I got to know Ruth in the very early stages of her journey through Alzheimers’, at a point when she was still the consummate hostess, an active church musician, and a supportive, loyal wife. She was one of the loveliest women I have ever known and she inspired me in ways I remember daily.
Her husband was my organ teacher in college and before I’d ever met Ruth I’d heard her praises sung by the man who adored her like no one else on earth. There was no doubt that she meant the world to him. I was lucky enough to spend time in their home occasionally in my first few years in Minnesota, and then after I graduated and was staying around for awhile, John asked me if I’d stay with her as a companion now and then. So I took her grocery shopping every week, helped her bake Christmas cookies for the last Cantorei party she hosted, walked with her at the St. Olaf gym when it was too cold to be outside, and sat at her kitchen table drinking in – well – drinking in everything, really. On those quiet afternoons we talked about everything, but especially about our sons: hers newly a father, mine about to be born.
What I have foremost in my mind are a few impressions and a few anecdotes, and while no one will ever adequately capture Ruth in words, these little pieces of my memory inspire me daily to be a better person and live a better life.
Today as I drove through the rolling hills of Kentucky at the height of spring’s unfurling I thought of her for the hundredth time since she entered endless spring. For all the deep greens and luxurious days of Minnesota summer, it was spring that Ruth loved best. There was something about the colors of the greens – almost yellows – that was utmost beauty to Ruth and Ferg. Spring will always make me think of her.
I think of her almost every day, actually, and I have for several years. Ruth was good at living life. I aspire to be as stable and predictable as she was. I caught a fever from her: the fever of a daily walk – a once basic human activity that everyone seems too busy for these days. It’s true; to say I walk every day would be a gross exaggeration. To say that it’s one of the first things that comes to mind when I imagine the “good life” is for sure. Every day that I succeed in making a walk a priority for myself or for my kids, I think of Ruth. She wouldn’t miss a day. When it was too cold to be outside she would get a ride to the college gym. In less than half a lap, that petite little lady would outpace my waddly, pregnant self and leave me huffing and puffing. What I remember most is her attitude toward that daily ritual. It was nothing short of affection. She was dedicated to it and it seemed to be a big part of her happy personality, and even as her memory failed her, she would never forget her walk. Someday while we walk I will tell my kids about Ruth and how she lived this way.
I want to tell my kids about her carrots and celery, too, and her ubiquitous side salads at dinner, and how so much of her life flowed beautifully because of how ordinary and constant it was. In the fridge were always two plastic tubs, filled with carrot and celery sticks standing on their ends in just a little water. Whenever the veggies ran low we would cut more and whenever Ruth wanted a snack she had it ready. They were a staple of her lunch, alongside her Swedish rye crisps and her natural crunchy peanut butter. The fact that lunch was always the same seemed to be a pleasure to her, and it stood in sharp contrast to the smorgasbord I’d come to expect as a modern kid on a college campus known for its endless buffet fare.
I was a student when Ruth quit her church job and when she gave up driving. The day came when she couldn’t keep track of what verse of a hymn the congregation was singing. And one day she had a car accident. But unlike so many people in the world, it wasn’t her colleagues or her husband who made these hard decisions for her. She knew when it was time and she accepted it with dignity and humility and always a sense of humor. She couldn’t bear the thought of being a danger to someone else on the road so she announced it was time to turn in her keys.
And then there she was, home all the time except for her daily walks and her occasional outings with friends. She kept her home lovely and she was never too attached to what she was busy with to stop and dote on The MagnifiCat, “Maggie.” Maggie loved to sip water out of the bathtub spout, so Ruth and Maggie were always disappearing up the stairs for another drink.
Perhaps my favorite of all Ruth’s predictable ways was her little speech about chocolate. Every time I was with her she would dip into her stash in the cupboard for a couple chocolate chips. Ruth was diabetic and had to stay away from sugar, especially to keep her Alzheimer’s symptoms managed. But, she would explain to me every day, as fresh and new as the sun each morning, the doctor warned her that it was better to have just a little every once in awhile than to deprive yourself so much that eventually you’d stop resisting and binge one day. I’m pretty sure she thought she was eating chocolate once in a blue moon, but I don’t think she’d have cared if she ever realized the truth.
The truth was, Ruth had an unflappable sense of humor. I have never seen anyone so down to earth about something as personal as Alzheimer’s. She didn’t think twice about explaining, “Oh, you know, I have a disease in my brain so I can’t remember things.” She was never embarrassed about it, either, no matter how many times she’d have to ask me what she was planning to make for dinner.
I loved Ruth’s kindness and humility, her hospitality and generosity and good humor, her loyalty to her husband and his work, her own work, and her son and his family. I loved her home and the place of beauty and peace it was – the artistic outlet it was for her and her husband. The little idiosyncrasies I was privileged enough to be a witness to in the time we spent together will stay with me forever. They were the sorts of mundane things that made Ruth Ruth on a very fundamental level and I find myself aspiring to be like her not only in her daily constitutional and her veggies (and her chocolate), but in her humility and humor. Never did a person grow old and come to the end of her days on earth with such untarnished dignity and grace.