Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Two Trees in the Storm

 As I sat here today thinking about my terminal cancer diagnosis, I remembered something that happened in 2014 on the anniversary of my first son's death. Isn't it strange how miracles can dot the path of life, so we can overcome future obstacles?

Two trees stood at the back of my old house, guarding it through the days and nights. One, a massive willow, felt like the heart of my world, strong and everything I hoped to be. The second tree grew to be a wisp of a thing, always struggling to live. It might sound bizarre, but it somehow began reminding me of Zeke—my boy who died at the children's hospital.

A knot formed in my stomach. I'd had to take my son off of life support, and it hurt more than anyone will ever know. The moments flashed through my mind, and I struggled for breath. I could see him fighting so hard to live even as life finally left his little body. Why did the memories still hurt after so many years?

I got my four kids to bed that night and knelt next to the couch. "God," I prayed, trying to find the good, "thank you… for everything you've given me, even if you had to take some things away."


My gaze turned to the back window. Darkness blanketed the outside world, but the porch lights shone on my special trees, and I watched as they jerked back and forth in a vigorous wind. Local news stations warned residents that "the worst windstorm of the century" would hit us that night and winds would reach 85 mph.


I worried for the tree that reminded me of Zeke as thunder boomed, shaking the entire house. I almost wished it would've woken my four kids up—I needed the distraction—but they could probably sleep through the apocalypse. My eyes remained glued to our backyard where the little tree's branches wept in the wind. The trunk bent so far that the upper branches touched the ground, and I couldn't take it anymore.

The back door swung so hard when I opened it, and I had to clutch the doorframe just to pull myself outside. It felt strange, having nature push me straight against the house, reminding me of sky diving, when I'd fallen through the skies and the air carved my face into a jackal's smile. But I wasn't falling this time, I was watching my baby tree… die. 

I tried running forward to hold my tree strong, but the wind slammed me into the house, pinning me there. Couldn't the large weeping willow do something—anything? Hadn't it always protected the baby tree just like I'd protected my son? Maybe both of us were helpless against nature and God's control.  


My baby tree cracked, and when one of its limbs flew against the house, the wind stole my tears. The tree cracked again, and another branch twirled oddly, barely hanging on. That's when I couldn't take it anymore.


"God," I screamed, praying into the night, "don't let it die. Please don't. It reminds me of Zeke, like part of him is still with us as long as this tree's here. Please save it, God! You had to take MY son, but don't take this symbol of his life too!"

I waited a moment, held my breath… and the wind actually changed. Although it rushed harder than before, it came from a different direction.


The strong, peaceful willow bent over and wrapped its branches around Zeke's tree. I sobbed harder, watching as the bigger tree, got the brunt of the attack. Willow branches flew around the yard. It took a harder beating than the baby tree ever had because the new winds sought death. 


The baby's branches swayed, then tilted up to a regular position. It danced slightly but remained unscathed as the willow continued whipping about, fighting with everything it had. I turned my attention to the huge tree. It was a painful sight, something I'll never forget. Because the willow started dying... just so the baby could live.


Something profound struck my heart. The willow hadn't represented me. The whole time, the willow had represented God. And the little tree, the one who had such a hard time standing alone, had been… me. 


An overwhelming truth hit me: Some things happen for a reason to strengthen people, to give us thankfulness and gratefulness for things we still have. 


The battle raged on, but I found lasting peace through that storm.


God saved my tree that night. He saved both trees, and I realized He'd been looking after them the whole time, just like He's looking out for me—and for all of us.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Make Mistakes

 My grandma was an incredible woman. We got extremely close after my first son passed away. This happened because she started calling me on the phone every single day after his funeral, and although it seemed excessive at first, we somehow became the best of friends. 

Sure, we had our differences. She liked pecan pie; I enjoy banana cream. She liked baking while I prefer sewing. She lived a devout life as a Mormon while I was raised born-again Christian and later left Christianity altogether. Despite that, love bound us tightly together, and every Saturday I’d call to relay a terribly crude joke (which she’d politely laugh at) and then we’d talk about whatever lessons she could impart about life.

It’s been quite a while since she died—over 16 years—and I thought I knew almost everything about that woman. Yet, I’ve been recently surprised after reading through something my cousin gave me…

After my grandma passed away, family members found what she’d called her “happiness file.” This is basically a recipe box she’d repurposed to cheer her up when things felt bleak. I never—in all of our conversations—suspected she’d suffered from depression, but she did. It’s true that many of the most congenial people can hide crippling emotional struggles under a veneer of happiness. Maybe that’s how my sweet grandma could be at times. Maybe…

It does seem that my grandmother understood the huge difference between happiness and joy. Happiness is something that comes and goes. It is as fleeting as the wind. But JOY is a mindset. Joy—at its root—is synonymous with the word persevere. We decide to seek out joy even amongst the hardships. We CHOOSE to find the good even in dire situations like cruelty, death, and untreatable illnesses… While happiness is kindling to get the fire going, JOY works as the coals and oxygen to keep it ablaze.

