Remembering Diane

My Aunt Diane, the younger sister of my mother Ruth, passed away on February 13. My grandfather, Diane’s father, wrote a tribute to his daughter shortly before she died. I’ve posted a PDF version here, Remembering, with the text following. I am so thankful that God is faithful to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands.


REMEMBERING

A small child about eight months of age hung over her father’s forearm like a half-filled bag of grain, legs and feet hanging down on one side and arms, hands and head on the other. As a pair of motherly looking ladies passed, one of them whispered, “Doesn’t he know how to carry a baby?” Yes, he knew. He also knew from some experience that this was definitely the position of choice for this particular child, perhaps an early indication of her propensity for “thinking outside the box.” The child was Ruby Diane Renich, the third daughter of John and Eileen Renich. She and her father were returning from their regular twice-weekly visit to the therapy and rehabilitation department of the Los Angeles (California) County’s public health service. A recent bout with polio had crippled the child’s left arm, leaving it almost useless. The therapy brought no improvement, but as the child grew she learned to adapt to her limitation and compensate for it in many ways. At this time her mother was a patient in a rehabilitation hospital some thirty miles away seeking recovery from the ravages of a much more severe attack of polio. The mother’s life had been spared, we firmly believe, in answer to the earnest prayers of many Christian friends.

A few years later, now in Savannah, Georgia, Diane came to me one day led by her sister Ruth, who announced, “Diane wants you to talk to her about God.” As we “talked to her about God,” we found a little child’s heart open and eager not only to hear “about God,” but to trust in the Lord and commit her life to Him. This commitment to Jesus Christ became the guiding force of her life; from it she never turned back. At a slightly later time Diane asked me a question, “Who made God?” I replied, “Nobody made God. He made everything else, but God was always there.” Her response after a few moments showed a young mind prepared to think about what she was learning, “I guess if somebody else made God, then that person would be God.” So it is.

An over-abundance of trees where we lived at that time left almost no ground with sufficient sunshine for growing flowers. I was gratified at what success I had on the little space available. One day I admonished Diane about cutting some of the flowers without my permission. As she walked away I heard her say to herself in utmost sadness, “Where are the flowers for the children?” Steps were taken at once to rectify this lack. The incident foretold a life-long love for flowers and growing things. The time came when she was no longer physically able to get down on her knees with her hands in the garden soil. Then she would give her husband Clay details of what she wanted planted and where, and together they enjoyed the results, flowerbeds full of beauty. Diane’s question about flowers for the children showed another part of her growing character, a keen sense of justice whether toward herself or others. This sensitivity to basic fairness would influence her dealings with others throughout her life.

Before it became a no-no, Diane was standing beside me in the front seat of our car one day as we drove up a long grade. As the car reached the crest she turned to me and crowed in triumph, “Boy, we sure did push that hill down, didn’t we, Daddy!” That zest for life, for accomplishing worthwhile things, for “pushing down hills,” never left her even when physical strength was gone. As an example, years later she felt it was important that she be present for her son’s wedding in Dallas, Texas. Confined to her wheelchair she would need to travel in her specially equipped van 300 miles north to Dallas and back to the Houston area all in the same day, kept alive by a mechanical breathing machine. She understood what she was undertaking, but trusting the Lord to guide and help her she went forward, and saw another hill “pushed down.”

As Diane entered grade school her mother and I were concerned lest her weak arm deter her from activities she would otherwise enjoy. We need not have been. She learned to ride her bicycle as well as most youngsters. She loved to play baseball, and never asked anyone else to do her batting for her. One year she received a good-quality softball as a birthday gift. Before long she let it be known that her next birthday gift of choice would be a real baseball, the small hard kind that real baseball players use! Somehow her request got sidetracked before it could be acted on. Diane loved to swim, and for several seasons earned her Red Cross Certificate of Proficiency as fast as her age made her eligible. She enjoyed playing touch football with her church youth group until a dislocated knee during a game closed that door. For a time in junior high school she was the youngest state-licensed parakeet breeder in Georgia.

