Friday, October 28, 2005

The Measure of a Life

This week, Rosa Parks died in her sleep, a courageous woman who brought attention to many inequalities. In 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, a white bus driver demanded Ms. Parks vacate her seat on a bus for a white passenger. She refused. To give in, she would have violated her conscience.

Ms. Park’s passing reminded me of Abraham Lincoln’s life and final days. Carl Sandburg author of Abraham Lincoln, the Prairie Years and the War Years, recounts from historical documents the last hours of Lincoln’s life.

On Good Friday 1865, Mr. Lincoln, wife Mary and two friends attended a play at Ford’s Theater. An assassin entered their private box and mortally wounded the President by firing a one-shot brass derringer propelling a lead ball less than a half inch in diameter. Charles A. Leal, a 23-year-old assistant surgeon, gave immediate aid. Through mouth to mouth resuscitation and other measures, Mr. Lincoln breathed.

Unconscious, the President was carried onto 10th street. Across from Ford Theatre, a man standing in a doorway with a lighted candle beckoned the entourage into his home. The President was placed in a rented room upon a plain walnut bed, padded by a “cornhusk mattress resting on rope lacings.”

His condition steadily worsened through the night. Dawn found Mr. Lincoln surrounded by three devoted doctors. As his pulse slowed, breathing became more labored, and the end drew near. Surgeon General Barnes had his finger on Mr. Lincoln’s carotid artery. Dr. Taft’s large palm lay across the President’s chest. The young Charles Leal never seated himself, but stood by the President all night, most often holding his right hand, keeping his index finger on his pulse.

Later, Leal explained that just before departing this earth, recognition and reason sometimes returns to those who have been unconscious for hours. Leal said he determined to “hold his right hand firmly within my grasp to let him know in his blindness that he was in touch with humanity and had a friend.”

Rosa Parks and President Abraham Lincoln lived with adversity before and after they acted for justice and freedom. Ms. Parks was arrested because she defied an unjust law, but in later years was honored for her courage. President Lincoln, a key figure in slavery abolishment, reaped both love and slander.

On September 22, 1862 Abraham Lincoln signed a Proclamation saying that on January 1st of 1863 all slaves would be “forever free.” Godly changes in society rarely come without a price. Solomon said, “If you wait for perfect conditions, you will never get anything done” (Ecclesiastes 11:4 NLT). Passivity is the “act” of doing nothing.

A woodsmen proverb says, “A tree is best measured when down.” When life is gone, these questions are often voiced: “What was wrong?” “How did they die?” The better question, the better measure of a life is “How did they live?”

You may contact Cathy Messecar at

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