At one point this past winter, I had my students do a writing exercise. To round out the numbers, I joined them in writing a short story based on a photograph. Here’s what I came up with. Some of the images and ideas are taken from other writings I’ve done about Terry Fox, especially my short story “Reading to Peter,” which was shortlisted for a Writer’s Union of Canada short story award some years ago.
This is a picture I took of Terry Fox running down the middle of Highway 17 south of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. It’s not the first photograph I ever took, but it is the first photo I ever took that I still have. I was eleven years old the year that Terry Fox did his run, and he was my hero. The moment that he ran by that day in the summer of 1980 is one of the most important memories of my life.
That whole summer was about Terry Fox. My mom was in the Cancer Society, so we were following his journey as a family from the time he dipped his artificial leg in the water that April in Newfoundland. By the time he got to Ontario, I had Terry Fox posters on my bedroom wall and a Terry Fox t-shirt and a boy’s earnest belief that this guy was the most important Canadian hero ever.
Terry Fox ran through my hometown, Parry Sound, Ontario. He actually stopped at the Esso gas station on Highway 69 at the top of Murray Pt. Road, where I lived. The town did a big reception for him and Bobby Orr’s mom & dad gave Terry one of Bobby’s Canada Cup jerseys. My buddy’s little brother collected up 800 dollars to give to Terry Fox, and there was a picture in the newspaper of Terry taking this big pickle jar full of money from little Peter. It was a very big deal.
Only I missed it. I was out west with my family, camping our way across the country with an old tent trailer. I remember being bitterly disappointed that I wouldn’t get to see Terry Fox right in our own neighbourhood. And besides, people out west hadn’t really caught the fever yet. They didn’t quite get it.
Still, I got to see Terry in the end. My family was on the home stretch of our western trip, heading south to Parry Sound from Sault Ste. Marie after a visit with my grandmother. The day was bright and sunny, and the traffic was light along the winding two-lane highway. There was an air of expectation in the big family station wagon as we made our way along. We knew we’d see Terry Fox that morning; we just didn’t know where or when.
I don’t exactly remember the order of the towns along that highway. Serpent River Reserve, Iron Bridge, Blind Bay, Thessalon… I don’t know what is where, now. But we were south of Desbarats when we saw the cop cars rolling slowly up the gravel shoulder with their cherry tops turning, and we pulled over in a rock cut to wait for the big moment. My mom, my dad, my sister and I all stood there in the sun. Cicadas were whirring and the day was sort of hanging in the sky the way it always does in late August. We stood for a while, and then Terry Fox came running up the road with sweat pouring down, and an expression of complete commitment on his face. He was pounding his way westward, hoping to hit the coast before the snow flew that fall. He really thought he could do it, and everybody else did too.
We just watched him run. He was running right along the dotted yellow line, like he was hoping to connect the dots all the way to B.C. He was tanned and tough. His good leg was huge. His artificial leg banged like a screen door. I can still hear the sound. My mom managed to stammer out “Keep it up! This is just great!” through her tears. I raised my little camera, held it steady until Terry Fox ran into the centre of the frame, and took a picture.
The sun set on that August day a long time ago. Terry Fox ground to a halt outside Thunder Bay, as everyone knows, just a few weeks later. There’s a statue along the highway there now. It’s become a place of pilgrimmage for me and pretty much everyone else who remembers.
The run goes on. People from all over the world take part every year. They can usually beat the kind of cancer that Terry Fox had now, maybe thanks to the money he raised. It’s a great story, even though the hero dies.
When I got my pictures developed and put them in my photo album, I took extra time with the Terry Fox one. I put it on its own page. I wrote his name in full, Terrence Stanley Fox on a little piece of paper underneath. Years later when I was tossing out pictures, I saved that one, and I’m saving it still.
It’s a moment, frozen in time. But for a frozen moment, it sure seems to keep growing. It’s wound through so much of my life now. It touches everything.
In fact, I hardly ever see the actual picture anymore. In my mind’s eye, it’s so clear and present, I don’t even need to bother. About once a year I go digging around for that little 3 by 5 snapshot, to show it to someone. I’m not kidding when I say everyone who sees it gets choked right up.
It’s in an envelope, in a drawer somewhere with some other pictures I wouldn’t like to lose. I keep thinking I should get it framed, but I never have. I haven’t even scanned it. I don’t know why.
This is a picture I took of Terry Fox running down the middle of Highway 17 south of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Can you see it? I can. I can see it with my eyes closed.