It was in high school that Diane’s leadership and organizational abilities began to blossom. She took her studies seriously and did well in them, participating meanwhile in a wide variety of student activities both with her church youth group and in school. In her senior year she and a good friend were chosen as co-editors of the Savannah High School yearbook, the Blue Jacket. This position was generally considered one of the biggest responsibilities–and honors–open to a student. After high school Diane enrolled in Columbia Bible College, now Columbia International University, in Columbia, South Carolina. Here as in high school she took her studies seriously as part of her preparation under God for His service. Among various student activities her special joy was being a part of the school’s large Ambassador Choir directed by Mr. William Supplee. Perhaps because of living in a school dormitory at this time instead of her parents’ home, another side of Diane’s personality blossomed. We had long known that she had a strong sense of humor with an impishly competitive edge, though without any trace of meanness. Few things delighted her more than to “put one over” on the other person without herself getting caught in the act. And when the tables were turned and the laugh was on her she could enjoy the joke just as well. We thought it a pity that she could not get academic credit for some of the “creative thinking” here being exercised, being thankful meanwhile that she did not find herself in trouble with the school powers that be.

On a visit home during this time, in conversation with her mother, the subject of “boys” came up. Diane had many good friends both girls and boys, but had shown little interest in a deeper friendship with any of the latter. Wondering about this her mother had commented that “there are a lot of nice boys out there.” The rejoinder was immediate, “Boys, yes, but show me a man!” Some time after her graduation from Bible college, Diane was on an extended visit with her sister Ruth and husband John Horne in Melbourne, Florida. After reading a letter from her one day, her mother handed it to me with the comment, “It sounds like our daughter has found her ‘man,'” and so she had. He was a young schoolteacher in the Melbourne area named Clayton “Clay” Kelley, from Plant City, Florida, and a good friend of John and Ruth. Before the summer was over Clay and Diane were married and settled in Bryan, Texas, with Clay enrolled in the graduate school of Texas A&M College. In due time he graduated with a Doctor of Industrial Education degree and he and Diane moved to the Houston area, where they have lived since. Clay became a classroom instructor at the main campus of San Jacinto Junior College, a part of the state university system.

Clay and Diane soon found and joined a Southern Baptist church in their neighborhood where Diane found opportunities for teaching and also in organizational planning. Much of the teaching involved “study courses” on a rich and varied range of subjects, prepared and administered by the denominational Sunday School Board. The evidence of God’s blessing and enablement in this ministry brought to her an increasing assurance that she should prepare herself more fully for it. Thus she enrolled in the Houston branch of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Dallas. She was an earnest and able student, earning a Masters degree in the field of Christian education. One of her instructors was Dr. Ron Lyles, pastor of the South Main Baptist Church in Pasadena, Texas. Clay and Diane and their young family visited there a few times and decided to make it their church home, a happy relationship that has continued through the years. In due time Diane was invited to become a salaried employee on the church staff as Minister of Christian Education, with later responsibilities also for a time as Minister of Administration. She continued in this position until her declining health compelled her retirement.

Diane did not know it, but she had joined the church staff at a critical time in the history of the church congregation. Their building had stood in the same location for many years and would be difficult to modernize, the surrounding area had changed from residential to industrial and commercial use, and there was no room for much-needed expansion. The church purchased its present property and made plans to build. As Minister of Christian Education it was Diane’s responsibility to see that the needs of the congregation in its various educational activities were adequately represented in those plans. After these were finalized there was the very detailed task of deciding how the new facility was to be utilized, of just which Sunday School class would meet where, etc. Each of these meeting places must be furnished with the things appropriate to its expected use and then, finally, people who had never been in the building before needed to be helped to find their appropriate places. Diane had the skilled and willing help of many others, but hers was the final responsibility of leadership. How she was able to fulfill that responsibility, I believe, was a strong assurance to her that she was indeed in the line of the Lord’s calling and of His help. The church had been a growing church before it moved, and the pace of that growth accelerated appreciably afterward. It was a day of special celebration when the total Sunday School attendance in all departments exceeded 1000. The church also carried on an active ministry in the surrounding area of Sunday and weekday activities for both adults and children, with Diane’s office providing coordination and leadership as needed.

