Back when I was doing my Beliefnet blog, I wrote often about my sister Ruthie Leming, who was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer at the age of 40. She was healthy, had never smoked, and had none of the risk factors. Yet, there she was, with a husband, three children, and a terminal diagnosis.
I wrote about her a lot, not only because I love her, but because the way she handled her diagnosis was absolutely extraordinary, and so full of grace. In one post I turned into a magazine article, I touched on this:
Local folks who came to see Ruthie would tell our family about things she had done for them that won their hearts. People began posting comments on my blog about ordinary kindnesses that, in retrospect, meant so much. A colleague of Ruthie’s remembered the time they were running in a race, and she fell; Ruthie stopped, picked her up, and hung back with her until the finish. Several recalled mercies she’d bestowed upon their difficult children as their teacher, out of her boundless patience. Ruthie’s class this school year has a reputation for bad behavior, and her teacher friends had asked her once how she could put up with the little terrors. She said to them, “Because I love them, and they might change.”
By week’s end, I could see that the fearlessness, the tranquility, and the big-heartedness with which my sister accepted her grim cancer diagnosis didn’t come from nowhere. She could be so marvelously brave in the face of her own mortality because she had lived her life by virtue. Virtue can be such a prissy word (ironic, that, given its roots in the Latin word for “manliness”), and Ruthie would no doubt roll her eyes at its being applied to her. But the quiet, modest life she’s lived at home illustrates Aristotle’s idea that virtue is a habit of the heart. That is, by “doing the right thing,” as she would put it, day in and day out, by persevering in charity and patience, and by rejecting anger, over time Ruthie became a woman of deep virtue, the greatness of which became fully apparent only in this crisis, not only in the measured fortitude with which she’s accepted this severe blow, but also in the way her friends and neighbors have responded.
That, by the way, has taught me something about the virtue of living in a real community. The outpouring – an eruption, really – of goodness and charity from the people of our town toward Ruthie and her family has been quite simply stunning. Folks tend to respond kindly when others get their ox in a ditch, as they say back home. But in Ruthie’s case, what’s happened here, and is happening every day, is a revelation. The acts of aid and comfort have been ceaseless, often reducing our parents to tears of shock and awe that the love of others could be so intense. Even two of Ruthie’s oncologists wept over her, one confiding to a colleague that he’d “fallen in love with that little family, and I’m going to give them my very best.” As a teacher told me, “Ruthie’s earned this. She’s drawing this out of people because of the way she’s lived her life, and the way she’s always treated others.”
I talked to her the other day, and knew from what my folks had been telling me that she was in steep decline. Losing weight, on oxygen again, in lots of pain. But if it hadn’t been for Mama and Daddy, who live next door to her, telling me these things, I would never have known. She never, ever complains. She mentioned to me that she had been dreaming lately of family members who had died. Our grandfather Dede. Our grandmother Mullay. Our Aunt Julia. She said they appeared to her in different dreams.
“Did they say anything to you?” I asked her.
“No, they just smiled,” she said.
“Do you think they were preparing you for something?”
“No, I didn’t get that sense.”
Of course she didn’t. Ruthie has so much hope for survival.
But she was wrong. They did come to prepare her. This morning Ruthie died at home.
It was sudden. I do not have details yet, but it appears it was a heart attack. If so, this was a kind of mercy, because now my poor sister will not have to endure the slow, suffocating death many lung cancer patients suffer. Nevertheless, she is gone, and so are our hearts. The day after her diagnosis, I lay in her bed at her house (she was in the hospital), crying and demanding an answer from God about why he would allow something this horrible to strike such a good woman. There was no answer, but at some point, I sensed a powerful presence of serenity in the room, and I understood that she would not survive this, but that there was purpose in the way in which she would die. I have faith in that. And I’m not weeping this morning, because I know as surely as I know anything that the way Ruthie Leming met her death was a testimony to life, and faith, and goodness. I know that the friends and family who walked with her this last year and a half can say the same — and their kindness and love to her and to her family is a beautiful, unforgettable thing. And above all, I have every faith that we have gained a powerful intercessor in heaven, and that in God’s mercy, we will all be reunited one day.
Please do remember our family in your prayers. Especially remember Ruthie’s children, Hannah, Claire and Rebekah (here is a memorable photo I took of Claire with her mother in the hospital the day after Ruthie’s diagnosis; Andrew Sullivan was kind enough to post it on his blog last year), and her husband Mike, a Bronze Star-winning Iraq veteran, a firefighter, and a very fine man of whom we are all so proud.
I will be blogging over the next few days as I can. As I will be traveling for the next day or so, I will not be able to approve posts regularly, so please be patient.
UPDATE: I’m writing from a flight to Baton Rouge. Thank you all for your prayers and generous wishes. When I was writing about Ruthie on my blog last year, she often would tell me how much it meant to her that total strangers were praying for her because they’d read about her on my blog. We even heard from someone in Turkey, and someone in Germany. This really did matter to her, and to my whole family.
I spoke to her doctor this morning while on the train to the airport, and he told me she died at home. As I suspected, it was some kind of coronary event, though they can’t say (yet) exactly what happened. This is what I feared would take her life; last year, when surgeons found the main tumor, it was wrapped around her superior vena cava, and was inoperable. The doctor told me that she passed quickly. Mike was at her side.
I am hearing that the whole town is in grief, especially the teachers and others at the school where she taught, and that she loved. I am not surprised. Ruthie loved this town, and the town loved her back. This is who they loved:
We then got to talking about all the amazing things people are doing for her and her family. There are two firefighter cookouts this weekend to raise money for her cancer fight. On April 10, they’re going to have Ruthie Leming Day in St. Francisville, and our friend and neighbor David Morgan is going to play a concert with his band. All kinds of great things are happening. Just yesterday, my folks had a visit from a friend and neighbor who said that she had been estranged for a long time from her sister, but reading on this blog about Ruthie’s experiences and wisdom, she contacted her sister and rebuilt that burned bridge. Over the weekend, a couple of family members from whom my family has been distant for the past few years came by, and my folks had a great visit with them. Healing took place, and thank God for it — all because our family members read the stories on this site about Ruthie, and were moved to reach out, God bless them. We keep hearing these stories, and they’re golden.
“Remember how you told me a couple of weeks ago that you believe you’re standing right where God wants you to be?” I said to her. “We will never know in this life what good will come from the people you inspired to mend fences with their loved ones. We can’t see God’s plan, but He has a plan.”
“That’s exactly it,” Ruthie said. “Rod, it seems like every single day the most interesting people are brought across my path.” And then she told a moving story about a suffering man she and Mike had met by apparent happenstance. They spent an hour with him, just listening to his story, and sharing their story. The whole thing, Ruthie said, was a blessing. She said she probably wouldn’t have been able to meet any of these people if not for her cancer.
“Rod, look at all I have. I mean, look at all I have! ” she said. “Okay, yeah, I have cancer. But I also have God. And I have my family. And I have all these friends, and all this love. It’s unbelievable how blessed I am.”
She went on like this, not quite saying that the cancer is a blessing (how could it be?!), but conveying the sense that her suffering with cancer has brought about so many epiphanies in her life — and, I would say, in the lives of others. There my sister is, in the crucible between life and death, fighting for her life against long odds, and she’s on top of the world, beaming, for everyone to see. Just praising God and loving everybody with all her heart, and giving thanks. Miracle is too strong a word, but only just.