The right mental attitude

This photo was taken exactly one week before everything changed. Jeff and Drew were on their way to watch the Nats play the Marlins, 9-9-12.

This photo was taken exactly one week before everything changed.
Jeff and Drew were on their way to watch the Nats play the Marlins, 9-9-12.

“Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.” — author unknown, often falsely attributed to Thomas Jefferson

Just the other day, Jeff sent me this quote because he knew I would like it; I knew, too, that he liked it.  What he did not know was that it would involve yet another instance of my featuring his photo on this blog, something he always complains about.  I try to keep it to a minimum, out of respect for his privacy, but sometimes I cannot help myself.

I can’t think of any other person whose photo more fits this quote.  It’s interesting because I’ve often accused Jeff of being a negative thinker, a pessimist who rains on my fantasy parades, whose blunt commentary cuts through the gauzy mists of my daydreams.

It has taken the past two and a half years for me to realize that what I think of as pessimism has another side.  No determination is stronger than that borne of grim realism coupled with firm resolve to overcome nearly impossible obstacles.

Note that the quote does not mention “a positive attitude,” but rather, “the right mental attitude.”  Sometimes, there is little that is positive about a situation other than our ability to choose how we respond to it.

For all of his taciturn skepticism, Jeff’s response to the disease that has ravaged his body has been astoundingly, almost unbelievably strong.  That he continues to work full time, not just on his job but also at home, defies all logic, given the medical trauma of the past 30 months, the harsh facts of his condition, and his acute awareness that the suffering likely will continue.

Despite every evidence to the contrary, his continuing strength makes it almost impossible for me to believe that he is not going to beat this and live for many more years.  But whatever happens, he has given me the invaluable gift of sustaining, for over two years, a more normal life than I would have thought possible when the nightmare first began.

Early in the diagnostic process, when we were delivered news that seemed to get progressively worse, one blow after another, we had returned from an all-day session at Walter Reed that included a very discouraging meeting with the oncology staff.  That night, while Jeff was out to pick up some takeout food for dinner, one of the residents called.  He reported that the tumor board had met to discuss Jeff’s case again after we left, and they wanted to do an additional scan; they suspected there might be yet more undetected tumors.

“Would this change the treatment plan?” I asked.  No, I was told, it would not. I asked him why another scan, given that the treatment plan was to go forward regardless of what it said.  Why did we need more bad news?

“Because it might help you to adjust your expectations; we don’t want you to be anticipating that we will do any surgery.”

I knew two things at that point: one, that they certainly had me pegged; and two, that I was so angry I couldn’t contain myself.

“I know something about my husband none of you know,” I was shouting now, but I didn’t care. “He is strong as an ox.  We don’t need our expectations adjusted any more than they already have been.  Go back and tell the tumor board that we aren’t doing any more scans until the treatments have had a chance to work.”

After I hung up, I felt scared to tell Jeff what I had just done.  I thought he would be angry because I had shouted at the doctor and voiced a decision that rightly belonged to him. When Jeff returned and I confessed, he laughed — LAUGHED! — and said he agreed with me.  No more scans until later.  I felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

If you’ve been following this blog, you know how the past two years have unfolded, and how Jeff has more than proven my assertions about his strength.  Those of you who know him well, also know that his faith has been the foundation of his remarkable stamina.  I am so thankful that the mercies of God are truly new every morning.  I don’t know what the future holds, but I know that Jeff has already won this battle regardless of the final outcome.

His attitude — the right attitude — is an inspiration to me, as I know it has been to many others.  Thanks for letting me pay tribute to him here.


