Monday, April 15, 2024

What is Happiness?

Top (left to right): Mike and Elisa

Bottom (left to right): Trey, Ruby, Sky, and Indiana

Service Dog: Artemis

Friday, April 5, 2024

A Full-Circle Moment

My grandma always taught me to treat absolutely everyone with respect because you never know what someone else might be going through. When I was 11, my grandparents actually brought me to Hawaii, and when everyone else fell asleep, my grandma decided to take me out so we could see the ladies of the night. I had no idea what these women actually did until my grandma told me. "See her clothes," she said, "she has a good sense of fashion." Then, my grandmother smiled kindly at each woman as they passed and always offered an uplifting word. She gave several of them money, but I honestly think her kindness meant far more than anything else. Some of those women even seemed surprised. Anyway, we didn't return to our hotel room until my grandma and I had counted 100 women that night. Later, the whole thing seemed hilarious as an adult, but I didn't realize until now that my grandma had actually been teaching me an unforgettable lesson.


It's been over 30 years since this happened. My grandmother passed away over a decade ago, but I still find so much comfort in these memories. Now, when I'm having tough days fighting cancer, I read inspirational cards she placed in her "happiness file." I pulled one out a couple of years ago and wondered how my grandmother must've felt when she wrote it. "Treat everyone with kindness," the card read, "it really does come back around." 

Whenever I walk toward my main oncologist's clinic, I pass a man who helps with insurance claims. He doesn't appear to have a regular office and instead is tucked away in a dark corner. He faces patients who pass by, but his desk is a bit too far away for us to really say hello. I've seen people awkwardly skirt past, and the man also never looks up. Remembering my grandmother's words, a couple of years ago I decided to walk all the way over to this man's desk to try brightening his afternoon. "Have a wonderful day," I beamed. The poor man appeared visibly shaken, mumbling something as he stared at his computer and went back to work. Instead of quitting there, I vowed to do this every time I walked past—both before and after my visit. After months, he began waving back, always seeming surprised no matter how many times I've done this. I never missed a time, always remembering my grandmother's words: Treat Everyone with Kindness.

This week, though, something changed. I grew so sad, unable to remain happy despite my circumstances. I spent most of the week at the cancer center, growing more and more exhausted. It's just that this whole journey can sometimes feel endless. Anyway, after I left the clinic, preparing to pass the man in the corner, I decided not to say hello. What was the point in always saying hi anyway? He probably didn't even like it. I couldn't stomach this journey anymore. What was the point of anything?

But just as I was about to round the corner without acknowledging him, the man yelled out, "You didn't say hello! So... Hello!" Then he smiled brightly, waving to me with so much animation that a humongous laugh built up inside of me, and I couldn't hold it in anymore. We just smiled at each other so widely. And I'm not quite sure why, but his kindness made my eyes well with tears. That man changed the climate of my entire day, and suddenly my journey felt surmountable again.

It's so funny thinking about my grandma and the lessons she imparted even on the Waikiki strip. Maybe she was right after all.

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Keep Looking for the Good, Especially Here

Have you heard of Chinese water torture? An Italian/Chinese psychologist first wrote about this in the 15th century, explaining how a dripping machine would erratically send very cold water onto subjects’ scalps and foreheads over an extended period of time. After a while, those being tortured would mentally deteriorate so fearful of the next drop. This is often how cancer feels. 

I’m currently writing from Utah, missing my family in Idaho because I’ll spend the next few days near the cancer center in another state. I undergo brain imaging every six weeks and get cancer treatments every month. This week I’ll also get a bone infusion—which (to me) is almost as bad as radiation. But what hurts more than anything is time away from my husband and kids. 

Today, before a 60-minute MRI to monitor a certain brain mass (as well as necrosis), I shook on the MRI table. “It’s all begun to feel like too much,” I whispered, but I don’t think the tech heard me. He’d just seen how I quivered like debris at the end of an especially harrowing storm.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“I used to be brave,” I said. “Before all of this… Before terminal cancer I was different.” But on days like today, it feels like too much. Unless people have been through it themselves, they don’t fully understand. And sometimes, as the person undergoing treatments, it’s easy to lose sight of what makes the bad times better.

“Don’t be embarrassed.” He looked at me with such kindness. “You’re worried because you’re claustrophobic?”

That wasn’t all of it, but… “Yes. I’m claustrophobic.” 

“Over half of the people who come in here are claustrophobic.”

“Are you?” I asked. “You’ve had an MRI?”

“I went in a machine once for training. The tube pushed my arms into my sides, and I hated the mirror on the face cage. You’ve had brain MRIs before, so you know that mirror I’m talking about?”

“Yes. The mirror is the worst!”

“I would’ve preferred just looking at the tube’s ceiling!” he said, and we both broke out laughing. 

Despite previous fears, I’d stopped shaking. It just felt nice being validated by someone who understood. “Can you do me a big favor?” I asked, and the young man quickly agreed. “An hour in that tiny tunnel is a long time. Can you tell me something you’ve learned from working with cancer patients—something I can think about in the machine?” I’ve gotten so philosophical that all I seem to do is think. 

