Bettie Wailes runs a local college prep tutoring business, competes in marathons on weekends, and in her spare time, has become a “Chicken Soup” author three times. She’s also a great-grandmother. You could call the Winter Park resident an overachiever, but she says it’s just part of who she is.
Her poignant story “The Secret Shopper” in the recently released “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery” demonstrates how friendship and humor rescued her when she lost her fiancée Paul Quinlan to lung cancer.
What inspired you to write this short story?
After Paul’s death, I captured a lot of the details of our time together purely in chronological form so that I wouldn’t forget later on. When I saw the call for stories about grief, I lifted this story from those memoirs. I thought people needed to hear about the importance of finding laughter and joy.
How were you able to turn a sad situation into an upbeat, silly one?
I tend to be analytical and serious, but my friend Judy (Fish) lightens me up — we’ve been friends since 1974. After we picked up Paul’s ashes from the crematorium, I told her I desperately needed groceries. Food shopping had been an activity Paul and I loved to do together, and I couldn’t face going to the store alone. Judy looked at me and said, “Then we’re going to take Paul with us.” At first I thought she was crazy, but we put his urn in the shopping cart and rolled it down the aisles to all his favorite sections — the deli, bakery, produce and meats. We giggled at the absurdity of the situation and held pretend conversations with him. I realized then it was OK to laugh and to feel happiness; it was very healing. I also learned that sooner or later, we must go on with our lives, cherish the moments we have and make the most of them.
How important was humor in your relationship with Paul?
When we would go to the store, suddenly a coffee cake would magically appear in our cart. He would feign surprise and blame an elderly lady nearby but insist it would be rude to give it back. I loved to garden, and he loved to cook and clean. He said he would give me dirt if he could so I could be farmer Bettie. He was proud of his mustache and always encouraged my running — he took photos of all my starts and finishes at the races. It isn’t a sign of disrespect or a lack of grief to laugh. In my case, Paul would have wanted me to continue to find humor. I like to think that he might have looked down on that whole situation in the grocery store and smiled.
What’s it like to be published in a “Chicken Soup” book?
To be formally accepted into a widely known publication multiple times has been wonderful. “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners” was my first one to be published. The story about grief is my second, and this month I will have a story in “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grandmothers”.
What is next for you?
I finished my 98th marathon last Saturday in Albany, Ga., then the 100th will be at Cape May, New Jersey in a couple of weeks, and I have more planned this year.
I tell my students to stay focused and stay with the task, to do your best through a long test such as the SAT, and it applies to training and writing as well. Birthing a big piece of writing takes perseverance to get words on paper, to polish it and get it ready for the world. Whether it is tutoring, writing or running, it’s all part of who I am and what I do … life is good.
Do you ever think about Paul when grocery shopping?
Yes, sometimes I do. The biggest reason I don’t think of this as often is that the store we shopped in has closed. But I still think of him there and other places.
For example, I still talk to him after races. In my memoir, I write about the letdown after I completed my 50th state. I didn’t see anyone I knew there, which is a rarity. So with no one else to celebrate with, I sat in the car and talked to Paul about my achievement. And I just talked to him last Saturday, after I had an especially good time and won my age group.
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