It has become a commonplace observation in these parts that this blog has created an unusual community. I get up every morning and start writing it, and you get up every morning and start commenting on it. It is a strange place, a place filled with people who don’t really understand each other, and some of whom don’t want to understand each other. But here we are, day by day, talking, writing, thinking.
For me, this is hard work, but it really is a labor of love. The other day I received an e-mail from a reader that humbled me and made me grateful for the opportunity I have every day to be here in this place, messy as it usually is (it is like me in that way). The sender was a young professor at the University of Michigan classicist named Brendan Haug. Last week, his fiancee, Andrea — that’s them above — died of colon cancer. He titled his e-mail “The Little Way of Andrea Dawn Miller,” not knowing that the day she died would have been Ruthie Leming’s 46th birthday. Brendan said that he used that title because Andrea’s cancer journey, which lasted only one brief year, revealed to him the beauty and power of love in community. He wrote:
As a widely-traveled academic who has lived all over the US and beyond, I am convinced of the inestimable value of education and travel, particularly for its ability to break down the walls of prejudice and hate that divide people from one another. My experiences in Egypt and Jordan have shown me the beauty of Muslim culture and I will never forget the hospitality and kindness of all those I met in my travels throughout those countries. The willingness of even the poorest to share their tiny homes and half of what little food and drink they had with a Christian stranger taught me that love and generosity are human and not solely Christian virtues. As someone who comes from a small, close-knit community, I am also familiar with the often aggressive close-mindedness of small towns, their readiness to condemn outsiders and spurn those who leave to pursue a life away from their home soil.
But when terminal hardship strikes, only the rootedness of community can provide the care and support that are required to ease our transition from this life to the next.
Andrea lived all her life in southeastern Michigan and the outpouring of love and affection I witnessed throughout her illness and especially in her last few days was a beautiful example of the sort of communal strength that you describe so eloquently in your work. Her family and friends, a veritable legion built up over 32 years of life and love, were a source of great strength and comfort during her struggle. The love and support that they showed to my darling Andrea was so pure, so intense that I don’t think I’ll ever see anything like it again. Just as she bore her illness with grace and without complaint or self-pity, so too did they bear the burden of supporting her and me. No words can ever adequately express my gratitude and my admiration.
I know what he means. I wrote The Little Way of Ruthie Leming largely to express my regard for the love the community Ruthie loved and served showed to her and to my family during her long goodbye. But really, there are no words. I was deeply, deeply touched by Brendan telling me that this blog and my books — Little Way, and How Dante Can Save Your Life — gave him light and comfort in the dark wood of his beloved’s terminal illness.
He mentioned that he would be eulogizing Andrea at her funeral on Wednesday (that is, today). If you think it would honor her memory, I said, I would be pleased to publish your remarks on my blog. This afternoon, Brendan sent me the words he spoke today to tell his true love goodbye. Here they are:
Andrea Dawn Miller
8 March 1983-15 May 2015
First I want to thank all of you for being here. Many of you I have come to know well over the last year and a half, some of you I have only recently met, others I do not yet know. I only wish we could have come together under different circumstances. I won’t say “better” circumstances or “more joyful” circumstances because, although we are grieving, what could be better or more joyful than the celebration of a life that, however brief, was the very embodiment of joy?
Now, as many of you already know, I’m a wandering academic. Although I have found a permanent home in Ann Arbor, I’ve bounced around this country and beyond since graduating from high school, never staying long enough to forge meaningful connections to any one place. But as a conservative by temperament and a scholar by training I have long known of the value of community and of the strength that people derive from rootedness, that is, from the deep and abiding connections to the places in which they were born and raised and from which they never stray very far.
Still, my appreciation for the value of community had always been abstract rather than experiential. Only now, after all we have been through, do I truly understand. Over the last year, I watched you come together to care for one of your own and I was continually awestruck and humbled by your strength and solidarity, by the unbreakable ties of love and fellowship that bind you to this beautiful place and to one another. There is no way I can ever adequately express my gratitude to all of you for opening your homes and hearts to me and for allowing me into your world. It was both my pleasure and my honor to love and to care for Andrea, your daughter, your sister, your aunt, your niece, your cousin, your coworker, and your friend. Some of you have already told me that I have no choice in the matter now: I’m one of you. Well, believe me when I say that nothing could make me happier.
As for Andrea, you have already heard much about her from the people who have known her since she was new to this world; there is little I can add to their words that would not be repetitive. Perhaps the best I can do in this regard is reiterate what others have already said about Andrea’s strength. I spent more time with her than anyone else during her illness and I can swear to you with God as my witness that she refused to be a victim; she refused to be beaten and to wallow in self-pity. During her last long hospital stay, she told me that she was no longer afraid of death. She feared only the effects that her passing would have on all of us (and, let us not forget, on our kitties Val and Morti). That, simply put, was Andrea. Yes, she was human. Yes, she was flawed. But her spirit was indomitable and her love for us was boundless.
