Monday, February 26, 2024

An Opportunity All of Us Should Have


"Of course you're strong," the woman at the party persisted. "But HOW do you do it, Elisa? We ALL want to know?" Several people clustered around, and I wished we could leave. The woman asking the question, Lynn, doesn't really like me. Quite a while ago, we applied for the same job, and I ended up getting it. After I took the role, she treated me with distain. But maybe she meant well this time? I couldn't fathom someone being so unkind to someone who’s fighting terminal cancer. That would be amoral and unconscionable. 


"I don't feel particularly strong," I replied, then glanced from the fireplace to Mike. "But Mike and the kids... They're my reason to keep fighting. Other than that, I think it's the Godwinks. They're like breadcrumbs from G-d, miracles along the way... I even had one happen last week. It seemed like the neatest—" I paused, suddenly wishing I hadn't said anything. In hindsight, that particular story would sound ridiculous to someone like Lynn.


Jessica, the host, smiled with pure joy, her luminous eyes lighting. “I love your Godwink stories, Elisa.”


“Well,” I felt my face flushing, “it's gonna sound stupid, but this Godwink... is about my eyebrows. I got my eyebrows tattooed on last week."


In that instant, a few women in the room admitted to having their eyebrows tattooed on as well, and this confession astonished me and Mike.


"I hate spending money on myself," I went on when it had grown quiet. “What cash we have should be used for the kids, car repairs, Mike, or our house. But an esthetician gave me a really great deal since brain radiation messed up my left eyebrow.” Part of that brow still refuses to grow in; I've tried to fix it every morning, but this is not a skill I boast. Mike never knows if I'll look perpetually surprised, or angry, like Bert or Ernie. 


Everyone shared stories about their own eyebrows, and I remembered what the appointment had felt like. I drove to Precision Line Beauty in Idaho Fall, and before starting, the esthetician said it would probably hurt. 

It really didn't at all though.


"Well, I guess you HAVE been through a lot. It makes sense that you're not in pain. You know, I had cancer too."


Her words shocked me. She knew how tough treatments can be. She'd given me a good deal because she'd been there too. We shared stories from both of our journeys, and I found hope that maybe someday I'll be in remission like she is. After her diagnosis years ago, she decided to travel and live to the fullest. "How about you?" she asked at one point.


"I've done the same. We went skydiving together and then to Italy as a family. I can hardly believe I've played my violin all over the world now."


"Do you ever play around here?"


I smiled. "Well, I played at a big doctors' party over the holidays." I suddenly thought about that party. I'd charged them $94, but they never paid. It's strange how things like that can happen. People you expect to pay sometimes don’t, and those you don’t think would tip, do.


Anyway, it took about two hours, and after she finished, I paid her a little bit of cash, and then put the rest of my card. $185. 

I glanced at Lynn and our friends at the party. “It was an amazing deal for brows, but that still felt like a fortune!"


Mike broke out laughing at this point. "Once, Elisa bought a coat for $30 and nearly had a breakdown. So, you can imagine... She called me on her way home from Idaho Falls, just so worried."


“Yeah, the guilt seemed to eat me alive, and I even told Indy—our youngest daughter—all about it when I got home.”


"You know, Mama, it's good to see you actually doing something nice for yourself because you never do. It helps me know that sometimes I should do nice things for myself too. We're all so happy you're still alive. I think you should enjoy life while you’re here." She handed me the mail, and then gave me a hug.


I rifled through letter after letter. “But you've gotta admit... I put $185 on the card. That's a lot of money."


I suddenly stopped speaking and stared at a letter in disbelief. The return address boasted the name of a fancy medical organization in town. I pulled a check from the envelope and gaped at it. "Indiana, you aren't gonna believe this!"


"Woah." She pointed to the numbers. “$186. Just a dollar more than what you put on your card."


"I'd only charged the doctors $94. Why would they pay so much? This is the weirdest thing." 


"It's one of your Godwinks, Mama. See! You shouldn't feel bad. Just enjoy."


After setting the check on the counter, I read a note from the woman who'd paid the invoice. “You never realize how precious time is until something is threatening to take it away. We decided to pay you a higher amount because you were amazing, and you deserve it. Thanks again for playing at our holiday party."


Once I’d finished relaying this story, Jessica beamed, Mike winked at me, and Lynn appeared irate. I didn’t understand the latter’s reaction until later that night, when I went to the bathroom. 

