one single spiritual or precious thing about that. That was a crime, and will never stop being just desperately wrong and unfair.

      I’m really not up for wearing a pink feather boa in the face of that. I really feel much more like taking a head off of something. Or something.

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