In 2011, after a nineteen-month long struggle against cancer, Ruthie Leming died. I was a sophomore in high school, and had no idea that this woman, a woman who I had never met, would teach me how to die beautifully. But perhaps more importantly, Ruthie taught me how to live beautifully.
Do you know when you encounter a person and think to yourself, "Oh, I need to live life more like they do"? That's was my experience when I met Ruthie in the book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, A Small Town, and the Secrets of a Good Life by Rod Dreher, Ruthie's big brother. I knew Rod best for his work with The Benedict Option, and happened upon his work about Ruthie by happenstance on day at the library. In his book on Ruthie, I encountered a woman who loved magnanimously. "Ruthie had love, and she brought it out and passed it on to everyone who knew her," he wrote.
On Feb. 22, 2010, Ruthie, who was just 40 years old, she was diagnosed with a virulent form of lung cancer. It didn't make sense - she was young, she'd never smoked, and there was no history of lung cancer in her family. When Ruthie broke the news to her three young daughters, she said, "Girls, we are not going to be angry at God." Despite a bleak diagnosis, Ruthie did not allow rage and doubt to creep into her home or the hearts of her children and husband.
Ruthie passed away at the young age of 42. After Ruthie's funeral, her neighbors, friends and family gathered at her house to reminiscence over the adventure that was Ruthie's life. The memories and stories they shared as they sat in the living room and on the front porch, were full of instances of where Ruthie made them feel loved. "No matter who you were, Ruthie made you feel like you were it. You were her family, you were always comfortable - 'Come in, sit down, let me fix you something to eat,'" Ruthie's friend Abby remembered. "Everybody was welcome in her house. You knew you were at home there, and everything was good."
When I read of Ruthie's death, I sobbed. Not only because I had encountered the story of Ruthie Leming and loved her beautiful spirit, but also because my heart was broken open by the reality of love, surrender, sacrifice, and family - and the undeniable way that Ruthie's story resonated truth into my own life.
“Contemporary culture encourages us to make islands of ourselves for the sake of self-fulfillment, of career advancement, of entertainment, of diversion, and all the demands of the sovereign self," Dreher wrote. "When suffering and death come for you - and it will - you want to be in a place where you know, and are known."
In stark juxtaposition to today's world, Ruthie's story is a reminder that death is inescapable. But the culture we live in today regularly avoids or brazenly denies the certainty of death.
Ruthie Leming's beautiful life and death is an unmitigated, captivating wake-up call for us today. As the fingers of readers brush over the pages and words in Rod Dreher's book, they are in fact tracing over what it means to be a human. The story of Ruthie Leming is worth an authentic encounter - her story bursts with life because she recognizes the actuality of death.
Today we have forgotten how to prepare for a good death, how to mourn the loss of a loved one, how to remember those who have gone before us - and in the process of forgetting or ignoring the reality of death in our lives, we've forgotten how to live this life to the full.
We should all die as well as Ruthie Leming passed from this world. But we should also live as well as Ruthie Leming - a life full the brim with love. I never had the pleasure of meeting Ruthie Leming. But I can tell you that when I reach Heaven at the end of this world, I'm going to run up to her and thank her for teaching me how to live with audacious love.