Sunday, January 31, 2021

All That Remains is Love

 As I drove through the snow-infested mountains, with the wind nearly ripping our truck from the road, I couldn't help thinking about Zeke; my son who died on Jan. 30, years ago. I shook my head telling myself to remain calm. This drive was dangerous enough, without me trying to see through tears as well. 

    But what happened next, surprised me.

    I didn't recall all of the sad circumstances of his death. Instead, I simply remembered a specific day nearly a month before he died.

    Zeke's nurse had said I could hold him in a rocking chair. Right before she was about to pass him to me, he started crying really hard. Another nurse came by and said I shouldn't hold him, that they needed to up his vent settings. But I pleaded, BEGGING them to let me hold my baby. So they handed him to me. 

    I rocked slowly, careful since he had so much tubing in him. And instead of crying harder like they'd thought he might, he melted into my arms, always meant to be there. I put my pinkie near his hand and he wrapped his little fingers around it, holding on so damn tight. Tears filled my eyes as I rocked him forever. And in that moment, it didn't matter how sick he was or how hard this was. We loved each other.  Nothing could take that away, not time, not sickness, not death. And that moment, admist the stench of medicine and all those whirring machines...that was a perfect moment.

    I could hardly believe how many years it’s been as I blinked, focusing on the road ahead. The weather began clearing a little then, and it wasn't quite so terrifying.

    After we were safely home and all of the kids were in bed, I told my husband about the memory. "I can't really remember the bad parts of Zeke's life anymore, but I do remember every detail of when I held him in the rocking chair for the first time." 

    Mike squeezed my hand.

    "It's crazy, Mike, but I feel so much peace right now. When time has passed and everything else is gone, all that remains--all that really matters--is love."

    And so now when I think of Zeke, the memory of his love is in the forefront of my mind. I hope that's what he remembers about me as well....

Saturday, January 30, 2021

How to Help Someone With Cancer

 “I have terminal cancer,” the receptionist next to me said. She didn’t do the greatest job at work, and honestly I’d wondered how she still had her job. “I put in my notice because I can’t work much longer.... But I wanted you to know—you’ve always been so nice to me.”

“Why didn’t you tell me before?” I asked, feeling REALLY bad for judging her previously.

“Well, when people know I’m sick, they treat me differently—like there’s something wrong with me. And I guess there is...but you know; I don’t want to be treated that way! And then usually that’s all they want to talk about...”

“You’re really dying?” I couldn’t stop myself.

“Yeah, but I’m at peace with it. My youngest is a junior, but at least I’ve been with him this long.”

And the cavalier way she talked about death shocked me. My impulse was to tell her to have faith, that she would absolutely recover. But then I stopped myself. I suddenly understood her nearly translucently hanging skin, her tired eyes, and something that I realized must have been a wig for all of those months. 

“Can I take you out for dinner and drinks? Since you put in your notice and I wanna wish you well?”

“Ummm... Sure! All right! I can’t drink alcohol, but I would love to go out.”

So we met with one of the other receptionists at a local restaurant. I ordered a little too much to drink as I thought about this poor woman’s fate. BUT I didn’t say any of that to her. Instead we had the best time laughing and joking. At one point we laughed so hard I almost spewed my drink and had to use a napkin to wipe my chin. But none of us said a word about cancer...or death.

On her last day at work, she gave me an anchor necklace—always thinking about other people instead of herself. “This is what you’ve been to me,” she said. “You made me laugh—every single day. And you treated me like nothing was wrong. You’ve been my anchor.”

“But I didn’t know anything was wrong.....”

“You knew at the restaurant.”

She gave me such a tight hug, and I felt how tiny and frail she’d become. Tears flooded my eyes as reality hit.

Over the following weeks and months we’d talk and text, but it still came as a shock when I read her obituary. That day I donned my anchor necklace, proudly wore it to work, and thought of a woman who had changed my life.

It’s surreal now that I have stage four cancer. I think of my friend so often. How strange that even after she’s gone, now she’s somehow become an anchor for me....

Friday, January 29, 2021

What a Creep!

 I’ve only driven myself a few places because the pain from the tumors has gotten notably worse, and I’m still struggling with stamina. But I needed to get out and see strangers and a store filled with the sort of modern conveniences that people take for granted—like...peanut butter. 

I used a grocery cart instead of my walker and could only grab a few light items when my hip and leg started throbbing. I limped to the front of the store, knowing I’d need to sit down after I paid, or call Mike to come and pick me up.

I smiled at the cashier, who was still helping someone else. She didn’t need to know I was in pain and that I keep having dreams about a long, cancerous death. So why not try to brighten HER day?

And that’s when it happened.

The guy in front of me seemed like a total jerk. You know the kind: Still wearing his class ring two decades after graduation... He had bling all over the butt of his jeans and a shirt that was a size too small—in an effort to show off his huge muscles. (See how good I am at not judging? 🤦‍♀️) 

Anyway, he flirted with the young cashier and then started ranting. “2020 was the worst year of my life. The day sports got canceled was the worst day ever! And now we have to wear masks! I can’t even see what you really look like,” he told the cashier. And as he continued complaining, I had to stop myself from ripping him apart. I’m normally so sweet and nice—a doormat when I should take a stand. Yet, this man enraged me.

