JACKSON TWP. – Betty Smith recalled the last time she saw her 88-year-old husband Mark as he was surrounded by medical equipment.
Rubbing blessed oil on her index finger, she walked up to his hospital bed and touched his head.
“He was paralyzed and he was on his side,” the wife recounted. “But I felt he knew I was there.”
Placing her hand on his head, she prayed. “I said, ‘He’s OK. God’s got him.'”
The next morning, she found out her husband wouldn’t recover from COVID-19. He was taken off life support and died Aug. 1.
Betty Smith was devastated. She lost her husband of 23 years, a broad-shouldered former Canton police officer who seemingly knew everybody in town. He was also a retired pastor who prayed so loudly and for so long in bed that Betty would politely ask him to stop so she could fall asleep.
Finding strength through faith, overseeing EN-RICH-MENT
Nearly a year later, Betty is still reminded of his absence. When she sleeps in bed alone. When she doesn’t know how to turn on the pilot light for the stove. When she misses his company, charm and loving ways.
But she’s found strength through her faith in God and has found purpose in helping children at the EN-RICH-MENT Fine Arts Academy, the Canton-based nonprofit she oversees.
Smith’s community work and love for her husband will converge this weekend during the second annual African American Arts Festival, which includes a 5K run or walk and one-mile walk on Saturday in remembrance of those who died from the virus.
The 5K event, coordinated by Run to You Racing, is 8 to 11:30 a.m. Saturday in downtown Canton, with the starting and finish line at Centennial Plaza on Market Avenue between Third and Fourth Street NW.
For more information about the 5K event, including entry fees, go to https://runtoyouracing.enmotive.com/events/the-en-rich-ment-5k-2-miler.
The festival is 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Centennial Plaza.
Smith said the festival also will bring her joy two weeks before marking the one-year anniversary of losing her husband.
“It’s all about having fun and coming together as one and enjoying the company of different people, different cultures and experiencing the African culture, because some people don’t know the African clothing, our music and our specific art and food,” she said.
The event features food, children’s activities, live music, line dancing, and a children’s fashion show. Vendors also will be on site, including artwork, jewelry, clothing and crafts.
Featured guests include Josh and Maria Cribbs, of the “Cribbs in the CLE: Josh and Maria Live” TV show. Josh Cribbs is a former Cleveland Browns player.
Art remains a focal point.
“I want to showcase the artists, I want to showcase the singers, dancers, drummers and the genres of music,” Smith said of the festival. “We’re going to have R&B, hip-hop, gospel, reggae.
“The event is versatile because the arts are very versatile.”
Smith said the festival is open to everyone. “We just don’t have African Americans on stage,” she said.
However, it’s also important to celebrate Black artists, Smith noted.
“I work with children, and I want them to know their heritage,” she explained. “I want children to know as an African-American person that they can succeed and excel in their craft.”
Working with children ‘makes my days easier.’
EN-RICH-MENT remains a central part of Smith’s life as she continues to cope with the death of her husband.
After having paused during the pandemic, the agency, which includes theater, dance, art and work programs, has resumed activities, and now has 150 children enrolled, Smith said.
“That has helped me tremendously,” she said, closing her eyes before gazing upward. “God could have taken me, but my work isn’t finished, because I’m working with the children, and I’m glad I have them, because it makes my days easier.”
Watching kids overcome struggles or problems at home rejuvenates the 82-year-old former Chicago resident.
“I see them doing better, and that makes my days,” Smith said, her voice rising as she gestured with her hands.
Greg Reaves, Mark’s nephew, said helping children and the community is integral to Betty as a person.
“She would do anything for the youth of the city,” he said. “And uncle Mark was always behind her on that.
“Even after losing a loved one, having a purpose is giving you a reason to get up and giving you a reason to kind of pour into somebody else,” said Reaves, pastor of Jesus Speaks Christian Center in Canton, where Mark had ministered. “That’s definitely who she is.”
That sense of purpose culminates at this weekend’s festival and 5K run and the one-mile remembrance walk, he said.
“Her being able to be at the festival and participate in the COVID walk in memory of our loved ones is going to be so significant,” Reaves said. “It’s really going to be a heartfelt occasion.”
The final days with her husband
During a recent interview at her Jackson Township home, Smith recalled the weeks leading up to her husband’s death last summer.
In early July, she and Mark had both become unusually tired. She had summonsed the strength to attend the Fourth of July celebration at the McKinley Monument, where she served as emcee when the EN-RICHMENT drumline and youth singers performed.
