Unintended gifts from a dying cancer patient

Last Updated on April 21, 2023 by Ellen

I’m sitting on the second-story porch of a small studio apartment in Tulum, Mexico. I might not be here – unemployed, living alone in a foreign country, happy – if I hadn’t spent a lot of time with dying cancer patient I hardly knew. Life’s path is funny for me in that way.

This studio efficiency is a sparse place by American standards. It’s more like a hotel room with a kitchen sink and fridge and some dishes and a decent porch. No shower curtain, no working stove – unless I want a propane tank inside. As is, it’s all I need. Many Mexicans would love to have it. There are homes on this street that are mere huts over dirt floors and with several people sleeping in hammocks – scenes I know are common around Mexico and Central America.

A baby sleeps in a family’s hammock.

My belongings all sold or donated- everything except for family photographs and keepsakes that are stored with my sister, and some cold-weather clothes stored at my husband’s home in Cleveland, Ohio. I traded business duds for bathing suits.

Right now as I write this, the breeze is coming off of the Caribbean a couple of miles away and the sounds of life in a foreign neighborhood give me peace. Kids play in the street. Birds go to town with their happy sounds. A dog barks around the block. Palm trees rustle in that breeze. The sunset over the jungle has turned the sky yellow and pink against the blue.

This is a world away from the so-called rat race most Americans can’t seem to escape. And I nearly didn’t escape either. A woman named Virginia with stage four bladder cancer showed me I could take an escape route.

When I was laid off from my television news management job, I took an objective look at my life and my spirituality and my money. I need spiritual growth to live a happy and useful life. But I also need money to live. The money earned came at a great price to my serenity. I was basically always working.

I could have stayed in San Diego and worked for roughly the same amount money in a different TV news gig. That was tempting. I’m a news girl at heart – and I know there is a better way to do it. I also could have gone into news management in pick-any-city-any-station.

Team 10 – the former investigative unit I ran at KGTV in San Diego. I’m the blonde woman on the right.

Or, there were options for less money.

I could have stayed in San Diego and worked in the same general news field with a pay cut, working way less hours to actually have the time to enjoy the beautiful city more than simply ‘sometimes on weekends.’

Two other possibilities involved leaving the news business all together – but the gigs were creative and fun and totally different from anything I’d done yet.

An off-the-wall option: I could sell everything and take some savings and time off and live in Tulum, where the spiritual magic has called me to return on visits for more than a decade.

Recharge. Relax. Recuperate. Breathe. Enjoy. Live.

Maya ruins in Tulum, Mexico, crowded with tourists and turquoise Caribbean Sea.

My best friend encouraged me to find what makes me happy. He gently reminded me anything is possible if I really want it.

As I mulled it all over and continued to look for work, I spent a lot of time with Virginia – a good friend of my sister’s and brother-in-law’s in Campbell, California. She didn’t have any close family to help her through her cancer nightmare. She did have my sister and her husband, but they had to work and run their own household. They themselves had two dogs with cancer issues.

My sister, in the tech industry, and her husband, in sales, had their own jobs, their home, visits with Virginia at the nursing facility, traveling with her in an ambulette for a long list of various treatments, and several pets in Virginia’s home who needed care. It was all just too much.

Enter Ellie Mae. I was unemployed, so I offered to help.

I had only met Virginia in passing a couple of times over the years. Suddenly, I was sitting in a room with her as she puked her guts out, sick from cancer, weakened even more from the treatment. I’d leave her bedside and go to her home to help take care of her house full of pets. I even slept there a few times so the animals wouldn’t be alone for weeks on end.

My sister took Virginia’s dogs to the nursing facility one at a time for visits. Pictured here is Sadie.

Virginia went to radiation every day. There was also chemotherapy, blood transfusions, physical therapy, an MRI and more. She endured it all while in debilitating physical and emotional pain. She also was in spiritual denial about her life coming to an end on this planet. She was full of regret and resentment and didn’t want to talk much. She could be cranky – but in the beginning of my time with her – she wouldn’t wallow in bad mood too long.

She wanted to hear about my life. I started talking. I felt like a babbling idiot, a total distraction to much greater and graver issues that needed her attention.

I told her a lot about myself – things that fair-weather friends couldn’t guess. We passed many hours together this way. She insisted she wanted to listen – she wanted to hear about my life. So I kept going on about my relationships, career options, past vacations, my path to spirituality.

