I saw a 109-year-old woman brought back to life. It was stunning. Humbling. I’m still trying to process it all. I’ll tell you about it in a moment.
But first, a little background. Ruth1898 is not only the oldest member of our growing bolder community; she’s the world’s oldest member of a social networking community. She’s the oldest blogger ever. And she’s a pistol. Ruth1898 is no gimmick – no ploy to get publicity. Ruth doesn’t just mumble something semi-coherent that we write down, embellish and then report in “her” blog. No, we turn on a laptop computer with a camera in it and get out of the way. Ruth fully understands the Internet and begins to dispense the sage advice that only comes from a long and interesting life.
Bill Shafer, Jason Morrow and I went to visit Ruth this week because Bill heard she wasn’t doing well. Bill and Ruth have been friends for many years. He’s attended her birthday party almost every year for nearly two decades. And as she’s gotten older, Bill’s visits have become more frequent. Many times he visits without a camera or a reporters pad. Just two friends enjoying one another’s company. Ruth lights up whenever Bill visits. “Bill Shafer is a wonderful man,” she repeats with obvious delight.
When we arrived, Ruth’s room was dark and she was in her bed, lying motionless on her back. A hospice nurse kept vigil nearby. The nurse told us that Ruth had been in a great deal of pain earlier and had been refusing to eat. She was heavily medicated and, to us, seemed almost comatose.
We stepped outside the room where a hospice supervisor advised us that the prognosis wasn’t good. Ruth, she said, seemed ready to go. “She’s made her peace. We’re here to keep her comfortable and honor her last wishes. If she doesn’t want to eat, we won’t force her.”
Before leaving, Bill decided to speak to Ruth. Hearing is one of the last senses to go and many doctors and nurses say voices are comforting, even to seemingly comatose patients. Bill walked to Ruth’s bedside and leaned to within inches of her right ear. “Ruth, it’s Bill Shafer. Hi, Ruth. It’s Bill Shafer. Are you O.K.? Do you need anything?” Bill held Ruth’s hand. He rubbed her arm. “Ruth, you have another birthday coming up in April. We’re planning a big party. Are you going to be there?” Ruth’s eyes slowly opened. “Ruth, It’s Bill Shafer. What are you thinking about? Are you thinking about Carter? Are you thinking about the rye bread and jelly sandwiches your mother used to make you?” Ruth lips slowly moved. “Do I know you?” she asked. “It’s Bill Shafer. I’ve come to visit you.” The look of semi-comatose confusion slowly washed away. “Oh, how wonderful!” She said. “Bill Shafer is visiting me.”
For the next 30 minutes, Bill took Ruth on a trip down memory lane and the further they went the more she returned. “Do you remember the time you met Hitler in 1937 and the time you had lunch with Eleanor Roosevelt?” “Yes. Yes! I did that!” She excitedly exclaimed. “You did that and so much more,” Bill answered. “You were the first female legislator in New Hampshire. You had your own radio show and you wrote a book.” “And it’s a very good book,” she blurted out . “It helped a lot of people.” “That’s your legacy – your humanity.” Bill told her. “ Oh thank you! Thank you for using that word. Humanity. Humanity. How wonderful! That’s all I’ve ever wanted. Just to help others Thank-you.”
Ruth’s mind was working again. Synapses were firing. Memories were being retrieved. Bill offered her a drink and she eagerly accepted. The idea of a 110th birthday party now excited her. “You’ll have a chocolate covered angel food cake, Bill promised. “Yes! And I’ll eat the whole thing.” Ruth answered. We could see the wheels turning. “I know I have a purpose,” she said. “I’m just not sure what it is. But there has to be a reason I’m still here. I’ll just keep praying and waiting for the answer. Isn’t life wonderful!” Ruth was back– a moving demonstration of the power of stimulation and the beauty of friendship. Even the Hospice nurses were amazed by the sudden transformation.
We have no idea how much longer Ruth will be with us. Or if she’ll be able to return to her blogging. We do believe that if she were left alone, she would go and go very quickly. But if she is stimulated, she could continue to live and continue to search for that purpose she still wonders about. Bill demonstrated that when he patiently seeded Ruth’s trail home with rich and powerful memories.
At 109, perhaps Ruth is ready to go. But that should be her choice. I’m not suggesting she or others like her should receive an organ transplant or expensive experimental drugs. But I can tell you the only real drug Ruth needs is human interaction and that shouldn’t be withheld.
The take away for me from this remarkable encounter is that hospitals and nursing homes everywhere are filled with people in their 70’s and 80’s and 90’s who have no Bill Shafer- no one willing or able to reach in and pull them back. Isolated and without stimulation they simply slip away, freeing up a bed for someone else. Perhaps that’s what society wants. That’s certainly the way society acts. We have been brainwashed by our culture and media to believe that human beings naturally and irretrievably fall apart after a certain age. That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. But Ruth and Bill have proven that it’s not necessarily true.
If you’d like to learn more about Ruth and watch her amazing video blogs visit her home page