Sunday, July 25, 2021

Four Hawks and a Reminder

 “You can keep the feather or release into the wind with a prayer. It will find the Grandfathers.” Mato-Uste had given me the feather, but every time I tried releasing it, the winds brought it back. 

“Maybe the Grandfathers are rejecting my prayer. Maybe God is rejecting my prayer….” I’d honestly begun wondering if cancer really is a punishment for sins I’ve committed in the past. I’ve definitely done some bad things, but what makes my “bad” acts worse is that I genuinely knew better. 

A bit concerned, I brought the feather home from the cliffs of Arizona and placed it safely on my desk. Mato-Uste had smiled while telling me about the feather. “The Grandfathers are watching out for you, Elisa. That is why the feather stayed.”

Some strange things happened in the months that followed. My cancer progressed and the doctors prescribed more radiation. That’s around the time a hawk showed up in my backyard. He’d stare at me while I sat working. The two of us would gauge one another: I’d study his beauty and I’m unsure what he thought of me.

I underwent yet another round of radiation along with grueling sets of immunotherapy that made me lose over 15 pounds. My liver began failing after that. 

“The treatments are trying to kill the cancer and your liver,” the doctor said as I sat in the hospital, enduring steroids and more testing. And the whole time I wondered how my family had handled the news. Maybe the hawk looked after them while I could not.

After being released from the hospital, the doctors halted all treatments. “You need your liver,” one specialist said. “We can’t continue treatments unless your liver heals. Even then, it will be a balancing act. Unfortunately you’re living through a very uncertain time right now.”

When I got home, I didn’t see my hawk. Instead the summer heat became almost unbearable with deadly dry winds. That’s when the hawk’s tree fell over. Somehow this made me feel like all hope was lost. The hawk had somehow been a sign that someone looked out for me. But where would he perch now with his favorite branch gone?

I worked facing the deck last week, wondering if I’d ever see my hawk again, when something extraordinary happened. One…then two hawks landed on another branch in my backyard. Then three…and four hawks!

(Can you see all four of them? Look at the bottom of this article to see all four circled!)

I went outside and instead of flying away, each of them turned to meet my gaze. That night, they began building a huge nest. And once again, they landed on separate branches so they could turn and look at me. We cocked our heads and studied one another. And then after a while, they went back to building.

This might sound completely silly, but those birds gave me so much peace. Whether it’s just because they like our yard or because they are actually looking out for me…I’m grateful they’re here. It’s strange that they came back shortly after I started treatments again when the doctors said they’re hopeful that we’re on the right path for fighting this cancer.

I guess this is just a reminder that sometimes it can seem as if all hope is lost. Your “hawk” might not stick around when you expected or something as stable as a “tree” might come crashing down in your life, but that’s simply leaving room for greater miracles. Some of the best things can happen when we rise from the ashes instead of staying stuck in the mire. Be brave! And look for the possibilities around you. Life, well, it’s a miracle any of us were even born.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

The Most Ungrateful Person Ever

 “The steroids may have given me diabetes. But if I have a shot at life—even with diabetes—it’s better than the alternative.”

“And you’re grateful? Your liver has been failing, you’re on the verge of having diabetes, and you still have stage 4 cancer?” the man asked.

“Well, I’m still alive, aren’t I?”

"You really think you can find the good in anything?"

"Or course!" I said without having to think about it.

"Okay.... Our food is taking forever. What could possibly be good about that?"

"Well, I got to meet someone new and have a great conversation, didn't I? And I got to sit and rest for a minute."

The man stared at me. “I’m sorry, but this is making me a bit a speechless. It’s just that I met the most ungrateful person yesterday—and now I’m meeting the most grateful woman ever.”

I broke out laughing. "You’re just catching me on a good day.” I looked at a picture on the wall. “But I do have a lot to be grateful for. If this is my one chance to live, I better make it count.”

We stayed quiet, both of us thinking quite deeply as we waited for our to-go orders at the bustling pizzeria. 

"This man I met yesterday," he finally said, "he had it all: a beautiful wife, a fancy car, tons of cash. But when I talked with him everything was the worst. His wife talks too much. His friend has a more expensive car. He doesn't work because he doesn't need to, and now he's bored out of his mind."

"Really? This guy was for real?"

"Yes! He stayed at a hotel in town, and he couldn’t believe the stairs hadn’t been vacuumed yet that day."

I tried so hard not to say anything bad because I'm trying this new thing called "keeping my d*mn mouth shut": no lashon hara (as the Jews call it).

"He asked me if I thought he should float the river with his wife. You know what I told him?"

I shook my head. I was beginning to like this stranger. I'm trying not to gossip, but nothing ventured nothing gained!

"I told him he'd hate floating the river."

"But everyone loves the river--once they get out there," I said.

"Are you kidding? Not him. He could find something wrong with Mother Theresa. He'd hate the river."

The lobby's door opened and Mike walked in. "You feeling okay, sweetheart?" He'd gone to look at stores with the kids while I sat in the pizzeria, waiting for food, catching my breath, and hearing about ungrateful strangers.

Right after that our order was up, and we paid for our food.

"Your enthusiasm for life is catching," the man said before we could leave. "I'm so glad I got to hear how grateful you are for everything. It makes me feel sort of thankful for all the good things I have too."

"I'm glad." I smiled so big, and after that Mike and I left.

"Who was that?" Mike asked.

"A stranger," I said. "Isn't it amazing how you can walk into a building not even knowing what exciting thing might happen, then you meet somebody new and have a great conversation?!" Mike just chuckled as I beamed. "Life is SUCH an adventure!"

