JOURNAL: South Portland Relay for Life hits close to home

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When I first signed up for the South Portland Relay For Life, I didn’t quite know what to expect. My wife, Rachael, had asked to join her co-worker’s team a little less than two weeks before the event. Her husband was also battling cancer, as was a friend of ours in Bangor, so it seemed like the right thing to do.

Thanks to social networking like Facebook and Twitter, we had no problem raising money, collecting nearly $500 in a week, which was well over the $200 minimum.

My wife, whose aunt beat esophageal cancer, even convinced her brother and sister-in-law, whose aunt is battling cancer, to join us, and they hit their fundraising goals, too.

To prepare for the event, we screen-printed t-shirts with a design made by my friend, who posted it to Facebook. I’ll spare you the elaborate description, but it involved a finger and the message to cancer.

When we arrived at the event the evening of Friday, June 11, I was surprised by the festive atmosphere. People were wheeling in tents, coolers, lawn chairs, guitars, Frisbees and other assorted camping goods for the event that would not end until 7 a.m. Saturday morning. Many greeted each other with big smiles and open arms.

We walked to the middle of the field, looking for our campsite, which wound up being near the scoreboard. We quickly set up shop, drank some water and prepared to do some walking. I did, after all, buy new running shoes for the occasion.

The first lap of the event was for cancer survivors and their caregivers. I was too busy photographing the ceremony for a newspaper article to think of the fact that I should have been out there on the track; they consider those fighting cancer to be survivors. Regardless, there were scores of them, some bald and bound to wheelchairs, while others looked healthy with silver hair.

Once we started walking it took several laps for the entire scene to set in. First, I noticed the tents that were set up along the infield and surrounding practice fields. Some were generic, very utilitarian. Others were elaborate, one being named the Wild West, which had several outlying encampments.

On the infield, normal people set up stands next to organizations like the Maine Center For Cancer Medicine, where I am being treated for my Stage 2 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Since fundraising continues through August, some entrepreneurial souls were continuing to raise money by selling lollipops, baked goods and drinks, while others sold raffle tickets for walking sticks and other items.

After a while, my attention was drawn to the little white bags lining the infield of the track. Each contained a name. Some proudly displayed photos and drawings, while others contained heartfelt messages and poems remembering a loved one.

These were the luminarias, which were lit by small tea lights held firmly in the foundations of sand in each bag. They are meant to honor those living with cancer and those who have lost their battle with a disease that claims millions of lives each year.

As dusk fell upon the track, people began migrating to certain areas of the field. It was time to begin lighting the luminarias, the announcer said, commanding children back to their parents and everyone to stop playing Frisbee and guitars in the infield.

The luminaria ceremony is an extended moment of sacred silence and solemn reflection.

The luminarias were an impressive display when they were lit by the volunteers. But they were nearly magical when the track lights were turned off, leaving nothing but a ring of fire and message spelled out in the bleachers: “Hope” and “Cure.”

Then, for the first time ever, team captains approached the microphone to read the names of those honored by liminarias. It took well over an hour to get through them all. I was surprised to hear my name twice, read once by my team and another time by a fellow Twitterer.

As we walked around the track, listening to each name ring out upon the cool breeze of a starlit night, it was impossible to ignore the enormity of cancer. I have done well to take my diagnosis in stride. Minimizing it. Seeing it only as another obstacle to be overcome. Confident that I will overcome it and live a long life.

But walking around the track, listening to each name ring out upon the cool breeze of a starlit night, many of which were in memoriam, it was impossible to ignore the number of people, equally brave and confident, who ultimately lost their battles.

It was also difficult to ignore the broken and empty lives each left behind, as many families sobbed openly into the night, as each name rang out upon the cool breeze of a starlit night.

I thought of my grandfather, Steven Vafiades, a World War II veteran who once operated a locally renowned pizza joint on Hammond Street in Bangor, Steve’s Pizzaville. Once he left the business to his son, he turned to his passion full time, buying junk and auctioning it off on Monday nights at Vafiades Landing on the Bog Road in Hampden.

He lost his wife early in life to lymphoma, but remained strong, a man of conviction and pride. Even though he had little in life, he would give whatever he had to you. He had what he’d earned from an honest day’s work and he loved his family and America. In many ways, he was larger than life, a husky Greek with a big smile and fire in his blood. 

But that all changed in the summer of 1995, when he was diagnosed with in operable cancer. I had returned home from college, not happy with my course of study and wanting to help out. I drove grandpa to his radiation treatments. Watched as this mountainous man was hallowed out and undone by a disease I didn’t understand.

As each name rang out through the night air, I felt ashamed that mine was among them, but his wasn’t, even though I knew he was there with me. Somewhere. At least in spirit.

Next year, his name will be there, too.

Randy Billings can be reached at

Sidebar Elements

(L-R) Me, my wife Rachael, my sister-in-law Krissie and my brother-in-law Gabe.

Messages left on luminarias at the South Portland Relay for Life.

A longview of the luminarias at the South Portland Relay for Life.

My luminaria.