Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

This bright sadness

“Well,” said my sister to me this morning, “I was diagnosed on Tuesday, and the next day was Ash Wednesday. I guess this is my Lent.”
The people of the Church used to think of Lent as a journey of dying to self, and dying into sanctification. But as the Orthodox Father Alexander Schmemann observes, we’ve fallen into the bad habit of thinking it as a time for following rules of fasting, until such time as we can resume normal life. We therefore refuse the opportunity for spiritual purification and growth given to us by the severe mercy of Lent.
That’s not going to be a problem for our family this Lent.
In his book “Great Lent: Journey to Pascha,” Father Schmemann writes of the importance of the long, solemn Lenten services in shifting us into a time of “bright sadness”: a sorrowful time, yes, but also a time in which the darkness is not absolute, but merely cloaks the light. He writes, of those services:


Little by little, we begin to understand, or rather to feel, that this sadness is indeed “bright,” that a mysterious transformation is about to take place in us. It is as if we were reaching a place to which the noises and the fuss of life, of the street, of all that which usually fills our days and even nights, have no access – a place where they have no power. All that which seemed so tremendously important to us as to fill our mind, that state of anxiety which has virtually become our second nature, disappear somewhere and we begin to feel free, light and happy. It is not the noisy and the superficial happiness which comes and goes twenty times a day and is so fragile and fugitive; it is a deep happiness which comes not from a single and particular reason but from our soul having, in the words of Dostoevsky, touched “another world.” And that which it has touched is made up of light and peace and joy, of an inexpressible trust.


