The Little Way of Ruthie Leming

Rod Dreher | Posted on 03/01/10

Except for her four years away at college, Ruthie has lived all her life in this place. She is not suffering anonymously.

My sister, Ruthie, is living with metastatic lung cancer. In January, doctors trying to figure out why she was having breathing difficulties saw no sign of cancer in her diagnostic tests. Five weeks later, a biopsy found a cancerous mass in her lungs, and further testing indicated that it had spread to her brain, bones, and adrenal gland. Turns out that when this rare form of lung cancer turns up in people like my sister, who have never smoked, by the time it's detectable it's already in Stage Four. Exceptionally cruel, this stuff.

She has only a slim chance of surviving this, but miracles do happen, and that's what we're praying for. Just because you don't get the miracle you want doesn't mean you don't get a miracle all the same. What I saw in the cancer ward that awful week in February was not a miracle in a supernatural sense, but it was a revelation of the extraordinary fruits that can grow from seeds of ordinary virtues, faithfully tended.

My shattered mother telephoned me in Philadelphia with the diagnosis, and I caught a plane to Baton Rouge that afternoon. As I drove to my sister's hospital bed that night, I thought about the revelers in the streets of New Orleans, just down the road, drinking the final dregs from the Carnival cup. For Ruthie and her family, though, Lent had already begun.

Ruthie is forty years old, a schoolteacher, the wife of a firefighter and mother of three young girls. She is also my little sister, the dutiful one of my parents' two children. The one who stayed home while her brother ran off to join the circus (so to speak), and to make his way in the wider world.  Though I read bigger books than she did, Ruthie got better grades than I, because she worked harder at it, and felt a deep sense of responsibility that I did not. I became the flashy city mouse; she remained the plainspoken country mouse. The differences between us, though minor, were real.

It's not that I'm a prodigal, exactly. I've always been close to my family, and have never given them reason to think me a failure. The point is, Ruthie chose to remain in our small south Louisiana hometown, and to weave our mom and dad's lives into the life of her own family. Because I did not, I have not seen her on a daily basis since I left home for school twenty-seven years ago.  So I missed seeing the sort of woman she became. And, with my peripatetic career (I've lived in six different cities since graduating college twenty years ago), I've missed knowing what it means to cultivate roots in a place.

The first thing I discovered upon returning was my sister, not as I thought of her, but as she truly is, and has been. We've always kept in touch with each other by phone, and I've made it back to visit three or four times each year since I left, but what can you really tell about somebody from such limited exposure? Less than I imagined, it turns out.

I've always thought of Ruthie as faithful, good-natured, even-keeled, and patient to a fault - everyday virtues, stronger in her than most, perhaps, but nothing spectacular. Ruthie never has been fussy or given to drawing attention to herself. But that week, I saw her manifest steadfastness, serenity, and selflessness to a degree I can only call heroic.

Having been told that she has a kind of lung cancer from which few recover, Ruthie wept, but mostly over her husband, Mike, and her children. Once, when we were alone in her hospital room, she lay there worn and drawn, an ugly black scar at the base of her neck where surgeons had gone in for the biopsy, her voice as pale and meek as a paperwhite. She said that the thing she feared most was that her children would be angry at God. "We can't have anger," Ruthie said to me. "Make sure nobody is angry at the doctors, either. They couldn't have caught this any earlier." She said that come what may, she wanted to be at peace with everyone, and everyone to be at peace with each other.

Ruthie is a middle school teacher in our hometown, St. Francisville, a rural village on the Mississippi River just north of Baton Rouge. The public school is the main institution in the parish (county), and is at the center of community life. When word got out that Ruthie was in crisis, a long line of visitors made their way to the hospital. I grew irritated at one point with the way a particular visitor behaved, showing no awareness of how sick my sister was, and how exhausted. Ruthie, the soul of politeness, wouldn't refuse anybody, or let us intercept visitors at the door.

Later, when I brought up this particularly obnoxious fellow, she admonished me to be understanding, recounting to me the great suffering the man had endured over the course of his life. He behaves that way, she said, because he's in pain, and if it helps him deal with his pain to carry on like that over me, then fine, I can deal with it.

Local folks who came to see Ruthie would tell our family about things she had done for them that won their hearts. People began posting comments on my blog about ordinary kindnesses that, in retrospect, meant so much. A colleague of Ruthie's remembered the time they were running in a race, and she fell; Ruthie stopped, picked her up, and hung back with her until the finish. Several recalled mercies she'd bestowed upon their difficult children as their teacher, out of her boundless patience. Ruthie's class this school year has a reputation for bad behavior, and her teacher friends had asked her once how she could put up with the little terrors. She said to them, "Because I love them, and they might change."