Returning home afterward, she mostly slept, eating and drinking little if at all. Their conditions worsened. She couldn’t think clearly, the days becoming a fog. Mark could barely get out of bed, and fell in the bathroom.
“I’ve never been that sick,” Smith said. “I never had pain like that.”
Friends, family and coworkers became concerned.
After Smith uncharacteristically hadn’t shown up at work for three days, EN-RICH-MENT staff member Elaine Randle was determined to find out if the typically energetic director was OK. Betty and Mark couldn’t be reached by phone, either.
A day after visiting the couple and serving them food, Randle pounded on the door of their home. There was no answer. Conducting a wellness check, Jackson police gained entry.
Reaves and his wife also showed up.
“Aunt Betty, she was laying actually in the living room, and said uncle Mark was in the bedroom,” he recalled. “And I went in, and he just looked up and said, ‘I was just talking to the Lord saying, Lord, how am I going to get out of this bed?'”
Ambulances were called, and Mark was admitted to the hospital on July 9 in 2021; Betty was released that day, but still severely weak.
While and after Mark was hospitalized, Smith’s niece, Terri Jones, a traveling nurse, stayed with Smith for a few weeks and cared for her.
“When I arrived in Canton, and I walked in the house, and I saw her on the couch, it scared me because I had never seen my aunt like that,” Jones said. “Growing up, she was always vibrant and was always on the go and always involved … and one that hardly ever got sick.”
Smith’s right hand was numb; she breath. Getting dressed was a struggle.
Community members also helped out, as well as the Canton mayor’s office. Food was often dropped off.
“I was brought to tears because of the outpouring of love from the people in Canton,” Smith said. “And of course, my family. During a rough time, that gave me a big lift.”
‘People still still need to be very cautious’ about COVID
Smith said she wasn’t able to get vaccinated for COVID because she has occipital neuralgia, a headache disorder affecting the nerves running through the scalp. Her husband had received multiple vaccination shots.
Smith said she’s now known as a “long hauler,” meaning she still has persistent COVID symptoms, most notably fatigue. Several parents, youth and staff at EN-RICH-MENT have had COVID, she noted.
“I think people still need to be very cautious,” Smith said. “If you’re weak, feel fatigued or have any symptom that you’ve never really experienced before, get a COVID test.”
‘It was like a superhero marrying a movie star.’
Reaves described Mark and Betty as the “dynamic duo.”
“He was a big guy (when I was) growing up,” he said. “A former police officer and just an outstanding Bible teacher, a leader, and when they got married, it was like a superhero marrying a movie star because of her personality.
“She has like a magnetism,” Reaves added. “She is just a ball of energy and always wants to do something positive for the community … and she loves pouring into the youth, which is so very important.”
Randle, who still works at EN-RICH-MENT, said it’s remarkable to see “Miss Betty” helping out youth again and assisting with the festival a year later.
“Betty got right back in there with all those teenagers,” she said. “And she’s doing it for the Lord and because her husband said, ‘Betty, take care of the youth, work with the youth.'”
Jones is also inspired by Betty’s recovery.
“It means so much to see how far she has come,” the niece said. “She had to put the work in and she did; she did what physical therapy told her to do.
“She is nonstop, but that’s where her heart is, and that’s where her passion is … so it’s amazing to see her now a year later,” Jones said. “She’s up and walking, and she’s doing the things she loves to do now.”
‘I don’t know if I want to go on without you.’
After losing her husband, Smith said she was quickly reminded of his unwavering belief in a higher power.
She found a check he had written out to the church during his final days at home before being hospitalized.
“I don’t know where he found the energy,” Smith marveled. “That was a priority.”
Mark had a favorite spiritual refrain: “God will never leave you nor forsake you.”
Days still get hard without her husband, but her faith is stronger than ever.
“It just hits you,” she said. “It might be a song, it might be something you see, and all of the memories come back … and I brace myself, and I always say, this is part of the grieving process, and I’ll be OK.”
She talks to her late husband.
“I say, ‘Hey, I really miss you today,’ but I always end with: ‘I know you’re in a better place.’
“Some days I say, ‘I don’t know if I want to go on without you,’ and then I say, ‘God, you’re with me,’ so I know I’m going to be OK.”
Reach Ed at 330-580-8315 and firstname.lastname@example.org
On Twitter @ebalintREP
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