Monday, October 23, 2006

For my Ruthie - I love you

After reading Sue's wonderful posts about Mel and Lindsay, I thought I would share something very personal with my family here.

It's about my friend Ruth, someone I adore, and I miss with all my heart. Warning: tears may fall - so get some tissue.

Ruth & I first met when I was in Grade Seven. Her family had just moved to the area, and I had lived there all my life. I knew her from seeing her around, but had never spoken to her. I was waiting in line to buy a can of pop at the milk fridge, when I was jostled hard from behind, nearly pushing me into Michelle, that week’s milk monitor. I turned around, intent on giving the person an incredibly hard time, when I noticed that I was staring at nothing.“Excuse me. I didn’t mean to bump into you,” came this tiny voice from below. I looked down into the biggest pair of brown eyes I had ever seen. (Later, we joked that it wasn’t that her eyes were that big – but the magnification of both our glasses made them seem enormous. It was our way of acknowledging that we were prematurely going blind.) Seated in her wheelchair, she turned around to glare at the person who’d been the pusher. “Some people,” she said, turning back to me “haven’t learned how to walk yet.”“No problem.” I replied.

After we had both gotten our drinks, we made our way back to the schoolyard, as recess had started. We spent the whole half hour talking. I found out that she had been born with a condition called spinal bifida, which affects the spinal cord, stunts the growth, and sometimes comes along with a neurological condition, which Ruth was keeping at bay through medications. She had been ever since she was born, so she was quite used to the barrage of pills that she woke up to every morning. I found out that she had a younger sister named Ramona, who was in my brother’s class, and her father was a carpenter. Every year, her and her mom and sister went to Malta in the summer to visit family there. She also showed me a set of leg braces that she kept strapped to her chair “Just in case I feel like dancing”, she smiled to me.

The one thing I found out that amused me was that she could TALK. I think I spoke two words in that entire conversation, but I was ok with that, because by the time we’d parted ways to go back to class, I had made one of the best friends I would ever have, only I didn’t know it at the time.Ruth was fantastic. She had the same taste in everything I did: clothing, television shows, hobbies, and most importantly, the three m’s – movies, music and MEN. We loved these two guys with long blonde hair named Nelson, and we drooled over many posters together. We were lovesick over New Kids on the Block, Gowan, and Tommy Page. During our teenage years there were so many it’s hard to count.

The one constant over the years was Elvis. Both of us had posters and buttons and t-shirts of the King everywhere. And we were both fanatics about Disney. Everything was about Elvis or Mickey. In high school, our lockers were covered with the King and the Mouse. But it was always she and I against the world when it came to our interests. We even had the same crush for many, many years. Neither one of us could have had him though. We were thought of more as little sisters than anything else. But that was ok with us, because if either of us had gotten him, the other would have been devastated (but happy for her friend). This way, we could be devastated together whenever we saw him with another girl. But Don (his name), always made time for us.

I was a year ahead of her in school, although we were the same age. When we finally were in school together once again, Ruth and I were inseparable (as much as we could be). I even switched my locker from the second floor to the first during my grade twelve year so that I could have one close to hers. I never had a sister, and I felt like God had given me Ruth instead. Our first year in school together, we decided to go to the Annual “Welcome Back” dance. I was in grade ten, she in nine.

My grandparents were staying with us, which meant that I didn’t have a curfew, but Ruth did. We still went together though – me sneaking in a mickey of Bacardi in the back of her wheelchair. I don’t know why I did it, or why she even let me, but I can assure you, it was the last time I did something like that. I got so incredibly upset when I saw Don dancing with Maryanne Chahadi, who was not only cute, but a cheerleader AND on the Student Council with him, that I wheeled Ruth to the washroom, took out the mickey and gulped down half the bottle before I could even taste it. Then, after I finally stopped breathing fire, I gulped down the other half. Suffice to say, Ruth got a ride home with a friend, and my buddy Linda wound up walking me home, AFTER I spent the rest of the dance hanging out the hallway window, desperate for the fresh air to revive me. I felt terrible that I had, for all intents and purposes, abandoned Ruth – until she smugly told me the next day that Don had been the friend to drive her home. After that, she made me promise to wait until I was old enough to handle Mr. Bacardi, before I snuck him back into her wheelchair.

