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Robert Kinghorn: A final wish for Betty, a dear friend

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  • September 14, 2019

There is a truth about great journalists that long after their columns have faded into the ghosts of time, their words still come back to haunt or to comfort. 

For me, one such journalist was John Beattie, who wrote for the Glasgow Herald and whose columns could make me roll with laughter or cry in anguish, often within the same inspiring column. Towards the end of one column, in which he shared that his mother suffered from dementia and was slowly dying, he ended with the plaintive cry to humanity, “… but the worst way to die must be to be old, forgotten, and cold, and lonely, and this world has to make sure that never happens.”

I worry about this every time I hear that someone has not been seen for a while. I have known too many who have died of overdoses only to be found days later, old before their time, forgotten, and cold and lonely.

The news of Betty’s death came through a text message from her daughter who was also a veteran of the streets. She had been found dead in her apartment, apparently of natural causes, and had been dead for a couple of days. I turned to Facebook which usually has the latest information, and sure enough there were a multitude of posts expressing condolences to her family and friends. 

My mind immediately went back to a column published just three months ago, “Blessings are often a two-way street,” in which I had talked of unexpectedly meeting Betty after not seeing her for many years. Her joyful words that evening were, “Hi Deacon Robert, I am just coming from my support group. I am off the drugs now.” Then, with a final embrace, she took off home. 

It’s funny, but while reading the text message, I recalled our first embrace under very different circumstances. She had been a regular at one time on the streets and was one of the “characters” I met frequently. One particular evening, she was the worse for wear under the influence of some drug or other and I stopped to talk with her and to check if she was going to be OK. Instead of a response, she embraced me and said, “Thanks for looking after the girls on the street.” This was typical of her in that her concern was never for herself, but for the “girls on the street.”

At her funeral, Rev. Jan Rothenburger presided over a Christian and native service in what was a packed funeral home chapel. As we assembled, the drumming was led by Betty’s daughter and grandson as we came to respectful silence. In her words of remembrance, Jan called her “a woman of faith,” and recalled Betty’s baptism in cold lake waters during a camping weekend annually arranged for women of the street. The congregation burst into laughter as we could imagine Betty’s choice words as she was immersed in the cold waters of baptism. 

The overwhelming sentiment of all who spoke was that Betty was a fierce defender of justice. “Gentle lady” would not be the first description that comes to mind, but she was without doubt a lady passionate for justice. Street justice can often be brutal, but Betty would have nothing of that and spoke up on this and on many other injustices of “the system.”

Finally, her two daughters spoke of their relationship with their mother. One recalled her mother’s days as a taxi driver in Hamilton and being driven around in the back of the cab when no babysitter could be found. Somehow the thought of Betty being a taxi driver again brought laughter since she must have been the toughest cabby in the city. Perhaps in some way the most heartfelt compliment was paid by the other daughter who said, “She taught me how to survive, and because of her I am here today.”

As the ceremony ended, the cortege followed the drummers to the hearse where each in our own way said goodbye to Betty. I recalled the words with which I ended the previous column about Betty, “I felt the Lord had blessed both of us as He guided my friend to the path of sobriety, and our footsteps to meet on this cool, dark Thursday evening.” 

May you rest in peace Betty, my dear friend.

(Kinghorn is a deacon of the Archdiocese of Toronto: robert.kinghorn@ekinghorn.com)

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