The Things that Change Us, Part One


Once upon a time, I was working on a book of essays of moments and milestones, of unexpected blessings, of tiny crossroads with huge repercussions. It was a list of catalysts and was to be entitled “The Things that Change Us.” I worked on it for a while, then discovered I was blocked, and became distracted by every day minutia, eventually putting it to the side and forgetting about it.I wanted this series, this book to have a certain format. I wanted thirteen stories, each reflecting the magnitude of the impact they had on my life. I wanted it to be just so. Even as I write this, this introduction, I realize that stories take on a shape of their own, that they are living beings, possessing the spirit and will of their own.

Moments like these often come when we least expect them. Lost in the mindless chaos of the drudgery of day-to-day activities, we often keep going until we’re brought full-stop by something that interrupts our routine.

This full-stop can be the smallest of things: an overheard phrase uttered by someone speaking to someone else; fireflies on the darkest of nights; an image; a “chance” meeting. These moments have two sides; you never know when you’ll be the recipient of one, and you definitely don’t know when you’ll be the provider for someone else.

These moments, for me, are miracles. That word—miracle—often gets thrown around, especially in marketing. Whether I call it a paradigm shift, a wake-up moment, or a miracle, the change is the same: an instantaneous yet fundamental change in my belief system that creates change with no resistance.

I didn’t have enough essays to fill a book, and still don’t for that matter, and yet it is one of those stories that I feel MUST be told. Thanks to takingthemask off and this post, I really feel the time is now.

This is the story of my Grace.

In the United States, much less the world, there are hundreds, if not thousands of emergency rooms. We, the staff of those emergency rooms, number in the tens of thousands—hundreds of thousands, perhaps.  We bear witness to millions of patients, all with individual stories, all with individual reasons for being there.  While all emergency rooms treat basic emergencies, the larger hospitals may have a specialty—trauma, cardiac, perhaps even psychiatric.  The common thread to all emergency rooms, that commonality that lies beyond the common staffing, overwhelming patient numbers and limited rooms, is the trauma:  the physical trauma, that brings them to us; the emotional trauma, that makes them wary and carves upon them life-long scars; and the spiritual trauma, which steals from them their courage, their connectedness, and leaves them even more vulnerable than before.

The emergency room creates an environment of frenetic pace–twelve hour shifts of being on one’s feet, oftentimes without significant pauses, without relief, or without a meal break consisting of anything more than hurriedly eating between fetching medicines or escorting patients back to draped rooms.  Multiple accidents, multiple patients, and multiple complaints can all converge on one place at one time, again and again, making those who care for those patients worn and weary. With such limited energy, the niceties, those little acts of compassion can be forgotten in favor of the important, the life-saving, the necessary.

There are thousands upon thousands of emergency room staff, and patients number a thousand thousand times that.  Each person, staff or patient, carries his or her own story. There are a thousand stories in the world, but this one is mine. There are a million Graces in the world, but this is my Grace, and this is my story.

The night itself was not particularly unusual.  Two out of four admissions staff had called in; only one other registration clerk along with myself was working grave shift in our local hospital. We were responsible for ensuring all patients were accurately identified, signed in with correct identification and insurance information, and given an armband. For tasks beyond that scope we were not responsible, yet somehow we were called upon to answer endless questions— many of which were outside the range our knowledge—fetch towels, water, and oftentimes other staff. The job seemed straightforward enough and simple enough. The challenge, however, often came in the pace of the job and maintaining composure in the height of such a frenetic pace.  At the height of cold and flu season, when the patients often left the section of the emergency room designated for minor cases,  seemingly as soon as they came in, the staff scrambled to register them before one patient was replaced by another presenting with similar symptoms.  When the names, faces and diagnoses began to blur, patience and compassion often plummeted. Ambulances flooded in as well, like endless cargo ships unloading patients, bringing chest pain patients, victims of varying degrees of trauma, and the usual tide of those with minor ailments who chose to ride in an ambulance rather than drive themselves to the hospital. People became diagnoses: no longer were they John Smith or Bill Jones or Mary Peters; they were “Cold in Seven,” or “Drug Seeker in One,” or “Ingrown Toenail in Ten.”

