Back home in the country from a long day at the hospital. The word from the oncologist was pretty grim. Ruthie is in Stage Four. They rushed Ruthie into radiation therapy at once after he read her latest MRI results. We have to hope and pray they can knock out the cancer in her brain so they can start with chemotherapy to work on the cancer elsewhere. The oncologist was staggered by how aggressive this cancer is. Five weeks ago, there was scarcely a sign of this on her MRI. And now, it’s in a number of places.
I wish I had the words to express how brave my sister is. I write this through tears tonight — tears not of sadness for her, though God knows that’s there, but tears of admiration. Who among us could get such news today, and react with such evenness? Not me. She apologized to her husband, saying softly, “I’m sorry, I was hoping for better news.” Later in the day, I spoke with Dr. Tim Lindsey, her GP, and we talked about how astonishingly courageous she’s been throughout this short, terrible ordeal. He went on about how she’s not wanted to hide from anything, and how she’s withstood horrific blows without bowing. Dr. Tim and I agreed that there is something miraculous about the witness she’s showing to the rest of us, in how to suffer. He said that however long she has to live, whether it’s weeks or years or decades, her children will always remember the courage under fire — Hemingway’s definition of grace — that their mother showed in these days.
But you know, she’s not the only one. I am glad you were not there in the hospital today when Ruthie and Mike told their girls the news. You can imagine how heartbreaking it was for everyone. And yet, the moment passed. The children’s father, Mike, is hurting hard, but he’s also holding up his little family. This is the man who got the Bronze Star in Iraq for the incredible work he did supporting fellow troops logistically. He is tempered steel. These three girls — Hannah, Claire and Rebekah — are ravaged by grief, but they are also rallying to their mother’s side. The way that family is coming together for each other now is so beautiful and poignant it hurts to look at it, but you can’t look away because there is a lesson in truth and love, and indeed in life, playing out for us all.
If you don’t believe in love, you should come to Our Lady of the Lake hospital, and to this community, to see what I’m seeing. I won’t even start listing the people who have poured themselves out for us, because I’m afraid I’ll forget somebody. If you can judge a person by the quality and devotion of their friends, then surely Ruthie and Mike are among the finest people in the world. Firefighter friends, National Guard friends, schoolteacher friends, family members, neighbors — all helping, all loving, all saying, in their own way, what do you need? what can we do? let us help you through this, please. Even the nurses in this wing of the hospital got together and bought the little girls presents, and told them, Come talk to us anytime. A nurse named Chantina is the primary nurse caring for my sister, and look, after only three days, she’s like a member of the family. Really and truly. My mother hugged her and kissed her on the way home tonight. When we got home, there was waiting for us an icon Philadelphia friends had overnighted us: St. Ruth and St. Naomi, “for your Ruthie.” I showed it to my dad, who wept that strangers would do this for us.
How is it that people who barely even know us can be so good to us? Ruthie’s suffering is calling forth all this love. Tonight as I kissed her and told her goodnight, she told me how much she loved seeing me get closer to her girls. I’ve never had the opportunity to spend much time with them, because our visits here in the past have been so short. This is a small thing, but not a trivial one. God knows we would all rather this cup pass by Ruthie, but it must be said that even as darkness increases, the light increases that much more.
I read this post, and I think it must sound like I’m emotional, and laying the sentimentality on thick, because we’re going through a stressful time. Like I said, I don’t want to discuss this in detail, because I haven’t seen everything, but I will let one example speak for the kind of thing we’re witnessing here. Ruthie’s general practitioner, as I’ve said, is Dr. Tim Lindsey, whom she began to see at the beginning of this ordeal in January. Tim is a local guy who returned to St. Francisville to set up a medical practice with his friend, Dr. Chaillie Daniel. What kind of young doctors are these, and what kind of town is this? Look at this excerpt from a 2005 New York Times article about how St. Francisville stepped up to help Katrina refugees who showed up in town:
At Fred’s Pharmacy, the Police Jury picked up the tab for filling prescriptions for the week until a foundation took over. The sick turned to the splendid new clinic of Chaillie P. Daniel and Timothy R. Lindsey, young family doctors.
“Everyone was seen,” Dr. Lindsey said. “In September we saw 250 evacuees. Of the 250, about half could not pay and had no insurance. For the most part they were people running out of medicines or needing preventive care, routine labs, tetanus, hepatitis.”
Dr. Daniel said, “We treated postoperative people.” One lady had had two knees replaced 48 hours earlier. “She had no follow up,” he said. “She came in in a wheelchair. We had a lady with acute pancreatitis, in a lot of pain. She definitely would have required a hospital. She wanted to fly to San Francisco. We looked up a doctor in San Francisco, and she had surgery the next day.”
As for the payments, Dr. Lindsey said: “We have kept track of it as office overhead. We will probably turn in some charges to FEMA, but we don’t know if we will be paid.”
Tim and his wife Laura are Christians active with the Young Life group in town, to which my niece Hannah belongs. Someone from town who came by to visit the hospital today said, “Oh, you can’t imagine how lucky we are to have Tim in town.” I know that Tim has been an incredibly calming influence on Ruthie and everyone in my family through this. He’s given them the gift of time and attention, even after hours. You hear the stories about this guy and his compassion, and you can’t believe they make doctors like this anymore. But there he is … and there he was today, all six-foot-four of him, when I got back from taking a walk with my mom. He had been on the phone with the oncologist, and was gently and thoroughly explaining what it all means to us outside Ruthie’s room. Then he went into Ruthie’s room to talk to her children, who were still distraught. I don’t know what he said to them, but after he left, they were okay. Before he left, he hugged Hannah, gave her his private cellphone number, and told her if ever she was scared for her mom or needed to talk, even if it was in the middle of the night, to just call.
“Half the town has Tim’s personal cell phone number,” someone told me later. “That’s just the kind of doctor he is.”
I walked out with him to the parking garage to tell him how much his care for Ruthie and her family meant to all of us, and what a comfort it was being so far away in Philadelphia to hear from my parents all the time how safe they all felt in his care. He was very modest about it all, and said that this is the privilege of being a small-town doctor. You don’t see your patients as clients. You see them as people. You know their histories, you know their suffering takes place within a personal context, and you can treat the whole person — not only their body, but also their heart and soul. He said he wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“Not all doctors are healers,” I told him. “You’re a healer.”
(No surprise there; look who his father was.)
Something beautiful and important is going on in all this pain and grief, a drama that may well turn out to be a tragedy, but which will also be a triumph. We would not choose this, but in time, we may count ourselves blessed to have been witness to it, and a part of it. Grace abounds, in the love and fidelity of family and friends. As Ruth said to Naomi:
“Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.”
We are all going with our Ruth, all of us, and with our Mike and our girls, too, right through that fire. Believe me, not every miracle is the one you ask for, but that doesn’t make what you get any less of a miracle.