My family and I stumbled into church a few minutes late. It was a rare occasion that we were able to attend service since my baby was born 7 months ago. With my recovery from the recent flu well on its way and naps seemingly miraculously well timed this morning, we actually made it. We took our agreed upon place in the last pew on the left while the other church goers, numbering maybe thirty or so, remained clustered in the front. Shortly after the start of the welcome prayer we all turned to a flurry of a woman entering from the center doors of the church.
She was somewhat petite in stature and bundled up in a pink fleece coat. She was carrying another woman in a blue hospital gown. I started slightly on seeing the very emaciated woman being held, eyes sunken into a face that seem too large for its very small body and I was immediately struck by the contrast of seeing her two rows ahead of my husband seated with my baby girl. The beginning of life, in its plumpness and bright face of my daughter next to the almost shrunken older woman, both in my field of vision, was humbling to see. It reminded me at once how we are all human, and about the preciousness of life.
But there was much more to learn.
As I readied to nurse my daughter quietly in this back row, I saw the woman in the pink coat remove something from a bag and place it on the smaller, older woman's face. Everything else in the church faded when I realized she had placed an ambu bag over her face and begun to bag ventilate this woman in the blue hospital gown. She is dying, I thought. My husband and I looked each other, he with the serious look on his face that said, “Oh my." And we both looked at our two older children aged 9, standing between us in the pew and observing this interaction in front of us. What were they thinking of this? I wondered, and were they okay? One of my girls looked for a while then looked away seemingly unsure if she should continue to look at these women, a reaction I felt was appropriate and respectful. The other took small glances their way but did not stare. I was unsure of what they understood.
The Woman in Blue is dying, I thought, and the Woman in Pink brought her here for the last rites. Those were my initial thoughts, and I felt both sad and awed at this act. As the service continued I looked closely at the face of the Woman in Blue and saw her blinking, staring at he face of the Woman in Pink in between shut and opened eyes.
The priest began his sermon on Mary as she was being celebrated today. He spoke of her life outside of the celebrated role as Mother of God, how her human everyday existence was most probably very difficult during those times, and how her entire life would have been challenging from what we knew. That she saw herself as a servant. I didn't know if my older daughters understood his message, or the juxtaposition of it against the interaction between the two women in the pew ahead of us. As I nursed my baby girl, I felt both a lightness and heaviness inside that reflected my acknowledgement of this, and later when we talked I learned my husband was deeply affected by this experience.
You see, the Woman in Pink not only brought the Woman in Blue to church, carrying her in her arms. She used that ambu bag to ventilate the older woman, for the entire service. The entire church service, pausing only for seconds at a time, then resuming. And every time I looked at the face of the Woman in Pink, she wore the softest expression, an almost smile. Looking then at the Woman in Blue who stared up at her, I thought, this is what she sees every time she opens her eyes, this soft look and smile that simply says, "I'm here.”
We left shortly before the true end of the service because my baby girl began fussing, so we do not know why those two women were in church that day, sitting together in those pews ahead of us. In the car my husband turned to me and said,'That is the most amazing experience I have had in a long time. I am astounded by that Woman(in pink)." And I could see by his expression how deeply moved he was by being there, at that time, and witnessing what we all had together.
We asked our daughters what they understood, what questions they had and how they felt. They asked a lot about why the Woman in Blue was so thin and what the plastic thing was making the funny air sound. We explained what we could and told them how tiring it was to use that ambu bag. That their dad and I both in fact had used it for far shorter than we saw in church and it made my hands cramp up from fatigue. My husband and I are no strangers to the end of life. As a physician I have seen and been a part of many people's deaths, and been witness to many different versions of the universal departure from this life. Patients' deaths have made me cry, for many reasons. Both my husband I have seen one of our parents suffer from cancer, their bodies weaken and struggle, and we have seen them die. We know the grief that comes from witnessing that part of life. But we were still struck by this interaction between the Woman in Pink and the Woman in Blue.
As we told our daughters: what you saw today was one of the greatest acts of love between two human beings, one of the greatest you will ever see, because caring in this way, with gentleness and respect, for someone who is sick or dying takes a great deal of love. It takes more love than you can comprehend until you are in that position yourself. Hours later my husband and I are still awed by what we witnessed. I feel blessed and honored to have seen the face of love, in this way, this morning.