Her name was Mary Beth Stanley.
I am her father, and she was the older of my two daughters. Please remember her.
No child was ever wanted more. I was reluctant to have another kid, because money was tight and had no idea how we could handle the expense. Letha, my wife, could feel the clock ticking, and really wanted a little girl. The year was 1967, and we had two boys. One in the second grade and one in the fourth. Letha was a nurse on the cancer unit at St. Louis County Hospital , and if we had another child it would complicate our lives immensely. We really needed her income because of house and car payments, and I was working on my Master’s degree.
She did get pregnant in January 1968. We had the little girl she wanted on September 24, 1968. We named her Mary Beth.
Years later, while preparing taxes and going through old papers, I stumbled across a poem she had written on my little portable typewriter. It was written in 1967, months before she got pregnant with Mary Beth.
This is the paper I found:
This was long before ultrasound could determine gender, so we had no idea if we were going to have a boy or girl. Given our track record of two boys, we figured it would be a boy, and had picked out John David for a name.
Mary Beth was born in Creve Coeur, MO, a suburb of St. Louis. She was actually born on a gurney being pushed at a dead run by two nurses. She had warned them, “This baby is coming.” The nurses told her not to push; they were getting her to the delivery room as fast as they could. Moments after arriving in the delivery room, the obstetrician came rushing in. He held the baby up by one leg, wisecracking to Letha, “This does not look like a John David to me.”
He later insisted he got there in time and had delivered Mary Beth himself. I don’t know who he thought he was fooling. Experienced nurse, who had two kids already, knew exactly when and how her new baby was born.
One Sunday morning in November, we were sitting at the breakfast table reading the newspaper. Mary Beth was six weeks old, in a bassinet that doubled as a pram. I noticed the spring loaded pram trembling and told Letha not to bump it, because it would wake the baby. Just as she said she had not touched it, the shaking got worse. Dishes rattled in the kitchen cabinets and dust started falling from the ceiling. I had never been in an earthquake, so it took a moment for it to register with me. I yelled, “Earthquake. Get out of the house.” We both started for the door. Halfway there we realized neither of us had the baby. That was both embarrassing and scary. She was so new in our household; we were not used to thinking about her in an emergency. Grabbing Mary Beth out of her crib, we headed for the street in front of the house. Both boys were hanging out in an apple tree down the street. They said they hardly felt it, being up in a tree.
A 5.5 earthquake was her first Big Adventure. Obviously, she had no memory of it, but her mom and I certainly did.
When Mary Beth was almost two years old, we moved to the University of Mississippi while I finished my degree. We lived in student housing, and over the next couple of years, this little munchkin with big blue eyes somehow became an Ole Miss girl. It was during our time at Ole Miss that she also discovered swimming. Even before she started to kindergarten, she could swim like a fish.
We moved to the Jackson, MS area where Mary Beth made quite a splash. She was smart, beautiful, and loved to have fun. She never met a stranger, and had a strong sense of justice. She was a progressive liberal girl with a southern accent so strong that when she talked, it conjured up an image of magnolias and honeysuckle in the moonlight.
She began swimming in competitions when still in Middle School. She was not only good, she was really good. At the age of 14, she was at a regional swim meet with her swim team. They did not have a male swimmer for the 18-19 year old bracket. She volunteered to swim against the older boys. There was some argument between her coach and the officials, but they finally agreed, since she was both younger and female, so would not have an “unfair” advantage. The officials thought her team simply wanted to have an entry to fill the lane.
Wrong. There were several events, both sprint and longer races. She finished well ahead of the older boys who ended up in second place. Unfair advantage indeed. No one warned them that the pretty redhead with a soft southern drawl was indeed a ringer.
She also competed in her own events. That day, she swam twice as much as anyone else at the meet, either winning or placing in every event. She had a dresser drawer full of ribbons and medals, but they are stored away somewhere so I can’t include pictures.
After Jr. High, our family discussed the fact our local school system had problems. She was very bright, but was not challenged. She was bored, and became depressed. The middle teen years are hard enough, without adding problems caused by school and some of her peers.
