Monday, July 26, 2021

The Scale of Good and Bad

 When someone says you might die soon, you start thinking about all the things you’ve accomplished and those you didn’t, everything you were brave enough to try and what you put aside for a later date, you think about relationships—new and old—and how you either helped or hurt people. You revel, reminiscent, and regret…. 

Someone recently told me that when we die God has a scale where He weighs our good deeds on one side and our bad on the other. (This conversation isn’t about grace—it’s about justice.) If the good deeds weigh out, we get to spend eternity with God. But if they don’t, we’ll face an eternity without our creator.

I’m not sure where my scales would rest, truly. I thought about all the good and bad things in my life, and I’m still not sure why, but, I remembered something from grade school. The first bad thing I remember doing.

“You can have a birthday party,” my mom said, and we made invitations for the whole class of over 20. I could hardly wait to attend school that day, and I remember passing Nathan on the way through the doors. He always wore pants that clung too small and shoes that flopped, overly big. Some kids made fun of him, but I always sort of liked Nathan. He had curious, big eyes—and I felt like he saw things the other kids didn’t. 

“You have an invitation for everyone?” my teacher asked when I told her about my party. I nodded. “Keep these in your desk,” my teacher said about the invitations. “We’ll pass them out after second recess.” So I placed them in my pencil box and smiled at a couple of girls who had heard the conversation.

Anyway, after lunch, the teacher called my name. “Elisa, you’re having a birthday party, aren’t you?” she said.

I smiled so big. “Yes, I am.” Then she let me hand out all of the invitations. I gave one to every student, everyone except Nathan. “I had one for you, I swear,” I said. But no matter how many times I looked through my backpack or the pencil box, I couldn’t find it. Then the kids were laughing at him—especially two popular girls—and it broke my heart. They’d laughed at him too many times.

“Please come to my party,” I begged. “I think you’re one of the coolest kids in class.”

I wrote down all of the information on a piece of paper, but the damage was done. He didn’t have a “real” invitation and the kids thought it was hilarious. 

Nathan had to call his mom after that because he started crying. When the final bell rang, his mom marched into the room as all of the students left. I heard her yelling at my teacher from where I perched in the hallway. “How could you hand out those invitations knowing every kid got one but my son?”

Nathan didn’t come to my party. He didn’t even talk to me after that, not even a few years later. I always felt bad, and I sort of wondered if the popular girls got into my desk and took Nathan’s invitation. 

I know it wasn’t intentional, but I feel bad for moments like this and the slew of others where I’ve caused pain whether intentional or not. And I wonder how all of these moments weigh out for or against us, making us better or worse. I just so wish I could’ve helped Nathan instead of hurting him at such a young age.

You see, it wasn’t just the invitation incident that I feel bad about…it’s all the times before. I saw an interesting, wonderful person who I knew was lonely. I should’ve tried to make a positive impact on his life long before. I didn’t truly realize that he didn’t have any friends until the incident with the invitation…. How could I miss something like that?

I guess what I’m trying to say is, don’t miss your chance to do good—to make life better for those around you. Sometimes we can get so wrapped up in our own lives that it’s hard to imagine what other people might be going through. That’s what I learned from Nathan. I’m not sure if he even remembers, but to me, he is unforgettable.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Four Hawks and a Reminder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

The Most Ungrateful Person Ever

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

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

“Well, I’m still alive, aren’t I?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Really? This guy was for real?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Who was that?" Mike asked.

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

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

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Strangers that Mean Well

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

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

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

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

She approached me after Mike left to get my towel.

“Let me help you,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, July 15, 2021

A Dress and a Few Simple Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yes they do—and they will!”

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

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

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

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

“Anne, well, how the hell are ya?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

A Little Wider

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

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

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

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

“Where’s the publisher?” she boomed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can still write the—“

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Cleaning a Synagogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 1, 2021

A Dip in the Water

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

I even made it INTO the water today! 🤗

#superStoked #Progress

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