The Original Sisterhood
Known since childhood as “The Elliott Girls” or simply, “The Girls”, it makes sense that we work together to support our mother, and each other. Our trio begins with Jenefer Jane “JJ” who was and always will be “in charge”. She’s the peacekeeper. The responsible one, ensuring Natalie and Emilie remain alive. Next is Natalie, the middle child, who was and always will be Miss Congeniality. She’s the athlete. The rebel responsible for three babysitters exiting the summer of ’84. Then there is Emilie, the youngest, who was and always will be “the baby”. At 6’1”, she is the sensitive and quiet soul. The one responsible for the guinea pig that begged for lettuce and the stray dog we adopted from the bus stop.
After high school we went separate ways, from New Mexico to North Carolina. JJ would go on to get her Master’s in Business Administration and work in the finance world before partnering with her now husband, Dexter, to run a variety of businesses. Natalie would go on to get her Master’s in Social Work degree, and work in the mental health field, advocating for children and families to receive the most appropriate services. Natalie would marry and divorce early on but later marry Jason. Emilie would exit college early to marry and gift us with Owen and twins, Maxx and Natalie Jane aka “The Kids”. Emilie would later divorce and work with county government, focusing much time on caring for the kids.
The source of the sisterhood falls to Jim aka “Big Jim” and Connie, small town high school sweethearts married for almost 40 years.
In 2005, at the age of 52, mom would be diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. She hid the disease for years behind dad’s 6’2” frame. The tremors and sudden inability to move were both calmed and steadied by his arm and simple presence. He was her rock. Our rock. Close family and friends knew of her chronic illness, but to the rest of the world, everything was “fine”. Life would turn upside down when our dad unexpectedly passed in 2011 of a massive heart attack at the age of 58. The assumption was Dad would always be mom’s caregiver but that wasn’t God’s plan.
Mom would spend the years following our father’s death desperately seeking a cure for Parkinson’s while trying to manage her symptoms. As the years went by, the cruel symptoms associated with the disease increased, negatively impacting her body while her mind remained clear and in tune. We lived our lives checking in to make sure she was “okay” but knowing the day would come when we had to do more. And then it did. The summer of 2019 changed everything. That’s where the real caregiver story begins for us. Little did we know she would be only the beginning of our caregiving journey.
In March 2022, Natalie’s husband, Jason, was diagnosed with head and neck cancer. From the first time Jason detected something off about the swollen lymph nodes in his neck, to the formal diagnosis, and the decision to move to New York City to participate in a clinical trial at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the journey would push them to their limits. The silver lining of his diagnosis was the cancer brought them closer to God, restoring their faith in Him while also experiencing a myriad of blessings through the kindness of family, friends, and strangers. Their story is a testimony that will inspire and offer hope.
JJ ELLIOTT HILL
My childhood is filled with memories of a modern-day Camelot. A small-town Tennessee upbringing filled with after church family dinners followed by football games and play in the creek with eight mischievous cousins. And there were my sisters. Natalie and Emilie. Thick as thieves, fight like cats and dogs, steal one another’s clothes, always by my side sisters. The world was a playground when your best friends slept in the twin beds next to yours.
My childhood is like a blink in time. My college years took me to Virginia and Paris, France followed by a thirty-year career path spread from Ohio to the Florida Keys. How the years have flown! There have been moves, new jobs, loss of jobs, new babies, heartbreak, love, illness and the sudden death of my dad in 2011.
In March 2013, after 17 years in the banking industry, I found myself downsized, jobless and disinterested in furthering a career in finance. Following a few months of self-pity, I partnered up full time with my fiancé to turn our basement hobby shop into a retail store in Greensboro, NC. Over the next 4 years, the business grew into an aquarium retail, service, and custom design company. We added to the mix a real estate renovation and rental company and my plate seemed full.
Then, in May 2019, as he and I worked to clear a piece of property, I received a call that I needed to make the drive to Tennessee for my mother – something was terribly wrong. And that’s where the caregiving story really begins.
