Ruthie Leming, Gone Ten Years Today
Readers, I beg your indulgence. I am at the LAX airport, and will be spending the day flying home to Baton Rouge. I will attempt to buy online access on the flight, but I have had bad luck with that lately. If your comments are delayed, and if there aren’t as many posts as usual, that’s why.
On this morning ten years ago, my sister Ruthie died at home. Here, from The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, the book I wrote about her, is what happened:
The next morning – September 15, 2011 – Paw left before daylight with his friend Hershel Morris, headed to visit a sick pal in north Louisiana who had been their LSU classmate half a century ago. Paw’s usual habit was to pick the morning paper up out by the road, deliver it to Mike and Ruthie, and drink a cup of coffee with them. Not this morning, though.
Ruthie woke up feeling out of sorts. She told Mike she wouldn’t be able to ride with him to take Rebekah and Claire to school. That was unusual, Mike thought. Ruthie always pushed herself to take that ride. But on this morning, she made the kids’ lunches, and wrote her daily notes to the girls. Since she became ill, Ruthie had been penning short, encouraging messages to her children, and leaving them in the girls’ lunchboxes. That way, they would know that Mama was with them throughout the day.
The girls kissed their mother goodbye, climbed with their father into the Excursion, and left for school. Mam planned to go to Zachary that morning with her friend Kay Graves to get her hair done. Mam’s hairdresser, Big Show’s wife Jan, customarily held a Friday morning slot for Mam, but this week Jan changed the appointment.
Mam rang Ruthie to see if she needed anything from the store, besides cat food.
“No ma’am, the cat food is all I need,” Ruthie said.
“Do you need me to come over?” Mam asked, worried by how weak Ruthie sounded.
“No, I’m going to lay down for a few minutes and get some rest before we go down to get my blood work done.”
“Okay, good. I’ll see you later, then. Love you.”
After dropping the girls off, Mike figured that if Ruthie was sleeping in, he had time to stop by the fire station north of town to check out the new $400,000 rig that was both a rescue truck and a pumper. He wheeled in, said hello to the men, poured himself a cup of coffee, and gave the gleaming red truck an admiring once-over . After an hour or so, Mike said goodbye, and headed home to be with Ruthie.
When he arrived, Mike walked to the back of the house and stuck his head in the bedroom. Ruthie was awake, but still in bed. She said she would join him up front shortly. Mike excused himself, went to the living room, sat on the sofa, and picked up the newspaper. Their routine was to sit together on the couch, read the paper, and talk about the day ahead. That morning, Ruthie shuffled up the hall in her pajamas, sat down next to her husband, and did what she did every other morning.
After resting quietly on the couch for a while, Ruthie lunged abruptly forward and began coughing violently. Mike saw a startling amount of blood pouring from her mouth. She had coughed up blood before, but nothing like this.
“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.
“Ruthie!” he screamed. “Don’t leave me!”
Mike, a trained EMT, put Ruthie on the floor and began CPR, but he knew it was too late. The paramedics arrived, pulled him away from Ruthie’s body, and began working on her.
Across the road from Ruthie and Mike’s place, Ronnie Morgan was at home when he heard the emergency dispatch on the police radio. He knew this was the call he had been dreading for 19 months. He followed the paramedics in through the front door. Seeing Ruthie prone on her floor, all Ronnie could think about was the child whose diapers he had changed, and whom he had seen all those years ago, playing in the yard with his kids and all the others from the neighborhood. How many hot summer nights had our families all been together frying fish or boiling crawfish, and there she was, wrestling with the boys, swatting wiffle-ball home runs, playing in mudpuddles with tadpoles? How many nights had we all been down at the camp on the creek, Ruthie drinking cold beer and holding on to Mike by the bonfire, while the next generation of Starhill kids laughed and shouted in the woods by night? All those memories tumbled down around Ronnie as he stood there in Ruthie’s living room, watching the paramedics labor to work a miracle.
