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Death from cancer creates more problems than people realize, as Ruthie's case makes abundantly clear.
Helping Ruthie Die

I WOULDN’T HAVE had to help Ruthie die if Oscar hadn’t wrecked the Merry Monza, although that crash—for the time being, at least—had nothing to do with Ruthie at all.

Eleanor had named her car the Merry Monza because of the way it zipped along. We bought it when she was pregnant with Oscar because her belly got in the way of my Nova’s stick shift. Oscar had just gotten his driver’s license—sixteen years later—when he wrecked it, running it into the ass-end of a pickup. He’d turned his head to watch a group of undergraduates jogging by, then—wham! His friend Alex, riding shotgun, had pointed the girls out, so the crash, I suppose, was his fault too. They were on their way to our house from his, on a mission having to do with a high school dance. It was a straight jaunt of less than a mile, so Alex hadn’t buckled his seatbelt. By the time Oscar saw the pickup, his nose was already into the steering wheel, Alex’s knee was in the glove box, and the airbags had deflated. The other driver was uninjured.

The jolt gave each boy a whiplash, and so the EMTs strapped them to wooden boards and immobilized their necks. The crowd that gathered included a university colleague—a volunteer auxiliary—who videotaped the procedure for training purposes. A photographer from The Town & Gown arrived as well, and the boys made the front page two days later.

Ruthie was also a university colleague, and I wouldn’t have had to help her die if Alex’s father, yet another colleague, hadn’t been in the Rotary. We got acquainted in the ER as we awaited the results of our sons’ x-rays. The boys lay in adjoining beds, more concerned about the upcoming dance than their x-rays. Alex’s knee suffered more damage than Oscar’s nose, so a week later, when his father called to ask if I’d like to join the Rotary, I felt obliged to accept. He taught in the law school, and I suppose I feared he might sue us. The Merry Monza, seventeen years old, was a total loss. As Ruthie herself would be, when stricken with cancer.

But that didn’t happen until I’d been in the Rotary for several years, retiring from both the university and the Rotary after Ruthie died. During my stint in the Rotary, during which I did a term as president, Ruthie’s husband Ted—another Rotarian and university colleague—would die from a stomach ailment, setting the stage for me to help Ruthie meet her own end.

Ruthie and Ted were in the Art Department. They had no children, having devoted their lives to their art. They considered their students, who loved them, as offspring. Ted was a talented watercolorist and Ruthie painted portraits, although her main work was in abstract expressionism. Writhing galactic magma said a review of her work, in an attempt to describe her entry in a juried exhibit where she took Best of Show. Ted was proud of her. He’d recently been admitted to the National Academy of Watercolorists, making Ruthie as proud of him as he was of her.

Ruthie’s parents had been flowerchildren in the sixties, and their lingo had survived in their daughter. “Far out!” and “Groovy!” were her favorite exclamations, expressions she alone could get away with, like the writhing galactic magma of her paintings. Ted wore bellbottoms and broad lapels when they wed, Ruthie a granny dress, and the ceremony took place under an apple tree.

When Ted died, the Rotary planted an apple tree in his memory outside the Art Department—his best watercolors featured apple trees in bloom—but I suppose, as Rotary President at the time, I should have consulted the Physical Plant. The university prided itself on the different trees that adorned the campus, each labeled with a plaque stating its name and taxonomy. The Biology Department had instituted this practice, helping local high school students like Oscar and Alex with a biology assignment their sophomore year, as they ran from tree to tree like kids on Halloween.

But I’d consulted neither the Physical Plant nor the Biology Department, sparking a letter from the university president. In response, I argued that Art Department alumni had paid for the tree and accompanying plaque. For the record, both the genus and species of the apple tree are Malus, its class is magnoliopsida, and its order is rosales, making one wag in the rotary fear that the skinny tree we planted—until it bore fruit—might be mistaken for a malicious lopsided rosebush.

Not long after Ted died, Ruthie contracted cancer, as if her grief had brought on the disease. Ruthie had a number of female friends in the university community—faculty members, staff members, and local soccer moms whose portraits she painted and to whom she gave private art lessons, although none of them could paint very well. “Far out!” I could imagine Ruthie saying in response to their efforts. “Groovy!” But that wasn’t the point. The point was that she had cultivated a coterie of feminists who felt empowered by her, who consulted her on everything from yoga to gluten free recipes. Several women among them had survived breast cancer, and I could imagine their sadness when they learned that Ruthie herself was riddled with a particularly metastatic variety. Which Ruthie acknowledged with stoic fortitude.

The disease progressed. Then, as Rotary president, I received a phone call from one of Ruthie’s friends. They’d been taking turns driving Ruthie to a hospital in the state capital, since the local hospital (to which Oscar and Alex had been whizzed) lacked the necessary equipment, not to mention the expertise. It was a two-hour drive, weekly, for chemotherapy, then radiation. But Ruthie’s doctors—there’d been only one at first—had shifted her appointments to Wednesdays, which didn’t fit the university or domestic schedules of Ruthie’s acolytes. Could the Rotary help? After all, Ted had been a long-time member, a former president, in fact.

