This past November friends gathered in Cushing to celebrate Betty's birthday. A dilemma: what to give a woman who knows she will not be here much longer, a woman who is travelling a path which leads to a place few of us dare discuss. I gave her a pot of paper whites, flowers which bloom on the coldest days of the year. She looked at me and shared the wisest words imaginable: "There is a miracle inside each of these bulbs," she said. Betty, always the teacher, offering us the gift of a larger life.
In 1969 I was one of two single women working on Hurricane. The school had not gone coed yet. It was there that I first came to understand that Betty Willauer carried a lot of clout in a quiet but direct way. It was there that I got my first taste of the style of a woman who taught by example, who modeled her behavior with her heart. I learned about raising three young sons in a creative, humorous and loving way in the midst of an island full of virile young male students and staff members. She modeled behavior which, it turns out, came in mighty handy when I had sons of my own. Our joint concerns back then were things like four-year old Langley who only swam underwater, without his trunks, never coming up for air, and David who graffitied the porch of POW's cabin, carving the name "David W." with a penknife and then blaming David Wallace, one of the staff members. Betty handled the misdeed magnificently. It's creativity and humor, I learned, that helps a mother of sons survive, that helps a woman not get lost in the male maelstrom.
As newlyweds Philip and I lived in the chicken house next to Betty and Peter. Those were the Vajra days when a steady stream of boat builders coursed through the Willauer barn. Betty was, as usual, gracious with this crew which more than once threatened to annihilate her brood of chickens which shared barn space with the construction. Betty walked me through some of the touchier moments of my new marriage, always teaching by example. She gave me half her garden space and led me into the world of organic gardening and what it means to feed a family real food. I took prenatal yoga classes with Betty when I was pregnant with Tim -- more practical guidance and love. And I had more sons, each of whom received a handmade baby gift from Betty. And each time we winked and sighed a joint sigh over our production of a total of seven boys.
And then we shared another thing. We walked and talked our way through our cancers, sharing notes on assorted therapies, comparing doctors, buoying each other's sometimes lagging spirits and making the kind of jokes that only people with cancer are allowed to make. Ever the teacher, she kept abreast of nutritional and spiritual practices and wowed me with her dedication to the Rick Perry School of Food Production. She called me regularly to encourage and praise me. She was a model of strength and compassion. A woman who navigated through life with her heart.
And there she was at her birthday this last November, weeks away from her death, still teaching, holding up a bowl of flower bulbs, reminding us of the miracles which surround us in the most humble places. Always the teacher, always the friend. She left us the gift of a larger life.
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