These were very busy but happy days for Diane. She was working under a pastor whom she respected and trusted, a man who years before in her seminary days she had concluded was one whose leadership she could follow with confidence. I do not know if she had any idea then that he would some day be her pastor. With Dr. Lyles leading, the entire church staff worked together as a team with the one objective of promoting the Lord’s Kingdom here on earth, and with a mutual respect and appreciation of each other. The church congregation was vibrant and eager, and appreciative of the work done by its staff and pastor. Diane herself was growing both spiritually and in confidence and competence in her work. I have watched with wonder as, in the absence of the pastor, she presided with grace and ease over the large morning church service. Her own manner put others at ease, the better to join in spirit in the service of worship. Over the years her husband Clay had been promoted in his work at the college to a high administrative position, with challenging and rewarding responsibilities. Her children, Chris, Andy, and Erin, were now at the edge of young adulthood, doing well in school, and actively involved in the life and activities of their church. More important than these things, they all showed evidence of true commitment to Jesus Christ and a real desire to follow and serve Him.

Into this scenario a cloud began to intrude. Small and almost unnoticeable at first it continued to develop – a gradually increasing awareness of muscular weakness in arms and legs. This was in the year 1994. For about two years Diane’s doctors held back from declaring a positive diagnosis. Having had polio when a child, Diane could be suffering from what is often called either “Late Effects of Polio” or more commonly “Post-Polio Syndrome.” Or it could be the far more serious condition known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, known simply as ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The early symptoms can be quite similar. After about two years there was no more uncertainty. In January 1996, Diane was diagnosed with ALS. It is a neuromuscular disease that begins in the extremities and slowly and progressively destroys the nerves that control the voluntary muscles. Neither cause nor cure for it is known. By this time increasing weakness and weariness made it clear that she could not continue to fulfill her responsibilities both to the church and to her family. Deeming her family to be her primary responsibility, with much regret she relinquished her duties on the church staff. There were no illusions about what lay ahead, a slow but steady loss one by one of the use of the voluntary muscles throughout her body. Those muscles that work without volitional control are not affected, nor is the cognitive action of the brain nor the internal body systems. I think that in Diane’s case her family will remember the progress of her disease in terms of the step by step loss of her ability to do certain things. Within a year after her diagnosis she was confined to a wheelchair. A specially fitted van into which the chair could be rolled and secured was a great help. About two years later she had lost the ability to speak intelligibly and was being fed through a tube directly into her stomach through the abdominal wall, both of these because of the loss of the muscles in her throat. Soon after this her breathing muscles began to fail and she chose to be fitted through a tracheotomy with a mechanical ventilator. Getting these two systems in place brought a relative measure of stability to that part of Diane’s life, requiring only that she live within their limits and the machinery be kept going. This required skilled nursing help through the day, with her husband Clay taking care of things at night.

The remaining problem was communication. Diane understood and was keenly aware of what went on around her. Her mind and memory were sharp. She heard and knew what others said, but she could not reply. I think this inability to communicate freely with others was the greatest single trial she endured. Her computer became her lifeline to the world. In the beginning she used it as she had always done, typing out what she wanted to say on the computer screen for others to read. As time passed her hands and fingers weakened and could no longer respond. One finger on her right hand could still work. Her machine was then fitted with a special mouse that was operated by one finger only. Others would place the mouse on a pillow before her and then carefully lift her hand and finger to the proper position beside it, something she could not possibly do by herself. This required the learning of a whole new set of “mouse” tricks, but for Diane it was the Lord’s way of allowing her to talk with her friends for a while longer. The new system was slower than the prior one, but it worked. The computer allowed her to communicate with others, and to do many other things as well. One day a discussion arose about a certain breed of dog of which none of us knew anything. Later that day Diane presented us with a three-page printout from the Internet telling us all about the dog in question.

