Sometimes the brightest paths only reveal themselves in the dark.
At 3:59 a.m. Sunday, the heartiest walkers trod the route at Johnny Carson Park for the 19th hour of the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life in Burbank.
The crowds that packed the park in daylight were now asleep in their tents or at home. For the few still walking, candles lined the dirt track, their paper-bag housings inscribed with names of those who have died from cancer and those still fighting it.
On one bag, Kris proclaims love for Grandma. There are lots of bags for Norma. These are people I will never meet.
I see one for Bob Kinzel — I met him Saturday after he gave his pep talk to the hundreds of walkers ready to take the course after the opening ceremonies.
I also met Sal Piazza, his wife, Rose, and daughter Christine. Though Burbank's 10th relay has evolved into a support-group-turned-festival, Sal sticks to the original mission, completing lap after lap of the quarter-mile track and fulfilling the pledge he made to his family and donors.
At 4 a.m. the track is a lonely place, a quiet and cold loop that has no beginning or end. The memories and well-wishes of cancer patients and caregivers provide a little light, but they're not company. For that, there was Rose Worthen.
Around my second lap, I heard a little "Yay" to my left. It's the city of Burbank booth, and in one small chair is the small frame of Rose under a blanket. She waves pom-poms she made by tearing strips of purple and white paper, and she's cheering me on.
Rose is a night owl and she doesn't mind the late shift. As each walker passes, she offers her little quiet encouragement, shaking the fistfuls of paper.
Five years ago, Rose attended her first relay. In the ensuing months, she was diagnosed with cancer. By her second relay, she had to get special permission to leave her hospital bed to attend. Today, she participates in the Survivors' Lap to celebrate, in her words, "You survived another flippin' year!"
She helps me with a question that had been on my mind since I helped set up the Burbank Jaycees' tent 22 hours earlier. What is it about this disease that creates such a community? How did the Relay for Life go from one man running for 24 hours to symbolize cancer's continuous grip to a tent city offering support to victims, their families and all who form the support network for the stricken?
It's a time to recognize every last one of them, Rose tells me. The doctors, the spouses, the children, the ill — all have a role in a situation not of their choosing. Once a year they all convene, celebrate a year spent living and remember those who can no longer celebrate.
And though Rose's status is now changed to "survivor," her commitment to eradicating cancer and helping families is as strong as ever.
At the edge of the tent city, teenagers play tag. They take advantage of the parent-approved all-nighter to take over a corner of the park where no tents will be disturbed. The sun will be up in a couple of hours, and the game will last as long as their lungs and legs will let it.
I almost join in, but I commit to this lap around the track. There's comfort in knowing that if I wanted to — if anyone at Relay for Life wanted to — we could all join in a game and run until we're out of breath, our faces are flushed and we collapse in laughter.
This is a life worth living. This is worth every sleepless night spent in a hospital, worth every hair that falls out. If the journey we took could give a cancer patient one more chance to do something with that day, it was worth it.
And maybe on one of those days cancer will be beaten for good and we no longer will have to walk in the dark. We will run in the light, laughing.