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New years are, for most of us, a time for optimism and renewal. More than a calendar change, January brings the opportunity for fresh starts and movement beyond past disappointments. That’s part of the reason we find ourselves drawn to inspirational stories as the year begins. Brick & Elm asked four local residents to share with us heartfelt, personal stories about how they overcame challenges in their lives. The obstacles vary—critical illness, poverty, circumstances, fear—and none of these journeys were without setbacks or mistakes. But the outcomes give us hope as we look forward to the coming months. Happy New Year, and may 2024 bring you opportunities for personal transformation and growth.
by Mark D. Williams
I waited for Dr. Alan Keister to come into the room with the results of my gallbladder scan. At this point in my life, before the news I was about to hear a minute from then, I had enjoyed a spectacular life.
I was 58 years old, healthy and fit. I taught at the best school with the best staff and best kids. I had spent time as a sportswriter, wrote 20 books, scribed hundreds of articles for freelance magazines, owned lots of businesses, traveled the world. I was happily married, had a great daughter and grandkids. I enjoyed the construction of my Weltanschauung. I was a happy man. I had filled my lifelong bucket list with a lot of checks. Who was I to complain?
Keister is one calm cat. But when his face screwed up and his eyes watered, I knew the next words out of his mouth were going to be more than “take two aspirin and call me in the morning.”
“The scan showed a huge mass, not good. I’ve already scheduled you tomorrow with an oncologist.”
Well, let the journey begin!
I met with the cancer doctor. The PET scan showed that a grapefruit-sized tumor encased my pancreas, adrenal glands, spleen, veins and arteries, and invaded the intestines and stomach. Diagnosis? Pancreatic cancer. We waited a week for the result of the biopsy.
I confronted the immediate and blunt reality. Time to get the will updated, my affairs in order and say my goodbyes. Most importantly, I needed to decide how I wanted to handle this short journey. I hate needles, hospitals, doctors, nurses, IVs, and everything associated with all that. I had an unnatural scaredy-cat reaction to shots. But I decided to pull the best Tuesdays With Morrie that I could muster and embrace this with dignity and nobility.
The biopsy would reveal whether the cancer was the typical only-have-months-to-live variety or if it was the rare, slower-growing offshoot that few knew anything about. My wife Amy and I sat on the bed waiting for the 6 p.m. phone call. What a weird event waiting on the flip of a coin to decide my fate. Turns out, I had the rare pancreatic-neuroendocrine tumor (PNET), so my lifeline was extended. Yay!
They set up surgery a week later. It was much worse than they thought. The doctor told my wife, mother, sister, family and friends in the waiting room. “The cancer has taken over everything. Start making plans. He’s got a year at most,” the physician said.
How often do we get the chance to write our own story? I had the real and possibly final opportunity to do so, and as an author, I wanted narrative control—live or die on this journey but do so on my terms. Those were the approaches I had to life. Why not death, too?
I wondered how I’d do confronting death and suffering. I had always talked a good game, so it was time to find out. The texture of every moment was about to be intense and real. I reluctantly retired from teaching. I loved teaching, loved my kids, but I was too weak, too distracted.
We turned to MD Anderson and their mighty reputation of fighting cancer. We met with the oncologist and surgeon. The tumor, one of the largest they had encountered, had not metastasized. Since it was a slow-growing cancer, it bought us some time.
Their first idea was to find a clinical trial somewhere in North America, halt and reverse the tumor’s growth, and remove it. No luck. My PNET was unusual in the way it encased the vascular system. Still, the biggest hurdle to me was going to be that I am irrationally terrified of needles. I had never once been dignified or noble or calm before or during an injection. This was indeed going to be a fair test of my mettle.
The first treatment for the PNET was five staggered rounds of chemotherapy. The procedures wore me out, caused nausea, altered various things (skin, foggy brain, etc.), but in the end, the invasive treatment didn’t shrink the tumor one iota. The next move was to make me comfortable until it came time to go.
