I stand here by a wall of metal file cabinets—three in a row, four drawers each—a nursing career of memories nestled in the southwest corner of my study. My life’s work written on hundreds, maybe thousands, of pages hanging neatly in file folders.
After twenty-two years in our three-bedroom house in suburban Chicago, I am sorting and purging, preparing to move. My husband, Marv, and I have bought a two-bedroom condo in the Loop. We move in thirty days.
Today I empty drawer twelve, the final drawer, of my file cabinets. I left it until last to savor the half day I set aside. The drawer is labeled N407, the course number for the Mental Health Nursing course I developed in 1984 for a new Christian baccalaureate nursing program. I taught the course for the first time the spring of 1985 and for the last time in 2000. It is now 2006. I’ve been unable to empty the drawer, but now I have no choice.
I scan the labels on the hanging files. Tears form. I recall my daughter-in-law’s advice: “Mom, take a picture of the things that are hard to throw away. At least then you will be able to see them in an album.”
But take a picture of an open drawer of a file cabinet? Two feet of labeled hanging files? I decide instead to make a list of the labels. I always loved to organize my teaching materials. I had to use new hanging files in bright primary colors. No army green for me.
The first file, one-inch thick, is canary yellow. Labeled Devotions. Inside I find two booklets: Thought Conditioners by Norman Vincent Peale and God’s Promises to You, an American Bible Society publication—a devotional one of my sisters used when she served as a lay chaplain. I flip the latter open; it automatically lands on Philippians 4:6: “Don’t worry about anything, but in all your prayers ask God for what you need, always asking him with a thankful heart.” A text I read for devotions at the beginning of class when students seemed especially anxious. A text appropriate now for me as I say farewell to my files. A text that will give me comfort as I leave that part of my life. For good.
My mind goes back to when I taught in a secular nursing program. During a lecture on Virginia Henderson’s fourteen basic needs of the patient, number eleven addressing the patient’s need for worship, one student, sitting right in front of me, blurted, “I don’t know why we need to include that on our care plans. I will never read the Bible, I will never pray with a patient. That’s what hospital chaplains are for.” I wonder, now, if she’s ever changed her mind after she’s sat with the dying, comforted family members, prepared bodies for the morgue.
Behind the yellow file is a two-inch row of raspberry red. Each label starts with Agency, followed by the names of the five hospitals and community agencies I took students for clinical rotations. And one file called General Information. As I pitch sheet after sheet of orientation materials to each agency—locker, parking, charting, and emergency code information, I remember countless hours of taking tedious notes, making sure I knew the information in case my students didn’t get it straight. Only once, as a clinical instructor, was I responsible for using an emergency code. A psychiatric patient in an intensive care unit darted out of his private room, thrashed his arms, and lunged toward a nurse. She motioned frantically to me as I stood in the nurses’ station on the other side of a window. “Call for help,” I read on her lips. I quickly pulled out the code number for hospital security from the unused section of my mind, dialed the phone, announced “Code 44” and my location, hung up, and quickly said a prayer. Within minutes, three brawny men arrived and we were safe. The patient, too, from injuring himself.
The next section of files is nine inches of royal blue. My favorite color and my favorite files—the content of the course: Christian Perspective, Therapeutic Use of Self, Theoretical Frameworks. I browse the files. References to Judith Shelly and Sandra John’s Spiritual Dimensions of Mental Health. I pull the book off my shelf. Paragraphs highlighted, pages tabbed. I recall finding the book just as I was developing the course, the only one I could find that presented a Christian perspective for the nurse as she cared for a person experiencing a mental illness. An invaluable resource for a young teacher. Clinical Disorders as outlined in the DSM-IV, the book used for diagnosis of psychiatric illnesses, follow: Anxiety, Mood, Schizophrenia, Personality, Sexual, Substance Abuse. I laugh out loud when I recall, during the “sexual” class, a male student saying, “Well, I never. I never thought I’d hear this kind of stuff going to a Christian college.” We were talking about sexuality, a topic other students agreed was not openly talked about in their homes while they were growing up.
Then files organized under special age groups: Children and Adolescent and Older Adults. I cannot forget the teen who took Ecstasy. “I am Jesus Christ,” he yelled from his bed, arms shackled at his sides. I remember his mother, face drawn, saying to one of my students, “He only took one dose. And the doctor says he’s brain damaged forever.” Post conference that day was sober. Students said they’d call home to thank God for their Christian upbringing. They said, “All the kids in the dorms should see this. No one would ever fantasize about experimenting with drugs again.”
The next six inches of the nine-inch row contain types of Therapies: Alternative, Art, Consultation-Liaison, Crisis Intervention, Emergency, Family, Group, Medication, Milieu. Will I ever forget those endless family theories, group interventions, and drug classifications? Or how we as Christian nursing students and faculty could make a difference in the “milieu” just by being there for the patient, listening without judgment, as we sat side-by-side in the dayroom?
The final royal blue folders, two-inches worth, stuffed with student presentations, deal with Issues related to mental health: Cultural-Spiritual, Economic-Technological, Ethical-Legal. I smile as I recall a group of students who incorporated practices of other cultures in their Spiritual Issues presentation. Shoving all the student desks to the perimeter, they lit lavender scented candles (which I’m sure was against fire code), turned out the overhead fluorescent lights, and asked each of us to lie on the carpeted classroom floor and breathe deeply, in and out. In the background, Native American flute music hummed from a student’s boom box, while another student read and guided us through a relaxation exercise. I remember hoping that no other faculty member would walk by, peek in the small window in the door, and question what was going on. The scene was not the usual bow your heads, fold your hands kind of meditation. But the meditation lessened any anxieties we had that day and made us thankful for contributions from other cultures.
Near the back of the files, the final three inches, the color changes back to canary yellow: N407 Forms, Exams, Resources, Syllabi, Teaching Mental Health Nursing. I cheerfully throw away stacks of exams, relieved that I never have to write another multiple choice question or spend hours computing grades and entering them into a grade book. My eyes blur. I am getting weary from all these memories. From the entire section, I save only my first syllabus and my last.
When I think I am finished, I find a manila envelope tucked tightly behind the last hanging file. Sealed. On the front I read, “DO NOT OPEN Confidential student issues THROW AWAY.” I can’t remember what’s in it. Something I intended the finder to toss if still there after I was gone. My stomach tightens. I open it and begin reading.
I recall the anguish I felt, for each student, for me. I say a prayer for each student, long graduated, that these people were able to learn from their incidents and move on, and for myself, that I dealt with them appropriately at the time, that I was not too lenient, nor too harsh. That I was supportive enough. That I leaned on the Lord for my decision-making. I restack the contents of the manila envelope and turn, slowly, to my shredder. I feed each sheet into it, one by one.
I close drawer twelve. Now two-thirds vacant. The remaining eight inches filled with empty canary yellow, raspberry red, and royal blue file folders.
Except for one small box of papers, the tangible evidence of my life’s work of teaching mental health nursing is now in the shredder or the recycle basket. But the stimulation, the joy, and the excitement of working with students, ideas, and patients, and, most of all, the knowledge that the graduates will approach each patient, no matter how different their behavior, as a child of God, born in his image will dance forever in my memory.
And I will not worry about tomorrow because Paul reminds me I can ask God for whatever I need. And I can always ask with a thankful heart, thankful for the many blessings he gave me in my career. And, even though there will be new teaching strategies and new clinical technologies, our God will stay the same. I pray my successors and their students will experience the same blessings.