I spent this morning sitting with Ruthie on her front porch in the country, warmed by the sun. The japonicas were in bloom, and a lone paperwhite peered at us from just beyond the rail. We were alone for most of that time, Mike having gone into town to pick up prescriptions, and the girls inside taking showers and such. So: your sister, your one and only sibling, who one week ago was reveling at the Spanish Town Mardi Gras parade, sits beside you on her porch, a scar on her neck, bearing within her still-beautiful body deadly and aggressive cancers. You hope and pray to see her again, but if you do, she won’t look like this; the radiation and the chemo will have tortured her body and cruelly distorted her image.
You have three hours before you have to leave for the airport to go home to Philadelphia. What do you say?
If you’re me, you don’t say anything at first. You simply sit in the winter sunshine, and say yes indeed, isn’t it a beautiful day? But you know that time may be short, and this is not a time to hold back out of anxiety or embarrassment. You think: these conversations only happen in the movies. They don’t happen – they don’t have to happen – in our lives, because things this terrible only happen to other people, and to other families.
But here we are. And time is passing. So, with fear and trembling, you begin.
I am not going to disclose all the things that passed between us today, and I think you can understand that. But let me start by saying I asked my sister to forgive me for every time I hurt her through my words or deeds, by things done or left undone. We are close, but there have been times when we have not been gentle or patient or kind to each other. The fault is mostly my own, but not entirely, and if we are both honest with ourselves we will own up to some petty grudge-holding. Nothing remotely major, but still present on the margins of our life together, and present in the background.
It’s all gone now. We embraced in tears, spoke words of forgiveness, and that was over and done with.
“I hope you live 50 more years,” I said to my sister, “but when you do pass over, please pray for my boys to get along. The only heartbreak of my life with them is that they fight, and nothing works to change that. The problem is so bad with Matthew.”
Ruthie told me that she and her oldest child, Hannah, had a difficult relationship for a while, and that she used to yell at Hannah. “When Mike went to Iraq, I stopped that,” she said. I wasn’t quite sure where she was going with that, but we talked about our children for a bit.
Then we talked about anger, and about how some of us in the family are struggling not to be mad at the doctor who was her family physician for many years, and who (to our mind, perhaps unfairly) downplayed the severity of her symptoms early in this crisis, until she finally was compelled to go see Dr. Lindsey for a second opinion.
“Don’t be mad at the doctors, Rod,” she said, gripping my forearm. “I don’t want any of you to be. Dr. [X.] couldn’t have found this cancer. Not even the specialists saw it five weeks ago. But oh, I am being taken such good care of now.”
She then spoke in arresting detail about the compassion shown her by Dr. Lindsey, her oncologist, Dr. Miletello, her radiation oncologist Dr. Sanders, and the entire staff at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. She said, “They treat 200 patients in that radiation unit every day. Two hundred! Can you believe? And they still find it in themselves to be so kind to me. It’s amazing.”
At one point, Ruthie and I talked about the parade of visitors who have come around since her diagnosis. I feel so protective of her, and so eager to help her rest, and to spend time with her children before the radiation and the chemo take over her life. But she has insisted on seeing everyone, for their sake. Her patience is legendary. I was talking with her daughter Hannah the other day, and we agreed that neither of us could be teachers because we both lack patience. Ruthie, however, is the soul of patience. Her determination to see the good in everyone, and not to push back or get mad, has been a source of befuddlement and annoyance to some of us who know her, and who have thought at times she let people take advantage of her because she was unwilling to provoke a conflict.
Our mother told me today, “Her class this year is really tough, and the other teachers said to her once, ‘How do you put up with them?’ She told them, ‘I love those kids, and maybe they can change.”
It’s that simple with Ruthie. But of course, for many of us, that’s the hardest thing in the world. Me, I find it hard to love anybody that’s not lovable. Ruthie finds everyone lovable, if not necessarily likeable. I never really thought about where this comes from until this week, and until I saw this habit of Ruthie’s heart in light of mortality – and in light of the outpouring of generosity and mercy from all those she’s touched over the years. Do you know that a student she taught 15 years ago sent her flowers in the hospital? Read the various comments people who know her have been leaving – it’s the same thing, over and over. Things like that keep happening this week, and it’s made me think, Who have we been living with all these years?
As I told my folks today on the drive to the airport, Ruthie’s way has always been so humble and unassuming. She never has made a show of her religious faith – she is not the openly pious sort — but it has always been there, quiet and steadfast. She’s never been one for extravagant gestures of kindness, or for any kind of extravagance, or calling attention to herself. Ruthie just treats everybody with plain decency and everyday goodness, like it’s the most natural thing in the world. It’s so subtle you may hardly notice it. Years ago, I recall wondering how it was that in high school, Ruthie was one of those people who was a friend to everybody, and who had no enemies. Who gets through high school liked by everybody? Many people who are seen as “good” are also disliked by others because they are taken as somehow being above the ordinary people. That wasn’t Ruthie. Never has been. She has a strong moral sense, but it includes a natural inclination not to judge others. She loves them, and besides, they might change.