He thought he had it bad? Because he CAN’T workout? And he CAN’T bring girls to his favorite restaurant. And he HAS to wear a mask.

I made up the whole monologue in my head as I slumped over the cart, my right leg about to start shaking because I needed to sit down. I *wanted* to say, “Try having stage four cancer. Try being told you will die within two years. Try explaining death to a couple of teenagers and two preteens. While you’re busy worrying about sports and women, I’m fighting for my life, losing my hair and my dignity, scared shitless that I’ll die before my baby is 18 and my kids’ lives will be turned upside down. So before you go on about how shitty your life is, think about the lives lost because of COVID, the people separated from their families as they died. Hell, even think of me contemplating funeral arrangements at the age of 37.”

And just before I could say any of this, he took his bags and left. 

“What a creep,” the cashier whispered. “He could have kids my age.”

I went and sat on a bench at the front of the store. And I thought about how I shouldn’t judge. I guess those things are hard for him; he doesn’t know any better. But it would be so nice if people like that could break free from their bubbles and realize how lucky they really are. He’s healthy. Instead of complaining—he should just go live!

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Only Two People Could Live, I Chose the Comedian

My dad and I are standing in a fancy room, waiting for the elevator, when disaster strikes. Terrorists are there, rounding everyone up on the floor. After they herd everyone together, I’m shocked to see the results. There are over 100 people, but they’re some of the most important legends of our time: physicists, philosophers, mathematicians, engineers, chemists, theologians...and Christopher Walken.

The terrorists start screaming and shooting the ceiling so that sheetrock falls, and the noise of gunshots echo in my ears. Then the terrorists tell us only two people in the room will live. Each of us must take a number, but only the people who draw numbers “one” and “two” will live. So all of us draw a number: I’m shocked to draw number one—but my dad gets...59.

I tell my dad he has to take my number. 

“I’ve lived a good life,” he says.

“So have I, but I have terminal cancer! You have a lot longer to live than I do!”

But he REFUSES to listen and soon I can’t find him anywhere. Leave it to my dad to sneak away from terrorists. (I knew he left just hoping I’d use my number.)

So I’m stuck in a flippin’ nightmare with a bunch of legends. And by this time people realize I have a “winning number.” People become frothing frantic, trying to take my number. (Meanwhile the person who drew number two stays quiet, not wanting to get bombarded like I am—probably a psychologist!) And I hear about how certain people are on the verge of a new scientific discovery that will benefit mankind or how someone needs to finish a life-changing book about philosophy. But Christopher Walken is just quiet in the corner. And it hits me that it’s not always who discovers things, but who discovers them first. 

“Someone else will discover it,” I tell the group. “Someone else will share that same philosophy. Someone else...” And I decide to give my number to Christopher Walken.

The actor is much older and more somber in “real” life. I tell him everyone is freaking out. “I see that,” he says. “But death will do that to some people.”

“I want you to have my number,” I say.

“Why me?”

“Because even though a lot of people have forgotten the comedians of the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s...and definitely the people long before them, THOSE people mattered the most at the time...”

“And why is that?”

“Because they made people smile. And sometimes giving someone joy is the best gift you could ever give. You’ve given a lot of people joy.”

“You have children?” he asks. “Young children?”

I nod.

“Well I don’t. Coincidentally, I don’t even have children! Use the number and leave.”

“But I have terminal cancer.”

“Who in the hell cares? Use the number for your kids. Go spend what time you have with them and to hell with the rest.”

“Look at the people in this room. Someone else should have this. Not me.”

“I saw you trying to give the number to your dad instead of someone else here. Why did you choose him earlier?”

“That’s because he’s amazing. He’s my dad. He means so much to me.”

“And you’re like your own children. Leave.”

But I want to find my dad and I’m still terrified, not of the terrorists, but that I’ll never see my dad again.

And that’s when I woke up.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Our Cat’s Funeral

 We waited a week to bury our cat. Honestly I was a little creeped out by the facts that we stored his body in our cold garage and that I kept seeing something black out of the corner of my eye (maybe I just want him to be alive).

Anyway, it finally came time for us to have the funeral with the kids there. They were ready to dig the hole, send good wishes, and say goodbye. It took a long time for me to walk to the back corner of our yard. My legs still don’t work right and my back hunches over awkwardly. But Mike helped me lumber down there, and as we stood at Cole’s resting place I found the location fitting.

It’s strange, but we’ve had unusually experiences in that corner of the yard. Once a deer died there, and the neighbors called to tell us something was rotting behind our shed. Fish and Game came to take it away—but by the time they arrived, the smell was nauseating. 

