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The Race

by Jeannette Jan Labbe – Sistership Calgary

Her heart is pounding. Tears are glistening in her eyes. The dragon boats are jockeying for position at the start line of the race course. She breathes deeply while clutching her paddle tightly.

The starter shouts, “Boat One, two strokes forward! Boat Five, hold! Boat Three, back up two seats!” She has too much time to think. Her thoughts drift to the beautiful daughter she has just buried who had died of the breast cancer that she has survived. In her mind she rants, 'It's just not fair! It just isn't fair to lose my daughter this way.' She takes in a ragged breath and taps her life jacket pocket that carries the picture of her precious daughter.

As if sensing her wandering thoughts, her steers person yells, “Eyes in the boat!” She struggles to focus on the task at hand as do the other 19 paddlers. Her eyes travel up the boat to the stroke girls. She reminds herself, 'Keep in time! Just paddle! One stroke at a time! You can do it!' This is a special Breast Cancer Survivors Dragon Boat Race and she vows to do her daughter proud. “This race is for you honey,” she whispers to the wind that caresses her cheek.

The starter's bull horn bellows, 'Racers Ready!' The six dragon boats are aligned in their lanes and ready to conquer the 500-metre race course ahead. Her paddle, along with the other 19 breast cancer survivors' paddles in her boat are buried deeply in the water in the start position. Everything is still. The silence is only broken by the far-off cries of the gulls soaring above the racers. Another bellow from the starter, “Attention!” sets hearts racing. Then the air horn blasts and the race is on.

Twenty paddles pull together and lift the heavy dragon boat out of the water and on its way. The drummer hammers out the beat while yelling, “One, two, three, four, five, six. Up!” Water is flying, teeth are grinding, muscles are screaming and eyes are focus up the boat for timing. All twenty paddlers stroke as one. The steers person is braced while the drummer hugs the drum as she shouts encouragement, “Sit Up, Sit Up! Reach!” The dragon boat jumps in spurts with each strong pull of the 20 paddles. She moves in unison with her fellow 'sisters'. She is in this race!

It is a hard race but all of the women on the boat have waged a much tougher battle with breast cancer. They race to celebrate the thrill of life after cancer and they race to remember those who are no longer with them. It is a 500-metre race that seems so much longer. The spectators, family and friends lining the shore, are enthusiastically cheering the paddlers on. The roar of the cheering gets lost in the wind and rush of water before it reaches the paddlers; but they can feel the encouragement and support traveling across the water.

At the halfway mark, she feels that she cannot go on. Each tortured breath barely fuels her screaming muscles. She looks up the boat for timing as well as for the finish line which seems so far in the distance. She silently cries out for help from her daughter. Suddenly, like a wind beneath her wings, her paddle strokes are longer and stronger. She finds her breathing deeper and more powerful as she plants, pulls and swings her paddle back to stroke again. The drummer yells for a power 10, that is 10 harder, more powerful strokes to keep the boat going.

She easily finds the strength to do her part in pulling the boat through the water. The call from the steers person goes out, “Finish it, girls, finish it!”.

She puts all she has left into the final strokes. With tears streaming down her face, she finishes the race, with her daughter by her side! As she catches her breath, she looks down to the empty space beside her; but all she feels is the gentle caress of the wind on her cheek. Looking up she sees a dragon fly whirling away with a little loop as if to say, 'See you in the next race, Mom!'.