My first year in Rhode Island I missed every chance to experience WaterFire or to share it with visiting friends and family. I saw WaterFire for the first time when I first volunteered late in the season in 2008. I came alone and experienced the night featuring an evening of Divas singing opera. I’m not an opera buff but the music and the performers were enchanting. So I came back for more, volunteering with the Special Ops team, made friends with Mary Tinti and soon became a regular and an expert at torchbearing. . .

So here is My WaterFire Story. Just three days before the Gloria Gemma lighting in 2008, I learned of my diagnosis of breast cancer. When I spoke to a social worker, she said that perhaps it would be too much for me to go to WaterFire because she knew how powerful the event was. But once again I came alone to WaterFire, and did my Special Ops duty in Waterplace Park, managing the crowd as they anticipated the arrival of the survivors carrying torches from the State House to form a circle around the basin. Not one person in that crowd knew my story, but I knew many in that crowd knew exactly how I felt that week.

That night was my first time on a fire tending boat. So after my connection with the survivors as they carried their flames of hope, I was on the water feeding the bonfires, seeing the crowds and hearing the music which gave me a whole new perspective.

At the end of the evening as I walked to my car, I didn’t know what was in store for me on my health journey. My hope was that I would be back in 2009 on the October evening when the State House would be once again bathed in pink, and survivors would light their torches of hope. That night I called Mary Tinti as I walked to my car and told her of my recent diagnosis and how powerful the evening was for me. Mary said she would keep my secret and pray for me.

My breast cancer battle was a whirlwind. Because of early detection and immediate treatment, my doctors talked of cure, not just treatment. I updated Mary telling her my good news. As the fires began for the 2009 season, I came as often as I could for Special Ops projects, meeting new volunteers, and talking with the crowds as we mingled with them when the torches move through the crowds. When I came to the Gloria Gemma Flames of Hope Celebration in October 2009, as a WaterFire Special Ops volunteer, I now came as a survivor myself. I was proud to be a part of the crowd on the State House expanse, watching the faces of the crowd and receiving hugs from my WaterFire friends who now knew of my journey. I felt truly a part of the artwork.

Photo by Drew Christhilf

Thank you, Barnaby, for creating an artwork that brings the community together. By combining water and fire on quiet summer nights as the sun goes down, we all work to create delightful evenings of art in the center of the city. The flames at WaterFire are symbolic of the preciousness of life. For all of us with our own special reason to be there as the fires shine forth in honor of survivors, thank you for bringing the community together to celebrate our cause. To my WaterFire friends, I’ll see you again soon, on a future evening when the sun sets in Providence.

-Ellen Edwartoski
Lincoln, RI

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