I had been working in admissions for two years or so, and for over half of that time I had been on night shift. I had recently left a horribly dysfunctional and destructive marriage, and found myself, just over the age of thirty, explosively angry, bitter, and very much full of resentment.  I had very little joy, and even less compassion. I resented everyone for everything, and spent half of my energy sulking and keeping it buried– whether I had a logical reason for being angry or not– and the other half blowing up at people and giving them the “old what for.”

I was also very burned out. The job of an admissions clerk was not only fast paced, but also thankless and possessed an alarmingly high capacity for burn out. The nurses and medical technicians referred to us as “Registration,” as if that were our name, and the doctors only noticed us at all if we had made some kind of error.  Patients did not want to meet us either on their way or on their way out. When they first arrived, they saw us as an inconvenience, standing between them and their doctor. On their way out, they especially did not want to see us, because,  we were required to attempt to collect copayments or set up payment arrangements if they did not have insurance. No one wanted to see us, it seemed, but everyone needed us.

In fact, it had not been too long before this on a night much like this one, overwhelmed with patients and terribly short staffed, that I found myself literally screaming in the middle of the emergency room at another admissions clerk, just as frayed as I was, in full view of patients, nurses, and doctors alike.

It was not my finest moment.

But this night, unlike the other, I received a lesson that I never forgot, for this was the night I met Grace.

A thin, wailing sound came from one of the rooms from beyond the door that separated the acute psychiatric and detox patients from the rest of the masses. The locking door swung open and closed with alarming frequency, a testament to our desperation as we ran from psychiatric care to chest pain, from chest pain to medical, from medical to trauma and back again to psych. In my rush to get everyone properly registered, I must have run past her room a dozen times, ignoring her.  When I asked the nurses at the desk about her, they told me “She’s detoxing. Don’t worry about her.”

She had not officially signed in yet, since she had been brought in to us by ambulance, but she was in the computer system, so her nurses and doctors would be able to run necessary tests. That was the most important thing. She was going to be there for a very long time, so getting her to sign her consent for treatment form was not a priority, not with everything else going on around me.

When I finally made time for her, she offered a weak smile and thanked me for coming to see her.  She had been asking for her nurse, and no one had answered. I stepped toward her and presented her with the clip board so that she could sign her consent form. Her hand was slow, and it seemed to take forever for her to write, in shakes and tics, her name.  Verifying her name and date of birth, proved to be another tedious process because she had trouble remembering her birthday. After what seemed to me an eternity, I wrapped the armband around her wrist and stood back a step.

“Do you know who my nurse is?” she asked, her voice as shaky as her writing.

I didn’t.  In the emergency room, everyone is entitled to know who their caregivers are, but I was leery of psych itself and suspicious of the motives of psych patients. Psych patients were a different breed, I thought.  I saw them as broken people, unable to cope and highly unstable. As poorly as I thought of psych patients, I thought twice as badly of drunks. Having been married to an active alcoholic who didn’t see his drinking as a problem, what little sympathy I had for psych patients disappeared when they were alcoholics as well.

“I could try to find out for you,” I told her, not willing to truly commit to much of anything. “Do you need something?”

She paused and, taking a deep breath to steady herself, said, “I’d like to thank her.”

“Thank her?” I asked. “For what?”

“My veins are horrible. I’ve been told, many times, that I’m not a good stick. With my hands shaking the way they are, I know that only made it worse. She was able to take my blood on the first try.”

I didn’t say anything at first, simply surprised.

She raised her eyes to mine and asked me, “Are you a child of God?”

To this, I didn’t have an immediate answer.  Having been through hell during my marriage, again with my divorce, and carrying so much rage beneath the surface that I lashed out at just about anything that crossed my path, I hadn’t thought of God in a long, long time, other than to wonder where He had been during my darkest days.  I shifted from foot to foot.  After an extended pause, I finally spoke. “I’d like to think so,” I said, not really believing the words as I said them.  How could I? They weren’t even true.