I hate admitting how being alone with my thoughts—especially in MRIs—has become laborious. Or how I’ve talked with several counselors about mortality but even that has become my own brand of Chinese water torture.

“I just finished school. I’m officially a magnetic resonance imaging technologist!” the man gushed, prying me from my thoughts. “I’ve learned so much from cancer patients that now I just want to help them. These MRIs save lives, and now I’m helping save lives too.”

I couldn’t help smiling.

“I think most of us want a chance to help other people. This is my way of doing that.”

“Congratulations. That is so incredible!”

And when I went into the machine and after, I thought about Joel’s words and how he just wants to help people. I guess that really is the gist of what most people want to do with their lives... Simply help.

So, as I prepare for two more days at the cancer center in Utah, it seems a little bit less grueling. I’ve felt myself smiling broadly at strangers in the elevator, and I’ve even started up cheerful conversations with everyone unfortunate enough to cross my path.

Sure my cancer journey might feel like Chinese water torture at times, but “hell” could actually be heaven if you just escaped from the desert. So, it’s all perspective again, and I just need to keep looking for the good, especially here.

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Has My Life Mattered?

 It seems when people hear they will most likely die from cancer—and soon—they ask themselves one question: Has my life mattered?

I’ve thought a lot about this lately. To make this somewhat tangible, I decided to find five exact moments when “I” felt of value.

For yourself, can you think of five moments when you really felt of value? 

This has not been easy for me! Was it giving birth to my children, owning successful businesses, hitting a million views on my blog, landing the lead in a play, or running a newspaper? While nice, stacked against “value,” each and every “accomplishment” seemed hollow, maybe even rooted in pride. 

“How’s your search for value going?” a friend asked. 

“I just keep thinking of standing before God, trying to brag about my bachelor’s degree or being a physician liaison, and it sounds completely inane.”

“Elisa, don’t downplay your accomplishments.”

But she clearly didn’t understand. 

That night Mike and I made a fancy dinner with the kids. We laughed and joked. We played ping-pong on the kitchen table and tried the new kind of Coca-Cola. It was the most fun I’ve had in months. Then, when the kids went to bed and Mike sat reading a book about Eastern philosophy, I sneaked downstairs. 

It’s rare for me to have enough energy to get extra things done, but I knew I could do something small that night—and it would have a huge impact. 

In my sewing room, there’s a stack of clothes that need patches, buttons, and other adjustments. So, like a little elf, I fixed everything. It didn’t take a terribly long time, and as I sewed, I felt so much love pouring through my tumor-ridden body.

“What are you doing, sweetheart?” Mike whispered. “Oh, my gosh! You fixed everything!”

He picked up a pair of his pants, and I suddenly felt like I had value. I could hardly wait for the kids to see what I’d fixed. 

“You look tired… But you seem so happy,” Mike said.

I grinned. “It sounds cliché, but it just hit me. It’s the small things. When I stand before God, if He asks me why I think my life mattered, I’ll say it did because I tried to make a difference for the people who mean the most to me.”

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

A Quilt Before G-d

Cancer is different than I expected. I remember staying with my dad when he underwent treatments over two decades ago. He seemed far more concerned with the medical staff than about himself. He'd always ask how they were and try to brighten their days.

"Isn't this hard on you?" I finally asked one day.

He laughed. "I'll be all right. Don't worry about me." And that was it. My dad didn't want me to worry. And that actually turned out "all right." He lived through stage 4 colon cancer—something his oncologist said hardly anyone lives through.

Now that I'm fighting terminal cancer, my dad has spoken with me candidly about the hard days he experienced (needing to know where the nearest bathroom was and feeling tired beyond words). He has become an inspiration as I've fought through this. Maybe that's why I asked Mike if we could visit my parents in Arizona. "Somehow, my dad helps me keep fighting. Doctors say I'll never beat this, but my dad gives me hope. He beat it, so maybe I can too." Despite that, after arriving at the airport and waiting at the gate, I felt more tired than ever.

A service agent walked over, helped tag my wheelchair, and said he'd like to move my seat to one with more room.

"I'm okay. Don't worry about it," I said, not wanting to put him out.

But he insisted, and unfortunately, when everyone walked onto the plane, we realized he'd made a mistake. A family with two young children no longer sat together, and my new seat replaced an elderly woman who wanted an aisle seat. Mike and I no longer sat together, and another couple had also been moved apart. This delayed the plane's departure, and to get seated, several passengers quickly moved so the young family could sit together and the older woman had an aisle seat. The rest of us stayed where we were.

But planes scare me and without Mike near me...

I used to be quite a thrill seeker before cancer. I loved cliffdiving and even joined a training program to help civilians lost or stuck while spelunking. But now, entering an elevator puts me into cold sweats. Being in a crowded area brings on claustrophobia. And being on a plane, well, the only way I've previously gotten through it is to close my eyes, lean on Mike, and pretend we're in Jamaica. Yet, I had more legroom than most people on the plane, but I couldn't lean on Mike. 

I closed my eyes. The motion of the plane and clunking of the equipment prepping for liftoff somehow reminded me of brain radiation, where they inserted a mouthpiece over my tongue and screwed a face cage to the table. I couldn't even cry for help as the techs left the room for nearly an hour. How strange that I can be more fatigued than ever before yet still get so terrified over the silliest things. 