My grandma’s “happiness file” worked as this kindling, leading to more sustaining lessons. But as I’ve lifted index cards out when I need a lifeline from Heaven, I’ve been shocked by how timely some of her messages have been.

Last week, I’d been dealing a lot with regret and guilt. It’s ironic that these feelings came right before Rosh Hashanah. The past few years, the week before Rosh Hashanah, our family has pulled out a loaf of bread and symbolically placed all of our sins into it. I know it might sound ridiculous, but the loaf seemed to go bad even faster than normal—I must sin A LOT! This year, we gathered with some Jewish friends and fed pieces of this “sinful bread” to the fish. I did feel a lot lighter, sending these sins away. 

I couldn’t help pondering over the rabbi’s words about how we know we’re asking for forgiveness during Rosh Hashanah but God isn’t asking us to be perfect. We aren’t even meant to be perfect—and that’s okay. God KNOWS we’ll sin again and again.

“I just feel so bad about certain mistakes—bad things I’ve done,” I told a friend.

“Did they make you who you are?”

“Well… Yes.” It’s odd that each bad choice, each twist of circumstances led to exactly where I’m at today. And although sometimes I desperately wish I had never gone to tanning salons or gotten burned in the sun—because that ultimately led to my ongoing fight against terminal cancer—I have learned so much from my predicament. In fact, I’m not sure if I would take a trade if it meant losing who I am today.

Anyway, that night after the kids had gone to bed and everyone seemed much lighter after discarding that “sinful bread,” I decided to pull out my grandmother’s happiness file.

With shaking hands, I eagerly opened the box and pulled out a card she must’ve written on over 30 years ago.

“Make Mistakes,” I read the words and scoffed. I couldn’t imagine my sweet little grandmother making mistakes OR encouraging people to do the same. But somehow it did make my feel better. I guess we are all human, and these “bad” choices helped us become the people we are today. 

I guess my realization for today is that knowledge can cost a high price, and—in the end—I paid with experience. I don’t want to be the oblivious person I was before my fight with cancer. In some odd way, I’m glad for the mistakes and glad I’m here. I’ve learned enough to make different choices and that knowledge is worth more money than I can imagine.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Undergoing Radiation Again

 "I can't do radiation again," I told my oncologist last month.

"The melanoma is growing. You have new tumors in your pelvis, and we're concerned about the mass in your brain."

I nodded. "But I've done radiation so many times. It doesn't seem to be getting easier."

She turned somberly. "I'm sorry you're going through this, but right now, this is your reality. Think about it. Okay?" She opened the door before leaving the exam room. "It's your choice."

I ended up agreeing to undergo radiation, but after my first session last week, I felt unbearably ill.

"Are you okay?" Trey asked after I'd woken him up for school at 6 a.m. "You're going back to Utah this morning?"

I nodded. "I have to leave for my appointment if I'm gonna get there at 10. You're okay to get Indy up?"

He's the sweetest kid, bringing his little sister to school when I get treatments in Utah. He hasn't complained once.

I gave him a hug and walked toward the door. "Mom?" he said. "I know it's hard, but I... I wanted to thank you for fighting so hard. I don't say it enough, but I love you, and I'm proud you're my mom. If I know how to be strong, well, it's because of you."

Hours later, even after I arrived at the cancer center, tears filled my eyes as I thought about what Trey had said. I changed into a hospital gown and other words drifted into my mind. "If you're ever having a really hard day," a friend named Jeanette had explained, "please open this." She'd mailed me a tiny gift (about an inch and a half long by an inch wide). I brought it with me into the radiation waiting room and stared at it. Maybe this truly was a "really hard day." And before I unwrapped the tiny gift, I remembered my first experience with radiation. 


“I’ll be right here in the waiting room,” Mike had said.

I feigned strength as techs led me into a room with all sorts of large whirring machines and flashing screens. After I rested in something they called a "nest" for my back radiation, they placed a mask over my face and said they'd need to bolt it to the table.

Horrified, I listened as something whirred near my ear—something which sounded suspiciously like a screwdriver.

That’s when my mind went wild. I couldn't do it. I just couldn't. I freaked out so badly that a tech barked urgent orders before more whirring began, and the radiation team removed the mask.

My lips quivered. “I can’t do this! I can’t!” My voice rose to a ridiculous level.

“Listen, Elisa. You have no chance without radiation. No. Chance. Don’t you want more time with your kids and your husband?”

I bawled. “I know I need to do this, but—I feel like I’m getting buried alive or something.”

“Wait,” a tech said. “You heard her talking about her husband. We need to go get him.”

Mike rushed in mere moments later. “Hey. Hey. You’re okay,” he said. Although his face betrayed shock at seeing what radiation entailed, he gently placed a hand on me. “You’re gonna be okay. Don’t worry. I have an idea.”

I nodded and bit my lip.

“Close your eyes, Elisa.” I breathed in, shut my eyes, and listened to his voice.

“Okay. I need you to imagine you’re a violin... ”

I hung onto his every word. As his deep voice relayed minute details about what I should visualize, his love encased me instead of the body mold.

