Monday, September 26, 2022

When Dreams Become Reality


 “You see the world weird!” the girl said from the hallway. I sat in the elementary library, reading a book instead of going to recess. 


“Lindsay, that’s not very nice!” the librarian said, but Lindsay had already darted out of sight. 


“Mrs. Smith,” I said, putting a bookmark in “Anne of Green Gables” and turning to the middle-aged woman. “Do you think I’m weird? I don’t have many friends. And I’m either reading or hanging out with my cat.”


She laughed so sweetly that her voice almost sounded like little bells. “No, Elisa. You’re just you. And…you see beauty in everything. That’s not weird. You’re just lucky.”


I remember the first time Lindsay called me weird. We each had to use figurative language to describe the ocean. I’d closed my eyes and pictured it like liquid glass. I thought about how you can crack the surface and see a whole new world of creatures and excitement just waiting below. It felt magical—just like the library. Except at the library I could “see” more than just the ocean! I could visit Shannara or Middle Earth. I could learn from people like “Anne with an ‘e’” or Mr. Hyde. 


Plus, other magical things happened at the library too. My mom had brought me to an event there once and a newspaper reporter asked the head librarian, “Is there a specific kid we should take the picture of? Someone who comes here often?” And of everyone there, they picked me: an unimpressive elementary kid. I even got to be on the front page. Yes, I had a big scab on my forehead from falling out of a gigantic tree, but I still got the glory—forehead-scab and all.


“What do you want to do today?” my mom (Ruby) would ask on Saturdays.


“Anything?”


“Well…within reason.”


“Can you drop me off at the library? Just for a few hours?”


She’d chuckle because that was almost always my answer.


I devoured books, row after row. The librarian even gave me “The Grey King” because I read it so much. “Just take it, sweetheart,” she said. “We have an extra copy.”


In sixth grade I wrote my first book—most of it at the library. It was 90 pages, about a hamster that ran away from its owner and embarked on a grand adventure. After I wrote that “epic saga—based on a true story” (as I called it), I noticed a change: When I visited libraries or bookstores, they didn’t feel the same. Instead of tons of adventures waiting for me to discover, each book felt like someone’s dream. I couldn’t imagine getting a book published or having other people actually read it. All of that seemed farther away than Narnia.


My first real job was at a library. I could hardly wait to work there and shelve dreams. I’d long outgrown worrying about people like Lindsay, that validation held little value. I cared more about people like the heroines in Austen’s novels, Melville’s Ishmael, or even Margaret Mitchell’s Melanie. 


And years later, when I’d become a closet writer, I would bring my kids, nieces, and nephews not just to the library but to bookstores as well. In fact, every time I brought them out, they knew I’d buy them a special book from a specific Barnes and Noble. And the whole time they perused, I’d dream about having a book published, about having a book THERE, about having people actually read a few words that I wrote.


“It’s a pipe dream,” an elderly relative told me. “Do something that makes money. Do something that makes sense. Don’t try to be an author.”


But I kept trying anyway. And nearly two decades after writing my first full-length manuscript of 90,000 words, I finally had a book published by a real publisher. 


“Can we go to Barnes and Noble?” Indy asked last Saturday. We’d traveled from Idaho to Utah for a bridal shower. Unbeknownst to Indiana, she’d asked to visit the exact store I’d brought her to when she was a baby. In fact, it’s the same store where I’d brought all of my kids, my nieces, and nephews.


“Do you think they have your book?” she asked.


“Probably not.” I smiled wistfully. “But we can look.”


So, we found the nonfiction section. I let my hand trail along the spines of so many great books like “Night” and “Angela’s Ashes.” And then, my breath caught in my throat. “Oh, my gosh,” I said, trying to keep my emotions in check. “It’s. Actually. Here.”


I gaped, just staring at my dream. I could hardly believe what it felt like, seeing something I’ve wanted so badly…something I’ve fought for against all reason. Something so many people said would never happen. My dream sat on that shelf proving that sometimes the impossible IS possible if we just keep trying. 


Indy’s reaction made the moment even better. “Hurry, Mama! Take a picture. I’ll do my ‘look of surprise’ for you.”


After I snapped the picture, she peered at me quizzically. “Are you okay?” she asked. 


“I just wanted this with everything in me. And it was so hard to write while I’ve been fighting cancer. But now look. It was worth it.”


“Mama,” she held my hand and swung it, “that’s cool. But if I’m really good—I mean REALLY good—can I get a book today?”


“Yes.” I giggled. And I brought my smallest daughter to the kids’ section where she bought a book about a child who has few friends, owns a cat, and loves the library—she bought something remarkably like herself. 


As I watched Indy reading her book this afternoon, I just had to smile. 


Life is so ironically beautiful.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

A Disney Princess with Cancer

 I answered the door. She’d brought cookies, but I still mentally prepared for a confrontation. This particular woman is hard for me to be around because she doesn’t believe in utilizing modern medicine.


“So, why haven’t they done the gallbladder surgery yet?” she asked.


“There are a lot of moving pieces between cancer treatments and medications,” I said.


“May I be blunt?” she finally asked.


I nodded because when is she not? 


“Don’t be offended…”


I blinked, thinking that’s almost the cue TO be offended. 


“I’m not talking about you specifically, but people who continue to get treatments—and are fighting a losing battle—well, they’re kind of a drain on society.”


“Excuse me?” Why had I answered the damn door.


“It’s just that medical intervention costs so much—especially in taxes. Sure some terminal cancer patients might show improvement, but cancer is still what they’ll die from. Don’t you feel like you’re going against God by fighting something so natural? You don’t need to be afraid to die, Elisa. If you’d just come to church…”


Tears formed so fast in my eyes that I could no longer contain my emotions. 


“I want you to leave. Now.”


“I didn’t mean to offend—“


“Leave. And don’t come back. I’m not a charity case, and I don’t need your…cookies or your religion or your opinions. I have enough on my plate.”


She walked to the door and then looked back at me, pleadingly. Confused. “Elisa, I’m trying to help you.”


I really didn’t want to hurt her feelings, but I needed to be honest. “You didn’t have time for me before I got sick. I know you feel like you’re doing something nice—and you need that. But this isn’t good for me. It’s hard enough to keep fighting cancer without you telling me that I should quit. That’s fine if you wouldn’t get surgeries or treatments to prolong your life. But you’re not me. I’m doing this for my family.” And after she stepped outside, I shut the door.


I heard the woman talking to herself as she trudged to her car. She said something about how she’d never been treated so poorly and how I’m cutting everyone out of my life.


Despite knowing that I did the right thing for myself, I spent most of Wednesday afternoon crying—in the hospital. 


For a normal person, preparing for gallbladder surgery isn’t a big deal and they would just get it done. But for me, I had to stay at the hospital for hours, undergoing various tests including extensive labs, an EKG, and much more. I’m sure the surgery itself will be extremely easy. (I’ve been through worse!) But as I waited for the doctor yesterday, I remembered my visit with that woman and everything suddenly felt insurmountable. 


“Are you doing okay?” the doctor asked right after coming into the room.


“I’m happy today,” my voice shook as I plastered a smile onto my face, “because you guys have upped your game. Can you believe they gave me soap—free soap—to use the night before my surgery?”


He broke out laughing. “You know, THAT’S why you’re doing so well—your sense of humor. I read your chart before I came in here.” He paused. “Do you realize how lucky you are?”


“What do you mean?”


He donned his glasses. “Most people would’ve given up by now. That’s one thing, but sometimes it doesn’t matter how much people fight. Once melanoma goes into the brain, it’s almost unheard of for the cancer to die. We don’t like to tell patients that, but it’s true. You’re probably one of the luckiest people I’ve ever met in person.”


“I really am so fortunate,” I said, and I’m not sure why, but tears flooded my face. “Oh…I’m so sorry.”


“Hey, you’re okay. You’ve been through a lot. I have a couple of extra minutes. What’s bothering you?”


I couldn’t believe he even said that. Most doctors are so busy going from patient to patient, but this guy seemed to really care. So I gave him a brief synopsis of what that lady had said to me and how she doesn’t believe in prolonging life through medical means.


