Sunday, December 24, 2023

One Single Day: The Value of Time

 The dream is always the same, my mind’s way of processing terminal cancer.

In my dream, I’ve died and I’m missing my family, wishing I could see them, talk to them, hug them… one last time.

“Would you like to go back and repeat a day from your life on Earth?” God’s voice is strong yet gentle, just like His hand—the one I’m standing in right now. I look at the giant lines on His palm and the callouses on His fingers. What type of work caused callouses on the hands of God? Is He a musician like me? Does He work and toil too?

“Any day?” I ask, unable to hold the eagerness from my voice. To see my kids, Mike, and my loved ones again, well, that sounds like… Heaven. It’s suddenly ironic how subjective Heaven must be.

“Yes, Elisa. Any day.”

I think then about the days each of my kids were born, their milestones and triumphs; the moment I met Mike, our first kiss, our honeymoon; running a newspaper in Blackfoot, Idaho, and chasing so many stories my boss nicknamed me “Scoop”; visiting Italy, Mexico, Arizona, or Missouri with family; playing my violin for crowds and feeling the pulsing unity only music can bring… Each of those days were incredible, but would I want to experience them again? Or would that tarnish the memories? Plus, I wouldn’t want to change a thing. So, I shyly look down at my clasped hands, and I do something that surprises me.

“If it’s all right, God, I’d pick a regular day, nothing special. Just a day when I can talk to everyone I love.” I think about the words then. How interesting: What my life boils down to isn’t about my career, degrees, accomplishments, or experiences. At the end, to me the only thing of value is that my loved ones KNOW how much I love them. That I believe in them. That I’m proud of them. That they matter in general but especially to me. That is all I want in the end.

“A regular day. You’re sure?” He asks.

I nod. 

“Well, to talk with everyone… You met a lot of integral people toward the end of your life. What if it’s a day with suffering? After doctors discovered melanoma had gone to your brain? You’d still pick a day like that?”

I think for a moment. “As long as I can talk to everyone I love. Well, then it would be worth it.”

I wake up then, and most of the time after having this dream, I’m groggy and half asleep, wondering if this is my one day to “live” again. Seconds later, I shake off these thoughts and slowly start my day. But even though I’m living in a new “normal,” and I can’t walk quite right since melanoma ate my L3 and doctors removed a section of my spine… Even though I’m actively getting treatments and throw-up bags seem to be my best friend… Even though there are days when I want to complain because doctors say I’m slowly dying… After I’ve had this dream, I stop.

If I had died and this were my “one day” to re-experience life and tell my family and friends how much I love them, would the pain and sadness about cancer matter quite so much? Probably not.

So, it’s 5 a.m. on Dec. 24th, and I woke up after having this dream again. My back is flaring with pain and the damaged nerves in my legs and arms are tingling with electric shocks and as if they’ve simply fallen asleep from lack of blood flow. But I know this is “normal” when my pain medicine wears off. When faced with something like cancer, trauma, or any terminal illness, each of us discover what price we will pay in order to live. This. Is. Mine. I chose this. And you know what? That’s okay.

So, I’ll treat today as if it were my one special day to come back. I’ll reframe the pain, try to bring joy to people around me, tell everyone in my life how much I love them, and hope today will be as wonderful as it can be.

Although I’m not in remission, my crappy attitude sure is. Even though there isn’t a cure for the mutation of melanoma that I have (yet!), I would be a fool to forget how lucky I am to even be alive. My life is pretty good. I’ve lived a year longer than doctors expected, and I’ve realized the true value of… time.

Monday, December 18, 2023

A Miracle for the Holidays

 Trey goes above and beyond to help out, but I know things haven't always been easy since oncologists diagnosed me with terminal cancer. No matter how much we try to stay upbeat, sometimes the kids get sad—like when our Doberman passed away.  

Months after this, Trey somehow became enamored with Maine Coons. "I'm so sorry, Trey. But they're just too expensive," I said. A full-blooded Maine Coon is between $2,500–$3,500. "That's more than our most expensive car!" We wanted to help Trey feel better—our Doberman had slept in his room every night—but it needed to be within reason.

"I'll get a job. I'll do anything." 

"You really want this?" I asked, and he'd nodded with such determination that I could already envision Trey, who's nearly six feet tall, holding a perfect little kitten. 

Trey saved every cent he could, and I wanted to help him, but soon we'd exhausted numerous avenues, including animal shelters, cat lotteries, and much more. 

At one point, a friend said this entire endeavor "didn't make sense" and I needed to save my energy. But they're missing the point. I just want my family to know how much I love them. Doctors say I'll never beat this, so I'm spending every second trying to build a legacy so my family will look back and say, "Hey, she loved me MORE than anything." "I was her world." Plus, I really felt that if Trey could get a Maine Coon, they'd have each other for much longer than I'm expected to live, and in the future, he might look back and think, "Mom helped make this possible for me…. Because… she loved me." Crying over my keyboard and a cup of coffee, I typed all of this into the computer and shared the story.   

"Elisa, do you hear someone coming?" Mike asked, bringing me back to the moment. We stood outside a home in Boise. I squeezed Mike's hand as we watched Indy and Trey. They both could hardly wait to see the kittens inside. 

Dana and James glowed as they opened the door. "Come in," they both said, motioning us to the living room. They'd read the story I'd shared months prior (the story about Trey wanting a Maine Coon), but I could hardly believe we were actually meeting them in person—on the other side of the state!

It's surreal, but after initially posting that story about Trey, I received an email from a woman named Erin. She wrote, "Today, I read your post about your son wanting a cat. My own adult son (24) has disabilities and was gifted a service dog many years ago. It changed our lives. I felt called to try to help you connect with a breeder."

Because of Erin, Dana heard about us... I could hardly believe how many things had to go "right" for this whole experience to take place. 

I sat down, stunned. Indy, our 13-year-old, looked like she'd gone to Cat Heaven, but Trey appeared more nervous than I'd seen him in years. "You can do this," Mike mouthed, encouraging Trey to speak up. He'd given us his speech repeatedly for almost 200 miles. Surely he hadn't forgotten it now? 

"I was wanting to… do payments for a kitten?" Trey said haltingly. "I don't know if you usually do that?" 

"I don't," Dana said kindly. "But tell me what you're looking for." 

"I would get a job, and then I'd be able to pay off all the money within a year. I'd definitely train the cat really well. I have $300 right now." 

"Do you know how much our cats are?" 

"I think my mom said $2500?" 

She paused. "They're $3500." 

Trey's face fell, but he forged on anyway. "If we raised it," Trey said, "I would try to help it become the best version of itself—and the happiest version it could be." 

"Well," Dana said, and it seemed Trey's words had deeply touched both Dana and James. "Let me run up and get one of our kittens, and we'll… We'll see what happens." 

While we waited, Mike talked with James, Trey seemed resolved, and Indy fell in love with the cats lounging like royalty beside her.

Moments later, Dana came down with a kitten, and I watched as Trey's hardened resolve fell when his eyes connected with Borah's, the kitten he'd been watching every day from afar for weeks. "He's like a celebrity," Trey had said because he constantly viewed the Mermazing Maine Coons' site and fell in love with that exact kitten.

"Trey," Dana said, "we've decided to give you a kitten. We're giving you… Borah." 

Trey held his breath, blinked twice, and seemed completely dumbfounded. "Are you… Are you serious?" They handed Borah to Trey. "I don't know what to say." Trey gently sat down, not wanting anything in the world to separate him from Borah or this moment.  

"There are no payments," Dana said. "There are no stipulations except that you keep good grades and take extra—extra—good care of him." Trey couldn't hold his emotions back. "Thank you!" He wiped tears from his eyes. 

I thought about Dana and her inspiring story. She had breast cancer at 26 years old and underwent surgeries, chemo, and radiation. The fact that she's been through so much and wanted to help us… That's when I cried along with Trey, Mike, and Indy. As huge tears rolled down my cheeks, I somehow felt the goodness of generations, the kindness that unites strangers, and the love that makes fighting cancer worth it.

"You knew I was getting Borah, didn't you?" Trey asked me. 

"Yes," I laughed, "but Dana did such a good job that about halfway through, I started to wonder if I'd misunderstood her."

