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Ruthie Leming: Gone 3 Years


It was three years ago today. From The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming [1]:

“I’m having trouble breathing,” she rasped. “Turn my oxygen up.” Mike did, but the blood kept coming. Ruthie tried to wipe it away with tissues, but couldn’t keep up. Mike retrieved the pulse oximeter, to check the oxygen level in her blood.

“I can’t breathe!” Ruthie gasped. “I can’t breathe!”

The oximeter reading was 84 – far below the normal measure. Mike knew this was a real emergency, and phoned Tim, who was with a patient. He left a tense voicemail.

“Hey Tim, it’s Mike,” he said. “Ruthie’s having a real tough time breathing. Bleeding a lot. Her oxygen is about 84, 85. Just wanted to … see what we needed to do. Thanks.”

Ruthie choked out words conveying to Mike that she couldn’t breathe at all. “Call 911!” she rasped. Mike was alarmed before, but now he was terrified. He ran to the kitchen, made the call, and before he could get off the phone heard the fire department dispatch notice go out on his police radio. Mike darted into the living room to look in once more on Ruthie, still on the couch. She was struggling to catch her breath, drowning in her own blood. (Doctors later said that the main tumor had most likely knifed through an artery in her lung.)

Mike, panicked and feeling helpless, dashed back into the kitchen and phoned the fire station where he had just visited, to tell the rescuers that the call was for his wife, and to please, for God’s sake, hurry. He hung up, shot back to the living room, and saw the love of his life, spattered with blood and terrified. For the first time since they had begun this journey, Mike saw fear in Ruthie’s big brown eyes.

“I’m scared,” she whispered. Then Ruthie fell forward, into her husband’s arms, dead.

Since then, we’ve lost Ruthie’s two chemo buddies, Miss Joyce and Stephanie, to cancer. Today a friend of mine buries his wife [2], who died last week from pancreatic cancer. Like Ruthie, she was 42. She leaves behind a two-year-old daughter.

So much sorrow, so much pain. It is my hope that the story of Ruthie, and the story of everyone who meets their cancer with faith, hope, and love, inspires and strengthens those who are carrying that particular cross, or who one day will. I’m thinking this morning of Kara Tippetts [3], who has had to shave her head again as cancer has returned, and she begins the chemotherapy that will cause her to go bald. Kara knows that the odds are very long that she will beat cancer this time. She writes, with characteristic honesty:

It felt like an impossible day to get through. But we made it. We cried hot tears. My girlfriends stood by and watched through tears, but they showed up. They were there. And a thousand more would have come if I had asked. Just to smile at me through my tears. And in the smiling, letting me know it’s going to be okay. Somehow, it will be okay.

Shaving my head felt devastating this go around. I know what this is. I know what this means. So hot tears ran down my face as my kind friend Evan shaved my head. It hurt. Not the bald, but what the bald represents. That I will likely never again enjoy hair. It hurts. It feels so ugly. And you all are so kind to lift my spirits and tell me I’m not ugly, but today. I feel it. And it’s not a feeling a I often carry. Grace will meet me. I will learn to live with this again. But today, it’s hard. Having the kids watch gave me courage.

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22 Comments (Open | Close)

22 Comments To "Ruthie Leming: Gone 3 Years"

#1 Comment By Sean On September 15, 2014 @ 4:05 pm

My best to you, Rod.

#2 Comment By stillaninterestedobserver On September 15, 2014 @ 4:21 pm

Peace, love and strength for you all.

#3 Comment By Michelle On September 15, 2014 @ 4:47 pm

My condolences. Anniversaries are tough. At least you can take comfort in having shared Ruthie’s story and her grace with so many. Not that anything can take away the pain.