“You are fighting for your husband and kids,” he said. “And it sounds like you might beat this. Don’t listen to her. You’re fighting to spend more time with your family—you’re not fighting to spend more time with that lady.”


I broke out laughing. I don’t know why it hit me so funny, but it did. I try to love everyone. But I’d just like to love her from a great distance.


After he left, a nurse came to tell me I could leave. “I heard you had a bad week?” she asked.


“Yeah, surgery I can handle, but people being thoughtless is another story… That saying about sticks and stones is dumb. Words do hurt.”


“And people suck.” She paused before leaving. “Can I tell you something that might brighten your day?”


I nodded.


“The nurses were all talking about you earlier. We said it’s weird that you have cancer. It’s like seeing a Disney princess with a terminal illness.”


I snorted—actually snorted. “Imagine Belle or Snow White or Ariel with cancer. That is a strange thought.”


She nodded. “But somehow they’d make it look good.”


So I left the hospital getting approved for surgery this Tuesday. And I finally figured out why the interaction with that lady bothered me so much.


I just wish people would do what they can to be genuinely good to each other. It’s not about making cookies for acquaintances, trying to convert unbelievers, or doing some stupid thing that might look good on paper. It’s about actually caring like that doctor and nurse did. It’s about taking time to listen or just brightening someone’s day. It’s about withholding opinions if they might make someone end life-saving treatments—or if those opinions will somehow make life unnecessarily harder for the listener.


Anyway, it’s been a rough week, but a good one too. I got called a Disney princess who has cancer. It could be better, but you know what…I’ll take what I can.


Friday, September 16, 2022

When You Feel Yourself Faltering

 “You can’t have the HIDA scan done,” the woman said, obviously worried about delivering the news.


“But I’ve been fasting,” I said. “I did everything the ER doctor told me to.”


“But you’ve taken pain medicine.”


Tears welled in my eyes. “He said I could. I have stage four melanoma, excruciating pain. I can’t lie flat on a table for almost two hours without pain medicine. My nerves just….” I’m so desensitized to this situation that I don’t cry much—not anymore—but today I really broke down. “Excuse me. I have to sit.” I shook as I slumped into a chair outside of the imaging room. “You deal with other cancer patients, right?”


She nodded.


“I’m in a vicious spiral. Cancer treatments have ruined my gallbladder. But I’ve had pulmonary embolisms. And now I’m on a blood thinner. The surgeon won’t remove my gallbladder until I’ve had this test because I’m so high risk. I haven’t slept in almost three days. I NEED this scan, but without medicine, my right leg feels like someone is holding it against a scalding glass fireplace. No one can hold still like that. No one.”


And then I cried. And cried. And cried. The tech left, and when she came back, she’d confirmed that they could make an exception because I’m a cancer patient.


Although she’d been nice before, she spoke extra kindly to me after that. I know she was just doing her job before, but today has been so hard. 


She injected medication into my arm that reproduces the strange gallbladder pains I’ve had for nearly two months. The upper right portion of my abdomen throbbed with discomfort, then my back and leg suddenly turned to fire. Nausea increased from my cancer treatments yesterday, and I instantly started feeling feverish from last night’s bone infusion.


“Okay, this will take about an hour and a half,” the woman said. “Are you okay?” 


I’m never okay, I thought. Not anymore. I’m broken from all of this. But I didn’t say anything. Instead I tried to smile.


The table slid under a massive 3-by-5-foot metal plate that hung too closely to my face. My eyes widened as I realized that I couldn’t wriggle out from under it if I tried, and I couldn’t even push it off of me. “I’m not okay. No! No.” I sobbed, feeling weaker than I have in months. “I’m just so tired of all of this. For two seconds, I can’t be strong.” I looked to the side, and tears seeped into the fabric my head rested on. “Please let me out of here.”


That sweet tech swiftly moved me from under the intimidating plate, brought me a warm blanket, and let me sit up.


She studied me, and after a moment said, “You’re the girl I saw on TV, aren’t you?” she asked after a moment. “I recognize your eyes. You wrote that book everyone’s been talking about. The one about your journey with cancer.”


I wiped my tears away and nodded. “I guess that’s me…. I can’t believe you saw that—and you remembered me. That…means so much.”


“Well, you’re awfully inspiring,” she said. “Of course I remembered.” She studied my breathing. “How’s your book doing?” she asked.


“I don’t know if it’ll sell, but it’s in stores nation-wide now.” I sniffled so hard. ”Okay,” I said, so grateful to her. “Because of you, I think I can do this.”


And so I went under the claustrophobia-inducing metal plate where my own shallow breaths ricocheted back into my face, and I stayed nauseous and in severe nerve, back, and abdominal pain for over an hour and a half, unable to move.


While I stayed under there, I thanked God for that sweet tech and the fact that she remembered me from the segment on TV earlier this year. I bit my lip to feel the taste of blood and take away the nausea because I needed to get this done and not throw up all over the equipment and myself. 


Then, when the pain from the back and gallbladder set in, and the claustrophobia seemed worse than hell, I told myself to quit feeling sorry for myself—and to quit thinking how easy it would be to stop fighting. 


I want to make Mike, our kids, and our families proud. I’m not done battling yet—and I might not make a good Amazon woman after all—but I can still strive to live through this for my kids. Plus, this wimpy surgery seems to be nothing after everything else I’ve been through. Of all the organs for cancer treatments to kill, I never liked my gallbladder. It’s just a bile pouch anyway!


The results already came back from my scan today and confirmed that I must indeed get my gallbladder out (shocking); we just need to take precautions with all of the other crap I have going on. I’m not upset that I need another surgery (my eighth surgery in seven years). Like the saying goes: God doesn’t give us what we can’t handle, so He must think I’m a badass. 


I’m done crying. I’m done being a baby (for today anyway). I just never knew how many crazy things go along with having cancer. Complications from cancer treatments almost killed me two times last year. That’s almost hard to fathom. I thought I understood cancer before my diagnosis. I had no idea.


Tuesday, September 13, 2022

How to Deal with Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia

 “Oh, my gosh. Mr. McMurtrey,” I said. 


He looked at me blankly, waved, then continued placing items on the conveyor belt at the grocery store.


“I’m Elisa,” I went on. “You remember me. From the newspaper?” He used to call me with news tips; we’d laugh and joke. One day he called about a deer that had jumped through a storefront window—and lived—running around the store and drawing the attention of everyone in town. So many memories, but now he looked at me again…bewildered. “Mr. McMurtrey?”


“I don’t know you. But you seem like a real-nice girl.” He smiled, looking much older than his 70+ years.


Studying him, he had the same light in his eyes and an obvious touch of mirth to his smile. But something felt off. “Well, anyway…it’s wonderful to see you,” I said, so surprised that he didn’t remember me.


A woman came from behind us and stood by him. “Excuse me. Do you need something from my husband?”


“No. Not really.” I shook my head.


After a moment, Mr. McMurtrey and his wife finished checking out, and he started heading toward the door. “How do you know him?” his wife suddenly came back and asked me when he’d gotten a few feet away.


“The newspaper. He’d always give me tips.”


Her expression turned a bit softer. “Oh! You’re that Elisa girl. You had the EC Stilson column, right?”


I nodded, so excited she remembered me. It suddenly felt so important to be remembered.


“He loved talking with you.” Then she paused, always keeping an eye on her husband as he approached the store’s exit. “I’m so sorry. He said he didn’t recognize you. He’s…having some memory issues. It’s been hard on all of us.”


“I can’t even imagine what you’re going through. He’s the nicest man.”


“He really is.” Then she explained that she had to “go after him,” and she darted out the automatic doors after waving goodbye.


When I got home and put my groceries away, I sat on my front porch and waited for the kids to get home from school. The wind licked my face, like a dog so happy for me to be home. Birds whistled, sending cryptic messages through the trees. And I closed my eyes and felt every bit of “life” seep into me.


Sometimes it’s hard not thinking too much about the tough things in this world: how people can lose their memories and really “their story,” and how fast one can lose health, relationships, status, and so many other things on a whim.


