Tuesday, March 8, 2011

From Trains to Cancer to Reunions

Happy Tuesday! I hope your week is going well so far. Thank you for stopping by for coffee (or tea!) I am drinking raspberry tea. If we were really meeting for coffee I would tell you to come on over here. It's a beautiful day here with birds chirping away in the backyard, the sun peeking through the trees, the air crisp. I have two questions...do you want coffee or tea? And, are you up for hearing a story?
{Me, Aunt Lori, Emily before the start of our very first Just the Girls Road-trip, 1998}

For years, Aunt Lori, my cousin Emily, and I took an annual trip called "Just the Girls Road-trip." The first trip took place in 1998, when I was 10 and Emily was 8. Only the first year did we take an actual road trip, driving from San Clemente, CA (southern California) to Vancouver, Washington, making many stops along the way. The following years included a cruise to Mexico and Catalina Island; a weeklong stay in a cabin in the Big Bear mountains; a trip to visit potential colleges for me in California, Oregon & Washington; and a few other wonderful trips.

In the spring of 2000, we took an emergency "Just the Girls" trip. I had been diagnosed with Leukemia in January and we wanted to squeeze in another before I had to surrender to the cancer and begin my treatment regimen in May.

The plan was an oh-so-exciting train trip from southern California to Beaverton Oregon, for a week-long stay with my Aunt Carol & Uncle Bob & cousin Bobby. At age 12 and 10 Emily and I were in heaven, sleeping in the train overnight...it felt like such an adventure! They had a viewing car made of nothing but windows to watch the scenery go by. A movie theater with a huge screen and comfy red chairs. A snack car, a lounge area with games and books, and the dining car where we would order a slice of the decadent chocolate fudge cake after every dinner. We had a blast in Oregon and when the time came to leave we were sad to go but ready for home.

While we waited for our train to arrive in the station, Aunt Carol spotted a Susan Branch book on one of the tables. Aunt Carol is a huge fan of her artwork, owns many of her books, and as a seamstress and quilter, loves her fabrics. It was her newest book at the time and Aunt Carol picked it up, flipping through like a kid, as we all oohed and ahhed. Then we heard someone say something and we all looked up to see Susan Branch herself! Aunt Carol was starstruck. Apparantly Susan Branch was waiting in the station with a friend, and had signed the book to give as a gift. We all had a laugh, and then said our goodbyes.

One of the beautiful aspects of train traveling is all the people you meet. They seat you with strangers during meals to make use of the space and fill up the tables. Later that night at dinner, we were seated at the same table as Susan Branch, completely by chance. We had a wonderful time with her, and spoke with her more through the trip. She was so warm and friendly, and eventually Aunt Lori told her all about my being sick and the upcoming transplant. When the trip was over, we were happy to be home and had plenty of stories to tell and memories to keep. But now it was time to focus on the next journey, and this one wouldn't be so fun.

During my treatment I was always amazed at the generosity of strangers. I received encouraging letters, gifts, etc. from people I had never met or spoken to. It was one of the things that really carried me through - knowing how many people were thinking about me and pulling for my well-being. But when I received a huge package with "Susan Branch" on the return label, I couldn't believe it. Inside was a 12x12 scrapbook album, all the supplies - papers, stickers, die cuts, stamps, markers, etc - that would ever need to fill it, plus more. She included a handwritten note inside about how wonderful it was to meet us, and suggested I use the album to document our recent trip.

Instead I used the supplies to make an album of my transplant experience. Pages filled with the cutting of my hair in preparation of losing it, radiation treatment, my stay in the hospital, activities that kept me busy during my stay, my nurses and doctors, visitors, favorite cards I received, milestone bloodwork, etc. It is one of my most treasured possessions...the album tells my story of that time through the eyes of a 12 year old girl faced with a life-threatening illness. Without that generous gift from Susan it never would have happened. I look back through the album and I can instantly feel the pain and the vulnerability I felt during that time in my life. It The note from Susan is tucked in the back of the album so I can always remember her generosity.

