From A Second Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul

Grandma Is on Her Feet Again

Don’t just count your years, make your years count.

Ernest Meyers

By July of 1996, I was in a nursing home, and my litany of woes would depress anyone: I had no legs, no sight in one eye, and the doctor had just announced I had to learn to give myself insulin to control my diabetes. I was seventy-seven years old, and it was clear my “up years” were over.

“It’s okay, Mom,” my daughters said. “We’ll bring you home and care for you. We’ll arrange for a nurse.”

Be a burden to my daughters? Have them carry me everywhere because I couldn’t move on my own? I cried myself to sleep every night.

In the nursing home, I had plenty of time to pray and think. The doctors had said I’d never walk again. But then, if I’d listened to everything that I’d been told, I wouldn’t have had any “up years” at all! I smiled, remembering when I was a fifteen-year-old girl in Ireland, ready to board the ship to sail to America.

“You’re so lucky, Margaret!” my friends chorused. “In America, the streets are paved with gold!”

Well, I never found gold on the streets, only a few pennies. But the can-do spirit in America fed my own will to make something of myself.

My first job was working in a hospital as a nurse’s aide. I loved it, even though it meant being on my feet all day. What the heck? I had two strong legs. In fact, I enjoyed it so much, I devoted my life to hospital work.

Between work and family, life had sure been good back then. When I retired, I looked forward to my “golden years.” But my health began to deteriorate. It seemed I was always going to my podiatrist with ulcers on my toes. I had one toe amputated and another was treated for gangrene. After an infection, the surgeon had to amputate my left leg. I was devastated. After seven months in the hospital, I went to a nursing home for rehabilitation. I was only there for three weeks—till May 1996—when I developed a black spot on my large right toe. Back in the hospital, the surgeon told me my right leg would have to come off.

I was depressed and cried for a week. What would I do with no legs? I had already lost the sight of my left eye. I was seventy-seven years old. By the time I ended up back in the nursing home in July 1996, I was ready to give up. It seemed that all around me were folks who’d lived their lives and packed in their hopes. They’d accepted their down years—some seemed to be just waiting to die.

But in a very odd way, having the doctors tell me I would never walk again resonated with voices from my past. Had I ever taken the easy way before? What if I’d stayed safe with what I knew in Ireland? What if I’d come to the United States and waited to find all that gold on the streets?

As I prayed each day, the message came strongly: “God helps those who help themselves. Had my earlier ‘up years’ just happened?” a voice asked me.

No. I had been willing to work hard, to fight to make them happen. I saw clearly that this was what I’d need to do again. It wasn’t a matter of age but determination.

I started by washing and dressing myself. I would let no one help me. The staff tried to tell me I was being too independent, but I was determined. Next, I taught myself to get in and out of bed.

My biggest battle came in insisting that the doctors give me permanent prosthetics. They said I was being foolish. I said, “Which way’s the gym?”

My first day in the gym, I was so determined to walk that I took two steps, which amazed everyone. From that day on, I worked so hard that the other residents started telling me I was an inspiration to them.

In time, the staff was asking me to help others see what they could do, and I even gave lessons on how to get in and out of bed. In the hospital, I’d already learned how to drive my own wheelchair. Now I learned to walk with a walker. I asked my therapist to teach me to climb stairs and I practiced three times a day. My next challenge was learning to use the toilet without assistance. This was a major accomplishment, and I did it!

I went into the nursing home in July 1996 with no legs and no hope, and on February 23, 1997, I walked out! Not only that, but I was taken to my own home, where I could live independently. Along the way, I’d learned to ask for, and gratefully accept, the help and support of my doctors, therapists, nurses, aides and family.

I found it unexpectedly hard to leave all the friends I’d made in the nursing home. My family surprised me with business cards that read “Role Model Extraordinaire” to leave behind with the patients and staff, so they knew where to call me for a pep talk.

Not that I was at home much! Shortly after my release, I traveled to Virginia with my daughter and son-in-law for my granddaughter’s wedding. On the way there, we made several stops to go sightseeing. I can’t describe the thrill of simply being able to get in and out of the Jeep, being a whole person. Being part of the human race again!

That was a wonderful time, being together with my whole family, including six grandchildren and three greats! But almost as exciting is waking up every day, knowing I can get in and out of the shower by myself, cook and go out on my Rascal scooter.

Hallelujah! The “up years” are back.

Margaret McSherry

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