The habit of giving only enhances the desire to give.” ~Walt Whitman

2.23.04                                                                                  scottsdale, az

FOR THE LAST 3½ YEARS I’VE BEEN GREETED ONCE-A-WEEK BY THE GIDDY FACE YOU SEE IN TODAY’S PIC-OF-THE-DAY. Like a puppy that’s happy to see you after a long day at work, Ruth never failed to light up when I arrived at her doorstep. We should all be so lucky to be welcomed with such giddy enthusiasm on a regular basis by the people in our lives.

For those of you new to my story, I began paying Ruth weekly visits on August 1, 2000. We were paired up through Friends to the Elderly, a non-profit LA organization that hooks up volunteers with local senior citizens in need of companionship. I’ve been involved with Friends to the Elderly for 10 years now and Ruth is the 4th elderly person I’ve befriended.

Having Ruth in my life has been such a blessing. During our weekly visits—which usually last between an hour and 90 minutes—I’ve never once been bored with our conversation. And I’ve never left her apartment feeling anything but inspired and happy.

During my recent 6-week stay in SoCal, my weekly volunteer commitment consisted of my regular Ruth visits. After having been on the road most of last year, it was especially gratifying to spend time with her. Of all the people in my life, Ruth is probably the most eager of anyone to hear my stories. Just like I’m probably one of the most eager people in her life to hear her stories.

I’ll never forget a moment we had a few weeks ago. I was laughingly telling her about my most recent automotive foibles—my car horn was now spontaneously going off for no apparent reason. As I told her how this had already led to some embarrassing traffic moments, Ruth was cracking up.

“Oh, Robuht,” she giggled in her vaguely British intonation. “I never laugh when you’re not around. It’s so nice to laugh. I don’t know how you do it.”

One of the toughest things about being on the road has been not being able to see Ruth on a regular basis.

It’s a beautiful thing we’ve got going. Definitely one of the most gratifying relationships I’ve ever had. And further evidence of the too-often-ignored fact that to give is to receive tenfold.

* * *

The reason I’m writing about Ruth today is because I just got off the phone with her a couple hours ago. She sounded more upset than I’ve ever heard her.

“Hey, Ruth,” I said as I stood in the foyer outside Borders on Cactus Avenue in north Scottsdale. “How’d it go today?”

“Not good,” she said starting to cry. “The doctor says it’s cancer.”

Ruth went in this morning for an out-patient procedure to have a lesion removed above her eyelid. Now she’s gotta wait 7 to 10 days for the results of the biopsy.

“Either way,” she said fighting back the tears, “I need to go back and have surgery to have the rest of it removed.”

Ruth is terrified. I could hear it in her voice.

I tried to tell her it was gonna be alright. I tried to provide my usual dose of optimism. But this time it was harder to pull off.

A few weeks ago when Ruth told me she needed the procedure I was confident everything was gonna be fine. I’d never heard of anyone having “eye cancer.”

I was sure the doctor would go in and quickly remove what I assumed to be a small cyst near her eye.

Then last night, while I was watching the series finale of Sex and the City at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Scottsdale, I met a 6th grade school teacher whose ex-husband actually DIED of “ocular melanoma.”

The timing of this tidbit of information couldn’t have been worse.

But I’ll try to remain positive and muster up as much optimism as possible each time I talk to Ruth. She’s had such a tough life. Her first love went off to World War II, came back, married Ruth—then had a fling with a nurse while he was in medical school. Leaving Ruth to raise their young twin sons.

A few years later Ruth married a man she didn’t love—whose name, ironically, was Bob—so that her boys would have a father figure. (No wonder she’s been calling me “Robert” ever since I’ve known her.)

Ruth stayed with Bob for nearly 20 years. The best part of her marriage to Bob was David, the kindhearted son they had. David is Ruth’s pride and joy, but lives 3000 miles away just outside of Boston. (I enjoyed a memorable 3-day stay with David and his Orthodox Jewish family last July, which included my first visit to Friday night temple.)

After her marriage to Bob ended, Ruth never remarried. But she did fall in love again. To a career military man named John. Ruth and John met in San Francisco and dated for years in San Diego. Then, about 5 years into their relationship, they had an argument and stopped speaking for a few days.

Ruth soon learned there was a reason John wasn’t calling her to patch things up: he had died of a stroke.

And now her heart is breaking all over again.

Maybe everything will turn out alright this time around. But until the biopsy results come back and the surgery is over, I know Ruth is gonna be a wreck. She doesn’t have many friends left in LA. And her asthma and heart condition keep her inside most of the time, where she spends way too much time watching the horror and mayhem breaking out all over the world on the news.

Tomorrow I’m gonna write Ruth a little note letting her know I’m thinking of her. If anyone out there has the inclination to do the same, just let me know and I’ll e-mail you her address. I realize most of you have never met my sweet 77-year-old friend.

But as I’ve discovered time and time again, kind words from a stranger can have a profound impact on an aching heart.

* * *

I know many of you are awaiting my assessment of last week’s 5-day visit with Boston Jacquie. Not to worry. That’s coming in the next few days. I also want to write about some of the fascinating people I’ve met since I’ve been here in the Scottsdale/Phoenix area. As always, the stories are piling up.

I just needed to get this stuff about my friend back in LA off my chest right now. Thanks for hearing me out.

