betty

This is, by far, the most difficult thing I’ve written yet. I can write about me with almost an ease. I know me and what’s happened and have made peace with it inside and out. But, to write about this, about Betty is altogether different. It’s hard. I have talked about her, reminisced with friends, laughed at the things she has said and done, but to write it out… To see it in print makes me shake. I’ve been putting off writing this. I think that’s why I haven’t been here. I’ve been trying, without success, to write about the rest. Everything else but this. I can’t get around it, though. It has been in my chest, a hand squeezing my heart. I need to write this.

I never went to Betty’s funeral. I couldn’t. I was unconscious, in surgery, unaware as people came together to mourn the loss of Betty’s light on earth. The funeral was held in a large church, large enough to hold the many people that knew her, loved her, wanted to be close to her one last time. Songs were sung, prayers given and benedictions offered as people remembered and cried struck by the speed, the ferocity of her death. Metal against metal Betty was pushed into death. It came quickly. We weren’t ready.

Was there a signal missed, a warning one felt in the pit of their stomach, a prickling at the back of the neck that this was coming? Something to whisper loss is near. Devastation you cannot prepare for. Would that change anything? If I knew would we not have had that argument a few days before? Would I have reminded her that I loved her? Would I have done everything in my power to cushion the blow? We say that if we knew we would have, could have, should have. But, I don’t know that this is true. Life gets casual. It is comfortable. It is day to day. Most of us don’t live looking for calamity, death at our shoulder. We take life for granted and this is how it should be, because we are living. I’ve never subscribed to that philosophy of ‘live like you’re dying’. It didn’t make sense to me then, nor does it now. I know what it implies, how that phrase should make you soar. But, to me, ‘live like you’re dying’ means to live afraid. To live smoothing things over. To cover your mouth with your hand for fear of rejection, to not step on a crack because your loved one may be snatched away from you. One would not be themselves. You would be dwarfed by a shadow and I couldn’t live in a shadow. It isn’t living. Betty knew I loved her. We had an argument. We were conflicted, but it didn’t change our friendship. I didn’t stop saying she was like the sister I never had. An argument doesn’t change that.

We were going to visit a friend of ours working at the restaurant we were headed towards. We were leaving our argument behind. We were, over a meal, going to say goodbye. Betty was leaving town for the summer and I wanted to toast her and wish her well. We never made it to the restaurant. We didn’t know we would be saying goodbye in a church, in a hospital, every day in the months to follow.

Betty was the baby of the family, the only girl. She had four brothers who looked out for her and a father that worried after his only daughter, the only female left in the house. She was beloved. Their mother and wife died tragically in a car crash. Betty was with her mother, in the car as her mother left this world. Betty was fourteen. I remember going to her mom’s funeral. I knew Betty from a distance then. I knew the brother closest to her in age a little. We shared some mutual friends. I sat in the pew of our church watching the family file in hunched over with grief.

Betty and I became friends later through breakups. We were both getting over a guy. We always said if it wasn’t for these guys we may have never become friends. She was two years younger than me. We shared clothes and opinions. We talked fast and used our hands for emphasis. We spent hours poring over our lives, what we would be, who could we become. Our destinies were yet to be found and we were excited by our prospects. Betty was an incredible listener. She was so engaged. There is no other way to put it. Nothing diverted her attention from you, the speaker. She had a ready laugh. It was often a guffaw. She was compassionate. She never let me say a bad word against my mother. Not when her own mother had been ripped from her. I would be irritated with my mom, grumbling at something she said that rubbed me the wrong way and she would chastise me, saying, you have a mom, stressing the mom. You should be thankful. She said this with wide eyes, with calm. In a don’t mess with me kind of way. She wasn’t saying it to make me feel bad, but to remind me of the good in my life. That was Betty. Looking for the good and protecting what she loved the most. I think that’s what her chastising was – it wasn’t to make me feel guilty, but to prepare me for what could happen and, to her, what could happen so easily. She knew. And she would do what she could to protect me.

We were blindsided by that car. I left the stop sign with not an inkling of a car in my sight line. It was hurtling towards us and I was told later…much, much later that I could have done nothing to stop it. The trigger had been pulled. A reckless driver and the laws of physics were against us. The car hit the passenger side, her side. She, with no choice, was my shield. Her body protected my own as my car was hit, spun across the intersection, plowed through a fence, tumbled down a ravine and landed upside down at the bottom. If it wasn’t for the car catching fire I would have come away with scratches, a few broken ribs and a collapsed lung. Betty, age twenty-one destiny undiscovered, died on impact.