Years later we found another deer there—in the exact same spot! It was injured somehow and not quite strong enough to jump the fence. We named her Debbie and started giving her little treats to sustain her. I remember how she slept by the kids’ basement windows, huddling next to the warmth of the house. And soon enough, Debbie got her strength back and without a goodbye, she left. I guess life can be like that sometimes. We can help others, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be in our lives forever.... I just felt bad I never got to say goodbye.

So that’s where we buried Cole where we found both a dead and a living deer. I somehow wished we could bring Cole back, but books have told me THAT’S a bad idea. I’d much rather Cole stay dead than turn into a murderous zombie. I told the kids that, ya know, just so they’ll know life could be worse. But they didn’t seem to like my reasoning very much.

Anyway, I’m just glad the kids got to say goodbye, and that we no longer have a dead animal in our garage—even if I did love him when he was alive. 

Death can be so hard, but somehow having a chance to say goodbye makes it a little easier.

As we had the funeral I couldn’t help wondering about my own. The kids kept saying who Cole has been to them. What have I been to them, or to anyone really? Do the memories of what remains about us somehow embody who we truly are? I wonder.... 

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Do Animals Know When You’re Grieving?

 For several years we’ve had two cats: a black one and a white one. They couldn’t be more opposite. One likes people and the other one just likes ONE person. They fight all the time, and when the black one isn’t sneaking onto the counter to find food, the white one is just trying to find some *bleeping* peace and quiet.

Anyway, when I first got sick with cancer, the black cat started stalking me. EVERY time I’d sit down, the cat was practically magnetized to my presence. I’d sit; he’d sit. I’d walk; he’d walk. And it honestly seemed like he knew how bad I felt—and he wanted to make me better. Meanwhile, the white cat just stared at us like we were crazy. His eyes turned to judgmental slits as he licked his regal paws. (I think he used to be King Tut in a past life.)

Well, on Monday our black cat, Cole, didn’t seem quite right. He flopped onto my lap, nuzzling lethargically up to me. And when Mike brought him to the vet on Tuesday, well... Cole died. It’s hard thinking he’s no longer around to follow me and check up on me—even when I didn’t want him to.... Now I realized how much I enjoyed checking up on him, too. 

Yesterday morning was so lonely, I thought I’d snuggle the white cat—the king—but I changed my mind before even trying. He doesn’t like anyone except our 16-year-old. All day he sits away from people and just wants his fancy food and his space.

The day progressed and my son came up to me. “It’s just so weird that he’s gone. And he can’t come back.” And then the conversation turned to my cancer and how several doctors have only given me two years to live. The thing is that I want to have hope that I can get better, but I also don’t want to hide from facts either. I know death is final, a sobering reality to a sometimes even more sobering world...but if that’s really what God wants, well, my life has always been in His hands. And my kids deserve to hear the truth.

Still, seeing my son’s widening eyes, hearing that he finally understood the irrevocable truth about death...and that he KNEW what we might be facing as a family, THAT made me cry. 

I cried for the lost moments, and for the future ones I might miss. I cried because I want to protect my kids from the pains of the world, but right now my sickness is a source of that very pain. The sadness was so deep, so strong, my chest and insides ached from the heaviness of it all.

And as I cried, out of nowhere, the white cat sauntered around the corner, jumped on my stomach, and stared at me!

We both held each other’s gaze for a while. He’s never sat on me before, and I didn’t know quite what to do. Then he snuggled down, stretched his paw over my shoulder, and simply fell asleep. 

I looked around, bewildered as the cat purred. There wasn’t time to cry anymore—because now I was in shock. How had he known I needed something exactly like this?!

I don’t know why, but it’s the little moments that make life worth living. I suddenly felt as if everything would be okay. It didn’t matter how hard things can be because I felt so much peace emanating from the exact cat who used to hate me. 

I closed my eyes, and we both slept: me in the peace of the moment, and my kingly cat who’d stepped down from his throne to make sure I was okay. 

Death can be hard, but it offers the perspective of gratitude for those brave enough to embrace change. 

Life is so, so beautiful.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Things Seem So Simple

 My oldest daughter asked me out for lunch and I could hardly wait for Sunday to roll around. (Time seems so fleeting after you find out you have cancer.) Anyway, when the day finally came, we sat at the bar of the diner, and I did what I always do—I pulled out a deck of cards and dealt us both a hand. She immediately laughed and looked around. “People don’t normally do stuff like this.”

I just smiled. “I guess that’s true, but it’s my thing.”

So we played a few hands, laughed and joked. It wasn’t until our food came that things got serious. I started thinking about what has really given my life meaning. I looked at my gorgeous daughter—who shaved her head, losing all that beautiful hair to support me.... She has stuck with me and been so kind these last months, growing up much faster than anyone should have to.... Looking at HER, I realized that the greatest thing I could ever do is make sure that the people who matter most know that I love them. “Life has been hard,” I said. “But you’ve been my little best friend through it all—since I was 18. So much of what got me through...was you.” My kids are my heart....

She bit her lip, smiled, and started telling me something that she’s obviously thought about for a while. Over our coffees, hash browns, and eggs, my 19-year-old said how proud she is of the way I’ve lived my life and of how I’ve raised her. 