During this time, I received overwhelming support from friends and family. But the best things ever were the ongoing messages from my past North Heights students, who emailed, texted and posted on social media:
You did so much for all of us. You saw us, helped us, pushed us, supported us.
Now, it’s time for you to let us do the same for you.
Talk about an all-star team. My tribe is better than your tribe.
These teens were now adults, fathers and mothers, owned houses and had kids in school. They brought us food, drinks, gifts, raised money, posted prayers, sent heartfelt messages, designed fundraising T-shirts with my ugly mug on it.
In the meantime, how was I doing with writing my own story, staying calm and noble? I avoided cringeworthy Hallmark moments with folks. I encouraged poking fun at me, keeping things as normal as possible. Little things triggered nostalgic memories: Green Stamps, pay phones, white chocolate at the Sears candy counter, the first time I smelled a girl’s hair who used Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific, patting Papaw’s Old Spice on my cheeks before a date.
At odd times, late at night and by myself, I would burst into tears at stupid commercials, at the end of Field of Dreams, or when the right song popped up. I was wistful for daily interaction. I had retired too soon. I missed my friends. But I felt so bad every day that whatever pity I took upon myself, I couldn’t sustain it. I was losing weight, losing time and losing the battle. So I lived life as best I could, accepting that within a year or two, I’d be a campfire story.
Then out of the blue, the MDA doctors called me. “We have an idea for surgery, risky and unique. You’ll be the first one, the guinea pig. You could die on the table but if you make it through that, well, you’ve got a decent chance at another 20 years.” I never hesitated. Let’s do it.
Fourteen hours on the table. I nearly died three times. Amy fretted in the waiting room. They took half the pancreas, half my stomach, lots of intestines and other meaty parts, and re-routed my entire midsection vascular system. The two surgeons show slides and videos of the surgery to medical conferences nowadays.
I spent the next six months in the hospital in Houston getting worse. I endured 24/7 nausea, stomach leaks, a collapsed lung, drainage tubes, 24/7 hiccups (scarier than it sounds), severe loss of weight and was too weak to walk. They sent me to a local apartment in Houston, where I got weaker and suffered more. Amy had to call the ambulance three times because I passed out from orthostatic hypertension, a form of low blood pressure that happens when standing up from sitting or lying down.
I lost it. Lost my will. They wanted me back in the hospital. My weight dropped below 120 pounds. I begged my brother-in-law to carry me to the car, drive me back to Amarillo. I actually told him, through tears, “I wanted to die in my own bed, not Houston. Please, man!” Imagine the pain and suffering he must have felt knowing mine was such an unrealistic, unfair and stupid plea. (I’ve apologized numerous times since.)
My favorite MDA nurse called and, through my nihilistic fog, talked me into coming back to the hospital until I stabilized. Two months later, after a series of struggles, they sent me home to Amarillo. Things turned south quickly. I lost control of my own story. I dropped weight until I weighed my junior-high weight of 112 pounds. The doctor said to get back to MDA or get to my grave. The airplane ambulance took me back to the hospital for another few months.
I wasn’t Morrie any longer. I embraced anger, resentment, grief. Amy and my tribe continued to support and uplift me, so I ultimately found traction to again feel gratitude, relief and hope. I stood my ground, embraced each turn and twist, and had a cacophony of support. There were times when the pain was so bad, the inability to stand or use the restroom on my own, the boredom, the fogginess of my brain, that I was OK leaving this realm. Two years later? I had a scan this fall that showed the small bit of cancer they left on the pancreas hadn’t grown at all. That’s a nice ending to a chapter.
I stayed terrified with each and every needle, poke, prod, IV, and maiming of my skin. That never waned. I cried from time to time. I could be an irritating patient, Amy says. But you know, the ride was good, worth it. For the most part, I lived up to my plan. I was more dignified than in the previous 60 years, certainly more humble. It has been easily the most intense three years of my life.
But I am still here. My three-year story is written. I had little to do with the chapter, in fact. The writers were family and friends and students and doctors and nurses and staff. They wrote a happy ending.
What now? What’s next?
