I went to Seattle for a few days recently to see my old friends Sandy and Joel and their thirteen-year-old 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 like 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 — but Elsa had eighty more pages in Keepers of the Lost Cities, a book she’d been waiting on for a year, and she was impatient to take me to a bakery called Hello Robin to get a MackleS’more, a souped up s’more named after a Seattle native.
After the Arboretum, and the outrageously good cookie, Sandy took the car and Elsa and I walked home from the bakery alone. She’s excited for the holidays, her sisters are coming home from schools back east. She is grateful for her sisters. I asked her what else she’s grateful for and 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 Dude, that’s super weird and Maybe you’re, like, dying of cancer. Ha ha. Elsa just finished her third 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 a 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 nose as we are irritated when we are congested? 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. Should we be weeping with joy and gratitude? Maybe fear is a prerequisite for gratitude, for the kind of profound acceptance Elsa has so quickly mastered?
I thought about this off and on all night. Accepting the many ways our imagined lives don’t conform to our lived lives is a ten-year fascination of mine, and 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?”
She thought that would be totally 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 didn’t have the heart to define it for her. Only later did I wonder how Pollyanna got such a bad name anyway. Is “excessive optimism” really a problem?
So here I am with you, while Elsa is passing the time between appointments by learning how to read Tarot Cards and playing Game Pigeon with Claire and her other pal, and I’m wondering how 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 wrong to what is definitely going right, joint by joint, organ by organ, system by system.
Maybe the lullaby that will bring back the sandman could involve tracking the subtle night sounds I can hear perfectly, wiggling my toes, 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 by the time new leaves fill the arboretum. And may our holidays be filled with gratitude, acceptance and – what the hell! – excessive optimism.