Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

Good Friday & the cross of cancer

posted by Rod Dreher

The other night I was lying awake in bed, tossing and turning, thinking about my sister Ruthie. What, I wondered, is my most meaningful memory of her, the one that I would tell a stranger who wanted to know what Ruthie Dreher Leming is all about? It wasn’t hard to answer that question.
I must have been six or seven, and had to have been picking on Ruthie, who was two years younger, pretty awfully, because our dad ordered me to go lie down on his bed for a spanking. I was spanked very rarely as a child, and only when I’d done something terrible. Whatever cruelty I was inflicting on my little sister that evening must have been fairly rotten for Daddy to have reacted that way. I reported to the king-size bed, laid down on my stomach, and prepared myself for what I had coming to me. And make no mistake, whenever I pushed the limit so far that Daddy had to spank me, I always, always knew I had it coming.
Ruthie burst into the room crying, threw herself onto the bed, and begged Daddy to spank her, not me. I can’t remember what happened next, but I recall that nobody got spanked, and I have this memory of standing in the doorway of the bedroom, confused, wondering what had just happened. The whole order of things had been completely upset by what my little sister had done. I, her jerk of a brother, deserved to be punished for what I had done, but she had not asked Daddy to spare me; rather, she, the victim of my meanness, had offered herself to suffer in my place.
If you want to know who my sister is, there you have it. She was just a little child then, acting on instinct. This is how she has always lived. This is why people love her so much and why her friends are going to extraordinary lengths to come to her aid as she struggles with advanced cancer.
All this came to mind again this morning, on Good Friday. We Christians believe that on this day, we, in some real sense, not only put Jesus of Nazareth to death, but that he accepted torture and death willingly, to free us from the curse of death. Today, my sister hangs upon a cross of cancer. Unlike Jesus, she did not choose this for herself, nor does she have the power to refuse it. Like Jesus, though, she offers herself wholly to the will of the Father. She keeps telling me, with perfect serenity, that God has a plan here, though one we might not understand or accept. In this, she unites her suffering to Christ’s. It’s an awesome thing, full of terror and beauty and power.
There is a great mystery playing itself out here, and we would all be wise not to let it pass unnoticed. So many of you have written me privately, or spoken to me about how Ruthie’s story has inspired you to make amends with family or friends. I went back this morning to read this post I logged here, at the start of Lent, days after Ruthie’s diagnosis with stage four cancer. Here’s what I wrote then, about the conversation she and I had on her front porch before I returned to Philadelphia:

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?”

(Nota bene: If you have not been reconciled to your neighbor or estranged loved ones, please consider doing so, especially on this Easter weekend, and then go to Ruthie’s Facebook page to tell her about it. For her, these are gifts far more important than money. They keep her spirits up, and bolster her confidence that this wretched experience can be redeemed).
I wrote that passage above when she still looked like herself, before she started the chemotherapy that has left her weak, nearly bald, swollen, covered with a rash, cold to the bones and in pain. The beautiful face you see in the photo above, taken the day after Ruthie and I had the front-porch conversation, has been eclipsed for the time being by a mask of suffering. This is what Lent has done to her. She is living through her own Passion, and so are we — most especially her husband Mike and their daughters — standing at the foot of her cross, powerless to save her, unable to offer ourselves in her place, or even to take some of the pain she’s enduring. If we could, God knows we would. I phoned my folks this morning to ask them if I remembered correctly the story about Ruthie begging Daddy to spank her instead of me, because it seemed too perfect (I had remembered it as it happened). We talked for a while about Good Friday, and Mama, with tears in her voice said, “I think I know today what Mary felt like.”
Just so.

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Appalachian Prof

posted April 2, 2010 at 11:09 am

I’ve been reading various texts this morning, trying to get myself into the spirit of Good Friday. It has not been easy to do so.
Until just now.
She’s still in my prayers.

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posted April 2, 2010 at 1:00 pm

I agree with Appalachian Prof. I am so grateful for this Good Friday post. I will think of Ruthie tonight as I hear a local church choir perform Dubois’ Seven Last Words of Christ…. especially the last song, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.”

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posted April 2, 2010 at 1:19 pm

Y’all might appreciate this brief reflection on illness and Good Friday:

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Caroline Nina in DC

posted April 2, 2010 at 1:19 pm

I will be praying at this afternoon’s Vespers. And thank you for the emphasis on the need for all of us to be reconciled with our family–I am a grudge bearer against a sibling, who called me this morning to say that our mother needs emergency hip surgery. And this morning’s post helped me to at least try to release some of that grudge as we move forward to take care of our mother, who’s 85 and has Alzheimer’s.
So I’ll be thinking of all of this–Ruthie, my mother, my sibling–this afternoon, hoping for healing, and how mysterious Mystery truly is.

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Chuck Bloom

posted April 2, 2010 at 1:19 pm

You think you moved to Philadelphia for this new job and new life, etc. But it seems that you have been placed THERE by God in order to tell the world about Ruthie and inspire people to change. Whatever the outcome, you MUST (for all that is holy and right and proper) turns these blog entries into a book – that can be shared by more people and become that kind of inspirational text people can pass along to other loved ones.
I’ll be the guy who helps you edit it, too.
I just wish you could get a decent night’s sleep soon.

