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A word about my sister Ruthie

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 [1], 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 [2]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: [3]

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.

125 Comments (Open | Close)

125 Comments To "A word about my sister Ruthie"

#1 Comment By Chris Fontenot On September 16, 2011 @ 3:08 pm

Rod, I am truly sorry for your loss. Ruthie was a sweet person, as I remember her from high school. My condolances to Mike and Ruthie’s whole family.

#2 Comment By Chris On September 16, 2011 @ 4:21 pm

I am so sorry for your loss. Your sister Ruthie sounds like a remarkable person. May God comfort both you and your family and give all of you peace.

#3 Comment By A Random Friar On September 16, 2011 @ 4:43 pm

You have my prayers and condolences, Rob. I will remember Ruthie in my Mass and prayers.

#4 Comment By Terri Whetstone On September 16, 2011 @ 5:18 pm

Sorry for your loss..RIP Ruthie

#5 Comment By Stephanie On September 16, 2011 @ 6:11 pm

Rod, you do not know me but your sweet sister, Ruthie, was my chemo buddy. We were both Wednesday girls. We both received our chemo on Wednesdays. I remember the day we met at the oncologist’s office. We struck up a quick friendship. I think that happened a lot with Ruthie. We both were in our early forties with three children and battling cancer, hers lung and mine Hodgkin’s. I cannot begin to tell you how much I have grown to love your sister and how uplifting she was to me during my fight. The conversations we had during our chemo hours made the time feel like minutes. Our faith and our God always there with us. I prayed constantly that we would both have good outcomes and always believed that. She let me know that she was also praying for me. I found out that I was in remission in June. Ruthie was still fighting to get there. There is a certain amount of survivor guilt I felt because I had received good news and Ruthie had not received her good news yet. I had a hard time finding the courage to tell her my good news even though I knew how happy she would be for me….her response was “thank you so much for telling me, your news uplifts me so.” Even though I completed my chemo, our friendship continued. As my heart breaks for all of our loss of this incredible woman, my life is so much richer for having known her. She is now a saint in heaven smiling down on us. I wanted to share my story with you to let you know that I will never forget your sweet sister, Ruthie.

#6 Comment By Shirley Lord On September 16, 2011 @ 6:20 pm

Rob, we are related on the Dreher side and I got to know Ruthie when
I was working with Melanie. You are so right about the love she gave and the love she received from the people of our area and beyond. I just lost my Mom (who was a Dreher) last year and I know that Ruthie is having a Dreher reunion right now. I will continue to pray for you all. God Bless.

#7 Comment By Mark Gordon On September 16, 2011 @ 6:46 pm

May the Lord give you and your whole family peace, courage and strength during this difficult time. You will see your sister again in the Resurrection, when all tears will be wiped away and death will be no more.

#8 Comment By Jane H. On September 16, 2011 @ 7:42 pm

Your commenter JL Wall expressed my feelings perfectly: “I always found it a slightly strange sensation, on your old blog, to be so moved by stories of the sister I’d never met of a man I don’t know — and then, from time to time over the last year or so, to be struck by a sudden, unprompted concern for her — and a desire to know that she was doing well.” I had never heard of your blog until Andrew Sullivan published a link to your first post about your sister. Since then, I have checked frequently for news about Ruthie, always hoping for the best. When Andrew published the news today about her death, I felt as if the air had been punched out of me. Ruthie was clearly a remarkable woman, one that the world is far poorer without. An untimely loss like hers, and the accompanying devastation to her beautiful daughters, is why I can never believe in a God of any kind. A God that was truly loving and powerful wouldn’t do this to his faithful follower, or her innocent family. But I do want to wish you and your family the love, peace and strength you’ll need to deal with such a profound loss. Thank you for sharing Ruthie’s story and I hope your undoubtedly many happy memories of her will sustain you in the days and years ahead.

#9 Comment By Heather On September 16, 2011 @ 7:44 pm

From everyone in Dallas, our condolences. Thoughts and prayers are with your whole family.

#10 Comment By Andy Hartzell On September 16, 2011 @ 7:44 pm

My prayers go out for Ruthie, for you and your family.

#11 Comment By Areti On September 16, 2011 @ 9:13 pm

I am so sorry for your loss. May Ruthie’s memory be eternal.

#12 Comment By Kenneth Cage On September 16, 2011 @ 9:58 pm

My thoughts and prayers are with you,your family, and Ruthie’s family. She was my high school classmate and she will be deeply missed.

#13 Comment By Shelley Finkler On September 17, 2011 @ 2:02 am

MEMORY ETERNAL RUTHIE. I sing this with sorrow that she is gone and gratitude that her death was merciful. I pray with all my heart for her dear husband and daughters who have lost her, their shining light. I pray for you and your family and parents. Memory Eternal.

#14 Comment By Roger On September 17, 2011 @ 6:47 am

I am so sorry.

#15 Comment By Pacopond On September 17, 2011 @ 1:38 pm

Rod, my words cannot add more than has been said by friends and strangers, so I would like to offer the most beautiful music I know of at this time of grief, and, yes, celebration.

#16 Pingback By Memory Eternal — Monomakhos On September 17, 2011 @ 11:03 pm

[…] The American Conservative | Rod […]

#17 Comment By Naturalmom On September 18, 2011 @ 1:24 pm

I’m so sorry, Rod. Really truly. :o( I had thought about Ruthie from time to time during your blogging hiatus and held her in the Light, wondering how she was doing. Now I will do the same for her family and yours.

#18 Comment By Naturalmom On September 18, 2011 @ 1:25 pm

Urg. That smilie in my post is supposed to be a sad face. I don’t know how to go fix it — it looks so inappropriate as is. Sorry.

#19 Comment By Monica On September 18, 2011 @ 3:45 pm

I am so sorry for the entire family. I did not know Ruthie, but I do know Hannah. Our prayers are with all of you.

#20 Comment By meh On September 21, 2011 @ 12:37 pm

Rod, I’m sorry for your loss.

#21 Comment By Brian Kaller On September 21, 2011 @ 5:04 pm

Rod, I’m so sorry. We’ve savoured your posts about Ruthie — in some small way she can now be known and loved by thousands more.

Thank you for introducing us, and she will be in all our prayers.

#22 Comment By Joanna On September 30, 2011 @ 10:36 pm

I was so sorry to learn of Ruthie’s death. She shined through your posts as a truly wonderful person. My condolences to you and your family.

#23 Comment By Julans On October 6, 2011 @ 12:04 am

I’m sorry for your loss. I’ve also wondered how she was doing. I’m glad her pain at the end was cut mercifully short.

#24 Pingback By Brooks and Krugman « Marion in Savannah On December 30, 2011 @ 6:09 am

[…] She died on Sept. 15 this year. More than 1,000 people signed the guest book at the funeral, Dreher reported. Mike, her husband who had wrenched his back trying to perform C.P.R. on her, stood for hours by the open coffin as people filed past. Since Ruthie liked to go barefoot, the pallbearers took off their shoes, rolled up their pants and carried the coffin to the grave in bare feet. […]

#25 Pingback By Going home again: A new perspective, and one you won’t soon forget | THIS IS THE NEW NORMAL On January 1, 2012 @ 11:24 am

[…] She died on Sept. 15 this year. More than 1,000 people signed the guest book at the funeral, Dreher reported. Mike, her husband who had wrenched his back trying to perform C.P.R. on her, stood for hours by the open coffin as people filed past. Since Ruthie liked to go barefoot, the pallbearers took off their shoes, rolled up their pants and carried the coffin to the grave in bare feet. […]