This morning I drove to Baton Rouge with Mike to return Ruthie’s oxygen tank and other breathing equipment. Mike also wanted to stop by the chemo unit at the Baton Rouge General to thank Dr. Gerald Militello, Ruthie’s oncologist, and the staff that had taken such good care of Ruthie, whose cancer fight ended one week ago today.
On the drive into the city, Mike took a phone call from Stephanie, Ruthie’s “chemo buddy,” as they called each other. Mike told me later that Ruthie and Stephanie had become close friends while taking chemotherapy together. Stephanie was so devoted to Ruthie that when her own chemo course ended, she found out Ruthie’s schedule and came back to the hospital to sit with Ruthie during treatment. Said Mike, “This is another one of those stories you keep hearing, of Ruthie having touched people in amazing ways. People saying that they became more patient and loving because of her, or changed their lives in some way.”
Walking down the hospital corridor, I told Mike about a conversation I had yesterday with an old family friend whose little boy, a childhood playmate of Ruthie’s and mine, was nearly killed in a terrible accident that left him permanently disabled. “She told me that when you know deep pain, money means nothing,” I said. “She was talking about how it takes real suffering to remind you how fragile our lives really are.”
“You can’t come up here all the time and not know that,” said Mike, opening the door to the oncology unit.
When we walked in, Buffy, one of the ladies at the front desk, embraced Mike and gave him a poem she had written in Ruthie’s memory. Buffy had a habit of bursting into song whenever Ruthie walked in for her treatments. That gesture meant a lot to my sister. While Mike received condolences from the other ladies on staff, Buffy fetched Dr. Militello from his office. Quickly down the hall strode a man whose face was luminous. Dr. Militello embraced Mike and told him how sorry he was that things had turned out this way.
“She loved you,” Mike told the doctor, and boy, was that ever the truth. Ruthie’s trust in this man was boundless. When Ruthie received the shocking diagnosis in 2010, Dr. Militello brought in all the oncology big guns to his office for a strategy session. Someone who was in the room that day told me that Dr. Militello had tears in his eyes as he told the other doctors that they were going to give their all to try to save Ruthie, “because that little family of hers is so precious to me.”
It was an honor to meet the man whose care for Ruthie prolonged her life. He told me Ruthie was so sick when diagnosed that she could have been dead within three months. Instead, she lived for 19. Much of that was due to her fighting spirit, but much of it was also due to the care she received from Dr. Militello and his team.
“It’s a good thing that we don’t treat more people like Ruthie,” he said. “It would be too hard. She was so humble. That’s what you noticed about her. One time I saw somebody in the chemo room drop something on the floor. Sick as she was, Ruthie bent over to pick it up for them. And she never, ever complained about being sick. Never.”
“She was an angel,” he said.
Later, in the car, someone phoned to ask Mike how he was doing. “We’re leaning, but we’re leaning on each other,” he said. What a profound statement that is. As our family friend, the suffering mother, was telling me, when you hurt and hurt hard, all you have is your faith and your friends. Ruthie had good medical insurance to pay her enormous hospital bills, but even more valuable, I think, was the investment she had made in this community where my family has lived for five generations. As another family friend told me, “This is a good place to live, no doubt about it, but a lot of what you’ve seen here is because of who your sister was, and who your mama and daddy are.”
A story about that. Mama drove a school bus for much of my youth. We live in a rural parish, and there’s a lot of poverty. Every holiday — especially at Christmas — Mama would make gift bags for each kid on her bus. She grew up in rural poverty herself, and even though we really didn’t have the money for it, it was important to Mama that every child on her bus, especially the poor children, had a bag of sweets for their holiday. It was no big deal. It was just something Mama did.
Well. The other night at Ruthie’s wake, I saw three children from Mama’s bus route, who had lived in a modest cabin. They were now grown into beautiful ladies. One was on crutches, and had waited in line for an hour, in the rain, to tell us how sorry they were for our loss. I could be wrong about this, but I don’t think they knew Ruthie very well. I’m pretty sure they came out of love and respect for Mama, who had loved them with such a tender heart back in the day. They had not forgotten.
Another story, about how goodness multiplies. One of Ruthie’s pallbearers is a man who took the lead in organizing fundraisers for her. He told me yesterday that he was a boy when his folks split up, and his dad moved far away. He had no one to take him deer hunting. So a couple of local men from a certain family made it their business to take this kid whose daddy was no longer around with them to the hunting camp on Cat Island. The kid never forgot their kindness to him — and it helped him become a man who served others in need.
I think what hit you so hard was what hit me so hard in reading your account [of Ruthie’s funeral and wake]. Remember how, in the Bible, no one can bear to look into the presence of God when He appears before them? The prophets and the apostles were either prostrating themselves, face to the ground, before the Divine Presence or otherwise shielding their eyes, lest they be overwhelmed and perish.That, in a manner of speaking, is what happened in St. Francisville these past few days. God manifested Himself in the love of those people for Ruthie and all her family, and you cannot witness that sort of power without being shattered in some way. The Holy Spirit descended directly.God is powerfully in all this somewhere, and He’s leading everybody involved to one another and to Himself somehow. And He’s showing everyone how much more powerful is love than death.I swear, after reading your accounts of the past days in Starhill and St. Francisville, I can scarcely bear to read about the latest idiocy surrounding mere politicians and officials. They are all so inconsequential and so small, while a schoolteacher in West Feliciana Parish was so important and such a giant.
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails.
I have read that famous chapter from I Corinthians for most of my life, and I thought I understood it. I didn’t, not until this last year and a half with Ruthie and the community that cared for her. Ruthie and I were very different, and she never understood why I was interested in the things I cared about. (Once, when we were in college, she walked in and heard my friend Paul and I discussing Nietzsche. “Y’all are crazy,” she said, laughing). For many years, I’ve lived in a fairly specialized world of journalism, and traveled in circles of people who shared my intellectual interests, advancing my career. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, necessarily.
And yet, I have found myself this week wanting to change my life. It is hard to have seen the things I’ve seen around here this past week, and this past 19 months, and remain unconverted. Now, as much as I admired Ruthie and would like to have her attributes, she and I were so unalike — and we have 42 years of history behind us! — that it’s harder than you might think for me, her brother, to consider how I could reshape my life after her example. It’s strange to say that, but it’s true. It is easier, I find, to think of being more like the people she inspired to deeds of steadfast love. Which is to say, I’ve been thinking about how much I want to be like my brother-in-law Mike, who might just be the bravest man I know. How much I want to be like Steve Shelton. How much I want to be like Mel Percy. How much I want to be like John Bickham, and Abby Temple, and all the people in this town whose heroic goodness and service Ruthie called forth by the power of her love.
Ruthie’s body failed, but her love never did. And as long as people love and serve others because of her memory, and because of the love of people who loved her, it never will.
UPDATE: I forgot to mention something from the other day. As I said previously on this blog, Julie and I were considering renting a beautiful farmhouse in Bucks County. We could have chickens and a garden there. We made two visits to talk with the landlords while they were in from California. On the second visit, we were shown how to take care of the different things around the house. Signing the lease appeared to be a mere formality. They were going to do a credit check on us, but as we have very good credit, this didn’t seem to be a problem. The house, which we loved, looked like it was going to be ours by the weekend.
The next day, Ruthie died, and we dropped everything to get down to Louisiana. On Sunday evening, as we stood at Ruthie’s wake, Julie got an e-mail message from the landlords, informing us that they needed to get this taken care of, and had decided to go with another family.
Our reaction? Relief. Hmm…