“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.”