Before we left with Borah and the bag of goodies Dana and James had prepared to send us with, Dana gave me a huge hug. "What have you learned from your battle against cancer?" I asked.

"I've learned that I'm strong. Doctors can give us the medicine we need, but when we work on our mental selves and say, 'Yes, I can,' we'll have the fortitude to make it through.' It's hard to remember what it was like to not be a… 'cancer person,' but I just couldn't say I was done. It wasn't a possibility." 

I nodded. "I needed to hear that so badly today. I really did." 

Trey walked by us, and we watched him cradling Borah. "I'm just shocked that you did this," Trey said to Dana and James.

"For me," Dana said, "this is better than Christmas."

So, as we drove home, truly realizing that a miracle had transpired, Trey gently sang to Borah in the backseat. 

"I feel like I'm in a dream," I whispered to Mike. "I'm just so happy. This has got to be one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for us." I thought about my upcoming appointments, and instead of being anxious like I normally am about scans and treatments, Dana's words came back to me: Yes, I can. 

"I'm so grateful we got to meet them. Dana and James, from Mermazing Maine Coons, gave us two things we desperately needed: They gave me the courage to keep going and Trey got a lifelong friend. 

#HeartwarmingMoments #HeartwarmingHoliday #Heartwarming #christmasmiracle #miracle #randomactsoflove #randomactofkindness #kittensoffacebook #ecstilson #mermazingmainecoons #mainecooncat #mainecoonlovers #mainecoons #mainecoonlife #randomactsofkindness #kitten #cat #kittensofinstagram #braintumor #melanomaawareness #melanoma #terminal #terminalcancer #terminalillness #terminalmelanoma #stage4cancer #stagefourcancer #Stage4Melanoma

He Became One of My Heroes

The “Little Caesars Dancing Man” worked tirelessly, spinning his sign on the corner of Antelope and Main. Regardless of how hard his job must’ve been, he beamed, so happy and ALWAYS kind.

My kids were still quite little, and they’d smile and point as he’d spin the sign on his foot and flip it over his head. We saw him from our car nearly every day, and no matter what kind of crappy mood I’d been in, this stranger would always make my day better.
In fact, I received some really bad news one particular afternoon, but as I drove home, I spotted the #LittleCaesars Dancing Man, just rockin’ away to some unheard beat. The light turned red, so I continued watching his complete exuberance for life. I fully realized then; he's perpetually happy even though he's out there, working in the blistering sun or the freezing cold. He waves back and smiles. You’d think he didn’t have a worry in the world, but in actuality, he must have been so tired.

That day, I turned right instead of going straight home, parked by the dancing man, and decided to finally meet him.

“I’m Raymond.” He grinned, offering me his hand.

“I’m Elisa!” I smiled and knew an awesome friendship had begun. Then I told him what an inspiration he is—how he might not know it, but he makes life better every day for people like me and my family. He grew quiet, and I thought the words meant far more than I knew.

When I got home, I friend requested Raymond through Facebook and blogged about my experience.

A couple of weeks later, I received a letter from Little Caesars’ corporate office across the country. They’d actually read my blog and sent two $20 gift cards! They had one request: for me to keep a card and give one to someone else. I remember reading the letter in the post office, then I gave the second gift card to the post office employee, John. He said the story was even better than the money!

The whole experience felt surreal at the time. And to think, if I’d never stopped that day, I would’ve missed out on the whole adventure. 

Raymond and I became friends for well over 10 years. I watched him experience good and bad times—and he smiled the whole way through… just like he used to when he danced for Little Caesars. Then, in 2020, after doctors diagnosed me with terminal cancer, he became one of my biggest advocates, sending me encouraging messages and kind words when I needed them the most. Who would’ve thought all this would start after I saw him spinning a sign on the corner of Antelope and Main? Life is such a miracle.

I’ve had the most wonderful people, like Raymond Lowery, come into my life over the years and show me how to be strong, smile when life is the hardest, and keep going against all the odds. 

Rest in peace, dear friend. You made such a positive impact on my life. I think you did that for everyone you met though. You, well, Raymond… you were incredible. Put in a good word for me, all right? Maybe save a seat for me in Heaven? 💓 


Sunday, December 3, 2023

Writing a Letter to God with No Return Address

 Throughout my life, I’ve written letters, addressed them to God, and dropped them off at the post office. I did this when my first son died, when I got divorced, and when I finally attained my bachelor’s degree after being a single mom. I never included a return address or a clue to my identity. This was just my message in a bottle, so I felt like Heaven heard me…

Today, I thought about this at the pharmacy. Mike had tried getting my prescription, but there are national shortages on many medications—and mine are some of them. “They ran out,” Mike said, coming back to the car. “Sorry that took forever; there’s a huge line.”

“But… my oncologist called yesterday. They have just enough for 18 days.” And then I did something I rarely do in front of Mike; I cried.

We walked back into the pharmacy to see six people in line, and as we stood there, my right leg began to shake. “You should go sit down.”

“It’s okay,” I told Mike. “I don’t wanna miss when it’s our turn.” They hadn’t listened to him. Maybe they would listen to me.

At different points, each person in front of us glanced back. They all seemed around my age (40) or younger, healthy, probably doing some Christmas shopping. Then, I had the audacity to think, “Why don’t they offer to let us go ahead? Mike was just in here. And I can barely stand this long.”

One man in line called his mother and complained about his kids while we waited. “Hi, Mom.” He paused. “Yes. Just at the pharmacy. There’s a huge line.” Another pause as he glanced back, listening to her reply. “Right?! He said he can’t even face his friends unless he gets a new gaming system this year.” He exhaled with such force that I clocked it at 50 mph. “Oh! And you know I take Nicki on a shopping spree every year? It just never seems to be enough. I hate this time of year. Are all women that needy? No wonder men joke about marriage.” 

Mike looked at me and smirked. I plastered a smile onto my face, but it felt subpar. I thought of this woman, “Nicki.” Meanwhile I’m just praying for another week, another day, another moment with my family.

After a bit longer, they called us up and my leg shook so badly that I held the counter in a death grip. “I have terminal cancer,” I said, my eyes pleading with the pharmacist and my knuckles turning Porcelain 10. 

“It’s for Magagna, right?” He looked at Mike, remembering him from earlier.

“My oncologist called yesterday and said you have enough for 18 days,” I begged.

“But like I told your husband, we can’t fill this for the full 30 days. We don’t have enough for this prescription.”

“My doctors’ office is closed for the weekend, and I’ll be out of this tomorrow. If it’s not too much to ask, can I please have the 18 days?”

He typed something into the computer, and my breath stopped. He practically held my life in his hands. “This’ll take about 15 minutes. I’ll come get you when it’s ready? You can take a seat over there.”

I noticed then how stressed the pharmacist looked. “I’m sorry about the line,” I suddenly said. “This must be a stressful day for you too. Thank you for your help.”

His peered at me and Mike, his eyes widening with disbelief. “What you're both going through is so much worse. I’m sorry you have cancer.”

“Well, let’s just say I didn’t ask for it.” I tried to laugh, but it came out like a hiccup. Then I turned away. 

Mike decided to shop for some ice melt, and as I walked toward the chairs, I fought falling into the throes of irony. A private corner seat, behind a display of reading glasses, seemed ideal. I felt secluded as I mulled my thoughts. Why had this hit me so hard? Then it came to me, the thing I’d said to the pharmacist: “Let’s just say I didn’t ask for it.”

One of the hardest things about cancer is knowing it can affect anyone. I’d gone from participating in marathons to barely being able to walk to my mailbox. I faced the pharmacy’s northwestern wall and tears flooded my cheeks. I have terminal cancer. And there’s no denying it. Every moment in pain is a reminder.

God, not this! Not here. Wiping my face with my scarf, I dug a medical bill from my purse and flipped it over. “Dear God,” I wrote, hoping to calm down.

Dear God,

I didn’t choose this situation, and right now that’s hard. I don’t want to have terminal cancer anymore. I want a day where I don’t feel sick at all. Even ONE day. Just to remember what that was like. I’ll appreciate it so much. God. I feel trapped in my own dying body.