But as I felt the wind lighting my skin on fire with insight and the birds trilling above me, I remembered Mr. McMurtrey’s eyes and how he hasn’t changed, not really. His spirit is still the same—completely filled with the jovial kind of mirth and sense of play he always showed everyone. He made everyone feel important and special—and I bet he still does.


Since so many people I’ve known have died or lost physical or mental capabilities, sometimes I wonder exactly why it’s so hard. What exactly makes it hurt so much? Especially with losing a loved one? I’ve decided it’s a loss of time—even time already spent. 


It is extremely tough not being able to call and hear their voice. But there’s something else, and that’s what I saw with Mr. McMurtrey. It’s sad when you lose that tie to a memory. I can tell people what it was like when he called about the deer that jumped through the window. But now I’m the only one who really carries that story around. And when I’m gone, that experience will be gone too. No matter how much I talk or write about it, that too will drift away. Like everything we know here on earth. Everything—I believe—except love.


Yet, sitting on the porch none of life’s heartaches seemed to matter because I felt the true power and serene beauty of change. If I were a conscious observer of life, I wouldn’t want to freeze time and stifle everything; I’d want it to always keep flowing right through me. The good, the bad, I guess all of it. It seems that life hands us new situations to learn from, conquer, and then (in turn) help people around us. Sometimes it’s through helping others that we finally see the beauty in our own struggles.


The kids got home, and I gave them extra big hugs. “You coming inside?” Trey asked.


“I’ll be there in a minute,” I said, so glad that even though I have physical handicaps now, I am not experiencing what I witnessed from my friend at the store.


So, I still don’t know how I completely feel about poor Mr. McMurtrey, but I hope I’ll see him and his wife again. Sure, he might not recognize me, but I’d love to offer a smile, a kind word, just something that will brighten his day like he always brightened mine. 


I guess that’s what I can learn from the moment. I don’t need to be sad for my friend. Instead, I can be grateful that although he’s losing his memory, he hasn’t lost who he really is: a brilliant, wonderfully kind man. And that’s how I’m trying to embrace change today, by once more finding the good.

Friday, September 9, 2022

Too Good for Our World



 “I’m scared to die,” she said.


I hadn’t realized how sick she’d become. “I think everyone is.”


“Really?”


“Yes.” I paused and thought about what I’ve seen throughout my journey with cancer and all the people I’ve met who are close to death. If people claim they aren’t scared of the unknown—not at all—they’ve either never directly faced the dragon, or they’re lying to themselves. Fighting death reminds me of skydiving. You might feel ready when you prepare to jump, but that doesn’t make it less terrifying. I know I’ll fall into death’s embrace someday, but the thought of my body breaking beyond repair, unanimated without my soul … Well, it seems unfathomable.


The fact that she remained honest through her journey has been humbling. “You’re so strong,” I finally responded, thinking about some of our experiences together. “Whatever the future holds, you’ve got this.”


Ashley exuded something special. She modeled in her younger years and could brighten any room just by entering it. In her 20s, she crafted visionary cakes that could’ve been featured on television. It wasn’t enough that she completely excelled as a mother and a wife; of course, she could master anything.


Sometimes in life, you might encounter someone and immediately feel a … “je ne sais quoi,” but the details of it won’t become apparent until time has passed. That’s what happened with me and Ashley up in the mountains.


Our husbands are best friends—like brothers—so several years ago when Ashley and Garrett invited us to camp with them, I could hardly wait. One day Ashley sat by the stream, gazing wistfully at the water. “I can’t explain it,” she said. “I just feel so alive.” Ashley loved it up there: the looming cliff-face, the refreshing steam, the pure power and majesty of nature. And instead of going back home, like the rest of us, she stayed with her kids in the mountains for days and days. I talked with her on the phone and ended up chuckling. That was her “something special,” her own “je ne sais quoi.” She seemed ethereal—like some mythological creature, always meant to be wild and free. So that’s how I picture Ashley now. She’s sitting by that stream, saying how beautiful everything is and how alive she feels…even though she’s not alive at all—and she had to leave us too soon.


“There was no reason to be scared,” she says, probably making an elaborate cake for God. Then I picture her sending every bit of love to her husband, kids, and mother. She died on her second-oldest son’s birthday. That might seem devasting, but there is something good to find in the heartache. He’ll always have a beautiful, supermodel guardian looking out for him, forever. Always wanting the best. Always protecting and fighting for him, his siblings, and the rest of their family. She’s graduated beyond the pain. The day he first met his mother now marks the anniversary of when God deemed her too perfect for our world. It’s ironic because my son died years ago, and his viewing landed on my birthday. I thought I’d never like that day again, but now it’s a chance to simply remember someone I love.


So this very moment, Ashley might pause up in Heaven while mixing ingredients. And then she may even read these words and nod because we just understand one another.


“I love your posts,” she used to say. “They somehow give me hope.” And how nice of her to read my words because she’d been the strong one.


The point is that even though she died in her early 30s, she showed me what truly gives a life meaning. Instead of flaunting her many talents and her exceptionality, she brought out the best in everyone else. She made people believe in themselves. If everyone could do that, quit worrying about finite accomplishments and pride and self-indulgence—and fight to help those around them despite their own hardships—we’d have paradise on earth.


Ashley got it. She lived purposefully. And I will miss her.


Looking back, when I think about her now, I’ll never forget our time in the mountains where she looked like a nymph of the forest, and her gratitude for the simple things in life changed my view of everything.



Picture: (left to right) me, Mike, Garrett, and Ashley

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

What is the key to happiness?


(This photo was actually taken at a museum where we rented a wheelchair. It’ll be so nice to have one that I can keep.)

Yesterday, we finally broke down and bought me a wheelchair. It’s not that I need one all the time, but I can’t walk long distances—and this has definitely hampered things I can do. 

Anyway, we got the wheelchair and actually brought the kids to the fair in Blackfoot. 

Trey and one of his best friends palled around and checked out the unique fair foods and booths. (They had such a blast.) And later as I sat in my wheelchair and watched Indy and Mike ride various roller coasters, I had an epiphany. Dirt swirled around me. Cowboys and women in beautiful dresses walked past with their families, and I didn’t even care that I could’ve seemed somewhat invisible down below the bustle and excitement. Yes, life is different, but it’s more than enough—and it’s never looked this clear despite all of the hard things I’ve experienced with sickness and pain. Sure I can’t do everything that I could before, but that’s life; it’s constantly changing and evolving. The best we can do is find good in the chaos. And I feel fortunate to have learned so much well before my time.

Last night, when we got home I wasn’t nearly as tired as I normally am, and Mike’s biceps looked amazing from pushing me all day (I can just imagine his facial expression when he reads this lol!). I had enough energy to look through the amazing tattoos Ruby did at work so far this month, and I even got to visit with Sky about her day. 

I’ve realized my joy isn’t always derived from being the active participant who’s front and center. Instead, I’m content with seeing the happiness around me—still being able to watch my family enjoy our world. When it comes down to it, I would give nearly anything to see them happy—to spend one more day with them, to see their smiles always etched into my mind...

I know I’m lucky to be here. So many of my sweet friends at the cancer center have already passed away since I met them in 2020. I know it must’ve been their time, but they fought so hard to stay…. They were positive and strong. They WANTED to live, but cancer is a merciless, incompetent judge—and it doesn’t care how much someone deserves to keep on breathing. Now when I hear people taking their health or even their lives for granted, well…it almost seems unfair to the people who fought so hard to stay and still died young. 

I wish it wouldn’t take hindsight to see things this way.

Walking short distances or riding in a wheelchair for the long bouts, everything sure does look different from here. I guess it’s all about perspective.

 

Sunday, September 4, 2022

Sitting Right Next to a Stranger

 The man stared at me, probably wondering why I sat RIGHT next to him when dozens of seats rested vacant around us.


“Well…hi,” he finally said, apparently deciding that direct contact would be the anecdote for awkwardness.


“I’m Elisa,” I beamed, holding my hand out to him.


He seemed shocked. And slowly—almost reluctantly—the man grasped my hand and shook it. Crinkled, thin skin framed his blue eyes. And I knew something scary brought him to the hospital. 


