In the sermon I preached this past Sunday (available here), I mentioned a book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming by Rod Dreher. As I mentioned, the events described in that book – as well as the effects the book has had on those who have read it – provide a beautiful (though at times heartbreaking) illustration of the way that God can bring good out of tragedy.
Many people have already reviewed the book and mentioned some if its great qualities: that it manages to be both sad and uplifting without being overly sentimental, that it tells a story about real life (with all the messiness that implies) and yet manages to inspire hope. I wanted to share one small part of the story that affected me in particular.
The book is about Ruthie Dreher Leming, sister of the author, Rod Dreher, and her struggle with lung cancer. During her chemotherapy treatments, Ruthie met Stephane Lemoine, who was being treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. On the same day that Ruthie discovered that her tumors had continued to grow, Stephanie learned that her tumors had been shrinking – her treatment was working. She knew Ruthie had had bad news, and waited a few days before telling her her own good news. Ruthie’s response: “Thank you so much for telling me. Your news uplifts me so.”
Ruthie’s health continued to deteriorate. And in September of 2011, Ruthie died. Stephanie came to the funeral, and was a little unsure of herself. Here’s how Rod describes it – and this is the part of the book that took me by surprise, at how much it meant to me:
Stephanie Lemoine came up from Baton Rouge hoping to claim a seat in the back. She had arrived early, to have a word with Mike as he stood once again by Ruthie’s coffin. Because her cancer was in remission, Stephanie, with her survivor’s guilt, worried about how she would be received, but as soon as Mike saw her, he broke into a fresh round of tears, looked directly into her eyes, and said the only word he could muster in the moment: “You.”
“Ruthie loved you so much,” Mike said. “She talked about you all the time. You have no way of knowing what a blessing you were to her.”
“I’m so honored to be here with her today, and with you,” Stephanie said. “I want you to know that I got a message from Sister Dulce on the day Ruthie died. Sister said that Ruthie’s body was worn out, but she was finally at peace. She is with Jesus, Mike.”
That got to Mike. He tucked his head briefly. He looked at Stephanie again, and smiled. He told her he had saved a place on one of the front pews, where family was sitting.
“I don’t belong there!” Stephanie protested.
“Come on. You are like family,” Mike said with a finality that made Stephanie believe it was true.”
As many of you know, I had stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2009. I received 6 months of chemotherapy, and since December of 2009, I have been in remission. But since then, I’ve had friends and loved ones who didn’t survive their struggles with cancer. And I’ve always felt a little unsure of how to interact with those who are left behind. I’ve been hesitant to share my own news of clear check-ups, worrying that my good health would somehow accentuate the pain of those who lost loved ones close to them. But I want to let go of that. I want to share my gratitude for my own life, but more importantly, share my love with people who have lost loved ones, without worrying that I’ll be a reminder of what they lost.
I mentioned in an email to Rod how much that particular passage meant to me, and he forwarded my email to Stephanie. She sent me an email about her journey since that funeral, which has included relapses and remissions. She said in that email, “Please know those of us who have cancer truly want others to survive…..it gives us great hope and great joy.” I know this to be true from my own experience: when I was struggling with cancer, cancer was the enemy, and any victory over it was victory for our side. But I was so grateful to hear it directly from her.
And again, I’m grateful for the way that our Lord has brought something good out of something bad. What the enemy means for evil, He turns to good.
(By the way, if you listen to the sermon, the other book references are to the theological works of Emanuel Swedenborg, which at one point I refer to as “the writings for the New Church.” Specific books mentioned are Divine Providence and Arcana Coelestia.)