I hate knowing that without certain medicine I’ll die. I hate that these are my fears while some man’s wife is upset that she won’t get as much STUFF as she did last Christmas. Seriously?! I need strength. Strength to stop judging people. 

Strength to keep getting cancer treatments. Strength to not complain and let this turn me into a bitter person with a curdled soul. No one can uncurdle milk! (Well, I guess YOU can.) But anyway…

Another person called last week and said I should quit getting treatments because I don’t have a quality of life. I laughed at first, but on my hardest days, I remember their words and it’s hard to keep going.

God… I’m sorry to be so judgmental. I really am. I’m working on it.

AND… if it’s not too much to ask, can you please give me strength? I know you’re gettin’ a lot of requests though, so if you can’t, I understand.


At that moment, I glanced toward the counter and spotted a woman who looked 10,000 times worse than me. She’d lost her hair and probably weighed 100 pounds—even with her walker. She could barely walk and hunched so badly; I wanted to pick her up in my arms and hold her tight. Why hadn’t I looked back when I was in line? Why hadn’t I offered to trade HER places? Screw my aching hips and shaking leg. Why hadn’t “I” done more? Then the answer came: Because I was too wrapped up in my own problems. And that’s exactly why other people hadn’t offered to help me…

Woah. Mind blown… 

I suddenly felt sympathy for the man whose family always wants more. I felt bad for his wife who doesn’t know what really matters. I felt even more compassion for the pharmacist who’d just been yelled at and wiped sweat from his brow. And I felt a bit of strength come with every second that I stopped focusing on myself.

“You wanted to swing by the post office?” Mike asked as we walked out of the store.

I looked at the letter I’d written on a medical bill. It simply had my first and last name above all of the numbers. For the first time, I’d broken my one rule: to never write a letter to God that included personal information. “No, it’s all right. We can just go straight home,” I said.

With one hand, I crumpled the bill and threw it into a big garbage can at the front of the store. God had already answered my prayer. He’d given me strength AND empathy. I guess He really can hear us anywhere, even in a pharmacy in southeastern Idaho. Plus, He didn’t charge for same-day delivery or anythin’. 

Friday, December 1, 2023

The Ability to be Kind

 Long before her death, my grandma labeled a yellow recipe box her “Happiness File” and filled it with notes to cheer her up.

Today, after pulling a card, her words reminded me of something from my youth. I stared at the drooping cursive: “As we get older, what's important seems to change." 

I shook my head from the irony. It’s odd how as I fight cancer, these words have become a lifeline from Heaven.


The elderly man called me his “angel” because I'd been kind to him. But who wouldn't be kind? A smile is the simplest, easiest thing to give. Yet, he treated it like keys to a mansion. 

Despite that, looking at him hurt me because I saw all the potential: incredible jobs he could've had, children who would've loved him, and even the person he might've married. If he'd just gotten his life together...

"What did you want out of life?" I asked.

He thought for a while before saying, "We might not see God's hand in our lives, but trust me, He's there." Then, he sighed. "People's priorities aren't always the same, Elisa.”

I blinked. He hadn't answered my question. Not at all. I didn't say much after that, so he finally did. 

He talked about how he'd married the woman of his dreams. They were overjoyed when she got pregnant. Then, although his baby blue eyes faced me, they looked at something far into the past. He took a deep breath, obviously wrestling with the memory. 

Did his wife have an affair. Maybe she wasn't the person she claimed to be? Was the baby someone else's? His shaky voice brought me back to the moment. His wife—everything he'd wanted in life—had died in a car accident along with the baby she'd been carrying. His baby. His world. “And when she died, my will to live died too."

"I…" I couldn’t find words to convey how sorry I felt. “I am so sorry,” I finally said. Sadness emanated from him, and my throat tightened. “How long ago did that happen?"

"It's been decades." 

He talked a bit more about how they’d fallen in love and seemed to brighten a bit. After that, he called me his angel.

I never forgot his story no matter how many things life threw at me. After I grew up, I realized how completely idiotic—and judgmental—I'd been to feel bad for that man over all the potential "I" felt had been lost. How dare I judge his actions, thinking about the jobs, children, and wife he could've had. He'd tried for all that and could barely find the strength to keep going afterward. Yet, despite hardships, depression, and struggles, he still treated everyone with kindness.

Now, as I let go of so much because of cancer (numerous friends have died, I had to quit my job, my health is waning, and I can't walk as well as I used to), I remember this man and the lesson he taught me. When I feel my resources depleting the most, I want to be heroic like him. 

I'll call people angels and be as positive as I can. I'll try to give them hope when I don't feel it myself. I'll try to stay strong even if strength is much different than I ever thought. It's often in a gentle action, a good word, a smile… He called me his angel, but he was wrong. He'd been the angel to me. And he kept going despite tremendous adversity. 

Rereading my grandma's words today, I realized she's right. Sometimes, as we get older, what seems important does change. And that's all right. Even though I'm losing so many things, I still have what matters most: the ability to be kind and the drive to keep going until it's my time.

Monday, November 27, 2023

The Key to Happiness

I couldn’t help thinking that despite cancer, I truly have everything. But the brunette who vented at the table across from mine felt far differently. "I'm just soooo miserable," she said to the woman with her.

I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but Sky had gone to the bathroom, and I couldn't stop myself from listening. "We don't have ANYTHING.” The brunette pouted. Her beautiful sweater glistened under the restaurant's lights.

I shoved some fettuccini into my mouth and chewed. Maybe this would keep me on track. It’s not nice to eavesdrop.

"If he worked harder, we'd have a bigger house." 

"I know, honey. He promised you so much," the gray-haired woman responded.

"Check!" I waved down the waitress.

Later that day, Trey and Indy asked if we could visit the music store. I agreed, thinking maybe it would banish the brunette’s words from my thoughts. Maybe there was more to her than what met the eye? But she’d complained about everything: the food, her friends, that her husband didn’t make more than 100-grand a year…

I couldn’t stop thinking about it or why it flummoxed me. That’s when my nausea peaked and the fettuccine almost made a comeback. See! That’s what eavesdroppin’ will do to ya! 

“I'm gonna step outside,” I told Trey and Indy.

So, I stood on the curb, hoping the cold air would cure me. Then I noticed something; a few feet away, three rough-looking men stood talking. "God is so good," the tallest man said. He wore a hat, a scarf, fingerless gloves, and a massive beard. "Being homeless was the worst experience of my life, but now I see that it’s happened for a reason."

I took in a big breath, grateful that the sickness had momentarily passed. Then I dug through my pockets and found a $5 bill. "Um..." I walked up to the men. "Maybe you can use this?"

The tallest man nodded, and I couldn't help smiling. His skin crinkled with age, but his eyes shone, and I bet his grin could've lit a thousand fireplaces. 

“How's your day been?” I asked, leaving my previous worries behind. Who can worry about nausea when they're talking to a Jack Sparrow lookalike?!

"It's cold," he said, "but God's in it. And He makes it beautiful." He seemed so happy, not just feigning contentment but genuinely grateful. 

"You have a wonderful day, Miss," his first mate said, little clouds billowing from his mouth as he spoke into the freezing air.

When the kids and I got home, I had to mull over the day. What was the difference between the disconsolate brunette and the joyful pirate? How could someone with nothing be happier than someone who had everything? 

I decided the difference is gratitude.


I hope you'll remember this as you enjoy your family and friends over the holidays. Whether you're experiencing grief, loss, sickness, financial trials, or any other hardships, I think it's important to realize that true joy comes from gratitude.

Today I might be sick and life might be a bit scary because I know how I'll die (I just don't know when). Despite that, I'm grateful to spend any second that I can with my family. Looking back at my life, and after thinking about the brunette and her plight, I'd much rather be like the homeless man.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Desite Cancer, It's Rooted in Gratitude

 "Aren't you ready to give up?" Jessica asked over the phone.

The appropriate response eluded me.

"I mean…," she continued. "Do you even have a quality of life? Maybe it's time to stop getting treatments and bow out gracefully."

My mouth hung open, and I suddenly felt so grateful we weren't in person. This friend from childhood isn't sick. She doesn't know how difficult it can be dragging myself to the cancer center. That's why she wouldn't understand why her words are literally the last thing I need to hear. "I do have a quality of life. And I want to see all of my children grow up. I can't stop now. I've made it so much longer than doctors expected. And I will know when it's the right time to quit. That time is not right now."

