Saturday, December 31, 2022

Ending the Year with a Trip to Italy

 It’s almost 2023, and I’m amazed to still be here. Even though I continue to fight stage four melanoma, every day that I wake up, I find myself extremely fortunate.

Doctors said I’d never make it past October of 2022, so some friends got together and gave me and Mike money to bring our kids to Italy (my biggest bucket list item). I can’t tell you how humbling that was, especially since several of those friends are also fighting cancer—yet they still found it in their hearts to do something kind for us despite their own struggles. Anyway, we bought the tickets almost a year ago and, after finding a good deal because of the pandemic, booked flights for a time when I would most likely no longer be alive. THAT was a huge leap of faith…but, even with our health, sometimes it’s important to have a goal to work toward. After all, hope is a very powerful motivator.

I’m so proud to say that we just got back from Italy, and it was life changing. I’ll start posting about that tomorrow.

This year has been filled with miracles. I lived longer than doctors predicted. I got hospitalized, almost died, and pulled out of it. I went skydiving with my family and survived a crash landing (because of my bum leg). And now, we actually saw Italy! And so much more. 

It’s rough having cancer and fighting sickness each and every day, but I’m so grateful to still be living. Life is such a miracle—and I’m surrounded by the most wonderful family and friends. To the people who generously made this trip possible: I don’t know how to thank you, but I hope the next several posts will show how much my family and I appreciate what you did for us. You gave all of us—especially my kids—memories that will last a lifetime. I know no matter what the future might be, my kids can look back and remember backpacking through Italy while Mike pushed me in my wheelchair! 😅🤗 This trip was such an adventure for everyone.

Friday, December 16, 2022

A Stranger Who Changed My Life

I’ve tried to write this dozens of times, and the truth is that I just don’t know where to start. Have you ever had a stranger drastically impact your life – literally change the trajectory – and you don’t know how to thank them?

Let’s go back almost 15 years. I’d dug a pile of papers from an old box and read the harrowing story about how my son died. After reading my words, I wanted other people to hear his story because it meant that he wasn’t gone. Not … really.

So, having no idea how to proceed, I pulled out my dilapidated phone book and also Googled local publishers, then I simply started calling numbers. 

This might sound straightforward, but it quickly felt exhausting. Some people were rude and stingy with information. Other people, like the man who republished old works or many self-published authors, seemed quite lovable but couldn’t help me at all.

After the fourth day passed without results, I almost gave up. I spread my son’s story on the ground—just like I’d once spread his tiny ashes. I’d written on napkins, the back of medical bills, notebooks, and anything I could find. It would take forever to organize this mess. Plus, I didn’t want to contemplate the emotional pain of reliving my son’s life and death as I typed every word into the computer. Why even try?!

But although God didn’t give me Elizabeth Taylor’s face or Einstein’s brains, He did give me an extra helping of moxie. So, I grabbed a soda and picked up the phone to call one last publisher. 

“Hello?” the man said, his voice resonating with strength and happiness.

“Hi,” I quivered, “are you a publisher … a book publisher? I need help.”

“Well,” he said, “I did publish a book.” He paused. “How can I help you?”

And out of over 100 people, he was the first person to ask me how he could help. And then, that generous stranger proceeded to give me advice and talk with me for several minutes. I wrote everything down and gained the courage and fortitude to put my son’s story together. 

“I hope that helps,” he said.

“Oh! It does. It really does.” Before he could hang up, I dared to ask, “What book did you write?”

“‘The Christmas Box,’” he said.

It took years, but I eventually published my first memoir, and it actually became a bestseller on Amazon. I’ll still never forget watching as over 3000 copies of the eBook got downloaded in a single day. I cried not because this seemed like a small success but because my son’s memory would live on.

Fast forward to present day. A couple of months ago, I sat crying at my computer because I’m fighting stage four cancer and life can be hard. I’d recently been perusing Netflix and saw a couple of new shows that would be coming out in November—those could be distracting. “The Noel Diary” by the same man who wrote “The Christmas Box” seemed especially interesting. I shook my head because it seemed surreal remembering my conversation with that author, Richard Paul Evans, so long ago. I couldn’t believe that he’d taken time to help a nobody like me. And what’s ironic is how it seemed like no big deal. I bet he didn’t even remember a random act of kindness that literally changed the trajectory of my life.

Anyway, I sat crying, thinking about how hard life can be, and that’s when I got a notification. My heart stopped. “Richard Paul Evans commented on your photo …”

I dried my eyes and gaped at the screen. “No way,” I said. And when I clicked on the link; it was true! He had come through for me again—a total stranger brightening my day for no reason, telling me how much he enjoyed my post where I’d written about overcoming hardships.

I didn’t thank him in my reply … because I didn’t know how to. But that’s why you’re reading this today I guess. Right before Christmas, I hoped this “message in a bottle” would make it to one of my favorite authors—a stranger who changed my life. Thank you for selflessly helping me. 

