How do you begin to cope with the death of your child? J.T. Lindholm is answering that question, in part, by organizing a triathlon this summer. The event is a fundraiser for the family of an Eagle River girl named Maddy who died this month of ovarian cancer. Organizing the race has been a lot of work, but it’s also been a chance J.T. and his closest friends to channel their grief into a meaningful event.
On a recent evening, the little a triathlon is headquartered in a yurt, perched on a mountainside in Eagle River. This is Tony Perelli’s pottery studio. And Tony, along with the small group of friends assembled here, has been in on organizing the triathlon from the very first meeting.
“I felt sort of like, whatever it is, I’m making the awards,” Tony says. “That’s the role I want to play.”
The triathlon medals are drying on shelves nearby, clay rings stamped with the words little a triathlon.
Tonight’s mission is to make a dozen or so ceramic gifts to give away at the awards banquet. Tony grabs a square of heavy, dark clay and shapes it into a suitable mound for the pottery wheel.
The triathlon is named for J.T.’s daughter Avery, who died of brain cancer last fall, a few weeks shy of her third birthday. Two months later, J.T. ran a 5 km fundraiser for an Eagle River 5th grader named Maddy who had an aggressive form of ovarian cancer. That race gave J.T. an idea.
“I came to realize what would help me through my journey, would be doing something that got me from the role of supported person to one that supported others,” he says. “That would actually help me kind of move through life with my grief. And it also gives me a chance to continue to talk about Avery. ”
J.T. wants the triathlon to be a yearly event to benefit the family of a child with cancer.
He’s organized other race events, so he knew he was taking on a big project. There have been hundreds of tasks, large and small, like designing the course, finding a t-shirt vendor and settling on a date where the lake wouldn’t be too cold for the half mile swim. J.T., a high school teacher, says the work has filled a spot in his day where Avery used to be.
“She would usually nap until about 3:30 and so I would go and pick her up at daycare in the afternoon and we would have two plus hours every day to go outside and play,” he says. “And so in a way, I’ve kind of used that time every day to do something with Avery, it’s just without her there, without her present.”
Now, two months out from race day, most of the logistics are falling into place.
“The thing now is having people sign up for it,” says Becky King, another close friend who’s helping out.
The triathlon, scheduled for June 25th at the Matanuska Lakes State Recreation area, has 100 openings for individuals and teams. And right now only about half those spots are taken.
“That’s our next challenge, making sure we fill up those spots so we can raise funds for Maddy and her family,” she says.
Becky, J.T. and this group of friends want to make sure they raise enough money to really make a difference for Maddy’s family. And watching them work and talk on this one evening, in this tiny pottery studio, I can feel how much this goal means to them. They’re not just helping J.T. through his grief, they’re grieving together and turning that experience into something that will benefit a wider community.
They were all close to Avery. They loved her like a member of their own family.
“I always sort of dreamed I would teach Avery how to do things with clay or do things with wood,” Tony says, looking around the studio. “And so we’re kind of doing it together that way.”
J.T. says the amount of love and support he’s received since Avery’s death has been incredible, almost overwhelming.
“I don’t know what to do with it. You know what I mean? What do you do with all this love that you get? I hope to throw some of it right back at everybody, through this event,” he says.
Tony hands J.T. a teacup, and asks if he wants to stamp it.
J.T. picks up an old metal newsprint stamp, just one letter, a little a, and gently presses it into the damp clay.
A week later, Tony sends me an email. He says he doesn’t know quite how to express it, but the little a triathlon is an example of how J.T. and his wife Adrienne are choosing to focus on living, on experience and generosity. He imagines after Avery’s death, that must require enormous amounts of clarity and heart.
And that, Tony says, is a powerful gift.