“Bread and Roses, Bread and Roses”

A profile of Christine Ruth Wiebe

Hearts starve as well as bodies;

Bread and roses! Bread and roses!

Give us bread, but give us roses.

Christine Ruth Wiebe’s life was exemplified by this 1912 fragment of a protest song found in her files on a scrap of paper. Through the decades many individuals and groups picked up the refrain. She knew her body needed bread to survive, but also that her spirit withered without the beauty of friends, words and spiritual nurture. She wanted both bread and roses.

Childhood and early education

She was born into a Mennonite Brethren family on Nov. 19, 1954, while we were living in Hepburn, a small one-church farming village on the prairies of northern Saskatchewan. She was our third daughter, following Joanna and Susan. My husband, Walter, was pastor of Hepburn MB church at the time with ambitions to become better educated to serve the church constituency in a literature ministry. His ambitions took us to Eden Christian College, Niagara-on-the Lake, Ont., in 1958, where our fourth child, James, was born, and to Kitchener the next year. Here our placid little Christine began kindergarten at Rosemount School almost a mile from home. She and her friend Judy Carmichael from across the street trudged the mile together on their short legs each day, with Christine coming home to hot milk and honey and time with me.

Her father’s death in 1962 shortly after we moved to Hillsboro, Kansas, affected her most deeply later in life when she realized she had never understood the depth of her loss or grieved his absence in her life. Many of her poems were about his death and dying as well as her own possible shortened life. She also wrote about the stuff of daily life. Word tenses and meanings bothered her as a first grade student. If she wrote a letter saying she was going somewhere tomorrow and that person received it tomorrow, which day would be tomorrow? She came home disturbed that her Grade Three teacher had told her not to use “refrigerator” in a poem because it was not a poetic word. Weren’t all words poetic words? In later life she wrote not only about refrigerators, bathroom mirrors and homemade noodles but also about waiting through the night for sister Joanna’s son David to be born (“Eclipse”) for Death, perched on her shoulder, also watching, waiting to declare himself the winner.

With my husband’s death in 1962 I began full-time work and we five began life with new family dynamics. Everyone had to pitch in and help with daily tasks. At family discussions young Christine listened from the edges rather than sharing her thoughts despite urgings from Joanna and Susan to dive in and make views known. Family relationships were always important to her. She relished memories of Susan sewing clothes for her dolls or making mounds of noodles in later life, watching shooting stars with Joanna lying on a blanket in the backyard, or sitting on a bit of a bridge on the John B. Jost farm with James, stocked with fishing poles, red bobbers and snacks from Mrs. Jost. All these simple experiences became grist for her mill.

But the big questions about life troubled her. Many nights when I was weary and wanted to sleep, as a high school student, she leaned on my bedroom doorpost to talk, edging ever closer to my bed as the discussion got more intense. I encouraged the writing hunger developing in her.

One Sunday afternoon I had pushed the whole family outdoors to shovel the huge mounds of snow in the driveway. She complained of pains in her muscles. It took a while to convince me she had a legitimate complaint. We all had sore muscles from the unaccustomed shoving and lifting. Her pains did not leave her, however, so we began the first of many doctor’s visits. The first diagnosis was rheumatoid arthritis, followed by possibly spinal meningitis, and finally lupus, an auto-immune disease, in 1972. Her first hospitalization that same year was memorialized in “The Caging of Chris,” the first of many little books she wrote, illustrated and hand-bound to give to the family, a skill she improved with the years. At the end of that story, the bird flies free. She began her lifelong arduous flight toward freedom of body and spirit.

She hid the lupus beneath activities, friends and pursuits. She refused to tell anyone about it. She resented the moon face, a side effect of prednisone. Her pale blonde hair had fallen out and grown back a lovely auburn color. Dealing with her changed appearance and limited energy presented a challenge. At night before she went to bed she tied bandages around her face in the hope it might reduce the swelling. Big-brimmed hats to avoid the sun that aggravated the lupus became her trademark. Her severe acne troubled her greatly. Visits to a dermatologist didn’t help.

In the fall of 1972 after a lengthy recuperation from the first serious bout with lupus she began studies at Tabor College, living in the dormitory with Diane Deckert as her roommate. Throughout her educational career, which included two degrees (B.A. and B.S in nursing) and good inroads into an MFA, she remained an excellent student. But that September my heart ached as I watched her slowly crawl up the steps of the Tabor Administration building. She rode her bicycle between buildings to save energy. I recall vividly the first time she ran to the car when I came to pick her up, often to take her to the doctor for checkups.

In a Creative Writing class at Tabor she wrote the first of many reflective personal essays, “The Year Daddy Died,” and grasped the power of personal narrative.