Since I was staying in Campbell for several weeks, I’d found a spiritual group to meet with on a regular basis. I managed to incorporate it into my routine of helping Virginia to appointments, helping to care for her animals and looking for work.

Virginia would sometimes talk about herself. She would offer stories on most subjects, but never talked about God or spiritual matters.

One day during her treatment, she asked if I’d made a decision yet on what was next in my life. A headhunter in the TV business had just reached out to me that very same day, I told her. I described how the lure of a possible job back to the business in a bigger California city made me restless, even though it was only an initial contact to gauge my interest.

She pointed out my adventurous, curious nature and she questioned my indecision.

“You only live once,” she said to me, with no discernible emotion.

Her words had a profound effect on me. I took them as a sign. Here was this woman, bravely fighting through incurable cancer treatments, unwilling to accept her lot, telling me I only live once. Amen.

I quietly told my family and closest friends about my decision to live a quiet life for awhile in another country – a country an unemployed single woman could afford. They all understood and accepted it – though not all of them wanted to. I made my decision public and I began to make concrete plans to get here.

And then, nine days after my announcement of dropping out of corporatocracy, my best friend and I set a date to get married – something we had only talked about over several years.

One day, I texted my future-spouse a picture showing me in a waiting room with all of the supplies I brought with me for Virginia’s MRI – diapers, vomit bins, towels, saline flush bags, ice chips, tissues, water, straw, iPad for entertainment when I ran out of things to say.

I’m in a waiting room while Virginia gets an MRI. My backpack and shopping back were filled with supplies in case she needed anything before, during or after transport.

He told me he was proud of the woman I had become. I can’t remember feeling any better than that moment.

There was a time in my life when I didn’t do anything for anyone, unless there was something in it for me. This time, I had gone to help my sister help her friend.

The irony is – I was helped so much. The universe again showed me that honesty and acceptance and gratitude are some of the qualities that make or break how I get along on this path to serenity in life. I stumble less if I have courage and faith the path can guide me.

When I left my sister’s, Virginia had just started truly accepting the fact that she was dying. I was with her when doctors again told her there was no chance of recovery. It had to sink in for her. Her eventual acceptance of incurable cancer was not easy and I can’t share that – it would feel like I was showing her naked image to you.

I will say that right before I left to return to San Diego, Virginia didn’t want to see me anymore. Somehow, she had connected me with the realization of her mortality. That was ok, I could handle the sudden rejection. She was hurting on so many levels, and I hurt for her, not for myself.

Virginia accepted hospice care and courageously went home, surrounded by her beloved pets, and the constant love and care of my sister and brother-in-law, who moved into her home to help her.

I went back to San Diego with much to do – arrange details of our wedding, sell my stuff, make a plan to wrap up everything stateside – from final doctor visits to bank and brokerage account arrangements. As things were falling into place for me, God’s will took Virginia’s human life a few days before my beach wedding.

All of this, and more, led me to right here, right now. The sun has set and the kids are inside. A bar on the next block plays Mexican party music carried on the night air. A man on a bike just rode by, honking his horn to sell his homemade juice. He’s barefoot.

Since my mind was already made up to start the journey of travel and growth and relaxation before our marriage, I am in Tulum on this porch of a small studio apartment without my spouse. It’s my decision to be here now, and it’s my husband’s decision on when to join me in early retirement. I have courage and faith on where the path leads – it always works out how it’s supposed to work out.

Until then, I’ll keep exploring and learning. Maybe writing. Definitely living.

couple jumps for joy on the beach after they are married

(Note: This was updated in September 2019, to use the phrase ‘early retirement’ near the end. I did not use that phrase in 2015, because I could hardly believe it was really happening.)

4 thoughts on “Unintended gifts from a dying cancer patient”

  1. Dear Ellie Mae,

    My name is Ashlee. I’m co-founder of the Youshare Project, with the mission to connect people around the world through true, personal stories. I recently stumbled across your blog and read the above post entitled “Unintended Gifts From a Dying Cancer Patient.” It’s raw, beautifully written, and compelling. I think it would make a wonderful youshare, because it offers a different perspective on life – and one that I think many people could benefit from.

    If this sounds interesting to you, I would love to email you directly with more information and formally invite you to adapt your story to youshare and share it with the project. You have my email address and website. I hope to hear from you soon.


  2. Ellie Mae– a great read. thank you for sharing wisdom and story about Virginia. I am proud to share my name with your Virginia. When you come back through SD give a shout. Congrats on your wedding. Ginny C

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