Tuesday, February 22, 2011

When Lightning Strikes Again

Words are not able to fully describe the impact my wife, Sheila Underwood Voyles, has made on the many lives that have been fortunate to share time with her on their journey. It is my good fortune to have seized on my opportunity to enter her life when the chance arose. Our defining spark set in motion the forces of change that created a great life for our expanding family and me.

As we have aged, we have encountered our share of triumphs and tragedies. Radiant rays of blissful highs and dark shadows of terrible sorrow, unique to us, but similar to many others on their special journey. She has taught me that what happens to you, good and bad, is less important than how you react. That character shines on the brightest days and darkest nights. That family and friends matter because they share part of your soul. And most importantly, love is a state of mind that deepens over time as you allow others to embrace the real you.

In 2005 we came upon a crossroad of personal tragedy when Sheila's brother, Steve, lost a valiant struggle with Brain Cancer at the prime of his life.  The impact of his death lingered through the years as we grappled with the sorrows of life and the pain suffered by his survivors.  In the summer of 2008, we decided to establish Team Underwood Foundation to honor Steve's life by creating an event to raise public awareness and provide financial support for innovative research to find effective treatments of brain tumors.

The event created was named "Run to Remember."  Labor Day weekend of 2008, with logistical and financial support of our Southeast High alumni friends and the Underwood family, I ran from Steve's home to Southeast High School to honor his life and remember our shared experiences of more than forty years. Sheila, our daughter Sara, our nieces Courtney and Cathi accompanied me throughout the 108-mile journey down the highways of Oklahoma.   

The first Run to Remember rekindled the bonds of high school friendships and ignited in our family the healing powers of love and kinship. Although the event lost money, the embers of community service warmly glowed throughout the ensuing year.  We came away with the belief that we had taken a meaningful and fulfilling step toward unity and purpose.

In August of 2009, three weeks before our second Run to Remember, Sheila was diagnosed with a brain tumor that required immediate surgery.  A dark storm loomed on the horizon as we thought of what lie ahead for us.  Barely four years since the death of her brother and less than one year after the start of Team Underwood Foundation, lightning had struck again. 

Sheila chose to postpone her surgery until after the run. She knew what lie ahead and understood the urgency of the treatment.  But, by then, the Run to Remember needed her leadership. She wanted us to remember those who had succumbed to Brain Cancer and also, include those who still fought the daily battle.  The flash of lightning that brought the disappointing news also illuminated our resolve that a battle was engaged, our backs were to the wall and we must carry on the fight.

In her honor, I extended the run by starting at our home in Dallas, Texas.  The route went north to Steve's home then onward to Oklahoma City and the familiar site of Southeast High School.  The additional 120 miles made the second Run to Remember 228 miles long. Under Sheila's leadership, family and friends again joined together and produced a successful event.  The crowds along the way grew and the welcoming alums and friends continued their loyal support. Fundraising increased and we finally were able to make a meaningful contribution to research. 

Incredibly, in December of 2009, the storm returned.  Our three-year-old grandson, Carson, stunningly was diagnosed with a brain tumor.  Lightning rarely strikes twice in the same spot, what were the odds of three strikes in four years?  Brain tumors in adults are difficult to understand, brain tumors in children are demoralizing. They temporarily steal away you resolve, your hope and you faith. The mental pain is beyond comprehension.

Sara, our daughter and Carson's mother, had to make some fast and tough decisions. Time was not on our side as his tumor was robbing him of vision and possibly his life.  Our family circled together, and supported each other as Carson spent the next two weeks in Children's Hospital fighting to save his eyesight throughout the removal of the tumor. He arrived home just before Christmas, tumor free with vision restored. 

Four months later, two new tumors appeared. The team of surgeons felt it was too close to the first surgery to operate again.  They wanted to go on the defensive and wait for Carson to regain enough strength to endure the new surgery.  By now, our family had long ago given up on being defensive in the battle with brain tumors.  We knew in our heart that the best defense was an aggressive offense.  So, a new battle was engaged.  We researched, prayed, planned and implemented strategies to fight the tumor on our terms. By July 2010, Carson's tumors had disappeared without surgery. Today, he remains tumor free.

Again, on Labor Day 2010, I completed the most difficult Run to Remember to date. A 430 mile triathlon journey from Carson's home in Shreveport, La. through Dallas, turning north to Steve's home in southern Oklahoma and finally finishing in Oklahoma City.  We knew at the time of this event, that Sheila faced more surgery as soon as we closed the finish line.  But this was a  true journey of hope, celebration and triumph.  As our grass roots efforts and personal story emerged, numerous swimmers, cyclists, walkers and runners joined me in my long journey through the tri-state event. With the help of many volunteers, friends and supporters we were able to get substantial media coverage and rapidly grow as a grass roots organization.

A local news station followed beside me during the last painful miles asking how I felt and if it were worth the effort?  Did I think I had made a difference?  Tears of sorrow blurred my vision as I thought of all those people whose names were imprinted on my shirt. Tears of joy filled my soul as my family all accompanied me, lead by Carson, through the applauding crowd of friends toward the finish of our long journey.  A long journey of triumph and tragedy, through clear sun lit days and stormy lightning filled nights.  A journey not taken alone, but with countless friends and relatives who shared the same hope and faith that we are never truly alone.

So, onward we stride toward our next radiant ray above the life path we share.  Only, now we walk with hundreds of friends and family members under the banner of Team Underwood Foundation.  We share a deep lasting friendship and a common belief that individuals can make a difference and a groups of individuals working together as a team can be unstoppable.  

We invite you to join our team and journey along beside us, hand in hand, in our quest to make this world a better place through our actions.  As a famous philosopher once said, "Be the change you wish to see."