Andrew Breitbart has reportedly died “of natural causes” at the age of 43. What does it mean to die “of natural causes” at 43? This is stunning news. You almost wonder if it’s some sort of hoax, given his skill as a prankster.

That was an angry young man. I hope he has peace now.

UPDATE: Good grief, where is the decency?  Matthew Yglesias, of all people, tweeted:

“Conventions around dead people are ridiculous. The world outlook is slightly improved with @AndrewBrietbart dead.”

I couldn’t stand some of what Breitbart did, and criticized certain of his stunts on this blog. But Lord have mercy, a 43 year old man dropped dead and left a widow and four fatherless children. He was a provocateur, not a criminal. The thing Breitbart suffered from is the same thing Yglesias here suffers from, which is the thing too many of us suffer from: making ideology more important than basic human decency.

Earlier this week I re-read all of the postings on my old Beliefnet blog having to do with my sister Ruthie’s diagnosis of lung cancer at 41. That event knocked me flat. Re-reading these posts was an excellent way to start Lent, because they reminded me of how far I’ve strayed from the things I saw and learned during those awful days. It might do you some good to re-read a couple of them. If you’re interested, take a look below the jump.

THURSDAY FEBRUARY 18

Back home in the country from a long day at the hospital. The word from the oncologist was pretty grim. Ruthie is in Stage Four. They rushed Ruthie into radiation therapy at once after he read her latest MRI results. We have to hope and pray they can knock out the cancer in her brain so they can start with chemotherapy to work on the cancer elsewhere. The oncologist was staggered by how aggressive this cancer is. Five weeks ago, there was scarcely a sign of this on her MRI. And now, it’s in a number of places.

I wish I had the words to express how brave my sister is. I write this through tears tonight — tears not of sadness for her, though God knows that’s there, but tears of admiration. Who among us could get such news today, and react with such evenness? Not me. She apologized to her husband, saying softly, “I’m sorry, I was hoping for better news.” Later in the day, I spoke with Dr. Tim Lindsey, her GP, and we talked about how astonishingly courageous she’s been throughout this short, terrible ordeal. He went on about how she’s not wanted to hide from anything, and how she’s withstood horrific blows without bowing. Dr. Tim and I agreed that there is something miraculous about the witness she’s showing to the rest of us, in how to suffer. He said that however long she has to live, whether it’s weeks or years or decades, her children will always remember the courage under fire — Hemingway’s definition of grace — that their mother showed in these days.

But you know, she’s not the only one. I am glad you were not there in the hospital today when Ruthie and Mike told their girls the news. You can imagine how heartbreaking it was for everyone. And yet, the moment passed. The children’s father, Mike, is hurting hard, but he’s also holding up his little family. This is the man who got the Bronze Star in Iraq for the incredible work he did supporting fellow troops logistically. He is tempered steel. These three girls — Hannah, Claire and Rebekah — are ravaged by grief, but they are also rallying to their mother’s side. The way that family is coming together for each other now is so beautiful and poignant it hurts to look at it, but you can’t look away because there is a lesson in truth and love, and indeed in life, playing out for us all.

If you don’t believe in love, you should come to Our Lady of the Lake hospital, and to this community, to see what I’m seeing. I won’t even start listing the people who have poured themselves out for us, because I’m afraid I’ll forget somebody. If you can judge a person by the quality and devotion of their friends, then surely Ruthie and Mike are among the finest people in the world. Firefighter friends, National Guard friends, schoolteacher friends, family members, neighbors — all helping, all loving, all saying, in their own way, what do you need? what can we do? let us help you through this, please. Even the nurses in this wing of the hospital got together and bought the little girls presents, and told them, Come talk to us anytime. A nurse named Chantina is the primary nurse caring for my sister, and look, after only three days, she’s like a member of the family. Really and truly. My mother hugged her and kissed her on the way home tonight. When we got home, there was waiting for us an icon Philadelphia friends had overnighted us: St. Ruth and St. Naomi, “for your Ruthie.” I showed it to my dad, who wept that strangers would do this for us.

How is it that people who barely even know us can be so good to us? Ruthie’s suffering is calling forth all this love. Tonight as I kissed her and told her goodnight, she told me how much she loved seeing me get closer to her girls. I’ve never had the opportunity to spend much time with them, because our visits here in the past have been so short. This is a small thing, but not a trivial one. God knows we would all rather this cup pass by Ruthie, but it must be said that even as darkness increases, the light increases that much more.

I read this post, and I think it must sound like I’m emotional, and laying the sentimentality on thick, because we’re going through a stressful time. Like I said, I don’t want to discuss this in detail, because I haven’t seen everything, but I will let one example speak for the kind of thing we’re witnessing here. Ruthie’s general practitioner, as I’ve said, is Dr. Tim Lindsey, whom she began to see at the beginning of this ordeal in January. Tim is a local guy who returned to St. Francisville to set up a medical practice with his friend, Dr. Chaillie Daniel. What kind of young doctors are these, and what kind of town is this? Look at this excerpt from a 2005 New York Times article about how St. Francisville stepped up to help Katrina refugees who showed up in town:

At Fred’s Pharmacy, the Police Jury picked up the tab for filling prescriptions for the week until a foundation took over. The sick turned to the splendid new clinic of Chaillie P. Daniel and Timothy R. Lindsey, young family doctors.

“Everyone was seen,” Dr. Lindsey said. “In September we saw 250 evacuees. Of the 250, about half could not pay and had no insurance. For the most part they were people running out of medicines or needing preventive care, routine labs, tetanus, hepatitis.”

