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Bonnie Brown: My Special Friend Betsy, When Cancer Interrupted

We all have that one friend that is so special we don’t even mind “sharing” him or her with others. You know what I’m talking about. They are exceptional and universally loved by all. They give themselves freely to all. They are caring and compassionate, gracious and kind. They care about people and go out of their way to nurture their relationships.
My special friend was Betsy. I say “was” because she passed away in 2005 from the big “C.” Our friendship began as coworkers in the Registrar and Admissions Office on campus. She was smart, talented and had a great sense of humor. And it was on display each and every day in some way. She could present herself as the consummate professional and in the next instant, walk by my desk and kick her foot backward as if to say, “Who cares?”
She was mischievous. She was lovely. She was charming.
Betsy had lots of interests. She attended the College of William and Mary and was a noted writer and photographer on horticultural, environmental and related topics. She loved music. She used to go over to Meek Hall on campus several times a week to listen to the UM Gospel Choir rehearse.
Betsy moved from Virginia to Mississippi for her next big life adventure. She had considered a small town in Tennessee but chose Holly Springs instead because it just seemed to fit her. She liked the town, its simple beauty and Southern charm. Betsy liked the proximity to the Delta, to Memphis and Ole Miss. She delighted in planning outings each weekend to explore her adopted state. Who knew that Brussel’s Bonsai is the largest nursery in the United States devoted entirely to bonsai trees and it’s located in Olive Branch, Mississippi? Betsy did. She discovered many other similar treasures simply by looking around her, by being interested and curious.
Her first home was a second-story apartment, which did not become her permanent home because she had a cat. She confided to me that the gentleman who lived downstairs complained that her 11-ounce cat (her description) made too much noise. Always financially aware, she managed to snag a beautiful antebellum home built in the mid-1800s located on historic Salem Street by agreeing to become the caretaker for the owner who lived out West. The arrangement suited her perfectly.

Betsy’s home on Salem Street in Holly Springs, Mississippi

When Betsy heard a racket in the attic and consulted a neighbor about it, he promptly told her she had a raccoon visitor. She borrowed his trap, placed it in the attic and waited for her “visitor” to be corralled late the next night. She then called the Holly Springs Police Department and asked them to come get the critter and instructed them to take the raccoon to the cemetery and release it. And they did! Only Betsy could have pulled that off.
There were many, many other things that only Betsy could have pulled off. For instance, when parking was still allowed around the circle near the Lyceum, Betsy came to work with one of those orange traffic cones. Who knows how she came to have that. When she left for lunch, she placed the cone in the parking place and removed it when she returned, thereby reserving the coveted parking spot. And speaking of parking, Betsy was traveling and became lost. She just pulled over on the side of the road and calmly ate the lunch she had packed for the day. She had an old (really old) map, which looked like it had been used by Christopher Columbus in his travels – complete with lots of tape – so it’s no wonder she got lost. Fortunately, and as if according to a plan, a highway patrolman stopped to ask if she needed help and got her back on her way with detailed directions. Only Betsy! And what adult professional would bring a squirt gun to work and surprise her coworkers with an unexpected spray and a devilish grin? Only Betsy.
Betsy decided to retire from the university and pursue a new career, which included hosting a weekly radio program at Rust College called Prime Time Jazz. She was a fairly decent DJ after learning about all the buttons on the console. She was reminded by the president of Rust College, Dr. David Beckley, who listened to her program, not to have “dead air.”
Betsy also produced her own independent radio program called, “Not Down on Any Map,” which showcased both humorous and tender stories about people living in small towns. These endeavors occupied her in her post-retirement phase until cancer interrupted. There was the diagnosis, followed by surgery, chemo and finally, a brief remission during which time she prepared to move back to Virginia. But the cancer came back with a vengeance. She briefly considered another round of chemo, but when she had difficulty tolerating it, she stopped it and went home with hospice.
It was during this time that all of Betsy’s friends were being united. She had her childhood friends with whom she had attended camp as a youngster and with whom she was very close, her “work family” friends and many students she befriended. We were a motley crew of Betsy Devotees. And of course, Betsy’s beloved son Rodes Fishburne and his wife Lindy were with her as well. She met her little grandson Quinn and delighted in him.
Betsy Kent with son Rodes Fishburne and grandson Quinn, December 2004

During this period with hospice, it was wonderful to see the outpouring of love as Betsy’s “coven” (Rodes’ cousin supplied this fanciful and endearing term to those who came to visit) tended to her during her last days. We brought food and snacks, not for Betsy but for the visitors who came to see her. Rodes knew how much his mother loved gospel music and contacted Rust College to inquire if a few members of the Rust College A`Cappella Choir might come and sing to her. Much to his surprise and our delight, the entire choir came that afternoon. They filed into Betsy’s home on Salem Street, into her bedroom and sang the most beautiful hymns for her. Betsy was delighted. What a performance, what a crowd! We looked around in the kitchen to see what we might offer these wonderful students and like the biblical story of loaves and fishes, the relative small amount of brownies and cookies seemed to grow as in the story into a satisfying and appreciated treat for each of the singers. It is an experience I will never forget.
Rust College A`Cappella Choir, March 2016 Facebook Cover Photo

Betsy passed away a few days later.
The day after she passed away was extremely difficult for all of us, particularly Rodes and Lindy. They knew they needed to close the house, prepare for a memorial service and make plans to return home to California. So to be practical, we all rolled up our sleeves to help.
I packed up things in the kitchen and sought Lindy for further instruction as to what needed to be done next. She looked at me and asked very softly if it would bother me to help pack up Betsy’s clothes. I told her it was fine and began sorting through some drawers. A few minutes into this, I found the squirt gun that Betsy had used to amuse herself and her coworkers with that day in the office. It was at that moment that I succumbed to the reality that my friend was truly gone. I dried my tears and asked Rodes if I could have the squirt gun. I kept it for a few years and on her grandson Quinn’s birthday, I wrote him a letter telling him what a special woman his grandmother had been and mailed the gun with the letter to him.
I still have “conversations” with my friend Betsy. Admittedly, they are one-sided. Those of us who make up Betsy’s coven stay in touch, and we remember. We still laugh about Betsy’s antics. It gives us comfort to reminisce. We have stayed in touch with her son Rodes who, like her, is a gifted writer. He has her sense of humor.
My friend Betsy taught me so much about living … and about dying. She saw the joy of each day, the treasure of friendships and the gift of giving and receiving love. I am forever grateful to have known her and profoundly sad that she is gone.

Bonnie Brown is a retired staff member of the University of Mississippi. She most recently served as Mentoring Coordinator for the Ole Miss Women’s Council for Philanthropy.
For questions or comments, email hottytoddynews@gmail.com.

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