By week's end, I could see that the fearlessness, the tranquility, and the big-heartedness with which my sister accepted her grim cancer diagnosis didn't come from nowhere. She could be so marvelously brave in the face of her own mortality because she had lived her life by virtue. Virtue can be such a prissy word (ironic, that, given its roots in the Latin word for "manliness"), and Ruthie would no doubt roll her eyes at its being applied to her. But the quiet, modest life she's lived at home illustrates Aristotle's idea that virtue is a habit of the heart. That is, by "doing the right thing," as she would put it, day in and day out, by persevering in charity and patience, and by rejecting anger, over time Ruthie became a woman of deep virtue, the greatness of which became fully apparent only in this crisis, not only in the measured fortitude with which she's accepted this severe blow, but also in the way her friends and neighbors have responded.

That, by the way, has taught me something about the virtue of living in a real community. The outpouring - an eruption, really - of goodness and charity from the people of our town toward Ruthie and her family has been quite simply stunning. Folks tend to respond kindly when others get their ox in a ditch, as they say back home. But in Ruthie's case, what's happened here, and is happening every day, is a revelation. The acts of aid and comfort have been ceaseless, often reducing our parents to tears of shock and awe that the love of others could be so intense. Even two of Ruthie's oncologists wept over her, one confiding to a colleague that he'd "fallen in love with that little family, and I'm going to give them my very best." As a teacher told me, "Ruthie's earned this. She's drawing this out of people because of the way she's lived her life, and the way she's always treated others."

Key word: always. Ruthie has history there. Except for her four years away at college, Ruthie has lived all her life in this place. People know who she is, and always have. This is partly what prompts these astonishing acts of love for her and her family. She is not suffering anonymously. Dr. Tim Lindsey, her young family doctor, told me in the hospital parking garage that he can't imagine practicing medicine anywhere but a small town, because it's only there that he can understand the total environment in which his patient experiences illness. He knows their families, how they live, what's important to them. And he feels at liberty to speak to his patients about their spiritual struggles through their sickness, because people in our town welcome it. The healing process, both inside the physician's office and within the broader community, takes place in a context of familiarity that cannot be conjured at a whim. You have to have lived it - and in time of crisis, you cannot expect to receive the rich succor of the community if you haven't been there, year in and year out, to share the suffering of its people, instead of moving around the country for the sake of career.

So noted.

Back in Philadelphia, I phoned Ruthie one night to check on her. We spoke at length, despite her labored breathing, of the marvelous things that have come about because of her pain. So moved was I by her example that I reached out to people from whom I'd been estranged to ask their forgiveness; exchanging mutual forgiveness, a cousin and I healed a ten-year rift. Many others who know Ruthie report doing the same thing. A young hospital nurse who treated her for only a single shift wrote on the Internet that seeing Ruthie, alone of all her patients, respond to bad news without losing her smile restored her faith in the goodness of God, and made her decide not to live with bitterness. Lives are being changed. Ruthie told me that she believes that in some mysterious way, God is using her suffering for the greater good.

"I know I'm standing right in the middle of God's will, where He wants me to be," she said. With Ruthie, who has always worn her piety lightly, it's not a sentimental cliché. It really is as simple as that with my sister.

I've thought in the days since I returned home about the meaning of virtue. Look on my bookshelf and you'll find volumes of moral philosophy and works of theological speculation. I've spent much of my life thinking about God, and what it means to be good. I know a lot about this stuff, but Ruthie has actually lived it, without fanfare or deliberation, doubt or agony. She has never, at least not to my knowledge, done anything dramatically good or ostentatiously noble. Rather, she has humbly practiced everyday virtue over the course of her lifetime, showing us that heroic virtue is not just for the conventionally heroic (like, say, her husband, Mike, a firefighter and decorated Iraq war veteran). Without quite meaning to, as she faces the possibility of her own death, my sister is showing us all what it means to live well.

"What matters in life are not great deeds, but great love," said St. Therese of Lisieux, the French Carmelite called to suffer unto death early in her life. Therese wrote that great deeds were forbidden her, so all that was left to her were modest acts of love she called "scattering flowers." After her death and canonization, Therese's simple method of sanctification became known as the "Little Way." It, like love, never fails. I'm seeing it for myself. An entire town is. Many of us who have strayed from the right path are returning in light of this revelation in the darkness of disease. And in its way, that is a miracle.

Rod Dreher is the John Templeton Foundation's director of publications. E-mail:


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