  1. raynard

    Julie, I confess, I have 1 ” Rocky 3 “, ( You ain’t so bad) Clash of the Titian( Atitude is a reflection of leadership) and ” Shawshank Redemption ( Hope is a good thing and no good thing ever dies) . Throw in there” Michael Jordan first couple of years with the Bulls, Vince Lombardi, and John Wooden…Reading good books last 2 years. Met a young man at work last week. Didnt give him” a ra ra speech, just a simple message about the gift of your God Given talent.BTW, tell Jeff and Matt, ( NY Yankees and Mets fan here lol) Thank you for all you do and ” Mapping out 2nd” Cannonball Run to Virginia. Be blessed

    • Hi Raynard, Jeff just gave me a good John Wooden quote the other day, and I think I have one or two from Vince Lombardi too. As I’ve mentioned before, Shawshank Redemption is one of my favorite movies and the quote you mention has been inside the front cover of my journal for many years now. Things are starting to warm up in the Tidewater area so I’m guessing you are good to go on Virginia Beach from here on in. Hope you have a great week! BTW the Mets are A-OK with us but I won’t mention to Drew that you are a Yankees fan, you don’t even want to get him started on that… 😀

  2. Good Monday morning, Julia. ☕️ Quite a delight to start my day with such a tribute to Jeff, for all he does and all he is EVERYDAY. I respect that he is a private person, but you’ve shared enough over these months that the wonderful character is obvious. I picture him as a caring husband, a dad that enjoys reading to Matt nightly, a playful grandfather, a dentist that gives his best to his patients, and a Christian that reads his Bible daily. I admire you both and have shared with the Vann Clan. 🙏 Love and prayers, Sheila

    • Thanks Sheila, it sounds as if you have a pretty clear picture of Jeff, minus a few eccentricities that likely came from living with me all these years! As I write this he is out working in the yard (having promised me he will NOT overdo it). Thanks so much for being here with us. ❤ ❤ ❤

  3. Bill Allen

    Thank you for sharing this. Please give Jeff my best and let him know that he’s been remembered in prayers at my house. I agree that his determination in the face of this battle is an inspiration to all of us.

    • Thanks so much Bill. I know it means a lot to him to hear from people who knew him “way back when” and still remember. Please keep those prayers coming! Hope you have a wonderful springtime.

  4. Janice Brown

    What a beautiful tribute to the bravest,most courageous man I know. You are so right. His battle is already won,but he is blessed to have you fighting along side him.

    • Thank you Janice. You’re one of the few people who know just how remarkable Jeff has always been. In many ways he is like his older sister. 🙂

  5. Rene

    Fantastic post, wonderful picture, and just what I need as I return to work (to a potentially unpleasant situation) after Spring Break!

    • Rene, it makes me feel so happy to think that my post may have helped you today! I’m sending up a quick prayer that your work situation is resolved with minimal fuss or trauma. Hope you have a great week-after-break!

  6. Carolyn

    Thank God for Jeff ‘s attitude and his strong well. We are waiting for our five year reunion. Loved your blog today and what a great picture of the two. Hope chemo isn’t to bad this week. You all take and have a good week. Hi Matt , hugs to all. Carolyn

    • Hi Carolyn, Jeff asked them to give him this week off chemo since it’s a holiday weekend and he wanted a bit of extra time to relax. Can you believe we are more than halfway there to our 5-year survival celebration? God is good. Thanks for keeping us posted on how you are doing. We love you.

  7. Linda Blackford

    What a beautiful tribute! And there’s a lesson for all of us in it. The combination of faith and determination is a powerful force! My prayers are with you both.

    • Linda, thank you so much. It often feels as if we are surviving on prayers. It’s that floating feeling when you are somehow lifted above the raging waves without quite knowing how or why. I have learned to say to myself “…this must be the prayers of the saints kicking in!” Thanks for being with us on this journey.

      • Judy from Pennsylvania

        Julia, your words here describe what I too have felt during hard times. I came across this quote recently and it parallels what you said. It was from Kayla Mueller, who was killed while a prisoner of ISIS: “….by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in free fall.” And your blog today harmonizes beautifully with today’s meditation on The Upper Room:, and where that writer says more

        • Wow. Judy, thanks so much for sharing these links, which were quite inspiring to me, and for mentioning Kayla Mueller and her letter home, which I looked for and read after getting your comment. The things she must have gone through are beyond imagining, but there is a resolve in her voice that strikes familiar chords — echoes of what Job said in Job 13:15, what Paul said in Philippians 2:17, what Dr. King said in Memphis shortly before he was murdered, and what many less famous people have said (in words and deeds) that serve as an example to me this day. The resolve of others reminds me of the beautiful words in Hebrews 12:1. I am so glad you are here, bringing me words of strength and comfort tonight!

