The woman in the middle is Pat Rousseau and this past Sunday, she died. This photo was our first, with Mary Malone, and only meeting of the Sunday Afternoon Neon Movies Watching Group, called The Neon Nexus, which was going to be a summer long movie watching group. But Pat went in and out of the hospital for most of the summer, and then quite unexpectedly to me, and to many, she didn’t recover from this last trip. She’d come to me a month ago with her wishes for me to sing at her funeral, and I was appalled that she was talking like that, especially since she seemed fine after one of her hospital visits–but she said, “I just have a feeling.”
We don’t want to hear about Death, especially from the living. Especially when Death has been contacting people close to us. Many assumed hospital visits had become Pat’s new normal. She was in for a week, and out for two or three, in for two weeks, and out for two or three. Until last week, I didn’t know how serious this one was. I got to visit her in the hospital a couple of times. She was aware of me, I think, but then the tubes and lights and noises do so much Lifework for the person you love that you’re not sure if they’re really aware you are there.
She was such a welcoming presence in my church for the first time this gay man wanted to walk into a Baptist church. Of course, she had no problem with me– (“Our associate pastor is gay too!”). Her life was advocacy, and she was a lawyer, most recently for children. Confined to a wheelchair, she was a child’s greatest defense I heard, and that many children in Dayton owed their lives to her fighting for them. I wish I’d seen her do her work now. I wish I’d seen her fight. I saw her fighting in the hospital, but she couldn’t win that one. I’d like to have seen her win a few.
I heard she was at Chapel Hill during the Civil Rights Movement and that she marched with her husband. I saw how devoted she was to human rights and civil rights in Dayton. She was encouraging all of us to be more active in our communities—in CROPwalk, in Homefull, always advocating for the hungry and the homeless, that we could walk for a cause.
She was tireless and she was loud. She was persistent in her loudness to injustice and she won sometimes just because she was so persistent. Would some call her pushy? Maybe, but I don’t think she’d mind. Persistence was the only way to get justice. She was very clear on her arguments, but Pat was not afraid to shame anyone into doing the right things when they couldn’t see the wisdom in doing them in the first place—but I could see her hold back if she loved the person too much. She held back with me. She pushed me, yes, and then she eased up—trying to get me involved in the church, in Dayton, trying to get me to commit to something. She sensed I was loitering on the edges, unsure if I was going to settle in to Dayton. And she was right. She was always after me specifically to join the choir of our church. I had good reasons that would make it difficult for me to join the church choir—some of it was about fear, a fear to commit to something that I might not be able to fulfill. I could see then that she would look at me out of love and pull back.
I found a way to get around some of those hurdles a few weeks ago. I told her in the hospital, “Okay, you win. I’m in the choir.” I touched her arm while she was hooked up to a breathing tube, and seven bags of medical fluids. “You have to see the choir now, Pat. You have to get out of this hospital to see that choir.”
Everyone assumed she would win every time. And she mostly did. Just try to take money out of the Positives for Positives dinner, or money out of the charities we promised in our budget to fund in the community—alone if she had to she would cry out, and would harness the power of our theology like a fiery whip, and challenge us to be what we said we were, as if asking us, “Just what do you think you are doing here in Dayton if you aren’t here to feed and help shelter the homeless? What worth does a church have if it is just paying to keep the lights on? If it doesn’t risk for other people?”
If she had a saint, it would have been Martin Luther King, Jr. and she was there probably at every MLK dinner and celebration held in Dayton. I think she modeled herself after him. We didn’t all get to meet Mr. King, but you felt like you were meeting his daughter sometimes when you talked with Pat. She was selfless.
Her son, Ross, told me her heart gave out last. That it just worked overtime…and that sounds like Pat.
We don’t want to hear about death because death says we won’t get finished with what we’re doing. It is all the uncertainty in one big dark cloak. Why do anything if Death can interrupt you, if Death will beat you to the end? But I can hear Pat answering as a lawyer, “Why not do as much as you can until you’re interrupted?”
I loved her, and she loved me and we didn’t have enough time together. I didn’t give her enough space in my life. We rarely give enough space in our life for our friends. I know there was so much more she could have taught me about herself, her history, why she felt so strongly about justice. All the things I can’t ask her. Her history I don’t know.
I do know she loved movies, she loved people, she loved art. She loved the paintings her mother painted–a life of art her mother never got to pursue. I know she never wanted to be that person—she wanted to be as active as she could be, doing what she was going to do, and she defined what she would be able to do. She believed an active life was being active for others. She never let a wheelchair stop her from being “an especially active, vigorous advocate” (aka an Activist) of those who needed her most. I do know she was also well loved and well respected. She will be missed so much.
Pat fought for us. Pat fought hard for us. (Oh, Pat, you’ve got bigger choirs to hear now—but we miss your voice for justice here.)
This is what I learned from Pat: don’t be afraid to engage the people around you, to put down roots where you are even if you are afraid that you could be pulled out tomorrow, to make every day a win just by doing something. Don’t be afraid to fight for their causes, to make sure justice is distributed freely, to put your love and your faith into action.
Be active until your heart just gives out.
I’m sorry to hear about the loss of your friend. What a wonderful teacher, providing insight and joy to all those she knew.