Not long after closing the door, I overheard Lynn’s voice as she waited for the bathroom. "That story Elisa told was so shallow and stupid. She spent all that money on eyebrows when doctors have told her she's dying. And she thinks it's some big sign from G-d. It's just idiotic.”


"Lynn! She has terminal cancer. If that's what she needs to hold onto to keep fighting for her family, then let her hold onto it.” I held my breath, hoping they'd get tired of waiting for the bathroom and leave, but they didn't. And I had to walk past them.


Although it's not worth harboring rejection, I thought about this a lot the following days, until Temple Emanuel's service. Rabbi Sara gave the timeliest speech. "You can light a candle, but it can quickly go out. At the hardest times, when we feel like it's too much, those are the times that we must go find the light and keep it alive. Even if it's a tiny, tiny thing. If you go outside and see a flower in the snow—even if it's a small thing—we must strive to find goodness in the world AND each other."


As I rested in those words, it suddenly didn't matter that I'd splurged for once. Priorities became sparklingly clear, and I no longer cared that some woman had said cruel words outside of a bathroom door. Instead, I closed my eyes and decided to cultivate the light that dwells inside of me. I thanked G-d for breadcrumbs, expressed gratitude that I have family members who want me to have a good quality of life, and then I said a very long prayer for Lynn. 

I desperately hope her eyes will be opened to the miracles around her. It's like seeing colors for the first time; it’s an opportunity all of us should have.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Are You Living a Life of Substance?

 I had the strangest thing just happen. I woke up hearing the oncologist’s voice as he diagnosed me with terminal cancer and gave me two years to live. 

After he left, I looked out the hospital window and just thought, “I’m tired of living in fear and regret and dealing with so much guilt.” 

I suddenly felt exhausted from trying to accomplish things so people would be proud of me. My gosh, I wrote ten books in less than ten years. I became a physician liaison for the biggest hospital in southeastern Idaho. I worked as a publisher for a newspaper—and it STILL wasn’t enough. Like trying to fill a bucket with a hole in it, no matter how much I put in there, it eventually ended up empty and dry.

At the end of my life, when I looked back, the only thing that really mattered was making a positive difference for the people I love. My so-called accomplishments, degrees, and careers all came up short. So, I wanted to make a change with the time I had left. And it wasn’t about me; life became about bettering the lives of those around me.

Whether my soul went on after death or ceased to exist, it no longer mattered anymore. What felt important was if my memory would remain with the people I care about. 

I wanted to ask you: Are you living the life that you really want? I’m not talking about quitting your job so you can move to the beach and surf all day; I’m talking about living a life of substance… of purpose. Or are you doing what I did: Searching for significance in all of the wrong places? Striving to fill your soul but getting stuck in monotony and forgetting that each day is a gift?

I hate to write this, but I do have terminal cancer. I’m fighting. Every single morning is a struggle to get up. It’s a struggle to go out. But I’m grateful because the fact that I’m struggling means I’m still alive.

If you’re reading this post, I hope you’ll take a minute to remember how lucky we are to have consciousness and the ability to even make choices. It’s vital that we recognize one simple truth: Our quality of life hinges on perspective AND attitude. Positivity can be an immense beacon in the darkness. Search for it and embody it.

So, even though life can be tough and I’m often in pain from the tumors in my bones, I’m grateful that I’m still alive—longer than doctors predicted! 

I’m going to enjoy today with my husband and my kids. Some days I can hardly believe that G-d decided to make me. He made all of us—and I don’t think we should take His handiwork for granted. Despite cancer and hardships, there are so many good things too. 

I… really am the luckiest.

Monday, February 5, 2024

Lucky $87 and the Grocery Store Angel

 The Grocery Store Angel

By EC Stilson

So many incredible things keep happening that I've begun worrying... 

Let me explain: Have you ever had to put an animal down? Unfortunately, I have. And the night before their final day, we've given them steak, eggs—even ice cream—to ensure they're having the best possible day. Then, the next morning, we've had to let them go. This could be due to illness or just quality of life… Anyway, so many Godwinks keep happening in my days that now I'm worried this is my steak dinner from G-d.


"Don't be such a negative Nelda," you might say, but the problem is that once oncologists diagnosed me with terminal cancer, my world changed. I have an early expiration date. So, whether this is my steak dinner from G-d or not, I better enjoy each moment—and that's exactly what I've been doing.


“Do you remember the story about the $87?” I asked my mom after we’d gone to the grocery store. 

“How that lady paid for your groceries?”