In May 2010 I had the 10 year anniversary of my cord blood transplant. It was filled with surprises, one of which was a congratulatory card from Susan Branch. I was so surprised and felt honored that she remembered me a decade later. You can read about my anniversary party HERE.
{The card from her on my 10th anniversary}

Last night Aunt Lori, Emily, and I had the opportunity to reconnect with Susan Branch. 11 years later we were sitting listening to her tell her life story. She was so funny and had a way of painting such a mental picture in my mind as she spoke. I could picture the oak tree underneath which she said her marriage vows. I could picture the small house she bought in Martha's Vineyard with the 1950's gas stove and the rows and rows of old books left behind by the previous owner. Afterward we spoke with her and it was fun to reminisce about our first meeting on the train.
{Aunt Lori, me, Susan Branch - March 7, 2011}
On the drive home I was thinking about how much has changed over the past 11 years. I fought cancer, I graduated high school, I went to college, I moved around, I traveled to Africa for my make-a-wish, traveled to Germany, Mexico, visited new states in the U.S., celebrated milestones such as birthdays, anniversaries and weddings, I had 4 knee surgeries, I fell in love with my physical therapist, discovered my passion for photography and baking, and much, much more. Yet when we spoke again with Susan Branch, it felt like nothing had changed and that train trip was so recent. We have gone through the ebb and flow of life, and while circumstances have changed drastically, we are still our same selves.
{Signed book from last night's event}
{Above: The front cover of the album from Susan Branch
Below: Some pages from inside the album}
I hope you enjoyed the story, thanks for listening! I hope you all have a wonderful week, thanks for stopping by! XO
Thanks to Amy for hosting Virtual Coffee! Photobucket
For more of Susan Branch you can visit her website HERE.


  1. Great story....you are quite a woman!

  2. You ARE quite a woman! Wonderful to see you last night Chelsea! xoxox Susan

  3. Oh, Chelsea, I am so glad health is yours and how wonderful to meet someone famous and to be given such kindness! May you be blessed with continued good health in the future and have wonderful friends and family to share your life!! With much love, Sherry

  4. wow, that is amazing! You are so pretty, I noticed you smiled through it all. Thanks for sharing such a beautiful story.

  5. Hello Chelsea--I know that Susan has touched so many of our lives, all over the world. This is a wonderful story, filled with love, hope, joy and perseverance. I wish you a life filled with wonderful health, great happiness, and immense love---thank you for sharing your beautiful story!!
    Joann Berrian

  6. Found your blog through your twitter comment to SB. What a wonderful story and what an inspiring young woman you are. Thank you for sharing your SB story. It seems like Susan has a special gift of connecting us together. Wishing you continued health and happiness. With love ...

  7. I found you through following SB twitter. What an amazing story! My best to you as you continue on the journey ahead.

  8. What a great story! And what a testament to the wonderful woman you are.

  9. Hi Chelsea,
    I'm glad I stopped by your blog for virtual coffee! A beautiful story ~ thanks for sharing.
    Blessings ~

  10. Chelsea... girl, you made me cry in the middle of my working time (shame on me reading blogs during this time! Ops!).

    What a live story!!

    What a beautiful turned out!!!

    Sometimes, live can give us good surprises, doesn´t it?

    When I´m feeling down or sad or missing my husband so terribly, I try to remember survivers stories.

    Like yours! It is such an inspiration!!!

    Let´s see what waits for me around the corner…

    God bless you, girl. God bless you more!

    Kisses. Mirys


    PS: thank you for the tea (I´m Brazilian but I don´t drink coffee… shame on me, again!)

  11. Chelsea, I'll have tea, please. What a wonderful story. How wonderful that Susan Branch is part of it. Her works always feel so full of home and love. I'm so glad that I've gotten to meet you through the Picture series at Big Picture. Photography is such a wonderful way to express yourself and connect.


  12. You never cease to amaze me girl.

    You are my hero.



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