She was like one of his own, he thought. And this is how it ends for that sweet little girl.
Ronnie hustled Mike into the kitchen, away from the grim scene unfolding. Mike telephoned Mam, who was 20 minutes away in Zachary. Mam was loading Ruthie’s cat food into the back of her SUV when the call came through. Mike was crying so hard Mam had trouble understanding him.
“Mam, Ruthie’s in trouble,” he choked out. “Come home quick.”
Moments later, the phone rang at the Leming house. It was Tim Lindsey returning, Mike’s earlier call.
“She’s dead! She’s gone! My Ruthie’s gone!” Mike shrieked. “The ambulance is here. I’ve been doing CPR on her. She passed out. I put her on the floor. She’s gone. She’s gone… .”
Mike was screaming so loud Tim had to hold the receiver away from his ear.
“I’m on my way,” Tim said.
Tim jumped into his pick-up and flew south to Starhill. Meanwhile, in the Wal-mart parking lot, Mam had pulled the SUV around to the entrance, and waited on her friend Kay Graves to come out of the store with her bags.
“Hurry, Katie!” she yelled through the open window. “Something’s wrong with Ruthie!”
Kay swung the side door open and threw in her plastic bags, which burst. She jumped into the passenger side and hit the button to turn on the flashers. They sped away. Within minutes, Mam hit Highway 61, turned sharply north, and pushed her big Ford as hard as it would go. The speedometer, Kay noticed, read 120 miles per hour.
Mam’s mobile phone rang. Because Kay and Mam have an understanding that neither will speak on the phone while driving, Mam told her friend that she would have to answer it. It was Ronnie. He asked to speak to Mam.
“She can’t talk, Ronnie, she’s driving.”
“It’s Ruthie,” Ronnie said. “She’s not here at the house. They took her to the hospital. Tim thought that was the best place for her.”
“Ronnie, are you telling me that she’s gone?”
“Yeah, she’s gone.”
Kay ended the call and asked Mam if she understood what had just been said.
“Yes,” Mam said flatly.
“Dottie, do you need me to drive?”
“No,” said Mam. “You drive like a grammaw. I need you to call Ray and tell him.”
“But Dottie –“
“I’m driving! You call him.”
Kay looked out her window at the sky, and said silently to God, I’m about to tell a man that his daughter is dead, and You are going to have to help me do this. She dialed Paw’s number.
“Ray,” she said, “this is Kay.”
“Yeah, baby, what you need?”
“Ray, Ruthie is gone. She’s gone, Ray. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”
There was silence.
“Ray, take a deep breath. Tell me, do you understand what I’ve just said?”
“Yeah,” Paw whispered. “Yeah, I do.”
“Do you have somebody with you?”
“Go to the West Feliciana Hospital. That’s where she is.”
Paw started to cry.
“Ray, I love you.”
“I love you too, Katie.”
Tim passed the ambulance on Highway 61, headed to the hospital. When he got to Starhill, there was Mike, sitting on the front porch in a rocking chair, with his head in his hands. Ronnie and Carolyn Morgan were there with him. As Tim approached, Mike broke down in tears.
“She’s gone. She’s died. My baby’s gone.”
Mam wheeled her white SUV into the gravel in front of Ruthie’s house, slammed on the brakes, jumped out in a panic, and demanded, “Where’s my baby?!” She did not remember — or more likely, could not accept — the telephone conversations that had just taken place in her presence. Maybe Ruthie would be there after all. Maybe her body wasn’t really at the hospital.
Carolyn tried to embrace Mam, but Mam brushed past and stood before Mike, who sat on a chair, hunched forward, his back throbbing with pain.
“Mike, we need to go to the hospital to be with Ruthie,” Mam said. “You want me to take you?”
Tim told Mam that Ruthie had passed away. For the first time, Mam understood this nightmare was for real.
