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‘We’re survivors,’ Ruth said, reminding me yet again that this too shall pass.
I worked alongside Ruth at a mental health clinic down in the barrio, 3rd Avenue, The Bronx, as south as it gets before the bridge into Manhattan and slightly further, Queens, Astoria country. Ruth had as much life in her as her as a woman half her age. I always felt my age around her. At the end of the workday, she was awake and more talkative than I was which wasn’t ever good because I was driving us both to our respective homes.
We didn’t always get along. Well, that’s not true. I didn’t have enough time to dislike her before she blindsided me with her spirited wit and courageous personality fearing nothing but learned helplessness. Ruth was bright, and had learned, throughout her life, how to survive in a world which was both cruel and relentlessly unforgiving for those who refused to learn from their mistakes.
She loved growth, prided herself on insight, and had no shortage of experiences in life. I would hazard to say she surpassed most people her age and those she considered her elders when it came to lived experience. Ruth never called herself a peer, but she was a part of the mental health movement as anyone I knew when it came to self-acceptance and owning her shit.
So, when I say we didn’t get along at first, I mean I was out of my element. Ruth put me there. Purposely, albeit, but successfully in the way a therapist gets you to question yourself and your stuff. No need to explain how, because she didn’t just do it once, or twice, but until the day we lost each other. We missed Ruth when it was time for her to move on from the clinic.
She told us she was taking her power back. The truth was it was just time for her to move on in her life and it pained us to see her walk. But she was no stranger to change, adapting, and moving forward in her life. She knew how to move on from pain, and leave it where it needed to remain, until processed and ready for absorption for re-entry into the soul. Ruth’s soul ran as deep as mine, she would say. I was an old spirit in her book. I took this as a compliment, and still do.
When Ruth moved away to be closer to her family and daughter, I supported her. We stayed friends. Phone calls, late night chatter, and text tag in the early hours of our days, to reconnect and stay kindred in our common fondness for each other. When Ruth was diagnosed with cancer, I wasn’t worried. Ruth was a fighter, a survivor. And that’s exactly what Ruth did, from a far.
Ruth fought the good fight and beat cancer. This wasn’t the first time either. I checked in with her often and listened to her progress and was moved by her courage. When she came back to town and visited, I saw how skinny she had become. She had said radiation was rough and now I truly saw what she had felt with and overcame. I took her to the diner and fed her as much as possible. When it was time to say goodbye, I reminded her to eat, and she did, putting weight on and becoming shapely again.
Life turned its pages again. When I got the call that the cancer had returned I was extremely concerned. Ruth just didn’t have enough time to recoup. I was assessing her condition in my head, as a friend, and as someone who just wanted the best for Ruth. I knew she had not rallied back in terms of her weight and nutrition given the wake of her aggressive treatment. But Ruth, the survivor that she was, fought right on. In fact, I was told the cancer was in full retreat.
Nothing could stop Ruth. I was awe struck for my friend. A true comrade in the art of surviving and weathering the storm of life. When she came back to visit again, we ate nourishing food, and enjoyed the summer sun like the first time we socialised as friends years ago. Our journey took us to the Holocaust museum in NYC and to the Auschwitz Exhibit. When we got there, we walked the exhibit side by side, awestruck. Not of our micro tale in survival, but of the ongoing persistence and dedication of the Jewish people to weathering the storm. Ruth couldn’t believe her eyes, and either could I, at the sights of resistance and oppression around us. We took pictures, read every notation, display and watched each video available to learn from about survival.
At the end of the exhibit and the afternoon, we walked over to the museum’s balcony. We gazed at the Statue of Liberty overlooking the Hudson River and all of the beauty around us. We looked upon each other knowing this trip was over and we had to move forward or surrender to the day.
Neither of us was willing to surrender just yet. When I kissed her goodbye, we promised to once again connect and be healthy with ourselves. Weeks went by and I didn’t hear from Ruth. I left messages.
One day I made yet another attempt to reach Ruth. Her daughter replied back to me in a text message that Ruth was sick and would be in touch as soon as she felt better. More weeks went by. One morning her daughter messaged me again. My heart dropped as she informed me that Ruth had passed away during the early hours of the morning.
I cried to myself until I realised Ruth didn’t die. Ruth had done what she has always done. Ruth had taken her power back again. She survived cancer by moving on with her spirit to a place not even the most villainous evil could do her harm. Ruth was liberated from the poisons in her body and found peace along the way. For spirits like Ruth never die, as long as people like you and I remember what she taught us all about living.
Editor’s note: This article was published originally in Mental Health Affairs.