Holding Space

With Shelly Vaughn


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January 20th

January 20th- it never comes without all of the emotions.

4 years ago today was my initial diagnosis.

1 more year until the big #5- when recurrence risk is low enough that I can use the word “cure”. ❤️

The details of that day have not faded; and the impact is a mess of thoughts and feelings.

It seems like a lifetime ago and just yesterday at the same time.

I’ve hated my body and been amazed by it.

I’ve felt closer to God and then not sure He’s even there.

I’ve mentally planned my funeral, and never been more alive.

I have been held up by others, and held others with even heavier burdens.

I have joked about cancer, and have been paralyzed by the seriousness of it.

I have embraced my scars, and hid behind clothes and in the dark.

I have felt thankful for being physically cured, and guilty because mom wasn’t.

Weak and strong.
Alien and human.
Depressed and joy-filled.
Frustrated and grateful.
Broken and healed.
Weary and hopeful.
And hopeful.
And hopeful.
And hopeful.

The only constants: “change and time” … and HOPE.
Artist credit: Katie Belden ❤️


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October

October is such a transitional month. The weather is a mix of warm and cool days. The typical mood of the school year sits low between the novelty of the new year and anticipation of the holidays. Even the flowers- it’s time to plant bulbs but you won’t see them grow for 6 more months.

Seems fitting that “Breast Cancer Awareness” month happens now, too. I am almost 4 years since my diagnosis, 3 months since the disease took my mom, and I don’t know how to feel. Angry at the disease itself, proud of my mom who lived well with it so long, thankful it’s not part of my story any longer, guilty that I can say that.

It doesn’t help that Covid makes everything seem wrong and weird. Hospital workers are burned out… I think everyone is.

Not to mention we’re about to have an election where people land so strongly on one side or another. I’m confused by the blurriness of Christian love how that plays out in the political world. And then I’m confused about why that’s confusing… it shouldn’t be that hard, right? How can people with the same foundation have such different resulting views. Does that mean our foundations really aren’t similar??

So, as I’m existing in this “middle of nowhere” October, I’m trying my best to soak up the precious family time. We have found ways to safely enjoy activities and the low-key/low-expectation pace has felt good.

A few weekends ago we cashed in on my birthday gift from April and went to Great Wolf Lodge. Don’t tell them I told you this, but the girls had a ton of fun together running around and laughing…. like they loved each other! 😉

It. Was. Amazing.

It also happened to be the day of the Steelers/Browns game… and you all know that made the day perfect. While up near Lake Erie, we went to Marblehead Lighthouse because… why not? The girls need a change of scenery. (We all do.)

Olivia got her pointe shoes this month and we’re so very excited for her. My mom would LOVE this so much! She would also love hearing Liana learn the violin! (Learning the violin is much easier to listen to than learning the recorder!!)

Last weekend we were lucky enough to go to “Boo at the Zoo” at Akron zoo. (Thanks to Wadsworth Community Radio!) and then do some drive-thru trick or treat in C Falls.

October- The calendar page where 7 of our favorite birthdays live- my dad (happy birthday Larry Caldwell), some of my best friends (happy birthday, Alli Herren, Mandy Daughenbaugh Schmeling, and Steph Byham, I miss you all!), Ava and Hazel (see bday pics below), and Harley the hedgehog (RIP). There are definitely some good things about the month. And some good memories that I’ll cherish forever. It will likely have one more on Saturday that will warrant its own post… 😉


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40 Sunrises

I had a slow, peaceful start to my morning today, which I LOVE! The slowness allows time for reflection.

My mom has been gone for 40 days. There have been 40 sunrises that she didn’t see. My eyes have closed 40 nights and opened the next morning with my first thought being “my mom died.” I start with that thought every day, it coming to mind in a tone of confusion. It’s so immediate that I know it must’ve stayed at the forefront of my brain while I slept. Living right at the surface until the second I’m conscious again.

On a weekday, I quickly have to ignore the feelings of sadness that so badly want to come next. I have to get ready for work- get out the door on time to spend the day answering other people’s questions and solving their problems. But I have bigger questions and deeper problems in my heart. My mom is no longer on this earth and it’s not okay with me. I don’t pretend I’m fine; I don’t lie and tell others “I’m good.” I’m honest that the days are hard; but that honesty doesn’t make them easier.