About this time she began her visits to National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, often twice a year, because they were doing a study on a group of drugs fighting lupus. She was placed in the prednisone group, a powerful drug, but with nasty side effects such as cataracts, diabetes, bruising, and osteoporosis, to name a few. She wrote her goal was to be cured of the lupus before the side effects got to her. Unfortunately over time, she acquired most of them and the prednisone ganged up with lupus to defeat her.

MCC Voluntary Service

After college she spent one year at Akron, Penn., in Mennonite Central Committee Voluntary Service as a writer from 1976-77. Here she wrote two essays about former MCC workers Cornelius Wall and Irene Bishop that were published in an anthology of essays Something Meaningful for God, edited by C.J. Dyck. She was not going to let life flit past her without tasting its joys. She managed a number of activities such as staying up all night with MCC unit members playing cards, watching foreign films and just having fun. She took trips to Washington, D.C. and Harlan, Kentucky, to help after a flood. She attended unit parties and gatherings and welcomed every chance to socialize and try new adventures.

From there she signed up to work for two years at Marymound School, a residential school for adjudicated adolescent girls in Winnipeg, as Christian Activities Coordinator, also as a MCC volunteer. Her work with these young girls proved difficult, almost too difficult. She was looking for quick results, but long patterns of family abuse were not quickly erased from their memories. She fell in love with the sisters who ran the school, especially Sister Elise, who became her spiritual mentor for many years. She loved the beauty, mystery, and reverence of the mass and pondered the idea of becoming a Catholic, but put it aside for the time being. She saw the deep-rooted strengths of Catholic spirituality – elements she did not find in evangelical churches

A relationship to God was always important to her. As a child her father had helped her to pray a little prayer to become a Christian not long before he died. “I prayed. I wanted to see an angel or some supernatural being but that became less important. I gained a sense of God’s love, especially through Pastor John Savoia [of the Parkview Mennonite Brethren Church].” She had been baptized by immersion when she was in high school but found this a strange ritual.

Away from home and in a situation where she met few young men, she openly faced the question of singleness. She wrote me on Oct. 23, 1976, she was “tired of making relationships that inevitably separate. I am tired of moving from one set of friends to another with no real commitment between us… What I’m getting at, of course, is that marriage is very attractive to me at this point. I have never functioned very long or happily in groups. I need close friendships – long-term relationships with a greater commitment than a willingness to write letters and pray for me. So how do I come to terms with all these feelings and the fact that I am single and probably will be for some time to come?” She needed bread to sustain her body, but she wanted the intimacy of marriage to nurture her spirit.

She returned to Kansas with high expectations to work as a trainer at Starkey Development Center in Wichita for six months, living with her brother James. The difficult years at Winnipeg were behind her yet she found it hard to believe it was a finished chapter. “No one here understands or seems to want to hear about what happened there. I don’t want to lose those experiences. I’ll have to write them down.” Starkey seemed to offer another opportunity to work with people living on the fringes, a group she migrated to automatically. Her hopes of developing close relationships with the developmentally disabled were crushed when she found her work as trainer was limited to counting the punch cards each client produced. Opportunities to become involved in their lives were limited.

She accepted a position at Hesston College for two and a half years teaching Freshman English Composition. She made lasting friendships with faculty but soon discovered Freshman English was a low priority for both students and administration. Many students appreciated her interest in them and their writing, but this was not yet her niche.

Chicago and Northwestern

In 1982 she packed all her belongings into her blue 1973 VW bug with sun roof and tape player and headed for Chicago and life in the big city. She was ready for a “non-Mennonite experience.” She worked at the Erie Family Health Center as an office volunteer for almost a year becoming familiar with the needs of underserved clients of all ages in the middle of a Hispanic neighborhood with a sprinkling of Polish. She found close friends almost immediately, a life skill she maintained throughout life. Friendship was both bread and roses.

She loved the hustle and bustle of Chicago, its many ethnic enclaves, its wide variety of restaurants, and multitudinous opportunities for friendships. This was her city. She never wanted to return to Kansas. She learned to independently negotiate the traffic, public transportation, street panhandlers, restaurants and cultural events with a certain joie de vivre.

A visit to NIH in late 1983 did not bring good news: her kidney function was deteriorating. The doctors told Christine her situation was serious but there were still reasons for optimism. “I have to look for reasons for hope if I’m going to get better. If I think I’m going to die. I probably will. But I had to face the idea of death before I could be hopeful,“ she wrote me.

“Yes, it is funny how times like these make one run back to God once again. I am more faithful at praying and journaling now. A lot is happening inside. I feel the last weeks have been a time of stripping – of my control over my health, my time, my appearance. It’s been a time of giving up some things: concern about grades, concern about marriage… of course, there have been tears, but there also have been shoulders to cry on.” Throughout her short life she always found those supportive shoulders. Her lifelong love affair with journaling took on new intensity.

