Tuesday, June 15, 2021


We have a variety of cheerleaders in our lives: our spouse, parents, siblings, friends, teachers, etc. I lost one of mine at the beginning of the month and have been reflecting on her role in my life ever since.

My grandma grew up never far from her sister. Ag and GG were well known in the area I live. In fact, when I was growing up my sister called them “Grandma and the other one.” Mainly because the two were so similar, you could call them both Grandma and it would effectively call them both over. 

While I remember the two of them that way for my entire childhood, it began long before. They grew up, got married, and then lived only fields apart. My grandma had two kids, so did GG. My dad and his brother, Tim, grew up with their cousins - Ellen and Jim - more like siblings than cousins. We lost Jim a few years back. And, at the beginning of June, we lost Ellen.

Ellen had lived in Arizona my entire life. I remember as a kid it seemed to be an exotic place, so different from the fields and plains I know like the back of my hand. Every summer, around July, Ellen and her children, Abby and Joseph, would travel back to Central Illinois for a week or two. We’d joke about the heat - how the humidity here made it feel even hotter than the normal dry desert heat of Tucson. I’d watch my Great Aunt GG glow with excitement as she would dote on this family from so far away.

As I got older, Ellen and I began to talk about school. She taught in Arizona, so we’d have conversations when she’d come back about the teaching of reading in the lower grades and the beauty of the program that is Reading Recovery. She told me about the strengths of her school and their students, I told her about mine. I remember when her school was trying something different - she and another teacher would be teaching a multi-age classroom. We talked about what the potential advantages were and her eyes would sparkle with excitement of what was ahead.

As a young mom, Ellen told me on her frequent trips back how impressed she was with how Chris and I were raising our boys. She’d comment on how relaxed I was as a parent, to which I’d assure her that wasn’t always the case. She would share parenting advice and ask why I’d made the choices I did. And I still remember how she glowed when she became a grandma. Nothing was more important to Ellen than her family. She loved them so.

But while Ellen encouraged me as a teacher and mom, it’s nothing compared to how she rooted me on as a writer. I remember when I began my blog I got an email from her telling me she read my posts and was so proud of me. Then came the trip home where she shared that she was in her classroom one day on a Friday. I believe it was after school and she had a moment to sit down and read her email. Choice Literacy’s Big Fresh newsletter had come out that day, with my first article for them shared within. Ellen said she read that summary, then reread it, then clicked on the link to make sure it was me. She told me how she ran to find a colleague to tell them that I was writing for Choice Literacy. I hadn’t told anyone in my family, not thinking it was something they would care about. Ellen did. 

On her next trip home she told me that she was still reading all of my articles and didn’t I think it was time to write a professional book? We talked about it. I said I was talking to someone at one of the educational publishers, but didn’t feel like I had a book in me. She said she was certain I did.

Shortly after that trip we got the hard news that Ellen had a diagnosis, ALS. I knew already what this meant, we’d already had a friend of our family that passed from it years ago. My heart broke for Ellen, for her family, but they stepped up. They brought so much attention to this disease and fought for awareness, for funding, for education, for a cure. I was, I am, in awe.

For the last few years, Ellen and her family dealt with the progression of this disease with such grace. From miles away, I’ve watched and prayed. It’s not enough. It’s never enough.

This past November, my first fictional short story was published in an anthology. My cousin Abby, Ellen’s daughter, sent me a message as they tried to get Ellen’s computer hooked up so she could read it. That text meant more to me than I can ever express. In a time where it would be absolutely ok to block out the outside world, to turn inward, Ellen was still finding ways to show me how excited she was about my journey.

The thing is, we all need cheerleaders in our lives. When times are hard, when imposter’s syndrome is real, those cheerleaders remind us to keep going, keep fighting. Ellen Mooney was one of mine. She was a proud mom, wife, grandmother, teacher, sister, cousin, and so much more. Life is a little harder without her in it, as it always is when you lose those you love. 

Hug your loved ones. Appreciate every moment. Dig deep and lead with kindness. And if you have a spare dollar or two to donate to the ALS Arizona chapter in Ellen’s name, I’d be so grateful. 

Love to you all.