“I knew this day was coming,” Mam wailed. “Oh, my baby, my baby. My Mike, my Mike. Come here, baby. We lost our Ruthie.”
Mam took Mike into her arms and held him.
“Where is my baby, Tim?” she asked. “I want to see her.”
“Listen,” Tim said, crawfishing a bit, “they’re taking her to the hospital. They’re doing CPR. They’re doing everything they can do. Mike said it was really, really bad, Miss Dot, but she hasn’t been pronounced. We’re going to go to the hospital, and we’re going to see. But I’m really distressed about this situation, and I don’t think there’s going to be a good outcome.”
Kay turned to Mam and said, “Honey, she’s in a better place now. She’s not hurting. Let’s go to town and tell her goodbye.”
Mam and Kay helped Mike climb into Mam’s Ford. The three of them drove on to the hospital in St. Francisville, with Tim following. Nobody said a word.
At some point, Tim called Laura at home and told her Ruthie was dead. She jumped into her Suburban and headed out to Starhill. She passed Mam and Mike driving north, with Tim behind them, signaling for Laura to call him. On the phone, Tim told her to head out to school to pick up Claire and Rebekah.
Laura phoned the office at Bains Elementary and asked to speak to Dot Temple, the principal, who is also Abby’s mother.
“She’s in a meeting.”
“No, I need to speak to Mrs. Temple,” Laura insisted.
“She’s in a meeting.”
“No, I have to talk to Mrs. Temple right now.”
“I have to talk to her! Please go get her, it’s an emergency.”
Dot Temple came on the line. “Mrs. Temple,” Laura said, “Ruthie is dead. We need to get Rebekah. I have to get Abby too, but she won’t answer her cell phone.”
As it happened, Tim had already reached Abby by phone, and had her secretary put the call through to her office at the high school.
“You know, Ruthie is very sick,” Tim said.
“Yeah, is there something new?”
“She died this morning.”
“What?! I was just with her last night. Where is she? What happened?”
“Abby, her body was just so tired. I’m so, so sorry.”
Abby’s shock was genuine. She had been with Ruthie the night before. She knew Ruthie was on a steady decline, she had lost hope a long time ago that Ruthie was going to get a miracle cure, but she was still poleaxed by the news. Because Ruthie didn’t believe she was going to die anytime soon, Abby let herself believe it too.
And now her best friend was dead.
Tim said, “I need you to go get the girls.”
“Do they know?”
“Do you want me to tell them?”
“No, just get them to the hospital and I’ll tell them. Laura’s coming to get you.”
Abby went to Maria Peterson, the secretary for the principal, with tears in her eyes.
“I’m leaving, Maria. Ruthie’s dead.”
Maria broke down. The receptionist from the front office walked in, and was told the news. She too burst into tears.
When Abby walked out of her office, there was Laura, waiting and weeping. They embraced, then walked resolutely out to the car, and drove down the Bains Road to the elementary school for Rebekah.
Everyone in the office at Rebekah’s school knew. When Bek came out, Abby told her that her mother is at the hospital, and that she and Miss Laura had come to pick her up. Laura began talking to Bek in her soothing way. Thank God Laura is here, Abby thought.
Then it was off to the middle school. Laura and Bek stayed in the car while Abby went in to get Claire. Claire was at PE, and had to change. Nobody at the middle school, where Ruthie taught, knew yet. Abby worried that the news would get onto Facebook immediately, and that was how Hannah would learn.
When Claire emerged, Abby told her Ruthie was at the hospital, and we needed to get there. On the short drive into town, the girls remained calm, quiet, and tearless. They look like innocent puppies, Laura thought.
Tim arrived at the hospital and met the physician on duty. He said, “Doc, she was a DOA. They’re still performing CPR, but it’s a moot point.”
Tim said, “She’s so sick. She’s suffered. She’s gone. Please call the code.”
