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Following Jesus

At Peace with ALS

August 23, 2017 by

Today, Rebekah Domer continues her series on the Beatitudes. This one wraps up the theme, "blessed are the peacemakers." Catch up on the rest of her posts here.

portrait of Marcelle“How much time do we have?” Allen asked the neurologist seated across the table from him and his sixty-three year old wife, Marcelle.

Looking intently at Marcelle, the doctor asked, “Do you want to know?”

Marcelle nodded.

As Allen told me later, the doctor’s reply was devastating. “You have months. Not weeks, but months.”

Being among the very few French-speaking members of their church in southeastern England, Allen and Marcelle had been sent to visit church contacts in Strasbourg, France just months before. Two weeks into their stay, Marcelle fell in their apartment. She laughed it off as a normal consequence of aging. But there were subsequent falls – and increasing lower-extremity weakness, severe enough for Allen to borrow a wheelchair for Marcelle from friends in Strasbourg.

Marcelle continued to fall. Realizing that something was seriously wrong, Allen and Marcelle returned to England where Marcelle underwent rigorous testing. Their doctor at Tunbridge Well’s Spire Hospital in southern England had called them in to review the results, and here it was, the most distressing of diagnoses: “You have Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).”

ALS is a progressive degenerative disease that attacks the nerve cells that control the body’s muscles, resulting in increasing muscle weakness and paralysis. ALS runs a varied course in everyone it attacks. But it is always fatal.

As Marcelle’s disease progressed, it became apparent that she was afflicted with an exceptionally virulent form of ALS. From diagnosis, it would take her life in a mere seven months. Losing the use of her limbs, then her ability to speak, Marcelle was soon utterly helpless. Life for Marcelle became agonizing and painful. She could not so much as brush a stray hair from her cheek, blow her nose, or adjust her position. Able to communicate only with her eyes, Marcelle’s bright and active mind was totally trapped. Locked in.

Yet, faced with the terrifying prospect of death from respiratory paralysis, Marcelle responded with equanimity, declaring in a church gathering, “I am ready to go if this is the time to go.” She urged those around her to “accept God’s will for their lives as it comes to them – as I want to do.”

Although disappointed that their mission task in France had come to an abrupt end, Allen and Marcelle sensed that God was sending them on a different mission – one that pointed to eternity. Their ardent desire was to fulfill that mission to the best of their ability, painful as it might be. Always a gentle and unassuming person, Marcelle used her last vestiges of speech to express heartfelt thanks: “I am absolutely in the best of hands: the church.”

“It is God who is faithful, not us.”

Because of her attitude of acceptance, surrender, and trust, Marcelle radiated peace. Her bedside became a gathering place. Neighborhood children came by daily to greet Marcelle, and friends sat quietly by her side. God’s presence was powerfully present around her bed as Marcelle peacefully and courageously journeyed from this life toward the next. Her parting gift was one of peace.

Having known Allen and Marcelle as family friends for over thirty years, I believe the peace that surrounded Marcelle in her final months was born of a lifelong quest for God, and obedience to his will. Born in Morocco to descendants of Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition, Marcelle learned the importance of peacemaking at a young age: “Growing up as a Jew in an Arab country, it was ingrained in me not to fight but rather to work things out peacefully.” Marcelle’s father, respected by both Jews and Arabs as a peacemaker, inspired Marcelle to respond to difficulties with serenity, submitting to the will of God. On August 7, 1959, Marcelle’s three-year-old sister fell from a neighbor’s balcony. She died two days later. Marcelle was impressed by her father’s response to this tragedy, as he quoted the biblical passage, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).

As a child, Marcelle encountered Christianity through a missionary who later invited her to attend a Christian camp for Arab girls. It was here that Marcelle, convinced that Old Testament prophesies such as Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 referred to Jesus, decided to follow the teachings of Christ.

Marcelle remained true to this decision the rest of her life, encountering the truth of the words, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom. 5:1).

It was at a Bible study for youth in Casablanca that Marcelle met Allen, a young American sailor stationed on a communications base in Sidi Yahia. After a whirlwind romance, they married and began searching for a practical life that would express their faith. They formed a fledgling community with like-minded couples at the US Naval Air Base in Rota, Spain, where they continued their search for a life in keeping with the teachings of Christ.

In 1975, Allen brought Marcelle and their children back to the United States, where he was discharged from the military. There they visited the Bruderhof. Their experiences so inspired them that Allen and Marcelle eventually returned permanently with their nine children. They became enthusiastic participants in the community life and efforts to reach out to fellow seekers across the globe.

Allen describes Marcelle as “a woman of peace.” When confronted with dissention, Marcelle was the first to plead for an atmosphere of peace. Her steady love and deep faith served as an anchor for all who knew her.

Pastor Rick Warren says, “If you want to have a deep, personal, satisfying peace of mind and heart and soul, you’ve got to surrender control of your life totally to God. Evidence of a surrendered life is always obedience. When you listen to God’s word and follow his direction, the result is always the same: peace.”

Marcelle was truly at peace with God at the end of her life and witnessed to that peace, saying, “It is God who is faithful, not us. He held me in his hands all this time, when I struggled. He always brought someone into my life who helped me at the right time. It was like God saying to me, ‘I will never leave you alone.’ And that is really what happened.”

Check back in three weeks for my next post in this series. Comments

About the author

Rebekah Domer

Rebekah Domer

Since Rebekah’s upbringing at the Woodcrest Bruderhof in New York, life has taken her on many diverse assignments, from the...

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  • Dear Rebekah, Your story tells of a very deep faith in God. You are a very impressive writer. One can feel your empathy and your own conviction, that God is the only sustainer of life and the only strength and joy-giver. With love and thanks, Sr Ferrera

    Sister Ferrera Weinziehrl
  • When I saw the title of this story, I was immediately reminded of my own fathers’ journey through ALS. I am not sure the extent of peace he actually felt. He was a stoical person and accepted what happened to him more as fate than of grace. I have lived with the uncertainty of what my father believed and how he related to God. Marcelle was clear when she said, “It is God who is faithful, not us.” The way that Marcelle and her husband approached life, showed their deep trust in the quest for God. There actually is no comparison between Marcelle and my father. Their lives were so different with different ways to cope. The peace that Marcelle had was evident. If my father had peace, I hope he too felt it in his own heart in the months before he died. This also points out that each person brings his/her story to their experience of terminal illness. It is as unique as the person who is living it. The way we relate to God is too a mystery to be expressed or not.

    Tom Rowan
  • Dear Rebekah, Once again, thank you for sharing. I have always believed fear of death and any pain related to the passage could be offset from the serenity found in knowing your transition is to be joined to God. It is the loss your loved ones suffer that is painful as they often fail to realize you never truly lose your loved ones. You just can't interact they way you did before. However, they remain with you. I believe the most evolved souls are taken back once they have fulfilled their purpose of love and learning on earth. Marcelle was the ideal example of how best accept her fate. She sounds like an amazing person. ~ Rosalie

    Rosalie Gambino
  • Beautiful story.

    Emily Russo
  • Rebekah, what a beautiful tribute to your friend, may she Rest In Peace. Robin

    Robin Wildman
  • incredibly beautiful testimony of a life fully devoted to God.

  • This is a very inspiring story, I am praying to God to be like her. Though my life is such a misery, but I know one day God is going to use me to inspire those who had a miserable life like mine. God bless you

    Gloria Fourie