Thursday, March 28, 2024

Has My Life Mattered?

 It seems when people hear they will most likely die from cancer—and soon—they ask themselves one question: Has my life mattered?

I’ve thought a lot about this lately. To make this somewhat tangible, I decided to find five exact moments when “I” felt of value.

For yourself, can you think of five moments when you really felt of value? 

This has not been easy for me! Was it giving birth to my children, owning successful businesses, hitting a million views on my blog, landing the lead in a play, or running a newspaper? While nice, stacked against “value,” each and every “accomplishment” seemed hollow, maybe even rooted in pride. 

“How’s your search for value going?” a friend asked. 

“I just keep thinking of standing before God, trying to brag about my bachelor’s degree or being a physician liaison, and it sounds completely inane.”

“Elisa, don’t downplay your accomplishments.”

But she clearly didn’t understand. 

That night Mike and I made a fancy dinner with the kids. We laughed and joked. We played ping-pong on the kitchen table and tried the new kind of Coca-Cola. It was the most fun I’ve had in months. Then, when the kids went to bed and Mike sat reading a book about Eastern philosophy, I sneaked downstairs. 

It’s rare for me to have enough energy to get extra things done, but I knew I could do something small that night—and it would have a huge impact. 

In my sewing room, there’s a stack of clothes that need patches, buttons, and other adjustments. So, like a little elf, I fixed everything. It didn’t take a terribly long time, and as I sewed, I felt so much love pouring through my tumor-ridden body.

“What are you doing, sweetheart?” Mike whispered. “Oh, my gosh! You fixed everything!”

He picked up a pair of his pants, and I suddenly felt like I had value. I could hardly wait for the kids to see what I’d fixed. 

“You look tired… But you seem so happy,” Mike said.

I grinned. “It sounds cliché, but it just hit me. It’s the small things. When I stand before God, if He asks me why I think my life mattered, I’ll say it did because I tried to make a difference for the people who mean the most to me.”

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

A Quilt Before G-d

Cancer is different than I expected. I remember staying with my dad when he underwent treatments over two decades ago. He seemed far more concerned with the medical staff than about himself. He'd always ask how they were and try to brighten their days.

"Isn't this hard on you?" I finally asked one day.

He laughed. "I'll be all right. Don't worry about me." And that was it. My dad didn't want me to worry. And that actually turned out "all right." He lived through stage 4 colon cancer—something his oncologist said hardly anyone lives through.

Now that I'm fighting terminal cancer, my dad has spoken with me candidly about the hard days he experienced (needing to know where the nearest bathroom was and feeling tired beyond words). He has become an inspiration as I've fought through this. Maybe that's why I asked Mike if we could visit my parents in Arizona. "Somehow, my dad helps me keep fighting. Doctors say I'll never beat this, but my dad gives me hope. He beat it, so maybe I can too." Despite that, after arriving at the airport and waiting at the gate, I felt more tired than ever.

A service agent walked over, helped tag my wheelchair, and said he'd like to move my seat to one with more room.

"I'm okay. Don't worry about it," I said, not wanting to put him out.

But he insisted, and unfortunately, when everyone walked onto the plane, we realized he'd made a mistake. A family with two young children no longer sat together, and my new seat replaced an elderly woman who wanted an aisle seat. Mike and I no longer sat together, and another couple had also been moved apart. This delayed the plane's departure, and to get seated, several passengers quickly moved so the young family could sit together and the older woman had an aisle seat. The rest of us stayed where we were.

But planes scare me and without Mike near me...

I used to be quite a thrill seeker before cancer. I loved cliffdiving and even joined a training program to help civilians lost or stuck while spelunking. But now, entering an elevator puts me into cold sweats. Being in a crowded area brings on claustrophobia. And being on a plane, well, the only way I've previously gotten through it is to close my eyes, lean on Mike, and pretend we're in Jamaica. Yet, I had more legroom than most people on the plane, but I couldn't lean on Mike. 

I closed my eyes. The motion of the plane and clunking of the equipment prepping for liftoff somehow reminded me of brain radiation, where they inserted a mouthpiece over my tongue and screwed a face cage to the table. I couldn't even cry for help as the techs left the room for nearly an hour. How strange that I can be more fatigued than ever before yet still get so terrified over the silliest things. 

If I could just feel peace about this: terminal cancer, fatigue, living in this new normal... 

I finally turned to the woman beside me. Her husband sat a row up from us. "What is peace to you?" I asked.

"Peace..." She smiled, and I'm unsure why, but I knew she'd give the most brilliant answer. Maybe the entire seating mixup happened so I could sit by her. I honestly think it did. "Peace," she said, her ethereal eyes gleaming, "is like a river."

"What does that mean to you?"

"Well, rivers twist and turn. Sometimes, they're fast and slow, but we have to trust that the river will take us where we need to be."

Trust. I really think peace is connected to trust... and acceptance. But it's still hard to accept this new normal. People talk about making a difference, but often, I feel too tired to do much of anything—weary, exhausted, worn.

I told this woman about my journey with terminal cancer and how tough it's been. "I'm trying to find peace with this, but some days are good, and others are hard. I just feel so worn out."

"I want to tell you a story," she said.