The first time Ruth and I went to a concert together, it was New Kids on the Block. We were teenagers, and my mother had told me that I was allowed one concert per year – this was the one. We had a group of us that went together. Ruth, refusing to give in to fatigue, was wearing her braces, and not in her wheelchair. She stood through most of that concert, even though she couldn’t see anything (being 4’ and all). She sang, she danced, she applauded, and she screamed right along with everyone else. The only problem was at the end of the night, so many people were pushing and shoving, we had to wait for the crowd to disperse before we could get her out of there. That, she clearly stated, was the last time she would wear her braces to a show. “At least with a wheelchair you can run people over,” she grinned at me.

I started going to karaoke because I had met this girl Mary who went, and she told me that I had to go – it was fun. Being the diva in training that I was, I was eager to go, but not able to find anyone to go with. Ruth volunteered, and hence, a weekend tradition was born. The trouble was, we had so much fun that we started going six nights a week. Ruth would never sing, but she sat there and applauded for every one, no matter how bad they were. She believed in giving everyone equal chances. Once we became regulars, Ruth discovered the fine art of flirting – and she was good at it. I could have taken pointers from her. Of course, she got away with more than most women would, but somewhere inside, I don’t think it was because of the chair. I just think that it was because she was incredibly charismatic. Whenever people saw her, they couldn’t help but smile.

I’m trying to recall any incident where Ruth and I fought – but I can’t. In fifteen years of friendship, we didn’t fight once. There were times when seeing her name come up on the call display was enough to set my eyes rolling backwards, but that was because she didn’t let you get a word in edgewise. She still loved to talk, that hadn’t changed. The only problem was, as we got older, there was so much more to talk about. And man did she ever! But she was also great at listening, and I knew that no matter how bad, I could always count on her to lend an ear. She could be in the middle of something, but she would stop what she was doing, even for five minutes, just to listen. She had advice too, if you wanted it. She would never volunteer it though, which always took everyone aback, because I challenge you to find someone who doesn’t dispense unwanted advice everyday. Whether the problem was school, boyfriend (one you had or one you wanted), family, friends, or you just needed a human connection, Ruth was always on the other end, listening.

Ruth’s dad had the best basement. It was set up with a treadmill, and some free weights, and, in the main room – a bar, with the back-mirrored wall lined with whatever type of spirits you preferred. It was also raised, on a slight dais, so you had to step up to get to it. It was dark mahogany, and it was beautiful. We loved having parties down there, even before we were old enough to be touching the alcohol. Just being in the same room with all that booze made us feel grown up (why I have NO idea). Mom & dad, what we all called her parents, were the best. They always were willing to feed us, and have us stay over if we needed to, and her dad was always willing to drive us places if we had no other ride. I often went over to use the treadmill, but it was just an excuse to visit. I hardly ever got on that piece of equipment long enough to make a difference in my weight, but with Ruth as a cheerleader, that first half hour was worth it. She always made me feel like I was invincible. She had more faith in me than anyone ever has in my life. I always wished there was something I could do for her that would make her feel as good as her faith made me feel.

The trouble was, Ruth always had everything she wanted. She had fantastic parents, a great sister, a whole lot of friends, and as for material items, she could afford what she wanted. The one thing she wanted that she didn’t have was a boyfriend. Well, we all tried to set her up, but men being what they are at that age, they couldn’t see past her chair or braces, they never realized how utterly wonderful she was. And that was the one thing that saddened her the most.She was always up for anything though. Whether it was a last minute trip to the mall, or the fourth trip to Canada’s Wonderland that week, she was ready, willing and able. Despite the healthy relationship she had with her family, home was the last place she ever wanted to be. She was always out, if not with friends then she would call up WheelTrans and go out herself. She was fearless. Nothing spooked her. And nothing stopped her either. If she knew a place she was going wasn’t accessible, she would wear her braces, and if she got somewhere and there was no ramp, well, she was creative. Meredith remembers this:

My husband Keith and I, as well as our friends Kirwin and Jamie, were taking the two kids to the Santa Clause Parade, and we asked Ruth if she wanted to join us. Knowing she’d have to take the chair on the subway with her, due to the snow outside she couldn’t use her crutches, she agreed anyway. We figured it was ok, because all subway stations have elevators right? Wrong. When we got off at our stop, there was no elevator to be seen. So, using her quick thinking, Ruth had Kirwin grab one side, Jamie the other, and Keith behind, and all three of those (thankfully) strong men carried her, and the wheelchair, in one big package, up three flights of stairs. AND, at the end of the parade, back down again, although how they did it without losing her, I’ll never know. From that day on, we knew that no matter where we went, or what the circumstances were, she’d be coming with us.

Ruth was a blessing in disguise to the lonely. She loved to meet new people and, as I mentioned earlier, liked to go places by herself. She would talk to anyone and everyone, regardless of age, colour, religion, or physical appearance. She just assumed that people would talk back to her, and they did. If they were alone in the food court, and she felt like a cup of coffee and conversation, she would just roll on up and start one. Sometimes people were taken aback by her boldness, but after a few minutes in animated conversation, they soon forgot they were talking to a stranger. With her bright smile and warm demeanor, she made everyone feel great.Lynn says:I don’t have one specific memory of Ruth. They just all jumble together in one big smile. But what I can say is that she was an infectious soul. Her smile lit up a room, and her energy was so contagious, it was hard to feel run down or groggy whenever she was with you. She was everyone’s best friend and little sister. You couldn’t help but feel protective of her, although you knew she was perfectly capable of taking care of herself. Ruth was always willing to let things go, and just be. Fighting with Ruth was almost impossible. Even if you told her she was in the wrong, she would agree with you. In fact, the only person she fought with was her sister and parents, and I think there’s some sort of law that says you have to.

About ten years ago, my dad got me tickets to the Jimmy Buffet concert at the Molson Amphitheatre. I had grown up on JB’s music, and was constantly trying to convert cynics to his easy going lyrics, danceable melodies, and crazy lifestyle. But some people just weren’t meant to enjoy music that way. Ruth however, was a convert from the first minute she heard Margaritaville. So the choice for the second ticket was an easy one. Ruth and I got a lift with my parents and their friends, and went off to our seats. We were incredibly dismayed to find out that there was no where for her to park her chair in our row, but after she had a few words with an usher, and then management, they were able to put her chair right at the end of our row, leaning against the wall, so to make for an easier exit when the time came. Well, she had her trusty braces and canes with her, and we proceeded to our seats in the middle of the row, with people all around staring, like she was a sideshow or something. I remember this vividly, because she turned and asked me, rather loudly “I AM wearing my pants right?” As I nodded, trying not to laugh out loud, she said, “I thought so. I guess everyone’s staring because I’m not wearing my parrot on my head.” At this point, she rectified that situation, and grabbed one off of the head of the guy in front of us, who had also turned to stare. I thought he was going to freak out, but under the wattage of her incredible smile, he just laughed at her moxy, reached into his bag, and pulled out two more. He handed one to me, so I wouldn’t feel left out, and then stuck another one on top of his head.

The guys around us that night were the greatest. They got together and formed an “arm” chair and lifted Ruth up over the crowd so that she could see the Elvis impersonator walk onto the stage with a giant inflatable penis, which got a roar from the crowd, and had Ruth blushing a beet red. The ones in front of us even made sure to have everyone in her sightline sit down for some of the tunes, that way she could definitely see the stage, and JB’s elaborate set up. She would later tell me that it was one of the best concerts she had ever been to. She didn’t stop smiling the whole ride home. It felt good that I had been able to help her have such a good time. And since Jimmy’s only been back twice since then, it’s a great memory for me.

