It is one of my most vivid memories of Alisa.
Mike and I were sitting in the back seat of her car. Being poor, car-less college students, she had picked us up so we could babysit her boys. We had been dating for all of three months, and Alisa used the 30-minute drive to probe into our relationship.
Alisa: So . . . summer break is coming up. [I had plans to go home to Colorado for the summer.]
Alisa: What are your plans as far as your relationship goes? Are you going to date other people? Stay exclusive? What?
Mike [casting a nervous glance at me]: We haven't really talked about it.
Alisa: Well maybe now would be a good time.
That little exchange has stayed with me for eleven years, not only because it made Mike and me look at the seriousness of our relationship (but not at that moment with Alisa listening in!), but because it is Alisa in a nutshell: blunt, concerned, opinionated. (Looking back, I'm also almost certain that Sonja, who is 17 months older than Alisa and was far away in Ohio at the time, had probably put her up to it: "How serious is their relationship? You need to find out and report back to me.")
I think that initial intimidation I felt in the backseat of her car never quite left. At the time, I was so impressed by what a talented, capable person Alisa was, so far beyond what I was doing and accomplishing. Just 25 years old, she'd been married for almost four years and had two little boys. She and her husband had recently purchased their first home. She was a Registered Nurse and also had a successful photography business (she was the one who took our wedding photos). She had an eye for beauty, and it showed in the way she dressed and decorated and lived.
I'm not trying in any way to summarize Alisa's life, so I'll cut right to the point. In 2007, Alisa was diagnosed with melanoma. Eight years later, on May 19, 2015, at the mere age of 36, she passed away. It was the morning of her 15th wedding anniversary.
My heart is so sad.
As with everything else, Alisa put her all into fighting cancer. Sometimes it took my breath away--her energy and determination and strength. (For example, this, from her husband, Josh, when she was doing IL2: "Alisa never ceases to amaze. After her 7th dose (and about 20 pounds of water) she decided to do one more. A last ditch effort to kill the cancer with this treatment. The doctors gave her a chance to be done, but she just kept on going.") She suffered through some pretty horrendous treatments in search of a permanent cure. And because she had a gift with words, she took family, friends, and even complete strangers on that journey with her.
There are a lot of things that don't make sense to me in this life, and this--this is one of them. I'm sure many of you have known similar people who still had so much life left in them and who desperately wanted to continue to brighten the world but didn't get the chance.
Over the last few weeks, my mind has been careening in opposite directions. Sometimes it goes the way of, "Cancer is a mean disease. I hate it." It is, and I do. It leads you on by a flaxen cord, giving you little glimpses of hope while tightening its grasp. Each little disappointment is a jolt, an unwanted surprise, a small tragedy. We've been experiencing a type of grief for the last eight years. We measured life in six-month or three-month, or even two-week, chunks of time. If only we could have one more year . . . And I realized it would never have been enough. We would never have had our fill of Alisa.
with Clark last summer
But sometimes, but not as often as I'd like, my mind takes a more hopeful turn, and I think about all the little (and even big) miracles that came along the way and that I was privileged to be able to witness. They came with a price (like I said, Alisa was willing to endure just about anything if it meant more time), but they were miracles nonetheless.
I'll never forget Alisa's post from almost three years ago. It was the one that stopped all of us in our tracks: "What's worse than a brain tumor? How about TWENTY FIVE brain tumors?! I didn't even know that was an option. It seems very extreme, and the Dr. says not common." It just goes to show how weak my faith is that my reaction was, This must be it. She probably only has three months left.
But then three months later, we were all floored again. The brain tumors were gone.
Over the years, she was there for her three boys' baptisms, birthdays, recitals, and sports games. She was there for the farewells and homecomings of siblings who went on missions. She was there for family reunions and parties. She was there for the weddings of all eight of her siblings (Kirsten, the youngest, was married just three weeks ago, and Alisa was not only able to attend but also help.)
So the miracles, I know they're there, and I know they're continuing to happen even now (the white peonies--they're blooming right on time . . . ), but sometimes they're hard to focus on when my heart feels so heavy for her husband, Josh, and their three boys.
Last Friday, Mike and I went to their home to say good-bye. Josh was incredibly kind and gracious to the whole family and seemed to be so sensitive to family members' needs for closure. I'll admit, I was nervous to go. By that time, Alisa was no longer talking and in a peaceful state of rest for most of the time. Her room was still and quiet and felt almost sacred. I had a few minutes alone with her, during which time I planned on telling her a few of my thoughts and why I was so grateful for her. But the words were hard to get out. Eleven years later, in a completely different situation, I still felt shy around Alisa.
Alisa's blog has always been an inspiration to me. She knew how to say things in such a raw, honest, and beautiful way. I love this analogy of hers about the phases of life,
"When you plan a garden, . . . you create 'rooms' with a little teaser entrance into the next space. An opening that intrigues and lures you to another place, with a different design and feeling. So behind the door that is tomorrow is just another place that I get to enjoy after loving the space I left behind."When she wrote the post, she was referring mainly to the space of time granted to her in between scans. But I know it applies to this most recent transition as well: She went through the door to another tomorrow. She loved the space she left behind, but I believe she's enjoying the new space as well.
I know that for the most part, I have been a mere spectator to the last eight years. I know nothing of the grief that Josh or their kids or Alisa's parents or sisters are feeling right now. I don't even pretend to compare my grief with theirs. But I've still been searching for comfort and for answers to some of life's biggest questions, and this poem, by President Gordon B. Hinckley, has soothed my troubled spirit and brought me a measure of peace:
This week, I've been reading The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter. It's about a little boy who is raised by his Cherokee grandparents. At the end, as Little Tree's Granpa lays dying, his parting words are, "It was good, Little Tree. Next time, it will be better. I'll be seein' ye."
It was good, Alisa. Next time, it will be better. I'll be seeing you.
P.S. If you want to be inspired by Alisa's journey, you can read the first half (2007-2009) here or the second half (2011-2015) here.