The Ultimate Caretaker: Beverlee Bentley, Gold Medal Rower
Young Beverlee Bentley is another remarkable female athlete. She is a 72-year-old married woman who lives in Mill Valley, California. She is 5-feet 9-inches tall and weighs approximately 140 pounds, and was born in the small mining town of Cobalt, Ontario, Canada on August 2, 1938. For the last 10 years, she has competed in rowing regatta national and local competitions. The Beverlee of today is different from the Beverlee of the past. This is her story and the remarkable changes she’s encountered over the years. Her philosophy is, “If the door opens, make sure you go through it.”
On March 4, 1994 Beverlee’s 57-year-old husband Bill was downhill skiing at Alpine Village, a ski resort in the northern California Sierra mountains. Bill was quite the athlete. In addition to being a Black Diamond skier, he rode mountain bikes, ran marathons, and was in good physical shape. Years prior to this benchmark day, he sustained a neck injury while body surfing at Stinson Beach in California’s Marin County and recovered fully from that accident.
On that March day, the snow was soft and Bill was near the bottom of the ski slope after skiing down from Alpine’s most difficult run. He was skiing with a friend and they were planning on another run. Bill turned his head to say something to his friend when his ski caught an edge. Bill fell and severed his spinal cord at C5 and C6. This horrifying and tragic accident dramatically changed the lives of Bill and Beverlee Bentley.
Bill is now totally dependent on his wife. Some of Beverlee’s responsibilities include turning him over in bed while making sure the sheets are without wrinkles so he won’t get bed sores. She washes his face and hands every day, as well as emptying and washing his catheter bag. She feeds him and provides range-of-motion stretching exercises daily. She works with his legs, ankles, arms, and fingers, making sure to rotate and bend his body parts. She gets him out of bed by pulling his legs over the side while she rolls him onto his side in order to prop him up in a sitting position. She uses a transfer belt to take him from the bed to his $25,000 electric wheelchair. She brushes his teeth and dresses him. His arms can move slightly but his fingers can’t. She places rubber tips on his fingers so he is able to turn the pages of the newspaper. This is a brief glimpse into the daily life of the Bentleys.
Beverlee talked about how difficult that first year after the accident was for her. She had nightmares and cried herself to sleep because of the major changes in her life. Prior to this accident, Beverlee fantasized about the two of them traveling together, returning to college to study anthropology, and maybe even getting her degree during her retire- ment years.
She didn’t want to look after Bill. Her life was turned upside down and her mental and emotional states were in disarray. After much turmoil and soul-searching, she reached a decision. “I couldn’t leave him,” she reports, “and I knew I had to deal with Bill in the here and now.”
Later on Beverlee realized that she needed something more in her life than being a caretaker. A friend suggested that they attend a “learn to row” workshop. She accompanied her friend to that morning work- shop, in part because the morning time was a good time for her to be away from Bill. Beverlee believes that rowing answered her many needs for a healthy life — exercise, camaraderie, meditation, and focus. She comments that, “I really love rowing. It keeps me strong and I am blessed I have sport and exercise in my life.
Beverlee’s hometown is Toronto, Canada. She is the oldest child in her family and has a fraternal twin sister, Marie. She remembers that she competed with Marie in a “covert” way. Summers were spent at a nearby lake, and Beverlee made sure to beat Marie when the two of them swam together, although she didn’t admit to actu- ally racing her sister. She did say that Marie told her, “I’m smarter than you,” and there is no doubt that competition existed between the girls.