On more than one occasion, Ruth has saved my life, just by being on the other end of the phone. But once, it was literally a case of her stopping my untimely, and would have been self inflicted, demise. I was 20 years old, and had just broken up with my first serious boyfriend. We had been together three and a half years, and to say I was devastated would be an understatement. I had definitely decided that I didn’t want to live without him, and, in a suicidal frame of mind, went to the drugstore to find my method of death. I had heard that diet pills, when taken in large quantities, eat away at your insides and eventually kill you. It was a slow, painful death process, but I was sure it was the way to go. Stepping in front of a car wasn’t a guarantee that you would die, and I was determined to make this as painless as possible on my family. Kevin on the other hand, this was designed to make him suffer. Once the pills got into my system, there was no going back. Nothing would have stopped them.

I picked up four boxes, and two litres of water. Then, I just wandered around the neighbourhood, and came to my elementary school park, where Kevin and I had gone on our first “make out” date. I sat on the hill, crying over what could have been, and what was going to be, when I heard Ruth calling to me from the other side of the hill. Turns out that she had been on her daily roll, and she had heard my sobbing, and, from years of familiarity with it, had known those tears being shed were mine. I didn’t want to see anyone, but this was Ruth, and I had no choice. When I got to her chair, she noted the puffy eyes, the pale skin, and the big bag in my hand. When she asked what was in there, I refused to tell her, knowing that she would try to stop me, and I didn’t want to be stopped. But I didn’t have any strength in me to stop her when she snatched the bag from my grasp and examined the contents. She didn’t have to ask what the hell I thought I was doing – she just knew. Pretending that she was having problems with her chair, she asked if I would wheel her back to her place. Feeling that it was the least I could do for someone who had always been there for me, I did so. I was a zombie. I didn’t look anywhere but straight ahead, and I didn’t respond to Ruth’s cheerful chatter.When I got her home, and safely in the front door, I went to take my bag back, and hug her goodbye. But she didn’t let me, and begged me to come in for a bit. We went up to her bedroom, and she sat me down, and wouldn’t let me leave for four hours. She talked, and gave advice, and told me that like everything, this too will pass, and I won’t be this hurt forever. But I didn’t want to listen. I wanted to hurt. It was like a friend now, something I couldn’t let go of. The drama queen in me wanted to go through with my plans, but something else didn’t want me to die. I have to tell you though, the drama queen has always been the strongest part of my personality, and something I had always considered an asset, until this day.

Eventually, her mom came into the room, although I didn’t notice. She told Ruth that it was time for dinner, and would I like to stay? I was about to shake my head no, when Ruth answered for me. I was staying, and she would call my mom to let her know, although at twenty, I was hardly calling to check in anymore.

By the time dinner was over, I had forgotten about the pills. Her family put me in good spirits, and afterwards, her mom came to me, holding my bag. When I saw that, my resolve to do what I had intended was back, but not as strong. Things Ruth had said up in her bedroom were starting to sink in. Her mom told me “I hope Ruth has talked some sense into you, but, if she hasn’t, you can come back tomorrow to get these. Just sleep on it tonight baby.” I guess I should have been mad at Ruth for telling her mom, but how do you get mad at someone who’s heart is in the right place?

The next day, after a fitful sleep, and an even worse morning, I went back to Ruth’s place to pick up my package. And together, her and I went right to the drugstore and returned the pills.It takes a strong person to save someone’s life. I will be eternally grateful that she was out for her roll that day. I didn’t really want to die.

As I’ve said time and time again, Ruth loved to be out and about. And her favourite place to go, as she got into her twenties, was a club called Tropicana. It provided adult entertainment for us ladies, and on more than one occasion, I accompanied her there. She was in her element! She was there so often; she knew the dancers, waiters and bartenders by name, as well as the rest of the regulars. The more I think about it though, I think Ruth was the entertainment for the dancers. It was in this place that she got the attention from men that she so desperately craved. It was in this place that they treated her like a woman, and not a little sister. It was here that she found that she had sex appeal.

