Just days before she was shot and killed in the June 12, 2016 massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Brenda McCool posted a morning thought on her Facebook page, as she often did:
"While we teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life's all about. Embrace, Encourage, Acknowledge, and Love them unconditionally,” she wrote.
McCool, who, at age 49 was the oldest of the 49 fatalities, was the mother of 11 children — including 21-year-old Isaiah Henderson, who was out with his mother at Pulse to dance at the club's Latin-themed night when the shooting occurred. By all accounts, she more than practiced what she preached, advocating for her children and supporting them no matter what. At the end of her life, she reportedly put herself in the path of the bullets and saved her son.
"Everybody who knew my mom knew she was the mom everybody wanted," Henderson said during his eulogy for his mother. "She always took everybody in with open arms. She loved everybody equally, no matter what."
Family member and actor Wilson Cruz ("My So-Called Life," "He’s Just Not That Into You") told the Huffington Post that McCool went to Pulse with her son to support him, because “it was where he could be the most himself and where she could see him be himself the most.” Cruz said, “They would go there because there was no other place that they felt they could go and enjoy the kind of music that they loved and commune with people in the same way.”
Jessica Herthel, LGBTQ advocate and co-author of children’s book "I Am Jazz," the story of transgender teen Jazz Jennings, told TODAY Parents that McCool’s approach to parenting could be an inspiration — and a call to action — for any parent with an LGBTQ child. "Some parents reject their LGBT kids. Some parents accept their LGBT kids. But Brenda went beyond mere acceptance and celebrated her LGBT son. The difference that this makes in a child’s life cannot be overstated," Herthel said.
"Research from the Family Acceptance Project tells us, in no uncertain terms, that increased parental acceptance leads to reduced risks of substance abuse, depression, suicidal ideation, etc., for LGBT youth," Herthel said. "The enviable friendship between Brenda and her adult son Isaiah illustrates this point."
In a video he made after his mother's death on Facebook, McCool's son, Robert Vinnie Pressley, said that nothing could tear him and his mother apart, even when they weren't speaking to each other. "Everybody loved my mom," he said. "A lot of people called my mom 'Mom.'"
Brooklyn, New York, native McCool was a fighter, her children say, and, until a week ago, a survivor. She had already beaten two types of cancer and had moved her brood around the country, often as a single mother, “hustling” and doing “whatever she had to do” to provide for her children, said Pressley in the video.
Several of McCool’s seven sons and four daughters have publicly grieved for her on social media this week. Henderson, her son who survived the Orlando shooting, wrote on his Facebook page last week, “Just laying here thinking that I was just with my mom 24 hours ago, this is so surreal. I love you mom.” Daughter Khalisha Pressley posted a picture of herself with her mother.
But Pressley told his friends and family in his video on Facebook that his mother would not want them to be sad. “She would want you guys to be happy,” he said. “Celebrate her. She always told me that when she passed away, she didn’t want us to be sad — she wanted us to party and celebrate her life. My mom, she didn’t have any regrets. She passed away doing what she loved — supporting her kids and having fun with her kids.”
Cruz also posted a tribute to McCool on his personal Facebook page, calling her, "A stellar mother. A proud and fierce advocate for her LGBT family. She spoke passionately about how much she loved her children. She was hilarious and loving and tore up the dance floor when salsa or anything was playing. I can't believe she's gone."
In the week since the shooting, McCool has earned the nickname and hashtag “#PulseMom” for her advocacy of the LGBTQ community and her infectious spirit and the values she modeled as a mother.
Herthel says the name fits. "Brenda saved her son’s life when she laid her body over his and traded his death for her own," she said. "But based on what we know about LGBT youth who grow up in unsupportive homes, it’s safe to say that Brenda saved her son’s life years earlier as well."
Editor's note: This story was first published on June 20, 2016, and has been updated.