I woke up at 4:40 the next morning, and as I hurriedly donned my clothes and slapped on some makeup, Jessica's words pulsed through my brain. Is this journey something I should've lied about? Like when you're at the grocery store and the cashier asks how you're doing… You invariably say, "Good." "Great." "F'ing fantastic!" Even if you just had a lobotomy and your husband left you for your uncle… I shook my head. But this isn't something to politely fib about. God made me someone who likes to share. And I want people to know they aren't alone. Fighting health issues sucks. I have good and bad days. But that doesn't mean it's my time. Not yet, anyway.

I packed my fiddle into the backseat of our dilapidated car and prepared for a grueling day of driving to another state and getting cancer treatments. Some people feel bad about this, but they don't realize it's by choice. I love going alone and having time to think, listen to audiobooks, and make new friends. But this day felt exceptional because the customer service supervisor actually approved my request to play for fellow patients. Neither of us probably knew at the time, but his kindness became my lifeline. After the call from Jessica, I felt my resolve fading. Was it time to quit treatments? Did she see things more clearly? Does she have some sort of knowledge I've been missing since my diagnosis?

After driving three hours and getting my labs done, I sat in the lobby at the cancer center. They'd slated for me to play my violin in between appointments, after the guitarist finished.

Glen doesn't know me, but a lot of the patients know about him. He plays at the center every Wednesday and that's generally when I get treatments. I wonder if he realizes how much his playing means to most of us. I've spent many of those days alone on the second floor, reading as his music wraps around, giving me peace while I wait for my next appointments. I sat up at that moment and shuffled my violin next to me. It sounded crazy, but I suddenly had an idea. Sometimes while he's playing, I imagine joining in, riding high above the guitar's somber chords.

After a song ended, I gingerly walked forward. This took forever because I felt nervous and I don't walk as straight as I used to before surgeries. "I… I play the violin," my voice escaped weakly. "I'm scheduled to play right after you, but I just have prerecorded songs to play with. Would you want to…" I cleared my throat, hoping to evict the fear. "Can I play with you instead?"

He seemed really surprised. 

"I play by ear," I pleaded, "and I hear you play all the time. I'm confident it'll sound amazing."

At first, he played a few chords away from the mic, wanting to see how it sounded. "Wow! You follow me really well," he admitted.

"I told you. I've been listening when you play here."

So we started an official song for everyone to hear through the mic. At first, I played gingerly, tenderly cradling my violin like a newborn, but then my fiddle took over. I felt notes rise above the sickness and the heartache. The music became a string connecting me to God, filling me with resolve, hope, and even joy. None of life's hardships mattered. It seemed so finite to worry about cancer and pain, especially when so much gratitude soared through my body and out of my violin. When we finished the song, dozens of patients had gathered with family members and friends in the lobby. Tears filled my eyes, and everyone clapped. The moment after we played, well, that was beautiful.

After I got home, I called Jessica. "I do have a quality of life," I said. "Every day I find something to be grateful for—to be happy about. I'm not ready to be done. Life is too much of a miracle. Yes, I experience pain every day, but life is pain. It's simply a reminder that I'm still alive."

I could hear tears lacing her voice. "Elisa…" She paused. "I'm so sorry I asked you that. You're living more than some people I know. Sometimes I think you're living more… than I am…"

We ended the call, and after I'd hugged my children good night, I sat by my husband and shook my head, a bit amazed by the entire day.

"What are you thinking about?" he asked.

"Just how surprising life is. I think it's a glorified act of letting go, but as we let go, we learn." 

Then, I slowly took my violin out of its case and stared. So strange a collection of wood, glue, horsehair, plastic, and metal has so drastically changed my life. We've traveled around the world together and met an inordinate number of unforgettable people. The next time someone asks if I have a good quality of life, I need to remember my family, friends, and my violin. Of course, I do. Is my life great? No. It's f'ing fantastic. And that perspective is completely rooted in gratitude. 

Saturday, November 18, 2023

My Angel Baby Brings Resolve

 We're walking along a beach, and I find myself holding his hand even though we haven't seen each other in years. “I've dreamed about this," I say, tears in my eyes.

“So have I."

We continue like this for miles with bits of sand gathering between my toes. It’s so chilly then that I use my free hand to pull a shawl closer to my shoulders. I should fasten it with both hands, but I'd rather die than lose contact with him now.

After a time, we both turn to the sunset. “Once,” I say, “when I was very young, I said a prayer."

He smiles. “And what did you pray?"

“For God to give me a sign that He still loved me."

“Did you doubt His love that much?” he asks.

 “I guess I did." I pause, wondering over the small moments that make up our lives. “I expected something huge to happen after I prayed, but almost the entire day passed without anything. Finally, I knelt next to a rock and cried, begging God for an answer.” I took a big breath, just remembering the power of the moment. “I didn't hear His voice at first because it felt… like silence. Then, after a long while, I looked at the sunset. The clouds stretched orange—my favorite color.” 

“And you knew God loved you because of the orange sky?” He still gently holds my hand as he looks down at me. “You thought He answered your prayer?"

“I knew He answered it. I realized how He painted the sky for me—for each of us—every single day. His love shines everywhere, through almost everything."

“And that's what you hold onto whenever bad things happen?” He studies a shell by our feet, and I don't say a word. “You remembered that, even when I died?”

I don't want to talk about his death, not when he's standing beside me. I need to answer his question though; he deserves the truth. "Not at first, but yes. I remembered that sky. I couldn't lose sight of His answer to my prayer or the gifts God has given me each day of my life."

Zeke—MY son—just nods. I can tell he's thinking hard about something before he breaks the silence. “I'm glad God picked you to be my mom."

His words hit me like a hot iron, shaking the core of my being; they're something I always longed for and never thought I'd hear, even in my dreams.

“But we’ll see each other again," he continues. “Orange is my favorite color now, too, a reminder…”

Tears fill my eyes. He's so strong and healthy, much different from the infant who died after two and a half months in the hospital. 

He did love me. He WAS proud, although I had to take him off of life support. I remember how hard he fought to live, even as he took his last breath in my arms. 

“I'm so proud you're my son. You never gave up on life. You never would have given up on me." I try acting brave in that moment, so my pain, guilt, and regrets can't hurt him. "I've done everything I can so people will know you; your life won't be forgotten." 

My eyes close and a deep part of me starts fading. A heart once full, seems a bit empty, and my fingers close on themselves because HE is no longer holding my hand. 

I breathe slowly. It's okay, though. Peace remains because the warmth of his touch stays on my skin like perfume, and somehow it will never leave. "Please know I won't forget you," my voice drifts away just like my son did. 

When I’m just about to leave, I feel something. It’s just a nudge at first, then a word surfaces through the silence: “Look."

My eyes turn toward the sunset. Those colors wrap around me, giving me new reasons to live. I no longer simply long for eternity because I realize the truth in its meaning: Eternity is part of right now.

My spirit wakes up with an unflappable resolve. Someday we'll see each other again, someday beneath a golden sky.


Happy 21st birthday Zeke. You are not forgotten.

To learn more about my oldest son and his story, you can find that memoir here:

Thursday, November 9, 2023

The Inside Doesn’t Always Match the Outside

Trying so hard to look nice, I “usually” get out of my pajamas and strive to create a semblance of normalcy for my family. So, no matter how tough it is, I cover my pale skin and dark eyes with foundation. I try avoiding clothes that make me look too skinny, since I just lost 15 more pounds. I cook and smile, but the second I’m alone at the house, I crawl into bed (fake eyelashes and all), and I pray we won’t have ANY visitors that day… because I. Am. Exhausted.

But since I don’t “always” look sick, this should be a very important reminder:

*You never know what someone else might be facing…* Just because someone smiles, that doesn’t mean they’re okay. And just because “Jill” wears makeup and “tries,” that doesn’t mean she no longer has Parkinson’s, COPD, or cancer.

