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Amy Choate-Nielsen: Being sick belongs on gratitude list this Thanksgiving

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 26 2013 3:38 p.m. MST

I hate being under the weather, but this year, it's teaching me something important just in time for the holidays.

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We started a new tradition in my house this November — my husband's idea.

It was partly inspired by the cacophony of voices that swirl around our dinner table every night; they were escalating out of control by the end of October, as the withdrawals of Halloween and sugar immediately set in. And so, one night, as we tried to find some way to engage with our children other than telling them, "sit down, stop playing with your food, use your fork, don't tease your brother," one more time, my husband suggested we each say one thing we were thankful for.

We've been talking about Thanksgiving ever since, and every night, my son and daughter delight in saying the things they're grateful for. They demand that we do it. They will not let us forget.

Some of the things they say are funny, as you'd expect from a 5- and 2-year-old, like when my son says something like, "I'm fankful for monster twucks and tweats."

But some of the things have been surprisingly sweet, like when my 5-year-old daughter spontaneously said, "I'm grateful for this beautiful world and this wonderful family."

My list of things to be grateful for is not so inspiring.

I have been saying things like, "I'm grateful for Dr Pepper," as I tried to ease my headaches at the end of the day.

"I'm grateful for ibuprofen," as I developed a sinus infection that throbbed constantly on the right side of my face.

"I'm grateful for antibiotics and steroids," when my sinus infection was still there three weeks later.

As a typically healthy person, I don't handle being sick very well. I can't stand not feeling "normal." I fixate on the part of my body that's not functioning correctly, like pressure and popping sensations and the fact that I can't open my eye, and it drives me crazy.

And I worry, I worry.

It doesn't take much for me to think I am going to die.

Sinuses aren't that far away from the brain, and when each cavity is filled to capacity with infection … well, it doesn't take much for me to think I am going to die.

I told my family of my situation, in the event that I might die, and because I've been told by an ear, nose and throat doctor that I'll need to have surgery if the infection doesn't abate, and my dad helpfully told me a "stuffy nose" remedy recommended by my grandmother, Fleeta, a registered nurse who died before I was born. She had fool-proof remedies for everything.

"Wash your hands thoroughly," he said. "Get a salt shaker. Go to the sink … cup one hand," and, essentially, snort the salt water.

I told him I'd been using a Neti pot to the same effect, but, true to form, he says it isn't the same if you don't use your hand.

But one night when I was researching death by sinus infection, I checked on the status of my friend, who was counting down the days to receiving a bone marrow transplant to treat her leukemia. A nurse had told her, "Happy second birthday," in the final hours. And, as I heard her sobering realizations about her illness and determination to survive, I was humbled.

It's not that I don't deserve to recognize my own pain, although its scale is diminished in light of her suffering. Rather, I realize that feeling pain humbles me, and seeing others' pain, while I am in pain, makes me much more acutely aware of my responsibility to alleviate that pain when I can.

So, this Thanksgiving, it is not simply the Dr Pepper and ibuprofen and antibiotics that I am grateful for. In this world where so many have so little, I am grateful to be reminded that with the comfort I receive, I must also comfort others.

In that regard, this stanza from the poem, "The Stranger and His Friend," by James Montgomery, has the best remedy, perhaps, of all: "Stripped, wounded, beaten, nigh to death, I found him by the highway-side: I roused his pulse, brought back his breath, revived his spirit and supplied wine, oil, refreshment; he was heal'd — I had myself a wound conceal'd; but from that hour, forgot the smart, and peace bound up my broken heart."

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta.

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