I cried into my coffee. Her love in that moment erased all of the worry...I KNEW my life has had meaning. It wasn’t because of what I’ve done for strangers, or if I’ve impacted people I barely know. I made a difference for someone who matters the most.

When you’re facing death and things become clear...these are the affirmations you need to hear. At least for my beautiful 19-year-old, she’ll carry good memories of me when my body gives out...maybe those memories of playing cards in restaurants will carry on. But most of all, I hope she’ll remember how much I love her with a resolve that can never be tamed, not even by death.

And if I can mean something to someone as amazing as my daughter...well that’s saying something!

It really is strange what truly matters at the end of it all. 

Things incredibly...simple.

What is Your Greatest Strength?

 I once read a book that claimed it could you help find your greatest strengths. The magnitude of finding the “greatest strengths” idea wasn’t a new concept, but boasting that it could help me “discover” mine actually was. I eagerly read the premise, thinking strengths are things like courage and intellect. The author wrote that focusing on strengths is much more important than honing in on weaknesses—that we can go much further in life if we develop our God-given talents rather than trying to eliminate flaws. 

When it came time for me to “discover” my strengths, I can’t tell you how excited I was. The Clifton Strength’s Finder test was much more like an employer’s personality test than I had guessed. And at the end, my results shocked me. 

My greatest strength wasn’t something awesome like longevity, or persistence...instead it was positivity. I stared at the screen in shock. How could positivity be a “strength”? I’d begun to think of this as someone’s super power, but how could that be mine? You’d never see a superhero named Captain Positivity. Why couldn’t mine be something like courage? I turned off the computer a bit bummed. Positivity? Seriously?

The funny thing is that I’ve never forgotten the results of that test. And even as I’ve been having a hard time lately, instead of dwelling on my flaws, I’ve tried to remember my greatest strength. The ironic thing is that there is some power to it—for me. I could be trapped in a hard situation, feeling there’s no way out...but there’s something to be said for being positive. It takes something horrible and flips it on it’s head. Seeing the bright side of everything, well when there’s light the darkness can’t help but leave. Positivity throws a window into a doorless room. It’s hard to be sad when there’s something to wonder over and find the good in! 

So on days when I’m having a tough time because I have cancer or I’m exhausted, I try to look at the positive side. 

A friend called yesterday and said she’s so sorry for all I’m going through. I told her, “It’s in the dark times when we can try to make our light shine brighter.”

She gasped at the end of the conversation. “It’s crazy. But I think you’re lucky that you have cancer.”

I broke out laughing. “I wouldn’t wish this on ANYONE. But I have to see the bright side. It’s not luck, but no matter what we’re going through there’s always something positive to be seen.”

So while it’s not the fantastic super power I’d hoped for, it’s helping me through some pretty dark times. Maybe the “strength” I have isn’t as bad as I once thought. I’m learning so much about myself. It’s sad that it took something like this, but I’m proud to be coming to peace with who I am—maybe for the first time in forever.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

How to Find the Good

 Our sixteen-year-old came home for a minute so we brought all of the kids out to eat. I used my walker, which is always a bit embarrassing, but when we got to the table my husband hid the walker away and after the waiter brought us our waters, I got an idea.

“Everybody, I want to make a bet!”

My husband’s eyes filled with mirth as if to say, “Here we go again.”

“I will bet you $21, that you can’t guess the waiter’s age.”

They were all interested now, everyone except my son. “That might not be very nice.”

“He seems like a good sport,” I said.

“Yeah,” interjected Ruby, “he’s not gonna care. But how will we do this.”

“I figure each of you will pick an age, and I’ll write it down! Then whoever is the closest will win the money.”

“Whoever is the closest without busting,” Mike said.

I nodded in agreement. “Agreed. Whoever is the closest without busting.”

“Sky, what’s your guess?”

So I quietly gathered each guess—and when ANYONE walked by we went silent! (Except at one point when we were laughing so hard that I almost spit out my water!)

The waiter finally showed up and asked what we’d like. Boy, was he surprised! “We kind of have a bet going,” my husband said.

“Yeah,” I followed up, “ we’re teaching our kids how to gamble. Because we’re those parents.”

The waiter burst out laughing, and then Mike asked him for his age.

“Well, I’ll tell you my age, but what do I get out of it?”

“A really good tip!” I piped in.

“Well, okay....” He looked around. “I’m 40.”

Our youngest daughter nearly shot from her seat. “Me! It was me! I guessed 40.”

“Wait,” the waiter said. “What did everyone else guess?”

“The youngest guess was 35,” I said.

“And some were over 40?” The heavily tattooed waiter had a bit of a smirk, like he was teasing us. “Gee thanks, guys.”

We ate our food and had the most wonderful time. When the waiter came back in his last round, he said, “I’m stuck here working all day. I wish I could go home with you guys!”

After he left, Mike laughed. “That’s not the first time we’ve heard that from a waiter.”

“It’s actually not.” I laughed so hard because we always bring a deck of cards or have something silly up our sleeves.

