It’s Sunday, September 21st, and Above + Beyond Cancer is beginning a new journey. Thirty-one cancer survivors and caregivers are starting their day at airports throughout the United States checking in for flights that would take us to Peru. The group consists of 17 cancer survivors aged 23 to 66 along with 14 caregivers. We’ll rendezvous in Atlanta and then fly together to Lima, Peru today. From Lima we’ll fly to Cusco to visit the ancient capital of South America and then we’ll journey on foot up into the Andes Mountains and on to Machu Picchu.
As I’m checking my bag at the Delta counter in Des Moines I engage in conversation with Jamie, the attendant behind the counter. She’s a friendly young woman with a big smile and welcoming “good morning”. She asks me about the Above + Beyond Cancer shirt that I’m wearing as she weighs my duffel bag and attaches the tag for it’s final destination. I tell her about our group and I show her the contents of my backpack. I’m caring with me over 100 prayer flags. They are brightly colored squares of fabric – yellow, blue, red, white and green – each decorated in memory of someone who has lost their life to cancer or in honor of someone who is going through the cancer journey but isn’t able to be with us in person on the trip. I share with her the faces, names and stories that each flag represents. Included in the bundle is my mom who died of lung cancer when I was in medical school. There’s Ivyl and his dog Zazz in a display of companionship peering up from a red flag that his wife Toshia made in his memory. And, there’s Chris, forever 22, smiling with joy from a green flag that his parents made to honor his brief but significant life.
Jamie’s eyes become pools of liquid and tears begin to fall. The prayer flags often bring out emotions, but for Jamie, these prayer flags bring a flood of memories with the emotion. Jamie tells me about her beautiful son, JJ. He’s blonde-headed, blue-eyed, 3-year old little boy. I can see his face and smile as she describes him to me as tears flow down her cheeks. JJ was diagnosed with leukemia when he was quite young. He faced his cancer journey with courage and taught his mom a lot about courage and compassion. Although JJ’s leukemia responded to the chemotherapy treatments, he developed complications that his small body could not survive. He died 14 years ago. But here today, he is alive and smiling in the eyes of his mom. I offer Jamie a blank prayer flag from my backpack and she creates a beautiful tribute to her little boy on the spot at the ticket counter. As she hands me my baggage tag for the duffel bag that I checked to Peru, she also entrusts in my care a green flag that is a memory and tribute to her beautiful son. JJ is going with me to Peru. He’ll ride with me in my backpack as we trek through the Andes Mountains. He will inspire me to live a life of purpose, passion and compassion. Whether we live to be 3 or 22 or 92, we vow to make the world a better place for all. Above + Beyond.