Denial that she had a chronic illness had gotten her through college, voluntary service, and teaching English, but she now had to confront it. An earlier dream of becoming a midwife was discarded because she was not strong enough for the long hours required by that work. Gone also was the hope of service overseas in some capacity. What could she do to put bread on the table with limited physical stamina? She made a B.S. in Nursing her next goal at Northwestern University. She moved in with her college roommate Diane Deckert and Steve Jost as she pursued a nursing degree. Life became busy but good as she headed toward graduation, studied for board exams and began looking for a job. She was also involved in church activities like organizing new groups at Evanston Mennonite Fellowship and giving talks at worship services. Working with people and words brought out the best in her.

Her graduation in 1985 hit a sour note with a heart attack the morning after a big celebratory steak dinner. She wrote she felt like “a small chunk of my life has been lifted out.” This event was bigger than past illnesses. It seemed more total. Once again as she faced death she contemplated becoming a Catholic sister. “It seems clearer to me now that I would be most happy in a community that wanted to give its all to God.” She had enjoyed the sisters immensely while in Winnipeg. She had thrived under their spiritual direction and hadn’t found anything quite like that experience elsewhere, although she found a lot of meaning in her own church -- a lot of love, a lot of self-sacrifice. “But there’s something else there in the sisters, and I don’t fully know what it is, but it’s very attractive.” The heart attack setback gave her a chance to refocus her life on the things dearest to her heart: writing, relationships, and the inward journey.

She was writing more poems but also short stories. She determined she would get better and lick this new problem of congestive heart failure. As usual she found lots of ideas to contemplate to write about regarding the heart attack: the experience itself and being in the hospital, an article for nurses on how a nurse views nursing care, an article for doctors from the patient’s point of view, and an inspirational article. “Why do I hate the word ‘inspirational’?” she asked. “I see writing as my main meaningful task right now.” She returned to Kansas for six months of cardiac rehabilitation, and by the middle of July she was back in Chicago, ready to find a job and pick up the pace – and write. The Other Side had accepted another article by her, encouraging her to write more.

Catholic affiliation

In Chicago she met a number of Mennonites interested in Catholic connections who met regularly. The heart attack brought her back to her earlier interest in Catholicism and so she began a lengthy process in the fall of 1986 studying catechism with other adults also interested in Catholicism. Her spirit was fed on the reverence in the liturgy. Catholics knew “how to act out their faith, as if worship were a drama.” She had great respect for her spiritual director Sister Elise with whom she still communicated and who spoke freely about praying to God and expecting a response. She recalled how Sister Elise had talked about these things as though they were a great treasure, a secret, which she shared with the few who would understand. She did not cheapen her faith with glib words, or cast her pearls before swine.

Christine pondered whether she could incorporate some Catholic worship elements into Evanston Mennonite Fellowship (EMF) she had started a small group. Such thoughts tempered her inclinations to leave the Mennonite faith. When one member at EMF announced she was leaving with her family because of discontent with the church, Christine, true to her need to have life peaceful, gave a “tearful plea for loving confrontation.” When our family relationships got rough, Christine always pled for greater understanding. Conflict was difficult for her, but it reared its ugly head in many places. Conflict perplexed her.

She had found a job in a doctor’s office as nurse-receptionist, which ended after a few months when the doctor declared he was moving out of town. In January of 1986 she began work at Northwestern University inpatient geriatric psychiatric unit, a locked ward. Many of the hospital personnel recognized her from the heart attack a year ago. It caused her to relive some of those dark events, but it was also therapeutic to present herself in her “present glory (glowing health, enthusiasm for life, etc.)” She commented it was much better for her to have people around at work, rather than as formerly as office nurse. She immediately started planning how she could do something creative with patients in the areas of music, art or literature.

Working at Northwestern University was a growing time for her. She loved the arts – writing, music, visual arts – but saw nursing as a way to pay the bills, to put bread on her table. It was challenging but also satisfying: “I’m more assertive, I usually have something fairly valuable to say in staff meetings, I can deal with the toughest patients, I can lead patient groups as well as many more experienced staff.” A supervisor had told her in an evaluation, “You take a crumb of knowledge and turn it into a pie.” She felt affirmed. She turned down a marriage proposal from a former Franciscan priest with no appreciation for the arts– too big a gap in education, intellect, and world view – and too conservative in his thinking about Christians outside the Catholic church, she wrote me. The old struggle with her single state troubled her. She wrote she would give anything to be married, but her standards were very high. She dated often but nothing stuck.

Her face had once again lost its fullness, she wore her Nikes to work, and listened to her new Walkman as she strode Chicago streets. “I look like the typical female commuter,” she wrote. She was a real Chicagoan. The old Christine was back. Chicago was her kind of town.

