Florence

 

 

It was a Tuesday morning in late September and I was sitting at my desk, trying to pull some kind or order out of the shambles of my business affairs. At first I scarcely heard the telephone ringing at my elbow; when I picked it up it was several seconds before I realized that the person at the other end was crying. It was Rose. ‘… Downey Hospital’, she was saying, ‘as quick as you can’.

‘What? Who?’ I said stupidly.

Florence!’ she repeated. ‘Driving to Whittier this morning. You remember how foggy it was – oh, Demos she must never have seen the truck at all’.

Still not taking it in, I ran for my car and covered the few blocks to Downey Hospital in a daze. Most of the family had already reached the little one-story wooden building. Florence was on the operating table, Dad told me, but there wasn’t much the doctors could do. Dad was having trouble talking, and it was my sister Ruth’s husband who filled in the details for me.

The accident had happened at 7:30 a.m. in one of the thick gray fogs that creep in from the Pacific on fall mornings. Apparently Florence had failed to see a stop sign, her car had collided with a road repair truck, spilling tons of boiling asphalt across the highway. The driver of the truck was unhurt but Florence had been thrown from her car onto the flaming tar. A passerby had pulled her off and rolled her in his coat jacket, but not before her entire back had been critically burned.

It was these massive burns that prevented the surgeon now from setting the broken bones. At last she was transferred to Intensive Care and we were permitted, one by one, to stand in the doorway and look in. It was Dr. Haygood who led us down the corridor, weeping as unashamedly as any of us. It was this skilled man who had brought Florence into the world seventeen years before, and doctored her through the measles and whooping cough of childhood. Now all he could do was pat Mother’s hand over and over: ‘She’s strong and young, Zahouri’, he kept saying. ‘She has a tremendous will to live’.

When it came my turn to step to the doorway I could scarcely believe it was Florence on the high hospital bed: Florence with the pixie face and angel’s voice, youngest and most gifted of the family, suspended by pulleys and weights in a bed of salve. Her eyes were closed and a continual moan came from her throat.

‘Lord God! I prayed. ‘Don’t let her hurt! Take the pain away!’

Was I imagining it, or had the groaning stopped for a moment? ‘Take away the pain’, I prayed again.

Rose and I returned home to give Richard and Gerry their lunch. When I returned to the hospital that afternoon Florence was crying out with the pain, though still apparently unconscious to everything else. Again I stood in the doorway and prayed, again the cries subsided. The rest of that day and evening, whenever the pain was worst, my prayers seemed to help. Even the doctors and nursed noticed it.

‘Demos’, Dr. Haygood told me: ‘you can come into this room whenever you like. Even the intravenous feeding seems to go better when you’re here’.

So I was fitted out with a white gown, mask, and surgical cap, and a chair for me placed beside the bed. For the next five days I spent every possible moment in that room. As consciousness returned, the pain grew more excruciating. No drug, no amount of shots seemed to help; the only time Florence slept, the nurses reported, was during my visits.

Why this should be so I had no idea. Often, as I sat there, my mind went back eleven years to the time when she had broken her elbow and I had known, one morning in church, that she would be healed. Some strange link seemed to exist between Florence and me – and yet this time healing did not follow my prayers. Temporary relief from pain, but not an end to the danger she was in.

Because now the real peril appeared. X rays taken immediately after the accident showed that her left hip and pelvis had been crushed by the impact with the pavement. Since then new X rays showed fragments of the splintered bone traveling toward the vital organs of the abdomen. Every day a fresh photograph was taken; every day looking at the slides with the doctors, I saw the needlesharp splinters working deeper into the abdominal cavity.

Six days after the accident, when the burns still would not permit an operation, our church declared a day-long fast. Starting at midnight Sunday, the entire congregation touched neither food nor water. At 7:00 Monday evening, still fasting, they gathered at the just-finished church on Goodrich Boulevard in East Los Angeles to complete the twenty-four-hour vigil for Florence’s healing ‘with one accord in one place,’ as the Book of Acts puts it (2:1).