If I could just feel peace about this: terminal cancer, fatigue, living in this new normal... 

I finally turned to the woman beside me. Her husband sat a row up from us. "What is peace to you?" I asked.

"Peace..." She smiled, and I'm unsure why, but I knew she'd give the most brilliant answer. Maybe the entire seating mixup happened so I could sit by her. I honestly think it did. "Peace," she said, her ethereal eyes gleaming, "is like a river."

"What does that mean to you?"

"Well, rivers twist and turn. Sometimes, they're fast and slow, but we have to trust that the river will take us where we need to be."

Trust. I really think peace is connected to trust... and acceptance. But it's still hard to accept this new normal. People talk about making a difference, but often, I feel too tired to do much of anything—weary, exhausted, worn.

I told this woman about my journey with terminal cancer and how tough it's been. "I'm trying to find peace with this, but some days are good, and others are hard. I just feel so worn out."

"I want to tell you a story," she said.

Imagine hundreds of people standing at the gates of Heaven. They each hold a quilt to show G-d. Every square displays a moment from their lives so G-d can see everything—the good and bad. But toward the back of the line, a woman stands with an incredibly threadbare quilt. It's been through more than she'd like to admit, and she almost shakes, waiting for her turn. Finally, only one person stands in front of her. That particular woman holds up the most beautiful quilt with achievements and accolades depicted in every scene. "It is quite beautiful," G-d says, "but you need to remember that unless you've made a positive difference for the people in your life, nothing else really matters. What matters is love." He lets her into Heaven, and it's time for the woman with the threadbare quilt to step forward. 

She thinks G-d will tell her that her quilt wasn't good enough. And feeling more worry than ever before, she holds up the frayed ends.

A smile slides onto G-d's magnificent face. "This is the most perfect quilt I've ever seen."

She touches the worn fabric. "Really?" she asks, her voice quivering. "But it's so worn..."

G-d gently asks if he can take the quilt from her, and then He holds it between them. His face shines so brightly even through the fabric.

"Through everything in life..." He smiles, still gazing at her through the quilt's worn fabric. "Through everything, you always saw me."

After the woman on the airplane told me this story, renewed strength filled my bones. I didn't worry about my upcoming treatments the following week or the airplane cabin that had previously felt so oppressive. Instead, I looked at my new friend and grinned. This seemed like another breadcrumb from Heaven, showing me that G-d is in everything. He's looking out for all of us—through the good and the bad... waiting to pick us up even when we might feel the most weary and worn.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

It's Okay Not to Be Okay

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

My Friend, Jerry Russell

Sometimes we meet people and instantly know that they will change our lives. It can be a lasting friendship or a simple exchange, but from the get-go we immediately feel different. That’s how I felt with Jerry Russell.

I first heard about Jerry from a mutual friend, Scott Hancock. He described Jerry to be a larger than life legend with otherworldly kindness and charisma. I knew Jerry would be at a book signing, and I thought I knew what to expect. But when we finally did meet, he was much more than Scott could’ve ever described. Jerry—as the saying goes—was truly larger than life itself.

He shook my hand with such warmth and kindness. I remember him holding my hand and looking into his eyes. I wondered, “Did he see into my soul? Probably!” And yet he still wanted to be my friend. Soon after meeting him, Jerry explained that he was twice my age, and I balked because he skipped around like Tigger and seemed far more spry than I am.

We talked about how quickly life can go, and change, and throw unexpected obstacles our way. “You just have to keep going and trying to make the best of things. You’re a bright light, Elisa. You really are. I see that in you.”

Tears filled my eyes because Jerry seemed like the bright light to me. I couldn’t be around that man without smiling. A month later when my liver started failing from cancer treatments and doctors said I would die unless they got things under control, I thought of Jerry’s words, and I tried to be a light in that hospital. I asked the nurses how they were doing and commiserated with them about their long shifts. “You’re the one who’s having liver problems,” one nurse said.

“That doesn’t make what you’re going through easier. But at least we can smile together. That lightens everyone’s loads.” Because that’s exactly what Jerry would do.

I first heard about Jerry in 2020, but I finally met him in person in 2021. After that, he’d email me quite frequently, telling me about his days, sending me beautiful pictures, or trying to make me smile with something inspirational. I’m not sure at what point it happened, but he began ending his emails with “Your friend forever.”

At one point, I wondered if Jerry either previously had cancer or knew someone who had it. He just worked so hard to make sure I wouldn’t give up until it’s my time. “You’re so strong,” he said when I saw him again. And he really did make me feel like I could keep fighting. Despite how hard cancer can be and how tough it is to repeatedly drag myself to cancer treatments, Jerry made me feel like I could overcome.

Finally, I got the gumption to ask, “Did you have cancer? Or… did you know someone who had it?”

That’s when Jerry told me a story that filled him with both joy and sorrow. He talked about his daughter, Lana, and how much he loved her. “You would’ve liked her,” he said. “I see so much of her in you. The moment I met you… You reminded me of her. She was a wonderful daughter with your courage.” He wiped a tear from his eyes. “She died at the age of 59 from liver cancer.”