Hang in there, Ruth.

the bright side

To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” ~Bertrand Russell

9.16.03                                                                                los angeles, ca

RUTH DOESN’T WANT ME TO TAKE HER PICTURE. She thinks her eyes look puffy and red from crying. I think they look fine.

If she had a computer, Ruth could tell me whether or not she approved of today’s fuzzy photo. I tried to give her my old HP desktop not long after we were introduced 3 years ago by Kay Ginsberg from Friends to the Elderly, the program I’ve been a volunteer with since 1994.

But the perfectly functioning computer that was gonna be Ruth’s window into cyberspace just sat on the faux wood desk in her living room, freaking her out. At 76, the idea of joining the digital revolution sends Ruth into a nervous tizzy.

“You can take your computer back, darling,” she told me a week after I’d lugged it over to her small 1-bedroom apartment. “I’m too old to learn how to use one of those things. Besides, I probably couldn’t see it too well anyway with my eyes like they are.”

My friend Ruth is a woman consumed with fear and worry. And no wonder. Her gluttonous TV diet consists largely of watching the news and the various analysis shows. So of course Ruth is worried about terrorists. Health care benefits. Her 3 adult children. Her finances. Her heart.

Tonight she told me she’s been worried about getting the West Nile virus. Especially after talking to her daughter-in-law recently, who told her how brutal the mosquitos have been lately in Sharon, Massachusetts, the largely Jewish New England town 30 minutes south of Boston where Ruth wants to relocate to be closer to her youngest son David and his family.

I called Ruth tonight just after 7 to see if I could stop by for one final visit before I hit the road again. I told her how my LA departure had been delayed, due to the fact that the mechanic I took VanGo to for a tune-up today told me I need to rebuild both carburetors. Ruth gasped when I told her I was looking at a $500 bill, with no guarantees they could even get it done by the end of today.

“So I decided to get a second opinion,” I told Ruth. “I’m gonna spend the night at my sister Jeni’s place in Yucaipa. Hopefully the guy out there who worked on my car back in June can give me a more optimistic diagnosis and get it fixed in time for me to get on the road at a decent hour.

“But in the meantime,” I added, “would you mind if I stopped by on my way out of town to say goodbye?”

“Oh, Robert, COULD you?” Ruth gushed. “That’s exaclty what I need right now. I was just having a bout of the blues before you called.”

* * *

When I got to her place, Ruth told me about her latest worries. During a visit last week to her old cardiologist, the doc told her she shouldn’t be taking the medication she’s on for her diabetes. Apparently, the drug causes fluid retention, a fact none of her other doctors ever mentioned.

“Retaining fluids is what’s causing most of my problems,” Ruth said with a desperate mix of amazement and frustration. “The stuff with my lungs, the shortness of breath — and you mean to tell me NONE of my other 4 doctors knew that this drug I was on caused fluid retention? And if they DID know, why didn’t they tell me?!”

As Ruth shared her story, her eyes filled with tears and were instantly ringed in red. She conceded that she doesn’t know who to believe. She said she’s lost all faith in the medical system.

“I just want to DIE,” she said through the tears. “I’m not kidding. It’s all too much. I just wish I was dead.”

I pointed out to Ruth that she didn’t JUST lose her faith in the medical system. She’d already lost that a while ago.

“Plus,” I added, “it sounds like this whole situation is actually a good thing. The doctor says you should stop taking the diabetes medication. Which means one less pill to take. And not taking it should help your fluid retention, right? So now you’re breathing and all the other stuff the fluid retention affected just might improve. Right?”

Ruth wiped her eyes and laughed.

“So congratulations on your good news!” I told her, deftly taking her gloomy story and giving it the optimist’s sunny spin.

Minutes later Ruth was calling me her guardian angel. “I’d been so upset and I was praying to God. And then you called and showed up. It’s like you were dropped from heaven.”

When people ask me why I do volunteer work, I’m never quite able to articulate my reasons adequately. Maybe because there’s a million reasons. A series of little moments that add up to something bigger than any of us.

Moments like watching an old lady’s face light up when you enter the room.

Like hearing a kid who’s never trusted anyone somehow get up the courage to tell you he loves you for the first time.

Like the satisfaction of realizing that simply LISTENING is enough. And always will be enough.

Like witnessing a weary old soul fight off her armor of fear and pessimism long enough to wallow and glow in the adventure and absurdity of YOUR story.

It might sound trite and sentimental, but there is nothing like the gift of giving. Of knowing you helped someone’s heart sing again.

Tonight before we said our goodbyes, I saw the light return to Ruth’s eyes, if only for a while. She was cracking up over my twisted logic. And she was beaming when I told her about the 2 friends of mine who, over the last few days, have offered to underwrite my crazy trip for a year.

For a split second there, I almost forgot about how, a mere 20 minutes ago, Ruth said she wished she was dead.

* * *

I don’t know when I’m gonna be able to get online again. That mechanic I came all the way out here to Yucaipa to see? Well, I discovered tonight at 1 in the morning when I went to drop off VanGo that he is going on vacation tomorrow. Now I’ve got to head out to a place he recommended 15 miles down the road in Beaumont.

Hopefully, this new guy can get VanGo healthy again. And pronto.

At this rate, I’m gonna be flying on NoDoz and ice tea just to hit Baton Rouge in time for LSU/Georgia on Saturday.

I’ll keep you posted, Ruston.


An edited version of this post appears in the book B.O.B a blog story (vol. 1 — here & there).