I alone was not with them. I had a special mission that night in the town of Maywood, five miles from Downey. For months now we had been hearing about a man named Charles Price. Some years back, Dr. Price had been the pastor of a large Congregational church up in Lodi, California – an ultramodern minister with an ultramodern church plant even boasting a bowling alley. Then the evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson visited the area. Dr. Price went to her tent meeting armed with pad and pencil to take notes of all the silly Pentecostal claims Miss McPherson would be spouting, so that he could warn his congregation against her. Halfway through the service the pad and pencil were back in his pocket, and Dr. Price was on his knees, tears streaming down his cheeks, hands raised above his head, praising God in an unknown tongue.

From that night on Charles Price’s ministry was radically changed. He called his new message ‘the full gospel’, by which he meant that no part of the New testament message would henceforth be left out of his preaching. He became known especially for his insistence that healings like the ones recorded in the Bible were meant to be part of the normal experience of the church in every age.

And now Dr. Price was in nearby Maywood holding a tent meeting of his own. As I neared the spot, my heart sank. Cars were parked half a mile away, and when I finally reached the huge tent, every seat was taken with scores standing on the grass outside.

Dr. Price was speaking from a platform hung with red and white bunting, a sandy-haired middle-aged man with rimless spectacles that glittered in the overhead spotlights. He finished his sermon and invited any in need of healing to come forward for prayers. Hundreds of people surged into the aisles. I looked at my watch. It was nine P.M. I would never get near him tonight. But the thought of my church on their knees before God made me stay. Slowly the long lines inched forward. Ten. Ten-thirty. Eleven. The ushers were trying to close the meeting. ‘Dr. Price will be here again tomorrow night, sister …..’ ‘Dr. Price will be glad to pray with you tomorrow night, brother’.

Dr. Price was gathering up his Bible and the bottle of oil with which he anointed the sick. ‘Sir!’ I called out.

He turned and squinted to see past the bright lights.

I dodged past and usher. ‘Dr. Price, my name is Demos Shakarian, and my sister’s been in an automobile accident, and the doctors in Downey Hospital say she can’t live, and we wondered if you’d come’. I said, getting it all out in one breath.

Dr. Price closed his eyes and I saw the weariness in his face. He remained standing there a moment. Then abruptly he opened his eyes.

‘I will come,’ he said.

I hurried ahead of him through the slowly dispersing crowd, fretting each time someone stopped him. Dr. Price noticed my impatience.

‘Don’t’ be anxious, son’, he said. ‘Your sister will be healed tonight’.

I stared at the man. How could he make such a blandly certain statement? But of course, I reminded myself, he hadn’t seen the X rays: he couldn’t have any idea how serious the situation was.

My skepticism must have showed in my face, because as I started up the motor he said: ‘Let me tell you, young man, why I am so sure your sister will be healed’. Years before, he related, back in 1924, a short while after his experience in Miss McPherson’s meeting, he had been motoring through Canada when he came to the little town of Paris, Ontario. As he drove through the village he felt a strange urging to turn to the right. He did so. Then he felt a compelling urge to turn left. In this manner Dr. Price was guided through the town until he came abreast of the Methodist church. There he seemed to get the order: Stop.

Without any idea why he was doing so, Charles Price rang the doorbell of the pastor’s house next door and introduced himself. He was, he said, an evangelist – and suddenly he heard himself asking if he could hold a series of meetings in this church. Much to Dr. Price’s surprise, the pastor said yes.

Among the people who attended the meetings, Dr. Price’s attention was especially drawn to a pathetically crippled young woman, whose husband carried her in each evening, and laid her on a cushion on one of the front benches. Inquiring about them, he learned that their names were Louis and Eva Johnston, that they came from Laurel, Ontario, and that Eva Johnston had been bedridden and in constant pain for over ten years following an attack of rheumatic fever. Dr. Price kept looking down at those shrivelled and twisted legs, the right one grotesquely drawn behind the other. The couple had gone to twenty different doctors in Toronto, he was told; they’d tried electric treatments, X rays, surgery, heat massage, only to have the deformity grow worse each year. And yet – as he preached – Dr. Price knew that tonight Eva Johnston was going to be healed. He knew because each time he looked toward her he felt physical warmth envelop him, like a heavy blanket settling over his shoulders.

