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."