Betty Fox was a tough lady.
No, check that. Betty Fox was a mom who had to be tough.
Four kids, three boys. Working-class Port Coquitlam.
Her second-youngest son is diagnosed with cancer. His leg is amputated.
That’s enough to deal with. That’s enough for a lifetime.
But the boy pushes. He saw things on the cancer ward. Just going on with his life minus one leg isn’t enough.
In the kitchen of their PoCo home a day after he completes a 17-mile run, he tells her his plan to run across Canada — a marathon a day on one good leg and a prosthesis to raise money for cancer research.
Betty reacts like a mom. We don’t know the precise words but they approximate “Are you nuts?”
She tells him it’s a stupid idea and he’s smarter than that. She tells him no able-bodied person has ever run from Newfoundland to B.C. She fights, a mom trying to protect her child from himself.
To no avail. Tough mom, determined kid.
The rest of the story need not be repeated; it has become a hero’s legend in Canada, complete with requisite tragic ending.
But that’s just the beginning of Betty Fox’s story, a heroine’s tale in its own right.
Where you or I might have retreated in our grief, Betty and the Fox family stepped forward.
Where most would have held close their personal memories and moments, Betty went public.
Where many might allow the Marathon of Hope to fade into history as something too painful to think about day after day, Betty embraced it, embraced her son’s cause and made it her own, embraced it and worked in spite of the pain, because of the pain.
Could your mom do that? Sacrifice herself for something bigger?
All moms are different but they all know sacrifice. They eat the crusts. They scrimp and save. They do without so their kids don’t have to. They are strong when their children aren’t. That’s a mom, right?
That’s Betty, continuing her late son’s cancer-fighting crusade, making it her full-time job for the last 30 years.
That’s Betty, hugging school kids coast to coast and telling them Terry’s story.
That’s Betty, preserving Terry’s grassroots ideals, eschewing the potential quick money of corporate sponsorship because of the potential costs.
That’s Betty, standing up on stage at the Terry Fox Hometown Run in PoCo year after year, flanked by her husband, Rolly, and the mayor and a rock band and even Rick Hansen, and holding every ear with her words of encouragement, every eye with that white hair, that broad smile and that gaze that so recalled Terry’s.
She talked a great deal about what Terry did, what Terry wanted, considerably less about what he meant to Canada.
In fact, she admitted to a reporter just last year that it wasn’t until a few years ago she “finally, truly understood what Terry meant to people,” a realization that came to her after watching impoverished children in Bangladesh running in his name.
And if she never before truly understood Terry’s meaning to our nation, and most acutely to residents of his hometown, it’s unlikely she gave a moment to consider her own place in Canada’s pantheon of heroes and heroines.
Just like a mom, she preferred the spotlight from the outside looking in, stepping into it only when there was no other choice. Even when she earned the honour of carrying the Olympic flag into BC Place stadium at the Vancouver 2010 opening ceremonies, she deflected attention, saying, “Terry was utmost in my mind. I was very proud to be a part of the Olympic ceremony but it was all for Terry. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have been there.”
She’s right. Of course, she’s right.
Terry lit the fire and she tended it for three decades.
It was a tough job but somebody had to do it.
Richard Dal Monte is editor of The Tri-City News.