We left an amazing tip, and our kid-hearted little boy even left his allowance—saying he couldn’t wait for the guy to get it “because he’d been so nice to us.”

As I saw each of my kids’ smiling faces, I had to reflect. For a minute I forgot about the pain and the cancer. Despite my hunched back and lack of hair, I was really living—like I always used to before this diagnosis. And it hit me, whether people have a bad diagnosis—or just a bad outlook—we should all choose to make the best of the moments we have...and just live. Finding the good and sharing it with others, that’s what makes life really WORTH living.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Instead of Gratitude, I Felt Fear

 I started this arbitrary thing years ago. Whenever I’d even begin to get agitated over something stupid, I would suddenly stop myself and think, “What if I were dead? What IF God let me come back for this one single day? Would I have time to be agitated, hurt, or annoyed about much of anything?” Maybe not!

So yesterday, I was in bed, trying to go to sleep. But my back pulsed from my surgery to remove my cancerous vertebrae. The nausea was somewhat overpowering. And I had a new headache from last month’s radiation. Plus, I kept thinking how my two youngest are seeing counselors to deal with the fact that I have cancer—and how this makes me feel terrible they’re going through this too. It’s heart wrenching to answer some of their questions about death....

And my brain automatically went to the old thought that used to catapult me into gratitude: “What if I were dead? What IF God let me come back for this one single day?”

But death is too close right now, and gratefulness eluded me. Instead I started to think about those things that have always plagued humanity. What if I’m on the road to death right now? Yes, we all are, but I mean...maybe this is too fast. The Japanese bullet death. Irrevocably sick at 37. 

There are two options for me. Like several doctors had said, I might only have two years to live—which means I’ll just get sicker and sicker, watching myself and my loved ones suffer, then I’ll die. 

Option two is that I’ll beat this: I’ve had dozens of people tell me that if anyone can overcome this, it’s me.

But in that moment, instead of feeling gratitude, I felt fear.

My husband came into the room then. He’s usually really loud and silly, but he knows how to be quiet and gentle too. He encircled me in his strong arms and just let me cry.

I knew I had to shake myself of this self-pity quickly. So as I cried, I started listing what I’m grateful for. I’m glad I’m still alive. I’m grateful that I even have people to worry about—people who would miss me if I’m gone. I’m grateful for snow and a beautiful view where I can see deer....

The list went on. 

And soon, I stopped crying. In fact, as my body continued aching, it wasn’t even a bad thing. That’s simply a sign that my body is fighting the cancer off. I fell asleep like that. And even though things could be better, I also realize they could be much worse. 

I better be grateful for what I have. Well, we all should be.

Monday, January 11, 2021

His Kindness Shocked Me

A memory from years ago...

The computer tech reminded me of a young version of Mr. Miyagi, wise and reassuring. At the quaint computer store, Miyagi Jr. quietly accessed my laptop and said he could fix it immediately and be done within a half hour. So I waited and before realizing what happened, that man gave my four kids candy--we joked and laughed about life--my mood AND the mood of the store changed, becoming brighter.