In time that one brave finger grew too weak to respond and she was fitted with a new system. This one controlled the computer by a kind of camera that focused on a small plastic patch on her forehead and “read” the very small movements of her head. Again this required the learning of an entirely new system and training her neck muscles to respond. With each of these changes Diane knew the benefits would last only for a time, until another set of muscles failed. She did not complain, but in each case set herself to learn to use what she knew the Lord had provided. This last system stayed in use until about three years ago, when she was hospitalized for a couple of months with pneumonia. When she returned home, because of increased bodily weakness she could neither tolerate sitting in her wheelchair for long nor control her head movements precisely enough to use her computer. Now Diane’s only means of communication was by a system of “spelling,” which she and her helpers had used prior to this when she was away from her computer. The speller would name letters of the alphabet according to a pattern while watching Diane’s eye. When the right letter was named she would blink her eye and they would go on to the next letter. It was a simple system requiring no special equipment, but very slow and tiring, requiring intense concentration by both individuals. Recently even this system has become more difficult as further weakness has made it harder to blink her eye. The bout with pneumonia and her consequent inability to sit for long in her wheelchair led to another loss for Diane. She could no longer attend the Sunday morning worship services at her church with her family, as had been her faithful habit.

I have written these details of the progression of Diane’s disease for two reasons. First, many people know something about ALS, but have no knowledge of what it does or how it progresses. Its pattern of progression may vary widely from case to case, but the kinds of things it does to its victims are similar. If what I write helps someone else to understand better what a victim of ALS is facing I will be glad. My second reason for writing springs out of the first. That is to bear witness to what I have seen over the past twelve years of the wonder and glory and power of the grace of God at work in my daughter’s life and in her family. It is now almost exactly twelve years since Diane began to suffer from this disease. Statistically the life expectancy of those with ALS is about five years at most after diagnosis. Diane has lived for ten years since then. For this “extra” time she has been with us we are profoundly grateful, as she is also. She has seen her children come to full adulthood, finish their schooling, and become productive, useful citizens committed to serving Jesus Christ. She was present when two of her children were united in marriage to worthy Christian life partners. It has been her special joy to welcome her first two grandchildren and then to celebrate their first birthdays with each of them. These and many other joys have come against the somber background of the relentless yet almost imperceptible decline of bodily strength, like the slow, slow drip of water. No single loss has come suddenly or unexpectedly, but by a gradual development that could be clearly anticipated well in advance. The only uncertainty was in knowing how long it might take. Part of the terror of this disease is in knowing what it can do to a life long before it finally takes that life. Here Diane had two choices. She could worry about the future, with its concomitant complaining about the present, or she could say “This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it,” Ps. 118:24. It is evident to her family and others that Diane has chosen the latter, rejoicing in that which is hers through her Savior for today, and trusting tomorrow into His hands.

Thus far I have written only of Diane, but others have lived through this time with her. Long before this sickness struck I had ample reason to thank God for the quality of man the Lord had brought into her life, and for giving her grace and patience to look and wait for such a man. That deep gratitude to God has increased immeasurably through all the years of her sickness. During this time I do not recall ever hearing from Diane or Clay or any of the children one word of complaint or resentment or self-pity about what the Lord has allowed in her life, which has so deeply affected the lives of each of them. I have found instead a pervasive atmosphere of love, peace, joy, and contentment in their home that could come only by the Spirit of God. For Clay in particular Diane’s illness has brought a tremendous addition of responsibility in addition to his regular employment. There are hired workers for some routine housekeeping, but Clay must supervise them. Diane has skilled nursing care during the day, but sometimes things do not go right and he must step in, in addition to caring for her through the night from 7pm to 7am. He must keep the records for expenses flowing to the insurance companies and others. The list could go on. These things are the lighter part of his load. The real burden goes deeper, seeing the one he loves being brought down from what she was to what she is today, and he is powerless to stop or even slow the process. I, her father, find it hard to believe that a living human can be so cut off from her own world as this. Her mind and thoughts are clear and sharp and her memory is keen, but to one not skilled in “spelling” she cannot utter a word. She cannot turn her head to look at her grandchild when it is brought into the room nor lift a finger to stroke its tiny hand. She cannot even smile with delight at what she sees, for her “smile” muscles are no longer able to work. Only by looking into her eyes can one see the joy–or the sorrow–that is there. I have witnessed this process at intervals, from time to time as I have been able to visit the family, but Clay and the children have lived with it day by day from the time the process first began. It would be unfair to them to suppose they have not known times of temporary questioning and resentment and even bitterness toward God or man because of these things. In all the times I have been with them, however, I have seen no evidence of such feelings, but rather have felt in their home a deep, pervasive spirit of love and joy and peace.