From a girl who’s continued writing for years, I’m so grateful for your kindness,

EC Stilson

#RichardPaulEvans #TheChristmasBox #TheNoelDiary #randomactofkindness

Photo Info: These are from my first hospital stay when doctors removed my L3 vertebrae after they discovered tumors in my spine, hip, brain, and lungs. I’m so grateful they let me play my violin for other patients; it really made everything quite a bit better.

Side note: Melanoma sucks! I hope everyone will go get their skin checked if they see anything suspicious.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

He Hit on Me — And I Handled It Poorly

I don’t get out much. I work from home, rest all afternoon, and then have a blast hanging out with the kids when they get home from school.

So, maybe my most recent social interaction seems idiotic because I’ve lost all social skills. Who knows?

I’d kidnapped our one working car and gone to buy groceries. I can’t walk very far into the store because it hurts my back, right leg, and hips. So, I quickly grabbed the two items I needed and went to the checkout.

Since I don’t get out much, I’d actually done my hair for the occasion. It’s funny how going to the store is almost like going to the prom now—a big freakin’ deal. And suddenly, this incredibly tall, handsome man started talking to me. “I love your hair,” he said. “You are beautiful. Women just don’t do their hair like that anymore.”

Excuse me? I looked around. Was this guy talking to me, a woman who feels like she’s still fighting in WWIII. I’d done my hair up like a pinup girl. Sure I might have cancer but I can have class too. And just ‘cause I feel like ass, doesn’t mean I need to look like it too.

I finally turned to the man and could’ve fainted. “Um.” I balked, not knowing what to do. “My-husband-does-my-hair,” I blurted.

“Your husband?” 

“Oh, yes. He’s the most AMAZING man. Does hair and fixes cars too. Practically fixed my whole damn life.” 

The guy had started to smile in this unnerving way. Hadn’t he just been hitting on me? Or was I mistaken? Have I been out of the game long enough to get this confused? “All my hair fell out,” I went on, compounding an already uncomfortable situation. Other people had begun listening too. “Cancer treatments,” I said to practically the whole store.

The man’s eyes widened.

“But it’s back now. Not my husband—he’s always been there. My hair…IT is back. The hair that my husband dyes.” 

Did I mention my husband?

At this point, someone from another checkout aisle waved and said—laughing REALLY hard, “I like your hair too.” It was one of Mike’s best friends! He must’ve thought the whole interaction was hilarious. And I wanted to die. Forget about cancer treatments, radiation, and tumors, grocery shopping will cause my untimely death.

I called one of my friends after all of this. “Why would someone hit on you?” she asked. “You have cancer.”

“Thanks a lot! And he didn’t know that, not until I told the whole freakin’ store.”

That night, Mike called me from work, laughing really hard. I guess his friend had just told him about what happened at the store.

“Oh, no,” I said.

“Oh, yes.” Mike chuckled. “He told me you’re hilarious. And I should never worry if someone hits on you because you’ll tell them all about me.”

So, I had a good and a terrible thing happen. I got hit on, and I handled it kind of like a psycho—but that means despite cancer and physical disabilities, I still got it 😂😂😂

Oh, man. No more trips to the store for me—for a while anyway. Thank God the grocery store delivers.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Getting a Break

Only one of our cars is running. Mike has spent several days on the ground, in the snow, just trying to fix a couple of our cars. “You can come work in my garage,” a neighbor said.

“That’s all right.” Mike smiled, a perpetual optimist. “But if you have a lift…?”

The neighbor shook his head.

I feel so bad for Mike. First he married a single mom with four kids, then his wife got terminal cancer, and then all of their cars slowly died…no matter how hard he worked on them in the cold—BUT he miraculously didn’t get frostbite. The End.

This car conundrum isn’t a big deal though since I work from home. Well, it didn’t seem like a big deal until today. Mike now works from 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. on alternating days of the week, and Indy had a mandatory school performance. (Don’t ya just love when kids tell you the day of the performance that they have to be there?) 

Sky let me borrow her car—thank God! But that only solved half the battle. “Indy, I’ll have to wait in the car. There are always a million cars. We’ve had to park blocks and blocks away, and you know  I can’t walk that far.”

“We’ll bring your wheelchair.”

“It doesn’t work in the snow.” 

I’d need her to pull me on a sled.

“Mama,” my baby girl’s eyes welled with tears. “You won’t be able to hear me in the car.”

Sometimes life is so unbearably hard. I don’t want to have cancer. I don’t want poor Mike to slave away always working even when he’s off of work. But God knows I’m doing everything I can. I’m still working part time even though doctors said they’re shocked I didn’t quit my job ages ago. But I’ve even worked from hospital rooms right after surgeries. I’ve done my very best—because I’ve seen Mike and our kids do the same.

So, I promised to walk inside to see Indy—no matter how much (not to be dramatic) it might feel like trekking behind a covered wagon across the plains without shoes.

She chirped as we drove along, so excited about the performance. “I prayed that God would help us. It’ll all work out.”

