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Six years ago my sister died.
Have you ever lost someone you truly loved? I loved my little sister deeply, and it hurt me terribly to lose her. In fact, I’m still not over her death. You probably would have loved her too, because she had that rare quality so few people manage to develop—a highly-developed sense of passionate service to others. Let me tell you a little bit about her.
My mother gave birth to my sister Jordis on an unusually sunny and beautiful day in Moses Lake, Washington in the early winter of 1956. The youngest of five children, the baby of the family, we doted on her and loved her, and she constantly delighted all of us with her playful, sprightly spirit. She seemed sunny and happy from Day One. I’ll tell you just one story: once when our sister Cass and our cousin Susie were playing, Susie – who was always the alpha female of the group – announced that henceforth, she should be known as the Queen of Horses. Cass said “Dang! I love horses too,” and after some thought about her love of lions and tigers, said, “Okay, I’ll be the Queen of Cats!”
Then here comes Jordis, the tag-along, pesky little sister, saying “I want to be Queen of something, too!” Susie said disdainfully, after looking around for a moment, “You can be Queen of Leaves.” Jordis thought that was wonderful – “I’m the Queen of Leaves!” she exclaimed, dancing happily through the fall leaves in the yard.
Jordis always had that same infectious enthusiasm. What a wonderful quality! She made me realize how badly the world needs enthusiastic, joyous people. Rather than cool or cynical or morose or jaded, she wore her warm, excitable heart on her sleeve. She felt her emotions with no apologies; and she could feel yours, too.
But one day in middle age, suddenly, Jordis Ruhl got brain cancer. Jordis and her husband Jerry and their young son Oliver heard those dread-filled words, the modern equivalent of the guillotine – incurable malignant brain tumor. Only 48, the oncologist gave her six months to live.
In times past, a five-decade lifespan may not have seemed so shocking. But today, most of us harbor the unspoken, internalized expectation that we will live out our lives and make it to old age before we die. The normal life expectancy in most developed nations now hovers somewhere around 80.
My sister Jordis did not achieve that long life. The light of our family, probably the smartest and the liveliest and the most fun, a woman admired and loved, always with a twinkle in her eye, absolutely radiant, with literally hundreds of friends – made it two more years. She lived in the little village of Yellow Springs, Ohio, population 4,000. Maybe 400 people came to her funeral, which tells you how much love she generated during her five decades.
After the shock of the terminal cancer diagnosis none of us could do much, besides tell Jordis we loved her and try to make her life, and her husband’s and young son’s lives, a little easier. Luckily, brain tumors don’t hurt, since ironically, the brain has no pain receptors. As the tumor grew, you could not even tell that Jordis had cancer. In fact, she had no pain and very little physical or mental impairment at all until the very last weeks of her life. She lived those two years as the same sparkling, lively, wonderful person –with a death sentence. “We all have one,” she would say, smiling, “I just know the details.”
We talked about her death sentence quite a bit. A devoted Baha’i, Jordis believed strongly in a life after this one, so death itself wasn’t really her main concern. She had faith that her life would continue in the next world. She told me she eagerly looked forward to seeing what she’d find there.
Instead, she selflessly and intensely worried about others. She fiercely loved her husband, Jerry, and son, Oliver. Leaving them behind troubled her immensely. She wrote a set of letters to her son – To Be Opened on Your 18th Birthday; on Your 25th Birthday, When You Fall in Love, When You Marry, When You Have Your First Child. Sadly, she knew she would miss all those significant milestones on her son’s path to adulthood. But despite that loss, she came to accept the inevitable end of her physical, earthly life. She prepared herself spiritually by reading the Baha’i writings, by meditating, by praying, by telling everyone she knew how deeply she loved them. All of these things comforted her and readied her soul for its transference to the next life.
Something else miraculous happened, too. My sister’s impending death woke up the people around her to their own mortality. Everyone she knew saw her radiant acquiescence to her fate, and began to realize that we all share the same death sentence:
These few brief days shall pass away, this present life shall vanish from our sight; the roses of this world shall be fresh and fair no more, the garden of this earth’s triumphs and delights shall droop and fade. The spring season of life shall turn into the autumn of death, the bright joy of palace halls give way to moonless dark within the tomb. And therefore is none of this worth loving at all, and to this the wise will not anchor his heart. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 220-221.
As the process of her death went forward, Jordis and I made a promise to each other—that we would try to develop the wisdom to anchor our hearts to something beyond this physical plane.