They called themselves "The Unit." They grew up playing hockey together, starting at six years old and sticking together until they went away to college. They were as inseparable as young men can be. One of them was my brother.
Every one of them lost a mother to some form of cancer, mostly breast cancer. All but one.
Growing up playing hockey in Upstate New York is singularly bonding for everyone involved. Most of us learned to skate on ponds or frozen lakes. Long, cold winters guaranteed plentiful ice time. Hockey players congregated at the best ponds (one of them we called Maple Leaf Gardens because of the surrounding maple trees) and chose up sides. Often, the games lasted well past dusk, until the other players were hard to see - the puck impossible. Nary a grown-up was in sight, save the occasional mom conscripted to stand in front of the goal - represented by two boots about six feet apart - with a snow shovel. She was the goalie.
"Little League" hockey awaited most, starting early in grade school. Even in the frigid Northeast, ice rinks were few, far between and expensive. Most of the parents got to know one another shivering at five AM, coffee keeping them both warm and awake, waiting for the first of the day's games to begin. They sat on cold aluminum benches, watching an often indistinguishable clutch of ten players gathered around the puck, legs churning furiously, moving at barely walking pace. One of the little mounds of gear would swipe mightily with his stick, fall dramatically and score a perfect strike toppling all of the other players. The referees, imperfectly hiding their laughter, skated over to untangle the mess and point them toward the lonely hunk of black rubber that would define many of them for decades to come.
Most of these young men grew into remarkable athletes, dynamos of power, speed and fearlessness. As a group they represented their high school, winning games and championships, finding glory for themselves. At each turn, there were the moms, carrying gear, passing our snacks and cheering in between long conversations. They were an even more consistent presence than the business trip prone dads.
The first Unit mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in her middle 40's, somewhere in the 1970s. The disease was often fatal. She progressed to the point where she lost the ability to read, among other gifts, and died during her oldest son's junior year in high school.
That kept up for several years, each mom receiving the grim news in her turn and passing shortly thereafter. Medical research made progress but the victims faced an uphill battle, each knowing that they were more likely than not to lose their breasts, their hair and then their lives. None of these women had yet lived to see fifty.
Then it came for my mom. I had a small daughter, and my mother raged at never seeing her grow up. Reassurance fell on deaf ears - how would any of us know if she was going to live? All of her other friends had died. She was right, of course.
It wasn't a miracle that she lived, while all of the others died. It was modern medicine's relentless, unceasing battle to first prolong and then to save the lives of breast cancer patients. The right diagnostic tools, the right surgical procedures and effective though debilitating drug therapy finally turned the odds in a woman's favor.
That was thirty years ago.
The Susan G. Komen Foundation has played a huge role in funding research, providing early detection and bringing this disease out of the shadows. Survivors are celebrated, victims mourned - each of them respected for the heroism they showed in the face of a very grim reaper. Every year the survival stories grow, the toll fewer, but only because of the refusal to give up, and give in, and the hard work of those who have dedicated their lives to the survival of others.
Okay, their recent decisions involving Planned Parenthood were handled...poorly. Regardless of where you fall on the subject of PP, Komen made a mess of the whole damn thing. Got it.
There isn't a young man among the unit who could care any less. They couldn't do anything about their moms, but their wives and daughters stand a remarkably better chance of surviving breast cancer. Why? Organizations like Komen.
Send them a nasty letter, if you like. But enclose a check, even if you are only doing it in memory of the Mom's of the Unit.