Over 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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About Rod Dreher
Rod Dreher is director of publications at the John Templeton Foundation, a philanthropy that focuses on science, religion, economics and morality. A journalist with over 20 years of experience, Dreher has written for The Dallas Morning News, the New York Post, and other newspapers and journals. He is author of the book "Crunchy Cons." Archives of his previous Beliefnet blog, "Crunchy Con," can be found here. He and his family live in Philadelphia.