The dancers didn’t treat her any different than the rest of the ladies, and she was grateful for that. The rest of us were too. We had said that she was without a boyfriend for far too long. There, in the club, she could use that flirting that she had refined at karaoke. There, in the club, she could drink what she wanted, do what she wanted and be herself, just the way she wanted. She couldn’t do that at karaoke, or at home. There were too many protective people around in those places. The men in our crowd treated her just like the little sister that she was to us. These men treated her like she was desirable, so who could blame her for wanting to hang out there?

Tami remembers this about one night’s foray into, what we referred to as “Ruth’s World”:

Ruth loved all the dancers, but there was one dancer in particular whom she was head over heels for. He was also a friend, and treated her with more respect than I’ve seen a woman be treated with. One night, when mom and I went with Ruth to the club, Keith came out and did his routine. When the time came for the tips to be hauled out, Ruth put a tooney over her head, and waved it around. Keith came over, and we all stared in shock as Ruth put the tooney right down her cleavage.Well, not one to let a sexual challenge go by, Keith buried his face in there, attempting to get his tip out with his teeth. Mom and I were laughing hard, but started laughing harder when Ruth got our attention with something she had in her hand. It was the tooney! She hadn’t put it in there after all, and Keith was still in there. Eventually she had to tell him, and he was a great sport about it. He took it from her, kissed her on the lips and went back to his dancing. Afterwards, he came out to our table and laughed right along with us, and bought us a round.

She had the good life there. When the club closed, I thought Ruth was going to go ballistic. But she just shrugged, got on the horn to Keith and found out where the rest of the crew had gone. Soon, she was journeying out to Brampton (which is about twenty minutes by car – probably a twenty or so dollar cab ride) on a twice-weekly basis. Some nights, she’d get so drunk that the guys would carry her up to one of the hotel rooms above the new club and stay with her until she woke up. Then they would make sure she got home safely. She was constantly buying me lap dances, and private dances, sharing her world with me. I have to admit, it can get quite addictive! She even started smoking and got a tattoo, which shocked everyone! Ruth was a good girl, but she was making bad habits. The tattoo was cute (Mickey Mouse in a cowboy hat), and ok with us, but the smoking had to stop! It eventually did.

If there was one person that could guarantee a great turnout at a party, it was Ruth. If she threw a party, which didn’t happen often, you just knew that her whole guest list would show up. People that we had known in high school and lost touch with would show up at her parties (not mine I always noted bitterly). In fact, the last party she threw at her place was in 1995.

Jamie had this to say:

Ruth was known for throwing fantastic parties. They weren’t the type where everyone gets falling down drunk and passes out. These were clean, respectful and yet, still fun parties, where everyone drank moderately and behaved themselves. Her backyard was well manicured and a great, relaxing place to hang out in. Her dad had designed a rock pond and there were goldfish the size of your fist in it. We were welcome to whatever she had to offer, and so we enjoyed just being there.Her 20th birthday party was the last party she had at her place. It was fantastic. We partied in the backyard and the basement, and afterwards, when it got to be a little late, out of respect for her parents, we transferred the party in two big vans to the local watering hold where karaoke was going on. With it being Ruth’s birthday, my friend Chris and I got together and serenaded her on the dance floor. She cried, and laughed and was generally embarrassed, which is funny because the girls told us of some of her stunts at “the club” so we thought that nothing would embarrass her.Ruth was definitely someone special, and I feel privileged to have known her.

And Chris adds:

She was our Ruthie, our very own angel right here on earth. She was kind, compassionate, and everything you would think an angel to be. She never complained about the cards that life dealt to her, she just went with it and made the best out of every situation. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of her.

