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Last month was the tenth anniversary of the death of Ruth V.K. Pakaluk (March 19, 1957 Sept. 23, 1998), president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life from 1987 to 1991, convert to the pro-life cause and to Catholicism, Harvard grad, wife of philosopher (friend and fellow columnist) Michael Pakaluk, mother of seven (her son Thomas died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), active in her Worcester cathedral parish and in the apostolic activities of the Opus Dei prelature. She died of metastasized breast cancer at age 41. I had the privilege of knowing Ruth and her family for more than ten years before she died. She was beautiful, brilliant, savvy, funny, and remarkably articulate. I also think she was one of the holiest people I have ever known.
This past weekend the parents of St. Therese, the Little Flower, were beatified in Lisieux in France. The Church obviously needs more models of holiness in married and family life, since most people are called to holiness through marriage and parenting. Ruth lived an exemplary life, without complaint and with a cheerful spirit. As Father Reidy commented in his funeral homily at the time, her eldest daughter “Maria wanted it recounted that when asked why her mom always smiled, Ruth replied so her wrinkles wouldn’t go down.”
She went to daily Mass and Holy Communion, and prayed at length and regularly, including the Rosary. Her love of God also manifested itself in an impressive love of neighbor, shown in countless rather ordinary details. As she herself said in a talk, “[T]he love God is really looking for, the love that is true and really counts, is the love of ten thousand mornings of getting up, being cheerful, listening to the kids when they come in from school like a thundering herd of elephants, smiling at the husband when he comes in from work and refraining from rehearsing all the horrors of your day.” She was obviously speaking from experience.
My sense is that everyone who knew Ruth could attest that she gave a wonderful and at times heroic witness, both in word and deed, to the value of every human being. For instance, here is what she wrote about the birth of her first son, Michael: “[Michael’s] birth was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. For the first time in my life, I had to put the needs of someone else ahead of my own preferences almost constantly throughout the day. And though it was a little difficult to get used to, I loved it.”
Her joy in welcoming new life was infectious. Grace Cheffers recalls: “Well, one of my other vivid memories of Ruth is when I told her I was expecting Thomas, because I was getting negative flack from people...I said something, and she had this immediate, sincere reaction: ‘That’s wonderful!’ Her voice changed, and she was just so happy. And I was really taken aback, because she wasn’t kidding. She really thought that that was wonderful. And the immediate reaction from me was: ‘Yeah--it is wonderful.”
She loved her life as a wife and mother in Worcester. Even when she was President of MCFL, she would always list “Homemaker” as her occupation when filling out forms. She described her life in a letter to a friend who was a business person: “I understand completely the relief you feel at the end of the day. Mothers long for the same every day starting at about 4:00 PM. My friend Katy and I call it the ‘Arsenic Hour” (it’s either you or them, but someone’s going to get it in the tea.) However, we somehow drag ourselves through it, through dinner, through the bedtime bedlam; then collapse at the close of the day after maybe writing a letter (like this one) or reading a chapter or two. But it is a great life. As far as I can make out, everyone has the burden of finding a large part of the day a grind. Just because you experience this in a business suit does not make it more pleasant. In fact, it seems to me to make it less pleasant, because business suits are uncomfortable. A surprising number of people find the money they make adequate compensation for this experience of drudgery. I don’t think I would. Housewives have a lot of physical work, drudgery, and the psychologically difficult task of listening to children fight, cry, and whine. But we have more free time to think our own thoughts and converse with our friends than most people ever do. I cannot picture a job that would be more appealing to me than this.”
No wonder that the inscription on her gravestone at Notre Dame Cemetery in Worcester reads, simply, “Beloved wife and mother.” I think her a splendid embodiment of Vatican II’s teaching of the universal call to holiness, and Pope John Paul II’s Gospel of Life. Hopefully, we will hear more about her in the future.
Dwight G. Duncan is a professor at Southern New England School of Law. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.