I didn’t know what to say. You could feel the pride Jerry felt for his daughter, but you could also feel the tragic sadness. Jerry had that gift. He broke your heart down to its core, and made you really “feel” the life around you.

Being like his daughter, well, that was one of the best compliments I’ve ever received. 

Not long ago, Jerry sent me a picture of a rainbow that he’d spotted in town. “I’d like to bring you here this spring,” he wrote.

In the spring of 2024, my husband, kids, and I would go with Jerry to see this special spot where he’d found the rainbow. I could hardly wait. But life had other plans, and Jerry passed away this February. It broke my heart knowing I wouldn’t get to see his bright eyes again or read one of his wonderful emails. But as I looked out my window today, wind blew the snow at just the right angle and I swear I saw a snow rainbow from Jerry. 

I opened my email and read the last lines Jerry ever wrote to me: “Elisa, you are a special entry in my memory book never to be forgotten.” I cried as I read his final words.

Jerry, YOU are a special entry in my memory book too. Thank you for giving me the courage to keep fighting like Lana. Please tell her “hello” for me. 
Until we meet again,

(Left to Right: Scott Hancock, Jerry Russell, and me)

Monday, February 26, 2024

An Opportunity All of Us Should Have


"Of course you're strong," the woman at the party persisted. "But HOW do you do it, Elisa? We ALL want to know?" Several people clustered around, and I wished we could leave. The woman asking the question, Lynn, doesn't really like me. Quite a while ago, we applied for the same job, and I ended up getting it. After I took the role, she treated me with distain. But maybe she meant well this time? I couldn't fathom someone being so unkind to someone who’s fighting terminal cancer. That would be amoral and unconscionable. 


"I don't feel particularly strong," I replied, then glanced from the fireplace to Mike. "But Mike and the kids... They're my reason to keep fighting. Other than that, I think it's the Godwinks. They're like breadcrumbs from G-d, miracles along the way... I even had one happen last week. It seemed like the neatest—" I paused, suddenly wishing I hadn't said anything. In hindsight, that particular story would sound ridiculous to someone like Lynn.


Jessica, the host, smiled with pure joy, her luminous eyes lighting. “I love your Godwink stories, Elisa.”


“Well,” I felt my face flushing, “it's gonna sound stupid, but this Godwink... is about my eyebrows. I got my eyebrows tattooed on last week."


In that instant, a few women in the room admitted to having their eyebrows tattooed on as well, and this confession astonished me and Mike.


"I hate spending money on myself," I went on when it had grown quiet. “What cash we have should be used for the kids, car repairs, Mike, or our house. But an esthetician gave me a really great deal since brain radiation messed up my left eyebrow.” Part of that brow still refuses to grow in; I've tried to fix it every morning, but this is not a skill I boast. Mike never knows if I'll look perpetually surprised, or angry, like Bert or Ernie. 


Everyone shared stories about their own eyebrows, and I remembered what the appointment had felt like. I drove to Precision Line Beauty in Idaho Fall, and before starting, the esthetician said it would probably hurt. 

It really didn't at all though.


"Well, I guess you HAVE been through a lot. It makes sense that you're not in pain. You know, I had cancer too."


Her words shocked me. She knew how tough treatments can be. She'd given me a good deal because she'd been there too. We shared stories from both of our journeys, and I found hope that maybe someday I'll be in remission like she is. After her diagnosis years ago, she decided to travel and live to the fullest. "How about you?" she asked at one point.


"I've done the same. We went skydiving together and then to Italy as a family. I can hardly believe I've played my violin all over the world now."


"Do you ever play around here?"


I smiled. "Well, I played at a big doctors' party over the holidays." I suddenly thought about that party. I'd charged them $94, but they never paid. It's strange how things like that can happen. People you expect to pay sometimes don’t, and those you don’t think would tip, do.


Anyway, it took about two hours, and after she finished, I paid her a little bit of cash, and then put the rest of my card. $185. 

I glanced at Lynn and our friends at the party. “It was an amazing deal for brows, but that still felt like a fortune!"


Mike broke out laughing at this point. "Once, Elisa bought a coat for $30 and nearly had a breakdown. So, you can imagine... She called me on her way home from Idaho Falls, just so worried."


“Yeah, the guilt seemed to eat me alive, and I even told Indy—our youngest daughter—all about it when I got home.”


"You know, Mama, it's good to see you actually doing something nice for yourself because you never do. It helps me know that sometimes I should do nice things for myself too. We're all so happy you're still alive. I think you should enjoy life while you’re here." She handed me the mail, and then gave me a hug.


I rifled through letter after letter. “But you've gotta admit... I put $185 on the card. That's a lot of money."


I suddenly stopped speaking and stared at a letter in disbelief. The return address boasted the name of a fancy medical organization in town. I pulled a check from the envelope and gaped at it. "Indiana, you aren't gonna believe this!"


"Woah." She pointed to the numbers. “$186. Just a dollar more than what you put on your card."


"I'd only charged the doctors $94. Why would they pay so much? This is the weirdest thing." 


"It's one of your Godwinks, Mama. See! You shouldn't feel bad. Just enjoy."


