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. 


  1. Sending love to you on this Thanksgiving Day.

  2. I'm thankful for the positive atmosphere your blog exudes.