I remember Rose. I wish I could do more than remember but I don’t have a choice.
Rose was the perfect name for her.
I have no idea how old she was but she looked about ninety. She was just like any elderly black woman you might see in a movie; toothless, sappy sweet, with just a little touch of sass. She was once a nurse; had been for forty years. She was never married and had no children. She lived with her nephew and an assortment of other characters that I could never keep straight. Cousins, nieces, grand cousins, play cousins, but they all looked older than fifty and none of them spoke to me unless I addressed them directly.
I met Rose when some missionaries asked me to come along for a discussion. She lived in a row house in North Philadelphia. It was the grand kind of place I would have loved to have seen when it was new, but that would have been about 1850 and it had long since been subdivided into apartments and I doubt many had loved to see it for at least fifty years. There were two short sets of stairs leading up to her front porch which was a large cement slab surrounded by a crooked railing.
She spent her days sitting in the living room, sharing the space with an old TV, a ratty couch, and an upturned coffee can filled with cigarette butts. She never went anywhere. She never left the room. She didn’t wander because she only had one foot. She lost it to diabetes some years before and so now she sat in her wheelchair on the ground floor of a three-story apartment. The others in the house seemed to go up and down, in and out, passing Rose the same way they passed the ratty couch and the old TV. The coffee can wasn’t hers. She didn’t smoke.”Naw honey. Gave that up years ago. T’aint good for ya and I gots enough problems as it is. That can’s for everybody else in this house. I wished they’d smoke ‘em out on the porch but I guess its cold out there. Anyways, at least when they’s smokin’ in here I can talk to ‘em a little.”
Rose found the missionaries when they knocked on her door and she hollered for them to come inside. Maybe she just wanted someone to talk to. Maybe she had been sitting there waiting for them. Whatever it was, they found each other and they called me to come along. “Miss Rose has lots of questions and has been reading quite a bit,” the Elder’s informed me. “Today we will be talking about church and baptism.” Now I knew why they really asked me to come along; my minivan.
I was happy to offer my services to help Rose attend church that upcoming Sunday. She was the only one in the house who had any interest in the gospel but it didn’t matter because none of them owned a car. “You sure that aint a problem? You sure you don’t mind coming all out your way to get me?” she asked. I did not mind at all. 8:30 that next Sunday Rose was waiting for me right on the other side of the screen door. She would have been on the porch but couldn’t get herself up over the door jamb. I wheeled her around backwards and we bump, bump, bumped our way down those two small sets of stairs and then I gallantly lifted her out of her chair and set her in the passenger seat of the van. “Hi Rose,” my daughter and wife called out to her. “Hello everybody,” she replied and we drove off to the chapel.
This became our regular Sunday pattern up through her baptism and a month or so after as well. But then my responsibilities changed and I was no longer available Sunday mornings. I couldn’t call to tell Rose because she had no phone. I stopped by on a Wednesday to tell her I couldn’t be there on Sunday and she apologized to me. She was sorry to be any trouble. I promised I would try to find someone else.
The only person I could find was Brother Berry.
I hadn’t really thought this through very well. Brother Berry was perhaps the only person I knew who was older than Rose. Despite his age Brother Berry would volunteer for anything and they were the only other people we knew with a van. That Sunday morning the Berry’s showed up without Rose. Sister Berry marched up to me and launched into some high decibel diatribe about Brother Berry’s back and stairs and wheelchairs, heart attacks, and another thing coming. I pled forgiveness. Looking back I guess it was my fault. I had assumed that Brother Berry had a plan or was simply more capable than I thought. He was not capable, just willing. After church I drove over to visit Rose and she apologized to me again.
After five months of asking for volunteers and organizing Rose had still never made it back to church. I refused to accept that I was the only solution. Besides, I had other things to worry about than just Rose. So I continued to try to find her rides and would swing by to visit her on weekdays as often as I could. I felt guilty I wasn’t able to be her taxi and was inspired by the addition of a blue book with gold print as the newest piece of living room furniture. It didn’t take long for that blue book to look as used and ratty as the sofa it sat next too.
Before too long our ward welcomed a set of senior missionaries. They weren’t all that old, they were full time, and best of all they had a car. I asked them to please go get Rose. And they did.
I was so happy when this good Elder wheeled Rose into the chapel. She reached out to give me a big hug repeatedly asking, “Where’s the baby?” till my two year old was eventually produced to be hugged as well. It was a great day till about four o’clock.
At four I got a phone call from this Elder’s wife telling me all about her husband’s back problems, his age, and the challenges of getting Rose back up those stinking stairs. I apologized. I often find myself in situations where this is appropriate. This senior Elder spent a day and a half resting hs back but had the bright idea of a deal moving forward. If I couldn’t be there to pick her up, and he couldn’t get her home, maybe we should work together. He would go get her if I would take her home.
That next Sunday the senior missionaries showed up without Rose. When they arrived at her home one of the others in the house told us she was in the hospital. Something about her diabetes and surgery. No one there seemed willing or able to tell us anything more than that. After church the senior couple began calling hospitals eventually tracking her down. That Tuesday I paid her a visit.
There she was, smiling her toothless grin. She had lost her other foot but not her smile. She chuckled and waved me into the room past an extra bed that looked to hold a large pile of pillows and sheets. “That’s Clara”, she said pointing to the other bed. “She upset because they won’t let her smoke and I keeps reading the Book of Mormon out loud.” With that she winked at me and pulled open a side drawer to show me her dog eared scriptures. I love that she had her scriptures and loved even more that she winked at me. How could anyone not like Rose?
The senior couple continued to visit Rose till she was moved to a convalescent home nearby. We all talked about how it would soon be time to start arranging for her to get rides to church again, there was some discussion about maybe perhaps bringing her the sacrament, but no one felt any urgency. Things were just moving along. It all began to feel quite normal. That is the right word for it; normal.
It was now normal for me to drive right past the home where Rose was staying as I went to and from wherever doing this and that. I would drive by on my way to pick up one of the youth for an activity, look over, and think to myself, “I should go visit Rose.” But I was on my way somewhere else, somewhere worthwhile, so I would vow to visit Rose later. I would pass by Rose’s center on my way to meet the missionaries somewhere, look over and be reminded I hadn’t yet been by to see Rose. “I should make a note to go see Rose”, I would tell myself, and then hurry off to meet the Elders. I recall one day driving past having finished my work for the day and thinking, “now is the time to go see Rose.” It was dark, it was late, and I was tired. I figured it wasn’t that big of a deal, I would get by to see her. She wasn’t going anywhere, besides, no one but me seems to be able to move her. I went home.
Sometime later the senior missionaries told me a story. It had been just a little too long since they had seen Rose so they scheduled some time to drop in and visit.
Rose wasn’t there.
Rose had passed away.
The people at the home had done their best to contact someone but Rose had listed no relatives and left no point of contact. With no one to contact Rose had been buried by the state. The employees at the home were only disclosing this information to the senior couple because they recognized the logo on the name tags as the same logo on Rose’s copy of the Book of Mormon.
Riddled with guilt I asked where she was buried.
“They don’t know. They said people buried by the state are put in unmarked graves. They have no idea where she is. Sorry.”
I know enough of the gospel to know that Rose is in a better place. It wouldn’t be hard to be better than an empty living room in a wheel chair. Yet when I think of Rose I mostly remember that I drove past her house, thought I should stop, and didn’t.
My little family was in the airport getting ready to board a plane when my little three year old yanked on my sleeve, “Look Dad, it’s Rose!” she said pointing to an old stranger in a wheel chair. “O yeah, that does look kinda like Rose.” I say in my best fatherly voice; encouraging and matter of fact. But it wasn’t Rose. Rose was gone.
Where Rose is now, she can smile with teeth. She can stand. When I knew her she couldn’t do either of those things. I should be happier about that. But I haven’t changed all that much, I’m thinking about my own guilt and failure to act. I’m trying hard to get better and I think I am making some progress. Slow progress. Rose didn’t have time to wait for me to get better. I couldn’t fix all Rose’s problems, but I could have helped more than I did.
How many Roses do we drive past every day without stopping? Let’s do a little better.