After setting the check on the counter, I read a note from the woman who'd paid the invoice. “You never realize how precious time is until something is threatening to take it away. We decided to pay you a higher amount because you were amazing, and you deserve it. Thanks again for playing at our holiday party."


Once I’d finished relaying this story, Jessica beamed, Mike winked at me, and Lynn appeared irate. I didn’t understand the latter’s reaction until later that night, when I went to the bathroom. 

Not long after closing the door, I overheard Lynn’s voice as she waited for the bathroom. "That story Elisa told was so shallow and stupid. She spent all that money on eyebrows when doctors have told her she's dying. And she thinks it's some big sign from G-d. It's just idiotic.”


"Lynn! She has terminal cancer. If that's what she needs to hold onto to keep fighting for her family, then let her hold onto it.” I held my breath, hoping they'd get tired of waiting for the bathroom and leave, but they didn't. And I had to walk past them.


Although it's not worth harboring rejection, I thought about this a lot the following days, until Temple Emanuel's service. Rabbi Sara gave the timeliest speech. "You can light a candle, but it can quickly go out. At the hardest times, when we feel like it's too much, those are the times that we must go find the light and keep it alive. Even if it's a tiny, tiny thing. If you go outside and see a flower in the snow—even if it's a small thing—we must strive to find goodness in the world AND each other."


As I rested in those words, it suddenly didn't matter that I'd splurged for once. Priorities became sparklingly clear, and I no longer cared that some woman had said cruel words outside of a bathroom door. Instead, I closed my eyes and decided to cultivate the light that dwells inside of me. I thanked G-d for breadcrumbs, expressed gratitude that I have family members who want me to have a good quality of life, and then I said a very long prayer for Lynn. 

I desperately hope her eyes will be opened to the miracles around her. It's like seeing colors for the first time; it’s an opportunity all of us should have.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Are You Living a Life of Substance?

 I had the strangest thing just happen. I woke up hearing the oncologist’s voice as he diagnosed me with terminal cancer and gave me two years to live. 

After he left, I looked out the hospital window and just thought, “I’m tired of living in fear and regret and dealing with so much guilt.” 

I suddenly felt exhausted from trying to accomplish things so people would be proud of me. My gosh, I wrote ten books in less than ten years. I became a physician liaison for the biggest hospital in southeastern Idaho. I worked as a publisher for a newspaper—and it STILL wasn’t enough. Like trying to fill a bucket with a hole in it, no matter how much I put in there, it eventually ended up empty and dry.

At the end of my life, when I looked back, the only thing that really mattered was making a positive difference for the people I love. My so-called accomplishments, degrees, and careers all came up short. So, I wanted to make a change with the time I had left. And it wasn’t about me; life became about bettering the lives of those around me.

Whether my soul went on after death or ceased to exist, it no longer mattered anymore. What felt important was if my memory would remain with the people I care about. 

I wanted to ask you: Are you living the life that you really want? I’m not talking about quitting your job so you can move to the beach and surf all day; I’m talking about living a life of substance… of purpose. Or are you doing what I did: Searching for significance in all of the wrong places? Striving to fill your soul but getting stuck in monotony and forgetting that each day is a gift?

I hate to write this, but I do have terminal cancer. I’m fighting. Every single morning is a struggle to get up. It’s a struggle to go out. But I’m grateful because the fact that I’m struggling means I’m still alive.

If you’re reading this post, I hope you’ll take a minute to remember how lucky we are to have consciousness and the ability to even make choices. It’s vital that we recognize one simple truth: Our quality of life hinges on perspective AND attitude. Positivity can be an immense beacon in the darkness. Search for it and embody it.

So, even though life can be tough and I’m often in pain from the tumors in my bones, I’m grateful that I’m still alive—longer than doctors predicted! 

I’m going to enjoy today with my husband and my kids. Some days I can hardly believe that G-d decided to make me. He made all of us—and I don’t think we should take His handiwork for granted. Despite cancer and hardships, there are so many good things too. 

I… really am the luckiest.

Monday, February 5, 2024

Lucky $87 and the Grocery Store Angel

 The Grocery Store Angel

By EC Stilson

So many incredible things keep happening that I've begun worrying... 

Let me explain: Have you ever had to put an animal down? Unfortunately, I have. And the night before their final day, we've given them steak, eggs—even ice cream—to ensure they're having the best possible day. Then, the next morning, we've had to let them go. This could be due to illness or just quality of life… Anyway, so many Godwinks keep happening in my days that now I'm worried this is my steak dinner from G-d.


"Don't be such a negative Nelda," you might say, but the problem is that once oncologists diagnosed me with terminal cancer, my world changed. I have an early expiration date. So, whether this is my steak dinner from G-d or not, I better enjoy each moment—and that's exactly what I've been doing.


“Do you remember the story about the $87?” I asked my mom after we’d gone to the grocery store. 

“How that lady paid for your groceries?”

I nodded. My card hadn’t worked, and a cashier—of all people—footed the bill. I kept looking for her so I could pay back the $87, but she'd quit working as a cashier. “I finally got to pay it forward,” I told my mom. “Last week a guy couldn’t get his card to work, so I paid his bill. Guess how much it was?”

She looked at me, stunned. “$87?”