It would be wrong to leave an impression that my daughter or her husband or children are in any way some sort of super-Christians, enabling them to take such things in stride. Rather, they and I know that they are in reality normal, ordinary human beings who have been learning to trust and love and obey their Creator-Savior-God. What I see at work here is the power of the amazing grace and love of Jesus Christ to draw fallen, sinful humans to Himself and to make them His children, and by bonds of mutual love to hold them steadfast in spite of the cost. Again, I thank God continually for the quality of Christian manhood I have seen in the man God gave my daughter, as I also believe He gave her to him.

Please do not ask me why I think God has allowed these things, because I do not know. I can see no direct connection between what I have described and any other person or event. This only I am certain of, that as I do not believe God would send His Son to Calvary purposelessly, allowing His suffering there to be wasted, neither do I believe He allows suffering by any of His children–for His sake and in His will–to come to nothing. “Except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die it beareth much fruit.” Where and how, in all the scope of the Will and the Kingdom of God, that fruit will show itself I do not know, but I believe it will be there and that it will be worth the cost.

Now a change has come as Diane has started the ascent of her last “hill.” A few weeks ago a (non-malignant) tumor in her abdominal cavity was found to be causing a bowel blockage. Because of its size and position and pattern of growth it is inoperable, and she can no longer receive nourishment through her feeding tube. She could be kept alive for a limited period by injection of nourishment directly into her veins, but the procedure is difficult and risky, and requires that she be in a hospital or skilled nursing facility. The alternative is “comfort care,” including IV liquids, in her own home while she waits for the Lord to call her to Himself. As she chose the latter those present at the time are confident that she understood clearly what the choices were and that she knew what she was deciding. Long before this Diane had said that as long as she could live she wanted to live, but had no desire simply to exist. Now she believed the time had come. She had no fear of death and wanted to go Home, not from a hospital room, but from her own home with those she loves nearby. The doctors cannot predict how long she will wait.

We wrote that Diane has begun the ascent of her last hill. This one is different from all the previous ones, a hill she will not “push down,” but with angel help will ascend to the very top. There at the door of her Father’s House she will look back one last time over the way she has come and will declare with the psalmist, “Surely goodness and mercy [have followed] me all the days of my life!” As angel helpers escort her in she will say, “and I shall dwell in the House of the Lord forever!”

John Renich
Savannah, Georgia
1/30/06

2 Comments

  1. Rollin
    Mar 1, 2006

    Jay, we grieve with you and your family in this time of loss, and we’ll be praying for you all. What a touching tribute your grandfather wrote, and what a great witness to us all.

  2. Katie Senter Stevens
    Mar 17, 2006

    Jay,

    Your Aunt Diane was my college roomate and my best friend. Thank you for posting this compassionate and informative tribute written by your grandfather. I remember him as a large man with a gentle, quiet matter and the same mischievious wit as Diane. Listening to their verbal sparing was amazing.

    Yep, she pulled a lot of pranks in college.( I was always talked into helping, but the genius was hers!) I had to escape to the library to get any studying done. College was hard for me, but a breeze for her. I will write down some of her practical jokes later. She was unbelievably creative and fun, but never really hurt anyone or destroyed anything. Surprising, embarrassing, and entertaining people was enough for her.

    In addition to keeping me from getting bored, she helped me to process our Biblical studies. Our society was changing drastically during the late ’60s. Reconciling the Bible dictates and society messages was challenging and we had some interesting discussions. Most of the female students were too polite to argue, but not us. We had trouble getting our dorm mates to realize that we were not mad at each other, but were processing ideas. Much of what I am today and what I think are a direct result of her insisting that I think logically and compassionately.

    Her life was a blessing and her death is a loss for those of us left behind.