“Yes, it is!” he said, and then that wonderful man held my hand.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Strangers that Mean Well

The thing about the water is that it doesn’t matter if your legs don’t work quite right or if you’ve had your third vertebrae removed. You can get in there and feel like a completely normal person.

We’ve been in Bear Lake for the last few days. My amazing in-laws let us stay at their cabin, so Mike and I could get some time alone and relax.

I could hardly wait to visit the beach today—the Caribbean of the Rockies. It took quite a bit of effort to get me into the water, but once there, I practically became a fish. We swam around, laughed, and joked.

Some people arrived not long after we did. I noticed them grinning at me and Mike as we splashed around. It wasn’t until I got out of the water that things changed. An older woman (probably in her 80s) looked at me with such pity as I limped out of the water. My back pulled with intense pain from the cancer, and the sand made my gait appear even worse. 

She approached me after Mike left to get my towel.

“Let me help you,” she said.

“I’m all right,” I said. “I’m really okay.”

“But you look like you’re in so much pain.”

Mike got back to me at about that time, and I pleaded with my eyes, silently saying, “Get me out of here.” 

Mike ended up explaining to the woman and her husband (who came up after that) about my cancer and my surgeries.

“I’m so sorry you might be dying soon,” the woman said.

I knew she meant well, but seriously??? We hadn’t said anything about dying, but this woman seemed willing to dig my grave.

“We better head out,” Mike said, seeing my dwindling pride. “Nice to meet both of you.” But the woman kept talking. 

And even after I walked away to our beach chairs, I heard her telling Mike, “I can’t imagine how hard it must be for her. She’s so young. I remember when I had to get my handicapped sticker…that was embarrassing. And to think, I never would’ve known something was wrong with her until she got out of the water.”

I slid my sunglasses on so no one would see my tears. After that, Mike came over. “I’m so sorry, sweetheart. It was hard to get away. She just kept talking."

“I know she meant well,” I said after we made it to the car, “but I feel terrible. The pity in her eyes. She didn’t even know how to talk to me. And I felt so normal and happy in the water….”

When we returned to the cabin, Mike and I sat on the front porch. “I just need to find the good—that always makes things better,” I said. “On the bright side, isn't it wonderful how even strangers want to help us?”

We stayed quiet for a while, and as we sat there I remembered a moment for a couple of years ago. I’d gone to the grocery store and stood scanning items at the self-checkout. A man practically gaped at me. I instantly wondered if something was in my teeth, if my clothes looked wrinkled...if I stood oddly. So many thoughts raced rough my mind as I worried something appeared “wrong” with me. Then suddenly, the man who'd been staring at me came up and asked me out on a date!

“I’m married,” I said, “but thank you.” And to think, I’d been so self-conscious, paranoid that he’d judged me poorly. Yet now, look at me—now that something is actually “wrong”—it’s taken some getting used to. I felt self-conscious before; imagine what I’ll do if things get worse.

“I need to be grateful that things aren’t worse,” I suddenly told Mike. “I just need to embrace this. So what that people pity me. So what that I don’t walk the same as I used to. At least I don’t need a wheelchair! I don’t want some insignificant conversation to ruin my day, especially when that woman meant well. She really tried to be kind, didn’t she?”

Mike nodded then came over and held my hand. “I'm so proud of you. It must be hard to deal with all of this. And to admit when things are tough.”

So, the two of us eventually decided to get dressed up and go to dinner. “I love you so much,” Mike said after we'd changed our clothes.

“I love you back.” I smiled. “Thank you for making today so special. I had fun swimming with you."

Moments later we walked out the door, so excited for a night out on the town, grateful for each other, thankful for strangers who mean well, and happy to have positive perspectives that can change lives.


Thursday, July 15, 2021

A Dress and a Few Simple Words

 “She just knows things. I’d really like for you to meet her,” a friend said, and that’s how I found myself at a little dress shop in downtown Pocatello.

I sneaked inside, making sure to be quiet as I peered at vintage dresses and jewelry. A few women and a young boy sat on classic velvet chairs in the middle of the room. “You need to find that within yourself,” a lady with gray hair said and then pounded her first on an eclectic table. “This is your son. You need to do what’s right for HIM.”

I studied the entire scene as the woman captivated everyone with her unusual insight. 

That’s when I decided the woman reminded me of a wise owl. “Oh!” she suddenly said, eying me, and I almost worried she’d heard what I’d been thinking about her spirit animal! “Can I help you? You’d look lovely in that dress!” She pointed to a blue ‘50s dress on the wall.

“Oh, thank you. It’s absolutely beautiful, but not quite what I’m looking for.” I’d seen the prices, and I knew I couldn’t afford it. “I’d love to get these earrings though.” Then I paid for the $10 earrings and left.

The whole experience spiked such a curiosity. Who was this woman and why did people seek her advice? I’d asked around and heard intriguing stories from various people who’d met her. 

And so, weeks later, I returned to Annie Hall’s—with my husband this time. We looked at shoes and listened to conversations. A skinny girl came into the store. She didn’t appear to have much confidence by the way she slouched and how her eyes darted around the shop. “Oh, my! Look at you…. YOU are beautiful!” Anne said to the girl.

“Me?” She almost stumbled backward, then stared at Anne.

“Who else? Of course, you! Now get over here; I have a dress for you to try on.” 

And within minutes the girl wore a gorgeous flapper-girl dress and hat. Anne had her standing straight and smiling. She started glowing as she donned a necklace and appraised herself in the mirror. 

