With just weeks to live, 56-year-old Keven Pearce made a decision: He'd spend the rest of his days living as a woman.
So it is that Kay Pearce, not Keven, is dying of terminal cancer at the McClure Miller VNA Respite House in Colchester. Pearce sports dangling earrings and clinking bracelets. A long, brunette wig rests on a stand by her bed — when she's not wearing it. It's too late for surgery or hormones. In this final chapter, Pearce is happy to be seen by nurses and other caregivers as the female she says she has long felt herself to be.
"There has been that joy, that happiness and that feeling of fulfillment," Pearce said last week in her room at the Respite House, with her collection of delicate pink Depression glass decorating the coffee table and a miniature Christmas tree lit up in a corner.
Wearing an orange cardigan, dark pants and bedroom slippers, Pearce talked about her decision six weeks ago to assume a different gender expression.
Single and childless, the Burlington native explained that she had always felt like a girl and, as an adult, identified as gay and occasionally cross-dressed.
She thought about transitioning in the late 1990s but suffered a massive heart attack around age 40. She said doctors advised against hormone therapy, saying it could further strain her heart. So she did nothing.
Seven years ago, Pearce was diagnosed with bladder cancer and learned this year that her illness is terminal. That sealed the deal, and she resigned herself "to just hide out and wait for the eventual."
But in preparation for end-of-life care about six weeks ago, Pearce had a change of heart. Jeanne Sullivan, a social worker for the Visiting Nurse Association of Chittenden and Grand Isle Counties hospice and palliative care team, remembers the conversation well. "Something he always wanted to do was to become Kay," recalled Sullivan, who spoke to Seven Days with Pearce's permission. "He decided: Why wait? Why not do it now?"
Sometimes, reaching the end of one's life brings clarity, added Carol Snow, a VNA chaplain who has spent time with Pearce in the last few weeks.
"The train's always been coming, but now you can see it," Snow said.
Death's approach brings an intense mixture of feelings — fear and distress, sometimes changing to peace and contentment. Amid all these conflicting emotions, many people seem to want to make sense of their lives by talking about them. Listening is a powerful comfort, Snow said.
"The best possible thing we can do for each other is ... help each other tell our stories," she said.
Pearce wants to tell hers. Because she made the decision at the end of her life, she will not face some of the issues that other transgender people do. Pearce is simply making cosmetic alterations with makeup and nail polish. She's not going to change her legal name — there's no time — nor is she worried about an employer's reaction. Pearce's days in retail sales and customer service jobs are well behind her.
But at least one person is critical of her decision.
Her mother, Sheila Godin, brings home-cooked meals to Pearce's bright, cheerful room almost every day. Yet Godin, who cared for Pearce for several months at her Burlington home before the move to the Respite House, is not supporting the gender expression shift and won't use the name "Kay."
"I make his food, and I put 'Keven' on it, because that's who he is," Godin said in a telephone interview with Seven Days.
The transition doesn't sit well with her.
"I think it's unnecessary," Godin said. "I don't believe in any of it. If he wants to be gay, that's one thing, but this, as far as I'm concerned, is total nonsense."
Not to Pearce.
For decades, Pearce said, she lived with the feeling of being in the wrong body. "To walk by the mirror every single day and not see what you see inside your mind is very disturbing," she said. "It causes a very deep sadness."
These past few weeks, being referred to as "Kay" and "she" has contributed to the feeling that she is exhibiting her "true self," Pearce said.
That takes courage, said Josie Leavitt, interim executive director of the Pride Center of Vermont, a Burlington nonprofit.
"It should be honored, supported and respected," said Leavitt, who does not know Pearce.
For some parents, an adult child's transition to a new gender can be harder to accept than for the child coming out as gay. "You've spent your whole life as a parent seeing your child one way, then all of a sudden everything you've known about your child feels very different," Leavitt said. "It shakes people to the core sometimes if they don't understand why people feel the need to do this."
Often, the eureka moment comes when a skeptical family member sees what a difference it makes for the individual, Leavitt added: "That's where the real joy of being able to transition can be seen."
Kay's journey was a long one. Pearce, one of three children, grew up in Burlington's New North End and attended J.J. Flynn Elementary School, Lyman C. Hunt Middle School and Burlington High School.
As a young boy, Pearce wanted to play with dolls, which didn't go over well in the 1960s, when most gay or transgender people were deeply closeted because of societal disapproval. "I've always felt female," Pearce explained. "I was always stared at. That is the thing I always remember. I was always looked at differently. People seemed to know that what they were seeing was a little bit different. I was not the usual rough-and-tumble boy."
The neighborhood boys played with toy trucks. "I was playing house and trying to find ways of playing dolls with the girls in the neighborhood," Pearce said.
Sensing that such behavior was embarrassing to family members, a young Pearce concealed it. "I learned very early to hide who I was," she said.
Theater helped — Pearce acted in the Hunt Middle School production of You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown, and sang in the chorus of the community Lyric Theatre production of Gypsy in 1974. "I was accepted and almost even admired when I performed," Pearce recalled.
Offstage, the glow evaporated, Pearce said. "When you weren't performing, you were just back to that boy that looked like a girl or that girl that looked like a boy, or what are you, anyway?"
As a young adult, Pearce worked in retail and customer service jobs in Burlington and also lived in upstate New York and Maine, among other places. Pearce wanted children but did not want to do what some friends did: marry women, have children and carry on affairs with gay men. Later, Pearce was ready to raise kids with a man but says the right partner never came along. "I didn't want to raise a child by myself. I wanted to raise a child with a partner," she said.
After her health problems accelerated, Pearce lived on disability and took comfort in occasionally teaching classes through the Burlington Housing Authority, which manages subsidized housing in Burlington.
Pearce chose the first name Kay in recognition of a childhood neighbor who was kind and welcoming, and taught Pearce all about the flowers growing in her yard in the New North End. "I called her the garden lady," Pearce recalled of the elderly woman.
"God had put the world together so that there was so much softness," Pearce said the woman taught her. "There was so much beauty."
As a youngster, Pearce attended St. Mark Catholic Parish on North Avenue but came to feel like an outsider in relation to the faith and no longer attends mass. "I still consider myself a Catholic," she said. "I'm a different kind of Catholic, but I'm a Catholic."
A statuette of the Virgin Mary sits on Pearce's nightstand next to her bed at the Respite House. Why the Madonna? "Because she is with me everywhere," Pearce said. "I say the 'Hail Mary' every night ... I just have always had an allegiance and a feeling of love and safety and gratitude, all surrounding the Blessed Mother."
The 21-room Respite House opened in September and replaced a smaller version in Williston. The new building feels like a friendly boutique hotel — with a big stone fireplace and walls of windows in the sitting room, an open kitchen full of bustling volunteers and, on a recent afternoon, a pianist tinkling away as a patient in a wheelchair sang along to "Unforgettable."
Respite House residents stay, on average, about two weeks before death claims them. Pearce, who has been there six weeks, has outlived at least a half dozen others. She knows that her time could come any day, any moment, but prefers not to dwell on it.
"I don't feel that I am really at the end of my life, but should it happen today or tomorrow, I am prepared for it," Pearce said. "I can tell you that this past six weeks has been the most beautiful time of my life. The people I have met, the people ... who help others leave this world and move onto another place. It's been remarkable. I did not know this kindness and generosity was possible."