“You’re getting fixed up right now. They’re going to shine up your wooden surfaces. Work on each part.”

The techs gently pressed the mask against my face.

“They’re polishing and refining you, tuning your strings, adjusting your bridge.”

I breathed strong, steady breaths.

“You’re just going to get fixed up a bit. You’re a violin.”

“We need to step out now,” a tech said after screwing the mask back in place. “She’s quiet this time. She seems okay.”

The table slid, rocking me as it jostled. More lights bored forward, penetrating even the face cage and my closed eyelids.

I imagined that God inspected every part of a violin. The heavy encasings around my legs buffed my surfaces and stained my edges. God would come so I could be perfected, cleansed, and refined.

When the radiation machine stopped, I somehow embodied peace.

Mike’s voice echoed off the walls as he rushed into the room. “You’re done! You did it!”

When they removed the mask, a man asked Mike, “How did you think of that? How? It was brilliant, really.”

“I don’t know. It just came to me.”


That happened in 2020, yet here I sat in 2023, almost as terrified as the first time. I closed my eyes and prayed that God would help give me strength, and then I opened the tiny gift from my friend, Jeanette. I stared in disbelief at the miniature violin in my hand. She’d sent me a beautifully detailed charm that reminded me of Mike and his words from almost three years ago: "You’re a violin [...] They’re going to shine up your wooden surfaces. Work on each part.”

"Elisa, are you ready?" a tech asked.

With tears in my eyes, I responded. "Actually, yes. Yes, I am."

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

RING THE BELL Becomes No.1 Bestseller


I got featured in the Idaho State Journal! 😮 This is such an incredible feeling. Here's my favorite quote from the article: "It [Ring the Bell] is about my fight with terminal cancer," she said. "It's about how just because doctors have told me I'm dying, it isn't an excuse to stop living."
You can read that full article here: Local Woman's Terminal Cancer Memoir Tops Amazon Charts.

"I thought the mole on my wrist wasn't a big deal," she [Elisa Magagna] said. "If I had gotten it checked sooner, my cancer might not have been as bad."

More information about "Ring the Bell" can be found on Amazon at Ring the Bell.

A Godwink from Grandpa

No one can avoid death; maybe it's best to come to peace with mortality now. We were all born, and we will all die. But sometimes, that's a hard reality to swallow when people are young. 

My cousin Farrah's oldest son committed suicide, and we've all been devastated. Justice was a pretty incredible guy, so much like our grandfather. I guarantee at 26 years old; he had no idea what this would do to his family and friends. He was the third person I knew who committed suicide in a year. All of these people were healthy and young, while I battled even for an ounce of life. 


Since Justice reminded me of our grandpa, maybe that's why I started thinking about the past…


As a single mom, I used to frequently bring the kids fishing. I'd heard about a lake we'd never visited before. People raved about a spot where the water descended quite deep and giant fish lurked. While the kids and I walked, I thought about how unpredictable life can be. A few years before, my grandpa had gone to fix an A/C unit and had fallen off the roof and hit his head on a curb. He ended up dying a few days later.


After arriving at our destination on the other side of the lake, these thoughts abated. We'd just begun fishing when a man walked toward us. I thought he wouldn't come too close because there's an unspoken rule amongst fishermen that you don't go right next to people. But he did! 


He stayed quiet for a while, and soon, we introduced ourselves. Then his kids played with my kids, and after a bit of time passed, we talked about some pretty profound things: our hopes, dreams, and fears. At one point, Sol got extremely serious and said there was something he regretted and had even felt guilty about.


"What is it?" I asked.


"I rented a little house, but the A/C unit had something wrong with it, so I called the landlord." He sighed, struggling to get the words out. "The landlord was older, and I felt bad calling him in the first place. But… I called anyway. The landlord got up on the roof." Despair overtook Sol's face as he peered despondently into the trees. "He fell off of the roof, and he died."


At this point, I felt taken aback. "What… "I paused. "What was the landlord's name?"




It became hard for me to breathe. "Clan Stilson was my grandpa," I said. Then seeing the shock in Sol's eyes, I continued. "Sol, you have to let this go. It's incredible that I'm meeting you here while fishing today. My grandpa may have brought us together so you could have closure. He would never hold this against you. He died, but it was his time to go." 


Sol and I both found such peace that day and have stayed friends over the years. 


After Justice died, I thought about this memory and prayed for Farrah before going to sleep. Maybe that's why I had such a lifelike dream.


I walked around a massive apartment complex in Heaven. It loomed far into the sky, more luminous and iridescent than I could fathom. I didn't know why I was there, and finally, a few people said I should look for the maintenance man. "He can help you." As I searched, tenants explained that apartment sizes in Heaven were a direct result of people's lives on Earth. Some people owned entire floors, while others had tiny one-bedroom apartments. 


But a lot of time seemed to pass, and I needed to find the maintenance man. "Where the heck was I? And why was I there?"