In this journey where I confronted death several times, I learned a lot about living. I’m 63 and I am looking for my new purpose, my next reason, the next chapter to write. I’m a lucky guy.
Mark D. Williams
Mark D. Williams is the author of 22 books and retired from education after teaching for 20 years at Amarillo Independent School District. Mark has fished all over the world and writes about travel, sports, outdoors, backpacking, camping, science and more. He has written hundreds of articles for numerous national magazines and newspapers, and owns several businesses.
Acts of Kindness
by Mary Bralley
I try to greet each day with a smile on my face and a song in my heart—but it hasn’t always been this way. People often ask me why I dedicate so much of my time and energy to helping others. It starts with a part of my history not many people know about.
I come from a humble upbringing. We were so poor that I kept cardboard in the bottom of my shoes to keep my feet from falling through. My mother died when I was 16, which left a huge hole in my heart. In 1986, I moved to Amarillo at the age of 17—pregnant, alone and scared. I became a mother at 18. I landed a job at Albertsons and soon began working two shifts every day. During my lunch hour, I would transition my daughter from her daytime sitter to her nighttime sitter. I was working 70 hours a week.
The pace was unsustainable. I couldn’t afford to eat, and I began fainting at work from exhaustion. My store director was concerned for my well-being and sent my supervisor to check on me at my apartment. I was mortified for her to see the way I was living. We didn’t have any furniture or food in the house. My daughter and I slept on a pallet on the floor. The next day, the store stockers brought bags of dented/damaged food to me that couldn’t be placed on the shelves. Other employees chipped in and gave me clothing for my daughter. I was so embarrassed to be a charity case, but over time, I learned to swallow my pride and be thankful for the help. These acts of kindness changed the trajectory of my life. When I look back, I recognize that not only was their kindness and generosity enhancing my life, it was enriching theirs.
Those lean, tough years left an indelible imprint on my life. I learned the one thing in life that I had control over was my attitude. I began to wake up each day thanking God for putting me exactly where I was and making the choice to be happy with where I was, who I was with and what I had. Once my focus shifted, my life began to change.
I learned to look for the positive in each situation, to appreciate the goodness of God, to forge through the tough times, and to help others along the way, all while trying to create a life that would sustain my daughter and me. I got knocked down so many times, but I did the only thing I knew how to do: Keep going. Do the next right thing. Eventually, my ability to adjust to changing situations helped me land a great job, which allowed me to get on my feet financially.
When my daughter was headed into middle school, we had a conversation about college. She told me she wasn’t planning to go because I hadn’t—and I was doing just fine. That struck a chord with me. She didn’t realize I had always regretted not going. My parents had never stressed the importance of education because they were just trying to survive. So that night, I decided I was going to pursue a college degree, no matter what it took, so I could be a good role model to my daughter. Before long, I found myself juggling responsibilities as a mother, full-time employee and a new college student. To date, I consider earning my degree as one of my greatest achievements.
Acts of kindness reverberate long after they are given. 1 Peter 4:10 says, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” I have received so many gifts and so much of God’s grace, and that’s one reason volunteering has become important to me. It’s a central part of my story: I have intimate knowledge of how much lifelong impact comes from others treating you with kindness and respect. I’ve tried to pay it forward because I identify with the challenges many young people face.
I’ve intentionally become involved with organizations that focus on learning and education. I served on the Amarillo Independent School District school board, Friends of the Amarillo Public Library, Los Barrios de Amarillo and am currently working for Window on a Wider World. I want to make a difference for the next generation by encouraging and enabling them to be the best they can be.
My challenge to you is to allow resiliency to echo through the corridors of your heart. Smile when life knocks you down, knowing that you can learn from the experience and get back up. Smile at everyone you meet and offer them a word of encouragement—you never know what kind of battle they are facing. You can do anything as long as you believe in yourself, focus on the positive and work hard. No matter what happens in life, you can still live out your dreams. Find joy by doing your part to create a better world. Put a song in your heart and dance to life’s melody. And when someone offers you help, don’t be too proud to accept it.