It’s embarrassing, but when I was a teenager—before my dad had cancer—I thought cancer made people bald and that they always looked sick. Now that I’m going through this myself, I always tell my kids, “Sometimes with sickness and tumors, the inside doesn’t match the outside.” If I were bald again, people would know I have cancer. But now that I have hair, well… my terminal diagnosis shocks the crap outta people. How can I have hair, wear makeup, AND have cancer All. At. Once? What an enigma 🤯

Anyway, it makes me want to be extra nice to everyone because some of the people in my cancer support group don’t look sick AT ALL!🥺 I would’ve never known why “Brad” seemed a bit more tired than usual or why “Brenda” has a shorter fuse… 

There they are, looking “normal” and carrying the weight of mortality.

Anyway, we’re all battling something. Lumped into this beautiful mystery called life… You remember that saying, “God doesn’t give us what we can’t handle”? Well! God must think we’re a bunch o’ badasses. So, it’s time to rise to the occasion.

Sure, some days I cave and want to stay in bed all morning, BUT for today, I refuse to let cancer rob me of my moxie AND my fake eyelashes 😉

Let’s do this! Just because doctors have said I’m slowly dying’, that’s NOT an excuse to quit livin’. 🦋

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Having a Future

 Mike pushed me in the wheelchair as we perused odd clearance items. “They have snowmen!” he suddenly gushed, looking like a four-year-old during the holidays. “Mind if I check out the next aisle while you’re looking here?” His sprit animal MUST be a golden Lab.

I nodded. It seemed like a great idea; I could peruse clearance games until he came back. That’s when a man approached me. “Why are you using a wheelchair?” he asked.

I sighed. Sometimes it’s nice just to be alone, but it rarely happens. People would be shocked how much time cancer patients spend comforting others about their own diagnoses—even strangers… like this man. “I have stage four cancer,” I said. “They replaced my L3 with a cage. Between that and the cancer still in my spine… it’s hard to walk very far.”

“But you might beat this. Doctors can be wrong. Don’t accept the world ‘terminal.’”

I’m so tired of this same conversation that I’ve had HUNDREDS of times with numerous people. So, I started telling this man something that I hadn’t told anyone. “Sometimes I wake up, terrified that I might actually beat this. It’s… horrifying, and I don’t know why. Doctors say every month that I’ll die from this. It always gets worse even if it is slowly. And…” I held a sob back. “It’s useless to worry about living, so why do I stress about something I can’t even control?” He took in a huge breath. “I don’t want it to be terminal. It’s not that I don’t want to live—I do—it’s just that…”

He leaned down, his blue eyes young despite the aging skin framing them. “I think I understand. I fought in Vietnam, and I thought I’d die for sure. Then, before I knew it, I headed home and so many others didn’t.” He paused. “I still don’t know if I’m used to having a ‘future,’ and it’s been decades.”

“I really don’t think I’ll beat this. I’m not being pessimistic, just realistic. I’m normally so upbeat and great at living in the present, but today I feel like a placeholder.”

“How so?”

“Just like I’m holding a place for my husband’s next wife. I’m a good friend right now for so-and-so. But I’ll die from this damn disease and time will march on for others… but not for me.”

“Well,” he said, resting his hand on mine, “I’ll tell you one thing, I will NEVER forget you.”

“I found one!” Mike hollered from the other aisle and then rushed over. As soon as he face crested a large display, I couldn’t help bursting into laughter because he hadn’t found “one”—that man found the snowman village!

“Mike, I want to introduce you. But I didn’t catch your name,” I turned, and then my face paled with complete surprise. “He’s… gone. The man I met. He… left.”


“He’s… the most amazing man. He said the sweetest thing when I needed it most.” But the man with the beautiful blue eyes wasn’t there anymore. 

So, after Mike set the snowman in my lap and pushed me around, I told him all about the man who fought in Vietnam—the man who made me feel like I mattered.

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Who taught you the most?

When you get to the end of your life and realize you're tied to the tracks... (Not just you, all of us really...) When you get there, some of you could be unfortunate like I am, and you might actually see the train coming. In that situation, it's impossible to ignore your situation. How many seconds do you have? At 80 mph, what will the moments right before impact feel like? 

Everything gets too fast for words at first, and then, it slows to this incredibly odd reversal. 

"Who was it?" the grief counselor asked me in front of our terminal cancer group.

"Excuse me, but can you repeat the full question?" I asked. "This is some heavy stuff, and I got lost."

"Looking back at your life, who's the person who taught you the very most?"

"I'm sorry," I paused, thinking really hard, "but I can't narrow it down. I really don't know."

Other group members readily answered, eager to show off and relay stories of the people who had changed their lives. I heard about piano teachers and basketball coaches. A woman talked about her boss, and a man spoke about a doctor at the cancer center. I envied them. How could they narrow it down with such absolute surety? 

Yet, even after the meeting, that question plagued me. In fact, it's been months since the counselor asked this, and I've thought about it often.

I didn't find the answer until a couple of weeks ago when I talked with my brother on the phone. I cried and laughed. We discussed all sorts of things, from my ongoing fight against terminal cancer to a book we'd both read. We jumped from topic to topic never losing pace, and—like I do so often with Shane—when I hung up the phone, we were both laughing pretty hard. 

Yes, I'm tied to the tracks, and since doctors have told me cancer will kill me, I do see the train coming. It's a superpower in some ways because it makes thoughts extremely reflective and powerful. And as I sat on my porch, enjoying the fall weather, I thought about all of the things my brother has done for me. He's nine years older but still took time out of his busy school schedule to hang out with me. As a kid, when I did anything even remotely impressive—to me—I wanted Shane to know, so he'd be proud. He read books to me; played hacky sack, tether ball, and card games; helped me with homework; and always saw the best in me.

When I grew up, he encouraged me to go back to school, and I somehow found the strength even as a single mom. And later, when someone said terrible things to me, I battled depression. I sat on my bed one day, sinking into those words... thinking he was right, and suddenly I thought of my brother. Some of his words surfaced to me, making me feel worth something. Even when he wasn't talking to me or physically there, his kindness knows no bounds.

It's such an incredible gift to look back at my life and realize the person who taught me the most wasn't a piano teacher, a basketball coach, a boss, or a doctor. The person who believed in me despite reason and always saw the good even when it was dimmed, that person is my brother. He taught me to stay strong when I feel weak, to keep going when life is hard, and to fight like hell even when doctors have said I'm dying.

Life is such an odd thing. Yes, we all have certain constraints: We're all born, and we will all die. But I'm just trying to find peace while I'm still somewhere in the middle. 

I'm grateful for the people in my life who made me feel like I mattered, especially when they're as exceptional as my brother. I'm so fortunate God let me be in his life. Maybe God knew I'd have hard experiences, and I needed someone extraordinary to help me along the way. Despite terminal cancer, hardships, and pain, I am the luckiest.

Love you so much, Shane! Happy 50th birthday!

Picture below: Shane, pushing me in my wheelchair 💓

Monday, October 30, 2023

When Beauty Meets Heartache

I’ve had battle scars on my left hand and arm for as long as I can remember. It started as a kid when I fell on some ice and scraped my elbow so badly the scar has remained for decades. Injuries progressed to high school when I cut my thumb in half on a table saw. Years later, a knife pierced completely through my hand in a cooking accident. Oddly, the stories go on and on.

Then cancer came.

Doctors had to cut a 5-inch by 1-inch area to remove melanoma from the backside of my forearm. A doctor even said it would “disfigure” me. (Little did that young surgeon know what my future held—cancer that ate at my spine—OR what true disfiguration entails.) They also removed a lymph node from my armpit, leaving another decent scar. 

All on my left side.

A New Age friend said, “This isn’t coincidence. Every injury we have holds meaning. The left arm and hand...,” she paused, flipping through a book. “That means you should stop being a doormat. Learn to stand up for yourself.”

“Wow! Don’t sugarcoat it for me,” I said sarcastically and laughed. 

And as much as I try being proud of my scars and my experiences, over the years, I’ve been embarrassed by them too. My thumb, for example, has some serious issues, and people used to ask me about it all the time after watching me fiddle. My left hand would grace the fingerboard during “Orange Blossom Special,” and then the questions would come.

