For Betty

TW: Mention of suicide and suicide ideation.

It’s silly really.

I never met Betty White. I never shook her hand. I never even saw her in-person. She has only ever lived on my screens. But I’m crushed.

Family and friends joked about my level of emotional investment in the goings-on of four older white women in the 80s when I first started watching the Golden Girls. But the Golden Girls saved me. I knew every joke. I memorized every gag. I had to.

You see, when I was deep in suicide ideation and depression, when I was having night terrors for now diagnosed PTSD from childhood sexual trauma, I would barricade myself into my room. I would lock the door and move furniture, bags, anything I could to not let the outside world in.

I would just sit in the dark and wait for the pain to leave but it never really did.

It’s hard to have hope in a world like ours. It’s hard to dream in our current circumstances. Do it anyways.

Somehow I found pirated copies of the Golden Girls on Youtube. I would laugh. Like genuinely laugh. Not the pretend laughing I did on the other side of the door. That laughter I mastered to keep up appearances and get through the day. I would crack up. That feeling of your stomach contracting and your chest bursting open, that genuine, deep laughter came from most of Rose’s quips.

In her, I saw myself: gullible, often dismissed as the goofy one, seemingly prudish with a repressed wild side, and the relentless optimist who saw the good in everyone. In her, I started to hope again. If you’ve never contemplated killing yourself, never known the dark cloud that seems like it’ll never leave hanging over you, never started to believe the lie that the best thing you can do for the people who love you is die, you won’t know how powerful a bit of hope really is. It’s light. It’s something you can walk towards. It’s a chance that things won’t always be so bad.

The Golden Girls became that for me. I could mark my days by them. If I could just get to my dorm room and laugh, I would be okay. So naturally, I watched it as much as I could. Naturally, I grew an encyclopedic knowledge of the show that made dying seem less attractive. Naturally, I clung to the thing that threw me a lifesaver when I was drowning in depression.

So I've known this day was going to hurt.

As I’m writing this, alone at my desk, in the dark, I can hear her saying that being a gloomy gus serves no one. I should go spend time with the people I love, I should smile, I should laugh. I should leave the door open so the light and the love could pour in.

Betty became my guiding light in a lot of ways. I read her autobiography in one sitting at a store while my mom shopped. I watched her documentary on Netflix. Every appearance, interview, or awards speech she did, I’ve seen it. Her SNL episode I repeated many times; not out of obsession but because Betty was the person who taught me how to embody optimism.

Being optimistic is one of the hardest things you can do as an adult. It’s hard to have hope in a world like ours. It’s hard to dream in our current circumstances. Do it anyways. Cynicism is a much easier path. There have been many days in the past five years, and especially in the last two, where I’ve wanted to be cynical. But because of her, I learned that optimism isn’t avoiding hard feelings or not letting our emotions pass as they need, it’s believing with everything you have left, that better is on the horizon. That was her aura.

She was kind, she was loving, and she was loved. She enjoyed herself. She always seemed to have fun everywhere she went; as if she was in on some joke we all desperately wanted to know. She helped people and advocated for causes that were important to her. She didn’t do it in a way that made it about her, but that uplifted the cause itself. She loved her husband with such an authenticity even in his death, that people wanted to hear about it. As if hearing it would help guide them to a love like that.

May we all know what it is to serve as beacons to other people. We may not have the platform or notoriety of a Betty White but we all can dream a little, hope some more, and laugh a lot. We all can be present with our loved ones. We all can make time for deep, resonant, belly laughs. We all can try to hope for better, know better, see better, and be better.

Thank you Betty. Thank you for showing us all how to be beacons in a dark world. I hope there is a heaven filled with people you love to share your höögen-koggels with. As I’m writing this, alone at my desk, in the dark, I can hear her saying that being a gloomy gus serves no one. I should go spend time with the people I love, I should smile, I should laugh. I should leave the door open so the light and the love could pour in.

…or maybe, just maybe she would give me a winsome smile and tell me a St. Olaf story.

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