“Now, just pull your hair back. That’s it! You’re gonna model in my fashion show. You know that?”

“Me…but…nobody will want to look at me.”

“Oh, yes they do—and they will!”

The girl stared at herself with tear-glistening eyes and stood even straighter. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll do it.” Then she hugged Anne before she could even get away.

I’m still not sure if the girl paid a dime, but Anne made sure she left with one of the most stunning dresses in the shop.

I kept visiting Anne. It inspired me to watch her size people up and then change their lives. I loved hearing about her family (her strong husband and brilliant daughter, Merrillee).

And over years of visiting her store, purchasing earrings and shoes, our banter changed.

“Anne, well, how the hell are ya?”

“I knew I’d see you today!” She’d smile and laugh. 

I started running a local newspaper and vowed to somehow help Anne. When she put on a huge fashion show fundraiser, I got my chance. 

I stayed up late editing photos and paginating so it would look just perfect. I’ll never forget Anne’s bewilderment when I brought her a copy of the newspaper and she saw one of her dresses on the front page. “Next year, YOU’LL be one of my models,” she said. 

I laughed because I’m so old. “Oh, Anne!”

Then she grabbed a black velvet coat someone had just brought in. “I want you to try this on! Sometimes I just know what people are supposed to wear!” Then she practically vanished and reappeared with a black velvet dress that matched it. “Wear this dress with it.”

It was an order. So I didn’t argue; no one argued with Anne. When I touched the dress, it felt like pure magic. But when I put it on—it felt like Heaven. I practically floated to the three-fold mirror, and my breath stopped as I caught my reflection. I felt so special as Anne told me such nice things. I’d never worn something so elaborate and expensive in all my life. 

“Elisa!” she said. “That was made for you!”

But both the dress and cape were worth a fortune, so I gently took them off, and donned my Goodwill clothes.

“Anne, you are something! Thanks for letting me try that on!” Then I left.

Months later, I received terrible news. I had the kind of cancer that terrifies everyone—stage four, in my spine and brain. After surgeries I used a walker to walk and stand. I rested at home, a bit sad just before Christmas when my husband strutted into the room and beamed. “Anne has a surprise for you!” Then I FaceTimed Anne, and Mike revealed the black velvet dress he held in his hand—the same one I’d loved months before but could never afford. I cried, so shocked and happy because she’d given me far more than the dress…she’d given me an unforgettable friendship and memories I’d hold dear forever.

Yesterday, I heard that Anne died. We’d spoken on the phone a few weeks ago, sharing our own hopes and fears. We laughed and cried. I just had no idea that would be the our last conversation. I felt like calling her last week, and now I’m so sad I didn’t. Life…can be so unpredictable.

It’s hard fighting cancer and then seeing the struggles other people have. It’s hard to understand why I’m still here and life-changers like Anne had to leave too early. I had another friend just die of cancer and two more go on hospice. The pain of seeing that…is worse than the cancer.

I already miss Anne. I loved visiting her shop and talking with her on the phone. It’s astounding that she could drastically change people’s lives with a dress and a few simply words. 

Anne, thank you for helping me see the strength inside of myself. You amaze me.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

A Little Wider

 I’ve been sick for over a year now. That reality is hard to digest. Sure they diagnosed it as cancer in October, but I kept telling them something was wrong—practically begging them to believe me back in June of 2020. And by the time they caught it months later, the corrosive melanoma eating at my bones had reached stage 4. 

I cried yesterday—these weak, embarrassing sobs. It’s just that the feverish feelings are coming back, the swelling in my gut (from a still failing liver), and the nausea and vomiting…. Sure I’ve had worse—like when the docs removed an entire vertebrae, but although the cancer isn’t progressing, it’s not getting better either, and some days it’s hard to face the insurmountability of it all—I just don’t see an end to this fight.

I’ve been studying Judaism as a way of coping, reading three books at a time, just devouring everything I can. And although I’m just studying, through its tapestry I’ve begun to sense a beautiful meaning in life. And as I cried yesterday, what got me to stop was a strange memory that came to me as I studied, a memory from years ago when I ran a newspaper.

A lady burst through the dilapidated front door. She wore a fur coat to befit a queen.  This really stuck out in Blackfoot, Idaho which houses The Potato Museum, some excellent Idaho farmers, and various industry workers like welders, food production experts, and much more.

“Where’s the publisher?” she boomed.

A couple of employees pointed to me—and the woman seemed shocked that I didn’t sit in the big office designated for the publisher. Instead I insisted on sitting in the main area with everyone else, because we all worked hard; we were ALL equal on that team.

“Hello,” I said, standing to shake her hand.

“I do not shake hands. Don’t you know who I am?”

“I’m sorry if I don’t remember…. Have we met before?”

Come to find out, we’d never met, but the woman had starred in numerous Hollywood films decades before.

I wanted to recognize her. She looked to be in her late 80s, and I could tell she needed for someone to know who she was. But although I scribbled down her name, I knew I’d never heard it.

“I stopped by so you could write a story about me. We were passing through. But since you have NO idea who I am…!”

“I can still write the—“

Then she stormed from the office and left as quickly as she’d come.

