It was a typical winter Saturday night in downtown Nashville. Visitors packed the street corners of Broadway as wailing guitars and the rhythms of country music filled the evening air. The Ryman Auditorium was hopping with fans, longing to see their favorite performer. The signature “Batman” building topped the skyline of one of the country’s most rapidly changing and growing cities.
As I took the short stroll from the Suntrust Building to the Bridgestone Arena, I wondered what this evening would bring. The Nashville Predators were hosting the New York Rangers on this big hockey night for our town. But my excitement was not simply due to the game itself. You see, our Women Survivors Alliance was the chosen charity of the night, thanks to the generous support of the Predators Foundation.
Arriving with handfuls of give-a-ways in our backpacks and crates, Cindy Chafin and I really didn’t know what to expect. Our table in the arena lobby was filled with WSA information and our survivor volunteers were ready to pass out smiles and hugs of support along with the gifts.
Then we waited.
And from the moment those arena doors opened, we were surrounded. Our first visitor was from New York. Her name was Kim and she was a survivor. Proudly displaying ribbon tattoos on both her ankles, Kim shared her story of survival and the pain her parents and family endured from the fear of losing her to the disease.
Another Ranger fan, on an NHL bus tour crossing the country, then stepped up to the table. A survivor of ovarian cancer, this New Yorker didn’t hesitate to grab a photo opp with another survivor, who just happened to be a Predators fan.
Another woman, and another, then another came by to share their stories. Karen was from Franklin. Her last chemo was Thursday. On this, her first day out, she asked her husband to bring her to the hockey game. Linda arrived from Cincinnati with her entire family. Her future son-in-law was a Preds fan and they made the trip down for the game. Both parents had recently fought cancer and the trip was her get-a-way. A bouncy Gallatin woman, sporting a blinged-out Preds hat, showed off her brand new tattoo, honoring her best friend who has just passed with cancer. The tattoo was a teal ribbon surrounded by a simple word – HOPE.
Finally, a portly gentleman with a silver beard and cane graced our presence. He looked familiar – Santa Claus to be exact – but with the few long, white strands down his back gathered by a Preds-gold scrunchie, he eerily resembled an aging rock star. Not knowing what he might say, I welcomed him to our table. He just wanted to come by and say thanks. His 94-year-old mother had just been given the all-clear just a few weeks earlier. and he wanted us to know he appreciated what we did.
One by one, they came. One by one, they shared their stories. Scores of stories.
On this night, The Predators took home the win on the ice. As a loyal fan, my team pride was fully on display. But as I made the walk across Broadway and glanced back at the packed arena celebrating a victory, my eyes filled with tears as I recalled those scores of heartfelt stories.
Totally drained, I finally made it home and collapsed on the bed. as I laid my emotionally exhausted body down to rest and reached for the phone charger, I took one last glance at Facebook.
Kim. Our first guest. My newest friend. She had friended me at the arena and made a comment on my evening adventure post. “Thanks for sharing my tattoos honoring my parents and their guidance through their spirits on my road to recovery and keeping me cancer-free, one day at a time.”
While the Preds take another run at the Stanley Cup this year, it was me taking home the gold on this night. Somehow, even at a very spirited hockey game in downtown Nashville where one wouldn’t seem to think about cancer, the stories found each other – stories of life shared within the spirit of the survivors themselves, their families, and amongst the joy of tattoos – and yes, even with Santa Zeppelin. And those stories launched a community of gratefulness. In the midst of others – even for just a few moments before the game and during intermission – a newly united team celebrated a win together.
The arena scoreboard showed a home team win. But for me, the true winner of the night wasn’t celebrated on the ice, but in that lobby, by a newly formed team of all jersey colors, all tattoos, all ages, all cancers, and all stories of inspiration.
Our ad-hoc team’s final score on this very special night: HOPE 1; cancer 0.