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On the Road to Emmaus

The physical dimensions of Ruthie Davis’ universe are 8 ft. x 10 ft. She has no tv, no radio, no books. Facing a blank wall with one fluorescent light, she lies in her nursing home bed unable to move. Advanced-stage Parkinson’s claims her body. Her hands are locked, her eyesight is diminished, her reaction to necessary medication is severe, and her pain is often unaddressed. Without family and alone in the world for many years now, she looks forward to her occasional visitors: monthly Eucharistic visitors, a caring but busy hospice nurse, one friend, and three members of Calvary’s Emmaus Ministry.   

A cradle Episcopalian who began attending Calvary in the mid-90’s, Ruthie knows she is dying. She is not afraid, though, and does not complain. Her light-filled, cornflower blue eyes flash open as you approach her bed; her feisty, dry wit catches you delightfully off-guard as you visit. Other than missing her dog Tiger and the peonies she used to grow, she has no regrets in this life. Her joy is having her back rubbed, feeling the touch of another person. “My cup,” she sighs, “runneth over.” 

Most of us are unfamiliar with the exhausting physical, emotional, and spiritual demands of dying until we find ourselves swamped by its demands; many of us are very private about the pain we think we should be able to handle on our own. We are reluctant to ask for help or are fearful that offered help might be invasive.  Hospice, as great a gift as it is, cannot address all needed care and attention for either the sick or caregivers.   

Recently formed to quietly offer pragmatic support to Calvary’s members and families experiencing an imminent death, The Emmaus Ministry is sensitive to each family’s individual needs. It does not force or intrude or preach. Members are trained to be a presence for whatever is needed, whether to sit quietly, read aloud, trim hedges, simply listen, rub backs, tell jokes. Although all information is confidential, Ruthie said, “Tell them. You must tell them about it.” 

Woody Allen said, “Ninety percent of life is just showing up.” For the rest of Ruthie Davis’ life, and for others who will need it, this is what Emmaus does -- just show up. And as Ruthie moves closer to the end-time of this life, I will continue to rub her back or hold her hand, aware that, in this improbable place with roaring traffic and hurried lives racing outside the window, she and I are connected by veins and tendons of the flesh in that “thin place” where time and space open to the mystery of the Spirit. Together we experience the palpably Holy.   

As Christians, we have been given the command to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and visit the sick and those in prison-- all vibrant and powerful metaphors of the hunger and imprisonment many experience when confronted by the realities of death. We have also been taught to pray, “Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do” and to do it “with gladness and singleness of heart.” It is in a small space on the crowded second floor of a busy nursing home, late afternoon sunlight slanting through the blinds, that these commandments meet.   

What Ruthie doesn’t know is that I am the one who is fed.

This article, previously published several years ago in “The Chronicle, was written at Ruthie’s request.   Ruthie died April 14, 2010, and was buried among the rolling green hills at Forest Hill Cemetery.  The day was sunny, and as the service began, the strains of “Amazing Grace” could be heard as a kilted bagpiper wound through the grounds to her grave.  Standing there with the small group who had gathered, I realized with joy that Ruthie’s universe was no longer 8 ft. x 10 ft., but immeasurably immense, timeless, and pain free.  And she was not alone.  

For more information about The Emmaus Ministry, contact Eyleen Farmer, efarmer@calvarymemphis.org or 312-5209.

Posted by Robyn Maudlin at 2:52 PM
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