I eventually spotted him. He wore blue coveralls and faced away from me. It didn't take long to rush over and tap him on the shoulder, but when he turned around, I could hardly believe it. My grandfather faced me, just much younger and happier. He'd always been dressed in fancy clothes, even down to the shiny black dress shoes, so it seemed odd for him to be in blue coveralls. The shock slowly wore off, though, and I adjusted to seeing him with hair. (I never expected it to be blond.) 


"My Elisa." He hugged me with such fondness. "I need to work on a few things. Do you want to come with me?"


"Of course I do," I said and could hardly wait. 


"But why would you want to do this in the afterlife?" I asked as we walked.


"I enjoy helping others. It makes me happy, and it makes them happy too." He paused. "I own this building, Elisa." And he appeared genuinely content to check on tenants, fix pipes, and replace hinges.


As the day progressed, I remembered what it had been like being with my grandpa… the most fantastic guy. "Grandpa," I said at one point, "I want to stay with my family as long as possible. Am I gonna live a long life?"


"Elisa," he responded, "you're gonna live—" Then he stopped. "I can't—I shouldn't say that."


And then I woke up. I'd had dreams about my grandma, telling me not to be scared because she waited to show me around Heaven. It felt comforting to dream about my grandpatoo.


A few days later, Farrah decided to meet me after treatments. I had never told her about that strange moment with Sol, and it seemed almost unshakable that I should share that memory with her and tell her about my recent dream.


That night, after eating ice cream, having a mini photoshoot, and trying to take our minds off hardships, I finally shared these stories about Grandpa with Farrah.


"I've dreamed about Grandpa too," she said. "He wore blue coveralls."


I gasped. "That's what he wore… in my dream too." Goosebumps ran across my arms. 


"My mom said," she whispered, "that's what he always used to wear when he was really young." We both remained quiet for a moment, shocked. 


"I don't know why, but I just had to tell you about Sol and this dream."


Farrah paused, holding back tears. "I wake up every morning at 6:30 a.m. It's my internal alarm clock, but this morning I felt different. When I woke up, I saw Justice and Grandpa laughing. Their arms were around each other, and they seemed to be working together. I wanted to believe—with everything in me—that Grandpa was actually with Justice, I feel like I have that confirmation now."


It seemed uncannily like the moment with Sol at the lake. And so, Farrah said she left that bench knowing Justice is with our grandpa, doing what they both loved: helping others.

This is an excerpt from my new book, RING THE BELL. If you're interested, you can find that here:


What I learned in New York

My bucket list contains some strange things, but each of them has the capability of making a great memory for myself—and, hopefully, the people around me. I thought about one of the items: play my violin on the subway and in New York.


A few years ago, Mike surprised me and bought airplane tickets to New York. I could hardly wait to get there and play.


But the subway wasn't what I'd imagined, and things didn't go as expected. Many people wore earbuds or looked at social media on their phones. I might as well have played alone in a dark alley for all I accomplished. I played a Vivaldi piece I'd once performed with an orchestra. And when I finished, pure energy pulsed from my fingers. Yet almost everyone got off at the next stop, still glued to their phones as if I didn't even exist.


"Oh, Elisa," Mike said. "That sounded so great. Don't feel bad."


Sweet Mike. He's the most fantastic guy, and after I put my violin away, I hugged him.


"You're still okay bringing that to Staten Island?" he asked, and I nodded.


"Who knows what adventure might happen there." Even though the subway thing hadn't gone like I'd dreamed, I could hardly wait to see what the future would hold.


Mike and I drank smooth, black coffee on Staten Island when suddenly, a guitar melody drifted from nearby.


 We followed the notes and ended up in the large room where droves of people waited for the return ferry to New York. Almost every person watched a guitarist playing anything from Jamaican rifts to a mix of Latino and rock harmonies.


 I wished more than anything that I could jam with him. So, I went and gave him a tip. But as I turned to walk away, he saw my violin case and stopped playing. "Are you pretty good?" he asked.


 "I've played since I was five."


 "You wanna jam?"


 "Oh, my gosh! Are you kidding? Yes, I want to jam!"


 I took out my fiddle, and we played—right there in front of the ever-growing crowd.


 After several measures, he leaned over to me and said, "You are good. Let me turn down my guitar so people can hear you." 


 Music is life-changing—it's math that we can hear. He played a third, so I played a fifth. Then I knew he'd drop back again, so I countered with a root note. After a few minutes, my mind stopped making predictions, and the music poured straight from my soul. Toward the end of the third song, I felt so connected with the melodies it sounded as if this man and I had played together for years. That's the thing about music, it brings out your soul, all barriers removed, and that's when we can connect, even with strangers.


 "Oh, shoot," I said at the end of the last song. "Our ferry is almost here. I've gotta go."


 "But what's your name? When will you be back? Who are you? We need to jam again—we could get a contract!"


 As I frantically packed up my fiddle, I felt like Cinderella leaving the ball. "I don't live around here."


 "I play at Staten Island every Sunday. I'm Mohammed—you have to come back... Where are you from, anyway?"




 "Idaho? Huh." His grin widened. Then as I slid my bow into my case, Mike got the guy's number. 