“So… what happened… to your…”

“To my thumb?” I’d finally help them. “Tablesaw. Highschool woodshop. I got an ‘A.’ Most of the others kids failed. Guess they weren’t willing to go the extra mile.”

Years later, my oldest daughter, Ruby, had an idea. “You should get tattoos over the scars. Turn them into something good.”

I smiled at her because she is the most incredible artist—and now her art is on people across the world. “I’m proud of what you do, but I don’t want a tattoo,” I said. “I’m the only 40-year-old I know who doesn’t have a tattoo. I’m kind of proud of that.”

She looked a bit dejected, and I realized how much it might mean if I got some of her artwork on me. I’d been thinking about it around the time my cousin died. On May 2nd, I read a post about him on Facebook. His mother felt like the last message from her son was actually a hand tattoo. Although she doesn’t condone that type of body art, these words somehow became his last message to her: “Walk by faith, not by sight.” And in the days after his death, that tattoo gave her peace. 

A couple of weeks following his funeral, I had a dream that I asked Ruby to write something on the delicate skin between my thumb and forefinger. It’s the one message I’d like to carry on long after I’m gone.

“I want you to write ‘I love you.’”

“That’s it?” she asked, not knowing the greater meaning those three words might hold someday.

“In your handwriting. Yes, just ‘I love you.’ When I’m at cancer treatments, getting ready for surgeries or radiation… I can look down at my hand and remember all of you and why I’m fighting so hard to live.”

She did the tattoo today and ended up adding a leaf that connects the melanoma scar to my mutilated thumb and a couple of other scars. Leaves symbolize hope. Although I might not beat what doctors are calling terminal cancer, “hope” will help me stay the course until my time comes. 

So, as I looked at her artwork tonight, I couldn’t help crying. “Are you regretting it?” a family member asked.

“Not at all,” I responded. “I’m just thinking, she took some hard memories and made them beautiful.” I sniffled. “It’s one of the things I hope my life will embody: finding the good—the beauty—in otherwise terrible experiences. And that’s what this tattoo means to me now.”

So, I got a hand tattoo. It didn’t hurt as bad as I expected, and it even made me more proud of my scars. Instead of covering them up, Ruby did something she’s perfected since childhood: She’s always brought out the beauty in life because SHE is exceptional.

Monday, October 23, 2023

Pulling out all the stops

 "That was the hardest year of my life," my 15-year-old son said a couple of months ago, "the year you got diagnosed. I wasn't a kid anymore after that. I realized that sometimes the people we love have to leave." I thought about Trey's older brother who died at the hospital as a baby. Trey had it right; sometimes people do need to leave us, but that doesn't make it easy. 

Trey works to get good grades and helps with everything I need (including cooking—even if some of the concoctions are… exotic?—mowing the lawn, going with me to treatments, and more), but things have gotten harder again. Although I've lived longer than doctors expected, they recently found a new mass in my brain this April. Trey took this news especially hard but it worsened when our Doberman, Trey's favorite "person" on earth, passed away. 

"I'm so sorry," I said because Abby slept in his room and always seemed to make things better even when Trey was tired from helping out or really worried for me.

"I just want… I just want you to get better." Then he tried brightening up. "But I don't want you to worry about me. You have enough to worry about." 

Later that day, I called a friend. "Trey wants a Maine Coon," I said. "I don't know how, but I've gotta make this happen for him."

"You'll never afford one," she said. 

"I know, but maybe I'll find one at a shelter. Our Doberman just died. Trey has talked about Maine Coons. This would be something unforgettable; I at least need to try."

I heard a sob in her voice. "Elisa, this whole thing with cancer sucks," she finally said. She knows as well as I do because she's also fighting terminal cancer. "We're in the desert."

"You and me?" I asked.

"All of us—everyone this is affecting. You, me, our families—your poor son. He doesn't need a Maine Coon. He has what he needs: the best damn mom in the world."

I told her how much that meant to me, and we hung up, but hours after I'd spoken to her, those words kept coming back: "We're in the desert… You, me, our families." Natalie is not a religious woman. I'm used to that term "desert" somehow relating to God, but I knew she hadn't meant that in a spiritual way. So, what had she meant?

I found a place in Idaho that gives away one free Maine Coon yearly. I know it's a long shot because they normally donate to retired vets who really need a companion—and I don't want to take a special cat away from someone like that—but I did decide to try for my son. So, I called the owner, and we ended up on the phone for quite a while. What I can tell is this: I don't know if Trey is meant to have a Maine Coon, but I DO know I was meant to speak with that woman. She talked about hardships and overcoming tragedy. She explained how she and her husband were in a harrowing accident where they could've died and left their five kids behind. YET, they miraculously survived. And before we hung up, she said something about the desert.

That word again?! What could I possibly garner from Natalie's words and now this woman? It wasn't until this afternoon that I understood. I'd just filled out the application and applied for Trey to be considered for the Maine Coon—among so many other applicants. I'd opened a book, and the author wrote about the desert. David J. Wolpe talked about hardship and said, "… make oneself open like the desert … [knowledge] must seep into the soul." 

I've been in the desert, camped there, LIVED there (in Price, Utah). I remember going day camping with my brother; we ended up exhausted and thirsty. I appreciated water more that night than I ever had, feeling the taste of it and the healing power it offers. What's surreal is, that's what cancer is like. I'm so damn worried about dying that I'm doing everything I can to devour information before I'm gone: I'm speeding through books I had on my shelf but never read. I'm writing songs and books that I'd always left for later! And not just that, I'm trying to do anything and everything I can to leave something behind that will remind my kids and husband how much I love them. That's why I got stuck on the idea of a Maine Coon because it would be around and Trey might think, "Mom tried so hard. She got this for me. She... loved me."

But reading about the desert after hearing Natalie's words and then that beautiful woman on the phone, I realized I'm already doing what I need to and so is my family. Even in the face of mortality, hardships, and things far worse than death, we're still creating memories, somehow dancing through the fire, and showing that death doesn't have to be something to fear; it's as natural as being born.

I know God has a plan, but sometimes, seeing how tough this can be on my family breaks my heart. But I guess the point is that we're doing the best we can with what we have. Maybe we ARE in the desert, but it's giving us a thirst for the things that matter most: time with each other. 

Maybe the desert isn't such a bad thing after all.

Monday, October 16, 2023

The Gift of Letting Go

In 2020, doctors discovered that the melanoma, which started as a mole on my wrist, had spread up my spine and into my brain. Doctors removed the large tumor eating my L3, and afterward, a spine surgeon entered my hospital room to promptly say he gave me two years to live—IF I was lucky. I stared out the window, completely in shock and devastated, wondering if I would ever see all of my children become adults.

Shortly after this conversation, I faced a barrage of appointments: radiation, infusions, planning meetings at the melanoma clinic... I waited to meet my main oncologist but felt quite self-conscious because brain radiation had left me bald. It might sound shallow, but this was tough at first. I'd had such long hair before; some people even said it was beautiful.
While I sat all by myself in the waiting room, a lady plopped down right next to me. For some reason, she started telling me about herself, and before we knew it, she'd shared secrets about her childhood and years as a young adult. 

Kids had bullied her—all the way from kindergarten to 12th grade. She'd grown up in an unhappy home and married at the age of 18 just to get away from her parents. But, as so many stories go, her spouse was abusive and she ended up getting divorced at the age of 21.

I turned to her sadly and suddenly couldn't help studying how she'd dressed. She wore the most gorgeous clothes. Her hair caught the light, perfectly curled, and her nails seemed immaculate. Something came to me then, that sometimes we wear old memories—and hurtful things people have said—we don them just like clothes! Wouldn't it be so much better if we accepted the helpful, encouraging things people say instead of the comments that hurt us?

I shared this analogy with her, hoping it would help. She thought hard and finally said, "That really struck a chord with me... I don't want to relive all of this over and over. In fact, I actually hate talking about these things. I want to let them go."
Well, last week, as I sat in the melanoma clinic—nearly 3 years later—I saw this woman again. She didn't recognize me, probably because my hair has finally grown back after brain radiation. She sat talking to another stranger, telling her the exact same stories she had told me!
After I left the clinic, I couldn't stop thinking about this woman, wondering, "Am I like that?" "Do I ever hold onto the past so fiercely, not wanting to let the painful memories go?" I thought then about donning an old, moldy, moth-eaten coat... Putting it on just because I think the pain will protect me from getting hurt again. 