Because she was not getting what she needed in an education at the public school system, she enrolled in All Saints Episcopal School in Vicksburg. We were members of our local Episcopal church, so she got a tuition discount that almost amounted to a scholarship. The school’s academic standards were high. Her science teacher was one of the finalists for “Teacher in Space.” He was beaten out by Christa McAuliffe. She was a senior when the Challenger blew up. The whole school had stopped everything to watch the launch on TV. She said they all cried—a lot—but it was a combination of grief for those lost, as well as tears of relief that their favorite teacher was not on it.
All Saints had an equestrian program, so naturally, she enrolled. She could already ride and took to English style as if she was born in a saddle. Being the natural athlete she was, she began entering competitions. One of her favorite horses was “Bud,” a gigantic half Clydesdale and half quarter-horse. He had the sleek lines of a quarter-horse and Clydesdale size. Mary Beth looked tiny sitting on his broad back. When he jumped a fence, it was more like a launch than jump. Somewhere, there is a picture of her on Bud, clearing a fence. There is four feet of air between his belly and the top of the fence.
She wanted her own horse. Her coach found a big registered Thoroughbred named Rolly Polly, who stood 16 ½ hands tall. She loved him. He was still a bit green, but she was determined to make him a good jumper. She won a lot of ribbons on him, entering every equestrian competition in our area.
At one point we talked with her coach about going to the Olympic training camps for either swimming or equestrian. After talking with the coach about Olympic training and methods, that was a non-starter.
There were pranks. Some were the usual high school pranks, and then there are PRANKS.
She rappelled off the roof of Green Hall and down the back wall a number of times, along with several of her classmates. I don’t believe that was part of the All Saints curriculum.
On graduation the decision to go back to Ole Miss was a no-brainer for her. She was a legacy for the Alpha Delta Pi sorority, but would have been accepted even without being a legacy. She loved her sorority sisters, and the volunteer work they did in the community. The rest of her life, a large framed group photo of her with her sorority sisters hung on her wall. ΑΔΠ was part of her identity.
The Cavalier Shoppe at Bruce, MS was legendary among the students. Bruce is a small town a few miles south of the Ole Miss campus, and many students did all their clothes shopping there. On one of her first trips to the Cavalier Shoppe, the owner pulled her aside and asked if she was interested in modeling for them. After some negotiation, she agreed. She was featured regularly in their newspaper ads for the next couple of years. The photo is the only one she saved, and is probably the only existing original copy of that issue of the Daily Mississippian.
At Ole Miss, she was a social work major, with the intention of becoming a clinical social worker. That would have continued a centuries-long family tradition of entering the helping professions. She had the DNA of MacBeth in her blood, as well as her name. Following the reign of the legendary King of Scotland from 1040-1057, the family tradition was to become physicians and counsellors (attorneys) for the most prominent families in Scotland.
After college, she met a handsome young man and decided to get married. Her mother said later, of her wedding photograph, she had never been so beautiful. They had two beautiful children. Burns Lass is her oldest. Two years later, she had a son, Reed.
Her real trouble began in late 2006. She was diagnosed with uterine cancer. She was given radiation therapy following surgery.
A few months later, in 2007, her youngest child, Reed, was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma. While Reed was undergoing chemotherapy and surgery, she began to have problems walking, and other internal problems. She was diagnosed with radiation burns. She had her first hip replacement a year later. The doctors thought she would be able to walk again.
That hip replacement failed and she had another one in 2012. She never regained her ability to walk, and her right leg was paralyzed. She was confined to a wheelchair at the age of 40. She was approved for Disability and SSI, which helped her make the best of a bad situation. She had a home health nurse come by several days a week to clean her apartment and prepare hot meals.
She loved to read, and when she got a tablet and subscription to Amazon’s library, that helped a lot. She also loved music. She listened to music almost all the time.
Something curious happened when we were cleaning her apartment. Burns Lass picked up a black case in the bedroom. I asked what it was, and she replied, “It is her flute.”
