“I Am,” I Said

“I Am,” I Said

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Stories of Faith

“I Am,” I Said

The young physical-therapy aide at the rehabilitation center chattered endlessly while we prepared for my session. I’m embarrassed to admit I was too caught up in my troubles to listen to her. As I watched the other patients struggling with their crutches and wheelchairs, my spirit was overcome by a sense of loss.

So much had changed. Only weeks had passed since bone cancer stole my left leg. Recently healed from surgery, I could barely sit in a chair for an hour at a time. Now I faced the difficult task of learning to walk with a prosthetic limb, a process complicated by an old back injury. The slightest activity sent scalding “phantom” pain into my nonexistent foot. As if that weren’t enough, chemotherapy had robbed me of my hair and my strength. A wide range of emotions drained my remaining energy: fear, anger and grief, topped off by a huge dollop of self-pity. Worst, though, I was unable to care for my father who had Alzheimer’s disease. I had no choice but to place him in a nursing facility and leave with a load of guilt.

When faced with overwhelming problems, we often escape by focusing on minor ones. People are funny in that way. In this instance, I fretted over the loss of my nursing career and the income it provided. Thankfully, my husband handled the finances. Every time the huge bills arrived, we thanked God that our insurance was adequate. Nevertheless, I missed the rapport with my patients and my colleagues. I’d always enjoyed the teaching aspect of nursing and loved seeing the glow of relief when a patient was able to understand his or her illness. It was such fun when the couples in my childbirth classes proudly showed me their new babies, gushing, “Shirley, it happened just like you said it would.”

How I longed to believe I would someday return to nursing. The yearning left me feeling ashamed of my selfishness.

I argued, first with myself, then with God. There were so many reasons for gratitude. Countless people had prayed for me. I was still alive, still a child of God, a wife, a mother and a grandmother. I tried to keep a sense of perspective by telling myself that nursing was only a career; it wasn’t my identity. “But, Lord, you led me into nursing and gave me a love for it. It’s my calling, and I feel the loss deeply. Why have you taken it from me?”

I paid scant attention to the aide’s words as I watched an elderly stroke victim attempting to operate a can opener. Nearby, a middle-aged man recovering from knee surgery drooped in despair. Across the room, a handsome airline pilot practiced walking again, following a severe spinal-cord injury. His cheerfulness puzzled me. I wondered what determined a patient’s response to loss. What spurred some on when others were easily defeated? Was it merely an inborn character trait, like a strong personality or a deep-seated tenacity? Was it faith? Whatever it was, I wanted it myself.

I’d like to think I fashioned a prayer that touched God’s heart. But in truth, I muddled through a jumble of emotions and came up with nothing but a scrambled plea that meant, “Lord, I need help.” I expected no reply.

The aide, still valiantly trying to cheer me up, said, “I understand you used to be a nurse.”

A fresh load of anger welled up inside my chest. Used to be? I felt like asking her what she thought I was now. Before my mind could form a sarcastic response, words came from my mouth. “Yes, I am a nurse.” Somehow I felt different, stronger, but I wasn’t sure why.

Later, still feeling insulted, I mentally conducted a one-sided quarrel with the aide who had reminded me of who I “used to be.” Wait a minute. I’m everything I’ve ever been. I have one less leg, but I still have my brain and my heart. I’m not a has-been! God doesn’t have any has-beens.

I carried that thought in my head until the day a familiar scripture came to mind. I located it in my Bible concordance, then turned to Acts 17:28 and read aloud. “In him we live, and move, and have our being.” Three words stood out from the rest: “live,” “move” and “have.” It didn’t say that we had our being; we have it. My life isn’t in past tense. I still am. I am!

No sudden or dramatic change occurred, but gradually that passage influenced my attitude. It fanned a tiny ember of faith that lay buried under my negative emotions. Over a period of months, that faith grew to the flame it had once been. I gained strength, and with it a sense of my own potential.

A year and a half after my surgery, I returned to the hospital where I had worked for eighteen years. Physically unable to resume my previous role, I became the manager of the hospital’s new home-health agency. Though I could work at my own pace, I found that making home visits was painful and difficult. In our rural area, many homes have no sidewalks or handrails at the steep doorsteps. Carrying a heavy bag while walking with a prosthetic leg was not easy, even with a cane. Once inside, I struggled to keep my balance as I bent over low beds to perform sterile procedures. And I loved it.

Though nothing lessened the joy of being a nurse again, I often doubted whether I could continue this work while we waited for the census to grow enough to hire more staff. But the growth was rapid and steady. Soon I hired other nurses to visit the patients while I managed the office. Once again, I was teaching patients, this time by phone. Friendships developed between us, though many of us never met in person. The nurses, aides and therapists formed a great team, and when I retired, the agency was thriving.

At my retirement party, a doctor and colleague of many years announced, “I’m astonished at Shirley’s accomplishment in this community.” I’m sure he knows, as I do, that God had a hand in making the agency the blessing it is to this day. Isn’t it strange how God uses the things we focus on, rightly or wrongly, to get our attention? In my case, he used my anger and my love of nursing to draw me closer to him. Now, when I hear Neil Diamond sing that song titled, “I Am... I Said,” I smile inside. It was God who brought me from “I Was,” to “I Am.” Who but he could know the value of one little word?

~Shirley McCullough

Chicken Soup for the Nurse’s Soul

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