I opened my grandma's happiness file. After she passed away, my aunt found a strange little box my grandma had titled her "happiness file." She'd struggled with depression and had stuffed the box full of little ideas that seemed to help her feel better.

As I thought about the woman from the clinic, I remembered something my grandma had written about forgiveness. The papers rustled while I searched and finally found the words I'd hoped for: Let's remember some less conspicuous gifts, like the gift of letting go. It seemed strange to think of this as a gift, strange until I actually understood.

There are certain things I've been holding onto, just like that woman—memories I relay to others that I should've let go a long time ago... How people hurt me. Even memories from my first marriage. But as my grandma's words sunk in, I realized my life is hard enough just fighting terminal cancer and death. I don't want to dwell on terrible memories from over a decade ago or wear the identity of negative statements people have made about me.

Yes, I want to accept constructive criticism and become the best person that I can, but as far as the destructive, condemning comments, they don't need to take root in my life ANY longer. 

It's just like my grandma wrote, "Let's remember the less conspicuous gifts, like the gift of letting go."

Monday, October 2, 2023

A Lifeline in an Unlikely Place

 In 2011, I wanted to be a published author more than anything. One company did send a contract, but they believed my memoir needed to be "toned down."

"Instead of 'damn it, my son died,' we prefer 'dang it.' Does that make sense?" their managing editor asked one day. I sat with his critique for a long time before rejecting their proposal. When we took Zeke off of life support, I felt a lot more than a… "dang" or a "darn."

Another editor said they'd be interested if I could build an audience. At the time, that felt like a Herculean task. I still remember visiting my blog and seeing that I had a follower. I practically glowed with happiness, before realizing I'd accidentally followed myself. It's ironic that I have over 150,000 followers across social media now. Although this number is not impressive to some authors, it's huge compared to where I came from 12 years ago.

Anyway, trying to make connections and reach people, I pulled up Facebook and discovered the site would let users have 5,000 friends. So, I found some authors I adored and sent them requests. Soon some of my heroes actually accepted, and it snowballed until I almost had 5,000 friends—most of them authors and strangers but all of them quite interesting.

"What are you doing?" my brother asked one day.

"Requesting to be friends with Tomie dePaola?"


"He accepted," I said, completely flummoxing my brother.

One of the first people I sent a friend request to intrigued me. He was a friend of a friend, had written comedic books, yet had nothing to tie himself to the outside world. I couldn't see an actual picture of him or a true bio. Nothing. But I figured he had his reasons. And many other accounts were similar, with people only sharing scant details while I posted nearly everything.

A couple of years passed, and in 2013 one of the hardest moments of my life happened: I got divorced. One day, I sat thinking about how nice it would be to have a penpal, someone I could talk with and not be judged. I'd never want to know what they looked like or anything because how cool would it be to know someone—man or woman—for what their soul is? You wouldn't have any preconceived notions. You could just recognize them for who they are at the core. I looked through a newspaper and saw an ad for someone seeking a penpal. Although I didn't respond, part of me wanted to. I just knew I wasn't in a good place to actually be part of something like that. Not yet anyway.

Years passed with so many ups and downs. I got remarried to the perfect man, landed my dream job as a publisher at a newspaper, got a book deal, and even joined a successful band that performed in different states every month. Everything seemed almost… miraculous until it started hurting to walk—and doctors diagnosed me with terminal cancer. It's like when you give your dog a steak dinner the day before you put him down. Yeah… That's what it felt like to me.

I really needed someone to talk with, but the counselors at the hospital didn't understand and I worried about burdening my family.

One day, when I felt at my very worst, I curled into a ball on my bed and cried. With everything in me, I wished God would send some type of lifeline. Where was that person who needed a penpal now? How great would it be to mail letters to a stranger, just to get my feelings out? That same day, I received a message on Facebook. "If I could trade places with you, I would." I clicked on the account and realized it was the comedic writer who shared nothing that could connect themselves to the outside world. I responded, and the conversation continued every single week for almost two years. Now, my whole family knows about this person. We've read their books and discussed their philosophical ideas together.

I'm honestly unsure how exactly this happened, but I found my penpal, some type of angel who reached out from the darkness and selflessly listened as I've shared my fears and triumphs with having a terminal illness. At first, it felt like sending messages into a void, but then my family and I really began knowing this person for the quality of their soul.

As I messaged them today, explaining how I really feel about my diagnosis, tears filled my eyes. If doctors are right, this is what I'll die from, but I still consider myself the luckiest person in the world. I have the most incredible family and friends—even a penpal I can reach out to and know they'll respond with kindness because their soul shines. Isn't it surreal how many miracles dot the path of life, even when we're going through the most difficult of hardships.

It really is true that the future doesn't always hold what we hope for; instead, it offers experiences that can help us grow.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Two Trees in the Storm

 As I sat here today thinking about my terminal cancer diagnosis, I remembered something that happened in 2014 on the anniversary of my first son's death. Isn't it strange how miracles can dot the path of life, so we can overcome future obstacles?

Two trees stood at the back of my old house, guarding it through the days and nights. One, a massive willow, felt like the heart of my world, strong and everything I hoped to be. The second tree grew to be a wisp of a thing, always struggling to live. It might sound bizarre, but it somehow began reminding me of Zeke—my boy who died at the children's hospital.

A knot formed in my stomach. I'd had to take my son off of life support, and it hurt more than anyone will ever know. The moments flashed through my mind, and I struggled for breath. I could see him fighting so hard to live even as life finally left his little body. Why did the memories still hurt after so many years?

I got my four kids to bed that night and knelt next to the couch. "God," I prayed, trying to find the good, "thank you… for everything you've given me, even if you had to take some things away."


My gaze turned to the back window. Darkness blanketed the outside world, but the porch lights shone on my special trees, and I watched as they jerked back and forth in a vigorous wind. Local news stations warned residents that "the worst windstorm of the century" would hit us that night and winds would reach 85 mph.


I worried for the tree that reminded me of Zeke as thunder boomed, shaking the entire house. I almost wished it would've woken my four kids up—I needed the distraction—but they could probably sleep through the apocalypse. My eyes remained glued to our backyard where the little tree's branches wept in the wind. The trunk bent so far that the upper branches touched the ground, and I couldn't take it anymore.

The back door swung so hard when I opened it, and I had to clutch the doorframe just to pull myself outside. It felt strange, having nature push me straight against the house, reminding me of sky diving, when I'd fallen through the skies and the air carved my face into a jackal's smile. But I wasn't falling this time, I was watching my baby tree… die. 

I tried running forward to hold my tree strong, but the wind slammed me into the house, pinning me there. Couldn't the large weeping willow do something—anything? Hadn't it always protected the baby tree just like I'd protected my son? Maybe both of us were helpless against nature and God's control.  


My baby tree cracked, and when one of its limbs flew against the house, the wind stole my tears. The tree cracked again, and another branch twirled oddly, barely hanging on. That's when I couldn't take it anymore.


"God," I screamed, praying into the night, "don't let it die. Please don't. It reminds me of Zeke, like part of him is still with us as long as this tree's here. Please save it, God! You had to take MY son, but don't take this symbol of his life too!"

I waited a moment, held my breath… and the wind actually changed. Although it rushed harder than before, it came from a different direction.


The strong, peaceful willow bent over and wrapped its branches around Zeke's tree. I sobbed harder, watching as the bigger tree, got the brunt of the attack. Willow branches flew around the yard. It took a harder beating than the baby tree ever had because the new winds sought death. 


The baby's branches swayed, then tilted up to a regular position. It danced slightly but remained unscathed as the willow continued whipping about, fighting with everything it had. I turned my attention to the huge tree. It was a painful sight, something I'll never forget. Because the willow started dying... just so the baby could live.


Something profound struck my heart. The willow hadn't represented me. The whole time, the willow had represented God. And the little tree, the one who had such a hard time standing alone, had been… me. 


An overwhelming truth hit me: Some things happen for a reason to strengthen people, to give us thankfulness and gratefulness for things we still have. 


