I watched her die. My wife and I looked through the glass wall of the ICU bay as she coded. What seemed like an army of medical personnel charged in with a crash cart and surrounded the bed of this tiny, frail, broken woman.
Heroically, an attending physician stormed through the crowd of nurses and techs, parting them like Moses parted the sea. His arms waiving above his head signaled the command: Stop. No more. Let her go.
For the first time in weeks I saw Marlene open her eyes. Her back arched slightly for an instant, and then she sank back onto the bed, eyes closed forever.
Marlene Miller is not a saint whose name will be found on any hagiology, but she was a special saint and example to the people of Faith Lutheran in Philadelphia. A tiny seven-year-old girl in 1960, disproportionately small even for her age, she watched as a new church was being built in her neighborhood. Her parents were not religiously observant, but the little girl took it into her head that she wanted to go to Sunday School. People were instantly attracted to her because she was so very small and yet seemed so very delighted by this holy place. As she grew up, she sought ways to give expression to her faith. She sang in the church choir and taught in the Sunday School. One of her former students remembered her as the nicest teacher he'd ever had.
Marlene felt called, even as a teenager, to help the disadvantaged. She volunteered at the Woodhaven Center, a home for the developmentally disabled. There she met another volunteer, Tom. They fell in love and were married. They made an amusing couple. He was over six feet in height and she did not even clear five. Nevertheless, she always called him her “soul mate.”
As Marlene aged she managed to bring a unique child-like joy and enthusiasm to all of her volunteer work. I always felt there was just a little more daylight in the room when she was around. It was impossible not to adore her.
But what is remarkable about her is the circumstance under which she lived out her calling. Marlene was born with a rare condition called Turner's Syndrome. Girls with this syndrome have only one x chromosome. Characteristically, they remain small and infertile and are prone to very short life spans. Turner's girls almost always suffer heart defects and kidney abnormalities (Marlene was born with only one kidney). She was frequently ill and it was supposed she would never live to graduate from high school. Yet Marlene survived, even though surviving meant spending her first wedding anniversary in a hospital bed following open heart surgery.
A valve-replacement surgery saved her life, but the length of time she spent intubated caused permanent damage to her throat. Marlene lost her singing voice and could only speak with difficulty. She developed a throaty, wheezy whisper which was difficult for her young Sunday School students to understand.
Shortly after I was called to Faith Lutheran, Marlene suffered a major stroke. She lost a portion of her eyesight and her short-term memory was seriously compromised. When I visited her in the hospital her first question to me was about the attendance at the church's Lenten soup suppers. By Holy Week she had been released and dutifully reported to church for the annual Holy Saturday Easter Egg Hunt. It was a gorgeous spring day, and Marlene bounded into the narthex with ebullient delight. “What a beautiful day for an Easter Egg Hunt!' she exclaimed. After greeting me and some parents, she announced that she would go check on the children. She turned and, with her vision impaired, marched directly into the wall. The accident might have been hysterically funny if it weren't so profoundly tragic.
Marlene's health was not her only burden. Her husband Tom, a social worker, grew increasingly depressed in his occupation. Cigarette smoking and endless hours on his feet resulted in circulatory damage, eventually leading to an amputation. His depression deepened. His use of pain-killers increased, and the couple suffered severe financial strain. Through all of this, Marlene maintained an intrepid cheerfulness. I would often visit her at home to bring her communion, and she'd tell me about her day and ask me about the goings on at the church while her three pampered rescue cats lounged at her feet.
In her early fifties Marlene developed an aphasia of her epiglottis. She could not eat without aspirating food and was constantly hospitalized with pneumonia. Because surgery to close her epiglottis would render her permanently unable to speak, she elected to have a feeding tube inserted into her stomach. Nevertheless, she constantly requested the Holy Eucharist. This terrified me because, as a pastor, I have no right to refuse the sacrament. Every time I placed the wafer in Marlene's hand I feared I was killing her. Yet her need to receive Christ was greater than her fear of choking or pneumonia. I confessed my concerns to her, but she was adamant. I marveled at her faith.
In the early fall of 2007 Marlene had a massive brain hemorrhage. It was necessary for the doctors at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital to remove a portion of her skull in order to relieve the pressure on her brain. I was told that she had wakeful and lucid moments following the surgery, but I never experienced any of them. I went to see her several times, to pray for her or sing a hymn, but I could never get her to wake up. For all the time I have spent in hospitals, including my experience as an on-call trauma chaplain at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, I have never witnessed a sight as disturbingly violent as the sight of that tiny woman in the ICU. Her hair had been shaved. The flesh sewn up around the missing portion of skull and the misshapen head were like something out of an old horror movie. It all seemed wrong, unjust, and cruel.
But this sight is not my final memory of Marlene. I will remember her best for a visit I'd had with her a few months earlier. She was recuperating from some illness in a dingy nursing home in the Summerton neighborhood. She sat in bed, restricted because of the danger of falling. Her arms were bruised by IV sites and her short-term memory was all but gone. We shared the sacrament, and as I left she spoke the last words I would ever hear her say:
“Pastor, God sure is good, isn't he!”
Yes, Marlene. God sure is good. And I know this all the more because I have known you.
* * *
By the way, I should mention that at Marlene's funeral a neighbor—a Roman Catholic for over seventy years—received Holy Communion for the first time in a Protestant church. As I handed him the wafer he smiled and said, “There's only one God.” As the 500th anniversary of the Reformation draws near, I'm asking Lutherans and Catholics to petition Pope Francis to allow Lutherans to receive the sacrament with our Catholic brothers and sisters. If you agree, sign my petition here.