Yes, Ruth Is Wonderful


FOR months we had watched our son dying. On a Sunday morning he died. A clergyman who had entertained him in the hospital, without praying over him there, read a brief service on Monday afternoon. Then, late Monday evening, Ruth and I went to a moving-picture theatre. I think that the film was a comedy, but I’m not sure.

Less frequently to-day, three years later, than formerly, but yet occasionally, our friends still say to her: —

‘Ruth, I think you and Ted are wonderful. You have been so courageous. I don’t see how you stood it then, or have been able to go on since.’

They don’t tell me I am wonderful or courageous, and they are right to leave it unsaid. I’m not courageous; I’m still desperately afraid of the whole thing. I do have some ‘front.’ I may have looked uncommonly brave these three years, but I have n’t felt so. For the foundations of courage were undermined during the months leading up to that Sunday morning. On that day they fell.

The boy, our first, was fourteen years old — old enough to have become a definite, individual character in our family; not yet old enough to have grown beyond either our dependence upon him or his upon us.

His physical resilience, his strong young body that promised swimming records, and his buoyant spirits before and after the operation for appendicitis a year earlier, had somewhat stilled our horror when the doctors said that only surgery could disclose why he was beginning to slip away from us.

He went cheerfully back to the hospital. He intended to be a surgeon himself some day. It was later that he turned his favor to the law.

He was wholly unafraid when he lifted himself over from his bed to the cart that wheeled him to the operating room. He smiled calmly and reassuringly at me before the ether mask was laid over his eyes. That other operation had n’t hurt him. The nurses had tried after it to spoil him. Friends had brought him books and puzzles and he had enjoyed propelling himself through the corridors in a wheel chair. Moreover, he had been out on the lot playing baseball with ‘the gang’ three weeks after that appendectomy. This would n ’t be so bad.

But a few moments later he was again on the cart, going back to his room.

A single incision had revealed the veritable octopus of malignancy, its tentacles already fastened upon too many organs to leave any hope to surgery.

It might be a matter of days only; it might be weeks or months, but it could not be long, the physicians told us.


Until then I had been confident that, come what might, I should remain sane. The first call for courage had sounded and I wanted my wits and my reason.

Those later hours of that same day, when I begged from doctor’s office to doctor’s office for a word of reprieve from science — begged in Ruth’s and my own behalf. I now realize, as much as in the boy’s — those hours probably presented me as less demented than I afterward supposed myself to have appeared, for physicians must see frequently the sort of thing they saw in me that day.

I saw them all again, one at a time: the kindly doctor who had brought that boy into the world, the gentle pediatrician who had watched his development and had cared for him during all the minor ills of his childhood, and the surgeon, the one of the three least warmly bound to Ruth and me in intimate friendship. In pity he spoke to me of X-ray and a ‘chance in a million that it might help’ — the one chance in a million which means not a single chance in infinity.

Another summons to courage — to go back to the hospital to lie to Ruth: to tell her there was hope to be placed in X-ray treatment.

It took less courage to tell her the truth. And I had less.

But the next demand could not be denied. It was to prepare, even before he wakened from the anæsthetic, to live falsely with the boy as long as he should live after that.

We did manage that. But I don’t call it courage. Courage, and sense, would have been to pray that he might never waken.

Going home from the hospital after that previous operation he had ‘danged’ the ambulance gong gleefully as we had turned into the drive, to announce to the gang that he had returned and to call them to witness his triumph. He didn’t ‘dang’ the gong on that last trip.

We took the chance in a million — took it knowing it was no chance at all — and continued taking it until neither of us could longer conceal from the other the conviction that it was worse than useless. Medical science was through. It was finding daily more and more difficult the fulfillment of its promise to us that our son would not be permitted to suffer physical pain. All along it had been helpless before the pain in his eyes — and sometimes also in his voice — as he watched from his window when ‘lucky guys’ pedaled past the house on their way to school.


Both hurts, we were constantly assured, would yield to religion. What was there to lose? Faith recruits its most ardent adherents from the desperate. God, they told us, was infallible, omnipotent, merciful.