          • Judy from Pennsylvania

            Thank you for the link to Kayla’s letter. I hadn’t previously read it all and I find it to be full of strength, faith and love. I also looked up the Bible verse you noted — thanks, they’re good ones to be reminded of!

  8. Jack

    I make my living working for companies that are usually not in the greatest of straits, either financially or otherwise. Any fool, myself included, can usually walk into a business and tell you what’s wrong with it. There’s precious little value in that. I’ve learned so many great lessons, both in business and in life, about how rebuilding something is just a series of small, faithful actions taken one day at a time. Sometimes things don’t work out, more often they do. “There is no royal road to anything, one thing at a time, all things in succession. That which grows fast, withers as rapidly. That which grows slowly, endures.” Good advice for recovery from an illness or a business problem or really, anything. What a terrific tribute (and picture) of Jeff. Blessings to you both

    • Thank you, Jack. I think I’ve gotten through every tough challenge of my life from remembering the principle you describe so well here. Some days I have to remind myself to just keep putting one foot in front of the other and head in the right direction, realizing it will be a long journey. I also value those who are willing to keep silent with their criticisms unless they have an idea of how to make things better. As you say, it’s easy to point out problems, but much more difficult to put in the time and effort to turn them around. I appreciate your comments here.

  9. Julia,
    Wonderful post. Courage often isn’t obvious. It’s truest evidence is in quiet bearing.

    • Thank you, Alan. “Quiet bearing” is perhaps one of the phrases that best describe Jeff. I’m glad you are here with us!

  10. Julia, Beautiful picture of your “tall, dark & handsome guys” 🙂 …
    wonderful tribute to your husband. You share your love and admiration as often as you feel the need. We all admire your courage…

    • Thank you Merry. It’s easier to be brave when we’re surrounded by courage. I appreciate your presence and encouragement here! Hope you are doing well.

  11. Emily Laveder

    This is one of the best things I’ve read in a long time. You are SO right about his strength. I’ve always seen him as a pillar of strength with an attitude due much admiration. You too, have a strength that is unparalleled. I am grateful for both of you.

    • Thank you, Emily. You are very special to us, and we love you!

  12. Amy

    What a great quote and it totally fits Jeff. God bless you all. Love, A

    • Thank you, sweet friend. You have been encouraging me for 25 years now, and it has helped me more than you know. Love you!

  13. Connie

    I have no words to share. Just felt the need to let you know I am sending love & hugs!!

    • Connie, as much as the two of us have always shared our love of the written word, our friendship has always been such that no words are really needed. I love hearing from you and getting your love and hugs, though! If I ever publish my novel, yours is still the name that will go on the dedication page. I haven’t forgotten that! Love to you and all your family from all of us.

  14. Ryan

    Jeff IS an amazing man. We love you both and are so happy God has blessed yall even while facing this horrible disease.

    • Thank you Ryan. You have been part of the blessing. I will never forget that night I was beside myself with sorrow and I got the adorable video of Kate and Everett running in circles. It made me smile so much I watched it several times in a row. You are special to us! Love and blessings to you and your sweet family.

  15. Connie Reed

    I did enjoy this blog so very much!! So happy to hear Jeff is doing well. He definitely does have the right mental attitude, which comes from his faith in God. And as I always say there is nothing on this earth any more powerful than prayer! Hang in there! My constant prayers are with your whole family.

    • Connie, thank you so much! I really appreciate your presence here, and especially your prayers. I’m glad you enjoyed the blog. Sending cyber-hugs your way! ❤

      • Connie Reed

        Hugs back to you!!