I didn’t know what to say, not right off. And I remembered a recent conversation when someone asked me why I have so many exceptional occurrences, especially with strangers. “It’s because I put myself out there—and I’m vulnerable.”


You see, normally I’d love to sit away from people because that’s comfortable. But sometimes I get a niggling, that maybe a person is lonely, or they need to feel heard or of value. And in the grand scheme of things, that is much more important than momentary comfort. And this felt like one such occasion. 


And so, instead of sitting in one of the 50+ seats in the courtyard, I sat directly next to the man. 


Step #1 complete: Put myself out there. Now for step #2: Be vulnerable. I suddenly knew what to say. 


“My husband went to get our car,” I blurted. “I have stage 4 cancer, and I’m only in my 30s. It’s been hard adjusting to this new normal. I just can’t walk as far as I used to.” He remained quiet. 


This poor guy obviously didn’t know what to do with a woman who talked faster than a squirrel who’d had five shots of espresso—a squirrel who had cancer.


After a while, he squinted toward the cloudy sky like something had caught in his eye. “Yeah, I have a hard time walking too far too. My wife went to park the car.”


“I don’t know what you’re going through, but I’ve found something that has really helped me.”


“Really? What?” he asked, more eager than I expected.


“The opposite of fear can be a lot of things when we really think about it: peace, hope, knowledge… But what I’ve found takes the fear away the fastest for me right now is trust. If I can somehow trust that there’s a plan, cancer loses its sting.”


“You must get so scared in your situation,” he said. “I just found out that I… Well, I have a heart condition. And I’ve been so ashamed that I’ve been scared. Men aren’t supposed to get scared. I’m supposed to stay strong for my wife and my whole family.” He looked exhausted, not just from feeling sick, but from carrying so much for everyone.


“But we all get scared sometimes,” I said. “We’re human. I hope you’ll find whatever it is that’ll help you fight the fear. But I guess realizing it’s there is a great way to analyze it so you can find a way to not be scared anymore. For me, I just want to see my kids grow up. But realizing everything will be okay, no matter what…that God is looking out for them and me—and all of us…that made the difference.”


This quiet understanding settled there. And neither of us really said much more; instead, we both gazed at the luminous sky. Cirrus clouds spread to the edges of the mountaintops, framing the sun quite perfectly, and I thought how ironic it is that I love feeling sunshine on my face even though it’s what doctors still say will kill me. I’ll never fully understand melanoma. 


Saturday, September 3, 2022

A Book Club and a Chicken Murder

 A book club read my memoir, invited me to one of their meetings, and it actually became one of my favorite nights of the year! This whole story is actually pretty hilarious—just wait for it.


Before getting too far, I should explain something. I’ve been experiencing some pretty extreme pain in the middle of my spine and my ribs. Of course my brain goes where it always does now: Has the cancer spread? An emergency X-ray yesterday contained findings stating that they actually spotted a fracture. 


“You can’t go to the bookclub,” Trey, my 14-year-old said—because apparently now he’s extra darling, overprotective, AND my boss. “You seriously can’t go—not with a fracture.”


“I know you’re worried, Dr. Morris, but I can’t just stop living because my body thinks I’m over 100.” So, I gave everyone a gentle hug, and hobbled off to the book club.


On my way there, I hoped I’d quickly get everything in perspective: the fracture, cancer, and that it’s okay if breathing is painful—at least I’m breathing. 


I wondered what these ladies might ask. Would they wonder about Mike and the kids or one of the stories like finding white feathers at the perfect moments. (My mom says white feathers mean angels are looking out for us.) Maybe they’d want to discuss cancer or staying positive despite hardship?


Anyway, after everyone got there and we went out on the deck, that’s when the real excitement started. 


All of them seemed quite cordial, but I just hoped something would happen to break the ice. That’s when we heard it—the scream of a dying child. Well, I thought it was a child, but then it screamed and almost gobble-gurgled.


None of us knew what to do. You know the scene: we’re all sitting there, eating fancy fruit, and then something dies.


“What…,” someone asked delicately setting down a piece of fruit. “What is that?”


All of those fancy ladies stood and peered over the railing. That’s when we spotted the host’s dog, full-on murdering a chicken. I mean, chicken IS delicious—and I know where it comes from—but this was a bit National Geographic. 


Soon the dog held it by the neck, and we discovered from the host that this white chicken had been one of her favorites. The chicken soon flopped uneventfully, and when the dog spotted her owner, she dropped the chicken and bolted like an armed robber!


I felt so bad for Danielle, the host. You could tell she really loved that chicken (and not in the same way that I love McDonald’s).


“It might still be alive, right?” one woman said.


“I don’t think it’s breathing,” another lady whispered as Danielle approached it. Plus, half of the feathers had been plucked from its neck, face, and left wing leaving a bloody pulp that I have never seen at the grocery store.


Danielle squatted and placed her hand on its back. All of us held our breath and then jumped! Can you believe, the chicken shot up at that exact moment and started walking like a drunken sailor? I swear it came back to life just like Lazarus!


But it looked terrible and another woman in the group, Ashlynn, had gone down to help. “You said you grew up on a farm?” I said over the balcony. “I heard you can grab it by its head and swing it around to break its neck—to put it out of its misery. So you can do that, right?”


She gazed at me despondently, then broke out laughing. “I grew up on a farm…not a ranch.”


“I think she might live!” Danielle said, inspecting the chicken. I’d learned moments before that she’s a PA, and if anyone held the fate of this chicken in their hands it was either the PA or the farmer. Danielle explained that she could put the chicken in a special area where it would be safe from the dog under the deck. And after a minute, she came back to her seat. We were all quiet, not knowing what to say. I had to do something. 


“When you laid hands on that chicken, did you pray?” I asked “Because if you did, I think you should pray for me.”


Everyone laughed. “Oh, my gosh,” another lady said. “This is just like something that would’ve happened in your book. Are you going to write about this?”


“Heck, yes! I am!” 


And that seemed to be the beginning of so many jokes and a great conversation. One lady talked about the white feathers in my book and how she found so much strength in that story. Another woman looked over the balcony and said, “Well, there are a bunch of white feathers down there if anyone wants to take one home.”


Every once in a while the chicken would make a really loud noise under the deck. “Do you think it’ll make it through the night?” Someone asked. “If it doesn’t maybe you could eat it.”


“But what about all of that stress hormone.”


“You could massage it as it dies.”


Those ladies are so fun and full of life. I momentarily forgot about my hardships, and they even made me feel so special. Several of them told me different things they gained from “Two More Years” and how it had changed their perspectives on life. They went around and talked about their bucket lists and things they would like to do. I just felt so fuzzy, warm, and happy.


“I can’t believe you have a fractured bone and you’re still here tonight,” a lady said.


“Honestly, I’ve had the best night. And my pain doesn’t seem like a big deal anymore.”


“Really?” she asked in disbelief. 


“I’m just so glad I’m not that chicken.”


So, I had another unforgettable night. I made a whole group of new friends who are selfless and compassionate. I saw a dog murder a chicken. And then I witnessed something come back from the dead. All in all, it was a really beautiful day. Well, not for the chicken. But, you know…


Thursday, September 1, 2022

A Grain of Sand on the Beach of Eternity

 

Two doctors in separate cancer hospitals across the U.S. have begun reading my cancer memoir. One already got back to me and said she had no idea exactly what treatments could be like “from the eyes of a patient”—especially brain radiation. The other doctor said he’s asked several nurses and other staff members to read the book so they can understand what parents might be experiencing both physically and mentally.


In 2020, I never imagined that when doctors told me I had two years left to live, I would write a book that would finally get traditionally published. I also never expected something like this. It just goes to show that it’s never too late to reach for your dreams. I hope this will inspire someone else to just go for it. This is amazing. I’m not sure what my purpose is, and I know I’m just a tiny grain of sand on the beach of eternity, but today…well, today is so beautiful.

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Another Item From My Bucket List

 I have the greatest family ever. I know everybody says that, but when I say it, it’s actually true.