Sunday after Sunday and through all the intervening days we told ourselves that we did believe what happy believers in pews around us knew beyond all possibility of doubt. He would be saved and restored by God’s love and power. For months we really thought we had learned to believe, in the face of the progress of the growth that was destroying him. Even now I think that, for a time, my belief was real. Neither of us ever admitted to the other during that year that divine failure was possible.

But our boy died. He died peacefully, in his last moments, after torture. Perhaps the god did n’t try in his case. Perhaps we, his parents, never quite learned the only effective approach that would have enlisted the god’s intercession. Certainly the boy suffered and died for lack of the exercise of any power — if any there were — that could have prevented his agony and his death. But we had used the only appeals for that aid that we knew or could learn. Since then we have felt no self-reproach for failure to have found the way — the Way, we might once have called it. We tried. But we lost our son.

That was to have been a relief to us, because it was to relieve him at last. It was to be the final evidence that perhaps there was a compassionate god who ended horrors with death, though he could not or would not end them otherwise.

‘Let not your heart be troubled,’ the clergyman read the next day.

We had been told he could live and could be strong and well, and we were asked still to accept the source of that promise as we turned back to the house from which he had been taken away.

There are other incongruities that cluster about death.

There was the acquaintance on trial, perhaps for his own life, as a result of a traffic accident. I met him on the street, returning to the courtroom where he was to learn the jury’s verdict, while I was making the round of doctors’ offices after the pronouncement of a death sentence against my own son. We had never been close friends. But he faced disgrace, at least, and I was touched. I could not suppose that he, in the midst of a protracted trial, had even heard of my boy’s peril. But as I gripped his hand and told him I hoped for the best for him, he said: —

‘And I for you, Ted. My trouble is nothing to yours.’

There was the woman upon whom we had been advised to lean for that divine intervention. On the Tuesday after that final Monday I had gone to settle my account with her. As she consulted her records and accepted the money I placed on her desk, she looked up to ask: —

‘And how is the little boy?’

Then there was the moving-picture theatre, eight or nine hours after the funeral. It was the least incongruous of all, though only a few of our friends would have understood that, had they known of it.

From it we went home to begin hearing: ‘I think you and Ted are wonderfully brave.’

Perhaps Ruth is. I rarely hear sobs muffled in a pillow now after lights are out, and cross from my bed to sit on the edge of hers until she falls asleep.


When our second son decided not to go back again to the Sunday school he had attended while we sat among the worshipers in the adjoining room, we were content to let the decision be his own. He explained it with the directness and simplicity of the child he was. He had seen his brother barely more than momentarily after returning from a summer camp just before that Sunday morning. The god and the god’s mercy of which he had been told at Sunday school no longer impressed him.

Finally, the little girl, who is younger still than the second boy — the only boy now — and who happily carries only shadowy recollections of events she could not understand three years ago, is beginning to ask questions.

Even the orthodox faithful, I observe, are puzzled to find the answers.

Courage? We still have the boy and the girl. They can’t be permitted to see their father a craven. But the doctors told us that the growth which consumed our first son was as fortuitous, as much an accident, as though he had been struck by a car in the street or by lightning or by a meteorite falling out of the sky. And the doctors were helpless.

Religion had another explanation which did not explain and a cure which did not cure.

Yes, Ruth is wonderful. Perhaps even Ted is. We have no grave to visit; we provided against that. We do not observe anniversaries. (Mildred always telephones to Ruth on the boy’s birthday, but scrupulously avoids any reference to the date. It is just an evidence of affectionate memory. In the evening Ruth mentions that Milly has called. That is all.) We conceal from each other the fact that we have recalled that ‘just three years ago to-day. . .’

That may be wonderful. It looks like courage from without. It feels like fear within.

Death falls out of the sky, not only upon those ready for death, but upon fine, blameless, loved and loving boys with a promise in their personalities of great contributions to be made to life.

Against the hap of that fall neither parental care, nor medicine, nor knife, nor discoverable approach to higher help avails.

How not to be afraid?