George, 93, was dressed sharply for the Mass of Christian Burial for his 88-year-old brother, Gene. He made his way toward the marble steps that lead up the altar. The celebrant, a visiting Monsignor, helped George up the steps and onto the wooden box behind the too-tall lectern.
George was the last to give tribute before the dismissal prayers and the procession to the cemetery. He talked purposely with humor about how “the last shall be first” as he was the last speaker and he knew his brother first before any of us. He reminisced how one brother was not far behind the other, whoever was leading. Confessing that he wasn’t doing so well, George jokingly asked for Monsignor’s card. He might need his services before long.
Something was wrong
As George began to tell stories of the childhood of the two brothers, his vibrant voice faltered for the first time. The microphone picked up his heavy breathing. He stopped talking and gripped the podium as if waiting for something. Monsignor realized something was wrong with George and went over to him. A grandson quickly came forward to help carry his grandfather down the steps and lay him on the floor behind the altar. My son Andrew jumped up from the piano bench nearby and laid his coat on the floor to cushion George’s head. His daughter ran from her pew toward the altar shouting, “Call 9-1-1!”
A man stepped to the mic and asked, “Is there a doctor present?” The doctor was already out the pew and on his way. The deacon brought the defibrillator from the church office. I could see a man pumping George’s chest to try to revive his heart. A motorcycle stopped at the side door, and a policeman entered. We finally heard an ambulance siren approaching from the far distance.
The congregation was shocked and many in tears. Murmurs came from all corners. The soft voices from the Music Ministry, with vocalists and instrumentalists from more than a dozen parishes, sounded much like the Divine Mercy Chaplet. Three women sitting on the side section reserved for the Knights and Dames of the Order of Malta stood up and began to say the Lord’s Prayer loudly, as an invitation for others to join them. Several Hail Marys followed with many voices.
By now everyone had abandoned the pews in front of the casket reserved for family. George’s wife Elizabeth and Gene’s widow Shirley hovered over George, surrounded by children and grandchildren. At last one of the men announced that George was breathing and would be taken to the hospital. We were directed to leave the church and attend the reception at the country club. The family postponed the interment until another day.
The miraculous dynamics of community prayer
No one wanted to celebrate. My husband and I and many of our friends were too emotionally exhausted to go anywhere except home.
Before we headed for the parking lot, we realized we hadn’t visited with Shirley, Gene’s widow. We caught up with her as she made her way from the altar to the front door of the church. She told us that George’s heart had stopped, with no pulse found – until we all began to pray. “Your prayers saved his life!” she exclaimed. Then she urged us to go to the reception and visit with our friends, “Make some happy memories and celebrate.” She insisted.
We did go. What we celebrated was how God is so good to allow us, as a community of believers, to participate in the miracles and blessings that life and death bring into our lives. We are so humbled and honored to live in the Body of Christ, which that day was composed of people from many parishes and other denominations. We came together because we knew and loved Gene. God brought us together to save George’s life.
Of course, God knew all along what he would do. We are the ones who were surprised by his grace flowing through us and allowing us to show our love for this grieving family by praying for George – and seeing him resurrected.
(© 2016 Nancy HC Ward)