 Before going, I gave Mohammed a huge hug. "This moment—what you did for me... Letting me jam with you in front of all these people… I'll never forget it. You made my entire year.


 He lit up with happiness. "Keep in touch!"


 As Mike and I boarded the ferry, I asked him if that whole thing surprised him as much as it floored me. I'd traveled there to play my violin on the subway, yet playing in Staten Island had been far more memorable. Thank God life doesn't always turn out how we hope; it often plays out much better.


 "Typical day." Mike shrugged. "Come to a city you've never been in. Meet some guy. Get propositioned to play music with him on Staten Island every Sunday. No, Elisa, I'm done being surprised. Life with you has always been an adventure."


 I gazed up at my wonderful man. "You're such a good guy to stick by me through all my crazy antics. Not everyone can be as supportive as you are. I love you so much, Mike."


 He winked at me, and I snuggled into him as we sat on the ferry.

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

A Kind Rabbi

Last year, I received an unforgettable review on my memoir, TWO MORE YEARS. Instead of critiquing the book, this reader criticized me and what she dubbed my "uber-positivity." At that moment, I cried because it's hard to realize some people genuinely wish tragedy on others. Not only had she critiqued my mindset, but this woman also seemed perturbed that I hadn't died at the end of my book. "Maybe I'm missing the point," she relayed. "Maybe the point is, 'I'm living with cancer, fighting it, and buying more time with my family before I die.'"


Although they have lost their sting, her words have flummoxed me for over a year, and I remained deep in ponderous thoughts about this until my rabbi, Sara Goodman, messaged me.


"There is a wonderful Jewish folktale," she wrote, explaining that a man had a dream about the king and immediately went to tell him. 


"You climbed a ladder," he said, "but when you reached the middle of it, I woke up." The king felt so delighted by these words that he gave the man a bag of gold. Walking home, now rich, the man told his neighbor about his good fortune, but this neighbor became jealous and devised a plan. He could also visit the king and tell a story. 

"I had a dream too," he said to the king the next day. "But in my dream, you climbed the ladder and reached the top." To his dismay, the king didn't appear happy at all and immediately asked the guards to bring the man to the dungeon.


"Why?" the man pleaded.


"Because," the king replied, "your dream prophesied my demise. There was nowhere else to go!"


"Elisa," Sara wrote, after sharing this story, "your outlook on life and your commitment toward living every moment of every day to its fullest is a gift and an inspiration. For you, every moment is a rung on that ladder, and you cherish each one. Most people resolve to live life in this fashion, and we believe that we do. But in reality, our lives are simply a garage full of many small ladders we endeavor to reach the top of and then put away. Goal met, done! This is very different than living every moment to the fullest. It’s not a bad way to live, just different. And not how we tell ourselves and others to live."


I paused while reading this and stared at my front yard. Before receiving her message, I'd been sitting on a bench, watching Trey and Indy chase each other in the grass. Their laughter made me think about my life and hope I've made a difference for the people who mean the most to me. That's all that seems to matter now. Not the jobs I've had, the degrees I attained, the books I've written... Those paltry accomplishments seem to be dust compared to making a positive impact for my husband and children. Love is the only thing that's stronger than death—because it carries on.


"So, when people meet you—in person or through your books," Sara continued, "we are hit with the realization that we're not living in the way we thought we were. It takes a lot for a person to be able to say, 'Okay. I’m actually not where I thought I was, and I’m completely okay with that.' So, thank you, Elisa, for inspiring me to live my life in a fuller way."


A river of gratitude poured through me, and I suddenly sobbed right there in my front yard. Rabbi Sara is one of the kindest, most inspirational women I have ever known. To hear this validation from someone like her, someone who is so innately good...


"Are you okay, Mama?" Indy asked, and both she and Trey ran over to either side of me.


"This was quite possibly the nicest message I've ever received," I said.


In 2020, after my terminal diagnosis, I discovered peace in Judaism. But in 2021, when I found the local synagogue, I finally understood where I belong: with people like Rabbi Sara Goodman and her mother, Bayle. They're true examples of altruistic, uplifting women. I can only hope to be more like them. Even Sara's recent words have been like a light in a dark desert. Words have the power to hurt or heal. I doubt these women fully understand what they've done for me. They believe in me and have given me the roadmap to living a life that I can be proud of. I hope I can rise to the occasion and appreciate each rung in the ladder, just like Rabbi Sara said.

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

The Refiner's Fire and Peace

Before reading this, please note: I am not giving up, but things are getting harder. In addition to the new tumor in my brain, oncologists just found a new tumor in my tailbone. The tumor board is meeting this week to try coming up with a plan because what we're doing right now doesn't appear to be working.


"I don't understand you," the woman said. "How can you talk about death so calmly?" She'd recently been diagnosed and reminded me of myself at the beginning of this journey. "Quit saying you're terminal. Words have power."

"We each have to do what's right for us," I said. "You're so strong and full of life.

"So are you.