“That’s totally a Godwink. Is this the store where it happened?”

“Yeah. The cashier didn’t even know that I’m fighting terminal cancer—I wonder what she would’ve thought if I’d told her.”

My mom and I shopped for a while after that. I felt bad, but we took an extra long time because I had to keep stopping. “I’m so sorry,” I almost said it more to myself than my mom. I know she understands. After all, we’d gone to the store so she could make me her homemade chicken noodle soup. The problem is that I get mad at my body sometimes. I want to walk like I used to and jump around like Tigger, but I can’t even stand for long and I often use a wheelchair.

“Mom,” I said, trying to knock some sense into myself. “I’m gonna buy ice cream. It just sounds… fun.”

We’d rounded the corner when my mom’s expression changed. “You have…” She paused, trying to get another customer’s attention. “You have the most beautiful hair.”

A woman turned, practically glowing. Long gray hair danced from the back of her baseball cap, and after she left the ice cream isle, I could hardly speak. 

“Mom! Oh, my gosh. Mom! That’s the cashier!” The words wouldn’t come out fast enough.

“The cashier?” she asked.

“The one who paid the $87! The one I’ve been looking for all this time.”

“You have to tell her what happened,” my mom whispered.

I moved as quickly as I could, almost frantic as I tried to find the woman.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Excuse me.”

She turned, looking every bit the angel I remembered.

I told her then about how I’m fighting terminal cancer. I explained that she’d paid for my groceries on a day years ago when I needed kindness the very most. “I tried to find you, but you’d quit.”

She laughed so hard, those thoughtful eyes sparkling. “I just switched departments! I’ve been here the whole time.”

“I wish I could pay you back! But I ended up buying someone else’s groceries last week. And can you believe it was for the same amount?”

She didn’t seem surprised at all. “That’s how these things work. Thank you for paying it forward.”

“It was your money.” I laughed. “Thank you for what you did for me.”

As my mom and I walked away, I heard a distant voice say, “I’m so glad I saw you again. You changed my whole day.”

“You changed mine,” I said.

That night as I ate the chicken noodle soup, we wondered over the experience from the store. “I’d been so upset that I got sick and took forever. But if I hadn’t been so slow, we would’ve missed her. I guess it all worked out.”

Filled with good food and the blessings only G-d and kind people can bring, it suddenly didn’t matter how sick I’d felt that day. Life once again shone so bright, and I realized once more how lucky I am to even be alive.



Saturday, February 3, 2024

A Change of Perspective

 I turned 41 today. Birthdays mean a lot more than they used to, and I guess it’s because doctors said I’d never turn 40. Even though I’m still fighting for each day, I’m really lucky to even be here.

This reminds me of a birthday from a few years before doctors diagnosed me with terminal cancer. I’d gone to get my taxes done, and as the accountant assessed my information, I studied a photo in her office.

It’s an intriguing picture with five people lying on their backs in a grassy field. Each person is a different race—and the concept of “diversified yet unified” is beautifully clear. But there was something even more that I couldn’t quite grasp.

“Wow, you really like that photo,” the accountant finally said.

Suddenly what eluded me before shone through. “It’s amazing,” I said, seeing the whole scene differently. 

“I like it, but I wouldn’t say it’s ‘amazing.’” She set down some papers and turned to me. 

“I know there are a lot of photos out there like this, but I just realized what makes this one different,” I said. “If you stop focusing on the obvious things and just focus on their glasses.... Did you notice that every person is wearing eyeglasses?”

She came next to me and stared at the picture. “Their glasses, huh? Well, they look like regular gla— Wait, I see it: the reflection! I’ve never had anyone point that out before.”

The reflection shone faintly in each of their eyeglasses, but even those replicas were far more beautiful than the obvious picture itself. Greying buildings, lanky trees, and a stormy sky showed itself in the glasses. As if every subject looked at a dry, dying world, ready to be refreshed…

I momentarily wished the photographer had rested in the grass as well and taken a picture—not of the people, but up, seeing what had appeared above and around them. 

Were the people the real subjects of this photo, or had the artist realized what the glass told about their surroundings?

“You’re right, Elisa. That picture is amazing!” As I took my paperwork and got in my truck to drive away, I looked through the business window. The tax preparer sat down where I had been moments before, and she intently studied the picture in her office.

Friday, January 26, 2024

A Veteran in a Truck Stop

stood at the truck stop, debating which candy bar to get, when several groups of people darted into the store at once. The cashier balked, watching as more and more customers got gas or parked in the parking lot, and I couldn't help studying every person who came in.

An older lady gazed at herself in the mirror, pulling strange faces as she tried on different sunglasses. A young mother and father chased their toddlers, and numerous people perused the drink section. But out of everyone, an elderly veteran intrigued me the most. He stood on one side of the store near a younger woman with the most beautifully dark skin. 

She kept glancing at the veteran whose baggy eyes bulged with fatigue. He limped, using a gnarled cane, yet as he walked past various people, he smiled at everyone. His jacket displayed badges, pictures of planes, and something about years of service. The beautiful woman must’ve noticed all of this, too, because even as she purchased a hat, her eyes hardly left the man. 