“Of course,” I said, knowing I happened to be the only Rotary faculty member who didn’t teach on Wednesdays, while those members not employed by the university were engaged in their banking, law offices, or local businesses. So off I went, with Ruthie riding shotgun, the only woman to occupy that spot in my ancient Nova since Eleanor had done so, pregnant with Oscar, in those days before the Merry Monza.

My first trip went well, considering. Fortunately, Ruthie was talkative. I had no idea what to say to a woman I hardly knew who was dying of cancer. So I asked if she were painting. “Of course!” she snapped. No question about it. Painting was her life. Why stop now?

So I asked about abstract expressionism. I mean, shouldn’t a painting have to look like something? (I was in the Math Department.) Ruthie guffawed. Art was all about form and color, right? She explained that abstract expressionism had originated in New York several decades earlier. It was aimed at subjective emotion, while emphasizeing the spontaneous act of creation. Hadn’t I heard of Jackson Pollock? (I had.) Willem de Kooning? (Only Willem Dafoe.) Then Ruthie fell silent, as if pondering her writhing galactic magma. But couldn’t her writhing galactic magma, I wondered—applying what she’d just said about abstract impressionism—have been a subconscious expression of the cancer she’d been silently harboring? But I hesitated to ask.

We arrived at the hospital in precisely two hours, and Ruthie registered at the desk in the lobby, handing me the voucher that assured free parking. “This is helpful,” she said. “Sometimes the doctors are late or get called away.”

There were no such problems. Ruthie’s two-hour treatment was on time. But when I returned home two hours later—after a six-hour round trip—Eleanor said that the hospital had just called. An attendant had found my wallet in the men’s room, where it must have slipped from my rear pocket in the stall. So off I went again, and four hours later I was back, making my day with Ruthie a ten-hour marathon excursion.

But it could have been worse. Losing my wallet is my worst nightmare, and some Good Samaritan had restored my faith in humanity. Meanwhile, I had no idea what role faith might play in Ruthie’s mind, although a few of her friends had formed a prayer group.

My second trip, a week later, proved routine as well—until Ruthie asked for a favor as we headed home. Could we stop at that groovy supermarket that had just opened a few blocks from the hospital? She wanted to pick up a couple of things. “Sure,” I said. Only, if she didn’t mind, I’d sit in the car and grade some math quizzes. I hadn’t been able to concentrate on them during Ruthie’s treatment. The cancer patients in the waiting room, in all sorts of advanced decay, had distressed me to the point of distraction.

“Far out!” Ruthie said, and when I pulled into the parking lot of the new upscale supermarket—H&O Foods (Healthy and Organic)—Ruthie sprung from the Nova. She was a slip of a woman, as slim as the paintbrushes she wielded at her easel, and obviously rejuvenated by the chemicals that had dripped into her body during her treatment. It was another hour before she returned, struggling with a shopping cart filled like Santa’s, followed by a teenaged bagger pushing a second cart.

Opening the trunk of the Nova, I helped the bagger unload the baskets—canned goods, boxed goods, frozen goods, recipe books, a huge turkey and ham (with no holiday in sight), several bottles of wine, four liters of Diet Coke, and a six-pack of Heineken. Distracted once again, I said nothing as we left the parking lot, realizing that I would have to unpack all that stuff at Ruthie’s house. For the moment, however, I was more worried about getting caught in the rush hour traffic. So I was driving a bit faster than I should have, unaware that we were in a school zone, though the students from the local elementary school, as I argued with the police officer, had been let out half an hour ago.

“Doesn’t matter,” he said. He’d sped by me, lights flashing, while pointing at the curb. Ruthie offered to pay the fine—$120—although I didn’t show her the ticket. “No, way,” I told her. “I’m the driver, and the driver’s responsible.”

What disturbed me more than that fine was what I discovered after I’d pulled into the driveway at Ruthie’s ranch house on the outskirts of campus. The garage was jam-packed—she’d got out and raised the door by pushing a code into the electrical device on the frame. Somewhere amidst all the stacked boxes, hanging canvases, bicycles, rakes, lawnmowers, shovels, and piles of art magazines were two huge freezers, each already filled with steaks, turkeys, and hams. There was a car in that garage too, beneath all of the stuff, although I didn’t notice it until Ruthie led me through a maze of wooden crates to a door that opened into the kitchen.

“Thanks,” she said. “Please shut the garage door on the way out. The code is 1986. The year Ted and I married.”

* * *

“Turn here! Turn here!” Ruthie said suddenly during my third week as her chauffeur. We were on the way home, just about to get on the state highway, when she suddenly got hungry and wanted to stop for something to eat. “Mickey D’s is fine,” she said. She’d glimpsed the golden arches just short of the highway ramp, and so I swerved across two lanes of traffic into the parking lot. “Will the Drive-Up do?” I said, but Ruthie had unbuckled her seatbelt and was ready to get out.

