Black Elk Peak

I could not have picked a worse year to become a full-time RVer. 


Barbara is a fiery redhead you can’t help but love, even when she hotly debates you.

If you’re invited to one of her dinner parties–and chances are good since she often invites the whole town–you will be greeted with a big, warm hug, even if she’s never met you. If the smells and tastes of her home-cooked meals don’t win you over, then her rapturous laugh and zest for life will.

Barbara (Barb) squeezes every drop of joy that life has to offer, and her hope is that you do too. In her presence you probably will.

Barb is my step-mother, who when I was a teenager insisted I move in with her and my father after years of instability. She wanted to provide a more “normal” home-life for me in the last of my frenetic teenage years. If not for that decision, I’m not sure where I’d be today.

Before we left for our RV journey, Barb, along with our friends, Paul and Denise, wanted to throw us a big Bon Voyage party. Bryce and I don’t love being the center of attention, but it was important to have a proper send-off, so we graciously accepted. There was a wonderful party with flair, friends, and more food than is realistic to consume in one evening. She devised a secret plan; each friend brought a dish that was state specific. BBQ, casseroles, and jambalaya nearly spilled off the table.

Can you believe she did all that? I can–that’s Barb.

Barbara Attell Actress

Barbara being her cheeky self.

We said our tearful goodbyes In late August and set our course toward adventure.

By January, Barb had cancer…I really could not have picked a worse year to become a full-time RVer.

It started as an ear ache that went misdiagnosed for six months! Then a lump was discovered after an MRI. Finally, Squamous Cell Carcinoma, a golf-ball sized tumor, was identified on the base of Barb’s tongue. Barb endured daily radiation and weekly chemotherapy treatments for two months. She lost her taste buds and saliva, couldn’t eat or swallow, and had a feeding tube in her abdomen for months. It could be years before she gets her taste buds back.

It’s not the the worst form of cancer one can have, and it’s often successfully treated. But it was a devastating diagnosis, especially for someone who’s a food and wine enthusiast.


Is there a right way for full-time RVers to respond to a family member’s illness?

Many full-time RVers, including me, often feel guilty for not being there more for our loved ones. We feel pulled by nomadic life, missing the people we love, and feeling like we should help them more. We’re always searching for the right balance, and our worst fear is that something is going to happen to someone while we’re away. The concerns are fairly universal: Should I go home and take care of family member(s)? How would that work? How long should I stay? Will I be able to return to the road? Am I doing the right thing?

I don’t have all the answers, and everyone’s situation is different anyway. But I thought it would be good to hear from someone who has more wisdom to offer than me, someone who has squeezed a lot from life and doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon. So, I asked Barb.

Questions for Barb

1. Tell us about yourself, what you do for fun, hobbies etc.

I am an outgoing, gregarious person, who loves people. I love deep conversations about religion, politics, social issues–all the things you aren’t supposed to talk about.

I love to go to the beach and swim; Laguna Beach, California, is my favorite. In fact, I consider swimming in the ocean my religion. I love music, dancing and singing (although right now my voice is compromised). I love to eat and cook, entertain, and plan meals (although eating food is currently compromised).

I love my job. I get to teach people about wine and enjoy a good bottle of wine too. I love you and Brycela (her Yiddish nickname for my husband Bryce).

*Note from me: I pointed out to Barb that I loved how often she used the word “love” to describe herself. She hadn’t noticed.

CHOC Follies cast

Barbara on the left, with the ladies from the cast of the CHOC Follies (Children’s Hospital of Orange County)


2. What was it like to receive a cancer diagnosis? How have your feelings changed throughout this experience?

I was shocked and frightened, and I went numb. Then I just wanted to get rid of it and made it my mission to return to “normal.”

But my feelings change day to day.

For example, I have lost a lot of body mass and my butt is completely flat. I was going to the gym expecting the muscles to come back in one-day–two-weeks tops. This was totally unrealistic, and I put additional pressure on myself I didn’t need.

Now I say, “my butt will come back in due time.” So my expectations of normal have changed. The fact is I’m not going to heal as quickly as I thought. That may sound depressing to some, but to me, it’s hopeful because I can stop putting pressure on myself.


3. You are an incredibly positive person. What makes you stay so positive throughout this experience?

I spent my early years very negative due to my upbringing and time spent in show businesses. Over the years, I’ve developed relationships with people who have the most positive attitude, people who have figured out how to make the smallest crumb into a feast, without complaints. At some point I decided that I wanted to be like those people.