My uncles are the stuff legends are written about. They’ve cornered mountain lions and probably choked them out with their bare hands. They’ve gone fishing for Alaskan salmon, and instead of catching fish, they caught bears! Some of them can fly, build tennis courts, ride Harleys, cook steak, and more. One thinks 40 hours a week is part time. Another is part Greek—part Chuck Norris (probably).


My aunts, well … they’re classy AND sassy. One was a homecoming queen and an amazing writer. One has the best taste in the world. Another makes the fanciest jewelry known to man, and the others are some of the most hilarious people I’ve ever known. If they aren’t hittin’ you with glamour, they might be laying on some thick wit that you’ll be mulling over for days. 


This goes for ALL of my aunts and uncles, but the one I’d like to highlight today is the myth…the legend: my Aunt Jackie.


I have a lot of wild things on my bucket list. For example, my birthday is on Groundhog Day, and I’ve always wanted to see Punxsutawney Phil up close. I’m actually glad I didn’t go this year because when they pulled the groundhog out on my birthday, he was dead. I’m not sure how many people really heard about it because it wasn’t widely publicized. I guess that meant six more weeks of winter or of the pandemic … or whatever. Anyway, most people know that the biggest items on my list are going to Italy, hunting and bagging a real-live deer, and singing the national anthem at a baseball game. I’ve completely the singing thing … and I’m working on the other two. But another huge item on my list is learning to make Aunt Jackie’s homemade spaghetti. I didn’t know if I’d have to steal the recipe or what. But this has been a lifetime goal.


You see, she’s one of the most amazing cooks on earth. She makes pickled eggs—that are actually good. She’s half-Italian, and 100% awesome! So imagine my surprise when I got a message from my amazing cousin, saying she’s coming to see me with Aunt Jackie—and we have a date for this Saturday to make the best spaghetti on earth! I’ve heard it takes hours and hours to “brew”—yes that’s how I’ll choose to describe it. I can hardly to wait post pictures and tell you all about it. This’ll be the Best. Weekend. Ever! Get ready to hear about an adventure 🤗


Authentic Italian spaghetti, here I come 🍝


Tuesday, August 30, 2022

How to Get Your Book in Bookstores



 As I did the dishes today, something amazing happened. I heard Mike talking on the phone. He has a low voice that draws you in and somehow makes you want to hear more. But he is also so hilarious that you can’t help grinning despite how hard life can be. 


“So, you’ll carry the book?” he asked, then paused for a moment. “Oh, no—I’m not the author. My wife wrote the book. I just want her to really feel this kind of success. You know, she sold 34 books at her last signing. You should’ve seen how happy she looked. And that…well, it made me happy.”


I’d been wiping off the counter, but I stopped mid-swipe because my breath had caught in my throat. If everyone on earth could have their own Michael Magagna, our world would be a better place. To have someone who always sees the best—even when I’m at my worst. To have someone who has loved me whether I’m bald, hurling in the toilet, or crying because “I’ll always feel sick.” To have THAT man in my corner…to make me try harder and do better. Well, it’s honestly made all the difference. 


Mike hung up the phone and called someone else. “Yes, hello,” he said, “I’m calling to have a book added to your inventory.” I crept forward as I listened, trying not to seem obvious. But I’m too curious for my own good, and if I had family in the mafia, I’d probably get whacked for being so nosy.


Mike saw me, grinned, and motioned for me to come forward. “Yes, that’s the correct ISBN. Oh, you will?” His finger tapped on the table. “Wonderful. Two copies will be great!”


“What are you doing?” I asked after he hung up.


“Well…” Mike said. “It sounds like 17 stores across the Western States are going to order copies of your book.”


“What?!” Tears came to my eyes. I crumpled into his lap and threw my arms around his neck. “Mike, why are you doing this?”


“I just love seeing you so happy.”


I set down the dishcloth that I realized I still held—near his face. Poor guy. I married the king of hearts and he married the ace of maids.


“You’re the …” I paused. “You’re the sexist publicist I’ve ever had.”


He snorted. “I’m the only publicist you’ve ever had.” And after he left to work, I honestly felt dumbfounded that he’d called so many stores. 


This reminds me of when people have asked why I’m getting better. “What are you eating?”


“Taco Bell and energy drinks,” I’ve replied. “What I think makes a bigger difference is my medical care and all of the support I’ve received from so many people—especially my family. They’ve kept me strong when it would’ve been easy to stop fighting.”


I’ll never understand why I’m so lucky or why people have shown kindness and prayed for me. Sure some downers have said I’m incredibly “unlucky” because of my health problems, but they’re wrong. I’ve had the most wonderful experiences and seen such kindness. Through this journey I’ve witnessed the best of humanity every single day. I’ve made a conscious choice to find the good, and I’ve found more than I ever could’ve dreamed of.


Plus, now my book will be in 17 stores across the Western States! AND I have a sexy publicist. What more could a girl ask for??? This is amazing 🤩

Monday, August 29, 2022

What Makes a Life Significant?

 “We’re here because of who you’ve been to us,” the man said. He wore oil-stained coveralls and a grin that could light up a power plant.  


I thought then about a question that’s been plaguing me since this damn journey started: What gives a life significance?


“What do you mean?” I asked. The line at Barnes and Noble almost went out the door, and I could hardly believe so many people had come to see me. I turned to the man imploringly. “YOU have been such a blessing in my life. Who have I been to you?” He’s the greatest guy, always so witty and fun. He even made us jerky one year and shipped it across states so we’d have something exceptional to eat for Christmas.


“We worked at Kellogg’s together,” he said. “And every day you’d say ‘hello’ to me—every, single day. You were always happy to see me. I loved walking past the front desk because it became one of the best parts of my day.”


“Anyone would’ve been excited to see you,” I said. “You’re one of the good ones. Hearing how hilarious you are was one of the best parts of my day too. As a single mom … life wasn’t always easy, but you made my days at work better.”


Tears filled his eyes, making him blink hard and sniffle. “You made me feel like I mattered.”


As the day continued—and we actually sold out of books—I couldn’t shake the man’s words. And then it hit me, how strange these signings have been. I’ve seen people from elementary school who helped form who I am. I’ve seen old teachers and amazing people I’ve fiddled with in bands. I’ve made new friends who read my posts and have connected with me on a completely surreal level because we’re fighting cancer together or have known others who have. I’ve reconnected with amazing cousins who I wish I could’ve spent more time with when I was younger. And I’ve gotten to see other family members who have made such a huge impact on my youth that it’s lasted a lifetime.


The next day, Trey and Indy asked (since we were in Utah) if we could go to Zeke’s grave. It’s looking pretty sad there, as if no one has visited in a long time. “Will it always be here?” Indy asked.


“You mean his grave?” I said.


Mike had gotten a pair of scissors out of the SUV, and he started trimming around the headstone where weeds and grass almost covered Zeke’s name. “It won’t always be here,” I said. I’ve heard that sometimes they remove the graves to make room for new ones after 100 years. It depends on the cemetery and who is buried there. If someone is really famous, they usually keep the grave undisturbed.”


The kids looked really troubled by this. 


“Half of Zeke’s ashes are at his grave and half are sprinkled in a canyon. It doesn’t really matter about the grave because he’s always with us.”


“I want to always be remembered,” Indy said.


“Me too,” said Trey.


At this point, Mike had finished working on Zeke’s headstone and had started working on the headstone to the right because a couple of huge weeds grew there too. After he finished, Trey looked so sad, “Can’t we do that for all of the headstones. Some of them look so bad.”


He’s such an empathetic, kind 14-year-old. I love how much he cares about everyone, even the people who have gone before us.


After we got into the car, I kept thinking about how strange it is that a century after our deaths everyone who really knew us will be gone too. We’ll only be a memory. And if we haven’t done something notable enough to become famous, then well …


I told this to Mike and a couple of dear friends. “So what makes a life significant?” I asked seriously. “Unless it’s a historic gravesite, there’s more room at the cemetery, or someone becomes famous, their grave might be reclaimed to make way for the future. The dead can’t advocate for themselves.”