So I push through, staying busy and distracted, trying to be a confident/competent leader during a worldwide pandemic, all the while crumbled and foggy on the inside in ways I’ve never known.

Then comes the weekend. Our stay-at-home weekends are a much different experience and I’m really thankful for them. I can take more time to think about life and how my heart is feeling. This morning, I was finally able to put some of it into words:

The grief I have felt in losing my mom is new to me… different than losing my close friend, my cousin, my aunts, and my grandparents. This specific grief I’m sitting with elicits so many raw emotions right now.

If you have kids, or have worked with groups of kids, maybe this analogy will make sense. You know the feeling when all of your kids (and sometimes your husband) are talking to you at the same time and there’s music or tv on in the background? When there are so many things demanding your attention that you can’t really process any of them? That’s how these feelings are to me right now. Sadness, emptiness, worry, fear, love, peace, relief, depression, anger, hope- they are all constantly trying to stake their claim as the answer to “how am I feeling”. With so many big emotions circling around the outside of my heart, it’s just too hard to let any specific one in… especially for any length of time. The hard ones are too painful, the angry ones seem uncharacteristic to my nature, the joy- well that seems inappropriate in grief.

And since it doesn’t feel ok to let any of them settle in and be truly felt, none of them actually do. Hence the confusion. I feel all of them a little bit. Or all of them a lot. I just don’t know.

What I do know, is that I’m changed by this. I hope that as time goes on I will more often think of the positive changes than the negative ones. But for now, I feel this heavy weight of grief always present with me.

I guess like backpacking. Hikes can be beautiful and peaceful. They can feel easy and comfortable sometimes, while challenging and exhausting at other times, depending on the difficulty of the path.

When Covid hit the path suddenly felt all uphill on a humid day… and I thought that was hard.

Now my mom’s gone… and it’s like someone strapped a 50 pound backpack on me. But I still have to keep going up the hill. This backpack of grief is never lifted. I have friends who walk up the hill with me. Some without a backpack at all. Some with smaller ones, or older ones. And I know some people have much larger ones than I do. Nonetheless- mine.is.heavy.

I imagine that the load won’t lighten… it will always be heavy but I will learn to get stronger and carry it well. I’m just not there yet.

If you’re carrying an obvious one, I can pray for you. If you’re privately carrying a heavy one, I’m here to listen and love you through it. If you just want some acknowledgment that it’s there, I can do that too.

Most importantly, I know God loves me through this mess. I know I’ll be ok as He guides me to slowly let those emotions settle where they need to. And as He encourages me to bear the load of the backpack. It’s nothing compared to the weight of the cross. I can do this.


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Purpose

This picture is really just to pair something with my thoughts tonight. (But it is meaningful- Olivia brought home a coral colored hibiscus flower the first time Trisha Brunazzi took my kids to see Amy’s burial spot. Since then, I’ve gotten a coral hibiscus plant every summer.)

Anyway… Tonight I’m writing to process one of many things I’ve been feeling lately- the impact of purpose.

I was watching a loved one struggle this week. The strong person I know so well was hit with uncharacteristic weakness. To be with them during a challenge is an honor. But it’s a very difficult place to be. (Yes, it does help me empathize with what Rob went through when he helped me so much. The gratitude for that is too deep for words.)

As I watched the struggle for simple tasks, I felt confused and helpless. And then a beautiful group of friends stepped in to help. They stood outside of a hospital window, waving toward a tiny silhouette of a person 6 stories above them. And suddenly, I could see a spark again.

They provided purpose. A gift. Intangible; simple but profound. Their presence gave purpose to get to that window and see love in action. The reaction was the first smile in days. And one I will never forget.

Find your purpose. Be the purpose for others. Never underestimate how important it is.


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Build A Puzzle

I’ve always loved this “Day and Night” print by MC Escher. He combines beauty, geometry, and illusion into mesmerizing works of art.

