Intro: Almost ten years ago, in October of 2001, I completed my first Avon walk for breast cancer, twenty miles a day for three days.* It turned out to be life-changing in completely unexpected ways.
Originally we were to walk in early October down from Bear Mountain, beside the Hudson River and across the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan. Closing ceremonies were to be at Bryant Park, near the main public library in New York City. I’d been training for months, and I’d raised the money I needed to walk.
But on a single day, all plans changed–for the walk, for the country, and for me. My little personal concerns merged–in my mind–with huge national issues and the suffering of many.
On the morning of September 11, I left my office to pick up my mail and found my colleagues clustered around a television in the lounge. Two planes had flown into the World Trade Center and both buildings had collapsed. Like everyone else in the country, I watched the videos over and over again until my mind was numb.
Then I went back to my office. Because I couldn’t concentrate, I thought it a good time to check with my doctor about the results of a follow-up mammogram. I found out I needed to see a surgeon.
Before the day was over, plans for the Avon New York Walk for breast cancer were in disarray. No one even knew whether the walk would be held. Perhaps the organizers didn’t know what to do. Certainly New York officials were not prepared to let several thousand people, mostly women, walk over the George Washington Bridge, walk through the streets of Manhattan, and congregate in Bryant Park.
For a few weeks, we walkers sent a flurry of email to the organizers and to each other. Eventually we were told the walk was on, but postponed to the end of October and we wouldn’t be allowed to walk across the bridge into Manhattan. Instead, we would spend the final day walking around Rockland County and have closing ceremonies at a community college. Disappointing, but understandable.
On the weekend of the walk, I was excited about walking but worried about my biopsy, scheduled for the Monday after the walk. I was still reeling from the events of September 11th, and so was everyone else. Almost everyone walking that weekend was a New Yorker, and everyone had a story to tell of a friend or relative touched by the tragedy. Many had been close enough to see the flames and smoke, to breathe in the evil fumes. We told each other stories.
Even I, living upstate, had a story or two. I told of my son who had taken the train into Grand Central Station on 42nd St. arriving minutes before the first attack downtown. He saw the flames above the NYC skyscrapers as he began walking towards his meeting. Cell phone lines were jammed, his meeting surely cancelled. Soon after he returned to the station, it was evacuated. He began the long walk, in business suit and dress shoes, uptown, away from the disaster. Every face he saw was serious and stricken; no one was unaware or unaffected. He heard snatches of news on car radios. He stopped for lunch on 95th St. where he joined stunned New Yorkers. Late that day he reached the 125th station in Harlem and later still, he was able to catch the first train leaving the island of Manhattan to go home.
I told the story of my husband’s son-in-law who had been in the World Trade Center during the first attack on it ten years earlier. He descended dozens of floors in a smokey stairwell, carrying a frail, elderly woman on his back. He laughs when he tells us that she was complaining because she was uncomfortable.
The story that haunts me, even after all these years, was that told by a young firefighter. He had been told to come late that morning because it was his first day of work. By the time it was time for him to go in, every other firefighter in that station was dead.
And all the while we were trying to exorcise the pain of September 11th, we also talked about breast cancer–care, treatment, options, people who had survived, people walking for others’ health or memory. Several offered me advice about my own treatment to come.
By the end of October, that year, it was bitterly cold in New York. Temperatures fell at night to the low thirties. Staff went from tent to tent passing out shiny emergency blankets. Between the cold and my weariness, my middle-aged, arthritic body was screaming for Advil. Because I
was scheduled for surgery when I got home, I took no pills, but lay in my sleeping bag thinking cranky thoughts.
Miraculously, our discomfort and our fears for our country and our health only intensified the spirit of triumph on the walk. Even though we might not change a single life or single event, we were trying to express something positive. We were walking. We would support others and we would face troubles with dignity and courage. Our stories mattered.
Here is one. I had met a young woman, in her early thirties, when I was training for the walk. Both her parents had died, her mother of breast cancer. She had cystic fibrosis, and her training was frequently interrupted by hospital stays. She told me that friends and family had warned her that she shouldn’t walk. It was much too hard for her weakened body.
“But what else can I do?” she asked. “This is the only life I get to live.”
In the end, she was too sick to walk, and it was I who wrote her mother’s name on the wall honoring the memory of those who had died of breast cancer.
And we walked. Volunteers played music at rest stops, doled out hearty portions at mealtimes, posted funny signs along the way. At rest areas, they passed out Gatorade, bananas, granola bars, Band-Aids, souvenir stickers for our name tags. One young man parked his van along the way each day with his baby son sleeping nearby. He passed out candy and cracked jokes. His wife was one of the walkers.
A bakery near the Tappan Zee Bridge distributed pink cookies in the shape of ribbons to honor an employee who had struggled with cancer. An elementary school band played “When the Saints Come Marching In” as we straggled into their town for lunch. Their hand-made posters were plastered on every pole along our route.
At the end of each day we might have been tired and have blisters, but our legs and lungs and hearts were all still working, one step at a time. And the bright-colored autumn leaves on the trees were stunningly brilliant. The Hudson River was never more beautiful.
My husband met me at the finish line. He’d been my supporter all along, even walking with me often when I was training. My son and his family, my stepdaughter and her family, my friend and her daughter all met me too.
Life seemed impossibly hopeful and achingly meaningful.
So I’ve decided to walk again this coming October provided that my senior-citizen body cooperates. (I’ll have a serious talk with it.) This post is my commitment to register and to put on my sneakers and head for the park.
Why walk, you say?
Because this fall it will be ten years since September 11th, ten years since I walked for the first time, and ten years since I had my brush with early-stage breast cancer. I was luckier than many. My niece Tina, lovely Tina, died of breast cancer, leaving behind a husband and two little girls.
Because I want money spent on research to eliminate the disease so my daughters-in-law, stepdaughters, and granddaughters will never fear the disease.
Because I want to join others trying to be decent, kind, and brave, by putting one step forward and then another.
And because the leaves and the river will be beautiful in October, again, and life worth celebrating.
If you’d like to support me this year when I walk in October, please visit my Avon page at http://info.avonfoundation.org/goto/MargaretFrench.
Just so you know… After my second walk, in 2002, the Avon Foundation parted company with the company that had organized their 3-day walks. Now there are two long walks for breast cancer in the United States: the Susan G. Komen 3 day and the Avon 2 day.
Copyright by Margaret French