From this blog, September 15, 2011:
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, 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.
You can read the whole thing there. The longer version, and an appraisal of her extraordinary ordinary life, is in my book The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, which is taught in college classes in some places — a fact that would make Ruthie roll her eyes and say, “Me? What in the world do people want to study my life for?” She had no idea how much she had to teach the world. Through this book, she’s still doing it.
Five years ago today. Seems like just yesterday. That photo above is of the last time my son Lucas, who was especially devoted to Ruthie, saw her alive. He was on my mom and dad’s back porch, telling her goodbye, because we were about to fly home to Philadelphia. It’s been a hard day for him too. He loved her so very much. Still does.
Ruthie’s oldest daughter, Hannah, posted this reflection today on Instagram, along with a photo. If you liked Little Way, you’ll want to see this.
UPDATE: My friend David Mills lost his sister to cancer a couple of weeks ago. Here is his beautiful, heartbreaking meditation on the loss.