And, he was right.
For those of you who know me, you are quite familiar with my deep affection for this perspective-changing book. How does one sum up "Ruthie"? Much like there were unseen layers of complexity of the book's title character--whose courage in the face of a fatal diagnosis was both exemplar and perplexing--there are many layers to this little gem of a book. On the surface, it is an older brother's homage to his little sister--who was also a cancer patient. We see two radically different souls--born of the same parents into the same small town. One couldn't ever conceive of leaving. The other couldn't wait to escape. It is this tension that propels Rod into the cosmopolitan world of journalism, leaving his fun-loving, deer-gutting feisty Ruthie-girl at home in Starhill, bewildered and betrayed by his departure. Their love for each other is deep, piercing, and turbulent. In an achingly beautiful way. A stubborn love, one might say.
What kept Ruthie in Starhill, Louisiana, in addition to the love of her life, was her relentless allegiance to home and Place. She lived, worshiped, loved, celebrated, and cared for all who crossed her path--and who entered her kitchen. A junior high-school teacher, she attracted the outcasts, those labeled as "misfits" or beyond reach with her smile and zest for life. Ultimately, when that vivacity was checked by a hopeless prognosis, she set her face toward the positive. She didn't visit WebMD, she didn't Google "lung cancer", and she didn't want to know the latest scan results. She simply wanted to live. And that was a gift she gave to those she loved most--her Mike, her girls, and the rest of her family.
I can honestly say the "I want to know it all" in me might have been all over the Web, poring over medical journals, and re-enacting the Inquisition to find out what I wanted to know. I will confess to getting a wee bit frustrated with her seemingly "purposeful obliviousness" about her disease--as did some in her family. Then, at some point, I realized that it was simply her Way. The Way that she needed to travel. And, I went along.
One of the most beautiful parts of this story are the introductions of Mam and Paw Dreher, Rod and Ruthie's parents. Born and raised in this neck of the woods, they knew every Tom, Dick, and Harry in the area. And their kin. Ruthie and Mike built their "dream house" 100 yards away from Mam and Paw. Their girls grew up just a few paces away from their grandparent's front porch. Yet again, I fell in love with these determined, loyal, and real people.
This is not a beatification of a Southern family in a picturesque Louisiana enclave. No application for sainthood. They struggled. They cried. They swore. They disagreed. And they loved. Deeply. Blindly. And, they buried their only daughter, their "Brown-Eyed Girl".
I fell. Hard. But, wait, there's more to this story.
Fast forward to the summer of 2014. The very same friend who gifted us with this treasure of a book forwarded us some information about an inaugural Walker Percy weekend in St. Francisville, being organized by Rod and some of his associates. I will openly admit that I attempted to read some Walker Percy and let's just say, "it's not you, Walker, it's me". However, to say that I jumped at the chance for a weekend, with my Philosopher, in Ruthie's old stomping grounds, is quite the understatement. For me, it was the Ruthie Leming Weekend. That's our little secret.
I packed up my copy of "The Little Way" with a fond hope of getting Rod to sign it, praying for the chance to tell him how much it meant to me. How it had nurtured my desire to put down roots and make this town my Place. To travel my own Little Way--with my Philosopher and our boys, of course. We made reservations at the Shadetree Inn Bed and Breakfast, as recommended by Rod and made our way South. And West.
|Shadetree Inn Bed and Breakfast|
The first night of the event, at a Crawfish Boil, we approached Rod. I, uncharacteristically nervous and shy. I had left my book at our little cabin. Big bag of duh. He was gracious and sincere, thanking us for traveling from the Volunteer State to make this weekend possible. Then, he asked if we would like to meet Mam and Paw. Yes, that is what he said. I nearly fell out of my sandals. As we nodded, astounded at his offer, we made plans to connect at the next morning's lecture. And, you can be dad-gum sure that I would have the book with me.
The next morning, Rod made exceptionally good on his offer. Like "knock me over with a feather" good. He invited us to join the family, at his house, for lunch. His sweet wife, Julie (a fellow homeschooling mama--yeah, she rocks!), was making up gobs of gumbo and there was plenty to go around. We reiterated that we didn't want to impose upon their hospitality or tax the energies of the elder Drehers. Rod insisted that they would love it and it would encourage their souls to know the impact of Ruthie. Oh. My. Heart.
As we approached their home in historic St. Francisville, I immediately recognized the front porch. And, the weather-beaten rocker. It was the scene on the front cover of the book. Rod welcomed us, like old friends, and introduced us around to his wife, children, and several other folks he had invited. Then, he brought us into the sitting room where Mam and Paw were happily ensconced. Immediately, Mam jumped up from her chair, gave me a big 'ole hug, and made us all feel at ease. She asked about us, our family, and made us laugh. She told stories of Ruthie, Rod, and the grandchildren.
"There was something particular about Mam and Paw that made our house a center of the community. They didn't have a lot of money, but there was always room for more at our table."~ Ruthie, p. 15
Paw was especially proud of Hannah, Ruthie and Mike's eldest daughter, who was then backpacking through Europe. He told me I should look up her blog! He relaxed in his easy chair, reclined back. You could tell he had once been an invincible man of the land. Ruthie's journey had taken its toll on him. His eyes were bright--but you could see his broken heart in them. He spoke sweetly, gently, of his girl. He said that he had read the book--Mam hadn't made her way through as yet. What struck me is that some of the stories she told of Ruthie--her fishing excursion after her diagnosis, "the halo picture" (those of you have read the book know precisely of what I speak), Rod had shared in "The Little Way". I listened, often laughing through teary-eyes. Mam, my friends, is a vibrant woman, full of fun and mischief. My kind of woman.
We shared bowls of gumbo, styrofoam cups of hospitality, and a heap of gratitude. We found the chance to tell them just how much this book had meant to us, to the cadre of friends with whom we had shared it (some of whom received it as a graduation gift!), and the impact of Ruthie's life, her Way, had made on folks she never met. I could barely get the words out--and my dearest Philosopher paused, gathering himself, as he expressed his appreciation. As Rod helped his daddy out to the front porch (for his "smokes"), Mam said quietly, "Ray isn't meant for this world much longer. A part of him died with Ruthie. I just pray that the Lord takes him quickly."
We decided to take our leave, thanking our gracious hosts along the way. Rod hugged us and thanked us for spending time with his folks. Absolutely no thanks were necessary. My goodness. I was full--of nourishment undefinable. I asked Mam if we could take a picture on the rocking chair. And, she said, "Of course, Honey." She sat, I knelt down beside her, both of us smiling--and "glistening" in the heat of the day. We hugged, I planted a little smooch on Paw's rugged cheek, squeezed his hand, and thanked him quietly. So much like my Pop-Pop, ever the gentleman, he thanked us again for coming. And waved from his spot on the porch.
Oh my heart.
Just a few days ago, on August 25, Raymond "Paw" Dreher went home to be with Ruthie. In his own home, he was surrounded by his family, with strains of "I'll Fly Away" on his cousin's guitar, and his hand held by the other love of his life. That's the way to go, I do believe.
I am ever so grateful for those few precious hours we spent with them on a sizzling June day in St. Francisville, Louisiana. Mike Leming, the man who stole Ruthie's heart when she was barely 15, said that "Mam and Paw never meet a stranger. Once they get to know you, you become family right off...whatever's theirs is yours."
Whatever's theirs is yours.
|Theirs. Yours. And now, Ours.|