“Want anything?” she said. No, I didn’t want anything, because I realized that her surprise request would put us into the teeth of the rush hour traffic—one of her doctors had been late—and I’d suddenly lost my appetite. Which returned, of course, on the subsequent drive home as Ruthie indulged in French fries, a chocolate shake, and Big Mac.

I hate McDonald’s, but we stop there occasionally on long road trips because Eleanor loves their French fries—only when they’re hot, as they were now as Ruthie stuffed them into her mouth, after squirting a packet of ketchup across the dashboard. I’d always equated a McDonald’s “value meal” with the subsequent burp that it always produces, tasting of cardboard and chocolate-flavored plastic air. Now I equate it with ketchup on the dashboard of my Nova.

The following week, after her treatment was finished, Ruthie informed me that she needed a port inserted into her chest. They would do it next time. The skin of her arms—parchment thin—had become too brittle, her veins too battered—for further treatment by needles. And so the subsequent Wednesday she greeted me in the waiting room an hour later than usual. This groovy little port device, she explained, consisted of a short tube open to the air, which allowed her to get “juiced” (a new word in her medical vocabulary) without the pain of a nurse probing her arm with a needle. I agreed. The port was “far out.” Ruthie looked as if a book had been taped to her chest beneath her blouse.

And speaking of books—“Could we stop at Barnes & Noble on the way home?” Ruthie’s bruised arms made it difficult to hold a paintbrush, so she thought she’d catch up on her reading. I’d brought no quizzes to grade—a hopeless enterprise, under the circumstances—so I followed Ruthie into Barnes & Noble, where the arm-basket I carried around for her, up and down the aisles, soon proved too heavy, so I abandoned it for a shopping cart of the sort she wielded at H&O Foods.

Without so much as a second thought, Ruthie plucked books from the shelves right and left, as if she was, in fact, shopping at H&O Foods. The genre didn’t matter—“Now don’t tell anyone about this,” she said, handing me a romance novel with a lurid cover of a full-breasted ingénue, her blouse half ripped off. Then she stopped at the Language section. “Ever study Latin?” she asked. “Three years in high school, in fact,” I said, happy for the diverting conversation. Ruthie had never got to Cicero, whom I’d found boring, but hoped to read him now. And learn Portuguese while she was at it. So she added a few Rosetta Stone audiotapes to the basket along with Italian for Beginners. “Italian, of course,” she said, “is based on Latin.”

The bill came to $375, and Ruthie slapped down her American Express without blinking. I figured that Ted must have left her well off, so why not take advantage of it? She always used American Express, she confessed, because of the Frequent Flyer miles. She’d never been to Hawaii—had I? But my negative reply (something to the effect that Hawaii had never been on our bucket list) was cut short by, “Well, then!”

Home again, we entered through the front door this time instead of the garage. Ruthie’s books and tapes had been wedged into a large box with which I struggled up the walk and into the foyer, where I found myself stuck between columns of large boxes from UPS, one of which contained, according to the picture on its side, a microwave. “Just put it down anywhere,” Ruthie said, as I struggled by her into the living room, which was crowded with new furniture. The old furniture was now draped with bed sheets. “Whew! That was exhausting!” Ruthie said. “See you next week!”

I showed myself out.

During the ride to the hospital, a week or two later, Ruthie told me she was having trouble taking showers. “It’s a pain keeping that damn port dry,” she said. “One of my women has to help me from the tub into my jammies, then into bed. It’s gotten so bad that I pee without knowing it. But Caroline’s cool with it.”

The following Wednesday it was obvious to me by the way Ruthie crawled into the Nova that her condition had seriously worsened. “It’s so bad,” she admitted, “I now shit without knowing it.” (TMI! I wanted to scream, but that expression was not yet in vogue.) But apparently Caroline was “cool” with the shitting as well.

A week later Ruthie was dead.

Ruthie, like Ted, had been an only child. They had no living relatives. I know for a fact that, after Ted died, the president of the university had approached Ruthie about donating their home (hers, now) to the university—when the time came, of course—for a child development center. But the house went to Caroline, a cancer survivor and divorcée who lived in a trailer with two rambunctious teens.

Caroline immediately mustered Ruthie’s other disciples for a week of intense cleaning and sorting. They gave all the usable goods to area charities, the food to the food pantry, the books to the library, and the car—a late model Ford, as it turned out—to the high school Drivers Ed department. She then threw a party in her new house to celebrate Ruthie’s life. There was much weeping, praying, loud music, and—so I heard—heavy drinking into the morning hours.

But I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t invited.


Photo by Enric Moreu.

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About the Author

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Claude Clayton Smith

Ada, Ohio

Claude Clayton Smith is Professor Emeritus of English at Ohio Northern University, the author of eight books, and co-editor/translator of three others. His work has been translated into five languages, including Russian and Chinese.