Photos by Meg Hibbert
There’s a 7-foot-tall decorated tree in the corner of Sue and Herm Reavis’ living room. At first, glance visitors might think it’s a Christmas tree that just didn’t get taken down, but it’s so much more: it’s a symbol of fighting cancer.
The tree in the couple’s Salem home is covered with 100 meticulously hand-tied pink, purple, teal, red, royal blue, green and more ribbons. They represent people Sue knows who either have cancer or another dread disease, or who have passed on because of a serious condition.
“It’s my Tree of Awareness and Encouragement,” said Sue, who started tying ribbons several months ago as a way to stand by her daughter, Tina Davis, who lives in Ohio and is battling Stage 4 metastasized cancer.
Tying ribbons is good therapy for Sue, she explained, who had a slight stroke a year ago on May 6 and has a tremor she works to control in her left hand.
Until now, she has shunned publicity except for posting pictures of individual ribbons on her Facebook page. She agreed this week to a newspaper article, with husband Herm’s prodding, to encourage other people to walk and donate this Saturday, May 13, in the Salem Relay for Life. The annual event to raise money for a cure for cancer starts at noon in Longwood Park.
Sue plans to walk at least one lap. “I promised Tina I would do it for her,” she explained. With Tina so far away, her mother worries, and feels helpless to do anything. That’s when Sue resorts to making ribbons.
“I’ve got a little corner set up with my ribbons and glue guns in the kitchen. Sometimes I feel like Cinderella – near the fireplace. When I need to relax I just sit there and make my ribbons and pray for each person,” she explained.
For her first ribbon, she found two spools of “white ribbon with the pink breast cancer ribbon design on it in the Salem Walmart. I go to the clearance bin and get my ribbons there and at Joann’s Fabrics, and go home and make them,” Sue added.
She’s learned a lot about different cancers and other dread diseases, and what colors of ribbon symbolize them:
- Light blue, prostate cancer;
- Burgundy, throat cancer;
- Orange, leukemia;
- Blue, colon cancer;
- Lime green, lymphoma;
- White, lung cancer;
- Gray, brain cancer;
- Teal, ovarian cancer.
There are other conditions and colors, too. COPD, light gray; a royal blue ribbon with a black overlay, for fallen police officers. A PTSD ribbon and star represents Sue’s nephew who committed suicide. It is centered with a heart for the family left behind.
“I have one ribbon that really makes me cry, a 2-1/2 month old baby boy who died of SIDS.” That baby-blue ribbon has a tiny doll baby she glued in the center.
And there’s a red ribbon for Sue herself, for stroke awareness. “I ignored the signs for one whole day. I was dropping everything, and really sleepy. I kept losing my balance,” the active 73-year-old said, encouraging other people not to ignore stroke symptoms.
Stars indicate the person has passed on, a cross for a prayer sister, or a butterfly. “I have groups, unfortunately,” Sue said. “Three ribbons hanging together which when you spread them out it looks like an angel. My daughter-in-law, her mother and daughter-in-law’s sister who have breast cancer.”
There’s a purple ribbon for Alzheimers, for her mother, Lillian King, who is in a nursing home. And a ribbon for her brother, who died in February of squamous cell cancer. And her cousin, Allen “Spankie” Spangler of Salem, who died three weeks ago and asked for a pig to center his ribbon. “He called me and asked me to come help plan his funeral,” Sue said.
“That’s the sad part, when I have to put a star on the ribbon because they’re gone. Sometimes I cry, sometimes I rejoice,” she said.
Originally Sue left the white lights on the tree after Christmas, when daughter Penny McNabb of Salem helped her put away seasonal decorations. In January Sue added pink lights to the slim “pencil-style tree” for Tina when she started rounds of aggressive treatments.
“I can’t describe the feeling I get from making ribbons. It feels like I’m doing something,” said Sue, “not just accepting that people have cancer and people die from cancer.”
One ribbon is for a person she doesn’t even know, whose relative came to do some work at the Reavis’ home and asked her to make a ribbon. Another is for the Virginia Tech mass shooting victims which she added on April 16.
Her 100th ribbon she put on the tree earlier this week, for husband Herm, who is a cancer survivor and battling another type, too. That ribbon is centered with the word “Radio” for Herm’s more than 50 years in local radio.
Soon she and Herm will have to turn the tree so there is more room for ribbons on the back side. Sue isn’t through yet.
“I’ve been asked if will put up a different tree at Christmas. Others ask when I am going to take it down. I don’t know. When I post on Facebook that I have put a ribbon on the tree for that person, they kind of act like it’s an honor. To me it’s ‘I’m proud of you and I’m praying for your recovery. It’s like I can do something.’ ”
She’s not giving up in her ribbon making, or her prayers. “There just should not be that many ribbons, this little close-knit group of people,” Sue Reavis said.