Rock Hill man’s death from cancer – surrounded by love

03/13/2012 11:00 PM

03/14/2012 12:35 PM

In front of the house at 263 Kirkstone Lane, in Rock Hill’s Stafford Park neighborhood, stands a huge heart, carved from styrofoam, about four feet tall.

It is covered with Christmas lights – and little messages to a guy with cancer so bad that it almost wasn’t cancer anymore.

The heart is almost as big as the heart that was inside the house, until around 4:30 Monday afternoon, when Bruce Rosenberg – Rock Hill’s Jewish champion of Christmas lights – died in the arms of his wife and oldest daughter.

An entire neighborhood gathered around the house and wept.

Death came in a hospital bed, next to the king-sized bed in the bedroom, that big huge bed where the neighbor women had held a “slumber vigil” with Bruce’s wife, Julie, Sunday night, when there was little doubt that death was just hours away.

It was not the first time all had crammed into that bed like 8-year-olds. They played a game where all tried to think of every word that begins with “P.”

The words “party” and “pugilist” and “poop” and “pee” certainly were accompanied by fits of the giggles that rolled through the house like ocean waves.

“That’s what family does,” said neighbor Julie Derry, no family by blood – but family certainly.

The hospital bed was where the neighbor men – including a burly former college football player and a chiropractor and other tough guys with strong sinewy arms sticking out of their T-shirts – had placed Rosenberg after carrying him through the house like a king.

The same bed where these tough guys had stood, crying, and watched death in the afternoon. The same bed where, for days that turned to weeks, neighborhood men had sat vigil through deep nights so that Julie, the wife, could find a few hours of sleep in a life that had no rest.

“The man was a giant,” said Scott Ball, a neighbor and a lot more.

In Abu Dhabi and Florida, New York and down the street, hundreds of people who had been part of the life and death of this guy, Rosenberg, cried. He was a man with a wife and two daughters who never, not once, asked anybody to feel sorry for him.

He attracted Christians and Jews, Muslims and agnostics. He was a favorite of cab drivers and doctors.

He loved them all.

Rosenberg’s idea of sorrow was, on March 21 – the day he was diagnosed with cancer last year – to tell people to eat ice cream for breakfast. His idea now has a national following on Facebook, along with a Pit Crew on Facebook – named for the arm pit where the horrible tumors were first found.

Instead of self-pity, he took on a mascot – a flatulent unicorn. The house has so many rubber and plastic unicorns, it looks like a zoo for mutants.

Thankfully, the gassy part is make-believe.

Rosenberg, a self-confessed science-fiction geek who loved “The Lord of the Rings,” laughed about it all, even on the day doctors took out a lung with a robotic machine that looked like science-fiction death with all its gleaming steel.

When his hair fell out he grew a beard, just to show the whole world he would laugh right to the end.

On his mantle, lit for months, remained steer horns, longhorns, wrapped in more Christmas lights.

The horns were one of thousands of items donated last summer in a city-wide yard sale organized by neighbors to benefit the family that had to deal with medicines that are poison and hospital stays that last for weeks in Florida – and a husband who could not work.

All through this past weekend, a tough, seasoned hospice nurse named Barb McGoye, who says, “I have been a nurse for hospice so long I am embarrassed to admit it,” was with the family and saw all this with her own eyes.

Hospice usually means death is imminent. Hospice is brought in to ease death and make it as palatable as possible, while celebrating life as this guy and his family and neighbors surely did. McGoye has seen a thousand deaths. Her uniform under her smile and her grace, a job of love, could be the robe and scythe of the grim reaper.

But by the time Bruce Rosenberg died Monday afternoon, McGoye and everybody she knew in person and on Facebook had agreed to eat ice cream for breakfast on March 21. She had seen the valiant wife and kids, and the neighbors of iron will and tender hearts, and the strength of this man, and she was just plain amazed.

She had heard the teenaged daughter, Ella, tell her father before he died that someday his grandkids, when there are grandkids, sure would eat ice cream for breakfast every March 21.

“What I watched was amazing, incredible, just unbelievable,” said McGoye. “The family, awesome. But the neighbors – it was a sight to behold. It was, well, it was love.”

Because Bruce Rosenberg laughed until he could not laugh anymore. He worked as a stock broker, then for a financial firm, but his joy was his wife and kids, and the people he could bring a smile to.

In Stafford Park’s annual Christmas lights contest, which raised money for charity, Rosenberg with the Christian wife and kids draped his house and truck. Any more lights would have caused a roof collapse.

Except one light always was added until the eaves just about sagged. On the roof was the Star of David – the symbol of Judaism.

“I believe in love of all and everybody,” Rosenberg told me the last time we talked, when his body was so sick he dropped the phone and said, “I can’t talk any more.”

Julie Rosenberg, after a year of her husband’s pain, remained Tuesday surrounded by those people who had come in shifts, in waves, over days and weeks. A year ago, Julie, tough as a bear, figured she could go through her husband’s cancer alone – and shepherd her children, too.

The neighbors, and the online group, changed her forever.

“The love that was out there, that is out there, for Bruce and this family is truly incredible,” Julie said Tuesday morning. “I have the largest family in the world. Every one of them here, in other places – are you kidding me? They rocked.”

She said this as neighbors and family and friends clomped in and out of her house and living room as if the place was a barroom. Jokes were made about a memorial service to come in weeks, when the neighbors will drink the supplement drink Boost – as Bruce had to for weeks – spiced with something much stronger than vitamins.

Bruce Rosenberg will be buried at 2 p.m. today, quickly in the Jewish tradition after a service with a rabbi and a retired Lutheran pastor – making sure all bases are covered.

Sure there were tears, and preparations that are somber, but the house and neighborhood remained a place of hope and joy and love. In this neighborhood, for 11 months and three weeks, the trek to the Rosenberg home was a death watch.

But all these people showed something different, though. That the life lived, the joy given, the hearts opened, are what matters.

Just like the heart out front. Huge and for the whole neighborhood to see, draped with Christmas lights, shining the way.

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