I thought she'd leave after that, but she didn't. Instead, she gracefully edged toward the veteran, long arms and legs majestic—like rippling like water. Her black hair floated behind like a veil. Then, she stopped right in front of the man. 

He seemed taken aback to have such a stunning woman approach him. "Can I h–help you?" he asked.

"You already have," she said, opened the bag, and handed him the hat. "Thank you for your years of service. People might not tell you all of the time, but you are so very appreciated.” Then she turned and simply left.

After a moment, the man shakily donned the hat and gazed in the mirror where the older woman had been before. But instead of pulling strange faces or preening like his predecessor, he tipped the hat a little to the right and wiped a few tears from his eyes. 
A brightly dressed lady suddenly spoke next to me. I'd been so enraptured that I hadn’t noticed her studying me—and the entire situation. "That was so amazing to watch," she said.
"It really was," I said with more emotion in my voice than I'd expected. How ironic that I'd entered that truck stop simply wanting to get a candy bar, but instead, I'd gotten so much more. It goes to show you never know where or when a miracle might happen. 

I paid for my favorite kind of candy bar, then surprised myself and gave it to the cashier. "I just wanted you to know you're doing an incredible job." Then, after complimenting him on his various tattoos and piercings, I left the store with empty hands and an overflowing heart.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

It Finally Came Full Circle, and It Only Cost $87

Something came full circle, and I'm so excited about it. In 2020, nearly two months after oncologists diagnosed me with terminal cancer, I finally got out of the house. Of course, I had to use a walker after surgeons removed a tumor-ridden vertebra in my lower back. Yet, there's always a silver lining, and I felt surprised to find that grocery carts work much like walkers—and they look better, too.

After a very slooow shopping session, I weaved toward the register, proud of my achievement. Sure cancer has changed my "wins," but I can still revel in accomplishing what I can. Before, success meant finishing a marathon. Now, I'm lucky to get out of bed and do my makeup. Before, I boasted about milestones, degrees, and promotions at work. Now, I'm grateful when insurance companies pay medical bills we've been battling over for years. 

Anyway, going shopping seemed a Herculean task, but I'd done it all alone! Unfortunately, when I went to pay, my card wouldn't go through. I stood so long that my right atrophied leg shook at the register. Why wouldn't the card work? We have a lot of issues—like... terminal cancer—but we're good at stretching pennies and saving what money we have. 

I flushed with embarrassment. (I wish I'd known earlier that the bank shut off our cards 'cause suspicious out-of-country charges aren't a good sign. Too bad I'd gone shopping instead of answering my phone.) 

"It's only $87," I squeaked. "I am so embarrassed."

"It's no big deal, ma'am. It happens all the time," the sweet cashier said. "But I will need you to go over to the customer service area to either return the groceries or figure out a form of payment. More customers are coming."

"I'll take care of it," another cashier said, then darted from her register several feet away, whipped out her personal credit card, and paid for my groceries before I could resist.

"But that was... That was... $87." I balked. "That's a lot of money."

"No big deal."

"Well...," I thought about my previous stay at the hospital, all of the grueling treatments and surgeries. I remembered my ongoing fights with insurance companies and how sometimes death seems easier than all of this. "It was a huge deal," tears filled my eyes, "to me."

Plus, who does that for someone? Especially a cashier?! I don't know how much they make, but she's not taking much home if she helps everyone who saunters through those doors.

The beautiful elderly woman simply returned to her register like she hadn't just saved my day... and then she helped the next person in line. 

"Thanks again," I said, slowly walking past her. My previously aching leg somehow felt a bit better.

"You just enjoy a nice meal with your family." 

Those unforgettable blue eyes twinkled, lighting up the entire checkout area, and it seemed ironic she had no idea what I faced. Her action meant much more than a monetary amount or a well-cooked meal. The timeliness changed my life because it made me feel like G-d "might" have a plan. Even in my loneliest times, sitting with the magnitude of having a terminal illness, preparing for surgeries, or getting long MRIs, I remember her actions. 

"It was a kiss from G-d," a friend told me the next day, and I decided to return the favor. I immediately visited the bank, withdrew $87, and returned to the grocery store. I'd prepared my speech. I wanted to tell the woman with the long silvery hair how much she changed my outlook. "I have terminal cancer," I'd say, "and you gave me fuel to keep fighting for my four children and my husband." I could hardly wait because I wanted her to know how much she blessed my life. But when I got back to the store, the lady no longer worked there; they didn't even have her forwarding address! 

That left me one option: I'd have to... pay it forward.

Since then, when I've gone to get groceries—for almost three years—I've wanted to pay for someone else's food. Unfortunately, it never seems to be the right time, and I don't want to embarrass someone. This has gotten so ridiculous it's a bit like a hunter/prey situation—except I'm a chick who's too excited to do something nice.

Can you believe that after YEARS of waiting, today it finally came full circle?! A man in front of me couldn't pay for his groceries. His face paled as he swiped the card again and appeared mortified. "I'm sorry, sir. They can help you over there."

A bagger materialized out of thin air and escorted the man to the customer service desk. 

I looked at the cashier. "I want to pay his bill." But I could lose my opportunity. Why had they whisked him away that quickly? There are people jonesing to do something nice, but I have issues, and I can only move so fast. 