"I'm starting to get tired, though," I said. "This has been a long journey." I thought about my most recent scans. The cancer is progressing, and although doctors say there will probably be a cure for this kind of melanoma in a few years, we don't know if I'll make it that long

"Aren't you scared to die?" she asked

"No," I said. "Not anymore. I'll get to see people who have gone before me." And part of me could hardly wait for God's loving embrace. I could almost feel His kindness encompassing me as I said the words. It felt like the synagogue.

"Why did this happen to me? Why is this happening to any of us?

"I honestly don't know," I said. But I have learned a lot.

"Elisa, I want to accept things like you have.

"I'm still working on it, but I'm getting closer every day.

"You're really not scared, are you?

"No," I said. "God comes to us when it's time. He's a good God." David's words from Psalm 103:8 came to mind, and I couldn't help but smile. "You know, I prayed for God to send me through the refiner's fire the year I got sick. I started studying Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Many people say it's a story of healing, how the three men went into the fire and came out okay. But I later realized that it has nothing to do with physical health. The people in that story grew in the ways that truly mattered, and they left all else behind.

Something must have hit her because she cried and cried right there in my front room. "I can't do this,

I put my arms around her. "I've felt that way too—so many times. But I promise that somehow it'll be okay. It has been for me.

"But doctors say this is what you're dying from," she said

"And even that became okay once I found faith that God has a plan.

After she left, the kids asked if we could do something as a family, so Mike set up the badminton net in the backyard. I can't play badminton anymore, so I sat in my wheelchair, cheered, and smiled as I watched Mike and the kids play

At one point, tears filled my eyes because I realized I'd reached a new season in my life. It wasn't about playing the game and enjoying the ability to make the birdie soar. I found so much joy and happiness in watching my family enjoy the moment. I worked for years to give them the best of everything, to raise them to be strong, kind individuals. And seeing that come to fruition is more than I ever hoped for

I'd been so scared to die because I would no longer be an active participant in their lives. It seemed like a glass wall where I could see out, but they could never see in. I'd be invisible to them… forever. But as I sat, cheering them on, I realized the only thing stronger than fear, sickness, and death… is love.

Nothing can take that away. Not time. Not sorrow. Not even fate. Love will always tie me to Mike and the kids. Whether this worsens and I die in my 40s or someone pulls through with a cure, I'm finally at peace because we have what matters

Ever since I got cancer, I wondered what my purpose was and what made my life matter. It was never about playing the violin or being a writer. It wasn't about the jobs I had, the degrees, or the things I accomplished. It was always about making people feel loved. And somehow, as I sat in my wheelchair and realized I'd done exactly what I needed to in this life, that was enough.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

A Repurposed Violin

I remembered something fun from last year and just had to write about it.

So, one of the strangest things on my bucket list is "repurpose a violin."

"What does that mean?" Mike asked a few weeks prior.

"I just want to take an old violin that is broken beyond repair and make it have a purpose again. Make it look beautiful." I've had this on my list for many years, but it has special meaning now. Often, I feel so broken from cancer that I can't "play" like I used to. I don't know what God made me for, but it doesn't seem like I can fulfill that now. And yet, I still want to be worth something.

I thought about this before falling asleep on the couch one day because Mike asked about it again. I'd showed him different ideas and said I'd like to glue gears to a violin and replace the strings with chains and necklaces. "It could be so amazing to make it kind of steampunk."

I fell asleep after that, dreaming about violins that had keys instead of tuning pegs and decorative doorknobs instead of bridges. That's when I heard the door open before Mike's low voice drifted toward me. "Baby, I need you to put these on. I have a surprise."

He'd handed me a plastic sack filled with clothes that shocked me: a mesh white swimsuit top and a white pleated skirt. "This is… nice." I giggled, coming out of our room. 

Mike waited as I edged into the hallway. "It's your white outfit." He beamed.

"Oh, yeah? My white outfit." What in the world could he be up to? 

"Just wait here for a minute." Then he bounded out the back door and shut it. 

I'm not great with surprises. Mike and the kids even hide my birthday gifts because, like an evil genius, I will open and rewrap them. 

I put my ear next to the door and heard Mike chuckling.

"Can I come out now?" I stuck my hand through the doggie door and waved.

"Yes, you can!"

The scene shocked me as I took everything in. That exceptional man, Mike, had covered the entire back patio in painter's plastic. I spied cans of paint and a place to sit. He'd set a bunch of gears, yarn, and fabric on a table. Some old metallic odds and ends from his workshop rested amongst other art supplies, and I involuntarily squealed. "Wow!"

I'd never expected a day that started with fatigue and stress over medical expenses to change so drastically. 

"You've wanted to repurpose a violin."


"I got a broken violin." He motioned to a completely white fiddle propped on one of our wooden benches.

It didn't stretch very tall and looked so tiny and cute. "Awe! He's a little guy." Even from a distance, I knew this violin must've been a half to three-quarter size. 

"I sanded it down and primed it so you can," he handed me a flesh-colored ski mask, "repurpose it. You better put this on." He pointed to the mask.