#4 Comment By JonF On September 15, 2014 @ 5:07 pm

Memory eternal

#5 Comment By Bart W On September 15, 2014 @ 5:25 pm

Watching a loved one die like this is horrible. I watched my grandmother suffer for 3 years. It tore me a part. I still have a whole in my life from that. I also saw one of my grandfathers die of cancer. At 89 his took him in three months and in the end he went quick and fast. It was relatively painless for a cancer death. My grandmother who died about 2 weeks ago did not die of cancer. She just went to sleep. Death is never pleasant to see. Our society is to desensitize to death though. It is a part of life and we should all be aware of it.

#6 Comment By Erin Manning On September 15, 2014 @ 5:25 pm

Prayers and love to all who mourn.

#7 Comment By Turmarion On September 15, 2014 @ 7:26 pm

Requiescat in pace.

#8 Comment By Sharon Astyk On September 15, 2014 @ 7:39 pm

May God comfort you. I was thinking of you this weekend as a dear, dear friend’s wife came home from the hospital after a double lung transplant. She didn’t have cancer, but she was 35 when her lungs simply stopped working. It took two years to get her on the transplant list, and we all thought she might not make it. Her daughters are not-quite-4 and 6. Her step-son celebrated his bar mitzvah on Saturday, the morning after she arrived home after 7 weeks in various hospitals. She talked about watching her own oxygen levels fall into the 50s, and how it wasn’t so terrible, dying. She didn’t, quite. And with luck, the best outcomes suggest that she’s been given the gift of 10 years – long enough to hopefully get both daughters through their own bat mitzvah. If she’s incredibly lucky, she might make it to 50. But most likely she won’t. She told me she just wants to see her baby get to 13 before she has to face the loss of her mother. Then she handed me her daughter’s outgrown clothes for my kids, and told me how lucky she was. And she is.

Thinking of you.

#9 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On September 15, 2014 @ 8:19 pm

My condolences to you and your family.

#10 Comment By Pilgrim On September 15, 2014 @ 8:40 pm

I am sorry for your family’s loss. This part of the book was almost shocking, in how direct, open, honest, and vulnerable it was. Life can be so hard. I hope your parents and her husband and daughters are all doing well.

#11 Comment By Surly On September 15, 2014 @ 9:22 pm

Praying for you and your family as you remember Ruthie.

#12 Comment By nan On September 15, 2014 @ 9:58 pm

My heart breaks for you, and for Kara. The only remotely comforting thought I can share is the credal, “communion of the saints”. God bless you and your family, and Ruthie’s children, today.

#13 Comment By Mark On September 15, 2014 @ 10:02 pm

Thanks Rod for all that you do here on this blog to draw attention to those who are suffering and to shine a little light on the difficult questions. Peace and blessings to you and yours.

#14 Comment By Rjak On September 15, 2014 @ 11:05 pm

Re: Sharon Astyk –

“Then she handed me her daughter’s outgrown clothes for my kids, and told me how lucky she was. And she is.”

This statement, which echoes and encompasses so much of the profound reflections on death & dying that we’ve all read on this blog & in the comments lately, put me in mind of something I read years ago. Holocaust survivor Primo Levi began his book “If This Is a Man” (English publication title: “Survival at Auschwitz”) with a sentence to which the word “surprising” would apply about as well as “a bit rude” would apply to Stalin. Levi writes, “Per mia fortuna, sono stato deportato ad Auschwitz solo nel 1944”. (“By my good fortune, I was deported to Auschwitz only in 1944”) The reason he describes this as “mia fortuna” is because by that point Auschwitz had been transformed into more of a labor camp, and less of a straight death camp, as the Nazis became more desperate for anything they could leverage to support the failing war effort. Because of this, Levi’s life expectancy was substantially higher than it would have been had he arrived even a year or two earlier.

The reason I bring this up, other than the obvious verbal parallel, is that it speaks to something that has stood out to me in a profound way in these reflections upon death and dying, and in Levi’s stunning (but quite accurate) observation. That is the tremendous capacity for gratitude that we see so often among those who have the least, or who are seeing what little they have ripped cruelly away.