Work was going well in the Older Adult Unit at Northwestern Hospital. “Working on a psychiatric unit is a rich experience: we see people climb out of severe depression; we see the long slow decline of chronic mental illness; we send some people to nursing homes; we send most people home; we see a few deaths. … In the midst of some pretty stressful situations, we have a great time.” She started a book club. She was worshiping at St. Thomas of Canterbury Church, volunteering at a soup kitchen with Catholic Worker friends, and socializing often. She was thankful for a good job, increased energy, a bouquet of friends nearby, opportunities to write and sing.

While working at Northwestern Hospital she joined a book club with members of the nursing unit and a folk song group, and strengthened her ties with the Catholic Young Worker group. She learned to play the recorder and guitar. She took the big step of joining the Catholic church at Easter 1987 in a beautiful service. Her Mennonite Brethren friend Carolyn who had gone through Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) catechism classes with her did not join. Together with ten other adults she stood at the front to be blessed by the priests, anointed with oil and applauded. After which they recited the Nicene creed and took their first communion.

“All very moving,” she reported. Father Bill Flaherty’s sermon reinforced her need for symbolism to nurture her inner being. He called on everyone to be a “living icon” of Christ. This was followed by a reception and then on Easter Sunday a party sponsored by her roommate. “Catholics know how to party,” she always told me. This was a high moment for her but she stepped back from it to try to figure out how to write the story of how she, a Mennonite, had come to this point in her spiritual journey. “I need to tell the story for myself as well as others.” She made the bold statement: “I know now who I am: I am a writer.”

Her world expanded once again. On June 13, 1987 she wrote, “I have somehow landed on the liturgy committee for St. Nicholas to plan prayers and environment for the masses. It involves mostly writing.” Anything that involved the poetry of words drew her in immediately.

In September she was accepted temporarily by audition in Musica Ecclesiae, a 20-voice choir that sang early church music. She was overjoyed. “The music is heavenly and the sound they get in the immense St. Peter’s Cathedral could knock your socks off.” She attended a square dance and danced most of the evening without getting too winded.

In May 4, 1988, three years after the heart attack she suffered her first serious attack of gout, caused by diuretics she was taking. It was time to set limits again on her activities. And possibly also her job, because being on her feet all day was not possible in the long run. She needed a new plan for the future.

She saw a new doctor, who used a holistic approach. She started a daily regimen of walking, eating dark green vegetables, whole grains and legumes, whey, taking cell salts and B complex vitamins, and doing breathing exercises. A therapist suggested that because she had never been in touch with her anger or expressed it in healthy ways, she had turned it inward on herself. The lupus, an auto-immune disease in which the body attacks itself, was some kind of real-life metaphor of self-destruction. She was trying to learn to be more assertive, acknowledge when she was angry and say so, a step away from her passivity as a child.

On Dec. 1, 1988 she wrote: This is the first year I’ve been able to begin the necessary grieving I did not do when Daddy died. Although therapy is a painful process, it certainly does ‘open up new vistas’.” She began to write poems about her father’s death. For Christmas that year she wanted lots of roses. She sent out her gift list: “Yardley English Lavender perfume, CD player, a black cotton dress, longish and loose, one batch of vereniki, at least one game of killer Scrabble, a full slip, just below the knee, anything delightful, a pretty nightgown.”

New poems kept moving into her consciousness. Her poem “Eclipse” she had submitted to the Chester H. Jones Foundation Poetry Contest Winners Anthology was accepted in 1986 or early 1987. She reveled in knowing that poet William Stafford had been one of the judges. Early in the New Year, in 1989, she wrote: “Tonight as I was scrubbing the remains of baked beans out of the old Dutch oven, it suddenly hit me: There’s a poem in this pot!” So she sat down and wrote “ Exploring,” a journey “through this density of memories….to snatch compressed messages from that dark space before my birth.” She sent the poem to me for Mother’s Day. Many of her gifts were her words, her very being, rather than objects to hang on walls or collect dust on shelves.

She took a long planned trip in 1989 to Europe, especially Italy, where Sister Elise was now headquartered by her sisterhood. She wrote in a card as she sat in a café overlooking the French Alps, “I feel like I’m in a dream world – it is truly beautiful and endlessly interesting…the flight over was a killer but definitely worth it.” She had fulfilled a lifelong dream to travel abroad.

That fall of 1988 she wrote that her job at Northwestern Hospital seemed to pull together a lot of threads in her life: her interest in healing, church, a little writing, teaching, and a little organizing of groups, voice lessons from Dave H., and fiction writing class at the Newberry Library. She was in a book club and a writing club. She joined a folk choir at a neighboring parish. As long as she could give, she was content. She enjoyed the Catholic Worker gatherings with her friends. She joined a Catholic charismatic prayer group with soup kitchen friends. It felt good to be part of a regular group that prayed. She had begun seeing a Jungian psychologist, who encouraged her to write down her dreams.