I sat down, completely stunned. Everyone else had gone back to work, but the whole interlude shocked me. I googled her name and sure enough found her in some “song and dance” kinds of films. Granted, she wasn’t a Ginger Rogers, Debbie Reynolds, or Doris Day, but she’d been famous, beautiful, captivating…once. Now she seemed so forgotten in a world where younger generations had no idea who she’d been. Her whole sense of self-worth had been wrapped up in everything that she’d lost. And suddenly that memory seemed so close to home. Not that I was a famous movie star (I wish!), but rather that so much of my worth was wrapped up in my health. Who am I now that I take old-lady naps in my 30s?! I can’t walk normally. I feel sick constantly. Things have drastically changed for me. BUT that doesn’t give me the right to feel bad for myself, or become so wrapped up in my past that it mars my future.

It’s strange because I actually read a book by Kirk Douglas, on how he found his way back to Judaism. I wondered if he ever met that woman who came into the newspaper. Who knows?

It stunned me to read that in the end what made life worth living for him (other than his family) was simply giving to others. And that we should keep striving to live as long as we have the capacity to give. I so wished the woman with the fancy fur could read those sentiments. Maybe she could finally move on from the stardom that “made” her and later began destroying her from the inside.

So, yesterday after I rested for most of the day, I got up and tried to do an act of kindness for someone; albeit small, I wrote a note that I knew would make someone smile.

For a moment the pain and everything abated. I thought about how I wouldn’t trade anything for what I have right now: a chance at life, a chance to overcome and find good even in the pain, and finally, a chance to give. There’s beauty in the journey, sometimes we just have to open our eyes a little bit wider.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Cleaning a Synagogue

We went to “diner church.” This is basically when we bring the kids to breakfast and talk about a story from the Old Testament. “I like Noah,” Indy said. “Can we talk about the flood?”

But Trey had zoned off, so Mike and I mischievously told a story that directly involved Trey and Indy.

“I want you to imagine that God told Trey to take woodshop class so he could build a huge submarine at the middle school.”

“What?” Trey suddenly started laughing. “A submarine?”

“But all of the other kids thought it was crazy! And then two kinds of each animal started coming to the school! And all of the kids were like…whaaaa?”

The story went about like that until Mike made the pipes burst in the school—and it flooded while Trey and Indy stayed safely in the sub with thousands of fluffy animals (which Indy loved).

After Mike read the real story, I asked, “What did you learn?”

“That God does stuff to actually help people. He doesn’t just watch when we’re having a hard time,” Indy said. 

“Not to give into peer pressure,” Trey said, almost rolling his eyes. “But…I did sorta like the part about the submarine.”

“Elisa,” Mike said, shutting the Bible, “you’ve wanted to see the synagogue. Why don’t we go?”

It’s been a running joke now. Since I announced to friends and family that I don’t believe Jesus was the son of God, I’ve often said, “I believe in the Old Testament: I’d probably make a pretty good Jew.” Even if I do regret announcing my beliefs to the world, because it made me a sitting target, like advertising, “Hey, I’m the weak one in the herd,” I guess it’s helped me sort SOME things out.

“They have services on Fridays. Today isn’t a Friday,” I said.

But we ended up finding their schedule online, and can you believe it was their annual cleaning day—at that very moment—and the rabbi would be there from out of town! “You guys want to stop and ask a couple of questions?” I asked.

“I’m staying in the car,” Trey said when we got there. He’s definitely an independent, strong teenager.

“No, you’re coming with us,” Mike said. So, all four of us nervously edged inside and realized that only a few people had shown up to their annual cleaning day.  

“God brought you here!” A jolly looking man practically appeared—out of nowhere—then handed us brooms, dustpans, and rags. “Here’s the list of what we need cleaned.” 

Trey looked at me, dumbfounded as two people herded us into a vast meeting area where the floor needed to be stripped, swept, and scrubbed.

The first man gave us our marching orders. “Wait,” I said, “we’re so happy to be here helping, but I have some questions about Judaism and your services.”

“The rabbi will come talk to you in a little while.”

And he left. So, Mike scraped plastic from the floor, Trey and I swept, and Indy scrubbed. I can’t describe what happened as we quietly worked on that massive room, but the kids must’ve been too stunned to even complain, and after a while, I felt an amazing peace rolling over me. 

It took quite a while, and I’m embarrassed to say I sat down at one point because I felt so weak from the cancer, but just being there seemed so…healing.  

The rabbi finally came in. I told him about my cancer. “We love our Baptist church. I’ll always bring the kids there on Sundays, but this…coming to find out more about Judaism…is for me.”

“The next meeting is Friday, July 9. You can come and see what you think.” 

I told him how it seems like I’ve been on a beautiful vacation that was supposed to last a month and now it’ll be over in a few days. “There’s so much left I want to do. But now I have to figure what’s most important and what I have time for.”

“Well, we’re certainly glad you made time to come here today. We really needed the help.”

As we drove home, the kids talked about how great it felt cleaning the synagogue. “They even let me paint some of the bathroom!” Indy squealed.

Trey nodded. “Yeah, they REALLY needed us. I’m glad we went.”

I just smiled. I’m grateful we showed up when we did. That feeling of peace (and even healing) as we cleaned, well, I’ll never forget it.

Sometimes things just work out the way they’re supposed to.

Thursday, July 1, 2021

A Dip in the Water

 I know it’s silly, but I’m so proud of myself. We’ve been visiting this “watering hole” by our house so I can get exercise. The kids are LOVING it (especially the rope swing), and I’ve been able to do more and more each time. 💕💕💕 

I even made it INTO the water today! 🤗

#superStoked #Progress

Life is so good with these kids and my amazing husband. I’m just so stinkin’ grateful.

