55: Nathalie’s Lessons

55: Nathalie’s Lessons

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessings

Nathalie’s Lessons

Physical strength is measured by what we can carry;
spiritual by what we can bear.

~Author Unknown

We learn valuable lessons throughout our lives. Schools teach academics, churches teach religion, workplaces teach business skills and technology, but there are other sources. Sometimes, “people” teach us lessons about life. What we learn from them can enrich our inner being and change our outlook on life. Nathalie was one such person.

Nathalie appeared in my life at a time when my whole world had been turned upside down. Pain, suffering, disappointment, and isolation kept me in a depressed state and I had turned my back on God. I felt sad, alone, and hopeless.

One morning in the early fall of 1960 I sat in my wheelchair waiting to be taken for therapy. Following therapy, I would be returned to my hospital bed. This was my daily routine and I hated it. I hated therapy, the hospital, nurses, doctors, but most of all, my life. While staring at the floor and dwelling on my misery, I became aware that someone had been wheeled in directly across from me. I didn’t look up. She spoke, “Hi! How are you this morning?” I still didn’t raise my head as I wasn’t sure she was talking to me. A little louder, “Hello! My name is Nathalie. How are you this morning?”

Nathalie was thirty-four years old but already had a few grey hairs. She was seated in an old, wooden wheelchair with a high back, angled backward to support her upper back and head while the front supports were raised to accommodate her legs. She wasn’t particularly pretty but there was an aura of warmth and brightness about her that made her seem somewhat attractive. She went on about the beautiful fall weather, cheerfully remarking, “Isn’t it beautiful outside?”

I scowled, “I wouldn’t know. I have been in here so long I don’t know if there still is an ‘outside.’” Returning my scowl with the biggest smile I have ever seen, she said, “I promise you that ‘outside’ is still there. In fact, ‘outside’ is beautiful this morning. I saw ‘outside’ from the window of my room.” With her head, she gestured toward the window at the end of the hall, “See, there’s ‘outside.’” I couldn’t help but smile at her quick-witted response. She had broken through the invisible wall I had built around me.

Nathalie had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis two years earlier. The disease had progressed rapidly, leaving all of her joints fused into one large bone. The only parts of her body she could move were her head (moderately from side to side), and her arms (up and down slightly at the shoulder joint). Those two movements were all she had. Her feet were angled downward. Her elbows were frozen at a right angle positioning her arms across her chest. Her fingers were gnarled and arched. She could neither sit nor stand. Her only options were lying in bed or reclining in the wheelchair.

Nathalie and I quickly bonded. We saw each other every day for the following month until I was allowed a furlough—though scheduled to return. Her therapy treatments were brutal, as the therapists attempted to break all her joints loose by sheer force. The beads of sweat would form on her reddened face and tears would well up in her eyes but she didn’t make a sound though the pain was almost unbearable. When therapy ended she would smile and remark, “Whew! I’m glad I don’t have to do that again until tomorrow. I pray every morning that God will help me through just one more therapy, and He does, doesn’t He?” I thought, “How could she be so cheerful after suffering such agony?”

Each day, sitting in the therapy room, we’d chat and even sing hymns together. At Christmas, we had a wonderful time singing carols. Nathalie sang in church choir and had a rich alto voice. She made those long hospital stays (months on end) almost fun with her witty remarks, her good nature, her spirituality, and perpetual smile. Everyone loved her.

She told me she had been married when she became confined to bed. She soon needed perpetual care. At that point, her husband left her for another woman. I responded angrily, “How could that rotten …” Fiercely, she started wagging her head, “No! No! Don’t say that. You don’t understand. He couldn’t spend the rest of his life waiting on me hand and foot. He had a right to a life. I wanted that for him and I certainly couldn’t offer him a wonderful life. I forgave him.” I said no more.

The more I knew about Nathalie and her life, the more amazed I was at her absolute, deep faith, and trust in God, her love of people, and her zest for life. She looked forward to every day with enthusiasm and hope. Her painful therapy did very little to help, although she was able to stand, with help, in the years to come. Extensive therapy on her hands allowed her to brush her own teeth and develop primitive writing skills. Therapy continued but she still could not walk or sit. Every time I even thought about complaining or feeling sorry for myself, I would think of Nathalie. Once home, we kept in touch for the next forty years.

Since we lived more than one hundred miles apart, writing letters was the easiest way to communicate. She couldn’t write often since writing took such a tremendous amount of effort. I will never forget the letter she wrote to me thirty years or more after our hospital stays. She started by telling me that she had gotten the best Christmas present she “had ever had in her whole life.” Immediately, I thought of something material, like a new TV. She wrote, “You know how I love singing in choir. Well, you are never going to believe this one.”

Eagerly, I read on to see what she was so excited about. “I have been sitting in the church aisle outside the choir section all these years and guess what? I sat in the pew at Christmas. Truly the best gift God has ever given me. I finally sat in the pew!” My eyes filled with tears thinking of this humble servant of God so filled with gratitude over something I had taken for granted my whole life.

Nathalie’s lived more than forty of her seventy-six years within her “arthritic prison,” uncomplaining, while her faith in God remained ever strong. Only through death was she finally free from pain and suffering.

Though we spent less than one year together in a forty-year friendship, Nathalie is someone I will always remember. As a spiritual role model, she taught me priceless lessons about humility, hope, and acceptance of life.

~Joyce E. Sudbeck

More stories from our partners