We try to make sense of a life cut short. We demand answers and attempt to make pieces fit. But, they don’t. They can’t. There isn’t sense to be made when life is ended swiftly. There is no reason when people say there must be a reason. We reason. We try. We make. Because it is what we do. It is our instinct to survive and this is what we do to survive tragic losses and lives cut short. We make the best of. We learn. We want order and find it in the chaos. It is the beauty of being human. We can grieve and celebrate. We choose hope over bitterness. We accept. That may be the hardest part. To stretch out our hands, palms up, and take in the loss. To absorb the impact and admit that we weren’t ready. Death came and we didn’t want it to, but it is here. It has come. We will accept and accept and accept until it is a part of us, woven through us and we will love, always love.

When I won my much fought for independence and finally left the hospital I saw Betty everywhere. She was in the long limbs of a young woman at the mall, in the tilt of a woman’s head in conversation with a friend, and in the dark wavy hair of another. My heart would race and hope would rise. I would crane my neck for a closer inspection only to shake my head remembering that she isn’t here, would never be here. I kept walking wondering if anyone else saw that my face was flushed and I was shaking. Sometimes I felt her laugh, her presence around me. I didn’t care if it was real or if I was making it up. It comforted me to think of her as around. Her joy when she was living was so contagious. Why couldn’t it still be here affecting me, nudging me in the right direction.

I heard Betty’s funeral on a cassette tape. Her brother brought it in to the hospital for me to hear. He sat with me. I think someone else might have been there, but I can’t remember. I don’t know if I cried. I think I did. I heard the songs that were sung. I’m sure there was a eulogy, but none of the words come to mind. My stay in the hospital has holes in it, wide gaps of time that I can’t fill. When I think about her brother sitting at the edge of my bed it is like seeing it through warped glass. Everything is wavy and blurred. Even the colors are washed out. My grief was far away, untouchable. Betty’s death wasn’t final for me. I was still so caught up in her life. To me it went on and on whether she was here or not.

***

I went to Betty’s father’s funeral a week and a half ago. Betty’s sister in law called me on Monday to let me know he had passed away, that she wasn’t sure yet when the funeral would be. He had lost his long battle with cancer.

His funeral was on a Thursday. I went with my mom. I signed the guest book. I thought, hasn’t this family been through enough? Another funeral. Another sadness. Another loss. I seldom see Betty’s family, but we are tied together with loss and survival. Bound by it now. I cry through the service. I’m pinching my arm to distract myself from crying. I’m surprised by the tears and taken aback by what’s behind them. I feel like I’m bursting. I’m crying for the brothers, the farming, firefighting, sure and steady brothers, standing on that podium taking turns reading their father’s eulogy tears streaking their faces. I’m crying because Betty is everywhere and nowhere. The tissues I brought with me in-case-of are soaked and falling apart. After the service I wipe the tears and mascara from my face, redo my lipstick and take a deep breath. I see Betty’s nieces who are becoming young women now. One is sixteen and the other fourteen. The fourteen year old reminds me of Betty. She has some of her mannerisms. I wonder if she knows that, if she’s been told you look like your auntie. I want to tell her that the light freckles on her face and the way she holds herself make me think of her aunt, but I wonder if it will hurt her. I hug her and tell her how good it is to see her. I hug Betty’s brother later, the one closest to me in age, the one who sat on the edge of my bed and I tell him how sorry I am. I want to say that I’m sorry for it all. His dad, his sister, his mom. I can’t convey this with a hug and the few words I give. I sound cheerful, maybe too happy. He has to go now along with the rest of his family – his son and wife, his brothers and their wives – to tend to their guests and lay their dad to rest.

I have to go to my daughter’s school after the funeral. I wish I could stay longer, but Annie has a show and tell that I have to bring things for. I promised her I would help her set up. I’m struck by how life goes on as I climb into my car, how it never stops no matter how much you’d like for it to, even if just for a moment. I think of Betty’s family and all they’ve had to endure. I think of how gorgeous her nieces have become. I think of Betty and how I couldn’t go to her funeral, how I hope she’s reunited with her dad in another world from here, how she didn’t get to have babies of her own, how our friend, Ang, and I used to call her Beautiful Betty (actually, we sung it to her – a silly, little song we made up), how I miss her. I picture her smile, her joy filling the space beside me as I drive towards my daughter and the life I’m building not unaware that I’m doing this without her.

27 thoughts on “betty

  1. amisare waswerebeen

    It was beautiful and honest. Thank you for taking your time and sticking to it. Life is so full and beautiful, and sometimes too short. I hope we can all enjoy it as it comes.

