By Amy White Ziegler

The Achievement of Breathing

In September 2017 I caught pneumonia. I spent two weeks flat on the couch, doing nothing. My daughter was three at the time, not yet in preschool. Normally, while her dad worked on weekdays, I poured every cup of milk, built every block tower, and played every game of Candyland. Play orchestration was my job. But with the pressure of pneumonia in my lungs, our family’s routine came to a sudden halt. I could do nothing. God met me in the silence, however, and had something surprising to say.

Before being a mother who organized everything, I had been a college professor who organized everything. I was the English teacher known for having a detailed syllabus that I followed every day, without deviation. I found comfort in the planned certainty of the course outline, and my students realized that, yes, we were actually going to read and discuss everything listed on that syllabus. I loved making the schedule, but even more, I loved following the schedule I had made. When my university invited faculty to take the Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment, I scored high in the Achiever strength, meaning I enjoy checking off accomplishments every day to feel like all is well in my mental world. No wonder I loved academic life.

Having a child complicated the flow of my achieving personality. The changing patterns of a newborn’s first year were especially jarring. You mean I’ll never know when this baby is going to wake up, go back to sleep, or need to eat? Something could be required of me at any unpredictable moment. This was terrifying. It felt impossible to make plans while taking care of a baby. Yet I feared it was impossible to live without making plans. Life felt uncertain and fluid, like I had been thrown into jazz solo performance. My days were non-stop improvisation. Where once I had thrived in classical-style, scheduled days, now I stutter-stepped in unexpected syncopation. I learned to function in those new musical rhythms but never felt comfortable there.

Comfort returned when my daughter was ready to attend mom-and-child events. Baby gym time was Wednesday and Friday morning. Library story time was Thursday at 10:00. I met other moms and soon had a schedule of lunch outings and baby play-dates. By the time my daughter was 18 months old, my new weekly “syllabus” of raising a baby was born. I loved setting each week’s agenda and filling our time with intentional activities. Control and accomplishment, control and accomplishment. I had made motherhood academic, and my daughter was thriving. Our routine worked well . . . until that September, when I became incapacitated with illness.

Pneumonia was unlike anything I had ever experienced. With a sinus infection or bronchitis, I could choose to do a few normal things — do the dishes, sort through the mail — then take a nap. Even with the flu, I could sit and read or comfortably watch TV. But with pneumonia, there were no “normal things.” I couldn’t just sit down; I had to lay down, all day. It hurt to breathe. I was utterly helpless and more sick than I knew was possible, without being hospitalized. I couldn’t bring my daughter juice or a stuffed animal; my husband had to bring me tea and a blanket. Day after day, he had to prepare and deliver my food to the couch and refill my water. I had to concentrate on breathing. I remember thinking, “How could taking a deep breath be my only accomplishment today?” My eyes traced shadow patterns on the living room ceiling.

I had never been so decisively taken out of my daily rhythm. It felt so strange — awful, actually — to listen to my husband do everything for our daughter and not be able to help. Flat on my back, I couldn’t even sit up and see what was going on. Did she eat enough green beans? Too much macaroni and cheese? I heard their conversations and listened as they ate meals at the table, without me. My daughter was old enough to understand that mommy was sick and would come pat my shoulder as I lay on the couch. She brought me her favorite sheep stuffed animal, the kindest way of speaking her love language. She learned to say “pneumonia.” She was much more accepting of my total infirmity than I was, thanks to a marvelous father who knew how to step in and keep household life functioning. But I have never felt more frustrated, useless, and utterly tired than I did during those two weeks. I was an invalid. I felt in-valid — worth nothing. I would have cried, but I didn’t have energy for that either.

One afternoon as I lay there, too miserable to sleep or read, I heard the Spirit say a familiar verse: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). I immediately wanted to laugh. There is no need to tell a person with pneumonia to “be still.” As if I could be anything else! I could barely move. After a week living on the couch, this verse was funny to me. I smiled, trying not to bother my lungs with laughter. “Yes, Lord, I’ll be still. Not moving. I’ll stay right here on the couch. I’ll just quit running around now.” But I knew these were words of comfort, so I worked on taking them seriously.

As I repeated the verse in my head, a new phrase flowed from the ending: “Be still and know that I am God . . . and you are not.” What?! Again, I wanted to laugh. My amusement soon turned to ranting prayer. I am very well aware that I’m not God. This week I’m particularly aware that I’m not even wife or mom or anything. Of course I’m not God! Why would I need a reminder that I am not God? I’ve always known that You are God, God. I had plenty to say in my pneumonia lament.

Then I thought of my enormous, constant desire to plan and organize my days. My desire to eliminate all surprise and create calm flow that I’m in charge of. My desire to play a god-like role — whether for my students in the classroom or for my daughter as the omniscient, omnipotent mom. I remembered days of teaching when I was too sick to stand up, perched precariously on a stool at the front of the room. I remembered leading a church small group when a severe sinus infection made my voice hoarse, my mind fogged with congestion. I should have been at home resting during those times, but I usually felt all obligations must be fulfilled by me, all of the time. “I am God . . . and you are not.” Maybe I did need that message.

That September I was flat on the couch for two weeks, barely able to take care of myself and completely unable to take care of my daughter. All I could accomplish was breathing and slowly fighting pneumonia. There was nothing to plan; each day was the same, one long blur of lying on the couch, staring at a ceiling fan. But during those interminable days I learned that life goes on without me. My daughter missed my involvement, but didn’t need me to do anything for her. My husband missed my help, but didn’t actually need me, either. The world fully goes on when I’m not “there” in my productive routine. I still exist when I don’t plan or achieve anything, for days at a time.

I’m not God. Sometimes I need to be still to remember that.

Photo by Abby Kihano on StockSnap

About the Author

Amy earned degrees in English from Seattle Pacific University, Western Washington University, and the University of Tennessee. After teaching college composition and literature for several years at a Christian university, she worked as an editor for a research center in Washington, DC. Amy has published academic articles and is currently working on her first book — a memoir about not meeting her husband until age 35 and revising the conception of God she had grown up with.  

Amy lives with her husband and eight-year-old daughter in the suburbs of Chattanooga, Tennessee. She leads church groups and field trips, organizes play dates and closets, and makes as much time for reading and writing as this season of motherhood allows. Amy is passionate about encouraging others to actively engage with God to shape God's ongoing creativity in their lives.

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