What Character Means to Me ~ Nanny Noyes
It was after my mum had suggested a shortcut through Fenway Park that turned out not to be when I told myself “to get over it.” You see, I was carrying my best friend piggyback because she couldn’t walk. She had Muscular Dystrophy, and this was before any Americans with Disabilities Act made Fenway handicapped accessible. It was Betsy’s first Red Sox game. I was 17, and she, 19. Carrying her up flights of steep stairs with her approximate 120 pounds of dead weight was daunting. But I wanted Betsy to have this experience: to eat roasted peanuts and throw the shells on the ground, to taste a Fenway Frank smothered with yellow mustard, and to loudly taunt our opponents to their eventual defeat. Singing Sweet Caroline wasn’t a thing yet, but how I wish it were because we would’ve nailed it!
Yet, as uncomfortable as I was, my legs almost to the point of collapse, I can only imagine what Betsy was feeling. A young woman draped over the back of her best friend, we were really more like sisters, surely under the gaze of curious onlookers and probably in pain herself. Her dysfunctional muscles seizing as yet another route was tried to finally get to our seats. The crowd’s roar was our enticement to keep going. But Betsy never complained. Ever.
The daughter of my dad’s best friend, I had known her since birth. Our family sensed a problem with her legs, and we were informed of her diagnosis before she was ever told. It was heart-wrenching to watch when she learned about her disease in an airport on a joint family trip to Bermuda because Betsy had needed a wheelchair. And still, Betsy didn’t complain.
She attended Bryant College, and as her younger friend, I’d often visit and, boy-oh-boy, did we have fun! Sure, we went to parties and would meander back to her dorm a little tipsy, Betsy driving her wheelchair and me sitting on her lap as we’d weave up the hill to her room, laughing the entire way. We’d blast Boston (the band) on the cassette player and sing until hoarse. And as regular as that seemed, Betsy had a personal care attendant who’d put her to bed at night and get her up in the morning. Her life was anything but routine, and even so, she never complained. When love finally found her, and she married her husband, also wheelchair-bound, her father-daughter dance was to Bette Midler’s Wind Beneath Your Wings, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.
Betsy became an advocate for the disabled, and you have her to thank for making Fenway Park and the Boston Garden more accessible. She had an accident one night while “walking” home to her Boston apartment, simply falling forward in her wheelchair and not having the muscle strength to sit up. Her oxygen supply had been cut off, and Betsy had to be revived, the lack of oxygen ultimately causing brain damage. Afterward, she spent four months in a rehab hospital near me, and I visited every night. I left my three young kids with my husband to feed dinner and put to bed because I couldn’t imagine anything lonelier; those evening hours, severely sight-impaired and temporarily voiceless with a tracheotomy. And remarkably, even then, Betsy never complained.
Her final weekend came during her annual girls’ trip to the Cape celebrating life with her best college friends. As they tucked Betsy into bed one night, I’m sure she had a smile on her face, for she was surrounded by love. She never woke again.
Though I’ve been incredibly fortunate, having been raised by parents who exemplified character and strength in ways that would melt even the coldest of hearts, seeing it reflected in my friend, my teacher of the same basic age, is altogether different. On paper, Betsy’s life was always hard. The requisite details and energy she had to summon every. single. day. just to live was monumental. But it was her heart in every sense that sustained her and taught me about character, and informed me how I approach life. I don’t see any point in complaining as it never results in change, but action always does. I believe that helping others makes a huge difference and, at the same time, teaches me ways to make my own life better. And true friendships are gifts never to be squandered.
To me, character is consistently demonstrated by those who show up when no one is looking. Dumbledore famously says in the Harry Potter series, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities,” and I couldn’t agree more. Now, whenever Boston’s hit, More than a Feeling, comes on the car radio (admittedly, I listen to a lot of 70’s stations), I say out loud, “Okay, Bets. Where are we going?” I feel her loving presence and proceed to belt out the lyrics as loudly as I can while traveling down the road, bittersweetly smiling for the memory of one of my greatest teachers.