ZEBULON — Steve Naylor almost kept it together.
The first three hours were easy – the sun blazed, music pulsed, and Naylor could hear the laughter of children bounding around in an inflatable bouncy castle nearby.
Then, Relay for Life organizers turned off the flood lights, leaving only a trail of paper-bag luminaries tracing the field behind Carolina Mudcats stadium.
Naylor, who wore shorts and a purple shirt, knelt on one knee next to three of them.
The bags represented three people: Naylor’s mother, sister, and a friend who recently died of prostate cancer.
The emcee asked for moment of silence.
Then, a bagpipe rendition of “Amazing Grace” oozed from the loudspeakers.
Naylor, a prostate cancer survivor, wept.
He didn’t cover his face, but stared directly at the glowing bags. Candlelight reflected off the tears emerging from under his glasses.
The song continued – “my chains are gone, I’ve been set free, my God my savior ransomed me” – and soon, Robin Pirkle squatted next to Naylor.
Pirkle knows Naylor’s pain. In 1991, her brother, Robert Worstell, died of cancer. He was 9 years old.
Pirkle’s camera hung from around her neck as she leaned nearer to Naylor’s ear. She whispered something and he answered back, gesturing toward the paper bags as his eyes remained transfixed.
Minutes passed before Pirkle stood up, leaned over Naylor’s right shoulder, and hugged him for several moments as the drone of bagpipes faded.
Naylor stayed kneeling, staring at the memorials to three loved ones claimed by cancer. He would later say: “You never know which key unlocks the door to a cure.
“That’s why I’m here.”
Naylor, of Wake Forest, and Pirkle, of Virginia, were just two of hundreds who gathered in Zebulon on May 17 and 18 to raise money for the American Cancer Society. The EastWake Relay for Life organizing team lured donors with food, live music, a dunking booth, and various other forms of entertainment like “Bra Pong.” To win at bra pong, contestants had to bounce a ping pong ball off a table and into one of several bras tacked against a board.
For survivors though, the event provided a venue for reflection and reunion.
Joyce Clark and her daughter, Teresa Bowman, walked around the makeshift track talking about their triumphs. Clark, 79, beat breast cancer 37 years ago.
“Doctors told me not to be surprised if I woke up and was minus part of my body,” Clark said.
And that’s what happened.
Bowman was diagnosed with ovarian cancer last August. She also underwent surgery. Her last radiation treatment was on her birthday, Dec. 3. The next day, doctors told Bowman she was cancer-free.
“We were pumping gas at the Exxon in Knightdale” when the doctor called, said Bowman, whose salt-and-pepper hair has started to grow back in. “We said a prayer right there in the old Buick.”
Survivors, including Knightdale’s Bowman and Clark, repeatedly credited their prolonged life to determination and faith.
So, too, did Donna Medlin of Wendell. Medlin was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1990.
“I had my mind made up that I was gonna get through it,” she said.
Doctors gave her a 30 percent chance of survival. But, after a bone marrow transplant and a mastectomy, she is cancer-free.
Medlin insists she never thought she’d die. But she says she’s reminded of the close call every day when she looks in the mirror. That’s why she returns to the East Wake Relay for Life track every year.
“When I come out and walk that survivor lap, I have a funny feeling in my heart and tears in my eyes because I know that, without God, I wouldn’t have made it,” Medlin said.
Medlin and her husband, Glenn Medlin, waved to passers-by as they sat in fold-out chairs next to the track. As his wife retold her story of survival, Glenn Medlin smiled and shook his head.
“Each year you’re cancer-free deserves a celebration,” he said.