People who live to be 99 are remarkable by the sheer accomplishment of their age. But my oldest friend, who turned 99 in February, is one of the most remarkable people I have ever known. She is funny, smart, candid, loving and generous. She taught me about the importance of an ecumenical faith and to never doubt ‘young people.’ When you are 99, almost everyone seems to fit into the category of “young people” but perhaps she was teaching us about trusting each other! Though I met Pauline through my involvement with the non-profit, she founded, I like to think that our paths first intersected in 1976.
In 1976 I was born (so, that’s a start) and my friend Pauline felt called to start spending most of her days in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. This is a neighbourhood, usually described as “the poorest postal code in Canada” but I much prefer my friend Helen’s description, “a neighbourhood wrought with poverty and rich in community.” It’s a neighbourhood filled with people caught both in addiction and often untreated mental health struggles. Pauline’s story is woven into the lives of hundreds of residents on the Downtown Eastside even though it’s not the place you would expect a well coifed 60 year-old woman to be wandering around by choice.
Pauline, trying to be nothing other than herself, spent 25 years making friends in the local bars and hotels or as we love to say “doing a pub crawl.” Drinking 7-Up or tea, Pauline would sit and visit with people and pray for them on their turf. And when times got tough, she would also visit people in the hospital or prison. She became well known and loved by all the regulars. Pauline wasn’t trying to ‘get people saved’ so she could check them off her list, but she loved Jesus and would talk about him sometimes.
She sat and chatted with drug dealers, prostitutes, lonely old men and girls she knew were too young to be on their own almost daily for 25 years. At the age of 85, she asked God what he wanted her to do with her life (bold for 85, eh?). She felt like God asked her to give away her inheritance. Pauline was confused because she was living on a pension and spending her days drinking tea in the inner city. Money was not something she had a lot of!
But God revealed to her that money was not her inheritance – instead it was all the friendships she had made in the neighbourhood. The faces of John, Rob, Susan, Jeanette, and more flashed before her eyes. She was reminded of the bartenders who would clear a spot for her and the men who would open the door for her as she came in to sit and be with people. These friendships were what was to be given away. People, created and loved by God, were a gift to Pauline and one she was meant to share. She felt compelled to find others who loved God and loved the DTES – people who would receive this gift and tend to these friendships.
In June 2001, Pauline and a few friends opened the doors of the storefront at 239 Main Street and began a ministry based on loving people of the Downtown Eastside well. As my friend Joyce used to say, “she didn’t come to fix or save but to love.” Jacob’s Well is where I, and many others, met Pauline. Her story was passed down to us and we pass it on to others.
Jacob’s Well – Photo by Marion Luttenberger
I finished almost ten years at Jacob’s Well in May 2013 but I continued to visit Pauline. She stopped doing the pub crawl a few years ago and now we go and visit her. I saw her two weeks ago, in a grey, small hospital room, and she was very frail, tired and quiet. Although when we put her glasses on she recognized us, we barely recognized her. Her perfectly done old lady hair was messy and unattended to. Her spunk and wit were hidden under the layers of blankets keeping her thin body warm. My friend Dawn and I knew it was time for Pauline to die. There is something profound about this feeling of readiness, maybe because it feels so rare. So many deaths seem like robbery – too soon! too young! too fast! But with Pauline, the opposite is true: She is 99 and ready to die and we are ready to let her go. Her inheritance of friendship has been given away, and her legacy of love will continue. Go in peace my friend.
** During the weeks between my writing this piece and posting it, Pauline passed away with her family and a few close friends nearby. We rejoice together in her life and in her death. For those of you in Vancouver we will celebrate her life on April 25th from 2-4pm at St. James Anglican Church.