It was during her first few months back in the USA that Ruth met my dad, Keith. He was a local guy. He’d also served overseas and returned home to restart his life. Keith had just landed a job with Bendix as a computer programmer. Within a year, they were married and trying to start a family.
They lost two babies before my brother and I came along. When we arrived she quit nursing and became a stay-at-home mom. She didn’t feel she could do right by her children or her work by trying to continue with both, and she had no doubt which job was the more important for her.
Ruth was the kind of mom who baked cupcakes, had weekly craft gatherings around the kitchen table, and left the back door open and fridge stocked for the neighborhood kids. She was a school room mother every year. She was a girl scout leader and 4H mentor. We brought home birds, lizards, and snakes. She never complained. We raised dogs, mice, hamsters, a talking crow, blue jays and a cardinal over the years. She welcomed them all. Ruth demanded a lot but was also intensely proud of us. She attended every event because she could; and because no one was there to attend her events growing up and she didn’t want us to feel the sting of looking out over the audience and not seeing her face.
In our small town of Nicholson, she became the “go to” person for all health matters. There were two doctors in town but when in doubt people called Ruth. She’d go where she was needed, any time of night or day. She never accepted a penny for her services. Over the years, she gave shots, changed dressings, inserted trach tubes, changed colostomy bags, and held the hands of the dying. When the doctors in town had a patient who needed continuing care, their final advice was to “call Ruth” if you needed anything. And they did. For nearly fifty years they called and she always went.
In her later years when my own family was living and working in overseas, Ruth decided she was going to come visit. My dad was afraid to fly so she came on her own. She visited us in Moscow, China and Warsaw. She hiked, ate local food, took photos and kept a journal of her adventures. Most of all she spent time with her grandchildren pouring a year’s worth of love into each short visit.
In 2003, she was diagnosed with an aggressive Stage 3 breast cancer. It was a devastating blow but she wasn’t out for the count yet. She knew most of the doctors in the city from years of shuttling neighbors to treatments when they were unable to drive. Ruth handpicked her oncologist, a man who had degrees not only in Oncology but also in Pharmacology. She knew what she was doing. For ten years he managed to keep her going. She became the last surviving Stage 3 patient from the year in which she was diagnosed and outlived the Stage 3 patients from the following year as well.
The cancer was a roller coaster ride. Just as one crisis would end, another would begin but Ruth refused to give up. She refused to give in. Eventually, the chemo affected her brain function. It was as if the files were all in there but she just couldn’t access them anymore. When my dad passed away after a long agonizing stay in the ICU, things became even more confused for her and it was obvious Ruth could no longer live on her own.
The first few months in assisted living she was full of fight. She hated being dependent. She hated losing her independence. Ruth felt she could still take care of herself and she did continue to do much of her own self-care and housekeeping. She also continued to be a nurse. When another woman on her floor fell, the staff nurses arrived on the scene to find my mother doing triage, assessing the woman’s injuries. They let her finish the job. She did it by the book and didn;t miss a thing.
Soon, though, Ruth went downhill. The cruelest loss of all was her brain’s inability to connect to her speech. Ruth was a communicator and listener her entire life and had been robbed of the ability to speak. She knew what she wanted to say but could no longer get the words to come out. Her life became one big frustration because she was aware of what was happening. Her inability to speak also limited her ability to make friends in her new home. This outgoing, nurturing woman spent her last months in silence and isolation.
Towards the very end, even her best friend, Louise, and I had difficulty making out what she was trying to say. She’d get frustrated and angry sometimes. Worse was when she would withdraw and become quiet; giving up on connecting with the people that loved her.
This is where she had come to when I first saw the purple crayon. All of the stories, the accomplishments, the spirit of this wonderful woman and this is what cancer had done to her. I hated that crayon and coloring book. It symbolized all that had been taken away from my mother.
Later, when I had a chance to think about it, I changed my mind. I realized the purple crayon gave Ruth a valuable gift. For those few minutes in the Activity Room each day when Ruth was focused on coloring between the lines, she didn’t have to be frustrated or lonely or scared. For that tiny window of her day, she could put it all aside and just think about making a pretty picture. It was her escape from what her life had become. Instead of grieving the loss of the mother I knew, I learned to be grateful for the comfort, the peace she derived from a simple coloring book and a purple crayon.