Once in a lifetime, does someone get to befriend a person as delightful as Ruth Van Heukelom. My dear “Mom Ruth” was not only a best friend, but a prayer warrior, a spiritual mentor, a confidant, and a mother figure to me.
One day, as she hugged me, she said, “You’re a good daughter.” It struck me in that tender spot. The tears flowed. I secretly considered myself to be her sixth child. Anyone would be honored to be a daughter or son of this kind of woman. We joked about how I would fit right in after Ruth’s five children, as the youngest child. I don’t want to sound presumptuous, because Ruth made everyone feel like they were special. I wasn’t the only one. After meeting Ruth, you felt like she loved you and was interested in you. People loved her the minute they met her, and love flowed out of her.
I’ve always known about Ruth and her husband Norm. Before I was born, Norm was the minister at my parent’s church. My mom spoke occasionally about the VanHeukeloms in her diaries. After six years in Hamilton, Michigan, they moved on to their next church. Many years later, after five other church assignments, they returned to our Hamilton church.
This time, Norm took on a smaller role, as the visitation pastor. Now, all of Ruth and Norm’s five children were out of the house. They moved back with just the two of them. My husband and I attended the Hamilton Church, were raising our own young family, I was teaching, and life was extremely busy. We knew Pastor Norm and Ruth but didn’t run in the same circles.
After a few years, Pastor Norm had a sudden stroke and died, in 1999. My husband and I moved to a new church around 2002. Ruth remained part of the Hamilton church and drove in each Sunday from Holland for services. She was a determined widow who refused to let loneliness overtake her, remained active and had many friends.
Many years later, I began to attend Bible Study Fellowship in Holland. I spotted Ruth there and we would occasionally exchange pleasantries. It didn’t go any further at that time and several more years went by.
God led my thoughts back to Ruth, after a missed opportunity to get to know another godly woman in our new church. I resolved not to miss Ruth too. Her lifetime of faith intrigued me. Yes, she was getting old, but I knew she had a keen mind and a blessed spirit. I befriended her on Facebook. Yes, a woman in her late eighties was active on Facebook. I called her to ask if we could meet to talk. Soon, her side of the story came out. Ruth prayed for the last few years, for God to give her a younger friend, in light of the fact that many of her friends were dying of old age.
One day as we sat in her living room, I described attending seminars by a Christian ministry, P.R.M.I., which are called Dunamis. We discovered that Norm knew the founder of this particular organization 30 years prior, and Ruth and Norm donated to his ministry. She received the pamphlets frequently in the mail, and one was sitting right on her counter. Ruth was very interested and even expressed desire to go along with me to the next one, which was held in our city of Holland. She always wanted to go and now she had the chance. Ruth taught countless Bible studies, led women’s groups and lived and breathed the Bible all her life but still had a hunger for learning. Especially anything about God.
We attended the conference every six months for a few years. I think she made it to five of them, plus a couple additional meetings at the local prayer house. Although she really wanted to go, I was afraid it was too tiring for her, and offered to take her home several times a day, but she always wanted to stay until evening. Everyone there fell in love with Ruth and she with them. People tried to sit by her at meals, catch her at breaks, and tuned their ears to hear her wise comments in small groups.
Often, someone would ask, “Is this your mom?” I would answer, “Yup!” I laughed and confessed, “I wish, but I adopted her as my mom!” Ruth would smile, producing her signature giggle.
Entering the dining hall of one of the conferences, when I returned from an appointment, I heard laughter. There were six people all around her at the table, talking up a storm. Ruth was right in the thick of all of it. One day, we had a chance to rotate to different people in the room to pray with them. A college youth group attended that day. Those kids deliberately jockeyed for position to pray and talk with her.
Ruth called, sent emails and prayed for me. She and I learned we had much in common. We were both elementary teachers, and loved to read and write. She always asked about my writing projects and prayed for them. I’d lend her books or she told me what she read from her church library. Ruth was in the process of writing a book about her life for her family. I asked if she wanted to do an audio Life Review. I did them for hospice and knew her family would love to have her voice preserved. We giggled as her grandfather clock chimed several times, the phone rang, and she rapped her fingernails on the table as she reminisced about her family, her life, and churches they served.
She understood when I had spiritual questions or health concerns. When I went off on a rant about something she listened. I trusted Ruth and could tell her my private thoughts. I never heard her speak any gossip to me or anyone else, so I knew she wouldn’t tell others about me. On a typical visit, birds chirped outside, as we sat in her living room in front of the sliding doors. I tried to stay only one hour, but multiple hours usually passed. Sometimes we hung out in her office, where I helped her with a minor computer or Facebook issue. Many times, we would pray together before I went home.
One sunny, warm day sticks out in my mind. I took her to Captain Sundae and we had an ice cream flurry. Then we sat in the car at the Holland State Park and talked. I wish I could repeat that pleasant day over many times!
Ruth had her habits and routines. When she was getting out of my car at the doctor’s office, she commented that she was so slow. I would be happy to wait twice as long for my dear Ruth. She made a little “hum, hum, hum,” as she walked around her house. I wondered what song she was humming. When I went home, I’d encourage her to go up her garage steps before I left because I was afraid she might fall. She said, “I’ve lived alone for eighteen years.” Watching her lean on that rickety old lawn chair she insisted on using, frightened me. Ruth waved goodbye from the top step as I enthusiastically returned the wave.
I miss our talks. I miss her giggle. I miss her hugs. I miss spending time with her. Ruth’s death leaves a great void for me. I am saddened to tears that I won’t sit and talk with her in her condo again. No longer can I email or call her, or set up another visit. I loved her like a mom, and she loved me like a daughter.
She loved well. She lived well. She finished well.
Ruth had a close connection to the Lord her entire life, but she had three times in the last year, when He spoke distinctly to her.
The first was when she had an ambulance ride to the hospital after passing out in her home. As she came back into consciousness on the way to the hospital, she thought, “Oh, this wouldn’t be such a bad way to die, I could go quickly without pain and sickness.”
God answered her and said, “Your room isn’t ready yet.”
She was very ill again about a year later.
She thought, “Oh, maybe this will be it.”
A second time, the Lord spoke and said, “Ruth, you are not in control. I am in control.”
In Ruth’s last months of life, she moved many times, from her condo, to the hospital, then to a nursing facility for rehabilitation, and assisted living. She repeated that circuit many times. She tried to remain upbeat, but her body was giving out.
Finally, she got too weak to sit up or eat. Daughters rubbed her legs and sang, sons kept vigil all night. She laid down her last five days, and the progression towards death was certain. Family members came to visit one more time, even the grandchildren carrying great-grandchildren. But their dearly-loved “Pokey” or “Pookie” or “Precious” could no longer smile or reach out to embrace them.
The third time Ruth had a special encounter with her Lord was a couple days before her death. She told family she saw Jesus’ feet. Then a day or so later, she told her daughter, “Jesus said, ‘I’ll see you soon.’”
Friends who loved her slipped in and out of the shadows to touch a hand or stroke a strand of hair. Her ninety years were full. She was ready to go. Hymns were sung, Bible passages were read, permission was tearfully granted to go to heaven.
On a rainy November noon, Ruth drifted out on a slow and peaceful breath, to her new room in heaven. Ruth saw her precious Savior, face to face as she walked on the streets of gold.
The Master said, “Well done, good and faithful servant! Welcome home!”
John 14:2 – “There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am.”
2 Timothy 4:6-8 – “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”
Matthew 25:21 – “The master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’”
Enjoy this song, “Well Done,” by the Afters.