When it came time to pay, he wouldn't let me. "This is on me," he said.
"You have to let me pay," I said. "Look at all the work you've done."
He eyed me thoughtfully, stroking his long goatee. I thought he might see straight through me. Maybe he'd understand that something rested beyond my joking and laughter. Zeke's birthday was fast approaching and I didn't want to feel the ache that day always brings since my son passed away.
Miyagi Jr. nodded and said, "There's a pizza place around the corner. A man always works there at this time. If you'd really like to thank me, go order a pizza and visit with the man who's working there. Visit with him just like you visited with me." 
Visit with the man?  It sounded strange. What could he possibly mean? It was my turn to study him. "All right," I finally said, then grabbed my youngest kids' hands and stepped toward the door. 
Just as the bell rang above the exit and I walked outside, I heard another tech ask Mr. Miyagi, "Are you sure you should send her over there? You know what happens when some people go there when he's workin--" The door shut and I didn't hear another word.
"Mama, where are we going now?" my four-year-old son asked as I buckled him in his seat.
I inhaled a big breath. "Well, that nice man wouldn't let me pay. So we're going to buy him a pizza."
The pizza place was tucked back at the edge of a dilapidated parking lot. People swarmed to other businesses around, but no one went to the forlorn restaurant.     
"You stay in the car. Keep an eye on the babies," I told my oldest daughters.
"Mom, are you sure you should go? This whole thing sounds weird," my second-oldest daughter said.
"I'm just getting a pizza. The computer tech needs to get something for all of his hard work."  I turned music on for the kids, stepped from the car and locked the black doors.
The pizza place didn't have tables, chairs or benches. But the spotless counter gave me a good impression. As the smell of fresh breadsticks wafted toward me, my insides warmed with childhood memories. I stepped forward and rang the metal bell.
"Hello?" I said.  "Hello?"  Someone moved in the shadows at the far end of the kitchen.
A man lumbered forward. At first I couldn't see his face because he'd turned it down and away.
"Those breadsticks smell amazing!" I said.  Then he fully turned toward me and I gasped.
The left side of his face was so handsome. He had a striking brown eye and perfectly dark skin. But the other side of his face drooped and bulged.  The forehead on his right side stretched a fist taller than the rest of his face.  His right eye couldn't open, nestled below his nose.  
"What do you want?" he mumbled.
I nearly cried, feeling so badly for gasping seconds before.  I blinked hard, collecting myself, and instantly donned a smile.
"How are you today?" I asked brightly.
"I'm...all right," he said, turning so I only saw his profile. "And you?"
"I'm having a fantastic day. I went to that computer repair place over there.  They fixed my computer for free.  So I'd like to order a large peperoni pizza for them."
His curious eye darted toward mine.  "They've been very good to me as well." His words came out slowly and cautiously.
I wanted to make an impact, then. But how? I could have told him that my first son had birth defects. Explain how Zeke had a cleft lip and palate.  My stomach knotted, remembering how I'd wanted Zeke to be born perfect, live a good life, and die long after I did. I looked at the pizza man and wondered for the millionth time, why do birth defects exist?
But instead of talking about Zeke, Miyagi Jr.'s words drifted into my mind.  Visit with him just like you visited with me.   
So I shot the bull with him as he made the pizza.  I told jokes about how I worked at a pizza place once. "When I was on the clock, they were always running out of pineapple," I said. "It's my weakness, really."
"I know what you mean," he mumbled, then laughed. "I always eat the pineapple too. It's a good weakness though."
When he finished the peperoni-extra-cheese, he came over to the counter. "Don't worry about bringing this to them. I'll bring it for you and tell them an angel bought them lunch."
I've been a lot of things, but I've never been someone's angel. As I gazed into the man's eye, I thought of how hard I try doing everything right--so I can see my son in Heaven. But I never feel good enough. Tears welled in my eyes and I couldn't look away from the man. No. I wasn't his angel. He’d been mine--smiling and laughing despite his lot in life. It could take years to learn what that man had suddenly taught me about gratitude.
I lingered because so much kindness shone from his deep, dark eye. "Thank you. You have yourself a wonderful day," I said, turning to leave.
Just as I pushed the door open, he stopped me. "Wait," he said, and I turned. "Thanks for coming in here today. It's a cruel world out there, but people like you make it a better place."
I held the door open for a minute longer. "Not people like me," I said. "Wonderful people like you." I smiled one last time, then said, "Hey, enjoy the pineapple, it is the best part of working at a pizza place."
"I will," he promised, and I left the store. 
As I drove home, clouds grayed the sky overhead. The sun shone brightly in the east, shedding light even through the storm. I told my kids the story. "I don't know who was more of an angel, the pizza man or Miyagi Jr."
"Mom, you haven't said a word about the guy's face. I saw him through the window. Didn't you notice something was really wrong with him?"
There hadn't been a reason to mention his physical defects. "He was born with problems like Zeke was. But just like Zeke, he was beautiful inside. It makes me wonder though.... Why do you think the computer tech sent me to the pizza place?" I asked my oldest daughter.
"Maybe he realized you treat everyone with the same kindness no matter what. That says a lot about you, Mom."

"No," I sniffled. "It says a lot about him."

I pulled off and parked on the side of the road after that. I got out and looked into the storming sky. I thought about how sometimes beauty comes right after the storms of life. 

As I gazed at the widening clouds, a raindrop fell on my nose, and somehow I felt like Zeke was looking down on me.  

Saturday, January 9, 2021

10 Years Ago....

I entered the funeral home, and the director greeted me as if he knew I didn’t belong there. His graying hand shook my energetic one, and our eyes met. Two more opposite people had never stood so close before. He motioned—at the speed of molasses—silently denoting the morbid conveyor belt of people who waited to see the corpse of my highschool friend. 

His young bride cried so loud that people in other states heard her. And who could blame her; he was a great guy...really. In fact, we hadn’t talked since junior year. I was his wingwoman as we dragged Main in a souped-up Mustang. Years...yet here a stood, behind this army of people, wanting to say goodbye in case his spirit haunted the room.

After infinity, it was finally my turn, and I childishly peeked into the casket. There he rested at 27. He’d never smoked, but lung cancer didn’t care. I whispered, “You were one of the good ones.”
His wife looked at me oddly. 

“High school friend,” I said. “I was like one of the dudes.” And I realized she wasn’t a person who said ‘dudes’ or spoke to people who did. “Well...sorry for your loss.”

I didn’t belong there and I knew it. So I walked back to the door. I wondered what brought everyone else to see his body: love, respect, curiosity, a chance to face their own mortality?

A man stopped me on the way out. “Makes you appreciate every moment.”

“Sure does,” I said. And I wondered if he knew my friend or if he was one of those funeral crashers who goes just to keep his gratitude in check.


Anyway, today (over ten years later) I remembered all of this, but as I got to the casket, instead of my friend, I saw MYSELF there—all plastic and stiff-faced, stuck in that stuffy box, hands crossed oddly, face painted with bright makeup I’d never really wear....