And so I would like to spend the rest of my time today talking about love. After all, love is the reason we are all here: our love for Andrea and our love for one another has brought us together to celebrate the life of someone whose heart was filled to bursting with love for her friends and family. Even those of you who have come here on my behalf and who didn’t know Andrea well can surely sense the love in this room, radiating from every single person here.
Still, I want to sound a note of caution as we prepare to navigate the difficult road ahead. Because it is so powerful, love has the potential lead us astray into a dark wood of sin and error. As a Catholic, I believe that sin is real and that the greatest of sins are born not out of simple, everyday wickedness but out of love, or rather out of love that has been perverted.
For example, we are all of us called to love God above all things; indeed, there is no greater commandment. But what if our love of God leads us into the self-righteous denigration of those who do not believe or who believe differently? In this case, love has led us into sin for we have made our own faith into an idol and in worshiping it, we love not God but ourselves.
Our love for this country, too, is a beautiful and noble love, but it is all too easily warped into the worship of its power. Imagining ourselves as gods, knowing good from evil, we rejoice in our foolish wars of choice, which destroy the lives of thousands: blood sacrifices to the false gods of universal freedom and democracy.
So too can the love of nature similarly lead us into the sin of pride and self-adulation, if it tempts us to look down in judgment upon those whose behavior falls short of our own personal standards of environmental virtue.
All of this is to say that although our capacity to love is God’s greatest gift to us, it is also his most dangerous, for, in our very human weakness, it can lead us away from virtue. And so, in the days and months ahead, we must not allow our love for Andrea to lead us from the right path. Of course, this task will be all the more difficult because her death seems so unfair. “Why her?” we ask in anger. “She never did anything to deserve this. She did everything right! Why didn’t she have more time?” And so, convinced of the righteousness of a grief born from the union of love and anger, we risk allowing it to burrow into our souls and metastasize: a spiritual cancer that will one day soon consume us from within and leave us emptied of joy. Embittered and spiteful, we will then find ourselves mired in a perpetual despair, unable to escape our self-made prison.
Or perhaps you are stronger than all of that. Perhaps I’m am worried only about myself. As a dear friend of mine in attendance today can attest, it is my nature to wrap myself in the comforting warmth of self-pity when I suffer an unjust loss. Some years ago, at a time when I should have been a better roommate and a better friend to him, I chose instead to retreat both physically and spiritually into a despair from which I stubbornly refused to emerge.
But I don’t sense the same weakness in many of you. In perusing Andrea’s Facebook profile over the last few days, yes, I have seen pain, yes I’ve seen anger, and yes, I’ve seen the seeds of despair. But through it all I have also seen joy: the joy at having been able to share your life with her, no matter how briefly. And so I urge you today to keep to this path, to continue to let your love and your grief guide you not toward the sin of sullen despair but toward grace and healing. No amount of sorrow, no amount of anger at the injustice of the world will bring her back to us: to follow this road leads us only to spiritual desolation and living death. Instead, let us all continue to be grateful for the time we had with her, let us be thankful that she is no longer in pain, and let us look to one another for help when we begin to falter. And falter we will. But just as Andrea’s spirit was unbreakable, so too is this community. I know that I can count on each and every one of you to catch me when I fall and I hope you know that you can count on me as well. This, then, is the best way to honor her memory: to let our love for her and for one another strengthen our bonds. Individually we are weak and fragile; united and supported by love we are unbreakable.
And so I’ll close simply by saying we love you, Andrea, and we cannot thank you enough for bringing us together today. I know you can hear us so please try not to worry: we are well, we will soon be better, and we will all be with you again someday.
Brendan said that Dante’s lessons guided him in writing this heartbreakingly beautiful goodbye, and that he brought How Dante Can Save Your Life to the funeral. Andrea’s parents gave him a bottle of fine bourbon, which he photographed next to the book:
We carry each other. I am about to leave for evening prayer at our parish, and I will be praying for Brendan, for Andrea, and for all those who loved her. You do too, please, if only because you too are part of our little online fellowship, and your words matter, even if they are heard only by God. It’s all part of weaving, with words passed between and among strangers who are somehow friends, the sacramental tapestry.
O grace abounding and allowing me to dare
to fix my gaze on the Eternal Light,
so deep my vision was consumed in It!
I saw how it contains within its depths
all things bound in a single book by love
of which creation is the scattered leaves…
— Dante, Paradiso XXXIII: 82-87 (Musa)