As I sit here writing this letter, I have a couple photos of headstones pulled up on my laptop. I’m trying to decide which one I like more – whichever one I choose, I know it’ll never be good enough for my mom, who passed away 19 days ago.
I just finished your book about your sister, Ruthie. Literally I finished the last page about 20 minutes ago. I’ve always been a big fan of your writing ever since I came across a book review of Crunchy Cons back in 2007 when I was a young intern writing for BreakPoint magazine. I immediately ordered it off Amazon and read it throughout that hot summer in DC. My worldview has never been the same since.
And I knew, less than three weeks ago, that I needed to order your latest book right away after struggling through the hell that is cancer.
Six weeks ago, I got a phone call from my brother who said my mom had to be taken to the ER. In all my life, I can’t remember my mom ever going to the hospital or to a doctor for her own medical needs. So I knew it had to be serious. “I think she had a stroke,” my brother said.
After hours of waiting and multiple CT scans and X-rays, the neurologist came into the darkened hospital room where my brother and I sat with my mom in her raised hospital bed. My arm had fallen asleep after holding it out so long to hold her hand. My nerves were shaking me to my core.
“We think it’s cancer,” the neurologist said. “You have an abdominal mass the size of small basketball in your stomach, masses in your lungs, and lesions all over your brain.” The cold, black and white photos confirmed the truth. My mom was going to die . . . and soon.
Two weeks later, she received the official diagnosis – pleomorphic soft tissue sarcoma. An aggressive and fast-acting cancer that ravages your body. For years, my mom kept quiet about the mass in her stomach because she didn’t want to be a burden. She figured it was benign anyway because it never gave her any pain. Her loose clothing hid us from the truth. Something sinister had laid dormant inside her for a long time, and now it had erupted.
My two brothers and I had no idea to even look for it. Our father had abandoned my mother years ago, and we were left with the responsibility to care for her as best we could. But we never thought to even look for something like this – this is something that happens to other families, not ours.
Five days after she received her diagnosis, my mom, Carol Ann Bolls, died in a hospital bed surrounded by her family and holding my hand. Your description of how Ruthie died pierced me to the core because of its suddenness and shocking simplicity. I stood by my mom’s bedside, talking to her as her heart rate slowed every second. The beeping of the monitors kept pace with my breathing as I tried to soak in every ounce of life with my mom before she passed. Then, the beeping just stopped . . . the curving lines went flat and the beats per minute struck 0. I felt my heart skip a beat as I witnessed the one who gave me life lose her own. It was 6:52 in the morning, and the cool rays of the sun were just beginning to shine over the trees tops. We had stayed up all night long with her because we knew the end was near.
That sunrise will stay with me for the rest of my life.
The Little Way of Ruthie Leming touches my heart at a time of utter brokenness. Yet I remain peaceful. It’s the strangest paradox and something I think you explained well in your book. Perhaps that’s what defines grief for Christians like us – we’re broken by the loss yet blessed by the peace that our loved one has gained. It’s a peace that truly surpasses all understanding.
So, thank you for writing this memoir. It is helping me in this long road to healing, and I pray that I may follow my mom’s example of simple acts of love and faith in our community just like you’re doing to honor your sister. We have been put on this earth for a reason – and yours is clearly to tell stories that will change hearts and challenge minds. You’ve done that for me, and I’m so grateful.
The writer of this letter, Carolyn Kincaid, lives in Arlington, Virginia. I share this letter with her permission. She also sends along a link to her mom’s memorial page. What a beautiful woman she was. That photograph above was taken by Carolyn with her iPhone. That’s mother and daughter holding hands. Two days after this was taken, Carolyn’s mom died, with their hands clasping.
When Carolyn’s letter came, I drove out to see my mom and dad, and gave the letter to them to read. My mom read it aloud. My dad fought back tears, listening to those words. As I’ve said to you all before, whenever I receive a letter like this from a reader, I share it with them; it is such a comfort to them to know that Ruthie’s life and death meant so much to others, even to perfect strangers. Hearing Carolyn’s story about the intimacy of her mom’s passing, a story that came to our family because our family’s story was received into hers — well, it seems to knit us together somehow. That sounds sentimental, but I think there is a profound spiritual truth in that. It is the essence of compassion, which means “to suffer with.” How is it that the act of storytelling, of sharing suffering through the telling of tales, lifts our burdens and transfigures them somehow?
I don’t know how this works, but it does work, and it is a holy thing.