When you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, people generally like to feel helpful. And one of the ways they like to feel helpful, is to connect you with other people who also have cancer. Think of it as cancer blind dating. Sound fun?
A commonly used phrase goes something like this: “You have cancer, she has cancer! You two have so much in common!” Like most blind dates, it rarely amounts to a lifelong connection.
In 2011, I moved across the country to California with my family. One of my customers from the Chalk Farm shop was from the town I was moving to. Her sister still lived in town, and was friends with a gal named Ruthie, who like me, was also going through chemotherapy. She liked decorating, antiquing, flea markets and thrift stores. She had a husband and two young children. I was intrigued.
I can’t remember when I met Ruthie for the first time, but I do remember that when she opened the door to her home, I was surprised by how pretty she was. Tall and slender, with a headful of dark brown waves, she had rosy cheeks and bright eyes. Cancer? Chemotherapy? Come on. If she had cancer, I didn’t see any evidence. But I soon found out something that made me wary of Ruthie: she was a Christian.
I was raised Baptist as a child. It was a strict, and super religious household. Despite the constant onslaught of Sunday school, Sunday morning services, Sunday evening services, youth group, prayer meetings, choir practice, Christian youth camps and even a stint as a teen missionary, I never felt any connection with God. In fact, I would have rather been anywhere else in the world than church, a place that seemed to only dole out judgement against anyone who didn’t believe what its members believed, and equally frowned upon anyone who might have any other point of view. That was the Christianity I knew and I was never interested.
When I first went to Ruthie’s home, I was struck by how warm and inviting it was. Her entire house was filled with vintage treasures. There was an old farm cabinet, A glass cloche with antique baby shoes inside, hand painted porcelain dishes and a lot of little treasures covering sections of her house in carefully placed vignettes. Her home had been featured as the Cottage of the Month on the blog The Old Painted Cottage, and I recognized it immediately. Here’s a peek at some of the gorgeous ways she decorated:
Pretty stunning, right?
Ruthie made me a cup of tea which she served in a vintage tea cup and saucer. As we sat on her big shabby chic sofas, Ruthie eventually started to talk about her love of God…. and I nearly ran out of her house. But then she started to explain WHY she was close to God. Her explanation was so honest, personal and true, I couldn’t help but listen. It made me a bit anxious, but suddenly I was hearing about God in a way that wasn’t judgmental. Ruthie talked about her ovarian cancer diagnosis 3 years ago, and how she knew that her diagnosis was the way God was going to use her gifts in a special way, by spreading the message of God’s love. Ruthie wasn’t on a mission to tell people her beliefs were right and everyone else’s beliefs were wrong. She was on a mission to show people how God had changed her life and how happy she was that this terrible cancer diagnosis was actually a blessing, a gift to bring others to know the Lord. She was like no other Christian I had ever met.
Ruthie was great at crafts. Her motto was “Can’t do cancer without God”, and she made necklaces made from bottle caps with the “Can’t do cancer without God” logo on the inside of the cap. She sold them and donated all of the profits to her ministry. If you had cancer and she found you, Ruthie would give you a necklace along with a beautiful book of bible verses. Ruthie kept necklaces in her car and at home. She even had her message written on her license plate:
She and her Dad made wooden trays, and she crafted fabric hearts with embroidered words: FAITH, HOPE, JOY…She turned her garage into a little shop and would sell her treasures to women in the community who would stop by for a group lunch or a bible study at her home. She donated all of the profits to her ministry, and she loved doing it.
Ruthie liked me and I liked her. I can’t remember a week that went by when she didn’t invite me to a breakfast, a coffee, a lunch, a seminar, or a class. However, the topic of interest usually turned to either cancer or God, two things I really didn’t want to talk about.
She would text me from a restaurant.“Are you coming to meet my friends?”
She’d text me from a bible study.“It starts in 10 minutes. can you make it?”
I made excuses. I didn’t want to talk about cancer, or God for that matter.
Ruthie had an abundance of energy. And she was always bringing new finds into her house, making things, changing things around her home, and working on her ministry. I knew the doctors were always changing her chemotherapy treatments around, but I never thought anything of it. They were always changing my treatments around too, and I was fine. And then, things changed.
The trips to the hospital seemed minor at first. Ruthie went to the hospital with a headache one night. Then she was in the hospital with a stomachache. Then it was a bowel obstruction. The hospital visits started to increase. She brushed them off as no big deal, making funny jokes to me via text, and she blogged about her travails in a way that was so inspirational, you couldn’t help but feel your heart warm while you read every word. But the hospital stays got longer. Her blog posts became less frequent. And then one night, she posted this:
“So the bottom line is that my oncologist felt doing another regimen of chemo would be futile. She said she had nothing left in her arsenal for me.”