I tried to shake myself from these thoughts, but they were overpowering—so terrifying I could hardly breathe. It was a real panic attack, that’s for sure. Mike held me when he saw that I’d started crying. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”

His touch is so magical that I swear he could tame a wild animal—that’s why I married him. Anyway, my heart FINALLY slowed back down. And he read a couple chapters of a book to me—a book about gratitude.

I know I need to be positive, but today was hard. There’s a tumor in my hip and it appears to be growing. The doc said the treatments still need more time to shrink things. (I’ve had a handful of radiation treatments as well as immunotherapy two times. It’s just a waiting game...

So, I need to get my mind off of things—and do something nice for someone else. I might go play my violin at a nursing home tomorrow. I’ll have to sit—and I won’t be able to play long, but at least I’ll get to do something that always heals my mind no matter how scared I get. 

I don’t want to dwell on the past, or worry about the future, when I should be appreciating every second I have. 

My poor friend.... I still wonder what he thinks of Heaven.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Stripped to Bare Bones

My sixteen-year-old ran away about a week before I found out that I have cancer. She’s living with her dad now—and seems to be really happy—but the entire situation has left a hole in my heart that doesn’t feel like it’ll ever heal.

I guess I deserve it. I ran away from home when I was seventeen, became a homeless street musician, and lived on the beaches of Hawaii for a while.

I talked with my mom the other day, and it’s a bit odd how we could relate on yet another level. My voice turned heavy with regret, and I told her how sorry I am for doing that to her. “I just didn’t understand how much I hurt you...not until now.”

Anyway, last night I had a dream that my daughter ran away again, but this time it was to come back to MY house. I beamed, so happy to have her home, hold her in my arms, and tell her how much I’ve missed her. 

When I woke up she still wasn’t here, but the cancer is.... I sleep so much and have such a hard time getting around, I probably can’t offer her what her dad can anyway. And even months before I found out I had cancer (before she ran away) I was only sleeping an hour each night because of the pain. And I’m sure I wasn’t fun and bouncy like I used to be.... The cancer had changed me before we even knew it had taken hold.

So today, instead of feeling strong, I feel pathetic, rejected, and weak. I know things will get better—they have to—but today is hard. 

People keep telling me that teenagers are tough to raise, and the best thing we can do is show love. I love each of my children so much more than they know. I guess if I do die in two years, like some doctors have projected, the kids will have some things left from me, like the books I’ve written; if they miss me, they can read those and remember. I just hope they’ll know how very much I love them. I’m honestly starting to think the best thing I could leave behind isn’t books though, or even money, or any of that. It’s really just love.

I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, but the doctor said I need to stop focusing on anything that could cause stress. Once again, I’m trying to learn to “cast my cares on Him because He cares for us.” Today I’m not strong enough to carry all of this alone. I know He has much bigger things to worry about, but I sure hope God will somehow help me—and all of us.

I do think I’m being stripped of things for a reason (health, pride, even family). Once you get to the bare bones of a situation, then you can learn more about it. I’m learning an awful lot about myself, even through the pain....

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Something Miraculous Happened

 Something miraculous happened. I received nearly 2000 comments on a social media post. In a short period, dozens of messages came in Messenger as well! But they weren’t what I expected. They were all from people who have cancer. I cried at the computer because I’ve been so scared to tell my story. It’s hard to let people know the ups and downs I’ve felt. How I’ve been vulnerable and weak, still needing my walker at times. Or how I sobbed because I lost my hair. 

But these messages were from people telling me they felt exactly the same. People saying THEY needed to hear this from someone else, but they had no one to talk with. And so I cried because I feel the same. I guess I started sharing on social media because I didn’t want to burden my family by calling and telling them the good and bad things. But if they read my posts, well, that’s their choice. Yet, I could still get the feedback from others—the love that’s thus far buoyed me through.

Life has a strange way of wrapping us up in crazy situation that can seem so terrible, but when you stand back they’re really not. 

When I was a little girl, I used to get scared of simple things—like not waking up in the morning. Then I would dream, and I wouldn’t be scared anymore. I’d dream that I fell into a lake and a terrible alligator would snatch me up. But he just wanted a friend. And he’d bring me to his underwater lair, where there was magically air—and tea—and all sorts of delicious things. He’d use his massive claws to hold a delicate teacup and I’d laugh. Because it wasn’t quite so terrible after all. And he was just lonely sometimes too.

I guess that’s how cancer feels today. It snatched me up and is trying to drown me, but if I can have the strength to find the good—even in sickness, even in possible death—it’s not quite so terrible after all.

Today I’m remembering that each situation might just be a chance for us to see the good. And that goodness can buoy us through.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

The Hard Part

 The Hard Part

We’ve told the kids that I have cancer—when you’re in this situation you have to. But we haven’t told our two youngest that it might be terminal. After all medical research is progressing every day—and unless you’re in an Orson Scott Card novel, it’s hard to kill a Stilson (my maiden name).

