Her name was Rose, but she was anything but a delicate flower. Red-haired and feisty, the Rose I knew was stronger than dirt.
She was the first person to love my children, outside of family. That distinction alone puts her in pretty rarified air, if you ask me. It was 1997 and my three-year-old son needed a preschool and he wasn’t about to let me leave his sights. Snohomish Cooperative Preschool seemed like the perfect fit–laid-back and easy going, with an emphasis on learning through play. Even better, they told me I could stay with my son as long as I needed to. (Turns out, I needed to. For awhile. Like the first six months or so. Guess what, though? He’s in college now. Hey, things worked out.) But the real selling point to this preschool was the woman with the warm smile who quietly knelt down on one knee, extended her hand and greeted my son with “Hello, my name is Miss Rose.”
Miss Rose was my children’s preschool teacher and I liked her right away, and so did my son. That was no small feat. My son was thoughtful and reserved. He liked to stay back, observing situations, getting a feel for folks before diving right in. After all, he was his mama’s boy and I understood his need to take his time. Rose, too, seemed to instinctively understand this and within weeks had won my son over with her genuine warmth. That first year of preschool was like a breath of fresh air. Three times a week I was able to step out of the isolation of being a stay-at-home mom with my first child and into the little house on Fifth Street and feel supported. We spent two hours each day with Miss Rose and other moms, other kids and even a “parent advisor” who, you know–would give us parents advice. We’d giddily gather together in the mornings for circle time, singing songs and learning each other’s names. The kids would be let loose after that, free to roam, perhaps to the sensory table that might be filled with sand and dinosaurs or maybe water and tugboats that day. Or maybe escape to the dress-up room where preschoolers magically morphed into knights and princesses and lions and tigers. She was an artist at heart and had a charm for nudging out creativity from all our kids. I didn’t worry about my kid learning to read in preschool, but some parents did. Those parents challenged Miss Rose and would push her to incorporate more structured learning (worksheets, anyone?) in the midst of this magical, cooperative, imaginative preschool. I thought they were insane. After she left teaching, Rose once told me that it wasn’t the kids that forced her out, but having to deal with the incessant drama of some of the parents. She stood her ground, though, citing studies linking play and curiosity to higher intelligence and success later in school.
All I knew was that anyone who dedicated their life to nurturing the bright imaginations of preschoolers was an angel in my book. I knew this partly by the way I would come home and collapse into the sofa in exhaustion while my son ate his lunch after spending those two hours in what sometimes felt like an introvert’s hell. Kids are noisy. A bunch of kids in a little house are hella noisy. My son and I would wearily retreat to our quiet place afterwards but always looked forward to returning. Once my daughter was born, I made sure she was on the list to enroll in Rose’s toddler group just as soon as she was able.
That preschool was where I went and looked forward to hearing Miss Rose tell me, “I know, me too. It’s going to be okay. You’re doing a good job.”
And although she was an angel in my eyes, I knew she wasn’t perfect. I knew this because she was honest and forthright and told us how she struggled raising two teenagers. Us more newly-minted parents listened with revered awe, not even able to imagine our little cherubs ever growing up and giving us eye-rolls and stinky socks to deal with. Over the five years I spent with my two kids under Miss Rose’s wing, she and I got to know each other pretty well. Sometimes, after a glass of wine or two, her New York accent got a little looser, a little thicker and the wise-crackin’ Rose I loved most emerged. She was an artist and loved music and books and children and animals. I can still hear her voice as Rose would cock her head and say, “You know, I always knew there was something I liked about you, Tracie.” We shared stories and secrets and laughed until our eyes filled with tears.
Miss Rose loved my children, and my family and I loved her.
We lost touch with each other for a bit in between then and now. I got busy with two kids in public school, baseball and gymnastics. Years passed when she and I only exchanged a random Christmas card here and there, but we always kept each other’s email handy. I learned that she had left the preschool. I began teaching yoga and Rose came to my classes for awhile. She told me how yoga helped her connect back with herself and how she always felt better in her body afterwards. When I began writing more in earnest, Rose read my blogs and would comment, telling me how my words affected her. And because we had kept in casual touch with each other, she learned about the yoga retreat I was getting ready to lead.
I had booked a big, rustic cabin in the woods of Leavenworth for that weekend in late September. I was in uncharted territory, branching out from simply teaching my classes to hosting a full-fledged weekend retreat with a group of twelve. Rose surprised me when she emailed me, expressing interest in coming along. “This is just what I need for ME,” she told me triumphantly. I was thrilled. We assembled our group there in the woods, new yoga students as well as veteran yogis, dear friends and friends of friends. Rose even invited two of her pals from Portland, whose reservations officially sold-out my retreat a month in advance. I knew I was working, with my Yoga Teacher Hat firmly on, but I felt enveloped in love. Rose and I, especially, talked about how that weekend retreat resurrected our friendship. I couldn’t have been happier.
After the retreat, she and I got together once or twice for coffee and chatted about our kids, our lives and our passions we needed to pursue before it got too late. I remember laughing again until our eyes filled with tears. I remember leaving and going home feeling filled up. I remember Rose telling me, “I know, me too. You’re doing a good job.”
I didn’t hear from Rose for awhile. She was on Facebook, but rarely. I saw a cryptic message on her page that said, “You and your family are in our prayers.” I wondered what it meant, but time passed and I didn’t call her.
It was nearly the end of the labyrinth walk I was facilitating right after New Year’s this year when I saw someone walking down the hallway. My annoyance at having someone come with only ten minutes left in the event immediately turned to joy when I realized it was Rose. I sprung up from my chair and skipped down the hall to greet her, squeezing her tightly in a hug. “I am so, so glad to see you!” I breathed into her ear, only to draw back and see that she was crying. “I have lung cancer,” she told me, “And I don’t know why I’m crying.”
(Just for the record, I think if you have cancer, you can cry just as much as you need to.)
She apologized for being emotional, which I immediately told her was silly. An optimistic doctor’s appointment earlier in the day had resulted in unexpected bad news and she needed the quiet meditation of the labyrinth to help her process everything. She went in as I sat outside, reeling from the news she had just shared.
And I hated myself for not calling her earlier.
Thirty-five minutes later, Rose emerged from the candlelit room, markedly peaceful. “That was just what I needed,” she stated and we made plans to have lunch very soon.
Lunch happened just a few weeks after. Rose strode into the cafe, looking strong and glowing. It was a beautiful, sunny winter afternoon. We hugged, we ate and her New York accent became looser and stronger and we laughed until we had tears in our eyes. “I feel great,” she told me. Her prognosis wasn’t especially good, but she wasn’t ready to die. Oh hell no, she laughed. And I believed her. I told her how sorry I was that I hadn’t called her sooner and she assured me it was a two-way street. She had been busy, anyway, beating this cancer back. Two and a half hours later, we stepped outside on the sidewalk and hugged. Mortality flashed in my mind for a split second before I assured myself I’d see her again. “See you soon!” we chimed.
Rose and I texted back and forth a few times. We made plans and then had to cancel due to her chemotherapy appointments. She talked about her hip hurting and I worried what that meant. A week or two passed and she told me the cancer had spread but that she and her husband were planning a trip to Belize and that she’d get in touch with me when they returned. She teased that maybe I could join them for a drink on the beach in Central America. She sounded like herself, but her texts became more confusing. And worried what that meant.
I don’t know what happens when we die, but I do know that we are energy and we feel energy of the people and places around us. Rose had been on my mind since late last week and I had picked up my phone to text her several times, only to put it down again, feeling like something wasn’t quite right and worried that I would say the wrong thing. I wanted one more lunch, one more hug. Selfishly, I yearned to laugh with her until our eyes filled with tears and I would hear her New York accent tell me, “I know, me too.”
My friend Rose died Monday evening, surrounded by her family, just as she wanted. Her daughter said Louis Armstrong was playing and she passed without fear or pain. I have never lost a friend as close as Rose, someone who loved my children and who my children loved in those tender, formative, magical preschool years. Several people have told me that Rose wouldn’t want me to be sad. But I don’t know about that. And even though I know they told me that with the best intentions and love, I feel like if we have mattered in this world, if we have made an impact, if our leaving means we leave the planet that much darker, well then, I think I should be sad. I think Rose would want me to be sad. Not forever. But for now.
The world lost a mighty good one this time. A bright star, a wonderful mother and wife, a loyal friend, a feisty redhead who appreciated art and love and the brilliant, fiery potential in all of us.
Rose, you did a magnificent job.