The YMCA was Betty’s social time and she had many friends in class. We often told Betty how inspirational she was to us. We would sing for her birthdays, and class was never really the same without Betty there. And Betty made her presence known—through her loud voice as well as her generosity. If Betty didn’t like something, she told you. But, if Betty liked something, she would also tell you.
And Betty liked—loved—sweets. After (almost) every class, Betty would have a piece of chocolate for me and for the other instructors and some of the participants, depending upon how much chocolate she came with. Most often she gave us the Dove chocolates with inspirational sayings. Sometimes the treat was mini-sized candy bars like Baby Ruth or Snickers. Sometimes she had caramel and chocolate. Sometimes she would bring an orange or a pear or a piece of homemade banana bread. She would apologize if she came to class empty-handed, a very rare occurrence.
For years, Betty would tell me that she was not feeling well and that she was going to try to make it through class. But, if she left early, she didn’t want me to worry. Until recently, Betty never left class early. She stuck it out for the entire class and often did some extra planks. When she left class, she would tell me that she hoped to see me next time. Most often, she did.
If Betty didn’t like something, she would not do it. And she would be sure to tell you that she didn’t like it. For instance, Betty liked the dance classes best. She hated kickboxing. Sometimes I would throw in some punches during my mixed-cardio classes. She would do the punches and then tell me how much she hated that part of class. If she was really unhappy, she would let me know by not giving me a piece of chocolate after class.
In fact, Betty complained about a lot of things. Almost every day she would have a new complaint to share with me. Often it was complaints about her chronic illness; for decades she battled COPD and also suffered from vertigo and heart problems as well as the occasional ankle injury (which rarely kept her away for long). But she would also complain about the YMCA policies, like being required to have her debit card on file for the automatic payment plan. Regardless of the complaint, I would listen and nod my head until she was finished. Sometimes (rarely) I could help resolve the issue. When she complained that she ate too much ice cream or cake in the middle of the night, I would praise her for such actions and encourage her to eat whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted it.
She also liked to complain about the other fitness instructors. She told me on many occasions that the other instructors are great girls, but that she and I were just on the same rhythm. The way I taught seemed to work for her. Even when I was delivering the same choreography, Betty liked the way I delivered it. But, I also catered to Betty’s requests. For instance, the rope lights bothered her and she preferred the room bright. We compromised and I would turn off the rope lights, but I would not turn on all the overhead lights. When I would have to miss a class, I would be sure to let Betty know, if only to spare the sub from her wrath.
But Betty also showed me her appreciation outside of my fitness classes. For years she would send me cards for St. Patrick’s Day and Halloween. When the holiday fell during her time in Arizona for part of the winter, she would often write me long notes about her Jazzercize classes and the dry weather. At Halloween time she would often send me a card and a couple of crisp dollar bills so that I could get myself a treat. She always remembered my birthday and once she even brought me one of her favorite frozen cakes—a coconut cake that was so delicious that I ate almost the entire thing and had to throw the rest in the trash to stop myself (which was only marginally helpful).
This year, Betty passed away on my birthday, January 27. I was expecting the bad news. When I left town in December, I had not seen her at class for the last couple of months. This was not too unusual; despite her regular attendance, she would often miss a stretch of time for health or travel reasons. But, this absence felt different. For the last year or so, I had seen her health deteriorate. She lost weight (which she did not need to do). She had trouble making it through a whole class and would actually leave early more often than not. I got in touch with her husband to check up on her and the situation did not sound hopeful.
For years she told us that coming to classes was what was keeping her alive. And it was true. It was not only the physical exercise that helped her clear her lungs, it was also the community. When Betty wasn’t there, we missed her.
And so, even though I am away from home and I haven’t taught a cardio class in more than 40 days, I will miss Betty. I will remind myself of her spirit and her love of sweets. I will eat all the cake and ice cream I want. I will speak my mind and I will try to remember to be kind and grateful. I will remember how important it is to keep going, to push through the limitations that our bodies set. I will remember how important it is to tell people what we appreciate about them. I will keep on dancing, for myself as well as Betty.