By MAUREEN L. CAWLEY
This story first appeared in The Cape May County Herald
By Sunday at 3 p.m., my friend Korri and I had walked some 57 miles as participants in the Philadelphia Susan G. Komen 3-Day Breast Cancer Walk. The pain in my toes and on the balls of my feet sometimes burned, sometimes throbbed, sometimes both. When I stopped to stretch, I could feel the heat of the sidewalk through my sneakers. Blisters formed and popped, but we walked on.
Occasionally, mercifully, the feet went numb long enough that I could feel a new ache forming in my calf, my thigh, or my lower back. But after a brief lull, my toes would let out another holler. “Are we there yet?” they begged.
“Almost,” was my mantra: almost to the next landmark, to the next rest stop, to the next medical tent where I could once again ice and wrap my torn feet. We had trained for this, but perhaps not hard enough. “No training prepares you for this,” a fellow walker said.
With an unseasonably hot October sun beating down on us, we trudged up another seemingly insurmountable hill in some neat Main Line suburb — one of many which now are a blur.
“What do you think about all this?” Korri asked.
“Ouch!” my brain said silently. “Why am I doing this?”
To Korri I answered tentatively. “I’m not sure…I think my opinion will evolve as the pain goes away.”
In fact, my feelings on the walk had been evolving all along. Korri had suggested it one March evening over a glass (or three) of wine. “Walk now, wine later,” became our team’s name (one we didn’t necessarily honor as well as we could). We were fortunate to have lives untouched by breast cancer – an illness I now know afflicts one in eight women and their families.
At the time, the walk seemed an adventure we could take together — a way to bond, to focus on ourselves by helping others and to get in shape. We would stop making excuses for not taking care of ourselves.
But as our bodies endured the brutal journey, I mulled over the irony that at every medical tent along our path, walkers were lined up seeking relief from all kinds of injuries – blisters, lost toenails, dehydration, strained joints and worse.
“Maybe 20 miles a day is too much,” a nurse/volunteer proposed in a whisper as she custom-cut bandages and moleskin to my wounded foot. She had seen legions of sweaty and battered toes like mine, as she and a handful of other volunteers worked tirelessly, mending and nurturing the wounded — 16 hours a day, three days in a row — all the while smiling kindly as she padded and coaxed them back to life.
“I want to kiss those nurses back there,” a fellow walker said, as we trudged away from a pit stop in South Philadelphia. “She gave me new feet.”
Meanwhile an all-volunteer crew – dubbed “the brains and the brawn” of the operation – worked endlessly to make the ordeal possible…and bearable. They woke before the sun and went to bed long after the lights went out. They hauled bags, set up the tent city where we crashed at night, prepared meals, picked up trash, stocked port-a-potties, managed shower trucks, and guided us across treacherous roads.
And as they did all that, they still found time and energy to applaud and cheer as more than 2300 of us met each milestone along the way. They made us laugh with their ridiculous outfits and smile like children, when they awarded us treats like necklaces, stickers and candy.
“You’re almost there,” they told us, and even when they fibbed, it pushed us to take another step, to ignore another pain, or to climb another hill. And eventually we made it.
Among us were breast cancer survivors and those still fighting that battle; people who had lost loved ones and those who feared losing them; and people who wanted to make a difference by spending three days walking in a world that so often rushes by. Together, they retaught me things I knew as a child but so frequently forget — lessons in courage and generosity and kindness.
And now, that the pain has subsided (mostly), I continue to think about the people who paved my way — those who made donations toward my efforts (the walk raised $6.3 million toward breast cancer research) and those I met along the path.
I picture the children in pink shirts, who stood in the heat in front of their houses holding up signs of encouragement. I remember the cool exhilaration of the sprinklers local fireman set up for our comfort. I recall the strangers who offered cakes and pizza, soft pretzels and drinks, hugs and perfectly-timed popsicles. Like children on a playground, we became friends for a fleeting instant, bound by the simple joy of sharing a burden.
But mostly, I will remember smiling through tears at the cancer survivors, who honked and stopped traffic as they shouted encouragement from their cars, or those, who stood on the side of the road to greet us, saying over and over again, “You’re almost there!” and “Thank You.”
And now that we made it past the finish line and patted ourselves on the back, what words can we use to explain what it meant. None will do, save the ones we learned along the way – “We’re almost there…and Thank You.”