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Catholic World News News Feature

A Life of Dramatic Unity December 21, 2001

By Philip F. Lawler

My friend Ruth Pakaluk died quietly, at home, on September 23, after a long battle with cancer. Since she was a young woman (41), leaving behind a husband and six young children, her death might have seemed a horrible tragedy. Surely it was a heavy loss--for all her many friends, and especially for her family. But as family and friends gathered for the funeral, we were swept by feelings more powerful than grief.

Ruth's husband Michael had identified those sentiments during the wake. When asked how the children were reacting to the death, he replied simply: "They're happy." Of course they were not happy that their mother was gone; no doubt there had been plenty of tears shed in the Pakaluk home that week. But they were happy that her battle was finally over. More important still, they were happy--as we all were happy--because they were confident that her battle had ended in victory.


Born into a Presbyterian family, Ruth had studied literature at Harvard, married Michael, and traveled with him to Scotland, where he was a graduate student in philosophy. It was in Edinburgh that she entered the Catholic faith and, soon thereafter, the pro-life movement. By the time the Pakaluks returned to Harvard, Ruth had become a daily communicant and a whirlwind of pro-life activity.

Her approach to political activism was disarmingly simple. "Well, nobody else is doing it, and it has to be done," she would say again and again. So she took it upon herself to make the phone calls, write the letters, and call the meetings. Before reaching the age of 30 she had been elected president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life (MCFL) the largest pro-life organization in Massachusetts. Convinced that abortion could not be eliminated unless young people were properly informed about life in the womb, she founded a program that sent pro-life speakers into high-school classrooms. For ten years--in fact, until literally only a few weeks before her death--Ruth made most of those classroom presentations herself.

Meanwhile the Pakaluk family was growing, and moving. Michael finished his doctorate in philosophy, and won an appointment to the faculty of Clark University, in Worcester, Massachusetts. Soon Ruth was absorbed in a new whirlwind of activity. Within a few years after her arrival in Worcester, the Central Massachusetts chapter of MCFL was the more active than the parent organization. And naturally there were diapers to change, meals to prepare, teachers' meetings and soccer games to attend--all the regular duties of a busy mother.


The first major blow to strike the Pakaluk family fell on November 13, 1989. Checking on 6-week-old Thomas, who had been napping, Ruth found that the baby had turned blue. Little Thomas had stopped breathing, and he would not breath again; he was a victim of the mysterious "crib death" syndrome.

The grieving had barely ended when the second blow fell: Ruth was diagnosed with breast cancer. She would endure a major operation, and weeks of intensive chemotherapy. Then there were several months of anxious prayer as the doctors waited to see whether the cancer has been eliminated. Finally, after a year, the Pakaluks received the good news that Ruth's cancer was in remission.

Life returned to normal--or as close to normal as an overcrowded family schedule would allow. Ruth sang in the cathedral choir; on special liturgical occasions Michael and the older boys would form a brass trio. A seventh child, Sophie, was born. Ruth began her own television show, emphasizing pro-life and pro-family issues.

Then, after four happy years, the third blow fell. Suffering from a persistent pain in her leg, Ruth visited the doctor, and was told that the cancer had returned. This time the disease had invaded her bones; she would need another operation, and spend her last months with a metal rod in her leg to bolster the limb. Worse, the doctor announced that the cancer was spreading inexorably; Ruth had only about one year to live.

As it happens, that prognosis was inaccurate; Ruth would keep up her normal schedule for another three years. (Perhaps the doctor had not taken into account the remarkable strength of his patient.) But while she enjoyed months of apparently normal health, free of symptoms, Ruth and Michael knew that the superficial appearances were deceiving, and the cancer was eating its way through her body.

"As a practical matter, we act as if the cancer isn't there," Michael confessed; "Otherwise, we'd go crazy." For her part, Ruth was far too busy to bemoan her fate. When asked how she was feeling, she would might answer, "Fine," in a tone that did not encourage further discussion. Or she might emphasize the irony of the situation by saying, "I feel fine," punctuating the remark with a chuckle, and quickly shifting the conversation over to whatever business was at hand.


When Father Richard Reidy was appointed rector of St. Paul's cathedral, he was delighted to discover that he had such a dynamo in his parish. "It was really such a blessing," he says, to find that the Pakaluks shared his vision for an active parish life, centered on the sacraments and extending out to educational and social activities. Ruth and Michael became his active partners in arranging evenings of recollection, lecture programs, and outings for the parish youth group.

Preaching at Ruth's funeral, Father Reidy recalled that he had been enormously impressed with her organizational abilities, and assumed that she was keeping meticulous notes of all their conversations so that she could keep track of every item on the agenda. He had clung to that assumption for months, he confessed, before one phone conversation when he heard the sound of running water in the background, and realized that she was not taking notes; she was doing the dishes. Then he realized that he had actually underestimated her energy; he had allowed himself to forget that she was not only helping with the work of the parish and the pro-life movement, but also making a home for six demanding children.