How would our lives be different if we all lived by that modest rule? It’s heart-shaking to consider. How much easier it is to continue as we were, caught up in ordinary time, holding on to slights, nurturing irritations and outrages, while the beautiful and redeeming gifts given to us, and the opportunities for grace, are replaced by the everyday. Why does it take catastrophe to remind us how to live, and how to love, and to wake us up to the chances to show patience and kindness and compassion to all?
I think the world is kept on the rails by people like Ruthie, who do the right thing without fail and who don’t expect a cookie for it.
Ruthie and I talked for a while about the astonishing outpouring of support, both in real life and on the Internet. She’s not been able to read all the comments on my blog left by readers, because they make her emotional, and she struggles to catch her breath when she cries (the primary cancer is in her lungs, after all). Though she is confident she is going to beat this cancer, she is grateful that already, her pain and suffering is occasioning people changing their lives, mending fences, returning to the right path. We talked about how on Good Friday, the world was turned upside down for Christ’s disciples, and in their fear and grief they could scarcely have imagined what was coming next, and how everything would be transfigured by His suffering. I saw in her words that Ruthie is drawing strength and hope from these stories of redemption. She hopes that she will beat this cancer, but in the meantime, she is bolstered by reports of lives changed through her suffering; that gives it meaning. As she put it to me, “We just don’t know what God’s going to do with this.”
Mike came home, and said while he was in town, he’d run into a friend, who was upset over the news of Ruthie’s cancer. “He said, ‘I have never in my life prayed, but when I heard this news, I prayed twice, dammit.”
Ruthie slapped me on the shoulder. “See?”
We talked for a short while longer, and then it was time for me to leave. On the front porch, we held each other close, and cried hard. She said, “I hate that you’re having to go through this.” Typical Ruthie: worried that her cancer is a burden on others. I said to her: “You are not walking alone through this. We are all going together, and it’s going to hurt, but we are going to be purified.”
This is our Great Lent. There is no Easter without Good Friday.
Driving to the airport, I told my parents how all this has knocked me down. I’ve been the one who has gone out into the world to make my mark; Ruthie stayed at home and tended her garden. I’ve always respected the way she’s chosen to live her life, and it has been a long time since I felt guilty about the way I chose to live mine (moving away from home, I mean). We are two very different people, and that’s fine. But I have not really thought much about the way Ruthie is, and what I could incorporate from her life into my own. Until now. I told my parents that she makes me want to change the way I live, to repair broken relationships, to apologize to people I’ve offended – even if in the feud, I still believe I was right. That doesn’t matter. What matters is love, and mercy. I’m the one who has read all the books about God, and written at length about how we all ought to live to be faithful to His truth. But she’s the one who has been living more fully in Him, without making the least fuss. Now, when she might be taken from us, and taken from us soon, many of us – not least her own brother — is waking up to what she has always known, and lived without fanfare.
What I’ve seen in this week of bright sadness is a transfiguration of suffering, and in that, a call to return to our best selves, to the men and women we were created to be. I told my folks that I intended to go back to Philadelphia and write to people with whom I was at odds, and to seek reconciliation, because that’s what Ruthie would want. That’s how I’m going to honor her, I said, and to share her walk. I’m stuck there hundreds of miles away, unable to help, but I can at least do that thing, and do my part to make sure the agonies that await her on this sorrowful path are not wasted, but turned to the good. Bring food, send a card, say a prayer – all those things are welcome. But they’re easy. It’s hard to turn from selfishness, to tell someone you’re sorry, to accept someone else’s apology, to put aside judgment and to say by our dealings with others, “I love them, and they might change.”
But that’s what I think Ruthie would want. And that’s what I’m going to give her. It is an excruciating privilege to share this agony with my sister and her family. I have seen into another world this week, a world apart from the fragile and fugitive pleasures of this one. I never imagined I would have to see this hideous shadow fall over my family, but there it is, and look! there is light shining in this darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it. I love that line from the Gospel of John, and quote it often, but it is not merely a comforting sentiment. It’s empirically true. Really! I’ve seen it this week. Go to St. Francisville if you doubt me. You only have to look at my sister, and the active love surrounding her and her family, and the heaven-sent friends in their lives, to know it’s real, and not a pious fiction.
I told Ruthie about a saint who said that a the surgeon has to cause us pain to make our bodies whole again, and it’s the same way with the spirit. Believe me, it hurts like hell to look at this drama unfolding in the life of our family and in the soul and body of our dear Ruthie, and it hurts like hell to hold it, but we will look at it and we will hold it and we will take it into our hearts because that is how we will be healed. We shall, as the poet Auden said, “stagger onward rejoicing.”
Love others. They might change. You might too. I want to be a better man than I am. Because of her.
“You know,” said my mom, in the back seat, “Ruthie has always been worried about the way you speak so harshly to Matthew when you get angry at him. She’s talked to us about that several times.”
“Really?” I said, my heart pierced by shame. “That’s over. I repent. I’m not going to do it again. Done.”

