It was the summer of 1980. I was 13 years old and enjoying my last summer of childhood innocence (although I didn’t know it at the time.) I had just graduated from elementary school and blissfully unaware of the drama that was to start soon in high school. I was a happy girl for the most part, enjoying a middle class upbringing in the suburbs of Toronto with a happy if dysfunctional family. Disco music was everywhere and the biggest night out for my friends and I was going to Scooter’s Roller Palace on Lakeshore and skating to the music and flirting with boys. Puberty had started and although my breasts were teeny tiny things they were something and worthy of my white cotton bra. Progress was being made.
I spent 16 hours a day outside, usually with a crowd of girls but also often alone. I loved reading books in the hammock in the backyard. A happy Saturday morning could find me immersed in a book. My mother never had a birds and the bees talk with me. Never. But I thought I was educated because I read so much. ‘Are You There God, It’s me Margaret?’ with the title characters’ longing to get her period and purchasing pads and practicing ahead of time. I bought a box too, just like Margaret, so I would be prepared when it finally came. Margaret was twelve. I saw the movie ‘Carrie’ and it frightened me how much it frightened Carrie when she got her period, thinking she was dying. Honestly I was just as scared as she was at the very beginning of the film in the shower and she starts to go hysterical and the other teenage girls in the locker room were so mean and throwing tampons at her but not one of them stopped to explain anything to her. That was different from me because I had learned a lot from my friends who had developed early.
It was a magical summer in that Terry Fox was running from coast to coast across Canada in his ‘marathon of hope’ and he was my hero. I thought he was cute and kind and I had pictures of him up on my wall. Down came Shawn Cassidy and Donny Osmond’s glossy magazine photos and up went newspaper photos of Terry Fox. I didn’t care that he only had one leg, I thought he was strong and selfless and beautiful. So beautiful in fact that I decided I wanted to join him on his run when he came through Toronto. He would be arriving here in just a few weeks so I trained every day, running a little longer each day because I wanted to be able to run as far as possible with him. It became my obsession to run with this 22 year old man.
The day finally came and my best friend Kiki and I took the train from the suburbs down to the east end of the city. Thousands had already gathered at Nathan Philip’s Square downtown and the roads were quickly lining up with spectators who wanted a glimpse of this national hero. We didn’t really have a plan except to follow Terry as he ran. We knew the route so we just sat on the sidelines and waited. We were both wearing adidas shorts, t-shirts proclaiming our admiration for Terry and our running shoes. It was a sweltering hot day and even in these small outfits we found ourselves sweating and marveled at the incredible endurance of this incredible man.
Finally we could see his silhouette in the distance, surrounded by a police escort and his ever faithful van that followed him and dozens of television camera crews. He had lost his right leg to cancer and his gait was cumbersome and distinctive. The crowd around us began to cheer and shout and Kiki and I stood up and stretched our muscles, ready to follow Terry when he ran by.
As I stood up I felt an unfamiliar cramping in my lower abdomen and wetness between my legs. I was confused.
“Come on, he’s almost here” Kiki urged as I stood, hunched over.
“I…don’t…think…I….can” I stuttered.
“Come on! Of course you can. You’ve been running for weeks to get ready for this.” Her irritation was evident.
“I’ve got cramps. I need to go to the bathroom.”
“Oh, come on! You’re just nervous.” I felt bad because Kiki loved Terry almost as much as I did.
“No. I can’t. I think I just got my period.” I managed to stammer.
“Ha ha. Very funny.” Even though Kiki was my best friend, the two of us had a puberty competition going on. My breasts budded before hers but she got the first pubic hair. This though, we put me ahead of her and I knew she would resent it.
“I’m not joking Kiki. I’m sorry but I really need to get to a washroom.”
“Oh, for God’s sake. He’s right here.” she said, exasperated as Terry Fox ran by us.
I stood up straight and waved at Terry who gave me and Kiki a huge grin and wave as he lumbered by.
Kiki stood there for a minute, tears in her eyes, watching the back of our hero as he continued his journey without us.
