I’ve been thinking a lot about Ralph lately. My colleague, Terry DeYoung, Coordinator for Disability Concerns for the Reformed Church in America, and I made a quick trip from Michigan to the Toronto area recently to see Ralph in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of Etobicoke General Hospital. Ralph has had Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis (JRA) most of his life, and now the auto-immune disorder has attacked his lungs. Doctors asked Ralph whether he was a heavy smoker in the past, because his lungs look “burned out.” He never smoked. A recent CT scan indicated that strong doses of medication have not improved Ralph’s lung functioning.
He used to be very active as a Disability Concerns (DC) volunteer, serving wisely as chair of our Advisory Committee, as a Regional Disability Advocate, on the DC Canada Committee, and much more. Ralph and another DC volunteer, Hank, were two of the first Disability Concerns volunteers I met after I became director of DC 9 years ago. They were heavily invested in this ministry, each volunteering hundreds of hours per year, and they wanted to begin mentoring me. We met in Sarnia, Ontario, about half-way between their homes and mine, and talked all afternoon. Our conversation that day and many more since have deeply influenced the work I do day to day.
After seeing Ralph this last time, I’ve been thinking not so much about how he has influenced my work, but about how he has influenced me personally. Ralph has lived with a significant amount of pain all his life, but has maintained an amazingly gracious and buoyant spirit. Up until a couple of years ago when he began experiencing especially intense and constant back pain, Ralph always signed his email messages, “With a smile.” The back pain limited Ralph so much that he rarely wrote email messages once that part of his journey began, but when he did write, he signed off, “With a grimace.”
Still, seeing Ralph in the Intensive Care Unit, I was astounded by the peace with which he faces life, death, and the severe limitations his pain and poor lung condition have imposed on him. Just days before Terry and I saw him, Ralph was told that he might not live more than a few days. Ralph mentioned that with a smile, and remarked “I’m still here! I was told the same thing decades ago, and I made my peace with death then. I don’t want to go, but I’m not afraid to go.” Ralph loves the Lord Jesus and lives in the glorious hope of heaven, and he loves life!
I find his love for life even more amazing than the peace with which he faces death. Ralph has made peace with his body too. His JRA has eaten away at all of his joints. He’s been hospitalized numerous times for surgeries, illnesses, and pain management. He has lived with extreme pain. Now his lungs function so poorly that merely talking is difficult for him. Yet as we talked I was struck by the comfort with which he lived, literally, in his own skin.
In contrast, a few months ago, I hurt my leg and for a couple of weeks the pain was quite intense. The pain woke me up several times a night. During those weeks, I hated my leg. It healed, and I’m sleeping well again. Seeing Ralph, I wonder, “What would I have done if the pain had continued, if it limited my activities and woke me repeatedly during the nights?” Would I develop a deep animosity toward my leg for the discomfort it brought me?
Ralph has made peace with death, and he has made peace with life, with all of its struggle, pain, and limitations. Everyone has to live with brokenness; Ralph has learned to do that exceptionally well. That too is a testimony to his deep faith and to the rich relationships he has with family and friends. Maybe too, it’s a testimony to the value of smiling!