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scotch meg

posted February 20, 2010 at 10:36 pm

Rod, my heart goes out to you and your family. I am praying for all of you.
Perhaps, in thinking about sibling relationships, the following will help. It’s not a significant offering in this time when so much else is on your mind, but it is what I have to offer.
My mom and her one sister have never gotten along very well. They have very different personalities, and I suspect there was a lot of competition for parental attention in their home. But they both grew up wanting their children to get along, and they each succeeded. And now I am trying to instill that same love for each other among my children as I have shared with my sisters.
What has helped? First, I never make comparisons if I can avoid it (and I usually can). Sometimes they make comparisons themselves, but I don’t. I praise each child for doing what s/he does well without saying it’s like another child. I also don’t criticize them comparitively, by sayiing that they do things worse than each other. Second, I never ask them to convey orders to each other. The only request I make is that they ask each other to come see me. Then I give the order myself, even if it’s something simple like “please set the table” or “please bring in the mail.” They are not put in the position of bossing each other around, at least by me. Third, I make sure that each of them has individual abilities recognized. My mother did this by emphasizing dance for one sister, piano for another. When I asked her, many years later, why she allowed all three to participate in a particular theatre group which I had thought of as “mine”, she said that she thought of schoolwork as my real interest (which was true), but of course couldn’t say as much to me, because we all needed to feel supported academically.
It’s not always easy. My oldest has wrestled with her relationship with her next sibling, a brother, for a very long time. For many years, she proclaimed her hate for him frequently — anything he did was wrong, and any time he bugged her, she hated him. Fortunately, he is very resilient and a true optimist. My husband gritted his teeth — his relationship with his older brother was problematic — but we kept emphasizing the positives, and allowing them to develop in their own directions, and loving them both, even when each accused us of favoritism. They are still very, very different people, but they do get along now. I think it would have been even more difficult if both had been girls or both boys, as you have.
Also, remember that it is what we dislike in ourselves that we hate most when we see it in our children, and be extra patient with them. My husband says that he stopped giving spankings when he realized that the spankings reflected his mood more often than the children’s offenses. For myself, I have found that patience has increased as I grow older, and as I panic less frequently about my ability to manage the children.
If you can help your children get along, if you can develop the patience you describe in your sister, then you will indeed be honoring her greatly, no matter what the outcome of her disease. And if you can focus on this task, it will help you through the tough time you are experiencing now.
God bless you, and thank you for being so open and honest with all of us who read your blog.

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Emily Salter Walker

posted February 20, 2010 at 10:37 pm

Rod—You are so right about Ruthie. She was so kind to everyone in high school. Everyone loved her. I just want to tell you that you meant so much to me. I think of you often and the way you befriended me when I moved to Saint Francisville. I missed you so much when you left. We really had some good laughs in journalism class. I am so sorry your family has to go through this. I am praying for all of you.

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Kit Stolz

posted February 20, 2010 at 11:07 pm

I see your intent. Now maybe you can change the way you speak to Matthew, when you get mad at him. A lovely essay, beautifully put.

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posted February 20, 2010 at 11:22 pm

I am so so sorry for your family, my prayers are with you. Your story crystallized that I am not going to give up candy or alcohol for Lent but try to give up anger, a particular sin of mine. My anger at times may be justified but mostly it is an egotistical indulgence that hurts people.

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Lisa D

posted February 20, 2010 at 11:25 pm

Not sure you knew this, but I got married in April and at 42 was blessed with a healthy baby girl. I sit here thinking that I am just taking off on this love affair of being a Mom and it breaks my heart to think of Ruthie and her girls. I thank you and Ruthie for being so open and honest with all of us who grew up calling one another friends. It is very brave of both of you. Home is where the heart is and for all of us St. Francisville will always be home. At different times in our lives we may not have appreciated the simple life we grew up in, but the older we get and the farther we travel we come to realize what a special place it is and how blessed we are to have had such life long friends. When I think of Ruthie I always see her smile, her sweet smile. I don’t think I’ve ever run into her and not seen her smiling. My thoughts and prayers are with all of you.

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posted February 20, 2010 at 11:28 pm

Thank you for this tribute to your sister and the way she has lived her life. It sounds like we could all learn from her example.

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posted February 20, 2010 at 11:53 pm

I have prayed for your sister and your family.
I’ve been studying 1 John lately. In this book we learn that loving-ness is the essence of Christianity, and it seems that your sister embodies this. People see her, and want to be better people. I pray that God heals her and that her life will witness to many more people for many years.

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Your Name

posted February 21, 2010 at 12:19 am

I saw Ruthie riding in the Spanish Town Parade last week and when she looked out into the crowd and spotted me, her smile beamed at me. That’s how she is every time I see her. We’re all blessed in St. Francisville to have her and her family in our lives. I think of Mike as a brother and my heart aches for them. She is certainly blessed to have you as a brother. As you’ve stated, Ruthie is a fighter and I have faith that the good lord will heal her. She has been in my family’s prayers since we heard about her illness. I certainly understand their needing to be alone as a family for now to deal with this for now so please keep us informed as to how she and her family are doing.