Mary received her associate’s from Amarillo College, and her bachelor’s degree from Wayland Baptist University, Amarillo. She has worked in health care, the utilities sector, and commercial real estate, specializing in management, marketing, public relations, and business development. Currently, Mary is the Executive Director for Window on a Wider World.
Passion and Purpose
by Melodie Graves
I never thought leadership was going to be my journey. I can remember being shy and never wanting to speak before crowds. Fast-forward to today, and my ability to relate to others and public speaking allow me to walk in the anointing that is upon my life.
When I started advising technical education at Amarillo College, I had to help more than 1,200 students get enrolled in class, and I was also teaching developmental reading, writing and math. The first few days were filled with tears, mistakes, long hours, and so many questions I could not answer. I could have given up, but as a single mother, that was not an option. I came back the next day determined to make it work—for myself, for my son, and for the students who needed an advocate. I took my mistakes and figured out how to correct them. Once I got the process down, I had more time to pour positivity into my students. My ability to come back from this situation led me to my passion, which quickly gave way to my purpose.
I wish I could say the story of how I got here was easy, but it was not. My story of resilience is definitely a chapter book. Every chapter involves a struggle, a defeat and a comeback that made me smarter, wiser and stronger.
I remember thinking about how I wanted my story to turn out after high school. I was going to get my bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in two-year increments, and then get married and raise a family in a beautiful house with a white picket fence. This is the American Dream, right?
But the dream doesn’t tell you what happens when one part of the process doesn’t work out. How we decide to pick ourselves up and keep going is a true sign of our resilience. When my dream didn’t come true, I decided to step up, find something I could fight for, and encourage others to fight for the same thing.
The great civil rights leader Frederick Douglass once said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” It took me a long time to understand that struggles laid the foundation for resilience, which then leads to progress. Leaders like Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Arthur C. Gaston, Carter G. Woodson and George Washington Carver are responsible not just for sharing their vision, but for inspiring others to desire and see that vision come to fruition.
Good leaders can see the strengths in others and push them to greatness, and they must possess the resilience to keep going. Leaders must understand that true success only comes after you have endured defeat. The best leaders are those who inspire others to achieve greatness and give themselves the same grace they give others.
There are all kinds of guidelines for being a leader. Some say leaders can’t have feelings, can’t say certain things, or can’t express who they are to the world. On the contrary, I think leaders should show their feelings, express their discontent with injustice, and remind people that while they might be in the position of a leader, they are still human. Because I am human, I can encourage other humans to become leaders, too. We may not be perfect, but the love we give, the service we provide, and the heart we possess are perfect, and those leadership qualities will continue to make a space for us.
Though we fall, we are destined to get back up again and keep pushing for success.
A lifelong resident of Amarillo, Graves grew up in the North Heights neighborhood and now makes her home there. She earned her associate’s from Amarillo College, and both bachelor’s and master’s in Communication from West Texas A&M University. Graves has worked in higher education for more than 14 years. She joined Amarillo College in 2010, and was named Associate Director of Academic Advising in August 2019. She is the Foster Care Liaison and Justice-Involved Advocate for the College. She is a trained Donna Beegle Poverty Coach and an advocate for the North Heights Community. Graves is the 2023 President of the NAACP, Amarillo Branch, and the President of the North Heights Advisory Association. She serves on the board of directors for Friends of the Public Library and the Leaders Readers Network Board, Police Community Advisory Panel, and she participated in Leadership Amarillo/Canyon in 2021-22. Her new podcast, Made With Pressure, is a platform to discuss, highlight and encourage change, advocacy and fulfilling life’s purpose. Listen at madewithpressure.com.
by Martha McWilliams
An invasion of arachnids have shown up on Texas Panhandle roads. Not the eight-legged creatures with fangs and webs, but the three-wheeled, motorcycle-like Can-Am Spyders.
