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.”