Rob and I bought this puzzle for Aunt Pat’s 70th birthday. After she passed away, her daughter suggested that everyone who wanted should take a puzzle of hers with them, so I brought this one home and pulled it out at the start of our “stay at home” weekends. We finished it last week, but the kittens got a hold of a few pieces that we weren’t able to find.

Staring at the final product with those 3 pieces missing, I can’t help but feel it so fitting. The puzzle is complete, but with obvious holes. Just like our lives after a loved one is gone. You can still see the entire picture, but there is a space not fillable by anything other than that piece that was there. So those spots remain empty. Some are very noticeable; others might be overlooked at a glance but are still there. Feels like our life after losing someone. And today, on her birthday, the empty spot where Ant Pat was feels very obvious.

I actually didn’t know when we bought this for her that she was also such a big MC Escher fan. But it makes sense. A lot makes sense when I think about her and the things I’ve grown to love in life- puzzles and games, MC Escher, jacks, painting kitchen cabinets, brain teasers, April birthdays, miniatures, notes of encouragement posted in our living space. Spending time in her home a few weeks ago reminded me of how much of her is in me. It was so comforting and inspiring.

Ironically, it reminds me of four words she spoke to me the last day that she was able to talk to us. After sitting next to her hospital bed for a few minutes, she grabbed the infinity scarf I was wearing and pulled me closer to her. In single, breathy, labored words she said, “Strawpump…is…in…you.”

That likely doesn’t mean much to anyone outside of my family. Strawpump is the name of the town where my dad and his 11 brothers and sisters grew up. It’s the place where our family roots are planted. That small house in a tiny town where siblings raised siblings, life and meals were simple, and a generation learned to love from a woman with a heart of gold. Thankfully, my Aunt Marion still lives in that house so we can still go back to it. But I know that no matter where I am- where any of us are across the country- Strawpump is in us.

Those four words were a breathtaking compliment from Aunt Pat shortly before her soul left this world. It was an amazing gift. Up until then, another one of my favorite-ever gifts was a refinished water pump that Rob gave me last Christmas. Not only did he refinish and paint the pump, he also stenciled “Strawpump” on it. He knows me so well. I love it; and so did Aunt Pat when she came to visit us in September.

Today is her birthday. Her first one that we celebrate without her here. I will think of her all day. I will remember her four words that bring me comfort, especially during a time of such uncertainty in life. And I’ll be thankful for 2 important things that I’ve learned from her.

1. My new life goal: To live a life that people are proud to say about their character traits: “I get that from her.”

2. When life is stressful, build a puzzle.


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Always There

I saw this on a website a few months ago:

“Imagine you’re going about your day, minding your own business, when someone sneaks up behind you…

You feel something press up against the back of your head, as someone whispers in your ear.

“Sssshhhhh…. don’t turn around. Just listen. I am holding a gun against the back of your head. I’m going to keep it there. I’m going to follow you around like this every day, for the rest of your life.”

“I’m going to press a bit harder, every so often, just to remind you I’m here, but you need to try your best to ignore me, to move on with your life. Act like I’m not here, but don’t you ever forget… one day I may just pull the trigger… or maybe I won’t. Isn’t this going to be a fun game?”

This is what it is like to be diagnosed with cancer. Any STAGE of cancer. Any KIND of cancer. Remission does not change the constant fear. It never truly goes away. It’s always in the back of your mind.

Please, if you have a loved one who has ever been diagnosed with cancer, remember this. They may never talk about it or they may talk about it often. Listen to them.

They aren’t asking you to make it better. They want you to sit with them in their fear… their sadness… their anger… just for the moment. That’s it.

Don’t try to talk them out of how they are feeling. That doesn’t help. It will only make them feel like what they are going through is being minimized. Don’t remind them of all the good things they still have in their life. They know. They are grateful.

But some days they are more aware of that gun pressing into the back of their head and they need to talk about it. Offer them an ear. ❤”

To continue with the above analogy, I’d say that most of my days are spent with just an awareness that there’s someone behind me. And today would maybe be one where I felt the touch.