I was at work when I got my message from Ruth’s dad. I knew that something was terribly wrong. He never called me. If anything, it was her sister or mother that did all the calling. After his message was a message from my best friend’s soon-to-be-ex husband Jason, who used to be a friend of mine, but who I hadn’t heard from in years. I called Jason right back, as Ruth’s dad had an accent and was difficult to understand. When Jason answered the phone, I heard Cathie sobbing uncontrollably in the background, and I knew. He didn’t have to say a word, I just knew. I called her house, and got the whole story from her sister. She had come back from Malta with terrible headaches and blackouts. When she went to the doctor, she was told that the neurological condition that went along with her spina biffida was no longer being controlled by medication; they’d have to do surgery. She told them, in her cheerful way, that as long as she got to see her sister walk down the aisle, she didn’t care. That evening, she had been down with the flu, and declined going to a wedding with her family. At eight o’clock, when her mom called to check on her, she said that she was feeling better, and was getting ready to go out with friends. She was planning on meeting them at the club, and she had already called a taxi and arranged for pick up.When her parents got home that evening, they found her on the toilet. She was already gone. The coroners report showed that she had passed out, and then she had thrown up. With her unconscious, her body had no way of expelling the vomit, and it reverted to her lungs. There was no pain, no suffering, which we all thanked God for.

I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move. My boss had to come downstairs and take the phone away from me. There was no way for me to come to grips with this.

I had lost my Ruth. The one person in the world who understood everything about me, and still loved me, was gone. The one person who I told EVERYTHING to, the one person who shared the most in common with me would never be coming back. There was a problem though. Ruth never kept a phone book. All her numbers were in her head. It took them two days after she died just to remember where I lived. So I had to make phone calls.At the viewing, it was standing room only, and then some. Everyone Ruth had ever come in contact with was there. Word spread like wildfire, and there were so many people that we had to do the viewing in shifts. Most people after paying their respects stood outside and just caught up on what was going on in our lives. Many of us had lost touch, but Ruth was so special to all of us that we all came together again. And I know that she was looking down on us.

Her father was in tears over the response. He asked me to speak on behalf of her family, because no one else was able to do so. So in front of all those people, I recounted the tales I just told you, but cleaned up for her parents. And then, as if in unison, two hundred people burst into tears as I sang Goodbye My Friend by Linda Rondstat. It was one of Ruth’s favourite karaoke songs that I sang. And afterwards, we all hugged goodbye, knowing that we might not be together like this again, as sad as that was. But she brought us together, and every year, we gather on the day of her passing and drink, and sing, and cry and reminisce about the girl we all loved.

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of her, and something that I’d like to tell her. Sometimes I know that she’s the only one who’ll understand. I visit her often. I don’t bring flowers, I don’t bring gifts. I just sit and talk to her. I know she hears me, and in some ways, she sends me messages through my dreams.I will be forever grateful to God for giving me that time with her, and for giving me a sister.

©Angell 2006

Edited to add: I didn't realize this when I wrote yesterday, but it's been five years this month that she left our lives. I realize she didn't live long in the post 9/11 society we've had to endure. The world had shattered a month before, but what I'll remember most about 2001 is the loss of my Ruthie.

Stay sane inside insanity - and never forget your towel.


Coco said...

Sweetie, you could be talking about my Juanita. We've been friends for over 30 years now. Her health is not the best, and she spends more time in her wheelchair than on her crutches now, because all those years "walking on her hands" have taken their toll. Every day is a blessing with her, and I know how fortunate we are to still have her, as it was generally believed that she wouldn't make it to her 30th birthday. She is now 42 (and she's proud of every minute of that!). My heart bleeds for your loss, because friends like that are rare and special, and it has nothing to do with spina bifida.

Unknown said...

:wipes aways tears:

Rainbow said...

Angell, I love you and your Ruth. Melanie encounters the stares, the whispers, the finger pointing. But like Ruth, her amazing sense of humor and incredible personality wins everyone over. I pray I will have my Melanie the rest of MY life, as I could not bear to let her go. I thank God every day for Mel and her sister, Lindsay. You were a blessing to Ruth, never forget that. Your unconditional love meant everything to her. You have a beautiful soul, my dear friend. Thank you for sharing Ruth with all of us.

Vinny "Bond" Marini said...

Angell...I got to read about Ruth when you wrote of her elsewhere...your words are wonderous

Liz Hill said...

Angell--thank you for sharing such a beautiful and bittersweet part of your life. She's there for you always.


With love and pride