Friday, June 25, 2021

A Seredipitous Moment

Staying in the hospital is not the best thing ever. And the last time I only had two big highlights:

#1 - I had a mock photoshoot in the bathroom—where I tried to make my hospital gown “sexy.” The nurse ended up freaking out because I’d been in the bathroom for so long (trying to hide from her honestly). Later an award-winning photographer saw the photos online and asked to take PROFESSIONAL pictures of me in my gown for cancer awareness!  Say whaaa??? Talk about awesome!

#2 - While I stayed at the hospital I had several wonderful visitors including my 16-year-old daughter.

If you’ve been reading my posts, you might recall that my 16-year-old ran away last October, a week before I was officially diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.

Honestly, her absence in our lives has been harder than the cancer. Although we kept in contact weekly, even that brief interaction seemed unexpectedly strained, and I couldn’t understand how we’d gone from extremely close to distant in a matter of moments.

But I have good news: Over the last couple of months my 16-year-old started contacting me more and even said she missed me. 

When she came to visit in the hospital, we played games and laughed. After that, Sky said something that really struck me: “I forgot how funny I could be,” she said as we giggled.

You wouldn’t believe it, but she actually decided to come home. And now that weeks have passed, I can’t tell you how full my heart finally is again. Despite nausea, having labs that still show I’m in liver failure, and currently being on probation from cancer treatments, I am the happiest! Thank God I stayed at the hospital because I think that visit is what ultimately encouraged my baby girl to come home!

It’s not easy raising teenagers. In fact, it’s hard being the one to set down rules, make sure they have chores, help with homework and job responsibilities (that 5 a.m. paper route was the worst!), and work together with your spouse to stay in lockstep. I’ve decided though that as long as we’ve shown them how much we love, appreciate, and value them—for who THEY are—it works out in the end. They’ll know they can succeed and thrive in this tough world.

I once met a man, years ago; tragically his son had committed suicide. I remember our conversation because he wanted to give me advice even though my kids were quite small at the time. “Just show them how much you unconditionally love them. That’s what I failed to do.” And I’ve held his words close to my heart. Even though the teenage years have definitely had moments I thought we’d never get through (like when Sky ran away), the best we can do is show unconditional, selfless love.

This “reunion” still hasn’t been easy. We’ve had to talk about my fight against cancer, and she’s even spoken with a counselor at the Huntsman.

“I believe she pulled away because she was so scared to lose you,” the counselor told me. “She knew you were sick when she ran away—she knew something was wrong. It’s pretty common for kids her age to withdraw. It’s their way of coping.”

“Wow. I just never thought she’d need to leave to process all of this. You’d think this would bring families closer together.”

“Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

I thanked her for everything, then we hung up and I walked into a fancy photography studio. Remember that award-winning photographer (and amazing friend) I told you about earlier? Dawn (of Fuzzy Love Photography) normally takes pictures of animals, yet she sent me an idea of boudoir poses for the “hospital gown shoot.” So, as I walked into the building, while still thinking about the call with my daughter’s counselor, I mentally prepared for a unique photo session.

Can you believe—after the insane year I’ve had with surgeries, hospital stays, radiation, and infusions—this woman made me feel like a real, live model!

After laughing and having the most wonderful time , I ended up telling Dawn about my daughter.

“I wish I could meet someone who went through this as a teenager—someone who knows what it’s like to be so young and have a parent with cancer...” I had JUST said the words when the owner of the photography studio peeked her head from around the corner.

“I’m so sorry for eavesdropping,” she said, “but I heard what you were saying. My mom… Well, my mom died of cancer when I was 17….” Her eyes grew quite large as she waited for my response.

My heart stopped. It became so incredibly hard to breathe. There stood this gorgeous business owner who appeared unscathed by hardship, and she was literally my answer to prayer.

Dawn and I looked at each other and both teared up. It was one of those serendipitous moments. 

The lady who owned the building talked with us about what it was like dealing with this as a teenager and how I should just be as loving and understanding as possible. “I pulled away from my mom too,” she said, then explained that she hadn’t talked much to her mom for the last month before she died.

“I don’t blame my daughter for pulling away,” I said. “This whole thing is so incredibly hard to process. I’m sure your mother felt the same. We simply love unconditionally. In the end, we just want our kids to know how much they’re loved….”

“Your daughter will be okay,” the woman said. “She has an amazingly strong mother, and she’ll look back and see that—just like I do. Give her the space she needs when she needs it. It’ll all work out.”

I wiped more tears away. This whole encounter would be etched into my mind forever.

Dawn and I walked from the building after that. I told her thank you for everything. (I had a sneaky suspicious she hadn’t done this as a cancer awareness shoot at all, but because she wanted to make me feel special.)

I gave her a huge hug and asked if she’d like to go to dinner sometime. “You’re too much fun!” I said before getting into my car. Because she IS epic!

So, that’s what I did last week after my appointments at the Huntsman in Utah. I had my pictures taken by the best animal photographer in the Western States and met a stranger who reminded me that my kids will be okay despite this harrowing situation. They’ve had a good foundation, and I need to remember that just like God has a plan for my health, He’s also looking out for my family every step of the way too. It’s astounding how serendipitous moments work; after all, when we’re open to the unexpected, that’s when miracles can happen.

For more info about Fuzzy Love Photography, please visit: Fuzzy Love Photography

For more info about this amazing head wrap, please check out Bliss Silk.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Scars and All

Once I interviewed a Vietnam veteran who told me he’d waded through swamps filled with leeches. He’d smoke cigarettes, and then use them to burn the leeches off himself just so they wouldn't keep sucking his blood. 