Ruthie Leming was now officially dead. Tim went into the hospital room where they had her body. It was not a pretty sight, from the hemorrhaging, and swelling from the violence of rescue efforts. Tim and the hospital staff discussed cleaning Ruthie’s body up and making her presentable for goodbyes.
Standing outside the room where staffers worked on Ruthie’s body, Mam demanded to see her daughter. They told her she couldn’t, not yet.
“I’m telling you that I want to see my child,” she insisted. Someone from the hospital led Mam and Mike to a waiting room, and asked them to please be patient. Finally, they were invited in. Mike went in first. And then Mam followed.
She was not prepared to see her daughter looking so beautiful, and so peaceful. Ruthie’s struggle was over at last. Mam leaned in and pressed her cheek to Ruthie’s. It was still warm.
“Ruthie,” she spoke into her ear, “I’m going to keep my promise. I’m going to help Mike and the girls. I’m going to keep my promise.” Then she sat down next to Ruthie’s true love, and they grieved together.
When Laura and Abby drove into the hospital parking lot on the hill in St. Francisville, Tim was outside waiting. Mike sat in the hospital room, eyes closed, keeping silent vigil with Ruthie’s body. He was in no state to speak to his children. Tim understood, and took over.
The Suburban came to an abrupt stop next to where Tim stood, trying to summon the courage to speak the awful truth on the worst day of these children’s lives. Claire and Rebekah climbed out of the Suburban. Tim took a knee. Claire stood in front of him. Bekah stood by Laura.
“Where’s Mama?” Claire asked.
“I’m so, so sorry, my sweet girls,” said Tim. “Mama has died.”
The girls were in shock. They had not imagined, they could not have imagined, that this was coming. Ruthie had protected them from the thought, reckoning there would be time to make them ready. Bekah wept in Laura’s arms. Claire collapsed into Abby.
“What am I going to do without a mama?” Claire said. “I can’t be without a mama.”
“I know,” said Tim.
“Where’s Daddy? Where’s Daddy? Where’s Daddy!?” Claire asked. Tim, Laura, and Abby led them down the gantlet of sobbing friends and family, into the hospital room where their father was with their mother’s body.
Claire and Bekah wanted to embrace their mother’s body, but they were frightened. Is this really Mama? Claire thought. Ruthie’s face was visible, and a blanket covered her body. Their father, consumed by grief and fear, could not comfort them. All he could say was, “I’m alone. My baby’s gone.” Claire was scared. She had never seen her daddy like this. Her big, strong daddy looked small, weak, lost, and frightened. The world was turned upside down.
The sisters took in the full vision of their mother, her face pale, cold, dead on a hospital bed. Turning from it, they threw themselves into their father’s arms. “I’m going to be so alone,” he cried. Rebekah turned away from her father, then stood at the foot of Ruthie’s bed, saying, “Wake up, Mama. Wake up! Mama, don’t go, please don’t go.”
And on it went. As the pallbearers waited for the hearse at the Starhill Cemetery, they removed their shoes and rolled up their pants. To honor Ruthie, a country girl who hated wearing shoes, they carried her barefoot to her grave.
How country was Ruthie? She could skin a buck, and run a trot line. And she loved Bocephus.
An update on Ruthie’s family. Paw died in 2015. Mike has not yet remarried. Their daughter Claire married last December; she and her husband live in Texas, where he is in graduate school, and she just began her career as a nurse. Hannah is currently living with Mam in Starhill, and taking care of her as Mam mends from a broken hip. Rebekah is in college in Louisiana.
I chose to recount the events of this terrible day instead of one of the many inspiring stories in the book, for a reason. My sister’s story is ultimately one of hope, but as I look back at the last decade in our family, I can see that the sheer violence of Ruthie’s death damaged us all far more than we realized. That was an earthquake whose tremors, even a decade later, can knock down buildings. Death is a hateful thing. If I did not believe in a Savior who trampled down the power of death through his own death and resurrection, I think I would despair endlessly about it.