The battle raged on, but I found lasting peace through that storm.


God saved my tree that night. He saved both trees, and I realized He'd been looking after them the whole time, just like He's looking out for me—and for all of us.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Make Mistakes

 My grandma was an incredible woman. We got extremely close after my first son passed away. This happened because she started calling me on the phone every single day after his funeral, and although it seemed excessive at first, we somehow became the best of friends. 

Sure, we had our differences. She liked pecan pie; I enjoy banana cream. She liked baking while I prefer sewing. She lived a devout life as a Mormon while I was raised born-again Christian and later left Christianity altogether. Despite that, love bound us tightly together, and every Saturday I’d call to relay a terribly crude joke (which she’d politely laugh at) and then we’d talk about whatever lessons she could impart about life.

It’s been quite a while since she died—over 16 years—and I thought I knew almost everything about that woman. Yet, I’ve been recently surprised after reading through something my cousin gave me…

After my grandma passed away, family members found what she’d called her “happiness file.” This is basically a recipe box she’d repurposed to cheer her up when things felt bleak. I never—in all of our conversations—suspected she’d suffered from depression, but she did. It’s true that many of the most congenial people can hide crippling emotional struggles under a veneer of happiness. Maybe that’s how my sweet grandma could be at times. Maybe…

It does seem that my grandmother understood the huge difference between happiness and joy. Happiness is something that comes and goes. It is as fleeting as the wind. But JOY is a mindset. Joy—at its root—is synonymous with the word persevere. We decide to seek out joy even amongst the hardships. We CHOOSE to find the good even in dire situations like cruelty, death, and untreatable illnesses… While happiness is kindling to get the fire going, JOY works as the coals and oxygen to keep it ablaze.

My grandma’s “happiness file” worked as this kindling, leading to more sustaining lessons. But as I’ve lifted index cards out when I need a lifeline from Heaven, I’ve been shocked by how timely some of her messages have been.

Last week, I’d been dealing a lot with regret and guilt. It’s ironic that these feelings came right before Rosh Hashanah. The past few years, the week before Rosh Hashanah, our family has pulled out a loaf of bread and symbolically placed all of our sins into it. I know it might sound ridiculous, but the loaf seemed to go bad even faster than normal—I must sin A LOT! This year, we gathered with some Jewish friends and fed pieces of this “sinful bread” to the fish. I did feel a lot lighter, sending these sins away. 

I couldn’t help pondering over the rabbi’s words about how we know we’re asking for forgiveness during Rosh Hashanah but God isn’t asking us to be perfect. We aren’t even meant to be perfect—and that’s okay. God KNOWS we’ll sin again and again.

“I just feel so bad about certain mistakes—bad things I’ve done,” I told a friend.

“Did they make you who you are?”

“Well… Yes.” It’s odd that each bad choice, each twist of circumstances led to exactly where I’m at today. And although sometimes I desperately wish I had never gone to tanning salons or gotten burned in the sun—because that ultimately led to my ongoing fight against terminal cancer—I have learned so much from my predicament. In fact, I’m not sure if I would take a trade if it meant losing who I am today.

Anyway, that night after the kids had gone to bed and everyone seemed much lighter after discarding that “sinful bread,” I decided to pull out my grandmother’s happiness file.

With shaking hands, I eagerly opened the box and pulled out a card she must’ve written on over 30 years ago.

“Make Mistakes,” I read the words and scoffed. I couldn’t imagine my sweet little grandmother making mistakes OR encouraging people to do the same. But somehow it did make my feel better. I guess we are all human, and these “bad” choices helped us become the people we are today. 

I guess my realization for today is that knowledge can cost a high price, and—in the end—I paid with experience. I don’t want to be the oblivious person I was before my fight with cancer. In some odd way, I’m glad for the mistakes and glad I’m here. I’ve learned enough to make different choices and that knowledge is worth more money than I can imagine.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Undergoing Radiation Again

 "I can't do radiation again," I told my oncologist last month.

"The melanoma is growing. You have new tumors in your pelvis, and we're concerned about the mass in your brain."

I nodded. "But I've done radiation so many times. It doesn't seem to be getting easier."

She turned somberly. "I'm sorry you're going through this, but right now, this is your reality. Think about it. Okay?" She opened the door before leaving the exam room. "It's your choice."

I ended up agreeing to undergo radiation, but after my first session last week, I felt unbearably ill.

"Are you okay?" Trey asked after I'd woken him up for school at 6 a.m. "You're going back to Utah this morning?"

I nodded. "I have to leave for my appointment if I'm gonna get there at 10. You're okay to get Indy up?"

He's the sweetest kid, bringing his little sister to school when I get treatments in Utah. He hasn't complained once.

I gave him a hug and walked toward the door. "Mom?" he said. "I know it's hard, but I... I wanted to thank you for fighting so hard. I don't say it enough, but I love you, and I'm proud you're my mom. If I know how to be strong, well, it's because of you."

Hours later, even after I arrived at the cancer center, tears filled my eyes as I thought about what Trey had said. I changed into a hospital gown and other words drifted into my mind. "If you're ever having a really hard day," a friend named Jeanette had explained, "please open this." She'd mailed me a tiny gift (about an inch and a half long by an inch wide). I brought it with me into the radiation waiting room and stared at it. Maybe this truly was a "really hard day." And before I unwrapped the tiny gift, I remembered my first experience with radiation. 


“I’ll be right here in the waiting room,” Mike had said.

I feigned strength as techs led me into a room with all sorts of large whirring machines and flashing screens. After I rested in something they called a "nest" for my back radiation, they placed a mask over my face and said they'd need to bolt it to the table.

Horrified, I listened as something whirred near my ear—something which sounded suspiciously like a screwdriver.

That’s when my mind went wild. I couldn't do it. I just couldn't. I freaked out so badly that a tech barked urgent orders before more whirring began, and the radiation team removed the mask.

My lips quivered. “I can’t do this! I can’t!” My voice rose to a ridiculous level.

“Listen, Elisa. You have no chance without radiation. No. Chance. Don’t you want more time with your kids and your husband?”

I bawled. “I know I need to do this, but—I feel like I’m getting buried alive or something.”

“Wait,” a tech said. “You heard her talking about her husband. We need to go get him.”

Mike rushed in mere moments later. “Hey. Hey. You’re okay,” he said. Although his face betrayed shock at seeing what radiation entailed, he gently placed a hand on me. “You’re gonna be okay. Don’t worry. I have an idea.”

I nodded and bit my lip.

“Close your eyes, Elisa.” I breathed in, shut my eyes, and listened to his voice.

“Okay. I need you to imagine you’re a violin... ”

I hung onto his every word. As his deep voice relayed minute details about what I should visualize, his love encased me instead of the body mold.

“You’re getting fixed up right now. They’re going to shine up your wooden surfaces. Work on each part.”

The techs gently pressed the mask against my face.

“They’re polishing and refining you, tuning your strings, adjusting your bridge.”

I breathed strong, steady breaths.

“You’re just going to get fixed up a bit. You’re a violin.”

“We need to step out now,” a tech said after screwing the mask back in place. “She’s quiet this time. She seems okay.”

The table slid, rocking me as it jostled. More lights bored forward, penetrating even the face cage and my closed eyelids.

I imagined that God inspected every part of a violin. The heavy encasings around my legs buffed my surfaces and stained my edges. God would come so I could be perfected, cleansed, and refined.

When the radiation machine stopped, I somehow embodied peace.

Mike’s voice echoed off the walls as he rushed into the room. “You’re done! You did it!”

When they removed the mask, a man asked Mike, “How did you think of that? How? It was brilliant, really.”

“I don’t know. It just came to me.”


That happened in 2020, yet here I sat in 2023, almost as terrified as the first time. I closed my eyes and prayed that God would help give me strength, and then I opened the tiny gift from my friend, Jeanette. I stared in disbelief at the miniature violin in my hand. She’d sent me a beautifully detailed charm that reminded me of Mike and his words from almost three years ago: "You’re a violin [...] They’re going to shine up your wooden surfaces. Work on each part.”

"Elisa, are you ready?" a tech asked.

With tears in my eyes, I responded. "Actually, yes. Yes, I am."