I attended my first Relay last night without Austin. I knew it was going to be hard and it wasn't something I looked forward to. Austin was a part of Relay from the very beginning and I couldn't imagine being at one without him. This event was not our hometown so I only had to attend the beginning. As much as it hurt, I still needed to be there to thank my volunteers and talk with survivors about our programs that are there to help them.
Somehow, I made it through. I like to think he was helping a little from above. Whenever I would pause and think about him or get teary-eyed, someone would come up and give me the hug I needed. It was like they just knew. In some way, he was still there, smiling down on the event and helping Mom get through it.
Austin was only 3 years old at his first Relay so he basically grew up on the track. He loved being there and on our family team. As he grew older, he became my late night buddy. I've covered between five and seven Relays a year, sometimes traveling to several in one night. Most of my counties were about an hour away from each other so he would ride with me to keep me awake.
He loved attending other Relays, to meet other people and see what goodies the teams had to sell. His pockets would always be full of dollars as we started our way around the track and empty by the time we headed back to the car. I loved the one on one time it gave us, as managing Relay For Life events did keep me away from home a lot. Several nights through the week, I wouldn't arrive home until he and Noah were in bed. I feel guilty I missed out on so many nights but I know he understood. At least I was working those hours for a worthy organization and not climbing the corporate ladder.
We enjoyed the rides from county to county and the later it got, the crazier we were. We'd drink sweet tea and Mountain Dew and crank up the radio to stay awake until we reached our next destination. It gave us time to talk and spend time with each other. I also knew it was teaching him valuable lessons of giving back. I've raised both my boys to volunteer, to lend a hand, to help someone when they need it most. Relay is a wonderful example of the good that can be accomplished when communities come together. It was certainly a lesson he took to heart and for that I am proud.
As I've mentioned before, he became our Team Captain when he was nine years old. Back then, I normally had multiple Relays in one night. He would be a little disappointed he couldn't be my travel buddy, as he had to stay and "man the camp" at home but he was happy to do it. I was proud of him though for taking the lead role and ensuring our family did their part, even when I couldn't be there. Last year, I switched roles in the organization and was no longer responsible for Relay events. It was the first year I truly got to enjoy Relay as a participant and spend the entire night at my home Relay with my favorite Team Captain.
It was a crazy night, as torrential rains hit hours before the event. We were chaotically switched to an elementary school gym and our campsites shrunk drastically. The plans we'd make to decorate were cut short but we made due. Our campsite theme was "Happy New Year" and we'd spent the weeks before building New York skyscrapers (which were ruined in the rain) and a working ball to drop at midnight. Austin was behind the scenes on all of it, drawing out the idea months in advance. We didn't get to win Best Campsite as he'd hoped but we did win "Best Team Costumes". That wasn't even something we were trying for, our family just had fun dressing up! It wasn't our typical Relay but it was a good night. Austin was there til the end and we were one of the few teams still in the stands at Closing Ceremonies. As we walked out, he was brimming with ideas for this year's event. I was ready to put my feet up and rest from the night but he was ready to go, yet again!
I hesitated this year, not knowing whether or not to go forward with a team. In the end, I knew as hard as it would be, Austin would have wanted it. Noah has jumped right in his brother's footsteps and taken charge. I see so much of the good that was Austin shining through his little brother. I think it has been healing for our family to have this activity to do in his memory. It will be hard and I know many tears will be shed next month when we take the track but again, I know he'll be smiling down on us and helping us through it. We're proud to share the legacy that Austin left behind.