I had a tough time deciding what to write about for this week’s column. It’s our "Hero" issue, so I felt like I should write about a hero in my life. But I haven’t experienced anything life-threatening (knock on wood) where I’d need a hero to rescue me from an otherwise looming tragedy. I couldn’t believe I didn’t have a hero (or at least I didn’t think I did) to write about!
In search of inspiration, I looked up the definition of "hero." For the record, professional writers consider the classic "Webster’s Dictionary defines (insert topic of story here)" a literary cop out. So, I apologize to any of my fellow writers I’m about to disappoint.
I learned that, dating back to Greek mythology, a hero has been defined as someone who displays great strength and courage and is celebrated for bold exploits. In mythology, it’s often the offspring of a mortal and a god.
After reading this, I immediately knew who I’d write about: Heather Ray. Our health story this week tells you more about her, the heroic life she lived and how it was unfortunately cut too short due to a long battle with breast cancer. But I want to tell you about my personal experience with her, and how she touched my life after spending one short day with her.
I met Ray last October though our Bras with Flair on the Square event. We held a contest for people to nominate a breast cancer survivor, and then readers voted on who they thought should win a pamper package. Ray was nominated and won by a landslide.
A made-over, freshly-pampered Ray was scheduled to be the grand finale of our fashion show at the event. I wanted a video to run on the jumbotron on Fountain Square so that everyone could hear her story before she walked out on the runway. So I went to the spa to do a video interview with Ray before she began her day of pampering.
Ray hobbled through the spa doors on her crutches (she lost a leg early in life to a different kind of cancer), her hair thinning from all the chemo and radiation her body had endured. She had every reason to be depressed and grumpy. I curiously watched Ray as the stylist worked on her hair. Ray simply smiled the whole time, as if she didn’t have a care in the world. It baffled me to see how genuinely thankful and happy she was.
When I got the opportunity to interview her for the video embedded below, I learned why she was so thankful and happy. It wasn’t because of the pampering (albeit, I’m sure that helped!). It was because she battled with cancer from such a young age, came toe-to-toe with death more times than she could count. She considered every day borrowed. She said her bad days helped her appreciate the good ones.
She said she was thankful for her diseases and treatment in some ways because they put other challenges she faced into perspective. She participated in day-long Spinning marathons and raised more than $30,000 for Susan G. Komen for the Cure Cincinnati. She lost a high-powered, high-paying job in the midst of a divorce. But none of these challenges were more difficult than her battle with cancer.
In our interview, where she was just given a clean bill of health, Ray said, "Can [the cancer] come back? Sure it can. It’s a realistic thought. But I live for my kids. My kids need a mommy."
She lost her battle with cancer in February this year, and now that line haunts me.
There, right in front of me sat a real-life hero. She exhibited great strength to bravely fight numerous kinds of cancer over the course of several decades. She found the courage to stay vigilant and continue treatment because her two little girls depended on her. She’s celebrated for her bold exploits of raising large sums of money for breast cancer research and inspiring thousands through her personal experience. And while she might not literally be the offspring of a mortal and a god, I think the big man upstairs sent her here for a short time to let us meet a true earth angel.
When I learned of Ray’s death, I sobbed. I felt like I cried a tear for every day she had to battle those deadly diseases, for every worry she had about supporting her family without a job or a husband, for every day those two little girls would have to live without the mommy who loved them so dearly.
I’m crying again just writing this. She affected me more than some people I’ve known my entire life — and I only knew her for a day. She inspired me to be better, enjoy life more, hug my loved ones a little tighter and put all of my challenges into perspective because they couldn’t compare to hers.
Heather, if there’s Internet in Heaven and you’re reading this, I want you to know how thankful I am to have met you and learned your story. You have forever affected me. You truly are my hero.