The gift of life -- and the importance of dignity


COLUMBIA, 11/4/12 (Sunday Essay) -- My wife and I noticed something was wrong toward the end of Pastor Cathy's sermon last Sunday.  An older woman seated in a pew across the aisle had closed her eyes, but not in prayer, and people around her seemed fretful.

The service continued and the woman weaved and grimaced. My wife leaned over. "I think she needs help," she said.

But we were far away and people were already rallying.   We saw glances exchanged and whispers murmured.  Moments later, Rev. Knute (Jacobson) descended the altar with a concerned look and quietly glided down the side aisle to the back of the church, Calvary Episcopal in downtown Columbia.

The Celebration of the Eucharist -- for Christians, a re-enactment of the Last Supper -- had begun, so Rev. Knute wouldn't leave the altar lightly.  Eyes around the church -- a full place these days, as Rev. Knute and Pastor Cathy (Rosenholtz) are popular -- followed the minister out.

Pastor Cathy, the service celebrant, began the Eucharistic blessing -- an acknowledgement that the death of Jesus was an act of redemption.  She raised her eyes and -- subtly -- watched the drama in the pews unfold.

My wife heard something about "a doctor" and momentarily Rev. Knute walked up the aisle, back to the altar.  Behind him, from the rear of the church, a doctor appeared.

"He wasn't supposed to be here today," my wife said.  The doctor is a family friend and we knew he was due somewhere else.  He's also a geriatrician or eldercare specialist, a fortunate circumstance.

He walked up the aisle without making a sound and slipped past the kneelers to the woman's side.  My wife saw his lips ask her name.  He helped her gently raise her legs and lay along the hard wooden bench.   We saw her eyes flutter in the faint light through the stained glass windows.

"She looks like she might have had a seizure," I whispered.  I took my wife's hand.  She was nearly in tears. "This is very emotional," she said. 

We had faced down breast cancer in these very pews.

Eucharistic ministers at her sides and choir behind her -- children and adults in flowing red and white robes -- Pastor Cathy asked that we surround the woman with love.  Hands raised, she turned to the Good Book and blessed the bread and wine.

We heard sirens and in moments, Columbia Fire department medics entered from the back of the church.  In the center aisle -- where shortly before, Pastor Cathy had read from the Gospel, surrounded by children holding texts and candles -- the rescue team wheeled a gurney.  

A hush settled on the crowd.  The Lord's Prayer began.

"Our Father, Who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name."  The medics leaned into the woman's pew.  "Thy Will be done."  We heard a slight pneumatic hiss, as the gurney rose and the doctor raised his hands and gave some directions.

My wife thought the woman might have passed.  She dobbed a Kleenex to her eyes.  I looked at her like husbands do when their wives cry over things that are probably okay.

"I can't help it," she said.

The choir and ministers and the children -- including our own -- took Communion -- the bread and wine -- on the altar.  The rest of us prepared to move in procession up the center aisle.

I worried that with medics there, people should be directed to the side aisles.  But I didn't see any ushers making such directions.  Wanting to fix things, I told my wife.  She looked at me like wives do when their husbands want to fix things that probably aren't broken.

"Don't worry about it," she said. "It will be fine."  She was sniffling and her eyes were red.  I wondered how she could say things would be fine and be in tears at the same time.

I expected the medics would lift the woman from the pew, that she would not be able to stand.  Maybe she had indeed passed.

But she stood, on shaky legs, feebly, with her eyes fluttering.  The congregation was palpably relieved. Had this not been a church, we would have applauded.

With an unflappability I knew we were in some awe of by now, Pastor Cathy directed her flock to keep the woman, whom she named, in our prayers.

The medics gently positioned her on the gurney and wheeled it out.  The ushers appeared, and row by row we moved into the center aisle, walked to the altar and took Communion, just like any other Sunday.

The service proceeded with nary hiccup nor hitch, and I wondered later why that seemed important.  The slipping and gliding, the watchful eyes and quiet prayers.  Aid rendered through unspoken guidance and steady hands.  The way that, as my wife suggested it would, everything turned out okay.

What was it?  Why did the way it all came off feel important in itself?  Wasn't everyone just doing their jobs, trying to make the best of a difficult situation?

But what if there had been a commotion?  Or worse yet -- what if we had just pretended nothing was going on?  I thought about how I would have felt had I been that woman.  Then I knew why the service was especially meaningful.

It was the dignity.  The woman's dignity, our dignity, human dignity that transcended individual religious belief.   The way we maintained our dignity was an example for our children, it touched us adults, and it left me feeling proud.