We talked about this for quite a while. And I thought of the signings—about what a huge difference all of those people made for me not just at those events but throughout my whole life. I don’t know if they realize how much of a difference even the small actions have made. They’ve helped mold me—and kept me strong through surgeries, barbaric treatments, liver failure, and so much more. The common thread with significance seems to be how an act helped another and is remembered. 100 years after one’s death people no longer “really” know what someone was like, but what keeps the memories alive is how the notable acts STILL make us feel.


This is all speculative, and what’s ironic is that I don’t even want a grave. I just want my ashes spread somewhere that means something to my family. But for everyone who has supported me and shown such generosity of heart, it’s meant the world to me. No matter how long I have to live or how long we’ll be remembered by anyone else, for as long as I have cognition, I will be grateful to the people who have been so kind to me—they have made a significant difference. They have mattered to so many.


So I’ve begun to think about all of us as what experts say to be a culmination of our experiences and feelings. But really, making other people feel valued—as so many have done for me, especially at these signings—that is the best anyone can do. I just hope that everyone in my life knows how special they are. For all of the experiences in my life, the good and the “bad,” I am so grateful. For the next century and beyond, I am the luckiest.


Thursday, August 25, 2022

Traumatic Memory Shows Life Is Uncertain

 Please beware: This post contains graphic descriptions that might upset some people.


The squirrel bounded onto the freeway, and I stopped breathing. The car in front of us sped onward despite its tiny obstacle, and when the squirrel resurfaced again its back half had turned into a pile of goo while its front paws frantically clawed at the ground. In that terrible moment, the creature faced me as if staring directly into my soul.


“Oh, my…” I clutched the car’s dashboard as Mike and I drove over the squirrel too. 


Mike looked horrified. “Is it…?” I asked.


“I think so,” Mike said. We both stared into the rear-view mirror. “I couldn’t dodge it. It was too late.”


The words hit me. “Too late,” I repeated. It’s odd the situations that strike me now—things that normally wouldn’t have haunted me before my cancer diagnosis—they plague me for days, weeks, even months now.


I thought of the squirrel, now glued by death to the unforgiving freeway, and for some reason it brought back a traumatic memory from 10 years ago.


I drove down I-15 in Salt Lake City. The day seemed bland, and I definitely didn’t expect something irrevocable to happen. Then, out of nowhere, a distant car—a Cadillac—in the fast lane swerved, slamming into the median. It pinballed across the lanes a couple of times miraculously dodging traffic. 


At 80 mph, I approached at an alarming rate and seemed to be the one who “wouldn’t get away.” Within moments, the Cadillac slid sideways as if floating across the freeway—facing the wrong way! Then time stopped.


An elderly couple sat in the car directly in front of me. The woman’s shoulder-length gray hair drifted out a bit to the side as if she performed in some odd, underwater ballet, and the man’s eyes flew open so wide he looked like a grasshopper. They both stared at me as my eyes darted from one to the other. And instantly, the terrifying thought came to me that one of them would die that day.


I slammed on my brakes, hoping to get far away from their car. And I’m still not sure how, but we must’ve missed each other by inches—so close in fact that I felt a suction-like wind pulling my vehicle just as their front bumper cleared mine.


My foot shook as I shoved the gas pedal completely to the floor and somehow got away when their car lurched into the next lane. 


Within seconds a gut-wrenching smash seemed to jolt everything, and I turned to witness the worst wreck imaginable. The elderly couple who’d been driving the blue Cadillac hit an SUV head-on. Metal flew everywhere and glass crunched.


All of the traffic behind them screeched still, and the accident became a broken cog binding every gear of an intricate clock. 


I’d pulled over in the distance, and I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t even get out of the car. I just rubbernecked, completely shocked. And then I couldn’t stand the grisly nature of such an accident. Others were getting out—people who had been behind the wreck—heroes far more capable of handling gore than I am. So, I put on my blinker, got back into the fast lane, and sped away.


That night when I watched the news, a peppy newscaster talked about a horrible accident on I-15. “One fatality has been reported,” she said, her blonde hair staying perfectly hair-sprayed in place despite her flippantly animated motions. “And another person is still in critical condition.”


I wondered then about the two people in the blue Cadillac. Catastrophe had seared their faces into my mind. And I kept thinking how strange it was that I might’ve been the last person one of them ever saw. Or how I might’ve been the one to hit them head-on instead of the SUV. I could’ve died. And how sad that someone had. It was beyond sobering.


So that’s what I thought about after the squirrel ran onto the freeway the other day. Everyone says how life is short. Hell, I’ve even said it. But on some days life feels long. I guess what I’d really like to keep in the forefront of my mind is that life is unexpected—and it’s definitely not guaranteed. 


I hope whoever died in that accident realized what’s important BEFORE that horrific day…. After what I’ve gone through with cancer, I can’t imagine death without a warning. Doctors keep telling me that despite my good news, I still know what I’ll die from; I just don’t know when.


When people tell me how sorry they are that I’m fighting and facing death in my 30s, I always think about how grateful I am that I didn’t die in a car accident. At least I’ve had a warning and time to tell the people closest to me how much I love them.

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

My ‘Wins’ Have Changed

 For those of you watching my journey, this probably sounds bizarre, but I got the coolest today.


My “wins” are different than they used to be. I used to do Ragnar and take amazingly long bike rides. I would go on incredibly wild hikes and go fishing in areas many people have never heard of.


But now, my wins consist of sitting for extended periods and watching my kids play volleyball in the yard or seeing how much they love bowling as I sit and eat greasy fries that all of us love. My wins are going out and walking for over a quarter of a mile. My wins might be small, like holding down a meal and not throwing up in some random bush—or they might be big, like getting a handicap parking pass so I’m not exhausted by the time I FINALLY make it into Walmart.


I know it can be easy to get down and be sad that life changes with setbacks, age, poor circumstances, and other factors—but by God if we don’t remember that nearly everything can be twisted into a “win,” then we’ve lost part of what makes life so beautiful. 


Just a reminder that life is here, waiting. Knocking on your door. You’re alive. Be grateful because one thing is for sure…it won’t last forever. Don’t regret things tomorrow that you could’ve done today. Don’t waste time. Do what you want with the life you have.


That’s it, I’m taking my parking pass for a spin to Walmart soon—because I heard they have swimsuits on sale—and I’m ready to show off my back scar. Let’s do this! Black-striped, push-up with the flashy bikini bottoms, here I come. A penny saved is a penny earned, right? 🤦‍♀️🤣


Monday, August 22, 2022

Indy’s Lesson for the Week

Indy (above) drinking lemonade at a fancy restaurant.



 “You need to be grateful. All you think about is food.” Indy’s little voice trailed from her room and drew my curiosity. 


I’d called in sick to work, something that is extremely hard for me to do. And I’d been lying in bed moments before, feverish and dwelling on the fact that I’ve been sick every single day for over two years. Yes, we’ve gotten good news, but I’m still in the midst of this battle and sometimes that’s hard.


“I’m serious,” Indy said to her cat. She had her back to me and her curls and the big bun on the top of her head bounced as she talked. “I guess if you’re ungrateful it really is my fault. You need to see an example—I should show you how grateful I am.” Indy pointed to an apron that’s proudly displayed by her dresser.


“You see that apron?” she asked her cat. “It represents hours of hard work! But you know what? I won first place in a contest for that thing. So it helps me remember that I can do anything if I put my mind to it. And I’m grateful for that.”


Nova, Indy’s tortoiseshell cat, just meowed as if she didn’t have a care in the world.


“Now, tell me something that you’re grateful for,” Indy prompted, but Nova simply flopped on her side before licking her limp paws.


“Don’t you give me those Puss-‘n’-Boots eyes!” Indy giggled. “Tell me something you’re grateful for.”


Nova finally sashayed over to her dry food. She sniffed at it, stuck her nose in the air, and placed her paw on an unopened can of wet food.


“Oh, Nova! I just said all you think about is food.” Indy paused as if deep in thought. “But…at least you have something to be grateful for. It is a start.”


Indy stood and prepared to turn—but I didn’t want her to know I’d been snooping.


“Mama?” she asked, as I tried to dart past the door.


“Oh! Hi, Indy!” I said, peeking my head in and smiling. “What are you up to?”


“Just trying to teach Nova how to be grateful. Boy, do I have my work cut out for me.”