Now, I know stage 4 cancer isn't quite THAT bad, but there are days when I do feel like I'm wading through a swamp, just hoping to find solid ground. Yet, what happened last week gave me the anchor I’ve needed.

Someone paid for me to get a manicure for Mother’s Day. I’ve been pretty excited about it, but when I got to the salon last week, judgement practically emanated from the woman doing my nails. She impersonally motioned for me to put my hands on the counter before roughly sanding my nails and yanking on my hands. I tried talking to her, but she acted like she didn’t understand English, so we sat in silence for a while.

I’d worn fancy earrings and clothes that day (all from Goodwill *scha-bam!), and she hadn’t seen that I walk differently from regular people. I realized then that when I’m sitting, no one would know I’m sick. Regardless of the reason “why,” she didn’t act very nicely, and I just wished I could understand more about her.

(A dress I got for $5 at Goodwill.)

It wasn’t until she got to my left thumb that she studied my disfiguration and looked at me. “What happened?” she suddenly spoke bluntly—in English!

“I cut my thumb in half on a tablesaw,” I said. “It was crazy. The poor kids behind me—blood went everywhere. It was the worst accident that high school woodshop class ever had.”

“Hmmph! And what’s this?” She pulled my arm really hard and started touching the bruises on my inner elbow.

“I have stage four...cancer,” I said. “They have to draw my blood a lot and do treatments. I wanted a port, but I guess I can’t have one because I’ve had blood clots in the past.”

The air around us shifted. I swear this woman went from hating me...thinking I was some snotty feeling compassion.

She showed me all of HER scars then; they ran from her hands to her arms. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed them before! Just like she’d missed so much about me, I had missed so much about her.

“I’m from Vietnam,” she said. “I fished for a living before coming here. These scars are all from fishing.” Then her eyes twinkled as she let go of my hand and stared at me. “We killed the fish—while they were still alive.”

I didn’t know how else you’d kill fish, but THAT made me smile—as if a real, live pirate sat across from me!

“You have kids?” she asked.

“Yes, I do. Four.”


“19, 16, 13, and 11.”

“19! I have a 19-year-old too,” she said.

I beamed as she showed me pictures. “She’s a real beauty!”

So we talked about our children, fishing, and even cancer. We both said how hard life can be and how strange things turn out. And oddly enough, neither one of us could fathom what the other had gone through! I couldn’t comprehend Vietnam, and she couldn’t imagine having cancer. 

And this woman—who’d pretended to not speak English—suddenly became a sort of kindred spirit.

After I gave her a tip and walked out to my car, she darted from the building and yelled across the parking lot. “Good luck! Hang in there!”

“You too,” I said.

As I drove away, I couldn’t help smiling. 

We all go through hidden struggles that no one sees on the surface. It’s just nice when we can have these transcendent moments and find such beauty along the way. I’m so glad I met that woman who felt generous enough to let down her walls to share some of her story with me. She is pretty amazing.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Generosity for Generosity’s Sake

We often need God’s grace the most when we’re experiencing the hardest times. As I watched men clearing out our fallen tree, I went inside momentarily to keep from bawling. It’s just that...people have been so kind!

We’ve struggled through some crazy things lately—and stage four cancer just compounds it all. When water damaged our basement’s carpet, a tree fell down, I experienced stage 3 liver failure, and our A/C stopped working, I REALLY didn’t know what we would do. 

I made jokes about it, (‘cause why not?), and Mike and I even had a photo shoot in the fallen tree “jungle.” But things felt hopeless when the doctor told me remission isn’t currently an option and that although my cancer isn’t progressing, the tumors in my spine and neck aren’t getting better. 

This IS actually good news—yet, a Herculean task. It means we’ll start infusion treatments again in three weeks, but I might have them for the rest of my life. Not only is this expensive, painful, and debilitating—it’s the price I must pay to see my children grow up. When I’m not feeling nauseous (or throwing up), I’m taking medications that completely knock me out just so I can keep food down. In short, it’s my new normal...and that NEEDS to be okay. (I know other people have it much worse than I do. But for just a moment, this reality felt insurmountable.) 

At the age of 38, I have stage 4 cancer that isn’t going anywhere.... It’s way better than a sudden death—but it is weird basically knowing how I’ll die. We went from a two-year life expectancy to more.... The point is, they just don’t know.

We’ve been dealt some rough hands, and just when I think we’ll lose the game, we get a wildcard!🃏♣️♥️♠️♦️

Last week, I honestly felt tired beyond words. Then a friend from high school gave us enough money to replace our flooring! My brother and nephew helped us fix the A/C in our house. One of my AMAZING cousins and several friends gave us enough funds that I can continue traveling and getting treatments—and everything is currently paid for!!!

I’m crying as I write this because I can’t believe how extremely—exceedingly—kind people are: people who don’t expect anything in return!

After the men cleared out the tree, our good friends stayed to talk with us as we ate a dinner they’d brought over. I learned that one of the men came to help because his son beat cancer. Another man was a stranger to everyone! He simply showed up because he heard about our situation from a friend (of a friend).

And so everything just came together. It’s been really hard needing help, but seeing everyone’s kindness has truly changed my life. Other people deserve this so much more than I do, but I’m beyond grateful for everything.

Cancer has been one of the worst things that’s ever happened to me, yet, this love I’ve felt from nearly everyone, well, it’s one of the best. 

Thanks for all of the generosity and support. YOU have changed my life. Somehow a hard situation has become surmountable. Thank you...for being my miracle.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

‘Oh! My Gosh. It’s You!’

