A man named Carl Chamberlain left me an unsettling voice mail last week.
He wanted to tell me “about a great lady.” Everyone, he said, his voice breaking, “should have known her.”
It was apparent the long pause before he left his phone number was used to control his emotions.
When I returned his call, Chamberlain whispered he had to go into the hallway.
“She might hear,” he said so softly he could barely be heard. “She’s so modest.”
Seconds later, the man who identified himself as a longtime Las Vegas Review-Journal reader was no longer whispering.
“I didn’t think it would be like this,” he said, choking back tears. “I thought we would have more time together.”
It turned out Rose Chamberlain, his 66-year-old wife, a former Clark County schoolteacher who had earned teacher of the year honors at Lynch Elementary, was in Nathan Adelson Hospice. The breast cancer she fought for years had almost won. Soon to be thrust into the role of widower, her husband of 27 years felt as though he was about to drown in grief.
Every year, the worlds of millions of Americans forever change as they become widows and widowers. There are no rules about how to feel, no right way or wrong way to mourn. A voracious reader, Carl Chamberlain knows healthy grieving can last years, that he may be able to refocus his life, but it also would be normal for him never to stop thinking about his Rose.
“It’s so hard to believe she’ll just leave and nobody will know what she’s meant,” a distraught Chamberlain said as we visited outside his wife’s room. “How can someone just fade away like she’s never been here? It’s not fair.”
Chamberlain, who retired around 18 months ago after nearly two decades of helping people find the right reference materials at West Las Vegas Library, still is clearly in awe of a woman who went from being a foster child in Cleveland to a college graduate with two master’s degrees.
“You talk about bootstraps,” he said, smiling. “She didn’t even have boots.”
Chamberlain said he and the woman who became his wife twice exchanged glances on a California sidewalk. The second time they started to talk. A year later, they married.
He worked part time as a typist. She was on the way to heading an equal opportunity program at the University of California, Santa Barbara after holding a similar post in Texas.
They were in their late 30s when both got married for the only time in their lives.
“The other night in her sleep she had an argument she had 28 years ago with people,” he said, tears streaming down his face. “She yelled out, ‘I don’t care if he doesn’t have a car. I don’t care if he doesn’t have a full-time job. He’s a good and decent man.’ Can you believe it? She was still defending me.”
Chamberlain remembers how he and his wife would sit in her Corvette near the ocean and talk. One minute he’s laughing, the next crying:
“You know why she had a Corvette? When she was going to Wayne State University in Detroit, she saw David Ruffin — he was lead singer for the Temptations — driving one. She made up her mind to buy one. We were in a Corvette when she said she was tired of working with university bureaucracies. She got a teaching degree to help kids. We didn’t have our own, but she wanted kids to get a good chance in life. We moved to Las Vegas because there were teaching openings.”
Johnston Middle School teacher Jacqueline Brice, who also taught at Lynch Elementary, recalls Rose Chamberlain’s students received the highest scores for English and reading performance.
A disciplinarian, she still loved to joke back and forth with children, Brice said.
One student acted as if she was tattling on another girl for using the “n” word. “Yes, you said, ‘nice,’ ” another little one chimed in. Chamberlain had a difficult time stopping her laughter.
When she went through breast cancer treatment, her husband says she seldom stayed home from school because she said her kids needed her. At night, he’d dance for her to make her feel better.
“She didn’t dance, but she loved to see me do the moonwalk and dance like James Brown. She’d laugh and laugh.”
During the last year, as his wife’s breast cancer worsened, Carl Chamberlain says he has lost about 30 pounds.
“I just don’t feel like eating,” he says.
He became so weak he couldn’t pick up his sickly thin wife without help when she fell. His wife encouraged him to eat: “She always said, ‘You’re all I have and God.’ ”
Though his wife retired two years ago, she continued to substitute teach.
“They’re still calling for her,” her husband said.
Brice admired the Chamberlains’ marriage.
“They were best friends. They talked and talked. They read everything. Their intellect was amazing,” Brice says. “What one didn’t know, the other did. And they were always traveling.”
They saw a pope in Rome, acted like bullfighters getting cabs in Barcelona, Spain, wore “Obama for President” hats in Amsterdam.
“My wife really wanted to see Obama in Las Vegas, but she was so sick from breast cancer she almost missed him,” Chamberlain said. “She rushed out of a bathroom to see him. I asked if she did and she said, ‘Yes, I saw one of those ears.’ ”
As Chamberlain looks at his wife, the smile brought on by her comments about the president’s large ears disappears. His voice trembles.
“When we heard people crying the other day, she asked me: ‘Is this one of those places where people go to die?’ I didn’t lie. I said some do and some go home. But I didn’t tell her what the doctors told me about her. I just couldn’t.”
Rose Chamberlain died Sunday. Carl was at her side.
Contact reporter Paul Harasim at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2908.