“Let’s get you to a washroom then” she said, defeat and anger staining her words.
We only had to walk half a block before we found a small diner.
We walked to the bathrooms at the back but the big guy behind the counter yelled “washrooms for paying customers only.”
I looked at Kiki who yelled “we’ll buy something when we’re done.” with such annoyance in her voice that the man just shrugged.
Thankfully the washroom had a sanitary pad dispenser and I rummaged around in my sack for a dime, put it in the dispenser, turned the knob and out one popped.
I went into the stall and although I didn’t feel well and was incredibly sad that I had missed my chance to run with Terry, I also experienced such relief and almost joy that my period had finally come and knew that this cramping was a natural byproduct of it and not something sinister.
I had practiced (following Margarets’ lead in Judy Blume’s book) with pads beforehand so knew what to do and within a minute I was good to go. There was a small stain on my underwear but my running shorts were mercifully red to begin with so I didn’t think anybody could tell.
“Well?” Kiki asked as I emerged from the stall.
“Yep. Definitely got my period today.” I shrugged.
“Today. Of all days!” she said.
“I know. I’m sorry our plans were ruined but it’s not my fault. Blame Mother Nature.” I said.
We walked through the diner and the man barked “you must buy something now!” and Kiki yelled “We did. In the bathroom.” and we giggled as we left the building. “Let him figure it out” she smirked.
“Now what?” I asked.
“I don’t know. We missed our chance to run with him. I don’t suppose you feel much like running now anyways.”
“No. I don’t. But we could take the subway to Nathan Philip’s Square and join everybody and hear Terry speak.
“Yeah. Okay. Let’s go.”
And we did and it was still a magical experience for the both of us and the thousands of people surrounding us who were swept up in his emotional story. “I believe in miracles. I have to.” he said. He was shy and nervous but his words and demeanor struck me as something so honest and pure that it felt like falling in love.
I went home that day wiser and I felt older and I was filled with hope for the future. For becoming a woman and giving to charity and for simply being alive.
Fast forward 31 years and every year across the world there are Terry Fox runs to raise money for cancer research. His memory lives on and his generosity of spirit has transcended to the masses and raised over 500 million. He taught us all a lesson and he taught me to pass it on, to think outside of myself even when things are personal. Because he never thought he was special, nothing more or nothing less than a human, and that what happened to him could happen to anyone.
I now am the mother of three teenage children, one boy between two girls and I have had the birds and the bees talk with them, many times. As a mother I believe there are things that one is obligated to teach their children; manners, how to swim, how to read and everything they wanted to know about their bodies but were afraid to ask. Any one of those could save a life.
I prepared a first period kit for my girls and put it under their sink and made emergency pouches to take with them to school every day, just in case. I’m willing to talk about it far more than they are and that’s okay because I can get a lot of information in a sentence and they can’t stop themselves from hearing it. “You get pregnant if sperm enters your vagina.” “Only boys have sperm in their penis” “Sex is not bad but it is serious”.
In the course of developing the female empowerment bracelet, my children have become aware of their cycles, and in my son’s case, in the cycles of all the women in his life and the world. He has helped make a few bracelets at his own offering and we’ve talked about the meaning of the colours and he has experienced first hand the wrath of pms. In grade 9 health class at the local high school, he had sex ed. One day he was asked to bring in a fruit or vegetable. When he told me his needs I immediately recognized the intent and importance of the task so dutifully browsed the local farmers market. The bananas worried me because they could soften which could defeat the lesson through embarrassment or humour. Likewise the cucumbers. They were just too big to be realistic and helpful. I settled on a cello pack of three zucchinis which seemed perfect size and shape for the task of putting on a condom. “Boy mom. You really want me to learn this lesson.” he said, when I gave them to him. “Yes I do. It’s your job to protect yourself. Plus I figured if one of your classmates forgot, you could share.” He nodded and put them in his back pack.
At the end of the week they had a test and he scored perfect on the female’s cycle. “Mom, your bracelets really helped me ace the female menstrual cycle.” I was so proud of him I couldn’t stop smiling.
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