In the blink of an eye, 11 children were left without a mother.
They’d considered the reality of losing the 49-year-old Brenda Lee Marquez McCool before. All 11 had sat by fearfully while she battled cancer — not once but twice.
“The doctor gave her a year to live,” her ex-husband Robert Pressley said.
But as Noreen Vaquer, a friend from her Brooklyn childhood, told the Orlando Sentinel, “she was a fighter.” So, twice, her 11 children breathed a collective sigh of relief — their mom was going to be fine. She was going to have fun with them, to share life with them, to take care of them above all.
She did all three on June 12 while dancing at the Pulse nightclub with her 21-year-old son Isaiah Henderson.
McCool’s step-nephew, actor Wilson Cruz of “My So-Called Life,” told the Huffington Post that she often visited the club to support Isaiah, who is openly gay.
“She went there to be with her son so that he could be exactly who he is, without any fear,” Cruz said.
They were having so much fun that she wanted to share it, uploading a video of the club to Facebook about midnight. It was supposed to be another night of bonding for the pair, but, as for 48 others, it ended in death.
After opening fire in the crowded club, Omar Mateen pointed his weapon at the mother and son. But McCool was not going to let her son come to harm. She shielded her son with her body as Mateen resumed fire.
She was shot at least twice and killed.
“Brenda saw him point the gun. She said, ‘Get down,’ to Isaiah and she got in front of him,” McCool’s sister-in-law Ada Pressley told the New York Daily News. “She was shot dead. That’s how much she loved her kids. If it weren’t for her, he would have been shot,” she added.
“He had to stand there and see this madman gun his mother down, and his friends. I don’t know how he’s going to survive that,” Cruz said. “I don’t know how anybody is, but I know that they will.
Brave, sacrificing, fun, bold, loving — McCool contained multitudes.
Isaiah tried to explain all of this during his eulogy at her funeral on Monday at the First United Methodist Church of Orlando, but it was difficult as he choked on his tears.
“I just want to say my mom was the best mom out there,” he began, his words barely understandable. “I never thought her life would be ended right in front of my eyes.”
Finally he broke into sobs, and two of his brothers joined him at the pulpit, holding on his arm for support.
“I haven’t stopped crying since,” he said.
McCool’s oldest daughter, Khalisha Pressley, also spoke.
“She always told me she was proud of me, no matter what I did,” Pressley said, according to WOLF-TV. “I just want to thank her for teaching me everything she taught me. How to be a woman, how to be a mother, how to be a lover, how to be a fighter and how to be family-oriented, because that’s what I am now. I’m a better woman because of my mother.”
Along with the 11 children left behind, the church filled with about 200 well-wishers, including Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, who declared Monday a day of mourning in McCool’s name.
“Our community continues to grieve and heal and we will be stronger because of people like Brenda. We’ll never forget Brenda,” Dyer said, according to WJXT-TV.
Outside the church, dozens of bikers associated with the Latin American Motorcycle Association stood guard.
After the service, they released 49 balloons in memory of their mother and other victims, WESH-TV reported.
Read Isaiah Henderson’s full eulogy here.
I just want to say my mom was the best mom out there. I never thought that her life would be ended right in front of my eyes. I kept so positive that she was going to make it.
Everybody who knew my mom knew she was the mom everybody wanted. She always took everybody in with open arms. She loved everybody equally, no matter what.
I just want to thank everybody for this support, because she literally loved everyone. I wouldn’t trade my mom for the world.
I didn’t want to speak, because I knew this was going to happen, but I knew I would have regretted it if I never spoke. I haven’t stopped crying since.
I love my mom. Everybody who knew her should have loved her, too. She was crazy. Chacho, let me tell you. [laughter]
My favorite memory of her is we came home and I was in a white polo and some khakis, and she said, “Isaiah, let’s play fight,” and so I’m like, “Okay, I’m down.” My mom was a fighter. What can I say?
She had pulled my polo over my head, started uppercutting me and my nose started bleeding, and I’m like: “Mama, my nose! It’s bleeding!”
She said, “Even though we are play fighting, there can always be a real fight.”
But I’m like: “You’re my mom. I’m not gonna hit you like it’s a real fight. We’re play fighting.”
So we squared up again. I obviously lost. She’s a linebacker.
All right. I just want to thank everybody for coming and showing support. Thank you for all the donations. We love all of you guys.