I figured we'd be painting, but I didn't know why I'd need to cover my face. "Okay?" The fabric stuck tightly to my head, pushing my hair flat against my scalp. I only had a small cutout for my eyes, but I still caught my reflection in the house's back window. I snorted. "I look… ridiculous." 

"Take my money." Mike held up his hands in mock horror. "Just spare my life." He passed me a pair of goggles. "I figure since your face will be next to the violin." 

The situation seemed about as clear as my life expectancy until Mike positioned me on a wooden seat covered in plastic. "Okay. You try to play, and I'm gonna dump paint on the violin. I figure it'll splash around better if the bow is moving."

He set up a camera and dumped yellow, aqua, purple, white, and black paint all over the baby violin. I don't know what turned out better: my clothes or the violin. But part-way through, I realized Mike remained spotless. We eventually switched places, and I'll never forget how much fun we had. 

Onlookers never would've guessed the hardships we endured, and I think we momentarily forgot too.

It took a couple of days for the fiddle and bow to dry; we hung them by wires outside from one of our trees. Then the whole family got involved. Mike, the kids, and I invested weeks on that thing. Mike found a knob that resembled a bridge and screwed that, along with a couple of gears, into the top plate. We used chains to look like strings. The kids and I cut skulls and eyes out of fabric and Mod Podged them to the fingerboard as well as the back plate. In the same way my violin magnifies my soul and lets me speak without words, I found beautiful irony in using an instrument to make a silent statement.

"I've been so stressed," I said when we'd finished. "We don't have enough money to keep going on like this. We can barely afford travel expenses. I think we're okay this month but what about after that? I don’t think we can afford gas for me to keep getting treatments."

Mike looked at the violin. "You want to sell it, don't you?"

I nodded. "Even if we could make a few hundred dollars, that would get me back and forth to Utah for months. If cancer has taught me anything, it's about enjoying the journey. We made memories. That doesn't mean we need to keep the violin. What matters—time with you and the kids—is what I want to most."

"Then I think we should do it."

We took hundreds of pictures and posted a few of our favorites on the eBay listing. "I can't believe you did this for me." I gave Mike the biggest hug. 

"You think it'll sell?" he asked.

"I have a feeling it will." 

Weeks later, when I opened my computer and realized who purchased the violin, I could hardly believe it. Roberta, a nurse practitioner I'd worked with years before—a woman who also fought cancer—had made the final bid. I could hardly believe someone had looked past their own harrowing hardships and found the strength to help us.

Looking through the bidding history, I felt amazed to see that the violin got 14 bids. But what touched my heart more than anything was who bought it. It's not just this one action, but dozens built up over years of friendship. 

The violin sold for hundreds of dollars. That helped me travel back and forth to Utah for months. Although I've since qualified for Medicare and several other things have fallen into place for us, this story is a piece of my journey that all of us are grateful for. The time we worked on a violin, so I could continue getting the medical care I need.


Monday, July 10, 2023

Bites on Our Lines

 “It was the hardest year of my life, the year I found out you had stage 4 cancer,” my teenage son said.

My heart dropped. Having terminal cancer is one thing… but seeing how it’s negatively affecting everyone around me… that’s another. It’s terrible realizing that something so vastly out of my control is impacting those closest to me. That’s honestly the hardest thing about my diagnosis.

I looked at Trey and tried to keep the tears from my voice. But then, instead of saying anything, I turned toward the lake. “I just know you’ll catch something,” I said, motioning to where his line punctured the water. And as we sat there, quietly watching, I remembered something from years before.

We all know kids can be cruel, but when Trey was only 8, he came home with a shocking story.

“Mom, during recess the popular boys started picking on Jeremy. They kicked and punched him. It got really bad because they even picked him up and swung him into a pole.”


I blinked, stunned.


“It was really hard, Mom, but I stood up to them. I didn't know if they’d start beating me up too... Or calling me names like they have in the past. Plus, there were a lot of them.”

Even at 8, Trey loomed big for his age, but he's always been the sweetest kid. I wondered where this story would go or if anyone had told the teacher.


“I finally went right in the middle of them and yelled,” he said. “I asked why they were hurting him. Carter said it’s ‘cause he's a wimp... Because he's a pansy, and he’s different from the rest of us.” Trey took a deep breath and gazed down. “I got so mad. They looked like they would start hurting him again, so I stood between him and them. I was so angry—I couldn't believe they threw him into a pole just because he’s different. And for some reason, I screamed, ‘He’s SENSITIVE. So what?!’”


Trey and I both sat quiet for a while as I digested his words; he'd gotten to the heart of the matter in just a few seconds. We should all be treated with respect—and appreciated for our differences—thank, God, my boy knew that early on. “Did they stop after that? Did someone tell the teacher?” I asked.


“Yeah, they stopped, and the bullies kind of seemed surprised. So, I brought Jeremy into the classroom for the rest of recess, and the teacher let us hang out there. We stayed in the classroom for lunch and ate together too.”


“You’re a good kid,” I said.  “I’m so proud of you, Trey. Did you tell your teacher?”


