Looking For Closeness Again

  • Community   Friday, May 13, 2022   Matthew Harris
Julia Wilkinson, left, is pictured with sister, Jane, and her late mother, Mary. Wilkinson is giving her time to help with this year’s Canadian Cancer Society Relay For Life, the 1st one she’ll have been able to attend in person since her mother’s passing

Julia Wilkinson, left, is pictured with sister, Jane, and her late mother, Mary. Wilkinson is giving her time to help with this year’s Canadian Cancer Society Relay For Life, the 1st one she’ll have been able to attend in person since her mother’s passing

For the first time since 2019, the Canadian Cancer Society’s Relay for Life will once again take to the track at Stratford Intermediate School. The event offers a chance to reflect for those whose lives have been touched by cancer, and the chance to celebrate those who are no longer with them.

For Julia Wilkinson, it will be her first Relay – and the first real chance she’ll have to celebrate her mother’s memory in that way.

When Mary Wilkinson got her cancer diagnosis in April 2020, Julia returned home after quarantining for two weeks and was with Mary when she passed away on Feb. 18, 2021. But because of the pandemic and the restrictions on public gatherings, she wasn’t able to celebrate her mother’s life with others who had suffered similar losses or, in some cases, who had survived the disease.

“Because last year was my first-ever Relay for Life, I’ve never had the opportunity to participate in an in-person relay. I imagine that this year’s in-person event will be emotional for many, including me,” she said. “Although everyone’s story is different, we share a collective purpose: to show that together, we are bigger than cancer. When we all come together after what, for many, has been a very isolating time, I imagine that will be an incredibly powerful, cathartic moment. My mom loved the bagpipes and I know that, when the pipers play during the luminary celebration, that will be an emotional moment for me and my family – as it is for so many.”

According to Julia, Mary Wilkinson was always willing to drop what she was doing and make the lives of her children easier. Their biggest cheerleader and supporter of her children’s goals, Mary was there for it – no matter how far-fetched it might have seemed.

“My mom was always there for my sister Jane and me – no matter what we needed or when,” she said. “Whether she was driving us to swim practice or piano lessons, helping us with math homework or proofreading our essays… she encouraged us to be ourselves and do what we loved. As a teacher in the community for many years, I know we weren’t the only kids who benefitted from her infectious enthusiasm and infinite encouragement.”

It was odd when Mary became sick, since she felt the need to apologize to her daughter. Julia recounts her mother’s hatred of the disease making her family so sad and leaving her unable to help the way she was used to. But she expressed her gratitude every chance she got when it came to the small things her family helped her with, making sure that when the day arrived and she wasn’t there any more, they would be okay.

“I think it was hard for her to let us step in and, probably for the first time, take care of her,” Wilkinson said of the situation. “She was always so appreciative and thanked us constantly, even for little things like helping her order Christmas presents online or washing a load of laundry. And on the days when she had enough strength, she would use it all up doing things for other people, like teaching my dad to make her famous gravy. Throughout her 11-month illness, she did what she could to maintain her sparkle so that we could remain hopeful.”

With the return of that much-needed human connection to Relay for Life, Wilkinson knows it’s going to be a jumble of emotions for her and everyone else there. Knowing there is no right way to feel is one thing, but sharing a common experience on multiple levels is something else entirely. And having lived through a cancer diagnosis with someone so close to her, Wilkinson says it’s important to get what they go through as well as what those close to them experience as well.

“My mom was so strong – steely strong – but, on may days, couldn’t see her own strength. Every day brought up different emotions – for her and us – and I learned there’s no ‘right’ way to feel. Everyone has their own way of coping, and it’s important to remember that just because someone isn’t reacting the same was as you, doesn’t mean their reaction is wrong,” she said. “We all have different tools in our toolbox. The important thing is that, as a family, you do the best you can to stick together – and I’m proud to say my sister, dad and I did just that. By supporting one another, you can better support the person in your life with cancer.”

The Stratford Relay for Life (scheduled for Saturday, June 11 from 5:30-10:30 p.m.) will be following all public health guidelines and recommendations to ensure everyone’s safety, and the fundraising goal for Stratford is set at $60,000. It is estimated that two out of every five Canadians are expected to be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime, and if people take any message away from this year’s event, Wilkinson hopes that people will feel just that – hope.

“Hope is powerful and should not be underestimated – some days, hope can be hard to hold on to, but June 11 will not be one of those days,” she said. “Personally, I am looking to keep my mom alive by continuing her legacy of helping others – whether that be through fundraising, captaining a team, or simply helping reignite people’s hope… Relay for Life allows me to feel close to her, even though she’s no longer here.”

Those wanting to register for the event can do so by logging on to