I was stunned. She had started playing flute in the band in middle school. She went to statewide band camp two years in a row. Her flute is not just any flute; it is a sterling silver Gemeinhardt flute. I have been wondering if she had been getting it out and playing it when no one was around.
Earlier this year, she found out Elton John was on his farewell tour, and would be appearing here. She desperately wanted to go, but tickets were expensive and the place would be sold out almost as soon as they went on sale. I went down to the ticket office and explained Mary Beth’s situation to them. By the time I finished, there were tears. Somehow, they created a prime seat for her in the center section. A seat was removed to make a space for her wheelchair, and I bought a ticket for the next seat for her nurse.
Then, I bought her a small camera that would take much better pictures than her cell phone. She cried.
She got to see Elton John on his Farewell Tour in March. We had no idea it was also her farewell tour. This is one of the photos she took. It was her favorite.
During this past year, we talked many times. Like her sister Brandi, she wanted to be remembered. She was dejected that she had not accomplished more in life, because she wanted us to be proud of her. Our last real conversation was on the Wednesday before she died. She was melancholy, and in pain. She told me she felt that in comparison to her siblings she had been a disappointment. I tried to reassure her, but she was in a dark place that day. We have no way of knowing, but perhaps she felt the end was near.
On Friday, September 16 her home health nurse was supposed to be there at noon. About 12:10 the nurse called me. Almost babbling, she was incoherent, but when I got her slowed down, she said I needed to come over to the apartment. She said Mary Beth was blue and slumped over. I told her to call 911. She said, “They are here now, and want you to come over immediately.”
I have been in this business long enough to know exactly what that meant. When I got to her apartment and slid to a stop, there were two police cars and an ambulance parked in front. The nurse was in the front yard sobbing.
As I ran past her I asked, “She is gone?”
It wasn’t really a question, it was a statement. All she could do was nod. A sergeant from the police department was in the door and put his arm around my shoulder. “Where is she?”
He pointed at the kitchen door. I looked around the corner. The Sergeant kept his arm around my shoulder, holding me steady as my knees went weak.
She was in her wheelchair, slumped over, one hand hanging down. I could not go in there until the coroner’s team got there, because any death at home must be treated as a potential crime scene until the coroner can investigate.
While waiting, I called friends from church. I could not find our minister, Fr. Tim Holder. Somebody located him and he got there just as the coroner’s team was finishing. They had gotten her out of the wheelchair, laying her on the floor with a sheet over her. I did not want to pull the sheet back, because I wanted my last memory of her to be of her talking and smiling, not what I knew I would see. We are still waiting for lab results from the forensic pathology lab, but we suspect a stroke. She had been having problems with blood clots.
Fr. Tim apologized for being in shorts and not wearing his collar. He did have his purple stole and little travel kit of holy water and oil. He went in the kitchen and said last rites for her.
Her service will be next Thursday afternoon. Here is the link to her obituary.
Fifteen short months ago, her little sister Brandi, the Celtic Lassie, lay in a hospital bed with a shattered pelvis. She said, “I will walk again, wherever it is.”
The last seven or eight years of Mary Beth’s life were years of pain, medications, multiple surgeries, unable to walk or even stand. I want to think of her, somewhere, somehow, on that big roan horse, sailing over fences. Or rappelling down a vertical stone wall.
And walking. Walking on the Appalachian Trail again; with Reed, in the snow.
That terrible night before she died, our Celtic Lassie also said,
“Everyone needs family.
Everyone needs a hug.
Everyone needs something.
Nobody should die alone.
Everyone needs someone to catch them.”
Mary Beth died in an empty apartment.
Alone. No one to hug her. No one to catch her. Simply alone.
She will be beside her beloved Reed forever now. Perhaps neither of them will be alone.
While cleaning the apartment, we found a diary from when she was in the 10th grade. I had never seen it before. I thought it might be a song lyric or poem, but a diligent search shows these are her words; the words of a fifteen year old tenth grader, written in 1983. She asked, simply, that we all think of her.