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posted February 21, 2010 at 12:55 am

Since hearing of Ruthie’s illness I made a promise to myself to try to appreciate my children more and to try to be the best mom I possibly can be. Tall order, I know, but I am inspired by her love for her girls and of course how quickly it can all be taken away. Giving up anger and the subsequent yelling and fussing is hard…it becomes such a bad habit…but it is my hope that Ruthie’s example will continue to inspire me to BE BETTER!! It actually gave me comfort to read that she also yelled (as so many of even the best parents do at times) but stopped herself when her husband was away in Iraq. Ruthie, you are changing lives and touching people…the light in the darkness indeed. Thank you for sharing…you are all in my prayers.

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the stupid Chris

posted February 21, 2010 at 1:05 am

A beautiful reflection, Rod.

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Lord Karth

posted February 21, 2010 at 2:01 am

Mr. Dreher, @ 9:39 PM, writes:
“Love others. They might change. You might too. I want to be a better man than I am. Because of her.”
I am reminded of a certain passage from an old favorite novel of mine; “A Canticle for Leibowitz”, by Walter Miller. The main character in this passage is a Catholic monk in a far-future monastery. A terrible event has taken place in his world—a nuclear holocaust—-and he knows that he is going to die, and very soon. Perhaps this will help you make sense of your situation.
“He blinked several times. Pat vanished. The world congealed again, and the blackness was gone. Somehow he discovered what he was afraid of. There was something he had yet to fulfill before the Dark closed over him forever. ‘Dear God, let me live long enough to fulfill it.’ He was afraid to die before he had accepted as much suffering as that which came to the child who could not comprehend it., the child he had tried to save for further suffering—no, not FOR it, but in spite of it. He had commanded the mother in the name of Christ. He had not been wrong. But now he was afraid to slide away into that blackness before he had endured as much as God might help him endure.”
You found your unexpected source of help, Mr. Dreher.
Ruth herself.
You’re still going to have a lot to work through, and a lot to put up with. But I think your burden just got a bit lighter; not totally lifted—the Lord NEVER makes things that easy !—but bearable.
Maybe bearable enough. Bearable enough for you to endure “as much as God might help [you] endure.”
Maybe that’s what this is all about; not getting the miracle you WANT, but the miracle you NEED. There’s a difference.
That’s just how these things work sometimes, no ?
For whatever it’s worth, there it is.
I remain, as always,
Your servant,
Lord Karth

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tammy swofford

posted February 21, 2010 at 8:18 am

I am very sorry about your sister and the difficulty that lies ahead. I pray that the God of all comfort will bring you peace as you walk through this with the family.
Regarding boys: little boys/brothers fight. “A brother is made for adversity” comes to mind! They can be quite territorial. They eventually grow up to become friends. Nothing unusual between Matthew and Luke. Been there, done that.
Regarding harshness or frustrated response toward our kids: The goal is to capture their hearts and keep them on the home team. Raising children is the most difficult task in life. It requires patience, diligence and a sense of humor to deal with each problem as it arises.
I will also say a prayer for your sister.

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Neil D

posted February 21, 2010 at 8:40 am

Let us also reflect on the experiences of so many who go through the same thing utterly alone.

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Rod Dreher

posted February 21, 2010 at 8:56 am

You’re right, Neil. I thought about that too. Because of the way Ruthie and her husband have lived, and because of where they live, they are surrounded by help and comfort. We see in their situation the critical importance of community.

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posted February 21, 2010 at 11:30 am

Thank you for sharing this with us, Rod.

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Charles Cosimano

posted February 21, 2010 at 11:44 am

Rod, reading these latest blogs has confirmed to me that you are a far better writer than I am, but then I always knew that. But they are also causing a growing, and rather frightening, revelation in me that you are also probably a far better man than I.

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posted February 21, 2010 at 12:47 pm

Rod, one of your best pieces. As Ruthie begins this journey to return to health, I wish her all of the best. Having been there with cancer, from the accounts written on these pages, I know she is well-prepared for the battle. There will be times when all seems darkness. But it is not. And if further medical opinion is needed, a possible consideration is M.D. Anderson in Houston. An institution specifically created for cancer research.

