ORLANDO — Brenda McCool was dancing with her son when the gunfire started.
McCool, mother of 11 children and two-time cancer survivor, was one of the 49 people killed at Pulse nightclub in Orlando last week. On Monday, dozens of people gathered inside of First United Methodist Church of Orlando’s bright, high-ceilinged sanctuary to remember her.
Among them was Isaiah Henderson, the son she saved by telling him to run after she was mortally wounded.
“I just want to say that my mom was the best mother ever and I never thought her life would be ended right in front of my eyes,” he said. “I haven’t stopped crying since.”
According to several accounts, McCool told her son to get down as soon as the shots rang out and possibly even shielded him from the gunfire before telling him to get out. Isaiah went back for his mother, but she is said to have pushed him away.
It was her selflessness and valor that inspired Mayor Buddy Dyer to declare June 20 a city-wide day of mourning for McCool in a resolution that he read from the pulpit.
“While the actions of the first responders made headlines, the actions made by Brenda were just as brave and just as heroic,” he said. “Brenda showed bravery when she ordered her son Isaiah to run when he intended to stop to save her….”
McCool’s second-born son, Robert Pressley, Jr., was the first to speak for his mother and he shared a story of when she was in the hospital receiving stem cell transplants to help treat her cancer.
Pressley said that was the most afraid any of her children had seen their mother, but “the thing she was most afraid of – she beat.”
One by one, most of her children made their way to the pulpit to speak in honor of their mother. More than one proudly called their family a “very multicultural one,” but though the children, having a few different fathers, did not always look much like each other, they all bore a strong resemblance to Brenda. Memories of her eyes, cheeks, and determined gaze graced each of their faces as they described her as a tough, outspoken, and loving mother who ran a tight ship and always kept the house clean.
Henderson shared a story of his mother who he described as a fighter.
“She was crazy. She came into my room one day and said, ‘Hey, Isaiah, let’s play fight’ and next thing I know my nose was bleeding… of course she won. She was a linebacker.”
The family laughed, nodded their heads, and raised hands in agreement.
“I went from seeing her smile,” said son Farrell Marshall Jr., “next time you see her she’s in her coffin.”
As the ceremony ended, Brenda’s brother Michael led the crowd in a virtual prayer.
“Hold up two fingers like a peace sign, and then another two on your wrist, for your pulse, and warn God that Brenda is coming!”
The family’s strength and sense of humor carried the ceremony until the very end, when the congregation became somber as her sons crowded around the closed casket to bear their mother out to the hearse. Friends and guests were then asked to give the family some space as they released white balloons into the sky to symbolize her journey to Heaven.