Imagine hundreds of people standing at the gates of Heaven. They each hold a quilt to show G-d. Every square displays a moment from their lives so G-d can see everything—the good and bad. But toward the back of the line, a woman stands with an incredibly threadbare quilt. It's been through more than she'd like to admit, and she almost shakes, waiting for her turn. Finally, only one person stands in front of her. That particular woman holds up the most beautiful quilt with achievements and accolades depicted in every scene. "It is quite beautiful," G-d says, "but you need to remember that unless you've made a positive difference for the people in your life, nothing else really matters. What matters is love." He lets her into Heaven, and it's time for the woman with the threadbare quilt to step forward. 

She thinks G-d will tell her that her quilt wasn't good enough. And feeling more worry than ever before, she holds up the frayed ends.

A smile slides onto G-d's magnificent face. "This is the most perfect quilt I've ever seen."

She touches the worn fabric. "Really?" she asks, her voice quivering. "But it's so worn..."

G-d gently asks if he can take the quilt from her, and then He holds it between them. His face shines so brightly even through the fabric.

"Through everything in life..." He smiles, still gazing at her through the quilt's worn fabric. "Through everything, you always saw me."

After the woman on the airplane told me this story, renewed strength filled my bones. I didn't worry about my upcoming treatments the following week or the airplane cabin that had previously felt so oppressive. Instead, I looked at my new friend and grinned. This seemed like another breadcrumb from Heaven, showing me that G-d is in everything. He's looking out for all of us—through the good and the bad... waiting to pick us up even when we might feel the most weary and worn.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

It's Okay Not to Be Okay

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

My Friend, Jerry Russell

Sometimes we meet people and instantly know that they will change our lives. It can be a lasting friendship or a simple exchange, but from the get-go we immediately feel different. That’s how I felt with Jerry Russell.

I first heard about Jerry from a mutual friend, Scott Hancock. He described Jerry to be a larger than life legend with otherworldly kindness and charisma. I knew Jerry would be at a book signing, and I thought I knew what to expect. But when we finally did meet, he was much more than Scott could’ve ever described. Jerry—as the saying goes—was truly larger than life itself.

He shook my hand with such warmth and kindness. I remember him holding my hand and looking into his eyes. I wondered, “Did he see into my soul? Probably!” And yet he still wanted to be my friend. Soon after meeting him, Jerry explained that he was twice my age, and I balked because he skipped around like Tigger and seemed far more spry than I am.

We talked about how quickly life can go, and change, and throw unexpected obstacles our way. “You just have to keep going and trying to make the best of things. You’re a bright light, Elisa. You really are. I see that in you.”

Tears filled my eyes because Jerry seemed like the bright light to me. I couldn’t be around that man without smiling. A month later when my liver started failing from cancer treatments and doctors said I would die unless they got things under control, I thought of Jerry’s words, and I tried to be a light in that hospital. I asked the nurses how they were doing and commiserated with them about their long shifts. “You’re the one who’s having liver problems,” one nurse said.

“That doesn’t make what you’re going through easier. But at least we can smile together. That lightens everyone’s loads.” Because that’s exactly what Jerry would do.

I first heard about Jerry in 2020, but I finally met him in person in 2021. After that, he’d email me quite frequently, telling me about his days, sending me beautiful pictures, or trying to make me smile with something inspirational. I’m not sure at what point it happened, but he began ending his emails with “Your friend forever.”

At one point, I wondered if Jerry either previously had cancer or knew someone who had it. He just worked so hard to make sure I wouldn’t give up until it’s my time. “You’re so strong,” he said when I saw him again. And he really did make me feel like I could keep fighting. Despite how hard cancer can be and how tough it is to repeatedly drag myself to cancer treatments, Jerry made me feel like I could overcome.

Finally, I got the gumption to ask, “Did you have cancer? Or… did you know someone who had it?”

That’s when Jerry told me a story that filled him with both joy and sorrow. He talked about his daughter, Lana, and how much he loved her. “You would’ve liked her,” he said. “I see so much of her in you. The moment I met you… You reminded me of her. She was a wonderful daughter with your courage.” He wiped a tear from his eyes. “She died at the age of 59 from liver cancer.”

I didn’t know what to say. You could feel the pride Jerry felt for his daughter, but you could also feel the tragic sadness. Jerry had that gift. He broke your heart down to its core, and made you really “feel” the life around you.

Being like his daughter, well, that was one of the best compliments I’ve ever received. 

Not long ago, Jerry sent me a picture of a rainbow that he’d spotted in town. “I’d like to bring you here this spring,” he wrote.

In the spring of 2024, my husband, kids, and I would go with Jerry to see this special spot where he’d found the rainbow. I could hardly wait. But life had other plans, and Jerry passed away this February. It broke my heart knowing I wouldn’t get to see his bright eyes again or read one of his wonderful emails. But as I looked out my window today, wind blew the snow at just the right angle and I swear I saw a snow rainbow from Jerry. 

I opened my email and read the last lines Jerry ever wrote to me: “Elisa, you are a special entry in my memory book never to be forgotten.” I cried as I read his final words.

Jerry, YOU are a special entry in my memory book too. Thank you for giving me the courage to keep fighting like Lana. Please tell her “hello” for me. 
Until we meet again,

(Left to Right: Scott Hancock, Jerry Russell, and me)