"Don't you want to know how much it is?"

"No, I just want to pay his bill."

She pointed to the customer service area, and I lumbered over and simply swiped my card. The man stood, pleading with someone on his cellphone, but he hung up and stared at me, slack-jawed. "Did you just... Um. You just... You paid my bill?"

I lit with so much excitement that I could feel it radiating from my eyes. I had shocked the hell out of this stranger. It was the best. Moment. Ever. Kindness is (to use a word my teenage son hates) RAD.

The man looked quite a bit older than me, but after I paid his bill, a massive smile spread across his face, waking up all of his features until the worry and fatigue of life crumbled in the wake of happiness. He looked so young and full of life.

"Yes, I paid. It's no big deal," I squealed because I felt like a Jedi or something.

"But that was... $87!" he said, looking beyond shocked.

Chills ran up my spine and tingled in all the places where doctors say I have cancer. $87! I could hardly believe his bill was the exact amount that angelic woman had paid years before. Suddenly, sickness and cancer didn't matter to me—they were just words that can't damper my love for life. I felt so much joy in simply being alive and enjoying the moment.

The wonder in that man's eyes filled my soul with such hope. Even when I returned home, I gushed with pure happiness. I have been waiting for this moment, and it finally happened for me. $87 spent on my groceries and now someone else's! It seemed like it hadn't even been my money at all. Just like everything in my life is a gift. Everything. 

Life is beautiful. Oncologists said I'd never live to see 2023, but he

re we are in 2024, and I'm so grateful. Thank G-d for experiencing the greatest win in life—just being alive. Even if my goals are different than they used to be, I've realized what really matters. It's not about the degrees we attain, the books we write, the mountains we climb; it's about helping others along the way.

Saturday, January 13, 2024

A Great Way to Show Love

It seemed  like an assembly line where receptionists checked people in, phlebotomists drew labs, and nurses took vitals. At the melanoma unit in this particular cancer center, most of these things take place where patients and staff can hear each other. 


As I sat waiting for almost an hour, something really surprised me. Each patient would go back and talk about their journey with cancer. At first, I found it quite beautiful that they could talk there. One man in particular seemed so bottled up. I wondered if he'd ever talked with anyone about his struggles with cancer before, yet there he sat, telling everything to the phlebotomist. Another patient said they'd be getting surgery later that day. I shook inside because I've had so many surgeries over the years. I can't fathom having another one. Doctors talk about knowing where my "hard stop" will be. Is it when I'll need radiation again? Or is it brain surgery?


I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but it's hard not to listen in, especially when it helps me feel like I'm not alone. It had been difficult getting to the cancer center that day because I needed both cancer treatments and bone infusions. These make me feel especially unwell for weeks (if not months), and it can be tough dragging myself to the cancer center for all of this. 


Thinking about my own plight and hearing fellow patients talk about theirs, at some point, I realized that no one had asked how the staff members were doing. The main receptionist bubbled with exuberance while helping patients, but when she didn't think anyone was looking, she seemed beyond tired. Same for the phlebotomists and nurses who had their own worries. That's when I vowed to solely ask staff members about themselves. I felt grateful patients could talk with them about everything—after all, that is their job—but for just a moment, I wanted to be the respite in the day.


"Elisa?" a phlebotomist called.


"I'm here." I stood and went to get my blood drawn. Although they couldn't see everything, I knew fellow patients could hear the conversation, and I momentarily wondered if anyone else in the waiting area was listening.


"How are you today?" the phlebotomist asked, looking genuinely concerned.


"Well, the only thing wrong with me is cancer. That's it! The real question," I turned to him, "is how you're doing. I want to know how you are?"


This opened up the most beautiful conversation. Instead of talking about my problems for the millionth time, I got to hear about the goodness of humanity. "This is just part-time?" I asked as he prepared to draw my blood. 


"I'm usually a firefighter."


"And that's your passion?" I asked.


"For sure," he said, then gave me a conspiratorial smile. "I'll tell you something most people here don't even know about me."




"Well, I made national news a little while ago." 


"For saving someone from a fire?" I guessed.


"No," he said and almost smiled. "My team and I have saved quite a few people and barely even made local news. But when I saved a couple of kittens from a fire, that's when I made national news."


"Were they in a house that was on fire?"


"Nope. They were under it. I had to climb under a house that was on fire."


"You are so brave. That's absolutely amazing!"


That night when I got home, I told Mike and the kids about my day at the cancer center. "I really didn't want to go because treatments are brutal, but then I decided to try making the day better for everyone around me. Whether they were facing cancer or working at the center, I asked about their lives, their days, and how they're doing. It ended up being the most incredible day. Sure, I don’t feel well, but my heart is full of the most amazing stories. I even met a man who saved kittens from under a house while it was on fire." My family thought that was pretty great.


Anyway, there are times when I want to share my story, but there are other moments when it's much more important to listen. I'm so glad I got to hear everyone's stories and talk with the people I came across at the cancer center. I heard some pretty wonderful things that I'll never forget.


My grandma once told me something, and I think she was right. She said, "One of the greatest ways to show love is by asking people about themselves." My last trip to the cancer center really proved her point.