On these vehicles, sometimes known as reverse trikes, the rider sits on top of a gas tank, straddling the body of the machine like riding a horse. Unlike a traditional tricycle, a Spyder’s unusual Y-shape has two wheels on the front of the bike and one wheel in the rear. These unique motorcycles can top 100 mph, but for those without the need for speed, are ideal for leisurely rides around the neighborhood or down back country roads. Thrill-seeking riders love the Spyder’s configuration. The stabilization of the two front wheels takes the rider through the tightest of curves at higher speeds and ease than a traditional trike.
I’m probably the least likely person to have fallen in love with this kind of transportation. I’m deathly afraid of riding the two-wheeled variety of motorcycle.
When I was in seventh grade, I was walking home from school when I came upon a huddle of kids in the road. Some of them were crying, and they stood around a motorcycle on its side. Next to the downed motorcycle was a boy—just a year or two older than I was—lying in the road, his leg twisted in a way no leg should be, with a bone poking through a ripped pants leg. The ambulance and police had not yet arrived.
My young, impressionable mind emblazoned that graphic motorcycle accident in my memory bank. I’ll never forget it. I will not ride a two-wheel motorcycle unless doing so saved the lives of my children or grandchildren. I cannot fathom such a scenario.
But my lifelong fear of riding a motorcycle did not deter my appreciation of the thrill one must receive from riding one. I longed to experience that thrill for myself. What if I had three wheels on the ground instead of two? When I suggested that to my husband, he wasn’t so sure. He reminded me that toddlers riding tricycles could still tip themselves over when taking tight corners. I was disheartened.
Then in 2008, Can-Am designed and marketed the first Spyder, a sport model of the reverse trike. Intrigued, my husband took one for a test drive at a local PowerSports dealership. We kept thinking about it until, four years later, he brought home a new model for a test drive. A friend was selling a Can-Am Spyder RT Limited, a touring model designed for traveling long distances, in comfort, with maximum cargo storage space and seating for two. My husband took me for a 60-mile ride around the outskirts of town.
Upon pulling into the driveway when we got home, I told him, “Buy it!”
Five months later, we took an 11-day, 3,000-mile round trip on our Spyder RT. We packed everything the two of us needed for the trip in the cargo space, washing clothes along the way. Less than a year after returning home after that first trip, I put myself behind the handlebars—learning how to operate and ride our Spyder—and got a motorcycle designation on my driver’s license.
That was 11 years ago. Since then, we’ve fully embraced the Spyder lifestyle. We’ve acquired heated gear, cooling gear, a cargo trailer…and an additional Spyder. I ride my own now.
But we don’t necessarily ride alone. After completing our first big trip, my husband and I connected with other Spyder owners in the area. Around the end of 2012, the TriState Spyder Ryders (TSSR) group was born. Today, it’s grown to more than 50 members riding more than 30 bikes. We get together once a month to fellowship and discuss our hobby. We take group day rides together as well as week-long trips—some hundreds of miles—to rallies and wherever we can find beautiful roads to ride this odd-looking, three-wheeled mode of transportation. We’ve formed lifelong friendships in this group, which is the biggest benefit. (Riding together is the bonus topping on the proverbial cake.)
True to my expectations, and probably to a fault, I am fearless on my Spyder RT. I’ve ridden up Pike’s Peak. I’ve cruised the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado, the “twisties” in the Hill Country, and many beautiful, winding roads in the Ozarks. My husband and I have a communication system in our helmets. We are both safety-conscious riders, but I’m constantly hearing, “You need to slow down!” When riding, you have to be fully present. Immersed in the moment, you feel a freedom from stress, worry, and fear. I call it “wind therapy,” and I’m not alone.
Check that off the bucket list: Overcoming my fear of riding a motorcycle in order to experience the thrill of doing so.
Martha Mosley McWilliams
Born and raised in Amarillo, Martha graduated from Palo Duro High School, eventually retiring from Pantex. She has been married to husband Jim for 34 years. The couple has four children, seven grandchildren, one great grandchild and one on the way. Martha enjoys art, writing poetry, riding her Spyder, and volunteering
at The PARC.