Sure, I thought. I don’t mean to be a jerk, but although I love God, I don’t think He always ensures that life will be fair. In fact, life is guaranteed to suck some of the time.

We got closer, and numerous cars filled the streets. My heart started to shatter. I’d be lucky to make it to the front entrance at all. But I didn’t want Indy to be late OR to see me struggling just to get inside, so I thought of something. “I don’t want you to get wet. I’ll drop you off at front. Okay?”

She nodded. Worried.

We waited behind a bunch of cars, and right when we got closer to the front, someone pulled out of a spot RIGHT by the main doors. It must’ve been the best spot ever! My eyes widened, and I waited in case someone else needed it in front of us, but no one swooped in to take it.

So, I parallel parked and could hardly believe our luck. 

“I can’t believe that just happened.”

“I know God doesn’t answer all of our prayers. Only He knows why…,” Indy said. She smiled at me, the streetlights illuminating her already ecstatic face. “Maybe God knew YOU really needed a break.”

“Maybe He did.”

The performance went great—Indy always does an unforgettably spunky job, AND she did give me something to think about. After my oldest son died, I stopped praying as much because I figured God would do what He needs to; He knows better than I do anyway.

Tonight, that might’ve just seemed like a parking spot to most people, but it was a lot more to me and Indy. Maybe God does reach down and give us a break when we need it the most. That’s what tonight felt like anyway.

I took this picture right after the spinal team removed a tumor that had eaten my whole L3 vertebrae. You know I love editing (and getting a paycheck) when I’m even doing it from a hospital room. 😂

If you’re having a hard time, I hope you’ll “catch a break” soon. They sure do help!

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Looking for Rainbows

“I want to know why life isn’t fair?” I asked the man in my dream. I’ve had such odd dreams lately about the deepest topics.

“What if God is like a clockmaker?” he asked.

Watches, cuckoo clocks, compasses, pendulums, and grandfather clocks all ticked around him, making syncopated rhythms that practically awakened my soul.

“Why am I here?”

“You’re running out of time, and you want more of it,” he said.

“But that’s not why I’m here.”

“Well, isn’t that why you think life is unfair?”

I paused for a moment. “I guess that’s part of it. I would like to know why some people get sick and die while other people stay healthy and live long lives.” I paused and thought about how hard life can be. “I think people talk about Heaven, saying there’s no pain in the afterlife because they’re so tired of the pain on Earth.”

He didn’t respond for a while and instead continued inspecting a gear in front of him.

“Clocks run for however long they’re supposed to. Do you disagree?”

I thought about it. “I think that’s generally true.”

“Maybe a clock is caught in a house fire or an earthquake. A watch could be left out in the rain, even if it’s not weatherproof. The clock might get cracked or overly worn with time. Maybe the thing lasts and lasts much longer than expected. But the point is that at some point, the clock will stop.”

I nodded.

“When it’s run its course,” he went on, “only a fool would blame the clockmaker—because it wasn’t made to last forever.”

“So, we’re all like clocks?” I asked him, knowing what he would say but still finding beauty in his analogy. There he sat, surrounded by hundreds of clocks I knew he’d made, and I couldn’t wait to hear his reply.

“I wish people would stop blaming God for hardships,” he said. “People should be grateful that they even get to live—God wound your clock—but death was just part of the bargain.”

“What about sickness? And pain? They can make life feel pretty unfair.”

“The world is filled with so many terrible variables.” He picked up a tiny hammer and knocked a gear into place. “But if something ‘bad’ does happen,” he hit it again, “it can usually look good with a change of perspective. Even a crack in a clock’s face can look like a rainbow when turned in the right light. That’s what people should look for: rainbows. Sometimes even the biggest imperfections can make life beautiful.”

And as I thought more about his words, the scene began to fade. “We can always find the good,” I heard the clockmaker’s voice fading away, “if we take the time to look for it... Always.”

I woke up to my alarm this morning and had to smile. I’ve decided that life can be hard, but even if I see a crack in my clockface today, I’ll look at it from a different angle and try to find the rainbow.

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Ruby Made My Day Bright

 It’s almost too ironic … Look at the photos Ruby used to make the AI photos. 

Tonight I looked at the photos Ruby paid to have generated of me—then I saw what she sent as inspiration. These original photos respresent some my hardest days during cancer treatments: One is from a hospitalization when I didn’t know if I’d live past the week. Others are from scans. 

I didn’t feel glamorous, like I could keep going, or maybe even worthwhile in some of those pictures.

Sometimes I don a smile because often a smile can make a bad day better—especially when given to someone else. But that doesn’t change the fact that suffering through numerous surgeries, undergoing cancer treatments, and fighting an incurable form of stage four melanoma is not easy—for anyone.

When I look at some of these photos now, I won’t think of hard times when I tried to be strong, I’ll remember what Ruby did to the photos and how my kids say they see me. They make me want to rise to the occasion. They make me want to keep trying. And that’s the best any of us can do: keep trying to be the best version of ourselves for the people we love.

One foot in front of the other,💓