  2. Christy

    Oh Heidi I'm speechless. You have moved me more here than in any of your other pieces of this story. I feel like anything I could say here would be inadequate, so I'll just leave it that. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  3. Linda Sue

    As i was waking this morning The thought stuck inbetween my ears" Life is stupid and makes no sense at all" Came upstairs and with a cup of delicious french roast coffee to jolt my eyes open, I read your post, slowly so that it had time to nestle, looked out the window tearfully – seeing birds in pink sunrise clouds over the sea- plums blossoming, the cat curled up on my jacket, the dog wanting a biscuit…I am just along for the ride, sense or no sense. We all are.
    May I say one more time- your writing wows me – I love your guts!!!

  4. Cookie

    Beautifully written. I don't know what to say… What a strong family Betty must have. What a strong woman you are. So true that life goes on, no matter how impossible it may seem.

  5. Heidi

    amisare, thank you. it took me all day to write this. i could barely tear myself away from the computer and cried my way through it, but i'm glad i stuck to it.

    christy, thank you. i always say this to you, but i'll say it again. it can't be said enough – you are such a sweetheart.

    linda sue, i love your guts too. i could feel every bit of what you wrote here. i was right there with you looking out the window with your cup of coffee. i read this before work and i had such an awful morning, so your words got me through. thank you.

    lynne, thank you. it hits me from time to time – how life goes on, but at this funeral it's like it punched me in the gut. like you said, life is fragile, and i saw that more than i ever have that day.

    cookie, her family is amazing and i mean that in every way. i think that word gets used a lot, but in this case, with these people it is true. they astound me with their strength.

  6. bernthis

    You are right. Life happens and we have to accept it, make it part of our lives, maybe learn from it, if there is something to be learned and i often believe there is.

    So moving. so so moving, I can't even imagine how difficult this was for you to put it all down on paper and so eloquently.

  7. kendalee

    Heidi, images and music and even smells move me to tears quite often. Words far less so. Not because I don't experience the emotion deeply but I think because I have to engage my left brain to process them first and the fraction of extra time this takes allows me to swallow the tears. I'm not sure if this is actually why but it's my theory. I didn't notice exactly when I started to cry as I was too swept up in it but I was crying freely by the end. The life, the loss, the pain, the strength, the courage, the beauty, the love…

    "We will accept and accept and accept until it is a part of us, woven through us and we will love, always love."

    Incredible writing. Incredible you.

  8. Heidi

    bernthis, i agree – there is almost always something to be learned. we can choose how we'll respond, what we'll do with what's happened.

    kendalee, i feel honored by your tears. thank you.

  9. Kate Coveny Hood

    I think you made a really good point about not worrying over the last time being the LAST time. If the last words you spoke to someone you love were angry or even just hasty and unthinking – that shouldn't define your whole relationship. I've had those thoughts before – the "what if" ones, and it always come back to the same thing for me. The last time is rarely the most important one.

    I can only imagine how hard it is to write all of this – but especially this. Even though you've been through so much, you have built a life and surrounded yourself with family. Friends. Love. Your story is still going, but your friend's ended. And no matter how good a story is, I never much like it when they end.

  10. tiff(threeringcircus)

    Life goes on.
    I both love and hate that statement all at once.

    You are an amazing writer and person.

  11. Heidi

    kch, "If the last words you spoke to someone you love were angry or even just hasty and unthinking – that shouldn't define your whole relationship."
    yes. i completely agree with you. i've met people that have been wrecked over the last hasty words spoken to a loved one. arguments come and go, but what matters is that you've loved and cared for this person.

    tiff, i know that you, more than many people i know, more than i know, how hard that statement can be. you know i think you are an incredible human being. i'm lucky to have found you out there in the blogging universe.

  12. Anonymous

    Oh Heidi. This makes my heart ache. Your writing is beautiful, open & real.
    Your thoughts on living life in a comfortable way – without the specter of death over the shoulder really rang true for me. I've never been able to put my finger on why the idea of living life as though each day is your last has always made me uneasy.
    There are times when I wish moments could be frozen & captured with clarity forever. But in reading your experience, I think in a way they are – maybe not the precise moment in question – but the essence of a person & how you find that all around you – in the everyday – in the physicality of others, even after they have left this life.
    Thank you for sharing this,
    Sharene

  13. Intense Guy

    As hard as this was for you to write – I think this might be your most impressive writing yet. I was drawn in to your story – mentally kicking and screaming because I didn't want to go where I knew the story went – but … its so compelling – so …open and honest and so deep.