Throughout all the years, God and I have had an understanding. He understands that I need a lot of Grace and Forgiveness. I’ve been glue with God when times were hardest. But when the seas were calm and I had it under control, the Bible was placed in the drawer of my nightstand. My belief in God never faltered but my follow through was a bit lacking.
Today, each morning is a decision to live by faith and not by sight. A wise man once told me he prayed for “the faith to believe”. After 85 years’ experience, his advice seemed to deserve some credence. After almost 50 of my own years, I know I am forgiven. I know I am a child of God. I know that I am perfectly imperfect and in my darkest times, I never walk alone.
natalie Elliott handy
I love people. I have a passion for meeting new people, spending time with family, friends, and work colleagues, and especially helping people. Ask anyone who knows me and they’d say, “Natalie doesn’t know a stranger”. I come by it honest!
Growing up in our family’s hardware store, I talked to everyone; while learning how to count change to customers. In church I would volunteer to sing, recite bible verses in “big church”, and attend every youth related event possible, especially lock-in’s. In school, my teachers kindly placed me in the front of the classroom to ensure I wasn’t “distracted” by other students. I was what they called, a social butterfly.
Naturally, my gifts of connecting with others, quick wit, and helping nature landed me in leadership type roles in the mental health field. I married at age 21, and then again for a second time at age 39. I like to refer to my first marriage as a practice run. We were young and he was kind, but he’s not Jason.
From the outside, my life appeared to be fairly perfect - great job, wonderful husband, close family and friends, and of course, amazing dogs. On the inside, I was burning the candle at both ends; working 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. My response to any request was always, “No problem. Happy to help.”
It wasn’t until my husband Jason’s cancer diagnosis in March 2022 that I finally confessed to myself that I could no longer keep living this life. In those darkest hours I reconnected with God and in doing so, found my true self. I acknowledged and accepted my imperfections, and gave myself permission to love “me”, flaws and all.
Today, I have reorganized my priorities - God, myself, Jason, family and friends, then work. I say “no” more often than not, I seek to find the silver lining in all things hard, and I am grateful for this journey as I’m now living His plan, not mine. I proclaim to be perfectly imperfect.
My mission is simple - Share stories and experiences that inspire and uplift others and hopefully, make them laugh a little. To be a cheerleader, encouraging each and every person to be true to themselves first, while supporting those they love. And of course, make new friends along the way.
Life doesn’t always go as expected. After ten years of marriage, I was thrust into being a single mom for three young children. While I enjoyed helping others in my job, it was a means to an end. My children came first. Period.
Life happened and it was hard. It nearly buried me. Five years ago, I knew I had to do something different. I was exhausted and disillusioned, so I left. Left it all. I turned inward, with the sole goal of finding what I needed emotionally and wanted for the rest of my life. In that process, I found healing.
Today, I keep life simple. I love God, my children and my family and friends. I care for my mother, love my adult children to the moon and beyond, laugh with my sisters, and feel unashamed when I choose to put myself, my sanity, first. In being my best self, I can give freely to others.
My mission in life - To experience joy every day. To live my best life. And for you to live yours!
Natalie came up with the title, “Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver” after acknowledging her own reluctance to being a caregiver for husband Jason, who was diagnosed with Head and Neck Cancer in February 2022. She realized this reluctance was due to her own guilt and shame related to her feelings of self-doubt and perceived inadequacies, and not due to a lack of desire to support Jason. As she expressed these taboo emotions with sisters JJ and Emilie, they empathized and confirmed their own feelings of guilt and shame for having similar thoughts in the caregiving journey with their mother, who has been living with Parkinson’s Disease for over 20 years. At that moment, they knew there had to be others like them! Reluctant caregivers who wanted to provide the best support for our loved ones while maintaining their sanity. And Confessions was born! Combining the power of relationship and technology, JJ, Natalie, and Emilie are using their past experiences to positively impact the lives of caregivers, family members, professionals, and the community at-large as they navigate the complicated world of caregiving.