She wrote me that her long denial of her illness was starting to wear off. Fear of another stroke concerned her. The frantic hospital pace was becoming more than she could handle, so she changed positions from floor nursing to parish nursing at St. Thomas of Canterbury Catholic Church, a position that would not require her to be on her feet as much. Controversy between liberal and conservative factions in the church at times overwhelmed her. She tried to stay out of it as much as possible. She was not directly involved in the conflict, but felt its effect as tensions increased. In 1990 after one year with St. Thomas she shifted to St. Gertrude’s Parish also as parish nurse. She enjoyed the people she worked with –social workers, vocal women, priests and the people in the neighborhood.

Her health improved on a slower schedule, yet whenever that happened, she attacked life with new vigor. She assisted the priest at an anointing service, touching each person on the shoulder while the priest anointed. She was asked to speak at other Catholic church groups and organized a women’s retreat for four churches planned by four parish nurses. She loved putting together little homilies and organizing worship. She played with the idea of writing “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mennonite.” She was pained by the parishioners she met who lived very marginal lives – little money, few skills, few friends. What could she do for them but listen? She heard some incredible stories, which she wanted to write down. She looked forward to more projects at church, more writing, more singing, and more exploration in the area of relationships.

But like the last parish, the pastor at St. Gertrude’s was uncertain about women working in a church, but others were supportive and appreciative of her work. She was given the opportunity to give a homily on “Birthing Compassion,” something she enjoyed intensely because the words embodied creativity as well as her deepest beliefs. She served as worship coordinator and elder, started a healing arts group (35 people showed up the first time), “an awesome number for a Catholic church,” in which she encouraged prayer, a healing water ritual she composed, and alternative methods of healing, yet personally felt more exhausted. Her creative efforts no longer sustained her energy levels.

She wrote: “I am slowly and sometimes painfully learning the realities of working in a patriarchal institution,” but she was ready to stick with it. “I get to work in a lovely office in an old convent, and I get to help new things unfold, sort of like a midwife.”

She asked to work only three days a week, but even with extra rest her chest pains returned and she ended up in the hospital with a stroke at age 36. Depression followed, coupled with a sense of failure that she had had a stroke. At a hospitalization for cardiac problems a medical technician in inserting a needle had nicked the femoral artery and she had bled all night, requiring a blood transfusion. Her body was breaking down, slowly but surely, and human error was not helping.

A heart attack, a stroke, angina, what next? Life was seeping out at the seams and she didn’t know how to stop it. “I‘m done with this disease and am ready for a new one,” she quipped. She sensed anew that she had never mourned her father’s death, and that burden was catching up with her. She wrote she had reread my book Alone: A Widow’s Search for Joy and also the letters I had kept and photocopied from Walter to the children and me the year he was studying in Syracuse, N.Y. Who was this person she had never mourned?

“I will do everything I can to fight this, yes, me a pacifist. But fight it in the Tai Chi way…. It seems healing will be an ongoing task for me. It is like having another full-time job.” Watching nature unfold gave her hope: “The trees give me hope, the ones with bare, twisted branches that will leaf out soon… The thought of writing gives me hope. I want to write down my life-health story … when I move home.” In a vague way she began to understand that healing for her had more to do with the spirit than the body. And for that she might have to return to Kansas.

The parish conflict continued to simmer and put her in a quandary. Should she get another job? Try for something with fewer hours that would give her more energy to write? “I have to tell myself it’s all right to be doing this –spending so much time over a few words.” By July 8, 1990 she had come to some conclusions: “I’m trying to arrange my life around writing, rather than the other way around. Everything else will happen – my job, my social life, the laundry—but the writing won’t just happen unless I create space and time.” She rearranged her furniture so that her desk was by the window. Her social life with men blossomed and wilted. She was investigating MFA programs and trying to keep a local writers’ group going. She enrolled in another fiction workshop at the University of Chicago to start in October.

A year and a half later she was expanding her influence to other parishes – she planned a Valentine’s homily for children, a talk on faith and healing for St. Andrew’s Mission, and an untitled talk for St. Gertrude’s mission. But denial of her illness, making its presence known ever more strongly, was impossible to sustain.

Chicago, the city she loved, no longer nurtured her. Hauling groceries up several flights of stairs, catching early trains to work, was too much for her frail body. She called it quits and wrote me that she was coming home. It felt good to her “to be following both dreams” of living closer to the family and having time to write through the move. She had never collected much in terms of this world’s goods, only a large group of friends, which were difficult to leave behind. They later spoke of her as a “wonderful listener.”

