It was too late.
It was 1968, and Jessie Mazzelli’s Aunt Jessie was in Detroit, dying of breast cancer. Mazzelli’s mother, determined to be at her sister’s side, made the transatlantic trip all the way from Malta, a little island nation in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.
But Mazzelli’s mother arrived in the United States too late. By the time she got there, her sister was dead.
As one life was lost, life around it went on, and changed. Following the funeral, relatives from Powell River brought Mazzelli’s mother back with them to B.C. and she liked it so much she decided she wanted to move there.
“She said, if everybody agreed, we’ll go as a family; if somebody disagreed, we’d stay in Malta,” recalled Mazzelli, who was 20 years old at the time.
She herself had always dreamed of emigrating from the island, so she was happy to go. The decision was harder for a young man named Frank Mazzelli, but “he said OK,” and the two were engaged, married a few months later in Powell River and had three sons and now seven grandchildren. Just this month, the couple went on a picnic in Ladysmith to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary.
Over those years, Mazzelli has never disregarded the disease that took her aunt’s life. Like so many Canadians, she watched Terry Fox try to cross the country on his Marathon of Hope in 1980 and marvelled at his bravery. Three years later, Powell River held its first Terry Fox Run.
“I said, I have to do this in memory of Auntie Jessie. Because of her we’re in Canada. And I kept it [up] ever since,” Mazzelli said.
What separates her from other Terry Fox Run participants is her fundraising. Over 33 years, including the past six in Nanaimo, Mazzelli has collected more than $32,000 for the Terry Fox Foundation. Every summer she sets down her cross-stitching for a couple months leading up to the event and instead spends hours upon hours knocking on doors in her neighbourhood, sometimes staying out so late that her husband has to pick her up because it’s too dark to be out walking. This year Mazzelli filled 24 pledge forms.
It isn’t always easy soliciting donations, and a handful of people are rude. But others have come to recognize her and assure her that they look forward to her annual visits.
Mazzelli had further inspiration this year, as a cousin is now fighting breast cancer. There’s a history of the disease in her family, but Mazzelli said she isn’t scared. It’s hope that motivates her, hope for a cure.
“That’s the reason I keep on doing it…” she said. “Hopefully I can keep doing what I’m doing … and God knows what’s going to happen next year. But I do my very best.”
She’ll keep participating and filling pledge forms, she said, until she can’t walk anymore.
“I have people, when I knock the door, say, ‘I had cancer, and I’m cured,’ and this makes me feel good,” Mazzelli said.
Because it goes to show – sometimes it’s too late, but sometimes, it’s not too late.
Jessie Mazzelli’s story continues an ongoing feature series profiling Nanaimo residents and their stories. To read a previous article in the series, please click here.