I laughed and nodded. Little did Indy know, she’d said the exact words that I needed to hear. It’s always a good time to be grateful—even if it is for wet cat food.


Thursday, August 18, 2022

Too Short to Not Have Fun

 Trey finally went to infusions with me—since he’s 14 now. “They’re putting that entire bag of medicine into your arm?” he asked, involuntarily shivering.


“Well, this one and then another one.” I smiled, trying to put him at ease. “It doesn’t hurt. It’s just cold. And then in a few hours it makes me really, really tired.”


“Anything else?” His eyes grew wide. “Anything at all?”


“And a little nauseous.” Trey is such a tall, strong kid, but I know he cares far more deeply than he wants to show. “Don’t worry about that though. I want to read your future.”


He snorted and shook his head “You brought a deck of cards?”


I nodded.


“I can’t believe I even asked that. Of course you did.”


So, after a touch of drama, I pulled out three cards from my regular deck and placed them on the hospital table that spanned the space between us. “These represent your past, present, and future.” I spoke in my best British accent. “Your past was fraught with challenges. Oh, my!” I gasped. “You’ve overcome sooo much. You have the heart of a warrior and the will of a saint!”


At this point several cancer patients and their families actually stopped what they were doing and looked at us. A male nurse even came over and folded his arms. “This outta be good!” he said.


I hadn’t expected an audience. I’d just wanted to distract Trey from his worries about my treatments. 


“Um…,” I fumbled, and Trey chuckled, realizing how many people watched us.


“Your present,” I cleared my throat, “and future are intertwined.” I flipped over a four and five of spades. “Oh, no! Not this.”


“What is it? What do you see?” he asked, and I wondered if he just placated me.


“A woman!”


“Mom. No! Not a girl!”


“You’re right—she’s NOT a girl. She’s an older woman. With no teeth.”


Trey crinkled his nose, and at this point, the nurse who had continued watching us, broke out laughing.


“It’s not funny,” I said, shushing him. Then I turned to Trey. “She will come into your life and teach you many things.”


“When?” Trey asked, actually on the edge of his seat and completely forgetting that he’d previously been worried about the IV in my arm moments before.


“She’ll come into your life within a week! And you will learn so much about math.”


Something dawned on him. “Mom, I start high school next week.”


“What are the odds?!” I started giggling so hard. “Beware the toothless, old teacher! Algebra. Geometry. Poor dental hygiene!”


A little while later, Trey walked off to the bathroom and a couple of nearby people told me how cute the “card reading” had been. It’s interesting getting infusions because you never know who might be your neighbor and what you might end up getting to visit with them about—or who might be listening!


“We have to make things fun,” I said to a fellow cancer patient. “It’s hard having to be here so much, but…being silly makes me feel like I have a little control. I get to choose how I respond to my situation.”


“I needed to hear that today.” She smiled. “Sometimes I forget to loosen up. Someone once told me to never take myself or life too seriously.” She opened her purse and unwrapped a big candy bar. “You’re a good mom to that boy,” she said, taking a huge bite. “He’ll never forget how you made today fun—and neither will I.”


“You made my day. I really needed to hear that. You know,” I paused. “You’re an encourager—and that’s such a gift. It’s amazing when you meet people who can say just the right things that make the day shine bright.”


On our way home, Trey and I decided to go see Layton Funk, a man I absolutely adore. Layton has quadriplegia, and he’s one of the strongest people I know. Luckily—for me—we’ve gotten to be friends since my whole ordeal with cancer began. He’s just one of the coolest people ever, and I’m so glad he lets me come see him from time to time because he always has the best advice.


So, I got more cancer treatments today, but Trey and I had an amazing time goofing around at the infusion clinic, and then seeing Layton Funk was even better than telling Trey about his fictitious future. All in all, it was an unforgettable day.


“Beware the toothless, elderly woman who will teach you so much math!” *still giggling* Life is too short for us to forget how to have fun.




Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Barnes and Noble is Stocking ‘Two More Years’



 Barnes and Noble in Layton, Utah, just started stocking my book! This is incredible. Wow!!!

Another bucket list item … ✅

You can find out more about my journey with stage four cancer, my amazing bucket list (I just went skydiving whaaa?!), and my book (“Two More Years”) here: https://www.amazon.com/Two-More-Years-EC-Stilson-ebook/dp/B09Z2ZG269

This is so incredible. Thank God there’s a silver lining in most things—even in cancer.

I also got this message from a friend (see below). Life is so exciting right now.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Living as a Character in a Novel

“Stop living like you’re in a novel,” a guy said after bringing me on a date. I’d just told him that I wouldn’t go out with him again. “I can give you everything,” he protested.


I shook my head. “I don’t think so.” I paused trying to explain it, but I wasn’t sure how. There have been certain things in my life that I’ve just known: Like playing the violin—as if destined, I always knew God created me…to play the violin. At the age of three, I saw a violinist on TV and started begging my parents every single day for a fiddle. Once I hit kindergarten, they finally acquiesced and let me take lessons. 


We found the most wonderful teacher: Atalie Cook. I remember her beautiful, blonde hair and how kind she was even when I pleaded with her to teach me new songs. “This one,” I said once with so much excitement. “‘El Shaddai.’” 


I practiced for hours upon hours because it felt like those musical strings connected me directly to God. His love would wrap around and nothing else mattered. When that hollow, wooden body sang, so did my soul. At the age of eight, I learned that specific song so well I even got to perform it at Andrew and Terri’s unforgettable church—a feat I will always hold dear. And so, from a young age I found my passion, unaware of how truly rare that was.


“What are you looking for?” the man asked at the end of our date, shaking me from my thoughts. “I’m young. I have a ton of money. Women have said I’m handsome.”


“But with us, the most important things are missing.”


He appeared perturbed.


We lacked what I’d found even as a young child with my violin. “Excitement. Adventure… Passion.”


“You’re looking for something that doesn’t exist—a man who isn’t real… I’d be good for you and your kids.”


Sure he looked good on paper. 


I smiled a bit sadly. My children had been through enough with my first marriage. Unless I found the perfect person, I would never get remarried. Plus, I loved being a single mom, and I didn’t need to teach my children how to gamble.


“Best of luck to you,” I said.


“You really should stop living like you’re in one of those stupid novels you read. You will never find happiness,” the man told me. “Ever.”


I told him goodnight and walked into my empty house. My four kids had gone to be with my ex-husband for a couple of days, and the hours always dragged when they did this because they spent almost all of their time with me. As I drank a glass of wine and slouched in bed, the man’s words replayed in my head: “You will never find happiness. Ever.”


I haven’t thought about this for a long time, but for some reason, the memory came to mind this weekend as Mike drove me and the kids to a book signing in Helper, Utah.


Mike and Trey brought several boxes of books into the coffee shop and set everything up. And almost instantly people began pouring in. I saw relatives and friends. I visited with some of my very favorite people on earth as well as new friends who drove miles and miles just to meet me. “I used every extra dime I could to hitch a ride here today,” an elderly woman said—and it blessed my heart more than I can say. “My daughter died of cancer.” Her eyes filled with tears. “I drove hours to meet you. I read everything you write.”


I gave her a huge hug and a free book—that was the least I could do after she’d traveled so far! As we’ve been at these signings, I’ve been absolutely amazed by some of the stories I’ve heard—and by people‘s generosity to me. It’s amazing that they’ve come just to share encouragement and love. I’ve now met people from all over Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Washington, Montana, Arizona, and Nevada! 


Toward the end of the signing, a familiar looking woman walked through the door. “Atalie?” I gaped, completely dumbfounded. “Atalie!” My very first violin teacher had actually come to my signing. We gave each other the biggest hug, and tears filled my eyes as she spoke to me.


“I’ve been following your story. Even when you were a little girl you inspired me to try new things and embrace life.” She looked me up and down. And I worried, wondering what she might be thinking because cancer has taken my ability to stand straight or hold myself up for too long. But instead of mentioning any of that, she commented on something else. “I always knew you’d grow up to be an amazing woman. And you did. Look at you now.”


I’m not sure what it was, but her words really hit me, meaning so much. My growth as a person is what matters, not any of that other finite stuff.