Then when I met your dad, I started to appreciate everything. Like the other day, on our walk, we passed a yard with all these different colored roses. Did you know that different colored roses smell different too? Lavender roses smell musty, peach roses smell like peaches, and red roses have that traditional “rose” smell. There are so many species of roses, and that makes me happy.

Okay, back to your question, I have my three “G’s” to happiness:

  • Gratitude – it’s so simple to be happy for small things. Like, be happy you woke up! Really, if you are alive, you have options. How amazing is that?


  • Goals – you have to have goals, even if it’s to walk around the block or call a friend today. It’s nice to have lifelong goals, but you need something to look forward to on a daily basis. I get excited to travel somewhere new, even if it’s to a new restaurant in a different town.


  • Gifts – giving to someone else, even if it’s just a smile when you don’t feel like it. The smile is for you too, because it will make you feel happier, and it’s good energy to put into the universe.


Let me tell you a little story about giving to others.

A few days after my last chemotherapy and radiation treatment, I had a stroke. I know, I can’t believe that either. I was fortunate to share a hospital room with a thirty-five year old woman I’ll call Lily. She has three little kids and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She had had surgery and was hopefully in recovery.


One night I heard her mumble in her sleep, “I need help,” so I called a nurse in to wake her. Lily had dreamt that she was trapped behind her bed.


The next day she had a brain scan that revealed a small spot on her brain. Obviously this was devastating news. While waiting for her biopsy results, I was praying that it would be clear. When the results came back that it wasn’t cancer I sobbed so hard with relief.


I realized then that I had stopped caring about my own cancer situation. I only cared about her (Barb starts to cry telling me this –I cry too). I have lived a full and wonderful life, but here was this woman, half my age who had so much more to lose. My ability to give my energy to her completely took me out of my own situation.


Giving to others any way you can is a wonderful way to cultivate happiness and positivity.


Barbara, Lily, and friend, after cancer treatments and Barb’s stroke.



4. What’s it like having me and Bryce be away?

It sucks. You’re my kids. I have a new son-in-law I never get to see. I adore you guys. I want to have you over for dinner.

But many families live apart. Kids get married and move away, maybe go off to war–which I can’t imagine. I believe however that our children are meant to live their own lives and it’s not right for me to feel bad about that. Sure, I’d rather have you here, but so what! Your life is not mine to live.

I think it’s selfish really to begrudge kids for the decisions they make about their lives.  I’m quite proud of you for taking the risks you’ve taken. I tell everyone that it’s wonderful that you are living your dreams. That makes me happy. Secretly though, I’d like to win the lottery, move to Italy, and have my children come live with me.


5. Would you want me to come home to help out?

You did come home! You visited many times, and you should feel good about that. You cooked, you shopped, you helped out in many ways.

My response to Barb:

But it didn’t feel like enough. I felt guilty for not doing more. But I also didn’t know what the right thing to do was.

Barb’s response to me:

Let me say something about guilt. Guilt is something you should only feel if you’ve done something bad or wrong. I never thought about you living your own life as being bad or wrong. Maybe if you never called, or visited, or you treated me badly, only maybe then guilt is appropriate. But you can’t feel guilty for something that is not in your control. Guilt is a useless emotion–let it go.


6. Would you want me to take care of you long-term?

As my mother aged, I felt like I wasn’t doing enough either, but I did my best. You can’t just keep giving and giving to someone else, no matter their situation. You have to take care of you too.

And you know what? My mother didn’t expect me to take care of her. In fact, my mother hated being take care of. So no, my preference is that you shouldn’t have to take of me or your dad. But if it comes to that, you do your best and feel good about it.


7. What are your hopes for the future?

I want my taste buds back and some saliva. That would make it easier to eat. I want my energy and muscle tone back. I really hope I can sing again. Right now my vocal cords are damaged and it sounds like I croak when I sing.

I no longer wish to go back to normal. I am inventing a new normal and I’m happy with what I have. I have made peace with where I am in this journey. I will continue to love life as much as I ever did before.


8. Thank you Barb for sharing your journey with me and others. I appreciate your willingness to be so open. Just so you know a few hundred people may read this post (or not).

Oh God. Can I read it first?

Doing your best is enough

I hope you found this interview as meaningful as I did. There aren’t any right answers on what to do when a family member gets ill. Everyone’s situation is different, and different families have unique needs.

But if there’s one thing that might be universal, it’s that mostly, we’re all trying to do our best. We’re doing our best to balance living our lives while serving others too, in the best way we know how. If you are doing that then let go of guilt. Clearing that space will make room for other, healthier emotions–like love and gratitude.

Thank you for reading this. If you have a story to share about a family member or a situation that is calling you home, feel free to leave a comment and I promise to respond.  

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