Return to Kansas

She moved on June 9, 1992 by car and U-haul driven by brother James Wiebe and former brother-in-law Roger Harms with enough adventures and problems en route to write a novel. Her cat came with her. She was back home in Kansas, living with me.

That summer she spent a few months regrouping and looking for a job. She missed the type of Catholic church liturgy and the Catholic Worker friends she had enjoyed in Chicago, but on the advice of sister Susan to pick a church and stick with it – no church was perfect – she joined the Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church as an associate member, occasionally attending Catholic mass. It proved a good fit. This congregation’s emphasis on peace and justice meshed with her own beliefs.

She explored various positions but settled on Venture House, an Episcopalian social service agency center for the homeless where she directed a small clinic staffed with nurse volunteers. After a time living with me she moved into her own apartment. She was back on track with her dreams.

She wrote in a New Year’s letter in 1993, six months after moving to Wichita,” “Although there are many positives here in Wichita, moving here has been much more difficult than I envisioned. I have felt a kind of internal death to a life I created and enjoyed in an exciting city with many wonderful friends.” Wichita brought her closer to her family and it was easier to get around, but she found the small city Midwestern culture vastly different from the multi-cultural urban atmosphere of Chicago. Later that year she joined the Wichita Symphony Chorus, something that wouldn’t haven‘t happened in Chicago. She wrote a poem “The Dancing Stars” and self-published it to celebrate niece Jennifer Wiebe’s birth. And enrolled in the Master’s of Fine Arts program at Wichita State University.

She found comfort in the words of columnist Ellen Goodman: “Moving on—It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, a relationship is over, and let it go. It means leaving what is over without denying its validity or its past importance to our lives. It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving on rather than out.” She expressed great interest in the old family stories I was collecting about the relatives in Soviet Russia who had lived through the Russian Revolution, pestilence and famine and the terrible Stalinist years. “They give me guidance for the future. They give me strength to keep loving life, however strange, painful or odd it appears.”

The next big blow was a cardiac arrest in 1994. Although she was intubated she responded firmly to the doctor’s question, “Do you want to be resuscitated if your heart stops again?” with a strong and sure “yes.” She wanted to live, not die. She spent two weeks in a rehabilitation hospital learning to walk, speak, write, type. Her handwriting became small and shaky, a far cry from the strong bold script she used to have. She had to give up her apartment and return to living with me, where she took daily walks to Botanica. She became my Scrabble and exercise partner, my cheering section when I felt discouraged.

A week in the hospital after heart fibrillation problems gave new urgency to her struggle to stay alive. A defibrillator was implanted in her abdomen. She searched intensely for spiritual direction in the face of death and struggled to find energy to write more. Health gains, if any, were slower and smaller; health setbacks more severe.

Friends were especially valuable to her and she had the rare gift of making close friends wherever she went. A hospital stay always meant lots of visitors and a party in her room, even in intensive care. She had the kind of smile that lit up a room; even in her last days she smiled radiantly when she recognized friends. She took particular delight in her nieces and nephews and was a friend as well as a well-loved aunt.

In 1995 the heart problems worsened and her doctor told her she was nearing the end. We installed a hospital bed in my living room near the window so she could watch life passing her on the street. Home health care workers, nurses, social workers, and hospice volunteers came and went. I answered the doorbell and telephone and did laundry. Friends dropped by regularly to see her. For six weeks I slept on a mattress by her bed to be able to attend her needs at night.

But Death, perched exultantly on her shoulder for several decades, was cheated once again. Christine “Lazarus” Wiebe pulled it off again. On June 23, 1995, six months after the doctor’s words to her that death was near, the hospital bed and medical equipment were removed from the living room. She had returned to the land of the living. She wrote, “I knew in my heart that I would heal; ….I sensed some internal energy was pulling me forward and tried to understand it. … I felt I was dying, and now I see life.” That fall she invited friends and family to a “Hey, I’m alive!” tea party with balloons and pastries to celebrate her return to the land of the living. About fifty people crammed into my little home to rejoice with her. Daily walks and daily naps kept her heart happy.

In 1996 the task she set for herself in whatever time she had left was to write her “Health Chronicles,” a compilation of journal entries. She was confident she had discovered some secrets on how to stay alive. She read all her old journals and her own words gave her “the courage to live, and love the life I’ve been given.” The product of this almost feverish activity was the book How to Stay Alive, excerpts from journal entries of the last years, nearly 600 pages. Earlier she had discovered she had the talent to sketch whimsical line drawings and included some of them.