Having been raised a Southern Baptist, I had begun questioning youth ministers and other elders with inconsistencies in the Bible as an early teen.  I didn’t understand how the Old Testament Jehovah could be so vengeful while the New Testament Jesus so loving. I heard the same mouths that had proclaimed Jesus’s love for all mankind spout words that were nothing but hatred and cruelty. They seemed to hold Jesus’s olive branch in one hand  and a knife in the other. I had been lied to, lied about, and bullied by “good Christian people.” I had heard stories of my childhood minister’s wife of my ignore my mother because she was wearing pants in the grocery store. And I had noticed God’s distinct absence during times when I had lost all hope.  Where was God when I had been raped? Where was God when I was trapped in a pitiless marriage to a drunk, a thousand miles from home, with no friend other than his dog for comfort? Where was God when I slipped further and further into depression, wanting nothing more than to end my suffering?  While I had not lost my belief in God entirely, I certainly could not believe in a good God for allowing my suffering without end. I could not believe in a good God when there was war, famine, and so much hate everywhere.  In the span of a heartbeat, I had considered all this and more. My love for God, such as it was, had been tossed aside a long time before.

“I would like to think so,” I had told her, not a word of it true.  She nodded and gifted me with words that shook me to my very core. “You wear your faith well.”

I was horrified and struck dumb. Did she really think I wore my faith well? I, who had ignored her, who had been impatient with her, brusque even? I, who had completely lost my faith, both in man and in God? I wore my faith well? I watched my feet stuck and still, unable either to run from the room or to move closer to her.   I don’t think I had ever felt as ashamed as I felt in this moment. I had ignored her, been curt and even rude to her—this drunk—and, from her pit of misery, she said that I wore my faith well. I felt small and humbled and flabbergasted.

When I looked up, her eyes, as clear as water, were on me.  “Would you please hand me my Bible?” she asked.  My feet paused a moment, still unwilling to move. After a long moment,  they finally began taking me to the counter where her Bible lay.  I carried it to her, my step unsure and shuffling. She took the white leather volume from my hands and opened it, revealing a folded piece of paper. The paper was ragged, and had been folded and refolded many times.  She opened it, smoothing its roughness with gentle hands. On it was a poem, a few simple lines of rhyme, the words of which I have forgotten although two phrases have stayed with me until this day: “His hand in mine” and “He walks with me.”

“Would you be so kind to copy this for me?” she asked, unable to meet my eyes.

Upon closer inspection, I noted that the words were runny, and the paper was no longer white.  It bore stains, perhaps tears, coffee, or even wine.  “I’d be happy to,” I answered, taking it from her.  My feet finally moving, I fled the room.

Coming back to my desk, I saw a pile of work waiting for me. More name slips, more people to register, and an ambulance or two.  I copied the poem immediately, sticking it under my keyboard so that I could get it back to her as soon as I finished.  For having feet that refused to move only minutes before,  they seemed to fly for the next half hour, along with my hands and mouth, smiling, getting people registered, and moving on to the next as soon as possible.

When finished, I dropped the clip board and reached for the poem and its copies, noting that the blurred words and stains had carried over to the new ones.  I quickly retyped it, choosing a big, bold font that made the poem spread across the entire page.

I brought it to her, apologizing for my delay. When she saw the new printing, her eyes grew incredulous. “You did this for me?”  Her eyes, still red and wet, met mine, and I nodded.  She grasped my hand tightly. “Thank you,” she whispered. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” She folded each separately and placed each one lovingly at different places in her Bible. “These words have gotten me through some tough times,” she said. “But not lately. Maybe I need to start pulling them out again.”

She opened the cover of her Bible, and her fingers traced a corner of nearly illegible writing.  She read them aloud. “Be strong,” she said, her voice catching.  “I am with you always. Love,  Me.”

I smiled. “What a lovely thing to write.” She bowed her head and started crying, and my smile slid from my face. I was horrified all over again.  She began talking, her voice starting as a whisper growing clearer and stronger with the telling of a story. She talked about her fiancé, a man whom she loved and lost due to cancer. She spoke of the pain of winding paths, of failed relationships leading to this man whom she adored, and the loss of her soul mate to cancer right before they were to be married.  She talked and talked and talked, telling their fighting the cancer together, but in the end, it had beaten both of them—when the cancer killed him, it killed a very large part of her as well.  And then she spoke of coping, of drinking in order to numb her loss; how days, weeks and months all became a single span of time that she simply called “without him.”   He had given her a Bible and signed it so that she might remember him.  I didn’t think it was possible for her to ever forget.

This was Grace’s story— the story behind just another drunk who had been brought to the emergency room to dry out.