During Beverlee’s high school years, she was self-conscious and be- lieved that she was too tall and ugly compared to her twin. She was struggling with her self-image and didn’t feel as good or as pretty as the other girls. Beverlee attended a girl’s Catholic high school and played on the basketball team. Her memory is dim about that time in her life. She didn’t think basketball was a big deal, and commented, “The uniforms were ugly,” but she played guard on the basketball team. In those days, girls’ basketball was played differently than it is now and guards only used two thirds of the basketball court. She stayed after school, practiced, and played against other high school girls’ teams. It’s not a surprise that Beverlee downplayed her sports involvement. Her parents didn’t attend any of her games or comment about her participation in basketball. She didn’t get validation from her parents, so it was difficult to be proud of her accomplishments. She participated in intramural track and competed as a long jumper. She was a member of the choir and liked singing. She believed that if it were not for her friend Pat Palmer, she might not have played basketball. “Pat was athletic and liked sports,” remembers Beverlee. “Sports were not encouraged by the nuns in parochial high school either.”
Beverlee recently contacted Pat Palmer. I asked Beverlee to have Pat refresh her memory about her high school days. Pat reminded her about playing basketball and volleyball in high school. It was clear that Beverlee’s family was not particularly interested in her sports prow- ess but it was a totally different story at Pat’s house. Her parents were athletic and maintained a keen interest in Pat and her game dynamics.
Beverlee loves rowing, is knowledgeable about a lot of the different techniques, and likes to race. If there is a boat in front of her, “I want to catch up or be in front of the other rowers,” says Beverlee, “even if the others are not racing. I race all the time. Winning is a priority for me.” Beverlee believes that she was her father’s favorite among the four girls. She pleased him, was helpful, obedient, and gave him no grief. Beverlee’s sister Marie said, “You are his favorite, and you’re a goody two shoes.” Marie, the rebel, wanted everyone to do things her way. There was one fight that Marie had with her father about going to a high school dance. Her father did not let Marie go to the dance at age 15. Beverlee told me, “I never wanted to go to a dance; I wasn’t even interested in boys.”
After completing high school, Beverlee attended St. Michael’s nurs- ing school. A couple of friends from nursing school left Canada to seek work in San Francisco, where at the age of 21, Beverlee applied for a nursing job. At first, the visit was supposed to be for a few months so Beverlee could be with her friends. She joined three of her friends in a two-bedroom apartment that came with two double beds. “Back then we accepted that arrangement as being normal,” states Beverlee. She stayed for three years and then returned home to care for her ill mother. Her mother had a heart attack and passed away in 1964. Beverlee knows about being a caregiver; she’s had practice.
In 1964, Beverlee married Bill. She gave birth to Christian in 1965, Eric in 1968, Craig in 1969, Adam in 1971, and Jessica in 1974. She stopped working as a nurse about three months after Christian’s birth. Having three young boys in diapers turned out to be a full-time job. She remembers how she spent her time: meals, cleaning, laundry, cooking, driving, and gardening. “I worked morning to night,” reports Beverlee. “I was on a treadmill. I didn’t reflect much about these years, even though I was pretty reactive at that time.” She definitely wins the award as the traditional homemaker.
In the 1980s, life became more difficult for Beverlee and the family. Craig got into trouble with drugs, and Beverlee became aware of Bill’s difficulties with alcohol. In 1986 things got even worse and Beverlee and Bill separated for about four months and then reconciled. During the separation, she became more assertive, employed less denial, and took more responsibility for her part in the co-dependency dynamics. She read self-help books, had psychotherapy interventions, took college classes, and started walking for about an hour a day.
Beverlee returned to nursing in 1990 and took a hospital position in orthopedics. Beverlee was in a midlife crisis and it wasn’t until she turned about 50 that things began to change in a positive way for her. She started to find more of a sense of self and in return, her marriage was better. Prior to this time, she was the “super mom” and all things to all people. The only thing that was missing was her own sense of what she needed. She never reflected on what was important to her. Her direction and focus were on the family and everyone else. She was similar to her mother in many ways, but things began to slowly change. Her self-esteem improved, and she found a focus. Beverlee became more self-directed, and she was no longer selfless.
Beverlee expects to live somewhere between 90 and 100 years of age, and plans to be active until she dies. She believes that doing things for others enriches her life and increases her own self-worth, and she feels happy and satisfied with her current life. She also believes that staying in touch with friends, exercise, music and making plans are important components to aging gracefully. She keeps a positive outlook because a negative outlook, “robs you of many things, including energy.” She would like to have engraved on her tombstone, “You’ll have to mind your own business now because I’m out of here.”
