How do we honor those no longer with us? A favorite quote on a monument? A bouquet of flowers left graveside on a birthday?
For one grieving grandfather, it was a 900-mile trip by mule from his home in Maryland to the campus of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.
Tom Cashman’s granddaughter, Erin, was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer of the soft tissue, when she was 12 years old. Erin passed away, but as a memorial, her grandfather wanted to raise funds and awareness for St. Jude.
Awareness was a given.
“It’s not every day you see a mule riding through town, so I thought it would draw attention anyway,” Cashman said upon arriving in Memphis one autumn afternoon in 2017, surprisingly upbeat for a man who had just spent 12 days in the saddle.
Cashman, riding on Homer the mule, stayed as near as possible to main highways, using maps and GPS on his son, Patrick’s, cell phone to navigate to Memphis. Patrick followed his father in a truck pulling Homer’s trailer with a sign reading, “Riding for a Cure.” “We took secondary roads and tried to hit state parks because you can camp at some of them with horses,” Cashman said.
In preparation for the trip, Cashman, recently retired as manager of a thoroughbred farm, consulted with police who told him there was no law against traveling by mule as long as he stayed off the interstate. He laughed, “I said, ‘Well, Homer’s too fast for that anyway.’”
People along the way kept his spirits up by honking and giving him a friendly thumbs up. “One time we stopped to get gas and somebody gave us a $20 donation,” he said. “I thought that was pretty cool.”
On Cashman’s 200-acre farm in Maryland, Erin would often visit to ride the mules, and Homer was her favorite. “I used to put her in the paddock, and she and her friends would ride. So I thought, you know, she can ride with me in spirit.”
As he stood petting the mule’s nose, he described Homer as being “quiet, laid-back and easygoing.” And so is Cashman himself, but his face lit up, and his speech quickened when talking about his granddaughter.
She was a great girl. You know how sick she was, but every time you went in to see her, she said, ‘Enough about me, how are you doing?’ That used to tear me up because she always thought about others.
Though he was the one who had just ridden so far south by mule — a feat most wouldn’t, or couldn’t, accomplish — Cashman was in awe of the work being done by St. Jude and the fact that families whose kids are in treatment never receive a bill for anything.
Families never receive a bill from St. Jude for treatment, travel, housing or food — because all a family should worry about is helping their child live.
“It’s the greatest thing in the world,” he said. “I mean, that’s the last thing a parent needs when their child is sick is to worry about bills. How do these people keep going? Well, maybe I can do just a little something to give back, that’s the reason I got the idea to do it. I hope and pray that it never stops, because I think they’ll find a cure someday.”