An Unexpected Reward
On the morning of Friday, January 5, 2007, I went to the local social security office to change my name. I was a newlywed, married less than two months. We had hoped the Genoveses would attend our wedding, but Betsey’s health had been too fragile at the end of November. I headed to the social security office first thing that January morning because I had to get back to our parish church in time for a morning funeral — Betsey’s.
I’m not of an age that I’ve been to lots of funerals, but I’ve been to my fair share. Grandparents and some other relatives, of course. There have been people I’ve known professionally — loyal supporters of organizations for which I’ve worked. There have been fellow parishioners I’ve known in passing through my work with the pro-life committee or who were friends of friends. And there was my college roommate, who died unexpectedly at the age of 28. But somehow this day, this funeral, was different....
One of the hymns played before the mass had been the prelude at our wedding. The processional hymn was set to the same tune as our wedding processional had been. This seemed appropriate. My husband and I met online and had a long-distance relationship for almost two years before he moved to Atlanta. The Genoveses were the first of my friends to meet Will, on his first trip here in the fall of 2004. Over the course of our courtship, they extended a great deal of hospitality to us. We were fortunate to hear some of the stories of their own early days together and simply to observe them as a wonderful example of what a marriage can and should be. Betsey shared with me a discovery she made early in her married life — that marriage really is “we,” not simply “he and I.”
I reflected on that as I sat in the pew at Immaculate Heart of Mary that Friday morning. I thought about how amazing it was that I had come to call Betsey my friend. I had known of her for years. A fellow volunteer at the Birthright hotline, himself a pro-life academic, was familiar with her from Atlanta academic circles. He would speak of her as someone who had been converted from the pro-choice to the pro-life point of view. Just the sort of story those of us who take a pro-life position hope for — winning someone over to the side of life, creating a zealous advocate for our cause. I may have encountered some of Betsey’s writings. I don’t believe I had known that my last change of parishes, somewhere around 1999, put me at the same house of worship as Betsey until I agreed to serve as the head of the parish’s pro-life committee in early 2004.
Our new pastor had worked in campus ministry at Emory University, and he knew Betsey. He found her phone number for me and told me I should call her and tell her he told me to get in touch with her. He thought she’d have some good ideas for me, and mostly he wanted to let her know that he’d appointed someone to the position. He made some comment about Betsey’s never having felt he did enough to address the abortion issue while at Emory; later she and I would joke that he would be sorry he ever brought us together because now he’d have the two of us feeding off each other, nudging him to speak more forcefully for the unborn.
I did call Betsey, and though it took a while for us to connect, the wait was worth it. I don’t remember our first meeting in any particularly distinct way. Like many of our later get-togethers, it happened at Starbucks after early morning mass. I know the conversation must have been wide-ranging, because it always was; but it always remained grounded in Catholicism — happenings in our own parish, the archdiocese, Catholic issues viewed nationally and internationally — and how to make the Church’s voice for life louder and clearer. Mostly I just wanted to listen, to soak in everything this impressive, generous woman wanted to share with me about her rich and abundant life experiences.
Betsey graciously reviewed all of my ideas for the parish pro-life group and took the time to provide detailed feedback. She became my constant sounding board and source of support when I felt like I was swimming upstream to get attention for the pro-life cause at our parish. Though the many demands on her time and her health issues kept her from participating directly in the committee regularly, she did agree to add to her long to-do list writing a column for the parish bulletin on the occasion of the 32nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade. In it she wrote a line which she had often spoken to me: “The hidden agenda of abortion... is to sanction the individual’s right to decide who shall live and who shall die, and claiming that right opens the road to the Holocaust.” She was clear in this column that the simple defense of life — just life itself — must be the foundation of any claim of working toward social justice and care of the poor.
Obviously some of my grief that January morning was sadness over losing such a strong voice for life. But I, like many, still have that voice in my head — it is not ours to decide who shall live and who shall die; we must not go down the road of deciding who shall live and who shall die.... When I get discouraged, either by the trials and tribulations of daily life with an active toddler or by the sometimes overwhelming sense that the pro-life movement is simply treading water and may be on the brink of losing hard-won gains, I think of Betsey and all the hardships she endured with such grace. I think of her unfailing commitment to truth. I remember that political setbacks don’t change the rightness of our cause. They don’t change the truth. And I know I must go on.
Those of us involved in the pro-life movement know the work is long and hard with few rewards. Getting to know Elizabeth Fox-Genovese is a great reward of my pro-life involvement, truly a tremendous blessing. That’s why this funeral was different. I was feeling fresh grief. Unlike with the funerals of family and close friends, there had not been time to grieve in advance of this funeral. I had been aware that Betsey’s health had become fragile, but my wedding preparations and newlywed days had prevented me from focusing on that. Unlike the funerals of mere acquaintances, I experienced a real loss with this passing. I had more to feel on this day than simply sentimentality over loss in general. I realized I would miss our meetings over coffee and having a sounding board for my efforts. I would miss the social dinners with Betsey and Gene. I would miss my friend. I looked at my husband seated next to me and realized, no, we would.