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posted February 21, 2010 at 4:31 pm

Ruthie and your family will be in my prayers. When Elder Zacharias was here in Dallas a couple of weekends ago, he related this story, which you might find helpful: A Priest he met in Greece had two grown sons who Elder Zacharias described as “angelic”. He asked the father what he had done, what he had taught them, that they had such a beautiful, Christ-like nature. The Priest told Elder Zacharias that he had not taught his sons anything at all. But every night, he knelt by each of their beds while they slept, and prayed for them.
May our Lord have mercy on Ruthie and her family, granting all that is needed for healing of soul and body.

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posted February 21, 2010 at 4:40 pm

Rod, this is perhaps the most poignant post you have ever written. Thank you. I feel privileged to be able to read your posts about your sister.
Your sister is blessed to have you as a brother. Many brothers wouldn’t be able to be this introspective and talk so openly about their feelings with their sister.
As for your sons fighting, I have four daughters and have noticed that there is a certain edge and hostility in sibling relationships sometimes in the younger years.
Yet it is that very edge that also makes siblings able to be so very open and honest with each other and creates a closeness unlike that in any other relationship.
My two oldest daughters (now teenagers) did not have a close relationship when they were your sons’ ages and didn’t especially like each other, but now they consider each other best friends.

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Matushka Anna

posted February 21, 2010 at 11:15 pm

Thank you, Rod, for being so open with us.

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bill holston

posted February 22, 2010 at 8:45 am

I felt myself tearing up reading this Rod. I feel like I’m standing on holy ground when I read this. Thanks for sharing, with honesty, integrity and skill. I prayed for Ruthie just a few moments ago, as I do each morning, as well as for you and your family.

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Sharon Astyk

posted February 22, 2010 at 9:42 am

Rod, Wow. Just wow. I can see how this has harrowed you all. And although Lent is not my holiday, I too want to give up anger – if not for lent, for myself and my children. I am, of course, also praying for all of you.

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Jon Garinn

posted February 23, 2010 at 12:41 pm

Thanks, Rod. I needed this today.

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Gayla Dalton Burke

posted February 24, 2010 at 2:08 am

You probley wont remember me… but I went to school with you and Ruthie. I too know how your life can change in a moment. On July 23,2006 my second son J.R. was riding a dirt bike when he crashed. He broke his neck and crushed his skull. The doctors told me he would die and IF he lived he would be brain dead. Well last May he graduated high school on the honor roll. Rod I did not know what you were doing until I heard about Ruthie. You have done well, bringing to light some of the wrongs of the world we live in. Since J.R. had been hurt our private insurance was cancelled (maxed out), forcing us (him) into the Medicade system. Since then Specialist have refused him as a patiet. Doctors who took an oath to help.. when it really seems to boil down to money.. very few doctors want to actually help and want the BMW’S, houses in the Country Club, and eat at the best resturants. Yet me and my son have been told ” I dont think you can come in here” because the tables are too close together, the doors not wide enuoght ect… Rod I am so sorry for what your family is going through. Know that God has a plan much bigger than ours.. I am still wondering what God’s plan is for my son and my family. After his accident my then husband had an affair, which ended our marriage. Another one of my son’s was so upset with what was going on with his brother he attempted sucided, and yet another son became so angry with life that he is almost impossible to be around at times. Just keep your faith. Ruthie is truly a wonderful person and to my knowledge has never hurt anyone on accident and surely not on purpose. God be with her and your family.
I will keep her in my prayers.

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Your Name

posted February 24, 2010 at 8:22 am

Thanks, Rod. An important reminder as we push ourselves through another Lenten season. A powerful lesson to make sure it isn’t “just another Lenten season.”

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Your Name

posted March 7, 2010 at 12:37 pm

When I was ill I found it to be a time with the graces. Your words here remind me of that and shame me into the realization that ‘normal’ life has caused me to stray from it–something I thought would never happen. Thanks for the reminder. I will think of you and your family each day now as I make my way back toward a period of grace.
T. Patrick

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