Nevertheless, Father Reidy noticed, Ruth always seem to have time for prayer. He would see her sitting quietly in a pew in front of the Blessed Sacrament, leave the cathedral to go about his own business, and come back 30 minutes later to find Ruth in the same place. Once, the parish youth group scheduled an all-day outing, with the bus leaving at 5:30 on a Saturday morning; Ruth prevailed upon him to come an hour earlier--4:30 AM--to celebrate Mass before they left.

By now most of her own children were old enough to go to school, and so it followed that Ruth became deeply involved in the debate over the direction of public education. She took on yet another organizing project, convincing friends to speak out at the meetings of local school committees. Again, hard work produced results. Mary Mullaney, who called Ruth "my best friend," was elected to the city's school board; the board as a whole rejected a bid by Planned Parenthood to install a sex-education curriculum. One frustrated liberal finally told the local newspaper, "I'm sick and tired of Ruth Pakaluk and her friends telling people what to do."

There were times when Ruth's determination made life uncomfortable for Church officials. On one notable occasion, she learned that a group of Democratic politicians, most of them public advocates of legalize abortion, were scheduled to hold a rally in a hall owned by another Worcester parish. She quickly threw together a protest campaign, urging friends to call the chancery and protest. Yet again she produced results; the event was quietly moved to another, non-Catholic facility.


To his credit, Worcester's Bishop Daniel Reilly did not harbor any resentments on account of that little insurrection. On the contrary, in 1997 he hired Ruth to fill a part-time position in the diocesan pro-life office, giving her another opportunity to bring the message of Evangelium Vitae to high-school students. Although by now she was beginning to feel the effects of the advancing cancer, Ruth plunged into the job with characteristic gusto. She had learned to live with the disease, and with the required medical treatments; she would undergo chemotherapy in the morning, spend a few hours resting, and then head out for a speaking engagement in the afternoon. By January 1998, in spite of her illness, she had personally addressed every Catholic high-school student in the city. As a result, she led an impressive Worcester delegation, including five busloads of teenagers, to the annual March for Life in Worcester.

Then, in Washington, Ruth collapsed. By now the cancer had spread to her lungs; she was hospitalized, and diagnosed with acute pneumonia. Doctors feared that the end had come.

Once again the doctors had underestimated their patient. Ruth came home to Worcester, and went back to work. But as the disease progressed, she was forced to curtail her schedule, bit by bit, curbing her outside activities and helping to prepare her family for the inevitable end. She told a friend, with great satisfaction, that she had taught each of the three oldest children to make "three different, solid dinners," so that the family could enjoy some variety at supper while the new cooks honed their culinary skills.

Through it all, the one thing Ruth did not do was complain. The closest she came to acknowledging her suffering was to tell a friend, "I like chemotherapy; it makes me feel better." Since virtually every other veteran of chemotherapy reports that the procedure is a dreadful experience, one can only assume that she was in severe pain before the treatment began.

Finally the cancer reached her liver, and the end was clearly in sight. In August, Ruth was enlisted in a test program in at a Boston hospital, where doctors administered a new experimental cancer-fighting drug. The initial results were promising, the doctors said, although usually the first signs of improvement were not visible for at least two weeks. "I'm not sure we have that long," Michael admitted.

In a network of friends that now stretched across at least three continents, hundreds of people were now praying for a miracle cure. But Ruth, who had packed so much activity into her 41 years, had a different perspective. "Why would I want a cure?" she asked Mary Mullaney. "Why would I trade the face of God for life on this earth?" DRAMATIC UNITY

Toward the end, Ruth summed up her approach to the moral life in two characteristically pithy imperatives: "Know God's will. Do God's will." As she saw things, it was not terribly important for a Christian to comprehend the entirety of God's design for human history, much less to understand the particular crises and reversals of each passing day. It only mattered whether the individual knew what God wanted of him that day, and whether he did it.

It was an unusually diverse congregation that gathered for the funeral. Along with the usual assortment of relatives, neighbors, and friends, there were also: the philosopher professors, colleagues of Michael's, who had matched wits with Ruth across the Pakaluk dinner table; the pro-life activists who had joined her in stuffing envelopes, carrying placards, and making phone calls; the public officials who had counted on her for campaign support; the teenagers who had followed her to Washington, and the teenagers who might have been aborted if not for her efforts; even a boys' soccer squad, wearing their team jerseys as a sign of solidarity with their teammate, Ruth's son.

Each one of us, if we had written the script for Ruth's life, would have ended it differently; certainly we would have given her the full five-act treatment. But the divine playwright had a different plan. And as we gathered outside St. Paul's Cathedral on a sunny September morning, we could not deny the dramatic unity of Ruth's life. So we were left with feelings like those of a young child whose father has just read him a particularly satisfying story: wishing that the story did not have to come to an end, and yet knowing that if it did not end, it could not be the same beautiful story.

[AUTHOR ID] Philip F. Lawler is the editor of Catholic World Report.