I nodded. My card hadn’t worked, and a cashier—of all people—footed the bill. I kept looking for her so I could pay back the $87, but she'd quit working as a cashier. “I finally got to pay it forward,” I told my mom. “Last week a guy couldn’t get his card to work, so I paid his bill. Guess how much it was?”

She looked at me, stunned. “$87?”


“That’s totally a Godwink. Is this the store where it happened?”

“Yeah. The cashier didn’t even know that I’m fighting terminal cancer—I wonder what she would’ve thought if I’d told her.”

My mom and I shopped for a while after that. I felt bad, but we took an extra long time because I had to keep stopping. “I’m so sorry,” I almost said it more to myself than my mom. I know she understands. After all, we’d gone to the store so she could make me her homemade chicken noodle soup. The problem is that I get mad at my body sometimes. I want to walk like I used to and jump around like Tigger, but I can’t even stand for long and I often use a wheelchair.

“Mom,” I said, trying to knock some sense into myself. “I’m gonna buy ice cream. It just sounds… fun.”

We’d rounded the corner when my mom’s expression changed. “You have…” She paused, trying to get another customer’s attention. “You have the most beautiful hair.”

A woman turned, practically glowing. Long gray hair danced from the back of her baseball cap, and after she left the ice cream isle, I could hardly speak. 

“Mom! Oh, my gosh. Mom! That’s the cashier!” The words wouldn’t come out fast enough.

“The cashier?” she asked.

“The one who paid the $87! The one I’ve been looking for all this time.”

“You have to tell her what happened,” my mom whispered.

I moved as quickly as I could, almost frantic as I tried to find the woman.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Excuse me.”

She turned, looking every bit the angel I remembered.

I told her then about how I’m fighting terminal cancer. I explained that she’d paid for my groceries on a day years ago when I needed kindness the very most. “I tried to find you, but you’d quit.”

She laughed so hard, those thoughtful eyes sparkling. “I just switched departments! I’ve been here the whole time.”

“I wish I could pay you back! But I ended up buying someone else’s groceries last week. And can you believe it was for the same amount?”

She didn’t seem surprised at all. “That’s how these things work. Thank you for paying it forward.”

“It was your money.” I laughed. “Thank you for what you did for me.”

As my mom and I walked away, I heard a distant voice say, “I’m so glad I saw you again. You changed my whole day.”

“You changed mine,” I said.

That night as I ate the chicken noodle soup, we wondered over the experience from the store. “I’d been so upset that I got sick and took forever. But if I hadn’t been so slow, we would’ve missed her. I guess it all worked out.”

Filled with good food and the blessings only G-d and kind people can bring, it suddenly didn’t matter how sick I’d felt that day. Life once again shone so bright, and I realized once more how lucky I am to even be alive.



Saturday, February 3, 2024

A Change of Perspective

 I turned 41 today. Birthdays mean a lot more than they used to, and I guess it’s because doctors said I’d never turn 40. Even though I’m still fighting for each day, I’m really lucky to even be here.

This reminds me of a birthday from a few years before doctors diagnosed me with terminal cancer. I’d gone to get my taxes done, and as the accountant assessed my information, I studied a photo in her office.

It’s an intriguing picture with five people lying on their backs in a grassy field. Each person is a different race—and the concept of “diversified yet unified” is beautifully clear. But there was something even more that I couldn’t quite grasp.

“Wow, you really like that photo,” the accountant finally said.

Suddenly what eluded me before shone through. “It’s amazing,” I said, seeing the whole scene differently. 

“I like it, but I wouldn’t say it’s ‘amazing.’” She set down some papers and turned to me. 

“I know there are a lot of photos out there like this, but I just realized what makes this one different,” I said. “If you stop focusing on the obvious things and just focus on their glasses.... Did you notice that every person is wearing eyeglasses?”

She came next to me and stared at the picture. “Their glasses, huh? Well, they look like regular gla— Wait, I see it: the reflection! I’ve never had anyone point that out before.”

The reflection shone faintly in each of their eyeglasses, but even those replicas were far more beautiful than the obvious picture itself. Greying buildings, lanky trees, and a stormy sky showed itself in the glasses. As if every subject looked at a dry, dying world, ready to be refreshed…

I momentarily wished the photographer had rested in the grass as well and taken a picture—not of the people, but up, seeing what had appeared above and around them. 

Were the people the real subjects of this photo, or had the artist realized what the glass told about their surroundings?

“You’re right, Elisa. That picture is amazing!” As I took my paperwork and got in my truck to drive away, I looked through the business window. The tax preparer sat down where I had been moments before, and she intently studied the picture in her office.