RALEIGH, N.C. – Ruth Graham, the ailing wife of evangelist Billy Graham, fell into a coma Wednesday morning and appears to be close to death, a family spokesman said. "She appears to be entering the final stages of life," said Larry Ross, Graham's personal spokesman. Her condition had not changed as of Wednesday evening, he said.
The news came the same day Billy Graham said he and Ruth will be buried at the recently dedicated Billy Graham Library in Charlotte. In a statement, Graham said his 87-year-old wife, who has degenerative osteoarthritis of the back and neck and has been bedridden at their home in the mountains of western North Carolina for some time, "is close to going home to heaven."
"Ruth is my soul mate and best friend, and I cannot imagine living a single day without her by my side," Graham said. "I am more in love with her today than when we first met over 65 years ago as students at Wheaton College."
Ross said Ruth Graham was treated two weeks ago for pneumonia and her health temporarily improved before declining because of her weakened condition. Ross said she is being treated at her home outside Asheville, in the town of Montreat.
She celebrated her birthday on Sunday and was alert, Ross said. Billy Graham and four of their children are now at her side. The couple's youngest child, Ned, is flying in from the West Coast.
"Ruth and I appreciate, more than we can express, the prayers and letters of encouragement we have received from people across the country and around the world," Graham said.
"Our entire family has been home in recent days and it has meant so much to have them at our side during this time. We love each one of them dearly and thank God for them."
In San Antonio, Southern Baptist Convention president Frank Page paused the denomination's annual meeting Wednesday night to pray for Ruth Graham, whom he called "this dear saint of God."
The site of Graham's burial had appeared to be the source of some debate within his family. In December, The Washington Post reported that Ned Graham opposed burying his parents at the library. He and other members of the family preferred a burial site at The Cove, a Bible training center near the Grahams' mountain home.
The paper said evangelist Franklin Graham, who has taken over leadership of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, wanted his parents' graves to be at the Charlotte museum.
Graham, who is 88 and suffers from fluid on the brain, prostate cancer, Parkinson's disease and age-related macular degeneration, responded by saying the decision would be his and his wife's alone.
Ross said the Grahams decided this spring that they would be buried in the library's prayer garden, at the foot of a cross-shaped walkway — a symbolic decision to demonstrate both their reverence to God and their "ongoing witness of their faith in Christ."
"This is something the Grahams have been discussing and praying about," Ross said. "The two things they've always agreed on is that they'd be buried together and it's a decision they'd make on their own. Mr. Graham and Ruth have always known that their final home is in heaven. That's the important thing."
Born in Charlotte, Graham traveled the world for decades building a revival-based ministry that reached millions. He later returned to the Charlotte area, which became the home of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Graham was in Charlotte last month for the opening of the $27 million, 40,000-square-foot museum and evangelistic library. He looked frail, was brought to the site by golf cart and needed Franklin's help to reach his seat.
The emotional ceremony had such an air of finality that Graham quipped, "I feel like I've been attending my own funeral."
He told a crowd that included three former U.S. presidents — Clinton, Carter, and George H.W. Bush — that he was embarrassed by the attention and said there was "too much Billy Graham" in the exhibits.
"This building behind me is just a building," he said then. "It's an instrument, a tool for the Gospel. The primary thing is the Gospel of Christ."