I read that over and over. No way. Ruthie’s belief that God would bring her healing was as sure as the sun rose and set. God would never let that happen. She then went on to say that she was going to start yet another kind of chemo. She wasn’t going to go down without a fight, and I knew it would work. I knew Ruthie would be fine.
I didn’t hear from her much by the end of the summer, but I knew she was going through a rough patch. The chemo left her constantly fatigued and sick. I went over to her house one afternoon and she came trotting down the stairs. She had lost all of her hair and she was so thin it was alarming, but her eyes were bright. She was tired but she and her sisters were heading out for a night in the Central Coast of California. She was excited to get away.
I had no doubts about Ruthie’s recovery, but I missed hearing from her that fall. I knew that her family had come to stay with her, to help out with the kids and things that needed doing around the house. Meals from friends were very much appreciated in those months. So one day, I dropped off food at her house, and I saw her sleeping on the couch. It wasn’t the Ruthie I knew. She looked frail and so tiny, like a baby bird. There was a patch of fuzzy hair peeking through the covers. Suddenly I panicked. Could that be me one day? Was it possible that could ever happen? I watched her breathe for a few seconds before I quickly made my exit.
I ran to my car. I felt the tears coming. I drove around the corner, parked, and started to cry. I cried because my friend was sick, but I also cried because I felt so ashamed. Ashamed because I had felt so scared that what was happening to Ruthie would also happen to me. I felt selfish. What kind of a friend was I , and how could I be thinking about myself at a time like this? But fear continued to surge through my entire body like a raging river. My friend had devoted her life to God’s service. It was a badge she wore proudly and it gave her immense joy. If God was going to flip a coin, why on earth would he let me be okay and continue to let Ruthie be so sick? It didn’t make any sense. I was terrified.
Ruthie always talked about God as if he were sitting on the couch next to her. She talked about Jesus like they were pals who went out for coffee together. So maybe I just wasn’t looking hard enough. I decided I needed to make more of an effort.
So I started to look for God.
I looked everywhere. I looked into the trees while I was driving. I looked into the clouds, and I looked at the moon. I scanned evening skies full of stars, stared into the water at the beach and gazed at sunsets. What exactly I thought I was going to see I still don’t know, but I was starting to feel a little desperate. This wasn’t going well.
I decided to make my presence known.
“Okay God. Look, I’ll make a deal with you. If you show me that you’re real, then I’ll know Ruthie is right. And then I’ll believe.”
Game on. That should do it.
I went to Ruthie’s house a few weeks later. There was a sign on the door. It said OXYGEN TANK IN USE- NO MATCHES. It was a scary, ugly hospital sign and it made me shake. I nearly dropped the tray of lasagna I was carrying before the door opened and I was able to pass off dinner for Ruthie’s family and run off down the driveway and climb back into my car. I drove home and parked just short of my house. I took a few deep breaths, until I gathered up enough strength to put on my best poker face and go inside to my waiting family.
The Christmas season had arrived, with all of its twinkling lights and holiday cheer. There were prayer chains for Ruthie and even a candlelight vigil in front of her house one evening. I knew that sometimes miracles could happen, and I guess everyone who showed up that night knew it too.
And then, something happened.
I know it shouldn’t have been a surprise. But it was. And I was numb. I felt such sadness. I felt despair and anxiety that cancer might take my life too, that my children might lose me the way Ruthie’s children had lost their mother. I thought about Ruthie’s husband, and then I thought about mine. It was too much. I wanted to crawl into a hole.
I stopped calling people. I stopped writing. I laid awake at night wondering why I got to survive and Ruthie didn’t. It wasn’t fair.
It took me several months to work through my fears as a result of Ruthie’s passing, and to disassociate our illnesses. I try to remember that my life is my own, my cancer is my own, and that Ruthie’s story is not my story. I think I’m almost there.
I think about Ruthie a lot as I drive around our town. I think of her when I drive past a thrift store she liked, or when I drive past her street. I remember the day she blogged about a bundt cake company in town and I chuckle whenever I pass the bundt cake store. I can see her walking into the antique mall, or speaking at a bible study group she once took me to, or petting her golden retriever in her kitchen. I still read the texts she sent me that I keep on my phone. They were always full of cheer whether or not she was in the hospital or telling me to hurry up and get to a new thrift shop she’d just found.
Yes, Ruthie’s story was her own. And she lived it to the fullest. She used her gifts.
I still look for God every once in awhile. I haven’t seen him yet, but I see Ruthie everywhere. And in a way, maybe that’s the same thing.
To learn more about Ruthie’s journey with cancer and about her ministry visit her blog Ruthie’s Gift.