Thanksgiving in my family begins with a prayer of grace and everyone going around the table to name something for which he or she is thankful. As a kid, this was sometimes a source of anxiety. I would watch as the circle of thanks slowly progressed to my seat, each person saying something increasingly profound, heartfelt or funny, and I wondered what I could say that wouldn’t sound trivial or overdone. More than once, I resorted to a then-cliché “I’m glad we’re all healthy” that was accurate, but never deeply sincere.
For the past few Thanksgivings, however, we’ve been far from all healthy. My youngest sister, Aimee, is a 19-year-old mathematical genius, talented dancer and passionate musician currently living with a chronic illness that keeps her from all of the above. She has multiple diagnoses, the most prominent of which are postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) and gastroparesis, affecting primarily her circulatory and digestive systems, causing most of what the body does automatically to not work correctly.
This turned a thriving young woman into one who has to expend a staggering amount of energy just to walk down the hall. She’s had to leave school despite stellar academics, due to out of control symptomatic flares. She has been beat down by these diseases when trying to reclaim the parts of life she loves so dearly, but she has somehow still refused to give in to despair.
Most days for Aimee are unpredictable. She never knows when waking up how the day will go, if or when she’ll be struck down by fatigue and other symptoms. She says that since each day comes with new challenges, she’s learned to appreciate the little wins when she gets them. Each trip out of the house feels like a major success, and she’s learned the real value of the normal life she once took for granted.
She’s thankful for being able to go see the fall play at her college, to be back to campus for just a short time. If she’d been fully enrolled in school as planned, she would have taken going for granted. While she spends most of her time at home, she’s thankful to have her cats there and family too. In contrast to weeks in a hospital, the bed downstairs seems just a bit more comfortable.
So much of Thanksgiving centers on food, and that’s a particularly difficult area for Aimee. She recalls one Easter a few years ago when she was on a feeding tube, but attempted to eat a hard-boiled egg in the morning and ended up terribly sick and missing Mass. She’s thankful to be able to eat anything this Thanksgiving, after a recent scare of extreme nausea, dehydration and lack of nutrients. She won’t get the full meal, but she’s holding on to that something. And while one half of Thanksgiving is the food, the other half is the people, and that’s one area where we can find a lot of reasons to give thanks.
My mom was by Aimee’s side each day during her recent two month stay in the hospital and says that all the people who came out of the blue to reach out felt like the biggest blessing of all. It was the people she didn’t expect to hear from that meant the most, letting them know by message or phone that they were not forgotten. I give thanks for the people who recognize Aimee’s dual suffering and strength, from the aunt who calls daily to the strangers who show sympathy rather than cynicism.
With my mom, talking about this topic, I wondered at what people really mean when they ask you to pray for them, or when they say that they’re praying for you. It’s a harsh idea that one person gets better because of prayers, and that someone else doesn’t — because they weren’t praying hard enough? So instead of prayers for wellness, I pray that Aimee, and my mom, and all of us, can find the strength to keep going. There is more to healing than the physical, and the return of our prayers is evidenced perhaps not in a cure, but in these people that come together to keep us from despair, one day at a time.
So let us pray, and let us break bread, and let us give thanks for the people and for the little wins.
Catherine Buck is a freelance writer and part-time lecturer at Rutgers-Camden, where she is also enrolled in the MFA creative writing program.