Remembering Betty White During a Pandemic

By David T. Valentin


Like everyone else on December 31st, I woke up to the news of Betty White’s death at 99 years old. It felt like a bad dream, considering the comedy star was about to celebrate her 100th birthday on January 17th in a few days.


At first, her death didn’t really hit me. How could Betty White have died? She seemed almost immortal with an overabundance of joy and plenty of laughs to go around in a crowded Times Square. The day wasn’t made any easier as, after 12 days of very, very mild COVID symptoms (I’m talking nothing more than a scratchy throat and maybe congestion) I tested positive on a rapid, meaning the small Christmas dinner my family was going to have—with just my immediate family and my grandparents—was a no go for the second year in a row. And after having the flu on Thanksgiving, not being able to celebrate then, feeling depressed that day feels like an understatement.


For me, and of course many others, New Years is a big day. Sure, a lot of people like to brush off the holiday as nothing but another day, another sunrise and sunset. But for me, entering into the new year with the people I love, who make me laugh and smile, helps me enter into the new year with new perspective, new motivations and a new kind of magic left for me to find. For me, it captures the small magic that inspires me day to day, a reminder to find the small joys of life even in the darkest moments and that every day, in a way, can be a new year.


It’s the reason I became a writer—to collect the small details, the small joys, in the world that we might miss going about our very, very busy lives and to remind people of the small details that make life worth it. But even the brightest flames have their limits.


As the day passed and my family celebrated the new year with new, silly games we got for Christmas, plenty of drinks and a few shots, I felt myself lightening up, opening up again and laughing. And as the booze settled in and five minutes before midnight finally came, I found myself with another shot in hand and a toast. Even though I seemed to forget the pandemic and the fact this is the second Christmas in a row ruined, I remembered Betty White’s passing in that moment. So, I lifted my shot glass, filled to the brim with cheap tequila (and for some reason no chaser for the stinging taste), I requested the Golden Girls theme song and a toast to Betty White.


And although the toast was sort of a joke, in the coming days as the memories and stories of Betty White flooded the internet, I realized it was a genuine thank you to the comedy star. A thank you for the days I spent bonding with my mom as a kid, watching The Golden Girls (as almost every gay does) and laughing at every joke regardless of how many times I’ve watched the episode; a thank you for teaching me how to laugh, and make others laugh, in even the most serious moments of my life; a thank you to instilling in me a sense of wit that still surprises even my closest friends.


As I scrolled through the internet, I read and watched clips of Betty White through the years, showing off her best jokes and best moments on TV. I read about her graceful and humble personality, despite her fame and her many accomplishments, and no matter how serious of an interview it was, she always had to throw a joke in.


And then there was an interview where the host asked her how she wanted to be remembered that someone had posted on TikTok. She pauses for a moment, mouth agape and her eyes sort of stare off into the distance for a moment. It’s one of the few times I’ve ever seen the star serious. And then she says, “I’d just like to have somewhere along the line I made people laugh and I made them think a little bit...”


Her words reminded of a lesson my grandpa taught me at a very young age, and a lesson I perhaps forgot in these past few years struggling with the mental weight of the pandemic. When talking about his marriage and how my grandparents have stay married for so long, he told me, “Beauty fades and things break and get thrown in the trash, but if you can make someone laugh every day that lasts forever and it’s free.”


So, I took my grandpa’s words and have tried to live with by them, telling everyone, “If I can make someone laugh for even a few seconds, I know I changed someone’s life for a few small moments.” And I’ve gone on to put those words towards my writing, saying, “If I can make someone forget whatever bad stuff is happening in their lives with my stories, and remind them of the small joys around them, then all the work is worth it.”


I think it’s hard for us now to find small joys, as our lives seem to be shrinking and shrinking daily as COVID cases surge, places are closing up and it doesn’t feel completely safe to go pretty much anywhere. But if we can’t smile and laugh through it all, then what is the whole point?