October 12, 2011
Rose Mary Phillip
Jason Barnes may reach the height of his pro career on what was the worst day of his life.
If the Eskimos turn their now-guaranteed playoff spot into a Grey Cup championship on November 27, it will happen on the fourth anniversary of his mother's death.
An amazing woman
“She motivates my drive. That’s why I go hard every day,” says Jason.
Before every game, he kisses his red rubber wristband painted with “ANN” in white between two hearts and raises it to heaven to honour his mother.
“She was an amazing woman. Always had the right answer, loving, caring, very friendly, very personable," says Jason. "I could tell her anything. She was a one of those cool parents. You could come to her with anything and she wouldn't judge. I was probably the closest with her in my family.”
In 2006, the woman who gave Jason his smile and passion to help others began to slow down. She complained of kidney pain and shortness of breath. Doctors recommended exercise, chalking up her discomfort to lifestyle habits. It wasn’t. Eighteen months and six medical visits later, Ann was diagnosed with stage four kidney cancer. There is no stage five.
"I didn't know what to do. I felt like I lost her at that moment even though she was still fighting and still strong. I felt like somebody just pulled the rug out from underneath me. That was probably the lowest point I’ve been through in my life," says Jason.
Within a week, the cancer spread to Ann’s lungs. Soon, the disease would ravage her pelvis, hip, breasts and brain.
Never give up
Jason, whose upper body more closely resembles a canvas of art than human flesh, tattooed a heart with angel wings on his neck reading 'Never give up.' "It was a little motivation for her and a reminder to me," he says.
Despite the devastating diagnosis, life marched on. By day, Jason continued his studies, played football and tried to stay positive. Each night, he would sit by her bedside at Roseville Hospital.
Every day, it rains
Life was tough. "As soon as you wake up, lying in bed, you know all that stuff, it hits you. Everybody cried every day.” Everybody except Jason’s older brother Matt, a then forward with the Golden State Warriors NBA team – an accomplishment Ann was exceptionally proud of. The "backbone of the family," Matt held back his tears through the pain of losing his best friend.
Ann had a special relationship with all of her children. "At 23-years-old, she would still call me her baby boy," says Jason. "She still wanted me to lie down with her and cuddle. I was like 'Mom, I'm a grown-ass man. Come on."
But, as she lie in her twin bed at Roseville, six-foot-three, 185-pound Jason would crawl in next to her “just like I was her baby boy again."
A Merry Thanksgiving
On November 22, the hospital released Ann for six hours to celebrate Thanksgiving at home. The family also celebrated Christmas that day knowing she was not likely to see her favorite holiday again.
Jason and his sister Danielle decorated the house with ornaments, lights, a tree and all things festive. The frantic dash to get the house ready provided a much-needed mental break.
She couldn’t eat and walking was out of the question, but she loved every moment of her holiday surprise.
Four days later, while running routes on the field at Sacramento State, Jason got a call to return to the hospital. Immediately.
"I got there 45 minutes before she slipped into a coma. Her speech was slurred and she was losing motor control. She told me that she loved me and that she wanted me to graduate and she wanted me to sign a contract."
Matt had a game that night. He played. Ann insisted. Jason and his father, Henry, went to the game 140-kilometers away while Danielle and their aunt stayed at the hospital.
At 1 a.m., 27 days after diagnosis, Ann Catherine Barnes lost her battle with cancer.
"My dad was so hurt because that's all he's known. They were together for 20-some years. To lose your partner like that, I can’t imagine what he is going through."
The family honoured her wish to be cremated. "I think my brother has [her ashes] now. We actually switch who holds on to them. Whenever somebody needs them, we get them.”
Building her legacy
In 2008, the Barnes family, led by Matt, launched Athletes vs. Cancer, a charity to educate, raise awareness and motivate people to get regular cancer screenings – tests that potentially could have saved Ann's life.
Each year, AVC hosts an annual celebrity golf tournament and gala. This year's event was attended by Matt's current and former L.A. Laker teammates, including Kobe Bryant, and, more notably, seven kids from Los Angeles Children’s Hospital who received limo treatment.
All money raised goes directly to fight cancer. Earlier this year, their first screening van hit the streets in low-income neighbourhoods in Los Angeles to provide free tests to the underprivileged.
Life is a gift
There are lessons in every tragedy. For Jason it's to live life to the fullest. "People always say that but don't really take advantage of it until it's too late. You really don't appreciate something until it's gone. I definitely appreciated my mom but now that she's gone, I wish I could have one of our talks or do anything to see her one more time."
October 15 is Football Fights Cancer night at the Eskimo game. Be sure to get your moustache sticker and pink Telus bandana at the gates when the Eskimos host the Winnipeg Blue Bombers this Saturday at 5 p.m.
The Esks are also gearing up for Movember to help raise funds and swareness for prostate cancer. Check ESKS.com in coming weeks for information on how to join EskiMovember and support your favourite player.