Throughout her 19-month fight against lung cancer, my younger sister Ruthie was a model of Christian faith and courage. Friends, family, neighbors, even strangers—all of us marveled at her steadiness, fidelity, and good cheer. It was like that from the beginning. She received a note from a young nurse attending her on the day surgeons found an inoperable malignant tumor in Ruthie’s lung. The nurse said she had seen so much suffering in her job that she had begun doubting God’s goodness, but observing Ruthie’s reaction to receiving a likely death sentence at the age of 41—this, with a husband and three kids at home—reawakened her flagging faith.
That’s how it went with Ruthie until the day she died suddenly in September, at home, from a pulmonary embolism. Modest and self-effacing, my sister hated talking about her cancer and resisted doing so. But we’d talk often by phone—me in Philadelphia, Ruthie at her home in rural Louisiana—and she would tell me sometimes that come what may, she was not afraid, because she knew God had a plan for her. Beyond that she made it clear that further inquiries along those lines were unwelcome.
I figured that she reserved those intimacies for her husband. Not so. The night before she died, Ruthie, by then in deep physical decline, had a friend drive her to a prayer meeting. On the way home, Ruthie said she had more test results coming soon, and she didn’t expect them to be good. Maybe, she said, that would be the time for her and her husband to talk seriously about the prospect of her death.
She meant: for the first time.
For 19 months Ruthie—who, incidentally, never smoked—had struggled with Stage IV lung cancer, an aggressive form that kills something like 80 percent of its victims within a year of diagnosis. The main tumor had wrapped itself like a serpent around her superior vena cava, the second- largest vein in the body, threatening to kill her from a heart attack. Every day she lived with the possibility that it would be her last. Yet according to her friend, Ruthie casually admitted, as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world, that she had never spoken in detail with Mike, her husband, about what should happen if she died.
As she did less than 12 hours later.
Learning this forced me to reconsider what I thought I knew about her faith and bravery. Was her chipper stoicism little more than a Herculean act of denial? Was the prospect of death—especially leaving behind a husband and three children, two of them fairly young—so terrifying to my sister that she simply refused to believe it could happen? I thought her a lion, but maybe she was an ostrich. The idea was repugnant, but maybe her awesome courage was really a front for cowardice.
Ruthie had told her oncologist at the outset of her treatment that she didn’t want to know what the odds of recovery were or how long she had left. That kind of speculation could only weaken her resolve to resist the disease and to endure the hideous chemotherapy treatments, she reasoned. Besides, she said, she was determined to fill every day she had remaining with gratitude and joy. Trust God and get on with life. That was her strategy, and she stuck to it with the determination of Patton bearing down on Palermo.
I confess that this still makes no sense to me. Ruthie was quite intelligent—she made better grades than I did—but no intellectual. When we were in college for two years together, she’d roll her eyes listening to me and my friends talk politics and philosophy. She thought we were vain, silly boys. Then again, she always thought that about me.
I was the one who read theology, who agonized about God, who went through several churches. Ruthie remained the no-drama, small-town Methodist she was raised to be. In all things, I was the rash, peripatetic seeker, a restless sort who waxed philosophically about home but moved all over the country. Ruthie figured she’d found whatever there was to find early on, married her high-school sweetheart, built a house across the gravel road from where we’d grown up, and started a family. Not once did I hear her theorize about home, about religion, or anything else. She just lived it.
A day or two after we buried Ruthie, I asked Mike—a deep man of few words—if Ruthie had been scared. He told me that not long after her diagnosis, she had been lying awake in bed late one night, too anxious to sleep. She was praying desperately when suddenly she became aware of a presence in the doorway of their bedroom. She was too afraid to turn over and look at it, but she was aware when it left—and when it did, it took away all her fear. “She told me it was like a physical weight had been lifted from her,” he said.
And that was that. Ruthie trusted her experience and her faith, and never, as far as anyone knows, thought about it again.
Did that experience, in removing Ruthie’s fear of death, cause her to believe (wrongly) that she was going to beat cancer? We’ll never know. I still think it was an extremely unwise, and even unkind, decision for her not to talk at length with family about the possibility of dying. But then, I admit that I have a problem understanding how anybody can endure a sickness unto death without preoccupying oneself with near-Gothic meditations, preparations, liturgies, devotions, and drama. This is perhaps not only a failure of imagination but also a failure of my fussy, melodramatic style of faith—a failure to comprehend a soul prepared to die in the same simplicity in which she lived.
A firefighter preparing to run into a burning skyscraper doesn’t stop to philosophize about his possible death. He has a mission, prays for the courage to do his duty, and engages. So it was with Ruthie, who saw her mission not only to survive cancer but to overcome the darkness cancer brought with it, so as to be a light to her children and to others. Ruthie called out to God for help in the oppressive darkness of the valley of the shadow of death, and He sent help. Not, in the end, the help she wanted, but the help she needed to do what she had to do.
Perhaps the greatest courage she demonstrated was the courage to believe, simply and surely, that all was well, and all would be well, for both the Bible she read faithfully and believed without protest and the silent ministrations of what she believed was a messenger from God told her so. That belief, held firmly with an iron-fisted internal resolve, helped her not only to endure 19 months of intense suffering with fierce grace that matured into spiritual grandeur, but to triumph over the grim odds predicting an early demise. Ruthie’s way was not my way, and never was, but the way she faced death taught me respect for the role of the disciplined will in matters of religious faith and moral courage.
I see her refusal to talk about her death as a strategy of evasion. She, however, would have called my insistence on talking about everything as a more sophisticated strategy of evasion—as a way of avoiding making decisions demanded by duty. I still don’t know which of us is right, or at least more correct. But of this I am certain: “Purity of heart is to will one thing,” taught Kierkegaard, and my sister Ruthie’s heart was nothing if not pure.
Rod Dreher is a TAC senior editor. His blog is www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher.