THE LEGACY OF ROSE PEARL
I’m always amazed, how after committing to an action out of love, we never know how the re-actions will reverberate through our life. This story is an instance of that reverberation.
Rose Pearl called me, reaching out by telephone, making a connection to tell me she was dying. She made it clear it wouldn’t be that very moment, but in the near future. Rose said she was calling because she needed some one to take care of her affairs after she passed on. Till that moment, we didn’t know each other, had never met, at least, not in any way we remembered. What I do know, is that phone call, from a “stranger,” changed my life.
Rose said she found my name in the Barter Network Newsletter in our town. The BNN was around for a couple of years and I hadn’t known what to put in as my specialty to share in exchange with the community. I finally decided to share my experience and expertise in working with the elderly, the sick and the dying.
By putting out my best, my most sacred part, I received some one in my life who had the most to give.
After her introduction, and telling me a bit more about who she was, she asked me about myself. I told her I was working as the Director of Social Services for a nursing home and had worked with the elderly for 20 years. As I was listening to myself talk and hearing what she told me, I was trying to grasp whether I was talking with some one who was mentally stable. Her voice, soft and confident, enabled me to trust what she was saying, even as she discussed her dying with a complete stranger.
She went on to tell me she was 82 years old, moving to Florida a few years previously to marry a 40 year-old black man who was in the worst prison in Florida. Rose said they met through the mail, after she began corresponding with prisoners when she became slightly disabled due to arthritis in her legs. I had to ask her to repeat their ages, so I was clear about what I heard. I heard right, and cautioned myself, whether I was mistaken about how sane this woman was. My doubts dissipated when she said she had studied the works of Rudolph Steiner, for fifty years. Steiner was the founder of Antroposophy, a philosophy I hadn’t studied, but I knew of him as one of the deepest, most profound thinkers of our time, with primary and secondary schools, in many countries, Waldorf Schools, that espouse his teachings. Rose had a whole library of his books and needed to make plans for them when she died. She told me she had two nieces who weren’t interested in any of her things, but were close to her, although living in other states.
I had helped many dying people, and she didn’t sound like some one dying soon. I hesitated a bit, then, in a soft, kindly voice, “you don’t sound like you are dying.” There was a pause, she laughed, I breathed easier, “my niece in Chicago tells me I’ve been saying that for ten years.” I pursued it a bit more, “so are you dying soon?” She said she thought so, but for now she wanted to meet me and get to know me better.
Visiting with a living angel is always a good visit. Rose was a plump, cherub like woman who lived in a small, subsidized apartment; two rooms, kitchenette, bathroom. She came to the door in a wheelchair, but immediately excused herself and climbed back in a hospital bed explaining she was more comfortable in bed since her legs bothered her from arthritis.
Wrapping a soft, white, shawl around her shoulders, she made herself comfortable and we talked. Right off she smiled broadly, had an easy way of making herself known with little ambiguity in what she said.
“I moved here to be closer to my husband Sylvester. We were writing to each other for five years and something special transpired between us. We fell in love and decided to get married. It’s difficult living so close to him though and not being able to visit.”
She lived simply, receiving some help, food and personal care from an agency that served the elderly. Rose said she wasn’t eating much any more, living on vegetarian foods for decades and now mostly Ensure. I appreciated sharing with her I was also a long time vegetarian. We spent about two hours sharing together, me mostly listening to her talk about her life as a Waldorf teacher, weaver, book store owner, traveler, wife three times over, before marrying Sylvester. She was so honest and pure in her conversation I didn’t judge her for following her heart and spirit in marrying this man who was so totally different, on the physical plane, then she was.
She told me again that she met Sylvester after answering an ad in the Sojourner Magazine, for prisoner seeking pen pals. “After my arthritis progressed, and I couldn’t get out and be active in a community, I needed something worthwhile to do, and began corresponding with prisoners.” Rose showed me a copy of the book, “Doing time Together,” that was a published version of the first two years of the letters she and Sylvester wrote to each other. “We didn’t make much money from the book, but it did get some notoriety due to the uniqueness of our coming together and our subsequent marriage.”
Rose eventually talked about the ongoing problems Sylvester had in prison, especially the brutality he encountered. She became an outspoken advocate for prison reform and because of her activism, was barred from seeing her husband, who was also in and out of solitary confinement. Rose gave me the book to take home, her last copy, which I found to be a revealing book about prison life and the spiritual transformation of Sylvester.
After this visit she mailed me a letter giving me instructions on what I was to do when she died, with names and addresses of everyone I needed to contact.
I was a taken aback getting such a serious letter from someone I barely knew, so I called and asked again, “aren’t you jumping the gun a bit about your death being so imminent?” She laughed, “I still feel it’s close. I need to cover all bases.”
It felt a bit awkward taking on the life’s possessions and work of this new friend, but since God had plucked me out, choose me to be Rose’s friend and aide, who was I to question this course of life.
In reading their book, there was a letter Rose wrote in early June 1989, assuring Sylvester not to worry about her dying soon. “I have about 10 more years,” she told him. Rose contacted me in early May of 1999 and died on June 2 1999.
On May 23 Rose had a near fatal stroke leaving her almost totally paralyzed. She could smile, move her eyes and her left arm, which for the ten days in Hospice House, off and on, she waved around over her head, to let us know she was still alive.
When notified of her stroke, I went see Rose in the intensive care unit of a local hospital where she was hooked up to life support. She struggled so much against these encumbrances, they strapped her arms to the bed rails. With a dear friend of mine, Eleanor, we stood helplessly by the bed, knowing we needed to do something to free her of hospital technologies. We didn’t have long to wait – as a Hospice nurse I knew, as if called my us, showed up to see a patient of his. I wasted no time telling him about Rose and her wishes to die without feeding tube, oxygen, or I.V. liquids. Since we weren’t family, the nurse agreed to call Rose’s niece in Chicago who confirmed her aunt’s wishes. By grace, there was an empty bed at the Hospice House, and that same day she was moved.
What, I asked myself, was I to learn from Rose? Something came to me one night, as I stood by her bedside in Hospice House, searching myself for what exactly to say to her. Much of the time I simply stood and smiled, kept her company, but at times I wanted to talk with her. Her eyes kept shining, her mouth with an occasional smile, her left arm in constant motion when she was awake. As she looked up at me, in her eyes questioning - why was this happening? “I guess you just have to wait your turn, there’s a long line ahead of you and it’s going slow.” I never had this thought before, even with all those I helped with dying in the nursing home, but it seemed an appropriate assessment. Bombs were dropping in Kosovo, children were shooting children in Columbine High School in Colorado; she had to wait.
Maybe Rose’s dance, for those ten days, my whole purpose in meeting her, were to help me understand, to be even less fearful of death. For ten days she was only partially there, dozing off regularly, but when awake she knew I was with her. She didn’t go the way she planned: that deep, middle of night kind of death, but I helped in a way she appreciated and gained something myself.
As with other dying people I was with, I mostly prayed for her to be at peace, passing on the same feeling of peacefulness she spent most of her life radiating to others. It wasn’t hard or easy being that close to death with a special person; it just was. And for her part, I supposed she was being a good sport, knowing God prepared her well for this time.
All along I was appreciating gift I was given by Rose - being plucked out of my day to day to be with her as she waited patiently for her last breath?
On her last night, her breathing became labored, alternating between 30 seconds of slow breathing and increasing into a heavy breathing, then decreasing back to the slow quiet breathing, almost stopping. I could feel she was getting within hours or minutes of her last breath. I left at 10:00 p.m. and she took her last breaths at 2:00 a.m. After Rose passed on, I spent many days and nights going through some of the boxes of copied letters to Sylvester, she expressing, love to him, and teaching of a new way for him to see life. His letters, forever thankful she was in his life with her special love for him, and depicting life in infamous Florida State Prison.
Rose suffered, reading about the cruelty the men were subjected to, but she also felt the conflict knowing they had been perpetrators themselves. She also wrote about her global understanding, that many had been victims as children, taking it out on others and consequently, suffering societies punishment.
Rose had not come from a cloistered world by any means, but her life never knowingly connected with criminals. Then, turning 70, unable to do all her favorite activities anymore, she looked around into the world, way outside anything she had known before, and chose to write to those who were the least socially acceptable in America. They are the lepers of our time. Maybe she took the lead from St. Francis who chose to work with them, because none else would. She had books of many great humanitarians: Christ, her teacher; The Peace Pilgrim, Albert Schweitzer, Gandhi, Ruldolf Steiner and other great or common walkers of the peace path. Her collection of books, notes, filled with pictures of angels and saints, speak for themselves about who she followed in life. She was being pulled ahead of herself by forces she little understood, believing all along, in the righteousness and sacredness of life.