While waiting to undergo a PET scan in March that would reveal the primary source of the cancer that had metastasized to lymph nodes on the left side of my neck, I was approached, softly, by a man who must have recognized me from my hockey coverage. He said he had heard I was having problems, twisted one of those ubiquitous yellow bracelets off his wrist and said, "Here."
Under the circumstances, the only appropriate response, other than a quick tear, was a quicker "thank you" as I tugged on that perfect 21st century symbol that uniquely combines a sunburst of cheer and a tacit inclusion in the First Church of Lance Armstrong.
Other than gratitude for a random act of generosity, I was unsure how I felt about grabbing a pew. The only thing that makes me as uneasy as totems in general is Armstrong in particular. I have never covered road cycling. I have never met Armstrong. I do, however, have opinions. His clean-as-a-whistle seven Tour de France victories after overcoming testicular cancer, in a notoriously drug-ridden sport, stretched credulity—could Armstrong be the sole figure of probity?—even as he combatively maintained his innocence against accusations by former teammates and friends.
The contextual difference between Armstrong and, say, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, of course, is my yellow bracelet. Until the government gets a conviction, the allegations of Armstrong's doping—and now, damningly, from former teammate Tyler Hamilton, a buried positive test—are simply what many people think we know about the most accomplished cyclist of his generation. But this is what we absolutely do know: Since the Livestrong bracelets, designed by Nike, were introduced in May 2004 to raise money for the Lance Armstrong Foundation, some 70 million have been sold, part of the prodigious effort that he has spearheaded for the past 14 years and that has contributed $325 million to cancer research and education and to services for survivors. Even if, as some have suggested, the whole Livestrong thing has been a fig leaf to cover needle tracks ... well, those bracelets aren't plastic, they are solid gold. "There's nobody I can think of—no nonmedical person—who has had an impact like Lance Armstrong on cancer awareness and fund-raising," says Dr. Michael Hier, my oncological surgeon.
As with cancer conversation, much of Armstrong conversation is faith-based. To some, a successful government case against Armstrong would forever change the modern concept of a hero. I don't see it that way. I don't really care if the next Floyd Landis or Tyler Hamilton says he has proof Armstrong was climbing the Alps with rocket fuel steaming out of his ears, because Armstrong is transcendent. The man already has founded his First Church. And why not? Since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg almost 500 years ago, religions have been mutating at a dizzying rate. You can now pick and choose, finding the best fit. You don't have to swallow the whole canon, just as you don't have to buy the Armstrong bluster. So I figure you can worship at the First Church of Lance Armstrong without worrying about doping. You get to parse Armstrong, taking what you want or maybe what you need. See, at his most vulnerable, a man really does hear what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. (Maybe this is also the Church of Simon & Garfunkel.)
Strange, I must have typed that someone was "battling cancer" 100 times in almost 40 years of writing sports. The words just tumbled out together, like "crafty lefthander." It recently occurred to me that the phrase was right, but I had the primary combatants all wrong. Once your immune system breaks down, the battle is actually between rogue cells and these smart, dedicated people in white coats. While I have a serious rooting interest, for now I am basically the court where the contest is being waged—the old parquet at Boston Garden without, I hope, the dead spots.
In the past few weeks I have found out something about my bracelet benefactor. Keith Parker is 63, a semiretired house painter. He has had two cancers; the second one forced doctors to cut out half his tongue and remove a portion of his throat. (Both were rebuilt using a muscle from his thigh.) In an e-mail Parker wrote, "When I was sitting in the waiting room waiting for my treatment, I looked up and saw you sitting there and every so often looking at your wife and giving her a smile. I know that smile as I did the same 10 years ago with my wife. It was a smile that said, Wow, here we are, and I don't know what I am getting myself into, but we will get through this and come out stronger. That is why I decided right there and then that you were the one who was going to get the bracelet." He added that this particular bracelet had come with a signed note from Armstrong himself. Parker has asked that when I am cured, I pass it on.
I no longer wear the bracelet. (Plastic or gold, it's uncomfortable.) But it sits in an honored place in the entrance to our home. I may not accept Armstrong's stonewalling in the face of all the accusations. But I accept that he helps men like Parker pay his life forward, to keep putting one foot after the other with a smile on his face. At the Church of Lance, we count our blessings along with our beads.
The contextual difference between ARMSTRONG AND BONDS OR CLEMENS is my yellow bracelet.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW