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.
Ruddis lost her husband, Kerry, to cancer at age 36, in April 1994. Ruddis then lost daughter, Nikki, 9, to 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.
This the complete transcript of the interview with Spokesman-Review Features writer Rebecca Nappi. The interview took place Sept. 23, 2010.I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio. I have eight brothers and sisters. We came from a fairly large Irish-German Catholic family. I was fourth. I have three older and five younger. My mom and dad both worked. My dad worked for the county and my mother was a nurse. We all went to Catholic school, so we had nine tuitions. It always seemed like money was something there for the necessities, and anything extra we earned on our own. There was no such thing as an allowance. You did chores, because that was what you were supposed to do – contribute. All our basic needs were taken care of, but the extra things, we were on our own to figure out a way to get those. So I started babysitting at 11 years old and earning my own spending money. I think that taught me a lot of independence.I graduated from high school in 1975. Youngstown is a steel town. And Youngstown was hit very hard when the steel mills closed. A lot of people either moved away or lost their jobs. There’s a lot of poverty there now, but it wasn’t like that growing up. The decline started in the late 1970s. When I go back now it’s hard to recognize what I left. It’s hard to go back and not recognize things. I’m very pragmatic when it comes to accepting things as they happen. So the fact things got really depressed after I left, I don’t know if I would have wanted to be around to see that. Spokane reminds me very much of Youngstown when I was growing up. When I was 21, I knew I wanted to leave. Right out of high school, I worked for the county. And I decided there was a little more out there. A girlfriend and I packed up and took a road trip. We landed in California and decided to stay. That’s where I met my husband, got married and had my children.And I ended up in the car business. I started off with every job in the (dealership) office. I started out as a service cashier and then I moved to each of the desks and learned all the insides. In California, car titles are huge. I was trained by an outside company on doing titles. I became pretty proficient at getting difficult cars titled. My focus was there. I was in the process of starting my own business to do car titles. I was working for a dealer when my daughter was diagnosed with cancer, and we went through treatment, and when she was done, I decided to go off and start my own business. The dealer I was working for had gone bankrupt. They had owned three dealerships. I was out of work. I thought it was a good time to start my own business. Then, I found out I couldn’t get insurance. I carried the insurance, because my husband was self-employed. He worked in the construction industry. We looked for health insurance for the family and found that no one would cover my daughter because of her pre-existing condition of having cancer. So I had to go back to work for (another) company and get under a group insurance plan. I had a couple of accounts I did on my own before I went back working for a dealer. And then I moved up to office management.What did I learn in 15 years in the car industry I still use? Probably everything. One of the things is that when you have a job that has to get done, you figure out a way to get it done. Sometimes it’s conventional means and sometimes it’s unconventional. When my daughter was first diagnosed, and if I had to be somewhere else between the hours of 4 and 6, 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 that we do. I learned how to be flexible within a structured organization. That is very valuable. When businesses are looking for good people, if they can offer people some flexibility in their work, as long as the job is getting done, I think that’s a valuable benefit. I don’t know that I could ever be regimented. I learned that, and I also learned perseverance. And I wasn’t afraid to learn something new. When I became the best cashier, I could have stayed doing that. But it wasn’t enough. I wanted to challenge myself and learn something new. And that’s what I liked about car titles. Every one was different. It was always a challenge to ask what does this situation call for? In this line of work, I’m working with people and every situation is different and I ask: “What does this situation call for?”When do I tell my personal story? Each one of us, our personal experiences and our personal journeys, become a part of you. Just as being born in 1957 in the United States has defined who I am and where my life is going to go. All of the things that have happened to me in my life have given me insights that other people may or may not have. But I’m a firm believer we all have that. Who we are is shaped by our circumstances, to some extent, but I also believe who we are is also shaped by how we relate to those circumstances and what we do with them. We can choose to either make it a part of who we are or forget about it and say this is an event and move on from there. When I think about do I want to talk about my family, do I want to talk about some of the things that got me where I am today, I put it into the perspective of is it going to be helpful for somebody else to hear that? If I think it might be helpful, then I will share it. But if I don’t think it will be helpful, if I think it will be something that will detract from them, then no, I won’t share it. When I meet families in crisis, with a child just diagnosed with cancer, do I tell them that? Absolutely not. They need to know yes, I understand from a parent’s perspective what they are going through and I can maybe help them in a way that someone else who hasn’t been there can. When it comes to things that aren’t life-and-death situations, but feel like life-and-death situations – someone who loses a job, someone whose house has been 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 of you know, nobody died. And that’s a good thing. But I would never judge anyone for the devastation they feel. Your loss is a loss. A divorce is a loss. But there’s also some choice there. When things happen you don’t have a choice about – when your house burns down, when somebody hits your car, when your child gets sick – you don’t choose those things. But you do choose how you want to respond to that. I have worked very hard to develop a response to life that is not a knee-jerk reaction but more of a measured response rather than an emotional kick. That is what I try to share. Not necessarily my specifics. Not necessarily what got me here, because 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.What was the most helpful thing people did for me? Listen, listen, listen. People want to be heard. My concern now is to be present and listen when people speak. And acknowledge what they are saying and validate that that is their experience. And that is who they are. The people who listened to me were the ones I could just call up on the phone and not even say a word. Just have that presence. Have someone be there for me. That is one of the most valuable that we can do for each other. 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 we all can give. It doesn’t cost a thing.Our society has become a society of experts. People have lost confidence in their own ability to speak from their own heart. There’s a lot of literature out there. “Oh, someone said this and it was so hurtful.” I can’t tell you some of the most ridiculous things people have said to me as I was going through this. But I was always grateful they said something. When people speak, they reflect who they are, rather than who you are. So when someone says something to you, and it’s not helpful, sometimes it’s a moment to educate them and sometimes it’s a moment to allow them to be who they are. To have the right words to say to somebody, when they are suffering, when they are hurting, you have to trust your heart. The canned phrases don’t work. Those are the things that make people withdraw. It’s not that (the canned phrases) aren’t authentic, but they are removed from your actual experience. 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” is one of the best things that anyone can say. And it’s appreciated. Rather than someone who says, “Well, it’s God’s choice or God’s will or everything happens for a reason.” Well that may be true. Everything may happen for a reason. But right now, it’s not helpful and I don’t want to know that.Why is silence so painful in a crisis? When you don’t acknowledge where someone is at, it’s dismissive. Sometimes, it’s fear that makes people (say nothing), especially if the death of someone close to them. But there’s also a level of if I acknowledge it, I’ll create more pain. I had people say to me, “Well, I didn’t want to bring up your son, because it would make you sad.” Well, I am sad every single day when I miss my son. So you’re not going to make me be sad. You may draw some tears and that may scare you and make you pull away, but I am grateful for the time to share that. It makes us not so isolated, not so alone.(The company) had three dealerships in Southern California and eight of them in Northern California. And they decided the three I worked for they were going to close them. There were people who immediately jumped ship. It was a little bit of a better (economic) climate, and they could find work other places. The people who stayed behind to ride it out – and I was one of them – we were compensated much better because they knew they needed someone to help close it out. It was an interesting time to work for a dying company, to be there at the end. We did a great send off. And the people who stuck around, we knew we’d be out of work, but we also knew it would be temporary. 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. They went in to see their child, and I sat out in the waiting room. I struck up a conversation with a man who was there. He started to tell me about his daughter who had gotten into trouble. She had disgraced the family. He didn’t think he could and ever see her. His wife was in seeing her. He wanted to disown her. We had a conversation about that. We had a conversation about the public perception of what you’re going through versus your ability to be there for your daughter and love her. 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.” And it was one of those conversations where you felt like, ah yeah, I think I’m supposed to be here talking with you right now. I think we’ve all had those experiences. Having faith in the bigger picture of life, outside of our little circumstances, no matter how big they seem at the time. I was the main breadwinner in our family. I had the steady income. I carried the insurance. It was a little bit scary, but I also felt like I was in the right place, where I needed to be. I went to work for a temp service. I loved doing the temp work. Before I got a full-time job again it was probably a year.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?” I tried that historical perspective. 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. I’ve worked very hard on myself, and I continue to. I believe that if I am still hear living, breathing and speaking, that is the role I need to do. I need to try raise my own consciousness. That gets me out of bed every day.My sister actually gave me wonderful words of wisdom. During the time when my husband was sick, and my daughter was sick, and he was out of work and I was trying to work and then I got to the point where I had to stop working, I had to be able to take my daughter to her appointments. I was so worried about money, how are we going to pay these bills? My sister said one day, “You know, Mary Anne, you are going to make it through it. One way or another, you are going to make it through it.” I stopped and I thought about that and thought, well that’s so simple. But when you are in the middle of it, you don’t feel like you can. I had to let go of (the question) “How am I going to make it through?” I don’t know how, but I know I am going to make it through.Whenever anything really huge and big happens to us, there’s a loss of control. We want so very much to have control over our lives. When you lose that, you have a big decision to make. You have to decide: Am I going to hold on to the old way I was living where I was in control and had everything handled. Or am I going to open up to a new way and believe I will make it through this. 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 at the time. We don’t turn the TV on in the morning. I took him to school, and I happened to go in with him. At school, they had the TVs on. I walked out, I got in my car and thought: Everything has changed. But I think now this country knows how I feel every single day.” It’s that uncertainty. There are no guarantees about anything. We like to have guarantees in our lives. It’s an illusion we have control. So when a horrible thing happens in our life, that’s the choice we make. Do we surrender that control? Or do we hold onto it? And there are a lot of people holding on very tightly right now. And they are very fearful. And they very much want to turn back the clock to a gentler, more wonderful time. That time never existed. Unless you were a child, because everything looks great when you’re a child.I got to Spokane on New Year’s Eve of 1994. My husband had passed away. My daughter had passed away. I had two small boys, and we had been wanting to move out of Southern California for years. Every time, we got ready to go something happened. And so I thought, I’m getting out of here now. 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 now, too. I wanted to move somewhere where I knew at least one person. I investigated different places. I came up to Spokane for a weekend, and it just felt right. My brother told me: “You’re going to love it. It will remind you of Youngstown when we were growing up.” And it really did. It’s a blue-collar town. A river runs through the middle of it. Of course, we didn’t have the falls. It just felt good and it was a nice place. It was a place I thought: Yeah, I could raise the boys here. OK, Spokane literally called my name. When I got here, my brother put me in touch with his realtor. Her name: Mary Anne. The weekend I was coming up, she was out of town. She put me in touch with her partner, Kerry, which was my husband’s name. And then we’re driving down Mullan Road. (Her maiden name was Mullen). I was like, OK it’s spelled a little differently, but that’s going to work. Then I saw Mary Anne’s Restaurant and I went “This town is calling my name. I just have to move here.”I thought about going back into the car business. But my life had changed so much, and I had always wanted to be a writer. I went to SCC and took a couple of classes here, a couple of classes there. Just to get me out of the house. I wanted to write. I wanted to get paid for it. Maybe I’ll go into journalism. I got on the newspaper at SCC. I won an SPJ award. And then Michael was diagnosed (with cancer) and when that happened, I had to quit. Then he passed away. When I first moved here, I’d drive by the GU campus and I would look and go “It’s so beautiful. I want to go there someday.” After Michael passed away, I thought about going back to SCC and finishing my AA. Then I thought, I can’t go backwards. Someone told me about Gonzaga’s BGS program (for students over 25). So I enrolled at Gonzaga. I just loved being on that campus. Michael passed away in 1999. I was there from 2000 to 2004. My emphasis was on pastoral counseling and human resources. I was volunteering for Candlelighters. I was on the board. When I first went to Gonzaga, I was going to go into journalism. I got on the paper there. But my whole perspective had changed. I thought I don’t care about campus life right now. I shifted my focus into religious studies.What does education do for people in transition times? Education opens up doors you never knew were there. You will also discover things about yourself you may not have been able to develop or discover in your old position. I’m a firm believer in education. You’ll discover things you didn’t know you had in you. Sometimes it’s frustrating to say: “This could be the best thing that happened to you.” For a lot of people, it never becomes anything good. But if you start to look at it this way: I’m in a very scary position right now,” and give yourself one hour a day to explore options in your mind. And access where you are and where you want to go. We all have the ability to go where we want to go. One of my son’s school principals put it nicely. He said, “Education is the key. You can put it in your pocket and leave it there for 15 years. But if you ever find a door you want to open, you can pull it out and open it.”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 immediately, I would not have been able to go back to school. Having life insurance is key, even when you’re young. We both had life insurance when we were young. We were in our 30s. Our parents bought all of us a policy when we were young. It’s a small one. I still have it. It’s something they instilled. You never know what’s around the corner. You can’t always prepare for things. Another thing I was fortunate to have was that I had supplemental, disability insurance. When I had to take off work to care for my husband and daughter, I was able to utilize that to off of work. Even when things are tough, there are some things you shouldn’t let go. I still have my life insurance policy. I’m keeping it for my son.Why the name change for Candlelighters to American Childhood Cancer Organization Northwest? Part of the reason is that Candlelighters started in the 1970s. One of the founding members was asked, “What do you think of us changing the name.” She said, “Candlelighters worked back in the ’70s. It was a very dark time. Most of the children died. The name came from the saying: “It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” Which is very comforting. But she said it’s a different time now, a different age. What happens now many times is that when people hear the name Candlelighters, they don’t associate that with childhood cancer. It’s “Do you sell candles? Are you a church group?” So it’s hard for us to establish our identity and what we do. Our tagline really says it:“ Because kids can’t fight cancer alone.” But that’s a longer conversation. Our national office changed their name. I was against it to begin with, because I’m attached to the name, and I’m a sentimental gal. But to be able to associate the name Candlelighters with childhood cancer would cost a lot of money to be able to do that in the public mind. If you have a name that says who you are and what you do, it’s just much easier for people to understand. We had the choice to either change our name or not. I’ve been working very hard in the last couple of years to let people know who we are and find out about us. In our community, we are pretty well known, but just the other day, someone said, “You said Candlelighters and I didn’t want to ask you anything about it, because I didn’t want you to ask me to have a candle party.” So I think there is still something with the name. I would like to say this: People have a choice. Even when it feels as if their life is being dictated by external circumstances, they still have the choice on how they will behave and react to those circumstances. One way can make it better. And another way can make it worse or keep them stuck. That is your choice. You have a choice. I do not see myself as an extraordinary person. I was shocked when you asked me to do this interview. The thing is I am no different from anyone else. I realized I couldn’t do this myself. I reached out, though much of my journey was a solitary journey. I need time alone. I read a lot. “Man’s Search for Meaning” (about a Nazi death camp survivor) was a great book. Those were the kinds of book I sought. I searched. I questioned. I always tried to have a more global perspective. I’d go back to the fact I was born in 1957 in the United States. What if I had been born in 1930 in Germany and I was Jewish? I tried to I get outside of myself and my own little personal tragedy, because we’re all in this together. This is a joint effort. The best thing I can do for the joint effort is to improve myself. Was it hard? Oh my God, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. When you have to face things about yourself that aren’t pretty and you have to take responsibility for that, it’s hard. It took me a long time. And there were times I turned away. But then I’d think “Five years from now, where do you want to be?”You asked me what others said or did that helped me. I was offered encouragement. And in return, that is what I can offer. We cannot fix the problems of others no matter how much we want to – and no matter how much others want us to fix them. But we can offer encouragement to others and remind them that they have the strength within themselves to make it through any storm. Even when we do not know how we will make it, knowing that we will make it through can keep us moving forward in the face of crippling circumstances. Everyone is capable of providing encouragement to others. Everything changes – knowing that helps us to endure the tough times and to savor the good times.Sometimes we hear that things happen for a reason. And maybe they do but what reason could possibly be good enough to endure the pain of loss – in any form – a job, a home, a husband, wife or child? We hear stories of people who have re-defined themselves because of their loss and others who have been defined by them. What separates them, I think, is the search to find their own reasons for what happens in their life. There is no standard answer – no one answer fits all. Only self-examination and reflection can lead to greater opportunities through loss – and each person must find their own way. It is a solitary journey but does not have to be done alone. We all need encouragement and support – from others, from books, from groups, from family, from friends. That is what we can provide each other.