        • Thank you Connie. ❤ 🙂 ❤

  16. Carlyle

    Julia, Thank you for your tribute to the most amazing individual any of us have ever been privileged to know. Other adjectives such as unbelievable, powerful, spiritual come to mind.
    The only example we can imagine more moving would have to be that of Jesus Christ. Jeff follows Him more closely than any of us can hope to. Mom and Dad

    • Thank you, Mama and Daddy. Jeff has great affection for both of you, and we appreciate all you have done for us in our 37 (!) years together. It’s hard to imagine how we would have made it this far without your help.

  17. Good morning, Julia!
    Maybe Jeff isn’t a pessimist, but a realist with a “can do” attitude. And a “can do” ability, apparently!
    Blessings on you both, today!

    • Thank you Susan. I so enjoy your visits here. 🙂 ❤

  18. Sheila

    What a beautiful tribute from Mr. Carlyle. His wonderful “being & character” reminds me so much of Bill’s dad. Love, Sheila

    • Thank you Sheila! Being a Daddy’s girl (even at the age of 58+) I am always happy when my friends like my parents. I wish I could have known Dr. Vann. I’m sure we could have had some lively conversations on the Verandah.

      • Thank you, Julia. I’m so glad that Dad at least knew of our correspondence and friendship before he passed. 👭 Years ago, when Bill’s parents added a screened porch to their house, Mrs. Vann called it “Verandah Beach” always. So when we refer to our verandahs, it’s very dear to me! We’re at WillowTree. Have a lovely Sunday, my friends. 🙏

        • Sheila, “Me too!” as we always said when I was a kid. BTW I don’t know why I always spell Verandah with an H when I talk about our “club” – it just feels more southern that way, I guess. Today was gloriously warm and sunny – so we did have a lovely Sunday! Hope you have a great week.

  19. LB

    Such a powerful post, Julia. I’m thankful that I met Jeff, even if briefly, and of course met you. You are pretty incredible people! ❤
    (sharing this quote, by the way)

    • Aw, thanks LB. I am still thinking of our group visit last weekend. It feels a bit like a dream, but we have the photos to prove it was real! I am sure your schedule is getting more demanding each day — thanks for being here and best of luck “on the trail!”

  20. kjyaccino

    I love your story and laughed as I could “hear” you on the phone with the resident! Thank you for sharing. Jeff is amazing! Love to you, Jeff, and Matt. p.s. Glimpses at Grady are delightful. Glad you’re posting those, too.

    • Thank you Kathy, I’m sure you’ve heard me sounding off in that mode before! 😀 I have so many cute Grady photos and videos that I can’t begin to decide which to post to the blog, but I’ll try to get his pages there updated sooner or later. He seems to look older with each photo or video they send us. Sending cyber hugs your way!!

  21. Julia, time and again you astonish me. Having briefly held you both in an embrace, I understand first hand your stamina and strength, your hope, love and commitment to living your days to the fullest, even in the face of this illness. Sending my heartfelt admiration to you both.

    • Thank you Alys. I am so happy you were able to be with us, however tight the scheduling ended up being. I’m so glad you came to Virginia, and I hope you will be able to spend more time here on the east coast in the future. Speaking of time…I deeply appreciate all the time you’ve spent here at this blog over the years, and for your continual generosity and encouragement!

  22. MaryAnn

    JULIA: (yes, I am yelling!) This whole blog & comments are treasures! I am blessed with the privilege of having the Dentons in my family! Jeff is truly a wonderful man of God. He and his lovely, loving wife are a tribute to God as you both walk in Jesus’ footsteps.
    This photo of 2 of your men is filled with joy & happiness! I, too, would have gone off on the resident who called. Jeff’s laughing response is priceless! Great tension release~~~:)

    • Thank you Mary Ann, I can hear you all the way across the country, from CA to the east coast! 🙂 I so appreciate your continual encouragement and affection. I just know we will get together in person sooner or later, but till then I am glad you are keeping in touch with us here! Love and hugs!

  23. I forgot who’s blog I was reading between last night and this morning when I actually read it, I think I’ll be going back to read more because I like where this is going. It feels like you are basically reaffirming that you can’t pick what happens to you, but you can chose your response to it. I won’t dawdle just this moment but wish I had come sooner and will be back.