“No!” he said. “I’m no tattle-tale. I stood up for him, and it wasn't a big deal. Someone else told the teacher.”


“I’m glad she knows,” I said, relieved.

Trey sighed. “You know, I beat everyone in the long jump last week? I was 7% popular, but after this I’m back down to 0% again.”


I hugged him, this big ol’ hug. “I just know it’ll all work out,” I said. “You did the right thing.”

Trey shuffled at the lake’s edge, and his words brought me back to the moment. He was no longer an 8-year-old fighting adversity but a teenager facing a parent’s mortality.

“Mom, you’re gonna get better, right?” he asked.

“I don’t know for sure,” I said. “But I’ll tell you what I do know; I’m gonna fight like hell for every second I can get with you guys.” Then I set down my fishing pole, and even though my hands smelled like fish guts and mud lined my fingernails, I put my arms around my big, strong boy. “I just know it’ll all work out,” I said, echoing my exact words from years before.

Trey rested his head on my shoulder for a moment, then he sat up, somber. And there we remained, fishing our hearts out but hoping for a lot more than bites on our lines. We simply hoped for more time.

Tuesday, July 4, 2023

Indy Did Something Pretty Incredible

 I clutched my violin, so worried about talking in front of a large crowd. This felt terrifying, almost as bad as a performance in 2021. I’d lost my hair after brain radiation and stood there totally bald with large hoop earrings ostentatiously dangling from my ears. My walker (which I named “Bertie”) helped me reach the meeting room where the entire floor of cancer patients had gathered. I probably looked ridiculous with those earrings matching my hospital gown, but I still fiddled my heart out, hoping to make the day better for someone.

“Indy, it felt terrible. I could’ve fainted,” I told my youngest daughter right after this experience when she was 10.
“Why, Mama? I don’t get it. You’ve played for a lot of people before.”
“It’s superficial… but cancer is hard enough without losing my hair. I could hide behind my hair and makeup. No one knew I was sick. But without hair…well, I guess I actually LOOK like I have cancer now. I didn’t want all of those people to watch me play my violin bald—and I couldn’t afford a wig.”
Her face fell. “I’m so sorry you lost your hair.” She touched her own hair that extended past her shoulders. “Do kids lose their hair, too, a lot…from cancer?”
I’d nodded. “Yeah. I can’t even imagine being a kid with a terminal illness.” And then as I looked at Indy, sadness overcame me. Something so outside of my control is hurting my family; that’s the absolute worst thing about this…
I caught a movement in the corner of my eye, and it brought me back to the present where people had gathered to hear me speak. My right hand clenched around my fiddle, then I blew out a long breath because I needed to say something—do something. They were waiting.
My voice finally squeaked out, rambling for a moment about “reframing.” For those unfamiliar with the term, reframing is basically when you step back and look at situations from different angles. In my posts, I often talk about “finding the good.” That’s really just a way of reframing tough situations so I can get through them.
I spoke honestly. “I don’t think I would’ve gotten treatments if I didn’t have kids. I used to have such big goals: Travel around the world. Go canyoneering. Catch a massive catfish while noodling! But… now my goals are much simpler: See all of my kids become adults. Grow another year older with Mike. Just LIVE!”
I thought about the many people in attendance, and as my hands shook, I willed myself to be strong. That’s when I remembered Indy, the conversation about her hair over two years ago, and something incredible she did this weekend.
“It took forever, but it’s finally long enough,” she said, biting her trembling lip.
“It’s beautiful.” I paused, studying her long hair and gauging her determination. “Are you sure?”
“Mama, I saw how hard it was for you after you lost your hair. I’ve taken care of my hair really well, grown it so I can donate at least 14 inches...” She pulled out a ruler and held it to her hair. “See! There’s no changing my mind. I want to do this.”
So, we visited the hair salon, and they cut 18 inches!
The hairdresser came over to me at one point. “When I realized you put me in your book, TWO MORE YEARS, I went home and cried because it meant so much to me.”
“Really?!” My eyes lit with wonder. I glanced at the beautician’s tattoo that says ‘Always More.’ She’s such a darling person; I never expected her to have encountered any struggles. Yet, she’d gotten that tattoo to remember that there’s always more to people’s stories. She got that after her mother died from cancer.
“I’m so grateful you’re the one who helped us with Indy’s hair donation today.”
Allie grinned and turned to my baby girl. “This was incredibly kind of you,” she said. “You’re making a difference.”
Indy practically skipped to the post office dropbox, so eager to mail her hair to Wigs for Kids. Her hair bounced as she turned and giggled. “It feels so nice to be helping someone since I know how terrible cancer can be. I’m just glad to be making a difference.”
Her words echoed in my mind. And so, instead of giving the speech I had prepared, I told the group all about my brave, generous daughter, Indy. Somehow, by relaying her tale of courage, I suddenly felt courageous too. My violin rested at playing position, and despite fatigue, sadness, setbacks, and second-guesses, I played a song that conveyed hope to everyone.
Pic below: Indy stands with Mike (my husband), ready to mail the hair donation to Wigs for Kids