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A Visit With a Young Friend Revealed to Me the True Meaning of Gratitude


I went to Seattle for a few days recently to see my old friends, Sandy and Joel and their thirteen-year-old daughter, Elsa. Against her wishes, we went for a walk in the Seattle Arboretum that unfolds along lake Washington, looking up at their world-class Children’s Hospital. The leaves were dropping, dozens twisting in the air over and in front of us. It was a scene from a Nora Ephron film. Elsa doesn’t know who Nora Ephron is and she didn’t care much about the beauty—believe me, I tried to wow her with the variety of colors. But Elsa had eighty more pages in “Keepers of the Lost Cities,” a book she’d been waiting for for a year, and she was impatient to take me to a bakery called Hello Robin to get a Mackle S’more, a souped-up s’more with fancy salt tossed across the top.

After the Arboretum, after the cookie, Sandy took the car, and Elsa and I walked home from the bakery alone.  She’s excited for Thanksgiving; her sisters are coming home from schools back east. She is grateful for her sisters. I asked her what else she’s grateful for. It was like tapping a vein.

“Oh, everything. My dog, Blue. My cat, Jazzy, even though she is evil. Baby shampoo, which is the best shampoo ever. Invisalign, which is better than braces. My new boots that keep my feet warm. “The Office,” “Friends,” my actual friends, like Claire—who came over for seven hours the other day—my pink bathrobe, all my beanies, sunshine, my new iPhone that I got my parents to buy me with a 6-slide PowerPoint. Dr. Lamble, he’s the best, Natalie Wu, I’m grateful my heartburn is gone. I’m grateful for the mountains and my new wigs. I’m grateful for my parents, I’m grateful for you…”

She went on until we got to the front door of her house when she busted up the stairs to get back to the lost cities.

A month ago, Elsa’s friends pointed out something on her chest, a little blob poking out between her two highest ribs. They named it Betsy and said things like, “Dude, that’s super weird” and “Maybe you’re, like, dying of cancer.” Haha. Elsa just finished her second round of five chemotherapies to eradicate Betsy. Those same friends come over all the time with craft projects, knit hats, and new books. They hang out in her room doing homework and looking at clothes online.

I’ve been to the hospital with her a few times now. The place is full. People are lovely there, as nice as people can be to one another. Could it be, I wondered as we waited underneath an awesome Pez display, that the people in the hospital are more grateful than the people not in it? Is it even possible to be as excited about, say, breathing through our noses as we are irritated when they are stuffed up? Why don’t we marvel at skin with no rashes or hair that just grows and grows? How nonchalant we are checking off the long list of problems we don’t have at the doctor’s office— (Blurry vision? No. Internal bleeding? No. Frequent urination? No.)—instead of weeping with joy and gratitude. Is fear a prerequisite for gratitude?

I thought about this off and on all night. I don’t sleep as well as I used to.

The next morning, I showed this essay to Elsa while we ate toast in pajamas. She loved it. “How would you feel if I shared it publicly? I just think you embody thankfulness.” She thought that would be so cool. “My only worry,” I said, “is that maybe it feels a little Pollyanna…?”  She said she didn’t know what that word meant and I realized it would be profoundly inappropriate to define it for her, excessive optimism being essential in the face of cancer.

I’m home now, back at my desk, while Elsa is passing the time between appointments by learning how to read Tarot Cards and playing Game Pigeon with Claire and her other pals. This Thanksgiving, I’d like to keep the clarity I felt in Seattle. Maybe at night, when there’s no hope of sleep, I could redirect my thoughts from what might be going to wrong to what is going right, joint by joint, organ by organ, system by system. Maybe the lullaby that can bring back the sandman could involve wiggling my toes, tracking the subtle night sounds I can hear perfectly, lacing my fingers together enjoying the dexterity no machine has matched, inventorying the miracle that is the human body, my human body, and the miracle that is Elsa’s, sure to be stronger yet in the years to come.

This essay was featured in the November 24th edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.


Kelly Corrigan is the author of four New York Times bestsellers about family life, including Tell Me More, Stories about the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say.