“Elisa?” The woman looked my way, totally dumbfounded. “EC Stilson?” she said louder when I didn't respond. 

I didn’t recognize this woman at all. But she clearly knew me....

Maybe we'd gone to school together? 

She walked over after that and started telling me all about my life: how my son died and how my dad had colon cancer. She almost went chronologically from the beginning to the end (through my divorce and sickness), saying she couldn't imagine how I've gotten through everything and still “seen the bright side.” And the whole time I had literally no idea what to do because I couldn’t remember who this woman was!

Finally—getting desperate—I used the oldest trick in the book. “Oh! My gosh!” I squealed. “It'!” Then I gave her the biggest hug on earth just hoping that somehow the physical contact would jog my memory—and I would suddenly remember her.

The woman broke out laughing at this point. “You are just like your books! This is great.” Then she laughed so hard I thought she’d bust. “I don't actually know you,” she said.

“Wait a minute.” Then it dawned on me. My life is an open book—well books—plural.

“You did a book signing at my daughter’s school, and she won ‘The Sword of Senack.’ We had so much fun reading it that I started reading your memoirs. I just can't believe I would run into you and recognize you from your pictures online and things!” She suddenly turned sort of pale. “Oh! Don’t think I'm a stalker. I just found a lot of inspiration in what you're going through and how you handle it.”

“Don’t be embarrassed.” I chuckled. “I just hugged you and acted like I knew you!” 

“Well, I do feel like I know you. Hey, actually, this is so ironic, but can you do something for me?”

“Ummm...sure?” I nodded, and can you believe she actually went to her car and brought back “The Golden Sky” for me to sign?! I couldn’t believe she had it in her car! This was seriously the oddest—coolest—thing. For once IN MY LIFE, I felt like a successful author!

Life can be so terribly hard. I really don't know if I'm handling it all that well, but moments like this make it pure magic! Because even if I can’t hold food down and the doctor had to stop cancer treatments for a bit because my liver was dying.... Even when dinner is burnt, I’m exhausted beyond words, and I make more mistakes than anyone I know, there are Godwinks all around letting me know that God still loves me and everything will be okay.

So, I'm still amazed that someone recognized me AND actually read my books. But it sure was a neat way to make a new friend. When I started writing I had no idea how much it would connect me to so many people. If I never would've shared Zeke’s story, I don't think I'd have the same amount of support that I have now. There's power in vulnerability—in letting people know what our struggles  are. I'm just so grateful I've been able to send this “message in a bottle” out into the world, and that I’ve made so many new friends—and memories—in the process.

“Oh, my gosh! It’!” 🤣

Let Positivity Buoy You Forward

We recently received something quite disturbing in the mail. Someone anonymously sent us a document detailing how certain people are chosen to be the bride of Christ while others are not. These others are “people marked, stricken down with sicknesses and trials, so others will know those who are NOT God’s chosen people.” It went on to say that—if I’ve been wondering—this is why I’m sick...because I haven’t been “chosen.”

This upset Mike, and he didn’t want to tell me about the document for a few days. And when he finally did (because I knew something was eating him alive) the news literally brought me to my knees. I prayed, “Dear God, I’d really like to spend eternity with you. I can’t imagine existing away from you. So, if you have room for me in Heaven, that would be great.” I paused. “Why would someone want to hurt me so badly when I’m already going through so much? Why would a ‘Christian’ send this to me?” I exhaled slowly. “Anyway, thanks for listening. Amen.”

It took a couple of days, but after the shock wore off, the whole thing reminded me of something I’ve finally realized about sickness, trials, and flaws.

You see, when I first got cancer, I coped by painting....

I’ve been working my whole life to be worth something—to produce things that made me feel of value (start businesses, write books, play various instruments)—to rid myself of flaws. But when you get a cancer diagnosis, especially stage 4, that is NOT a sign of perfection.

My dad told me the other day how God sent him perfect children. I teared up a little, thinking about how I’m not perfect and cancer is just another blaring sign of that, a beacon saying, “I’m defective—and I’m definitely not good enough.”

But then I remembered my paintings. They are SO terrible that I could never make money off of them. My first few paintings were extra-horrendous because I’d go back and try to fix the flaws over...and over. But spray paint (my cheap medium of choice) dries so quickly that things stay permanent and too much paint just turns to brown soup.

Now, after months of this, I’ve learned to work around the flaws. In fact, some of my favorite parts of these pictures are actually things that went “wrong”...the unfixable turned perfect. And in these flaws I’m seeing such incredible beauty, and the paintings are improving too!

A misplaced white dot turned to snow-capped mountains. A buck transformed into an majestic antelope. Even a boulder turned into the silhouette of a bear!

As I painted yesterday, it hit me again: Who cares if everyone knows I’m flawed, sick, and experiencing trials? I don’t think that designates me as someone shunned by God. This is simply an opportunity to become stronger and rise to the occasion. Maybe THIS is my chance to shine despite hardship! Just like these paintings, I’ll use the undesirable to my advantage. Although I’m exhausted and battling for my life, my soul is becoming resilient...and even things like this judgmental document are making me a better person.

Every day I’m remembering to embrace the imperfections and find beauty in them no matter how hard that might be. It’s a great mindset to live by—whether I get better or not. 

So, I’m resolute today: No matter what, I will let positivity buoy me forward...for myself and others.

One of my recent paintings.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Fiddle for a Dying Soul

Several years ago, before my cancer diagnosis and my whole world flipped on its head, I stepped into a bedroom with a four-poster bed and a poofy white comforter. A little head stuck from the top of the comforter. The woman smoked, completely horizontal, with her face barely visible! A bottle of whiskey sat on her end-table, still pretty full. I blinked hard, then stared—so this must be the cantankerous, dying woman.

