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Strength through loss

SATURDAY, OCT. 2, 2010

Mary Anne Ruddis is the executive director of Candlelighters, a support group for the parents of children who have died from cancer. She lost her husband and two children to the disease.  (Colin Mulvany)
Mary Anne Ruddis is the executive director of Candlelighters, a support group for the parents of children who have died from cancer. She lost her husband and two children to the disease. (Colin Mulvany)

Enormous adversity leads to a life of helping others

Mary Anne Ruddis, executive director of Candlelighters of the Inland Northwest, works with parents whose children have cancer. ¶ But she rarely shares her life story, unless she believes it will help the families in their journeys. ¶ Her story? ¶ Ruddis lost her husband, Kerry, to cancer at age 36, in April 1994. Her daughter, Nikki, 9, died of cancer four months later, in August 1994. ¶ In September 1999, Ruddis lost her son, Michael, from a brain tumor. He was 12. ¶ In a recent Wise Words interview, the 53-year-old woman talked about her life before these losses, life after, and how she survived the unimaginable in between.

• I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio. I have eight brothers and sisters. We came from a large Irish-German-Catholic family. All our basic needs were taken care of, but the extra things, we were on our own. So I started babysitting at 11. That taught me a lot of independence.

• I graduated from high school in 1975. When I was 21, I knew I wanted to leave. A girlfriend and I took a road trip. We landed in California. That’s where I met my husband, got married and had my children.

• I ended up in the car business. I started out as a service cashier and then I moved to each of the (dealership’s) desks and learned all the insides. In California, car titles are huge. I became pretty proficient at getting difficult cars titled.

• What did I learn in 15 years in the car industry I still use? Probably everything. When you have a job that has to get done, you figure out a way to get it done.

When my daughter was first diagnosed, I learned how to make my work fit into whatever I needed it to fit into. That has been helpful to me now. I work some crazy hours. There are a lot of evening things, weekend events. I learned how to be flexible within a structured organization.

• (The car company) had three dealerships in Southern California and eight in Northern California. They decided the three I worked for were going to close.

There were people who immediately jumped ship. The people who stayed behind, we were compensated much better because they needed us to close it out. It was interesting to work for a dying company, to be there at the end.

• After the dealership closed, and I was out of work, I was able to assist a friend whose child was in trouble. I went with them to the juvenile detention center.

Out in the waiting room, I struck up a conversation with a man who told me about his daughter. She had disgraced the family. He wanted to disown her. We had a conversation about the public perception of what you’re going through versus your ability to be there for your daughter.

It struck me: “If I had jumped ship and had been working at another dealership, I would not be here right now having this conversation with this man.”

We’ve all had those experiences where we have faith in the bigger picture of life, outside of our little circumstances, no matter how big they seem at the time.

• During the time when my husband was sick, and my daughter was sick, and he was out of work, I got to the point where I had to stop working, because I had to take my daughter to her appointments. I was so worried about money.

My sister gave me wonderful words of wisdom: “You know, Mary Anne, one way or another, you are going to make it through.” I stopped and thought, “Well, that’s so simple. I don’t know how, but I am going to make it through.”

• I got to Spokane on New Year’s Eve, 1994. My husband had passed away. My daughter had passed away. Matthew was 5 and Michael was 7. I had a brother here. He’s still here. And now I have another brother who moved here, too. It was a place I thought: “Yeah, I could raise the boys here.”

• I’ll put in a plug for life insurance right now. If my husband had not had life insurance, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I needed to do.

I was able to move to Spokane. I was able to buy a house. I was able to give my sons some security. Had I had to go back to work immediately, I would not have been able to go back to school.

Having life insurance is key, even when you’re young. Even when things are tough, you shouldn’t let it go.

• What got me up in the mornings in the darkest time? This is going to sound silly, but I used to think: “Five years is going to pass. And when I look back in five years, what do I want to see? Do I want to see me lying in bed? Or do I want to see me out doing something, living my life?”

Even though I don’t know anything for certain, I choose to believe that there is a reason I am still on this planet, living and breathing, after watching so many around me pass away, some old, some young.

So what am I going to do with the time here? I want to try to do something to advance the human heart, the human spirit, and the only human heart and human spirit I can advance – the only one I have any control over – is my own.

• Whenever anything really huge happens to us, there’s a loss of control. When you lose that, you have to decide: Am I going to hold on to the old way I was living where I was in control? Or am I going to open up to a new way?

Call it faith. Call it optimism. You can call it whatever you want, but bottom line, you have to stop trying to control things that are outside of your control.

• When 9/11 happened, my son was in middle school. I took him to school, and they had the TV on. I walked out, got in my car and thought: “Everything has changed. But I think now this country knows how I feel every single day.”

• What was the most helpful thing people did for me? Listen, listen, listen.

• We’re all in this together. If you can set aside your own life for just a minute, and be there for someone else, that’s a gift. It doesn’t cost a thing.

• To have the right words to say to somebody, when they are suffering, you have to trust your heart. The canned phrases don’t work.

If you don’t know what to say, acknowledge that: “I don’t know what to say, but I want to be here for you.” Rather than: “Well, it’s God’s will.” Or “Everything happens for a reason.”

That may be true. But right now, it’s not helpful.

• When it comes to things that aren’t life-and-death situations, but feel like life-and-death situations – someone whose house has burned down but everybody is OK, someone who has been in a car accident, but everybody is OK – I do have a bit of perspective: Nobody died.

• I do not see myself as an extraordinary person. What got me here is the same thing that got millions of other people where they are. They’ve worked through some very difficult times. And they are surviving. And thriving.



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