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posted April 2, 2010 at 2:20 pm

May God Bless you and keep you and your family united. Ruthie is an inspiration to those of us who have been through difficulties and only thought of what the outcome would mean to us. with this beautifully written article and the love and warmth it was told; you have given so many of us a new light or perspective on how to look toward our Heavenly Father. Thank you, your family and Ruthie for my new outlook on life. may love continue to surround you all and keep you safe.

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Brother Joseph-Marie Brown, SSF

posted April 2, 2010 at 4:32 pm

Dear Rod,
Please let Ruthie know that she and her family (and you and yours) have been added to our intercessions list. We don’t Facebook, so i can’t leave this note there.
pax et bonum,
Br. Joseph-Marie
Society of Saint Francis

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posted April 2, 2010 at 4:45 pm

I would guess that you have already read them, Rod, but I will recommend (and to the readers here as well) two meditative essays by Fr Neuhaus, Death On A Friday Afternoon (concerning the Crucuifixion) and As I Lay Dying (concerning his own encounter with cancer and mortality). Whatever one thinks of his politics, or his defense of certain clergy, Fr Neuhaus did have a true spiritual gift, and we are the poorer that he wasted so much energy on secular polemics.
Meanwhile you and yours remain in my prayers.

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posted April 2, 2010 at 4:58 pm

ear Rod: if you can get *anyone* to change, and reconcile themselves with anyone estranged from them, then thanks be to God. Meanwhile, and I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s parade, but however much anyone feels inspired by this, I can’t accept that it is the will of a good God.
I am the victim of a mother’s early death–she was from a totally religious family; I mean singing hymns in her oxygen tent level of holiness. I am sure, because I’ve been told, that her example was very edifying to her friends and family–but not, of course, to me, since i was only 3 years old. She was gone, and I never had a mother. And it sux.
I have despaired of figuring out how her death could be a good thing–I’m sure it helped many people, for where they were. All I really know is it is “The Loss That Is Forever”. And from my POV, no matter how many people were “helped” by it, it’s not worth it and it doesn’t make sense. And it’s not OK to say “OK, everything makes sense if you posit a God who does stuff that doesn’t make sense.” In the words of C.S. Lewis from Shadowlands “It won’t do. It’s this bloody awful mess, and that’s all there is to it.”
Like the earliest Christians, I don’t do Good Friday–if he isn’t risen from the dead, nothing makes sense. Christos anesti! Alethos anesti!

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posted April 2, 2010 at 5:48 pm

I feel reluctant to comment on your posts about Ruthie because whatever I might say would probably be trivial or cliched. But your post today was truly inspired – I keep Ruthie in my daily prayers and hope so much for her recovery. She is such an exceptional person. I empathize with the suffering and anxiety you and your family are enduring now. God bless you all and give you the strength to persevere. Sometimes it is not just about acceptance – it is also about a willingness to submit.

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posted April 2, 2010 at 9:25 pm

I lost my mother when I was nine, and I do remember the experience. She had a fast-progressing cancer. Diagnosed in February, she was determined to be home for Easter. So we too had a “Cancer Lent.” My mother was still home on Easter, but too sick to go to church (the priest did bring her Communion later) or do anything for Easter dinner. And the next day she went into the hospital never to come home again.
I have a profound memory of the tulips in front of our house when I learned of her death. It was May. A neighbor family was bringing me home from church; my father and older brother were leaving for the hospital having giotten The Call, and another neighbor and good friend, who eventually became my step-mother, was also there to await my return. The tulips were of the broken color sort (which I now know is caused my mosaic virus) If I were artistic I could paint them my memory of them is still so vivid and fresh.
But we are called upon to believe that those we lose in the here-and-now may not truly lost to us, though we feel abandoned in a pit, a place of darkness and depth as tonight’s prokeimenon puts it.

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posted April 3, 2010 at 7:20 pm

metanous, only where there are tombs are there resurrections. Without Good Friday therefore, nothing would make sense.

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posted April 3, 2010 at 9:23 pm

Mary, I am at a total loss to make any sense of what you said. While it is tautologically true that one needs to die before one can be raised from the dead, that doesn’t mean that someone needs to go around taking mothers from their children too untimely early. As for the currently-being-celebrated resurrection, let’s not even take up the dialogue about a God who needs a blood sacrifice in order for his wrath against fairly innocent human beings to be appeased. That would be the kind of god who just might go around taking mothers from their children for their own good, or some other incomprehensible reason.
All I’m saying is that you can’t get around the stark problem of a mother’s early death by pointing out how it was seemingly good for someone else–because from the kid’s POV, it doesn’t work, however much he may believe that there will be a reuniting. That’s not a solution, and not even much in the way of consolation.

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posted April 12, 2010 at 4:36 am

Yes, the story of your little sister trying to get spanked instead of you, that is impressive.
I think it should not have been related to the cancer sequel. The relationship between the two stories is confusing.

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