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.