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 💓