But many kids are like miniature detectives, and they catch much more than we realize. I remembered this last night.

I’d gone to sleep around 6. One of the tumors is in my pelvis, and unfortunately it must be growing because when I lie on my right side a searing pain shoots up my body as if I’m getting tased where the tumor is. I’d been asleep for a few hours when a tiny knock resounded from my bedroom door.

“Yes?” I asked.

“Mama, it’s Indy. Can I come in?”

Indy is ten, quite small for her age, and awfully extraordinary. But as she walked in, she didn’t light up the room like she normally does and that worried me.

“I need to know,” she said emphatically. “Are you dying?”

I blinked. “I’m really sick right now, sweetheart. But I’m fighting! And some of those doctors have no idea how tough I am.”

“You missed story time tonight,” she said. “You never miss it—not really. You must be so sick!” Then she climbed into bed with me and cried so hard. “I’m just really scared, Mama. I can’t even go to sleep without you reading to me. How am I supposed to live without you?”

I tried to keep my voice from quivering, but hearing her words hurt more than when I had the back surgery, radiation, or all of it combined. “I’m stronger than this,” I told her. “I really am. But right now we need to trust that God has a plan. Everything will be all right.” 

I hugged her for the longest time. Being in pain—I can handle. Most of the emotional stuff can be theorized into submission. But that—seeing my 10-year-old cry—that was a pain so terrible.... I would do anything to protect her, and now my sickness is the source of her pain.

“Wait a minute. You’re not crying just because I’m sick. You’re crying about dinner.”

“Huh?” She turned to me.

“You’re bummed we didn’t put mushrooms in it.”


“And you wanted fish!”

She broke out laughing and wiped her tears away. “That sounds gross, Mama. I am not crying because I wanted mushrooms and fish!” She smiled, and I thought that she’s such a blessing.

“I always wanted you,” I said.

“And I always wanted you!” Before she left the room, she kissed my cheek with those lips that are still so tiny. “Fine,” she said. “If you can be strong, then so can I.”

But after she left the room I cried because I had missed story time and because I don’t want to miss any number of things now OR when the kids grow up.

I breathed slowly. “God has a plan,” I told myself. “There’s good buried in this, and God really does have a plan.” With that in mind, I drifted back to sleep where I dreamed that I could walk normally and even run—and that I didn’t have a care in the world.

Monday, January 4, 2021

Window of Time

 It just hit me how much my life has changed since I got cancer. I have several good hours of every day when I can be around people and do things. But for the rest of the day I lie in bed and sleep. When you only have so many hours...well, it completely changes everything. 

I don’t have time to waste on menial things. I used to work, and then work some more. If I wasn’t working for an employer, I was working for myself.

Now, truly realizing that time is numbered for all of us, I find myself completely changed.

Yesterday, I spent the day doing unusual things (for me). My 10-year-old put fake nails on me—there was a lot of glue involved. My son taught me how to do a trick with his balisong trainer knife (try THAT with fake nails!). I also got to talk about art with my oldest daughter and watch her play video games. 

Yesterday afternoon, when I was resting for the millionth time, I told my husband how fortune I am to have him and our four kids. I have no idea what the point—or the meaning—of life is, but I do know that it’s strange what happens when we only have a small window of time each day. 

What would you find most important during a small window of time? What is your “reason,” and are you truly appreciating it, or are you letting those moments pass you by (like I used to)?

I hate what cancer has done to me—it’s still very hard to walk, and I’m in a lot of pain. BUT I’m so grateful for the other changes it’s caused in me. It’s not all bad, really. I’m grateful for time, even if it is only a window each day. I’ll appreciate every moment I can.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Ring the Bell

 I got to see someone ring the bell. That means their cancer treatments are over. Instead of watching the woman who celebrated this big win, I watched the three patients who sat near me. Two of them perched expectantly (as if they can’t wait for their turn). The third’s head fell as she clapped, making it obvious that she thinks she’ll never ring the bell. I studied her dimmed eyes and stretched skin. That’s when I cried right there in the treatment chair.

The nurse came back shortly after. I wiped my eyes and tried to smile brightly. The thing is that life might suck sometimes, but that’s no reason to stop trying to make it bright for other people—that’s what so many people have done for me. 

“Are you okay?” the nurse asked.

“Just a blip of sadness. But the real question is, how are you? You’re working on New Year’s Eve. And you look pretty busy.”

She smiled down at me. “It’s interesting, but not many people ask how I’m doing here. It’s not a bad thing, they’re just going through so much.”

We talked for a while and she seemed a bit lighter after we’d joked and smiled. She even brought some of the laughter to the woman who’d seemed so sad when the bell rang. I was most grateful for that. 

Anyway, I guess the point is that life can be terribly hard. The best I can do is fight with everything in me, trying to make life better for those around. Even if they aren’t physically sick, they’re going through their own struggles too.

I still wish I could wrap my arms around the woman who got chemo. I’d love to tell her how beautiful and strong she is. But I need to have faith that she’s on the road meant for her.