In the fall of 1997 she returned to Chicago for the last time, seeing one person a day, and eating Thai, vegetarian, 50s diner, Indian cuisine. She attended a service at St. Harold’s Catholic church where she got many hugs from former friends. “It was wonderful.” She returned home to learn her kidneys were “breathing their last.” The next step was dialysis, yet we knew she might not do well on dialysis. The day Christine and I toured the dialysis clinic, we came home to sit and weep.

The year closed on a dismal note: “Gray, cold clouds hover over the earth, which looks a little beaten by fall leaves, collecting in damp clumps at the end of the driveway, where the car has driven over them many times. A few surprises await. A large yellow and purple pansy struggles to emerge from a bed of leaves. Pink chrysanthemums look washed out but still vivid against the brown grass. Further on I see the maple leaves have been blown away from the sidewalk, leaving dark leaf shadows behind. Waiting and wondering.” She was also waiting and wondering. Her health was fragile, and getting increasingly more so.

She reached out even more toward alternative medicine. She had earlier begun seeing a naturopath, having Reiki (healing touch) sessions with Marilyn Yoon, and participating in a health support group and yoga exercises led by Donna Froese at Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church.

In 1998 she initiated a relationship with Rita Robl, a spiritual director from the Great Plains Earth Institute. Yet the most important part of her life was being with friends. She began a regimen of praying the psalms and working her way through Julia Cameron’s book The Artists’ Way. At night before she went to sleep she prayed the psalms over our intercom system, she in the basement bedroom and I on the top floor. A 20-year reunion for St. Thomas of Canterbury soup kitchen volunteers was planned for August 16, 1998. She planned to attend.

She still determined to find the writer in herself – and also not die the way American writer Flannery O’Connor, who also had suffered from lupus, had died, living with her mother. She moved to Mary Harren’s house to housesit for the fall. Mary was an outspoken Catholic feminist who decorated her house with prints of Dorothy Day, Eleanor Roosevelt, and other feminists. Christine felt at home among these women pioneers. After more than four years living with me, she was living on her own again. She was elated. She worked at adding her things to the crowded rooms, but at times the housecleaning was too much.

In fall 1999 she began seeing Dr. Mary Lynch, a medical doctor who had left the standard approach of pills and surgery for allopathic work. She, or a therapist, laid hands on the patient to feel their energy level. “The therapist placed her hand on my kidneys and held it there a long time. She was doing this, she said, to help my body drain all of the toxins out of my kidneys. She asked me if anything had terrified me as a child. The kidneys often hold old fears. I told her that my father had died when I was six and I’ve often thought there was some fear surrounding that because I don’t remember any feelings from that time….I could feel small things dropping from my kidneys, sort of like dirt that collects at the bottom of a bowl of pond water… I thought of my father, and I knew that I had hung onto my grief all these years. I knew also that my kidneys were healing.”

Christine felt the arthritis in her right hip had lessened so she stopped taking Celebrex. She had cut her dose of gout medicine in half, with no flare up of symptoms. Her hemoglobin levels had risen and her shortness of breath lessened. Most exciting was that her kidney function was improving. A lab test showed improvement. She discontinued monthly blood draws for lab tests. She felt she was healed – a little. Lazarus was edging out of the tomb again. Her kidney function was still far from normal. But even a little progress was an answer to prayer.

She drove to Great Bend with a friend to attend a three-day retreat at Heartland Farms. On September 6, 1999 she wrote that she was beginning to think what she would do if she were employed again. Not nursing. “I have a feeling the right thing will appear.”

In spring 2000 when Mary Harren returned from her travels, Christine moved to the Lorraine Center next door to the church where her physical living space expanded. In exchange for housing she volunteered for the church, answered telephones twice a week and wrote for the church newsletter. She took the opportunity to include a serial chronicle of her own lengthy health history. She also volunteered for Hospice one afternoon a week, calling patients and family members to see how they were doing. She sang in the Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church choir and continued her WSU writing classes.

Her Christmas card to me that year said: “May we go forward together with greater strength for the journey ahead.” Her room and bathroom in my home always remained ready, sheets and blankets on the bed. She asked her family and friends to pray that she would find the writer inside her. “She’s there, but she’s awfully shy about coming out.”

By spring 2000 her health had slowly deteriorated – cellulitis, phlebitis, fluid retention in lower limbs, gout, heart problems, digestive ailments, arthritis, insomnia, tremors, fungus in her nails. It was as if a flood of illnesses had descended on her. Doctors adjusted and readjusted medications. Nothing worked. I, her close friend Donna and my daughter-in-law Kathy Wiebe drove her to doctors’ appointments. She struggled to hang onto prayer, journal writing, life itself.

She relinquished her long-cherished wishes and dreams for marriage and a family, writing a good book, and living a long time. Age was a gift from God she might not receive. “I want to grow old and have gray hair and wrinkles like you,” she told me. She yearned for a time when her feet would not be perpetually cold, when she would be in a place without hospitals and gowns with slits down the back.

