Today I celebrate the most remarkable woman I have had the privilege of knowing. We lost her far too soon. It's especially hard for me to believe that it's been 15 years since her passing. Nevertheless, I think of her so often. Furthermore, I apply the things she taught me nearly every day.
It's impossible to summarize all that Ruth Schmidt was... She was married to Don, mother to Scott and Stacy, and a remarkable Marriage & Family Therapist. She was instrumental in founding the Counseling Center at Westmont College - if you're ever there, there is a lovely sitting area dedicated to her out in front.
I first met Ruth when I was working for Young Life, in the mid-eighties, and she and Don were faithful donors. Somewhat soon thereafter though I realized it would be valuable for us to meet for counseling. After a few months, our relationship mutated from counselor/client to mentor/mentee. I learned a great deal from her about boundaries, how to express expectations, and how to not work (quite) so compulsively...
But perhaps more importantly, we took trips to their beloved cabin at Mt. Hermon. We shared a love for kitties. She calmed my heart when I had to make large "asks" in my fundraising. From Ruth I learned how to put on a classy event; how to buy just the right present; how to cook... but most crucial of all, I learned volumes from her as to how to face death with incredible courage.
In 1992, right when she and Don were starting to enjoy the fruits of retirement, she started experiencing some strange symptoms. At first it appeared she had had a stroke, but the ongoing heaviness in her legs and changes in her speech finally led to the painful diagnosis in Spring 1993 that she had ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease). This hit me like a guillotine. I had grown so incredibly fond of Ruth and could not imagine life without her. Furthermore, to imagine the profound suffering she would be facing seemed unfathomable. (In my immaturity I wish I had thought more about how this affected her!)
Somehow I mustered the courage to ask if I could be a part of her journey into that "long good night." Always the giver, so generous, she said yes, though I imagine she would have wished for more privacy. Four to five of us would rotate coming over one afternoon a week to assist Don with some of Ruth's care. For close to three years this was part of my weekly schedule. It was always a delight to be with her, but it was (sadly) never easy for me. I had so much to learn in terms of what it means to be with those whose end is coming a little sooner than expected.
Perhaps most jarring for me is to look back now and see that this deeply painful passage with Ruth would prepare me for the later loss of my friends Matt Steele (Oct 1, 2006) and Claire Carey (Aug 14, 2010). My goodness, life is so hard. But I can say I am changed by knowing such remarkable, lovely, outstanding friends.
In reflecting on how I spent those last few months with Ruth, I mostly have regrets. I wish I had held her hand more. I wish I would have sat and visited with her, and not just busied myself nervously with some of the tasks that appeared necessary. I wish I had told her everything I felt, and how much I loved her. I would have listed everything she taught me, and what things I would do in the future because of her impact on my life.
The incredible part about Ruth was that I think she already knew those things...
Ruth's parting gift to me was a fantastically generous gift that allowed me to make a down-payment on my house. Given what I had been making in my work in youth ministry, I never dreamed that would be possible. Because I always lived in tiny, dingy apartments, Ruth had hosted so many events for me over the years in her amazing home on the Riviera -- Young Life fundraisers, dinners, Bible studies, parties for leaders... Near the end, she told me she wanted me to be able to keep doing that in my own home. What a woman.
Perhaps most wondrous of all (and creative of God) is that about 4 years after Ruth's death, another Ruth, my friend and housemate, moved in. Like me, her own ministry prevented her from being able to afford a home, but because of Ruth's Schmidt's generosity, she has been able to live here comfortably and affordably.
I end my memories with this -- Ruth shared these lovely words with us a few months after she announced her diagnosis. Once again, she sought to minister to those around her, even in her own dark time:
Be at peace.Do not look forward in fear to the changes of life;Rather look to them with full hope that as they arise,God, whose very own you are, will lead you safelythrough all things;And when you cannot stand it, God will carry youin His arms.Do not fear what may happen tomorrow;The same everlasting Father who cares for you todaywill take care of you today and every day.He will either shield you from suffering or will give youunfailing strength to bear it.Be at peace and put aside all anxious thoughts andimaginations. (St. Francis de Sales)
Thank you, Ruth Schmidt. I am forever changed.