    • Thanks so much! I’m glad you found it helpful. So much depends on how we respond to what happens outside of our control. Of all the truths I have learned in getting older, that may be the single one that has most affected my everyday life. I tend to over-react, and it has taken years for me to learn that one can act decisively and effectively without going overboard. In fact, I’m still learning that. I see others who struggle with the opposite tendency; that of passive self-protection and/or simply being overwhelmed to the point of doing nothing. It’s harmful to go to either extreme, but learning the correct balance is a lifelong process, at least for me. Thanks for stopping by and for adding your thoughts!

  24. Michael

    I am sure Jeff is a wonderful dentist and his patient’s appreciate him greatly. Last year my dentist of 25 years retired and I have been in a blue funk ever since. One of the joys(sic) of aging is getting to find new doctors and dentists. Right now we are working our way through the medicare: miasma, madness, maelstrom, makeover, mishap, mayhem. You get the picture. Leaving for NYC and then Atlanta- next week. I have two grandbabies which I have not seen. One in New York and one in Atlanta. I ordered a Street-Wise map of Atlanta and unfortunately it may arrive two days after we leave. Oh well. I also got a Garmin which I am figuring out. Thinkingof getting a tablet as am tired of lugging my laptop around. You have a Kindle Fire right?

    • Michael, I definitely am not looking forward to learning all about Medicare. But I’m happy to know you are going to see your grandchildren! My opinion as one who knows and loves Atlanta, is that you need a GPS there more than you need one in almost any other city. The streets aren’t a neat grid that makes any sense, and the signage is terrible. Recently when my brother was taking me to the College Park MARTA station, I came to the conclusion that they don’t really want many people riding MARTA because the station entrance is very well hidden with NO signs pointing the way to get there. Luckily he knew the way. Re: getting a tablet: I have a Kindle Fire 9″ tablet for which I bought a cheap keyboard that I use whenever I want to substitute it for a computer. More recently Jeff got me a 10″ touch screen for traveling. I have already discovered one advantage to having a smaller computer dedicated to travel: I left the touch screen at Megan and Drew’s home (or should I say Grady’s home) and fortunately, don’t need them to send it to me since I keep all my records on my other computer. If you opt for a tablet or netbook, I’d advise using it mostly for travel and online access. Of course, you may already be using mostly webmail and cloud-based files, which is probably smart, but the librarian in me likes to archive my own stuff. But I don’t need to travel with it, and probably shouldn’t.

  25. Michael

    Please don’t tell me the streets are like Hawaii where the names change at, sometimes- each intersection, even as you cross the street. I think if I get a few landmarks in my head that will help- like you mentioned- Varsity, Coke building -etc.
    It is too bad about Marta. I did ride it once from the airport in 1992 when I went to a meeting at the Georgia convention center. That was the last time , and my son says,” you don’t want to get off in Sandy Springs-( last northern headed stop)- at night” We got some folding maps from triple A which look like gibberish and besides it is hard to drive with a three foot square map on your lap.
    I have to go to Austell also and of course our kid lives off 75 up in Canton. Last time we got lost and ended up in Cartersville. Renting a car this time- so we will see how it goes.

    • Michael, some of the streets do change names. In fact I think a lot of them do. For example, Ponce de Leon becomes Scott Boulevard, then (I think) Lawrenceville Highway. Landmarks are helpful downtown but out in the suburbs it’s mostly trees, so a GPS is very helpful. WOW, I would think of Sandy Springs as one of the safer MARTA stations; I’ve walked to & from it many times when we were staying in a hotel out there while Jeff was attending the Hinman dental meeting. What took a long time for me to get used to in Hawaii is that there were almost never entrances to the freeway in the same place there were exits. I was once told by a local that the roads there are intentionally confusing so that tourists will hire taxis and tours instead of renting cars. Sounds kind of like an urban legend but in a way it makes sense. But when you’re building roads around beaches and volcanic craters, geography definitely gets in the way too.

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