Handing Off for Life

There will be burgers, pancakes and silly stunts — people wearing crazy hats, walking backwards, eating s’mores and collecting playing cards around the track of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, hoping for a winning hand by lap five. It is the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, and the poker run lap is apt, for every day involves high stakes when you find yourself in the casino of cancer.

When tonight begins one of the most poignant, rambunctious, intergenerational and successful of the Island’s many annual fund-raisers, it will be in the spirit of people such as Islander Kathleen O’Sullivan. Her goal for this year’s Relay for Life was to raise one hundred dollars. She has far surpassed that; over time, she has raised more than twenty-five thousand dollars. “I Relay because I want to see an end to cancer during my lifetime,” she writes, “to celebrate the lives of those who have battled cancer, remember loved ones lost, and support the society’s lifesaving mission by fighting back against a disease that has already taken too much.

“Cancer has now become more personal as my husband was diagnosed and treated last year for skin cancer that had travelled to his neck. He had seven weeks of radiation traveling off-Island every day either by car or Angel Flight.

“We need to find a cure for cancer, it is a terrible disease.”

As for Angel Flights, the critical nonprofit which on Wednesday of this week celebrated its fifteenth year of service, we add our heartfelt thanks and admiration. Those pilots’ skill, grace and humor give meaning to the word angel. Kathleen and those who walk with her and those many Vineyarders who prepare and participate in the relay are our angels too.

Spectators are welcome. Children’s activities begin right after school today, and Rotary Club members will be grilling burgers for all comers from five to eight tonight (and pancakes from seven to nine Saturday morning). The relay proper, however, begins at six-thirty with the Survivors’ Lap, a genuine victory lap for those who have met cancer close up, in all its overwhelming pain, and are still with us. Some of them are our teachers, taxi drivers, chefs, carpenters. Some were spotted at the Tisbury town picnic on Memorial Day, swaying to the music, evoking awe, imbuing onlookers with faith.

Many of us have fathers, mothers, friends and others who dance only in our hearts now; those lost loved ones are remembered with luminaria that will light the track tonight. Candles in the sand-weighted paper bags remind us that their lives still glow in our broken hearts. One friend put her loss this way: “It’s like a bone that never heals properly; it still hurts when it gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”

So dance around that track, relayers. Play your hand at the odds that seem so stacked against finding a cure for this disease. We’ll deal you all our hearts.