Cook: The annual Christian Bryant column

Cook: The annual Christian Bryant column

October 16th, 2016 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Christian Bryant races for Girls Preparatory School. This morning, 70 runners will race in her honor during the Seven Bridges Marathon.

Christian Bryant races for Girls Preparatory School. This...

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

Each year, around this time, I try to write a column about Christian Bryant.

She was a moral wunderkind, with the brightest of futures — graduating Girls Preparatory School, where we crossed paths, toward Georgia Tech and environmental engineering; she was a respected runner; her life rich with family, friends, God.

She was a giant.

Then came the giant-killer.

In 2011, she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. She fought and fought, like a hospital- gowned Ali or Rousey, but in May 2012, she died from rare complications.

She was 18. Her family — Chris, Robyn and sister Bailey — buried her in her graduation gown.

Each year, I write to honor her.

And her family.

And others — fighting, winning, mourning — in the midst of leukemia and cancer.

This particular Sunday seems like a good day for this annual Christian column. It's the Seven Bridges Marathon. Somewhere in the morning dark there'll be 70 or so runners, all part of Team Christian Bryant, many wearing T-shirts imprinted with a silhouette of a lean, pony-tailed runner.

That's Christian, still running through them.

Yet swirling all around them — and us — is this ugly storm of politics. I'll confess: After the last debate, I was tempted to write this Sunday not about Christian, but about presidential politics, or the lack of. It would have been an angry column. Something to beat back this grotesque tide.

Then it hit: Writing about Christian is more urgent than ever. Stories of compassion, courage and human gentleness? These days, telling such stories has become an act of civic duty.

"Saving and changing children's lives [who] have pediatric cancer is of much greater importance than the stuff going on in the political world," said Scott Sandlin.

Meet Sandlin. He's 52, works at Shaw Industries in Dalton, Ga., and he and his wife, Cara, are dear friends with the Bryants. Dinners together. The lake house. The beach. When Christian died, a part of them did, too, which maybe explains why, four months after her death, Sandlin found himself at the starting line of his first 5k.

He'd never run a step before.

"Couldn't even run a mile," he said.

It was as if the running part of Christian stayed alive in him. Sandlin ran another 5k. Then a half-marathon. Another. Then eight more. Then a full marathon.

"I always wear a shirt honoring Christian," he said.

Earlier this summer, he competed in the Ironman Chattanooga, which felt like Ironman Sahara. On a particularly desolate stretch around mile 12, a dehydrated Sandlin suddenly heard cheering.

It was Christian's family: Robyn, Chris and Bailey.

"I cried like a baby," he said.

Crossing the finish line in a gutsy 13 hours, he looked up. The first person he saw? Robyn.

"I thought about your girl a lot out there today," he whispered.

This morning, Sandlin will be racing again, wearing his Christian shirt. Somewhere nearby is a check for $17,000. During his Ironman training, Sandlin raised money to split among three causes: one of them is the Christian Bryant Foundation.

It helps families whose kids have cancer.

It supports the new children's hospital at Erlanger.

"We're very active with St. Jude's at Shaw," Sandlin said. "But most kids have to be treated locally. We need the money locally."

Seems like every big race, there's a story like this. A father racing on behalf of his hospitalized son. A man with brain cancer still running marathons. There among the suffering, running provides a sturdy metaphor: one foot forward. Then another. And another.

"It's a weird thing," Sandlin said. "It has really changed me as a person. I don't know why."

The most-told story of our day is politics. The most untold? The way our hearts open for others. The way their suffering becomes ours. The way the darkness never lasts.

"In spite of my confusion, I trust that something positive is coming out of having leukemia," Christian wrote in her final English essay.

Nothing trumps that.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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