    "I'm crying because Betty is everywhere and nowhere" mixed in with the too human wish to be able to apologize for the harsh words and to be able to say a "proper" goodbye is so intense…

    …and you know something? I think you should tell that neice she has a bit of her Aunt in her… as well as some of the happier moments you shared with her – I think Betty would like that.

    🙂

  14. Maggie, Dammit

    I am so late on this, but I just want to say you honored her here. You honored her so well.

  15. Heidi

    sharene, "but the essence of a person & how you find that all around you – in the everyday – in the physicality of others, even after they have left this life." i love this. thank you for your very kind words.

    intense guy, thank you so much for this…for your words, your heart in this. it means a lot to me.

    i've been thinking about seeing her nieces and spending some time with them. betty absolutely adored them.

    maggie, thank you. for a long time i felt as though i didn't have a right to grieve her. she belonged to so many people. i'll get into that in another post…maybe. thank you.

  16. MommaKiss

    I don't know where to start, or how much I can even convey here in a comment…but this was hard for me. My brother died in a car accident. He took the brunt of the impact for his girlfriend. He was her Betty. I often wonder how her family has moved on, as ours grieved the loss of a brother and uncle and son. I wish to read more, as this is my first time to see your story, but thank you.
    thank you.

  17. Anna See

    Oh, Heidi, I don't know what to say. What an honest, thoughtful, wrenching post. Thank you for being brave enough to share it with us, as I know it was so hard to write.

  18. Dorkys Ramos

    I'm also speechless here. I can only imagine how tough it was to get through this piece, but believe us when we say it's a beautiful tribute to Betty. Lord knows why things happen the way they do and why some are made to endure so much suffering.

    I wish I could reach through this screen and hug you, hug her family, stop the hurt somehow. Other than being there and remembering those who've left us while living our own lives to our fullest potential, there's only so much we can do.

  19. Heidi

    mommakiss, thank you for leaving a comment. my heart goes out to you and your family. if ever you want to talk send me an email.

    anna see, thank you bunches. 🙂

    dorkys, thank you. really. you are just so sweet.

  20. Meteorite Sickness

    wow… i think that's the saddest thing I've ever read…

    you're a really good writer… keep it up.

  21. Judy Haley (CoffeeJitters.Net)

    I've been reading this blog for several months now and I keep coming back for more of the quiet wisdom and inner strength that I'm seeking to cultivate in my own heart. 24 days ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer and I believe this blog, and your words will be even more helpful to me. Aside from doing everything I can to battle this disease, I have a husband and a 1 year old daughter. with my husband and baby in mind, this paragraph really leaped out at me: "I have to go to my daughter's school after the funeral. I wish I could stay longer, but Annie has a show and tell that I have to bring things for. I promised her I would help her set up. I'm struck by how life goes on as I climb into my car, how it never stops no matter how much you'd like for it to, even if just for a moment."

    Life goes on. And aside from taking care of myself, celebrating my daughter's milestones, and reveling in this little life, is so much more life affirming than dwelling to long on my own losses.

  22. Connie

    Heidi, I am so sorry for your loss. Betty sounds like a wonderful friend. I hope you continue to see and feel her presence in your life though, it may be painful at times, but it must also be comforting to think of her being a permanent part of your life. I lost my father over 6 years ago, yet I still think about picking up the phone to call him, even though I know he’s no longer there… my heart thinks I should try. It’s become less painful, and although the thought makes me wistful now, mostly it is bittersweet happiness to feel that he is still such a big part of me. I like to believe that somehow, he gets my intended ‘calls’.

  23. Sarah

    Thank you Heidi for writing about Betty. I truly delight in getting a glimpse as to who my sister-in-law was and is to those who loved her. I wish I was blessed with my own firsthand memories of her.
    And yes, we see Betty in our youngest niece – even me who only knows her by pictures!

    1. heidi

      I don’t think running into you today was a coincidence. When I saw you I was all in the have-to-get-things-done zone, so it took me a bit to orient myself. I know I don’t know you well, but it was really good to see you and felt like it was maybe meant to happen. That’s how it felt to me, anyway. 🙂

      Thank you for your words. So, so much. It means the world to me.

  24. Jennifer

    This was so beautifully written, Heidi. I kept imagining Betty watching you type at your computer, reading your words over your shoulder and nodding, Yes, yes, my friend. You did Betty an honor by sharing your memories of her with us.

    1. heidi

      This was so hard and raw. I wrote it a while back now and I think I cried the entire time. It’s all been revised and revised since for the manuscript. Thank you so much for being a witness to this and to her life, even if for just a moment. 🙂

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