Beverlee believes it’s important to realize that it is never too late to start a sport, even if one’s history suggests otherwise. She acknowledges that people are becoming more active as they age. For her, rowing was important in her life because she learned something new. She also learned that she can compete with others, and that winning is very inspiring for her. She is currently more upfront with the idea of wanting to triumph, and giving herself permission to win.
Beverlee receives overwhelming support for her rowing from friends and teammates, although she doesn’t request that friends come to her races because rowing is not a great spectator sport. Husband Bill has become a cheerleader which helps reinforce her continuing to row. Her children also are supportive and always ask about her rowing activities.
At the Gold Rush Masters Regatta at Lake Natoma in Northern Cali- fornia on the 22nd of May, 2010, Beverlee competed in a mixed quad (two men and two women), a double, and a mixed double. She came in first in a single, first in the double and fourth in the mixed quad. These distances were 1000-meters and were called sprints. Beverlee was worried prior to these races, afraid that she might not be able to compete decently. She had a minor injury that affected her ability to train. As it turned out, while in Hawaii her mental training suffered too: “I never felt old before; is this how old people feel”? These worries vanished, for the time being, after she performed well at Lake Natoma. The psychological line between feeling young and vibrant versus feeling vulnerable and old is fragile. One does not always feel or think that one is invincible. The realities of aging are present and it is difficult to deny them all the time.
Later in the year, Beverlee thought about competing in the South- west Regional’s at Lake Merritt in Oakland, California, and in the fall at the World Games in Canada. Her dilemma about traveling to Canada was associated with the expense and whether to take Bill with her. If she didn’t take Bill, then she was likely to worry about him. If she took him, then she would be more comfortable and likely spend more time visiting with friends, teammates, and family. Ultimately, Beverlee decided not to attend the event.
One story Beverlee likes to tell is about when she drove with Bill from Mill Valley, California to Victoria, British Columbia for a Canadian Masters national competition. They arrived a day early, and Beverlee took a walk on the boat dock where the launching for the races was to take place. She was getting a head start in preparing for the races. Beverlee was walking down the ramp, looking ahead, when she fell suddenly because she missed a step at the bottom. She just sat on the dock and prayed that she didn’t break any bones, all the while hoping that she could even just get up and walk. After a few minutes of pain and contemplation, she knew she had sprained her ankle. She slowly got up on her feet, thankful she could walk at all. She had signed up for five races, and on top of that, was the only person who could transfer and care for Bill. Beverlee knew she had to be okay. She iced her ankle the entire day and even purchased a brace for it. She was in agony and worried about whether or not she should scratch from the competition.
The next day, she seemed better and was able to function. Then her singles race came up and so did the wind. She didn’t scratch; she entered and captured a gold medal. Beverlee was overjoyed! She felt such relief and elation.
After five years of rowing, Beverlee became more serious about the sport. That’s when the training became more demanding. She rowed on the water or indoors with a rowing machine six days a week for about an hour and a half each day. She also lifted weights and performed core strengthening exercises two to three times a week.
Currently Beverlee rides a bike for cross-training as she is unable to run or hike because of an arthritic knee. She is not on any medication and isn’t restricted in any other way. She feels physically and mentally great and still loves to compete. She believes that her exercises help her remain strong for Bill, who recently asked her, “How long do you think you can continue to hold me and help me like you do?”
Thank goodness Beverley found that rowing, exercise, goal setting, raising her level of aspiration, following through, and competition allow her to be more complete as a person. She is not just a homemaker or caregiver. She is much more, and a pleasure to be around. She con-tinues to be in the process of her own evolution, realizing the importance of rowing in her development and self fulfillment.
It Has Nothing To Do with Age
COPYRIGHT © 2011 by Frank Lieberman
Excerpt appears courtesy of Winter Goose Publishing