Dr. Daniel said, “We treated postoperative people.” One lady had had two knees replaced 48 hours earlier. “She had no follow up,” he said. “She came in in a wheelchair. We had a lady with acute pancreatitis, in a lot of pain. She definitely would have required a hospital. She wanted to fly to San Francisco. We looked up a doctor in San Francisco, and she had surgery the next day.”

As for the payments, Dr. Lindsey said: “We have kept track of it as office overhead. We will probably turn in some charges to FEMA, but we don’t know if we will be paid.”

Tim and his wife Laura are Christians active with the Young Life group in town, to which my niece Hannah belongs. Someone from town who came by to visit the hospital today said, “Oh, you can’t imagine how lucky we are to have Tim in town.” I know that Tim has been an incredibly calming influence on Ruthie and everyone in my family through this. He’s given them the gift of time and attention, even after hours. You hear the stories about this guy and his compassion, and you can’t believe they make doctors like this anymore. But there he is … and there he was today, all six-foot-four of him, when I got back from taking a walk with my mom. He had been on the phone with the oncologist, and was gently and thoroughly explaining what it all means to us outside Ruthie’s room. Then he went into Ruthie’s room to talk to her children, who were still distraught. I don’t know what he said to them, but after he left, they were okay. Before he left, he hugged Hannah, gave her his private cellphone number, and told her if ever she was scared for her mom or needed to talk, even if it was in the middle of the night, to just call.

“Half the town has Tim’s personal cell phone number,” someone told me later. “That’s just the kind of doctor he is.”

I walked out with him to the parking garage to tell him how much his care for Ruthie and her family meant to all of us, and what a comfort it was being so far away in Philadelphia to hear from my parents all the time how safe they all felt in his care. He was very modest about it all, and said that this is the privilege of being a small-town doctor. You don’t see your patients as clients. You see them as people. You know their histories, you know their suffering takes place within a personal context, and you can treat the whole person — not only their body, but also their heart and soul. He said he wouldn’t trade it for anything.

“Not all doctors are healers,” I told him. “You’re a healer.”

(No surprise there; look who his father was.)

Something beautiful and important is going on in all this pain and grief, a drama that may well turn out to be a tragedy, but which will also be a triumph. We would not choose this, but in time, we may count ourselves blessed to have been witness to it, and a part of it.

SATURDAY FEBRUARY 20

… Then Ruthie and I talked about anger, and about how some of us in the family are struggling not to be mad at the doctor who was her family physician for many years, and who (to our mind, perhaps unfairly) downplayed the severity of her symptoms early in this crisis, until she finally was compelled to go see Dr. Lindsey for a second opinion.

“Don’t be mad at the doctors, Rod,” she said, gripping my forearm. “I don’t want any of you to be. Dr. [X.] couldn’t have found this cancer. Not even the specialists saw it five weeks ago. But oh, I am being taken such good care of now.”

She then spoke in arresting detail about the compassion shown her by Dr. Lindsey, her oncologist, Dr. Miletello, her radiation oncologist Dr. Sanders, and the entire staff at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. She said, “They treat 200 patients in that radiation unit every day. Two hundred! Can you believe? And they still find it in themselves to be so kind to me. It’s amazing.”

At one point, Ruthie and I talked about the parade of visitors who have come around since her diagnosis. I feel so protective of her, and so eager to help her rest, and to spend time with her children before the radiation and the chemo take over her life. But she has insisted on seeing everyone, for their sake. Her patience is legendary. I was talking with her daughter Hannah the other day, and we agreed that neither of us could be teachers because we both lack patience. Ruthie, however, is the soul of patience. Her determination to see the good in everyone, and not to push back or get mad, has been a source of befuddlement and annoyance to some of us who know her, and who have thought at times she let people take advantage of her because she was unwilling to provoke a conflict.

Our mother told me today, “Her class this year is really tough, and the other teachers said to her once, ‘How do you put up with them?’ She told them, ‘I love those kids, and maybe they can change.”

It’s that simple with Ruthie. But of course, for many of us, that’s the hardest thing in the world. Me, I find it hard to love anybody that’s not lovable. Ruthie finds everyone lovable, if not necessarily likeable. I never really thought about where this comes from until this week, and until I saw this habit of Ruthie’s heart in light of mortality – and in light of the outpouring of generosity and mercy from all those she’s touched over the years. Do you know that a student she taught 15 years ago sent her flowers in the hospital? Read the various comments people who know her have been leaving – it’s the same thing, over and over. Things like that keep happening this week, and it’s made me think, Who have we been living with all these years?

As I told my folks today on the drive to the airport, Ruthie’s way has always been so humble and unassuming. She never has made a show of her religious faith – she is not the openly pious sort — but it has always been there, quiet and steadfast. She’s never been one for extravagant gestures of kindness, or for any kind of extravagance, or calling attention to herself. Ruthie just treats everybody with plain decency and everyday goodness, like it’s the most natural thing in the world. It’s so subtle you may hardly notice it. Years ago, I recall wondering how it was that in high school, Ruthie was one of those people who was a friend to everybody, and who had no enemies. Who gets through high school liked by everybody? Many people who are seen as “good” are also disliked by others because they are taken as somehow being above the ordinary people. That wasn’t Ruthie. Never has been. She has a strong moral sense, but it includes a natural inclination not to judge others. She loves them, and besides, they might change.

How would our lives be different if we all lived by that modest rule? It’s heart-shaking to consider. How much easier it is to continue as we were, caught up in ordinary time, holding on to slights, nurturing irritations and outrages, while the beautiful and redeeming gifts given to us, and the opportunities for grace, are replaced by the everyday. Why does it take catastrophe to remind us how to live, and how to love, and to wake us up to the chances to show patience and kindness and compassion to all?