Life Watch: Ruth and Michael—A Love Story

In a lovely September in New England, Ruthie Pakaluk, with her family and friends round her, gently slipped away and succumbed, at the age of 41, to the breast cancer that had hovered, with its peril, over several years. At the onset of her cancer, in her late 30s, she was at the beginning of a pregnancy. But she did not choose at that moment to diminish the peril for herself by “ending” the pregnancy. She brought her last child, Sophie, to birth, and in the most remarkable flourish, she continued— with no apparent loss of momentum— in the joyous project of raising six children and serving as president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life. In everything she touched, she imparted the sense of a quick, acute mind, tempered with a philosophic reflection, and yet modulated, leavened, with a certain piety and humility. She had arrived at Harvard as an undergraduate fueled by raw smartness: in her politics, liberal and pro-abortion; in her religion, distant from the Presbyterianism of her parents and affecting to be an atheist.

The story of the change is really the story that begins with her conversations with Michael Pakaluk, just as everything else in her story after that is entwined with the marriage and the family they would weave together. He would encounter her at Harvard when they were both sophomores in the late 1970s. But she would be placed before him as the teaching assistant in a course designed for freshmen, “Space, Time, and Motion.” The convention was to have the best student in the course serve as an assistant to the professor the next time the course was offered. And so, Ruth Van Kooy, after a striking performance, now found herself installed in a position of certified brilliance. For Michael, that precocious standing, that instant preeminence, did not seem to sit in a comely way on someone his own age, for something sparked in him a sharp recoil. The faults he found in her he sought to recount, at length, to a classmate in a long walk across the campus. Evidently, he waxed more heated and emphatic as he elaborated his brief. At the end of the walk, his friend turned and said, “Well, it sounds as though you’re going to marry her.” A savvy friend could tell that this kind of passion could be elicited only if Michael were, already, deeply engaged with her. They were married at the end of that sophomore year.

The example was quite rare by the late ’70s, but it was a reflection of an experience more common years ago, when some of us would marry while still in college, and then, in effect, grow up together the rest of the way. The main turning points we would negotiate together, taking each other as our closest friend and adviser. In that way, Michael and Ruth would take their first step by talking each other into becoming more serious Christians. Michael was a student of philosophy, and as he and a friend explored, one day, the strength of the arguments against abortion, Ruth was at length persuaded by the force of the arguments. She would go on eventually to make her own distinct contributions to the deepening of those arguments. But she and Michael would carry that new pro-life interest with them to Scotland. They graduated from Harvard in 1980, and Michael gained a fellowship to study for two years at the University of Edinburgh. On one occasion, the Dominican Chaplaincy sponsored a talk by a member of Parliament who was pro-life, and yet the meeting itself was taken as an offense by the students who favored abortion, for they stood outside the building, ringing the doorbell, trying persistently to disrupt the meeting. As Michael and Ruth began to engage in the public argument, they would encounter the same constellation: arguments and evidence on one side, and a brutal effort on the other simply to stop the argument. Here, as in other instances, the scientific evidence and the philosophic arguments seemed to lead people back to the religious traditions that nourished reason and the respect for evidence. And hence the curious turn: Ruth found herself at this moment in the homeland of Presbyterianism, yet she began her conversion to Catholicism. For Michael, it was a matter of reinvigorating, with convictions founded anew, a tradition that had waned in his own family. And again, Michael and Ruth talked themselves through each step, teaching each other, and confirming the lines that would come more and more to define the cast of their lives.

They would settle in Worcester, as Michael took up a position teaching philosophy at Clark University. And there everything would unfold: The birthing and raising of children seemed to go hand in hand with a deepening involvement in the pro-life movement and the civic life of Worcester. The children would come in the order of boys followed by girls: Michael, Max, John Henry, Maria, Sarah, Sophie. There was a seventh, Thomas, who died, tragically, a crib death. But the family became a vibrant enterprise in itself, flourishing with energy, laughter, with projects never-ending. Fr. Reidy, who offered the homily at Ruth’s funeral at the Cathedral of St. Paul, recalled that he would be on the phone with Ruth, pondering with her the details of a conference at the cathedral, the itinerary for a ski trip or hike, or “some very nuanced” issue of theology or canon law: “Her thoughts were so logically ordered, her sense of detail was so precise,” that he thought she must have memos at hand—until he realized, from the sound of water, that she was doing her dishes. With the same focus, she simply decided that she would not stand for it when a scheme broke in town to give Planned Parenthood a contract for “sex education” in the public schools. Ruth led the resistance that defeated that plan decisively. In the upside-down world inhabited by her adversaries, that success brought this screed from an activist on the other side: “I’m sick and tired of Ruth Pakaluk and her friends telling people what to do”—even when it means telling people that they don’t want their children instructed in a false morality.

Fr. Reidy recalls that when a skiing trip was arranged for the parish, with the buses leaving at 5:30 in the morning, Ruth would show up with Maria for Mass at 4:30. On other occasions, he would notice her lingering, in prayer, for a half-hour, or even an hour, after Mass, when one of the girls would ask, “Mom, are you still praying?” And she said, “No, I’m just normally catatonic.” Her piety was bound up in all parts of her life, and the result was that everything, in its own sphere, became more acute. When she argued in public over pro-life issues, she did not make appeals to faith; she offered arguments which were accessible to everyone. In one debate at Wellesley, she insisted that abortion was not even a medical procedure, because it offered a remedy to no medical problem:

[P]regnancy isn’t a physical problem. It is a normal state of well-being for a healthy woman. Her body is doing exactly what it is physically supposed to do. The cervix has clamped shut to keep infection out and to keep the baby in. Just about every system of her body—her metabolism, her circulatory system, her muscles and bones, everything is adapting to the task of nurturing this new human life.

She etched her biography by nurturing that new life, and no one, seeing Sophie, age five, could doubt the wisdom of her decision—or Ruth’s courage in bringing Sophie through. Sophie was at the table with us as I joined Michael, his parents, and the children for supper just after the first visitation at the funeral home in Worcester. Opposite me, Maria, twelve years old, was remarkably sparkling, with a touch of impish wit. She leaned across and asked, “Have you ever been embarrassed? My daddy’s been embarrassed”—and then she went on, with feigned mischief, to recall some innocent embarrassments that would bring smiles to Michael, as well as to the family clustered around the table. When the food arrived, she stepped into Ruth’s role, leading the group in the saying of grace. A short while later, she took my glass of water, brought it together with four others, altered the columns of water—and then began to tap out tunes from South Pacific. And one had to wonder: Where did this verve spring from? How had they managed to raise children of this spirit?

The next day, at the cemetery, under the canopy, I stood with Dwight Duncan and Phil Moran, watching as children, led by Maria, lovingly placed flowers on the casket. Maria’s smile and that joyousness were still there; nothing forced or contrived, and still a wonder. As we looked on with that wonder, an older woman behind us, viewing the same scene, said, “Isn’t it marvelous? They have no fear of death.” Young Max, age 15, reflected that sense of things when he remarked to Fr. Reidy a few months earlier, “If mom dies it’s going to be hard . . . because she’ll know everything wrong I do.”

Michael called the other day, and I wondered whether the sense of loss had started to kick in with more severity. There had been, of course, moments of crying and deep sadness; and yet, he said, things seemed to be bubbling in the family in their usual way. Every day, he said, the children talk about Ruth and what she would have wanted. And in that way, as he said, life goes on with a vivid sense of her intentions, in the frame they established for the family, in the cast they imparted to their lives, marked by reason and faith.


Hadley P. Arkes (born 1940) is an American political scientist and the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, where he has taught since 1966.

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