I’m fine. Really. But I had a follow-up kidney ultrasound this morning. It’s only because way back when this started in 2017 they noticed a small nodule on my kidney which is “very likely a cyst.” Cysts are very common and most people have them but have no reason to know they’re there. But with my history, my dr wants me to get annual checks on this to make sure it doesn’t change size.

The tech doing the ultrasound said she does so many of these for people monitoring something that was a finding from another test. She actually said that this morning was “full of kidney ultrasounds” for her.

I know it’s nothing. I know I’ll get a call in the next few days that says it’s fine and I’ll just do the same thing next May… and every May forever. But, as much as I hate to admit it, the thoughts crept in today and we’re unsettling.

Thankfully, my day at work was good and I came home to this beautiful weather- perfect for hammock laying, trampoline jumping, dinner outside, and yard work. Thank you, God, for the sunshine and the peaceful evening.


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“Me” Again!

I remember so many times last year that I would look in the mirror trying to find myself. I was bald and skinny and barely recognized myself some days. When I felt most like a stranger, I would get close to the mirror and find my eyes- staring into them and blocking out everything else. Because my eyes were always “me”.

Even now, with my weight back to normal, I just haven’t gotten used to the dark curls.
So on Wednesday I went for a new (“old”) look. I got my hair highlighted so it looks blonde again… and I straightened it. The layers are still choppy until they grow a little more. But I see “me” again! It’s so strange to not recognize yourself. And such a relief to find yourself again.

Liana said “you look like Aunt Trisha”! Thank you, Liana. What a compliment!

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Settled

You know the feeling you get when you sit on a beach chair at the edge of the shore and you bury your feet a little in the sand? The sand that isn’t totally dry but gets slightly moistened by the waves every once in a while. The sun beating down to warm your skin. With each shallow wave, your feet sink a little further down in the sand. There’s a sweet spot- after a few waves but before too long of waiting there- when it feels just right. Settled. Not rooted; still moveable…. but settled.

That peaceful, comfortable, settled feeling is how my soul feels tonight.

I have had a whirlwind two weeks that included seeing so many people from home. It started with our Caldwell family reunion in Wildwood, NJ (A week with the Caldwells… yes, please!). Then Rob and I were able to spend some time in Nashville without the girls for a couple of days hearing some amazingly smart, inspirational speakers and hanging out with friends. We turned right around to go to Pennsylvania for my 20 year high school class reunion. (How did 20 years go by already?!) Squeezed in a family birthday party for Olivia at Hoss’s (a favorite PA restaurant). And topped it off this afternoon with a graduation party for my cousin, Elizabeth- which ended up being like a reunion on the other side of my family.

In the middle of that busyness I also went to the funeral of a friend’s father. It was heartbreaking to see the grief and sadness that cancer caused another family. But (with a capital  😎, the man was faithful and is in heaven now. And it was inspirational hearing how he responded to his circumstances that led him there.

I’ve so enjoyed all of this time spent with family and friends- hugging those who have only been connected through technology for many years. I had long-overdue conversations with three cousins who have been through cancer- learning more details of their experiences. My “little” cousin (who I held all the time when he was a baby) is now a daddy and I met his baby girl. I felt such a sense of hope and love seeing that the next generation is growing up and starting to change the world. I loved it! And was reminded 10-fold why I am so lucky to have been born into the family I was, at the time that I was.

Friends, family, laughter, tears, hugs and a lot of Western PA accents in the last two weeks. The best way I can describe it is “soul-settling”. I hope other people can feel this sometimes because it’s amazing. Cancer treatments held me back last summer… that’s not happening this year!


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Survivor

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My all-time favorite class in high school was Language Studies with Dr. Wansor. I loved it! Studying words and semantics and how it affects people- yes, please! I could’ve sat in that class all day. It may have been the only text book I actually read my senior year. (Wait- I think I also read my Sociology book- that was another good one.) It’s no surprise that I got a degree in a field where I can study language for a living. It’s also probably why I get hung up on semantics sometimes… sorry about that.

Today is “National Cancer Survivors Day”. I’ve never heard of it before (and I kind of think we should get free ice cream or something today, right? I mean- National donut day, coffee day, mother’s day- you get free stuff on those ones.) Anyway, I think it’s the perfect day to share my thoughts on the word “survivor”, and a few other definitions within the cancer world.

