Have you ever looked at someone and immediately felt a twinge of jealousy? You didn’t want to, but you’re human, and can’t help it. That person just seems to have it all: looks, personality, the perfect family, amazing educational opportunities, athletic ability and seemingly unlimited potential for their future.
Now, add to that list of attributes – a sunny personality, the ultimate can-do attitude, endless popularity, and the uncanny habit of always seeing the bright side.
I’m describing Claire Wagonhurst of Lutherville, Maryland.
The 17-year-old died in 2014 after a brave 3-year battle with adolescent melanoma. Throughout her fight, Claire always maintained the upbeat attitude she was known for. What struck me most is – Claire never told anyone (other than her immediate family) that she was fighting cancer. No one. Not her boyfriend, not her friends at school. She confided in her mom it was because she didn’t want to be treated any differently; complaining was a waste of time and she had more important things to accomplish.
After Claire’s death, I interviewed her family and friends for a story for WUSA9. They wanted to share their daughter’s story in the hopes that other teens and parents would learn more about this type of little-known cancer. A mole Claire had her whole life had apparently turned cancerous. Because melanoma is rare in teens, the doctors waited to remove it, and Claire’s mom Marianne Banister didn’t think twice about the delay. No one knows if removing it earlier would have saved Claire, but it’s something Marianne thinks about.
Now, that you know about Claire, I want to share with you the incredible story of a father’s love. Claire’s dad, Rocky Wagonhurst, says even though Claire has passed, she still “communicates” with him, mostly when he rides his bicycle. Rocky thought of a unique way to keep Claire close while honoring her memory. He rode his bicycle more than 600 miles to “take Claire to college.”
The teen was accepted to two colleges right before her death. Georgia Southern University and University of Alabama. Rocky says the “going-back-to-school” time of year is tough for he and his family. Marianne and Rocky, as well as Claire’s older sister, Hillary attended Claire’s senior class graduation. 149 students received their diploma; Hillary accepted Claire’s for her. They are keenly aware the rest of Claire’s classmates are going off to school, and Claire isn’t around to realize her dream. But, by riding his bike, Rocky says he can keep Claire near.
Rocky says he got the idea from watching a movie on TV one morning when he couldn’t sleep. “The Way” came out in 2010, and it tells the story of a father taking the journey his son was taking before he died. Rocky says that was the basis, but Claire is really responsible for the final idea, “It’s funny, because I think that Claire came up with this for me, because it’s not something I would have thought of doing.”
Rocky is 59 years old. He’s run marathons in the past, but has never ridden his bicycle this far a distance. Before you start to worry, know that Rocky paired with a bicycle touring company named Iconic Adventures that followed along in an SUV, making sure he’s properly hydrated and has enough energy.
Rocky knows riding 50-plus miles a day for 9 days is grueling, “For me, the only way I can really describe it is that I’ve run marathons before, you have a pain and you keep running.” He says the pain will be worth the benefit, “That’s when I feel closest to Claire. I just feel her all around me, it’s unbelievable . You don’t want to stop.” He says when he rides up a hill, he can feel her pushing him, “It’s a spiritual thing.”
Rocky left Charleston, South Carolina on September 11th, 2015 and arrived in Alabama on the 19th. And as promised, upon his arrival, he “brought” Claire to the ‘Bama – Ole Miss football game. Even though the family lives outside Baltimore. Rocky picked Charleston as his starting point because it was Claire’s favorite vacation spot, and the place she eventually wanted to settle down in, to open up a design business.
Along the way, Rocky met the most incredible, supportive people. As he approached the finish line in Tuscaloosa, Rocky was accompanied by members of the Alabama Triathlon game. The Million Dollar Band played them in. People cheered, including friends from Maryland. And of course, Justin Brown from Iconic Adventures was Rocky’s partner on the journey as well as an excellent photographer.
Rocky says, “For me, I’ve just been trying to figure out something for me as a guy, because emotionally we’re not built for all this stuff. We can take a tremendous amount of physical pain, more so than emotional.”Rocky says, “Cycling this route is a way I can honor my daughter, her amazing spirit and undaunted belief that we should embrace every moment.”
After the ride, Rocky shared this with me, “I am still trying to make sense of all that I experienced over those many days and hours cycling through the rolling countryside of the South with Claire. What I did discover is that the time on the road together created an even stronger bond between us than ever before and in the end I found that it wasn’t about me taking Claire to college, it was about Claire taking care of her dad.”
The family has started the Claire Marie Foundation with the mission to “raise awareness, clarity and hope in the fight against adolescent melanoma while celebrating the joy, color and beauty Claire embraced every day.” For uplifting updates, “like” the Claire Marie Foundation Facebook page. It is truly amazing to see all of the support Claire and her family and the fight against adolescent melanoma has.