I caught sight of Mike then, shaking hands with someone across the room. “You can’t believe a word she writes about me,” he said, his voice always carrying. “She wears rose-colored glasses when it comes to me.” I had to giggle because he’s so perfect in my eyes—my exceptional, wonderful, goofball man.


Indy talked with someone nearby, explaining how cool it is to be in an “actual book,” and I caught a glimpse of a couple of relatives who were smiling at me with so much joy.


“You’re gonna make it through this cancer business,” one cousin told me. “I just know it.”


As we drove home the next day, I thought about how strange it is that this is the very happiest I’ve been in my entire life. You’d never think that cancer could somehow end up being such a good thing. I guess it just goes to show that no matter how hard life gets, if we can just look for the good things in life, then beautiful moments will follow. 


Cancer has brought me closer to my family and helped me appreciate everything. Because of it, I have a book that even my family seems to be proud of. But more than that, I’ve realized what I’ve always been looking for….


At different points in my life I felt like my book is a romance, a comedy, a mystery, or even a tragedy. But right now, my book is truly an adventure. And I’m proud to say that the rich guy I once dated was wrong. I have found happiness, and I’ve found it in all of the right places despite hardship and trials. I’ve found hope and love among the best family and friends anyone could hope for. Joy isn’t something that comes and goes. It’s rooted in gratitude and it blooms even in adversity. I’m so thankful for everything. Whether I continue to get better or not, I’m so happy with my life. And I’m continuing to truly appreciate each moment, just like we all should.


Tuesday, August 9, 2022

I’m a Natural Faller

Before Mike and I even got married, we made a list of things we wanted to do together. It’s not really a bucket list, but it’s close. Anyway, among several things including “visit Italy” and “go hunting,” we wrote “skydive together.” I’ve been before, but I wanted something different—where I could stand on part of the wing of the plane!


We thought about it, but of course life and work got in the way. I kept thinking I’d do this or that when the kids got old enough… I saved everything for “tomorrow.” And then time stopped.


Doctors discovered stage four melanoma and gave me two years to live.


Cancer has taken a lot from me since 2018, and I’ve tried to settle in to the fact that there are things I just can’t do anymore.


But when our epic daughter, Sky, told us she wanted to skydive with the family for her 18th birthday, I really wanted to go. So I called several places around Pocatello. A woman in Utah made me cry. “You have cancer. You could put the instructor in danger!” She even went on to use the word “selfish.”


I tried changing the subject. “Oh. Well… No worries. Um…I won’t go. But how much is a down payment for my two oldest daughters and my husband?”


She wouldn’t drop the subject. And I finally interrupted her monologue. “Enough,” I cried, sobbing almost uncontrollably. “I’m still f-f-fighting cancer. I don’t need this! You have n-no idea what I’m dealing with…or what my exact situation is like. I already told you I won’t go.” And I hung up the phone.


After taking a couple of days to calm down, I tried one last place: Sky Down in Caldwell, Idaho—almost four hours away.


“We help people who have cancer quite a bit,” the woman said on the phone. “It’s a pretty common bucket list item.”


I still worried because among other things I’m always so nauseous from cancer treatments. The last thing an instructor needed would be throw up hitting their face at terminal velocity!


But the lady on the phone, Denise, was so kind. In fact, when we got to the place this weekend, the instructor went over several things, explaining how if anything went wrong he would roll with me so neither one of us would get hurt. He’d strap me tightly to him, and we would land sitting. I couldn’t believe it. My dream of going skydiving with Mike would come true, but more than that, we would get to experience this with our two oldest daughters (Ruby and Sky) while our two youngest kids watched. It would be incredible.


And it was! Skydiving a second time was totally different from the first because I got to enjoy it with Mike and all of the kids too. I absolutely loved seeing their joy as we watched each person land and while Indiana and Trey cheered everyone on even saying, “The Sky is falling,” when Sky did her jump.


Unfortunately, my right leg unexpectedly gave out when I tried to lift it before landing, and several seconds before hitting the ground, my right leg drooped at an angle, caught on the dirt, and forced us to pitch down. Fortunately, the amazing skydive instructor—who speaks about a million languages and is so witty—rolled to keep both of us safe. “Oh, my gosh! Are you okay?” I asked after we stopped moving.


“Are you kidding?!” he said. “I’m totally fine. I do this for a living. I’m just worried about you.”


After we got back to the hanger, when everyone had completed their jumps, I talked with Denise and discovered some pretty profound things about Sky Down. They have helped so many people accomplish their dreams—people just like me.


I gave Denise my book, “Two More Years,” a huge hug, and the biggest smile. “Thank you so much for making this a reality for me. Doctors are starting to say I might actually beat this. But regardless,” I looked over at the skydive instructor and the pilot of the plane who both sat near the front entrance, “you’ve given all of us a memory we’ll never forget for Sky’s 18th birthday. You’ve made it so special.”


And to think, they’ve done this for so many other people. It’s astounding.


Today as Ruby smiled, talking about how much she loved free-fall, and Sky beamed looking at how they caught her E = mc2 tattoo in a photo of her plummeting next to the moon, I couldn’t help feeling the happiest I’ve been in a long time.


Sure I’m still fighting, nauseous from my monthly treatments, and a bit bruised from learning how to ”stop, drop, and roll,” BUT I’m so grateful. I’m still alive. And I get to be experiencing so many miracles each day with my adventurous family.


Who cares that I didn’t stick the landing? I got to go skydiving with some of the best people EVER and all of us lived!





Saturday, August 6, 2022

When I discovered who bought the violin, I cried.

I sold the violin. And when I discovered who bought it, I had to sit and cry….

Roberta is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever known. I first met her at Portneuf Medical Center. I desperately wanted to work as the manager of primary care, but even I knew it was a long shot. Yet, over a month after the interview, I got the job and sat in my new office talking with one of the providers: Roberta. 

“I wanted you to be the manager,” she said, and my heart swelled. I’d recently studied the patient feedback ratings and had already grown an immense amount of respect for this woman. The patients absolutely loved her—actually leaving comments about her wonderful bedside manner. It became obvious that each day she changed lives. 

Years passed and our friendship grew. I’ll never forget smiling and laughing over falafel or when I had to get a serious surgery in 2018. We went out to eat and I got all decked out in what we dubbed my “uterus dress,” because it’s the last time I’d get to go out on the town—with my uterus. Even during the tough times, Roberta just has a way of making everything fun, better, and somehow unforgettable.

In 2020, when my cancer progressed from stage 2 to 4, my previous coworkers at primary care were the first to know. Several of them cried with me and told me they were there if I needed anything. I’ll never forget when Roberta gave me a huge gift filled with various scarves and other things after I lost my hair. 

Then…Roberta got cancer. I bawled because I know how hard this journey is. I feel like a lot of people “think” they know what it’s like having cancer, but no one fully understands unless they’ve gone through it themselves. My heart broke knowing the journey my friend would be embarking on.

Despite fighting through treatments herself, she still found time to visit me, bring me a Viking helmet (that matched her own), and play music with me on a day that I needed cheering up the most. 

So you can imagine how much this meant when I realized that she bought the repurposed, steampunk violin from me. The genuine warrior who has fought and smiled and brought the best out of everyone despite her own plight. 

You see, Mike and I repurposed the violin because it was on my bucket list. And then, after it turned out so well, we decided to use it for something else. I have a lot of bills because of trips to Utah and treatments there. I had to ask for money in the past, but that is mortifying. So I decided to try to think of something else. Earning money to pay for my treatments. I was amazed to see that the violin got 14 bids! But what touched my heart more than anything is who ended up buying it. 

This is the violin that Mike and I repurposed:



It’s not just this one action, but dozens built up over years of friendship. Roberta has fought cancer, and yet she’s still doing things to make life better for everyone around her. She’s the purest example of kindness. Truly. 

I’m so grateful for this friendship…so grateful for Roberta. Thank you—for everything. 🥰

Below you can see me—trying to look…surprised in the hat Roberta gave me. Who knows what that face is 🤣🤦‍♀️ 


And this is my sweet Roberta 💓