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.