05/23/10 — Courage by candlelight

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Courage by candlelight

By Renee Carey
Published in News on May 23, 2010 1:50 AM

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Jeanne Butts arranges luminaria in honor of her mother, Rose, who died April 30 of cancer. Ms. Butts was one of the many people who lit luminaria Friday Friday at the Wayne County Relay for Life in honor of those who have lost and those who are still fighting their battles with cancer.

Those who stood around the many luminarias lit in honor of Goldsboro police Officer James Serlick wished he could have been there to see just how many people cared enough to remember him at this year's Relay for Life Luminary Ceremony.

But they did not dare have anything but smiles on their faces as they talked about their friend, a 25-year-old who was diagnosed with leukemia in 2007 and is still fighting.

A bone marrow test had put him back in a Winston-Salem hospital just this week, forcing him to miss not only the Survivors' Banquet, where he had was recognized as an Honorary Heart by the Relay for Life committee, but also the Relay itself, an event his friends and family said someone like James would not have wanted to miss.

If he could see them, they said, he would want to see a party -- no crying, no sadness, just a celebration of faith and hope.

Kristin White's best friend is Serlick's wife of five years, Paige.

She said she has learned a lot from the man who -- even when hit with such a severe diagnosis -- is still able to be an inspiration to others.

He is one of the strongest men she knows, Ms. White said.

"It is the hope and faith he has in Christ," she said. "(He trusts that) God is in control, whether he is here tomorrow or for 20 more years."

And that rock solid belief that his future is in good hands makes him an inspiration to all who know Serlick, said Pam Head, his friend and colleague.

"He is a fighter," she said. "He is very determined."

And that means in every way, Serlick's friends said -- even down to making sure those around him have the proper attitude -- a smile on their faces and courage in their hearts.

He also reminds his church family at Pikeville Pentecostal Freewill Baptist Church to remember just who is in control.

"He celebrates his faith every day," Ms. White said.

And that means even when the news is not good.

GPD Capt. Al King, who has been Serlick's boss on the force, said it is the attitude that matters when it comes to winning a cancer battle.

He knows firsthand. His wife, Joan, fought breast cancer.

"James has a lot of fight," King said. "He knows he is coming back."

His captain added that the young man's story has inspired those who work with him to face their own challenges with courage.

So as the sun set Friday, there was laughter in front of James Serlick's cluster of luminaria as all those present gathered to take a picture for him and Pam -- proof that their tribute to him was truly a celebration.

It is what he would have insisted upon.

A couple rows down the line, 13-year-old Austin Evans sat in the middle of a heart formed in honor of his uncle Phil Evans.

His uncle died in 2006 at age 50 after a six-year fight against lung cancer.

"I enjoyed going fishing with him," Austin said.

Also in attendance was Phil's brother, Steve. He and his family travel from Greenville each year to be part of the Luminaria Ceremony -- and to remember, along with Phil's Wayne County friends, just how much he meant to them. They also released balloons in his honor.

"He was honest, kind-hearted and got along with everyone," Steve said.

And even though Phil has been gone for several years now, Steve said he will continue to make sure he is in Wayne County every year to honor the brother he said inspired him with his courage and determination.

Across the walking track stood a tribute to another fighter.

Koko Durham can rest assured she is on the minds of her family and friends. Using more than 100 luminaries, friends and family spelled "KOKO," followed by another grouping in the shape of a ribbon.

Ms. Durham, 62, has been battling colon cancer for six years, with this past year being one of the toughest. Her niece, Brianna Durham of Goldsboro, said cancer has spread to most of her body and is putting added stress on her heart, which is pumping at about 10 percent, she estimated.

It is not easy, her niece said, to remain positive.

"This whole year has been hard on us," she said. "At first they said everything was working, now they're saying it's not working. She was in and out of the hospital, but now she's at home. She says she wants to be at home."

Brianna, who said Koko has been more of a mother-figure to her than an aunt, describes her as an outgoing, compassionate Christian who cares about everyone.

"She's always been there for me, going to my games, coming to my graduation and being there just to talk to," Brianna said. "She cares about her family, but also other people's families and their kids. She's my role model."