"You’re the fiddle lady? You're not what I expected at all. You're much older."
I studied her, then before stopping myself, responded with, "You're not what I expected either. You don't even look like you're dying."
Her daughter, who had led me into the room, turned very pale.
I thought I'd get the smack-down from "Old Smokey," who still puffed away at that Camel Gold, but as she studied my apologetic face, she suddenly burst out laughing and coughing and laughing again.
"Awe, kid. You're too honest. But so am I."
I bit my lip and smiled at her. "Mrs. Beck, I like you."  
"Yeah, that happens from time to time. I'm usually an acquired taste, but the people who like me right off, I figure those are the good ones." She grinned so wide, showing several missing teeth and even a big silver one that modern rappers would go crazy for! "So what do you got, kid?" she asked, and I bent over to lift my violin from its case.
"I'm gonna play some oldies. That's what I heard you like." I snapped my shoulder rest into place and tightened my bow. "Mrs. Beck," I said, because I'm super direct, "you keep calling me kid, but you said I'm older than you expected."

“That? Anyone under fifty is a kid to me! And they keep bringing preteens over to see me—like they're doing a good deed or something. Why are you here anyway, Elisa? Why did you come?"
I thought for a minute. "I guess, I just want to make you forget whatever it is that you're going through—even if it's just for a minute. Focus on something else, and enjoy." I set my violin on my shoulder. “So, I have a favor to ask you. Set down your cigarette and close your eyes."
She kinda snort-laughed, set her ciggy down, then snuggled into that huge white pillow before closing her eyes.  

“Now, as I play, I want you to picture a story."
And I started. First I played the beginning of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" by Simon and Garfunkel. The music started out quiet—a trickle of spring rain. "When you're weary, feeling small." The words swam around my head as I played. "When tears are near your eyes, I will dry them all...  I'm on your side when times get rough and friends just can't be found. Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down."
Little tears seeped from the sides of Mrs. Beck's eyes. She glowed, so utterly beautiful, like an elderly Snow White or somethin' with her sheered, dyed-black hair and leathery face. But instead of lying there, waiting for the kiss of her prince, she was dying...waiting for the kiss of God.
Tears suddenly came to my eyes too, and I told myself to quit being such a freakin' pansy. I shut my lids and instead of letting my emotion escape through the weakness in my eyes, I pushed that pain into my arms, my hands, my fingertips. And I played that violin, like a flippin' lover—it cried in my arms, wailing over the melodies and having so much power it couldn't help reacting to the sheer feeling flooding my body. I knew Mrs. Beck and her daughter could feel the very sorrow buried deep in my soul—my sorrow for them. Because that violin was a magnifying glass, exemplifying exactly why I was there, who I was, and that I wanted to offer at least some semblance of peace. 
"Sail on by. Your time has come to shine. All your dreams are on their way...."
Then my bow grew with deep friction and strength, and I transitioned into notes and melodies that just came to me. My fingers and violin took over. That's the funny thing about me and my fiddle; I think I have control, then that thing takes over like an addiction. I have the roadmap, but my fiddle has the details that always take me there—a good friend, leading me home.
The song swelled, over and over. At one point, I realized the window at the foot of Mrs. Beck's bed remained open, because a gust of wind rode in on a high note. Right after that, my fingers and bow slowed to a stop. The notes descended to my D string, and the weight of the music left my body. The song...was over.
I held my violin at my side, that extension of self, then faced the window and closed my eyes. I didn't want Mrs. Beck or her daughter to see me cry. I even prayed the wind would come again, and God would dry my tears. The Becks were sad enough. They didn't need to see some kid—over thirty—crying because she "felt bad."
"Elisa," Mrs. Beck rasped. She beckoned me to the side of her bed. I wiped my eyes, then obeyed. She reached out her wrinkled hand, with that soft, paper-thin skin, and grabbed my fingers. "That...Elisa, that was beautiful."
"What did you see," I asked, "when you closed your eyes?"

Something from when I was a kid.  Something I thought I forgot. My mom, dad, and I were walking in a field." She took a very deep breath. "I miss them. They were good parents."

I had to twitch my nose just to keep from crying. After all, she'd probably be reuniting with a lot of people soon. I put my violin away, then hugged both Mrs. Beck and her daughter.

"It was nice meeting you both," I said. Then, I left the house, and I never saw either one of them again.
And now that I’m sick, I can’t help remembering these odd moments from my life that have all built into something so much more. The present...sure is a strange thing. 

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Do Trials Come in Threes?

 I took a picture after deciding to show you my arm—that’s bruised from constant cancer labs—when suddenly a massive part of our tree blew down in the backyard. I simply had to laugh out loud because this happened after water damage in our basement and the death of our A/C unit. 

(My arm = the smallest of my worries.)

So, let’s play the “glad game.”

#1 At least the tree didn’t hit our house.

#2 The repairs to the basement are gonna be awesome!

#3 Mike, my brother, and my nephew (Neo) already fixed the A/C unit—and I think they had fun doing it. (They even went and got death-hot wings after.)

So, this afternoon Mike, Trey, and I went outside and took pictures. We figured our family can look at this one of two ways: We lost a great tree or we got free firewood. 

Thank God Mike just built us a firepit. #FistPump #ComingUpRoses

I might still have cancer, but I’m gonna have s’mores now too. Blam! I’m the luckiest!