As I go through my everyday life, bursting into a rage when my internet fails or letting loose my full fury when the subway runs a few minutes late, it is a stern and vital rebuke to see those who are truly and profoundly suffering giving thanks for what seem like the smallest of graces.

#15 Comment By M_Young On September 16, 2014 @ 1:37 am

That must have been tough to elicit, and hear, and speak, and transcribe that scene. Kudos to you both.

#16 Comment By RB On September 16, 2014 @ 5:13 am

I’ve been thinking about Ruthie the last couple weeks. I happened to read Little Way last year just a couple weeks before one of my best friends passed away. Your book was such a comfort to me.

Last week I found out that my confessor aunt had just gone to the hospital and was discovered to have Stage 4 cancer. She is at home, surrounded by family, and has stopped eating. She will go on any day now.

This wonderful woman had illnesses that put her in constant pain and precluded her leaving the house.

So instead, she emailed friends like me, and became very close to many people. She always thought of herself as an obscure person, homebound and poor, but she had an incredible online presence. Her ministry of love and concern and staunch faith put her like an anchoress in the center of a huge web. That was her little way, and I will miss it terribly.

I am rereading your book this week to feel comforted. Thank you again for turning your pain into a balm. Much love and comfort to Mam and Paw and Mike and the girls on this anniversary. You’re all in my prayers today.

#17 Comment By adh-dhariyat On September 16, 2014 @ 8:34 am

My sincerest condolences. “Grace”… I’ve come to learn the meaning of the word through your writing and your sister had it in spades.

#18 Comment By Darrel On September 16, 2014 @ 9:55 am

I lost my sister around the same time, very suddenly and unexpectedly. I (well, in fairness to me, we) hadn’t been as close over the last decade as we had been in the past, and could/should have been. That regret is the main way I carry the pain now, which seems narcissistic to me but it’s where I’m at. If I manage to live the rest of my life without having another regret as significant as that, I’m going to call that success.

Be at peace, Rod. If you’re not to the point where your sister’s memory causes as much joy as pain, I hope you’ll get there soon.

#19 Comment By MikeCA On September 16, 2014 @ 11:50 am

I can’t really add much to the lovely sentiments that my fellow posters have expressed except to say they show how much we all appreciate & respect you. May each passing anniversary of Ruthie’s death bring more peace and less grief.

#20 Comment By Anne On September 16, 2014 @ 5:27 pm

Cancer is vile. It lives off the good, the strong, and the most needed. Ruthie’s story proves the rule, and overcomes it simultaneously. Thank you for telling the world, Rod. Prayers continue for you and the whole family.

#21 Comment By John Turner On February 8, 2016 @ 9:48 am


I am deeply grateful for your Little Way book, and I connect with your ongoing sense of loss.

I grew up on a Kansas farm, but was extremely bookish, totally lacking in mechanical reasoning ability, and loved both farm animals and wildlife too deeply to accept their human-caused deaths readily. I was literally allergic to large portions of my agricultural world. My mother always encouraged me to find and pursue what motivated me, but my father worried that she softened me too much, did not encourage the tough masculine side of me. In short, I was not the son that my farming father needed; he eventually became proud of what I did, but at some cost to his dream that he would have someone to whom he could pass the farm along. My wife says that I must have been delivered to the wrong address. Still, there was much about the farm and rural community and small town school life that I loved and from which I learned. I also had to learn that I had no adult place there, although my wife and I looked into it twice. I am glad that you found a place in your home area. There are good (and not so good) things about rural and small town life that cannot be replicated elsewhere.

This past year, I lost a dear, encouraging sister to Parkinson’s disease. We regathered near the farm for the memorial service I led. As an ordained minister, years earlier,I had also led memorials for my parents. I am still processing all three losses. Therefore, it is with real fellow feeling that I appreciate your sharing so deeply about how your sister’s death and life lives on within you, and I also share your strong sense of eternal life in Christ.

Deep blessings,

#22 Comment By John Turner On February 8, 2016 @ 2:39 pm


I didn’t look at the date on your column before I posted, but what I said still applies.