I put my hand on her shoulder and stayed silent, simply witnessing her pain. When I don’t know what to say, I usually remain quiet. Saying the wrong thing can be far worse than saying nothing at all.

“He would be so ashamed of me,” Grace told me through her tears.

“He would be proud of you,” I disagreed. “So very proud of you. Look how far you’ve come. Look how long you’ve suffered. And now you’re here, looking for help.”

“I am so weak, so tired,” she replied.

“You don’t have to be strong,” I told her. “Read your poem again. See? His hand is in yours; He walks with you. You don’t have to be strong at all. You just need to have faith.”  The voice was mine, but the words were not. I had no idea where the words came from, only that they needed to be said.  It was ironic that I, who had raged against God, would be telling her to have faith.

She said nothing for a long moment as she found her voice. When she spoke, her voice was strong, level, clear. “This isn’t me,” she said.  Her eyes met mine again. “I would like to meet you again, someday, when I am me again.”

I smiled, knowing the feeling all too well. “Me too,” I told her. “Grace, I would like that very much.”

At the time of this writing, it has been close to a decade since I crossed paths with Grace, but her grace I remember as if it were yesterday.  I had come to the emergency room that night, burdened by my own drama, still weighted down by the baggage I carried with me from my marriage, convinced that “those drunks” and “those addicts” were somehow beneath me.  I was first taught humility by a statistic, yet another drunk who showed gratitude for what seemed to be a small, simple thing when she was at the height of her misery.

It wasn’t until later, when I had yet another non-stop, desperate night in the emergency room that I saw the other side and learned the value of a small, simple thing. I had run across the hospital to buy a soda, desperate for something cold to drink and the much needed caffeine to get me through the night. I was so tired that I was shaking, and as I slid the coins into the slot my very last dime dropped and rolled under the machine. I had no other money. I could have run back to the emergency room, borrow some more, and return to the drink machine, but I was certain that my legs wouldn’t carry me that far. I screamed silently, more demanding “Why me?” than cursing the machine, but I had thrown up my hands and was shaking them at it as if I could bully a drink from it anyway. A woman in housekeeping that I had never seen before offered me a two nickels, and I started crying in gratitude.  I took it, thanking her profusely, and slipped them into the machine and purchased my drink.

“Thank you,” I whispered. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

“Why, child, don’t be silly,” she said in a deeply Southern accent. “It was just ten cents!” With that, she hugged me, turned and left.

It wasn’t until later, far after I had finished my drink and that horrible night, that I realized the symmetry in the two exchanges, one of two nickels, and the other of a few copies of a retyped poem. I had been so near the point of walking out, quitting my job, and running away; it was the proverbial straw laid upon the camel’s back. I had no idea of where Grace had been, how close to that breaking point she was, and I couldn’t presume to know. I did, however, recognize that gratitude for something so small could both be profound and sincere.

The time I spent with Grace planted seeds that are, even now, still sprouting. I learned that everyone has a story, and everyone has his own path that presents its own obstacles.  I had to be willing to look beyond appearances and find the story behind the appearance. In truth, I had to learn compassion. I had considered myself a good person, a compassionate person, and while I had been accused of having a “big heart” or a “soft heart,” my compassion had previously been limited to the lovable and the innocent. I found it easy to be compassionate toward animals and children—they’re innocent and lovable.

But it was a drunk, neither innocent nor lovable in my eyes, who taught me humility. I, who had thought myself so far above this woman and so many others like her, had neither her gratitude nor her dignity on my best days. And I foolishly thought of myself as being better than she was?  In retrospect, she taught me the idea that every contact that I have provides merely a snapshot of other people’s stories. Whether I see them for a minute, a day, or a decade, I really have no idea what brought them to the point they are at when I meet them.  They do not begin with me, and they do not end with me. I do not see the end result of their struggles, nor do I see what demons they have had to battle along the way. I meet them for a minute, a day, or a decade, and, I was guilty of judging them for that span of time.

This was a powerful lesson in humility for me, and one I have never forgotten.

I still hope to meet Grace again. Perhaps both of us will be ourselves.

(Note: Grace is not her real name, and some of the specifics have been blurred to ensure her anonymity, but the story is true, and Grace was who she was.) 


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