Fighting cynicism for a cause

I remember when the Ice Bucket Challenge took over the internet. Despite its success, it was inevitable that the cynical among us would overlook the good the challenge had accomplished to raise awareness and research dollars for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) treatment and instead focus on how every conceivable celebrity would promote themselves through a cause about which they may have had little understanding.

Then I read the story of Scott Thomas, a Stevensville man who, at the age of 24, was diagnosed with ALS and given two to three years to live. After learning his story, it became nearly impossible for me to dismiss the cause, regardless of any potential celebrity pandering. Eventually my name was called to partake in the challenge and, like a good boy, I filled a bucket full of ice water, retrieved my roommate to film, dumped it on my head and screamed like a little girl, twice.

Which brings me to next weekend, April 10-11. Relay for Life will be holding their annual fundraising event at the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse. Relay for Life is a fantastic program which raises roughly $400 million a year to fund research, lodges and other programs designated to fight and treat cancer. It could be tempting to look at the fundraising hoopla and jump to the same cynicism mentioned before. In an effort to stem that, I’d like to tell you the story of a former Montana State student.

Richie Lee Walker was born on September 18, 1959, to Harold Jr. and Diane Walker. As the older sister of two brothers, Richie displayed exceptional amplitude in science. She graduated from high school in Fort Benton and enrolled at Montana State University, majoring in microbiology. A proud member of Pi Beta Phi, she later met a tall man by the name of Steve Hamel. They married, moved around a little, until they settled in Chester, Montana, where they raised two little boys.

As you can probably tell, my brother Michael and I knew Richie simply as Mom. For roughly five years of her life, Mom had to drive 60 miles down and back to Havre to work at the hospital there as microbiologist positions in Chester were not easy to come by. Despite the long daily travel, she always made time to read, play and pray with her little boys. Eventually she was able to find work at the Chester hospital, so she could spend more time with her family.

As a microbiologist she was a strong advocate of sexual health. She would give female graduates a “how-to” letter on surviving in the real world. Lessons included how to study in college, the threats of STDs (complete with a vivid lesson in fluid dynamics), how to avoid date rape and how to find a perfect man, “Meet their parents … Does [the mother] iron underwear? Then you can bet, you will be expected to iron underwear,” she said.

When we joined the swim team, Mom was there for every meet, taking part as a stroke judge. She and the other moms then spearheaded a movement to replace Chester’s old, decrepit, non-regulation pool for a regulation-sized pool, one that could hold swim meets and bring business to the small town.

In 2007, Mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. As a relatively unknown disease, pancreatic cancer has a 95 percent mortality within five years of diagnosis, and she knew this better than anyone else. Despite the grim outlook, she did her best to keep a positive outlook and to make sure that the men in her life were coping.

One example that epitomizes how she was able to handle the illness was the way she asked for things. On hot summer days she would call my brother or myself over and ask with a smug, frowny face, “Can you please get your mother some raspberry ice cream?”

We’d whine, “But Mom, it’s too hot outside, and we’re tired!”

Then she’d give the Bambi eyes and say, while trying hard not to smile, “It would sure make my pancreas feel better.”

We always got the ice cream.

Over the next two years we saw ups and downs in her treatment. Whenever we were down, she would share with us her favorite solution. “Just yell ‘c–cksucker’ over and over. That usually cheers me up.”

It wasn’t hard for her to cheer us up.

By the summer of 2008 her dream for a new pool became a reality. At the opening ceremony, she was granted the honor of being the first person to jump into the pool waters, and the picture of the jump hangs in the pool lobby to this day. We are incredibly thankful she was able to see her dream become a reality as her condition worsened not long after. After a brave fight, one in which she tried so damn hard to comfort and aid us instead of herself, she passed away on April 7, 2009. She was 49 years old.

When this article prints it will be roughly the sixth year since she’s been gone. I suppose it’s only fitting. However, the reason for this story is not to elicit sympathy; Mom would have none of that.

The reason is that Relay for Life and causes like it are full of individuals who can tell stories similar to my family’s. When we assign a face, a story or a memory to a particular cause, it becomes much more difficult to hold that cause in bad light, celebrity pandering and all. The stories and memories humanize a cause, giving it someone to whom we can relate, similar to how Scott Thomas gave Montanans a face to ALS and the Ice Bucket Challenge. Given the prevalence of cancer, I’m sure you can assign a face of someone you know and love to Relay for Life.

That being said, empathizing with a cause does not mean you are bound to participate out of guilt or self-perceived duty. There are thousands of different charitable causes for thousands of issues each of which deserve the same amount of publicity given here. Put your time, money or both into the one that moves you the most.

But if you’d like to participate in Relay for Life, be sure to stop by Brick Breeden Fieldhouse on April 10. If you cannot attend, the organization is always accepting donations, and no amount is too small. Should you see me, feel free stop by and say hi. Just to be warned, should you see me saying “c–cksucker” I’m (probably) not mad at you.