Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

Joy in the strange land of cancer

mike-well.jpgOver the weekend, I was praying the Psalms, and a line in Psalm 136 — the well-known lament of the Jewish exiles held captive “by the waters of Babylon” — made me pause in my prayers:
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
It made me think of cancer as a strange land, at least for our family. Tomorrow it will have been two weeks since my sister Ruthie was diagnosed with stage four cancer, and there are still times every day when I’ll just stop cold and think, My God, Ruthie’s got advanced cancer! This is a disaster that happens to other families, not ours. But here we are. It’s hard to reconcile myself to it, though slowly, slowly, I’m getting used to this new normal.
Once again, Ruthie is showing us the way forward. Julie returned last evening from several days in St. Francisville, helping out and visiting. After the kids were in bed, we talked about what she’d seen. I told her that I anticipated this being like the post-9/11 experience: how you didn’t see how things could ever be normal again, but eventually we all absorbed the event, and got on with our lives.
“That’s it,” Julie said. “And let me tell you, they’re already there. Ruthie’s house is bubbling over with joy these days. She’s fine. I mean, she’s not fine, she’s got cancer, but she and Mike are dealing with it amazingly well. They’re laughing all the time, enjoying their friends, and even making cancer jokes. They hadn’t gotten around to taking down the Christmas lights from their house, so Mike’s now calling them ‘cancer awareness lights.”
Julie went on about how amazed she was by how normal Ruthie seems in the middle of this. Julie characterized her attitude as something like, OK, I’ve got cancer; let’s get on with the treatment, and let’s get on with our lives. Ruthie’s worried about how her family is handling this crisis, but she’s not worried about herself. They’re held up by so many people who love them — Julie went on and on about their “family” from the firehouse, Dr. Tim Lindsey and his wife Laura, their faithful friend John Bickham, and various members of our extended family — which, despite the horror they’re living through, is an occasion of joy. To be loved like that, and to know you are loved like that, is breathtaking. Last week, a cousin and I were talking about the astonishing outpouring of affection for Ruthie and her family, and how it comes from the way Ruthie and Mike live their lives, and always have. You spend your life planting seeds of love and fidelity, and you reap a bountiful harvest in your time of travail.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? Watch and listen; Ruthie and Mike Leming are showing us how it’s done.
(Photos of Ruthie and Mike, and Ruthie and her eldest daughter Hannah, courtesy of Jeannie Frey Rhodes, a fantastic Baton Rouge photographer who took portraits of the Lemings last week, and who has kindly given me permission to post her work here.)

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posted March 1, 2010 at 9:57 am

Rod, Great point about how Ruthie’s family is enjoying help and fellowship with those they loved in the past. How true that we should sow goodness into peoples lives as they will bear fruit.

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posted March 1, 2010 at 10:15 am

What a beautiful couple. You can see the love in their eyes! Our prayers are with all of you! I’ve asked our church family in Illinois to pray, along with my friends and family… which the prayers have now extended into Colorado, Arizona, and various other churches in Illinois! Prayer is Powerful! We Love You!

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posted March 1, 2010 at 10:57 am

Rod, as a cancer survivor and massage therapist working in hospice care, I have been repeatedly blessed to witness the joy you describe. It is Joseph Cambell’s great paradox: joyful participation in a sorrow-filled world. Thanks for sharing Ruthie’s journey, and yours.

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posted March 1, 2010 at 11:13 am

Let me say that I had the honor of meeting Julie Saturday night and I am glad to hear she made it home safe and sound. Julie it was truly a pleasure to meet you!!! I am one of the fire families who was there at Mike and Ruthie’s to show them the love and support they have from all of us. My husband said the other night “Ruthie is a true angel on this earth!” And I saw her halo Saturday night. When I think of Mike and Ruthie I think of the 3 Ls…. LOVE, LAUGHTER, & LIFE! I love you Ruthie! Whatever, whenever you need something just call! Julie you brought a lot of laughter with your stories the other night. Hope to see you again soon!

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posted March 1, 2010 at 11:20 am

“Julie characterized her attitude as something like, OK, I’ve got cancer; let’s get on with the treatment, and let’s get on with our lives.”
Great attitude, and it reminds me of myself when I was told I had prostate cancer. First thing is I’ve got it (gulp), the second is Ruth’s attitude and the route I took. I was lucky, we caught it early, but still I didn’t let it get me down. The same thing occurred when I found out my wife was secretly planning to divorce me and had co-opted my children into the process. I’ve gone through the treatment, I’m moving on with my life.
all my best to your sister and her family

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posted March 1, 2010 at 1:16 pm


posted March 1, 2010 at 1:30 pm

Very beautiful family

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posted March 1, 2010 at 4:55 pm

To Ruthie and Family: God Bless in this journey to remission from cancer. Every day is precious. Each one is a celebration of the love that you have built and acquired. Cherish these moments, remember them and gain strength from them in the battle to come. In this world you now find yourself, always, always, focus on the next day and the new day. Soon remission and return to good health.

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Anglican Peggy

posted March 2, 2010 at 1:14 am

I think the answer to why there is joy in the Leming household at this time is both simple and profound.
I think when someone is diagnosed with a terrible illness, they, and their family also, quickly realize that there simply is no time to waste on being sad. That they need to allocate all of their time to enjoying life and each other and to fighting the disease.
Its so practical to not waste precious time on something that goes nowhere when there are much better things to be doing.
Your sister and her family seem to have come immediately to this realization. Good for them!

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posted March 2, 2010 at 5:08 pm

We’ve added her and her family to the prayer list. And her brother, too.

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