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For more than 12 years, I have lived amid the wreckage we call grief. In December, 2001, our eight-year-old son, James, died of neuroblastoma, a rare cancer. Before that, in 1996, I was diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer. My treatment ended just four months before James’s diagnosis in 1997.
Reconstructing my life since James’s death has been a slow, slow journey. Sometimes, I travel a straight course like a sailboat in a steady wind; sometimes, I spin in circles like a rudderless ship.
Bereaved parents must survive for the sake of their remaining children. And so I have, for Rebecca and Ben. But in the past five years, I have given birth a fourth time. To a competitive athlete. To me, Pamela Jane, who was once the quiet, gangly girl who loved calculus, books and music. I am 50 now, and I race competitively in the sport of dragon boating.
I am grinning ear to ear as I write about races. Remembering last season’s gruelling contests in the shallow, weedy water at Port Perry on Lake Scugog fills me with extraordinary joy.
I discovered dragon boating after I was invited to share my sad, double-barrelled cancer story – the loss of a breast, the loss of a child – as keynote speaker for a group of racers that included members of Survivors Abreast, which was soon to become my team. I tell my story as an invitation to others to tell theirs; it’s a therapeutic exchange, a lightening of heavy baggage.
The day after I spoke to the group, I went to watch my first race and, being a breast-cancer survivor, I was invited to get into a boat and join the racers on the water for a flower ceremony.
Flower ceremonies are the poignant interlude on race days whenever breast-cancer-survivor teams are competing. The boats link up and competitors become soul sisters. The names of teammates who have died are read out. All survivor paddlers wave pink carnations.
After a minute of silence, they toss the carnations into the water and dry their tears. Quietly, the boats drift apart and the race day continues.
Those first few moments in a dragon boat, participating in a flower ceremony, changed me. I wanted to be on this team. But it was eight months before I was brave enough to attend a team meeting in a church basement in Lakefield, Ont. I was afraid. It was like trying out for the Grade 9 basketball team all over again. And with tendinitis in one shoulder, a mastectomy on the other side, I wondered if I could do this extreme sport.
I wondered if the other women knew how fragile I was as I stepped into the long narrow boat for the first time.
When your child dies, you feel like an utter failure. You have failed to keep your child safe. There is no logic in these thoughts, but they are the overwhelming reality for everyone I have met among the society of broken parents. Would my attempt at sport be another failure?
After each practice that first summer, I exited the boat on jello legs. Every night I slept with an ice pack on my shoulder. But, I loved every practice – the challenge, the escape, the exhaustion, the connection to a team.
The first race was both terrifying and exciting. I paddled to the starting line with my heart pounding, my stomach somersaulting and my mouth dry. And then the magic words of the starter – “Attention please!” – followed by the coach shouting “Paddles up!” before the starting horn.
Then two minutes of full-body exertion began. Unity is key. There are no stars in a dragon boat. Twenty paddlers propel the boat forward, their paddles entering and exiting the water at the same instant.
We won! We didn’t win often that year, but we won my first race. And I was hooked.
I am now in my sixth season of paddling. I work out at least three times a week and am stronger than I have ever been – in every way. I hop easily out of the boat after practice, my legs strong and confident. The team also grows stronger. We are winning more races. I am now captain of the team. My friends listen kindly as I chatter on about new techniques and upcoming regattas.
The elephant will always be in the room and in the dragon boat: We all dread the next mammogram. But in the boat we dare to face our demons.
When James died, my life was shattered. Very slowly, I have built a new life. I have rebuilt a career as a singer and singing teacher. I have begun to write poetry. I have become an athlete.
I often wonder what James would look like if he were still alive. What university would he attend? What sports would he play? What music would he love? The loss is still profound. The pain comes and goes.
In his last months of life, James said things like “You can’t let cancer ruin your day,” and “I’ve been thinking, every day is a precious gift. You’ve gotta use it.”
I have always wanted to honour his thoughts. I put down my baggage and pick up a paddle.
Pam Birrell lives in Peterborough, Ont.