And that memory -- and the courage her aunt has shown throughout her illness -- are what Brianna and her family hoped to honor with the lights blazing in Koko's honor.

For Dee Durham of Goldsboro, it was one candle among the thousands that drew her attention.

She lost her mother to lung cancer and has been coming to Relay to honor her memory for the past three years.

A close friend accompanied her, she said, just to make sure she wasn't alone when she came upon the little light honoring her mother.

"I get so emotional," Ms. Durham said.

Her mother was not just her mother, she said, but her best friend as well.

"I could talk to her about anything," her daughter said.

And she was an inspiration, too, for many families other than her own.

As secretary of St. Mark Church for 60 years, she helped bring up scores of children who needed help.

"The last thing she told me was 'Please don't smoke," her daughter recalled. '"Whatever you do, don't smoke.'"

Coming to Relay, seeing her mother's name lit up among the thousands of others who have battled the disease, gives her a spiritual boost, said Ms. Durham, a former police officer.

"It brings some closure," she said, "but you never forget."

A few yards away, Kim Lafave lit three luminarias and leaned back to take a photograph of them. They represented three victories. Her father, her daughter and her husband have all beaten back various forms of the disease.

"All three of them are cancer-free," she said, smiling.

Her husband, Tom, normally comes with her to Relay, she said, but he had spent the day helping drive elementary school students to the coast for a field trip and had to catch some rest before going back to work. He has beaten testicular cancer.

Her father, Charles, had suffered from thyroid cancer. Her daughter had cervical cancer. Her father now lives in the mountains; and her daughter is stationed at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. They are far away, but for a few moments, they were standing beside her.

"I've come as long as I can remember," Mrs. Lafave said.

A teacher at Spring Creek Elementary, she said watching people search for their loved one among the rows of luminaries was touching -- both sad and uplifting at the same time.

For those who gathered to remember Billy Wells, there was fresh pain among the memories.

His first name was spelled out in luminaria -- a framed photograph of him as a smiling young man was inside a heart of lights, the message "Forever in our hearts" captioned underneath it.

The 31-year-old former sheriff's deputy died of a rare non-seminoma testicular cancer on March 3. He had his life to look forward to, including an engagement to C.C. Stribble.

His parents, William "Buster" and Lisa Wells, knew when they heard the diagnosis that the news was not good.

"The non-seminomas are your not-curable cancers," Mrs. Wells said.

But even though they are sad about how his life ended, his family said memories will keep him forever in their hearts.

"He was a very fun-loving, loved life person," Mrs. Wells said. "Everywhere he went, he made friends. He fought hard for 17 months, and 14 of those 17 months, he really knew that a cure wasn't to happen, but he never gave up. He kept going and going and going to treatment, hoping that something would happen."

His mother was touched by the 70-80 luminaria that honored her son -- some of which had been purchased by people she did not even know, a testament to his big heart.

Mrs. Wells said she was not only thinking of her son Friday, but of all the other people who were battling cancer -- what, she said, her son would have done if he were there.

"I am hopeful that there is a cure for these people that are still fighting," she said.

And one of those people she will be thinking about is James Serlick -- another law enforcement officer, she said -- and now, a friend.

"James checks with me on Facebook to see how I'm doing when he needs to be concerned about how he's doing, and I keep up with him a little bit, and I wish that he could be here tonight. I hate that he's fighting," she said.

In the meantime, she will honor Billy by celebrating those who have beaten back their cancers and raising money to continue to find a cure.

"Every time I talk to someone who has actually survived, it's wonderful," she said.

If there is one thing Billy taught her and his father, Buster, it is that faith and courage are important in any battle.

"I just want people to continue to believe in miracles and prayer," Lisa said.

"Never give up," Buster said.

"Never give up," Lisa echoed.

"That was one thing he was strong about, never give up," Billy's father said.

"Until he took his last breath, he fought with everything he had," Lisa added.

And Billy's fiancee said her husband-to-be's memory is why she believes in Relay -- and why she encourages others to continue their efforts to fund the research that will find a cure.

And for many of those who gathered Friday, the lights represented just that -- hope, that one day there will not be a reason to light them at all -- the day when that cure is found.