A “survivor” is anyone diagnosed with cancer. Any person, any stage, any cancer- from the moment of diagnosis you become a survivor. Because unless/until you’re no longer here on earth, you are surviving. It’s not a term used just for those who no longer have the disease (which is how most people use it). So yes, the person living with stage 4 cancer is a survivor. The person just diagnosed and given a few weeks to live- they’re a survivor, too. And the 38 year old woman in Ohio who continues to show no signs of the breast cancer that was removed from her during a mastectomy last summer- she’s a survivor as well.  😉

Another term that I learned last year- “previvor”. These are women who have been identified as having a high risk for breast cancer (usually because they were found to have a mutation of the BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 gene). They are women who know that their risk of getting cancer is so high, that they choose to have a mastectomy and often hysterectomy to prevent ever getting the disease. Most of the time, these women get immediate reconstruction after their mastectomy. These women are brave- they are doing something very significant and serious in hopes of never hearing the words “breast cancer” from their doctors. In case you need an example- this is Angelina Jolie. She was brave with what she did and I never want to minimize that. But she did not have breast cancer. And it’s offensive to those who actually have cancer to compare them to her (or other previvors).

And while we’re thinking about different stories… I’m going to try to explain how things are perceived by a person on this side of the disease. As my doctors have said- “every cancer is different”. There are so many different kinds of breast cancer with different stages and pathologies. Your kind of breast cancer dictates your course of treatment- whether you’ll have chemo, radiation, surgery, or which combination of the three.

This means that some women don’t need chemo, some don’t need radiation, some have a lumpectomy and some a full mastectomy. Of those who have mastectomies, some choose to “live flat”, some “live flat” against their choice, and some have immediate reconstruction. So it’s quite a range- from women who have a mastectomy and immediate reconstruction (many people don’t even know these women have had cancer) to those who have all three treatments and no reconstruction. The experiences are drastically different. After living through the extreme side of the spectrum, I apologetically feel like women who are on the other side of where this treatment pendulum swings are lucky. It’s not a feeling I’m proud of. But it’s real. When you’re talking with someone going through treatment, remember that it is not helpful when you compare their experience to someone who didn’t have the same treatment (especially if it’s perceived as “easier” in some way).

But here’s the thing I always come back around to: every woman facing breast cancer, regardless of the extent of their treatment, has been dramatically shaped by their experience. It’s most likely the “biggest” thing in their life (or at least very high on the list). It has likely affected their relationships with friends and family. Every one of them has faced mortality and lost the innocence of assuming a long life. And every one of them lives with the fear of recurrence- whether they think about it constantly or occasionally. Whether they acknowledge it or distract themselves from it. They are different than they were before cancer; living a life forever-changed by that disease. Their sense of comfort was broken by one word. But brokenness can be a beautiful thing- because it allows light to shine through.

Today I want to acknowledge and celebrate the light shining through every cancer survivor. Sending love to you all.


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Happy Mothers Day

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Pink… so much pink. I’m not opposed to the color in a general sense. But when I had breast cancer I developed a particular distaste for it. Everything had a pink ribbon on it!

Why did some people embrace this so (seemingly) easily? Why do some women get the diagnosis and immediately wear all of the pink ribbon gear they can get their hands on? Why did I cringe inside when I saw it? How could some women get pink ribbon tattoos and I could barely even wear a plain pink shirt without feeling a little sting? I think it has something to do with the extent that people identify with (and embrace) what they are going through. Clearly, I didn’t do either of those much at the time.

Today is Mother’s Day 2018. A day that I get to really celebrate my role in life as mommy to the two best girls I know. I was able to smile and appreciate it with a sense of joy that’s deeper than other days- especially as I think back to how I felt (physically) on this day last year during chemo. Rob planned a perfect day today and I loved it. The girls still fought in the car, I overdid it on our trampoline, and I didn’t get any of the laundry done that I had planned on. But “perfect” doesn’t mean that things don’t go wrong… I think it just means that things turn out ok.

You know how I know things are turning out ok?… Today I intentionally and proudly wore pink.  🙂