A shiver ran down my spine as I recalled my identical experience with Florence’s elbow. With difficulty I kept my eyes on the road ahead.

Dr. Price interpreted the sensation of weight and warmth as the Presence of God. He told the congregation that they were about to witness a very special miracle. He stepped down from the platform, laid his hands on the woman’s head, and began to pray. Before the entire congregation, the woman’s back drew erect, the twisted legs straightened and grew visibly longer, and although she had not taken a step for over ten years, Eva Wilson Johnston got to her feet and walked – almost danced – the entire length of the aisle. Dr. Price was still in touch with the Johnstons, the healing had been permanent.

‘And tonight’, Charles Price went on, ‘we are going to see another miracle, because the moment you spoke to me that ‘blanket’ fell over my shoulders again. It’s there now. God is in this situation’.

I swallowed hard, for a moment not trusting myself to speak. In the eleven years since my own experience I had never heard of a similar thing.

It was half past eleven when we reached Downey. The front door to the little thirty-three-bed hospital was locked and we had to ring the bell. At last a nurse appeared. ‘I’m glad you’re here’, she told me. ‘Florence is bad tonight’.

I asked if Dr. Price might come with me into the room and he, too, was fitted out with a sterile gown and mask. Then the two of us entered Florence’s room.

She lay in her bed of salve, half hidden by a thicket of tubes and pulley wires. I introduced Charles to her and she nodded weakly.

Doctor Price took the bottle of oil from his pocket and poured a little in his hand. Then reaching through the apparatus around the bed, he placed his fingertips on Florence’s forehead. ‘Lord, Jesus’, he said, ‘we thank You for being here. We thank You for healing our sister’.

His strong gentle voice continued to pray but I no longer heard the words. For an extraordinary change had come over the atmosphere in the room. It seemed more …. more crowded somehow. The air itself seemed to have become thick, almost as though we were standing in water.

All at once, on the high bed, Florence twisted. Dr. Price jumped back as one of the heavy steel traction weights swung past his head. Florence rolled to one side as far as the wires would allow, then to the other. Now weights all over the room were swinging, circling, as she rocked back and forth. I knew I should try to stop her – doctors had said over and over that the shattered hip must remain immobile. But I stayed where I was, wrapped and bathed in that pulsing air.

A groan came from deep in Florence’s throat, but whether of pain or a kind of wordless ecstasy, I could not tell. For twenty incredible minutes Florence continued to toss and roll in her wire prison, while Dr. Price and I dodged the wildly swinging weights. At every second I expected a nurse to burst through the doorway and demand to know what we were doing; I knew the room was checked every ten minutes. But no one came: it was as though the three of us had been transported out of ordinary space and time altogether into a world inhabited only by that warm all-invading Presence.

And just as suddenly, it was an ordinary hospital room again. Florence lay still on the bed, gradually the weights ceased their circling. For a long moment she stared at me.

‘Demos’, she whispered ‘Jesus healed me’.

I bent down above her. ‘I know,’ I said.

When the nurse stepped into the room a few minutes later, she was delighted to find Florence sleeping soundly ….

The next morning, after driving Dr. Price to his home in Pasadena, I was still asleep when Dr. Haygood phoned.

‘I want you to come down and look at these X rays’, was all he would say.

The X-ray room was jammed when I arrive, doctors, nurses, lab technicians all crowding to see. Pinned against a lighted screen were eight X-ray plates. The first seven showed a crushed and dislocated left hip and pelvis. The bone was almost pulverized in places, the bone chips more widely dispersed in each succeeding photograph. The eighth slide, taken that morning, showed a pelvis that was normal in every respect. The two sides of the picture were identical; the left hip bone as well formed as the right. Only some hair-fine lines indicated that once – surely many years ago – this solid bone had ever been injured.

Florence remained in the hospital another month while the burns on her back continued to heal.

 

From: The Happiest People on Earth. The long-awaited personal story of Demos Shakarian as told to John and Elizabeth Sherrill, U.S.A. 1975, pages 64-71

 

 

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