In early May of 2000 one Monday morning she called me from the Lorraine Center, “Mother, come get me.” She couldn’t take care of herself. Earlier that month she had had a fender bender (her fault) and was no longer driving. Loss of her independence and lack of enough strength to drive disturbed her, but now she was asking me to help. She told me she thought she had the strength to unlock the door. I rushed over to find her huddled in her easy chair in fetal position and with difficulty helped her into the car. She had lost much weight. She was having bladder and bowel problems. Insomnia was severe. Her limbs felt weak. She couldn’t eat.

Before we left, she slowly looked around her home, so tastefully decorated, and which she had loved so much because it meant living independently. I watched her saying silent goodbyes to tea parties at the oak table, to checking her e-mail, to cuddling the cat. She was coming home to die like Flannery O’Connor.

A few days later I took her to the hospital because she was throwing up blood. The next day the on-call doctor, whom I had never seen before, told us death was close. Son James called Susan in Kansas City in medical school and Joanna, traveling in the East. Friends and other relatives gathered even while reporting later on that they were optimistic Lazarus was going to rise once again. The call that she had died came 3:30 a.m. on May 24, 2000. Lying on her hospital bed, she looked so peaceful, so calm, so beautiful. No more panting for breath, free from the challenge to stay alive. We watched and cried. I touched her cold hands and kissed her face. As we stood around her body I felt numb. Son James prayed for us all. The nurse thought he was a preacher. I blessed my three remaining children. As the pastor Kumalo says in Cry, The Beloved Country, “Fear is a long journey. Death is an arriving.” Christine had arrived at the end of her life journey. We had arrived.

We buried Christine as she had wished – in a simple pine coffin built by her friends. The staining of the exterior became a celebratory event in the church parking lot with several dozen people each making a few brush strokes. Friends lined the interior with material to match her dress and covered her feet with one of Susan’s quilts.

The service was simple. Her friend Father Tom Welk preached, but not wearing his robes to avoid bringing drawing attention to himself. Friends shared memories. We did one other thing that would have made Christine happy. We had a “tea party” after the service to allow guests to mingle freely.

The church cemetery is small, distanced from the hustle of the city. We had agreed on minimal mortuary services. No canopy, no artificial grass, no hearse, no ostentatious display of anything. We were burying a loved one who would live long in memory, not in a shiny metal casket. In that country churchyard under a clear blue sky the meadowlarks sang and an egret flew overhead as we said our final farewells. We gave everyone a photo of her picking her way through a field of high grass and wild flowers with this poem she wrote in 1994.

I am lying in white cotton sheets

In that gray place

where a real world slips in.

My eyes are closed.

The buds on the oak tree brush my window

with small memories of leaves.

They turn themselves over and upon each other

like the sparrows who struggle in tandem.

I wonder if they are fighting for space

or love or because no one told them

the nest is already built. I found it

hooked in a thorn bush where anyone could see.

I remember

The curtain of death had been lowered but in the ten years since then brilliant flashes of her courageous struggle for bread and roses have shone through. Peg Morrison, a former board member of Venture House who later became a friend, wrote me after the funeral about once observing the nurses there as they lovingly served people suffering from simple ailments of the street – blistered feet and loneliness among them.

She wrote, “The day I was there I sat quietly in a corner of an exam room and saw a nurse bring in an older man who was shuffling in pain. She asked him to take off his shoes and said she’d be back in a minute. She returned with a large wash pan of warm water, soap, a washcloth, and a pair of clean socks. He’d had trouble with his shoes, fumbling with his laces. She knelt at his feet, took off his shoes and socks, and slowly, carefully, washed his feet. I almost cried. This dirty old man and that kind nurse truly showed me, for the first time, the real meaning of the Bible story of washing feet.”

Peg had asked the name of the nurse and was told it was “Wiebe”—a name that meant nothing to her. Later Peg remembered the incident about Christine when we became acquainted.

“Give us bread, but give us roses.” Christine gave bread to the needy. She gave roses to all through her friendship and writing.

About the Author

Katie Funk Wiebe

Katie Funk Wiebe (Tabor College 1968) is the author of twenty books and over a hundred articles. Her most recent books are You Never Gave Me a Name:One Mennonite Woman’s Story and How to Write Your Personal or Family History, both released in 2010. Wiebe received an M.A. from Wichita State University and taught at Tabor College for 24 years. In 2000 The Mennonite named her one of twenty Mennonite Writers who have had “the most powerful influence on life and belief of the General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church in the 20th century." She is the mother of four children, among them Christine R. Wiebe and Joanna Wiebe.