On Rachel Held Evans. And friendship. And grief. And grace. And what we do now.

I was in the hospital yesterday when Rachel Held Evans died.

I’d had an unusually bad migraine, and just past midnight, I woke Greg up to tell him I needed more help. I cried on the way to the Emergency Room with Greg’s hand on my knee, thumb rubbing gentle circles through my ancient, stained sweatpants, and I can’t tell you which was more overwhelming — the pain pulsing in my head, the gratitude that I didn’t have to navigate it alone, or the unreasonable feeling of shame flooding through my body for not being able to stick it out on my own. The shame was a real contender, though; I felt I’d failed, somehow, by needing assistance. As though I don’t know better. As if I haven’t reminded myself thousands of times that we humans aren’t solitary creatures. As though I’m not aware that  independence is one of the most dangerous lies we peddle and that we aren’t somehow viscerally and foundationally communal, seeking at a cellular level our tribe and a place of belonging. 

I felt shame anyway; even more when the Reglan kicked in and I was suddenly, magically better. Like relief negated my desperate desire for it and retroactively rendered it mute. Like maybe I didn’t need to short us that co-pay, after all. That if I’d just stuck out the pain a while longer, we’d be ahead $300 + whatever dollars they charge us after the fact. 

May 4th — May the Fourth — is a day that’s somewhat fraught for me, though it eases with the passing of the years. It’s the day Greg and I adopted our 2nd and 3rd kids and weren’t ready — emotionally or maritally — to tend to their needs or our own. It’s a day I feel flooded with guilt for failing to be present in a way our children desperately needed us to be. And it’s a day I feel gratitude that we’ve cobbled together a good life out of the rubble. It’s very Both/And, in other words. Both sad and triumphant. Both reckoning and reconciliation. Both loss and love. You know? Like all of life, I supposed, just magnified.

So I began May the Fourth in the hospital, and I woke up in the very late morning in my own blessed bed, having missed the celebratory Gotcha Day donuts and orange juice and pre-cut cantaloupe and giant, bland, shipped-from-far-away strawberries because my body required rest and refused to wait another minute for it. I woke up and sighed. I woke up and felt like Not Enough even though Greg told me, correctly, that it was OK to skip donuts in favor of healing and that the kids would understand. I woke up and went to the bathroom, and I let the dog into my room, and I tried to be kind to myself for not being the first to holler “HAPPY GOTCHA DAY” at the kids I was once unhappy to get and forever after feel the need to make it up to. 

I woke up and checked my phone and saw the text from my oldest that said, “Rachel Held Evans died?!?!?!? HOW?” And I said the saddest and quietest of all the prayers which goes, “oh fuck.” 

It’s the prayer of resignation. It’s the prayer of grief. It’s the prayer of the most reluctant kind of acceptance — the kind that acknowledges it’s true, but only conceptually and not yet real for the heart. 

Those of you who’ve grieved know “oh fuck.” You know it’s the point when your toes cross the line on a journey you’d hoped to avoid. And you know the sinking of the shoulders, the caving of your chest, and the crumbling of your posture as you look toward the infinite horizon of grief and wonder how you’ll ever be able to travel so far. 

oh fuck, friends. oh fuck. 

I knew Rachel was sick. I followed the news of her illness with thousands of others, first as her Facebook friend when her husband Dan posted via her account, and then along with the world while he updated us every few days on her blog. 

I refreshed regularly to see how she was doing.

And I prayed in the way I’ve learned to pray — less formally and “dear Jesus-y” and more full of sighs and pleading, and hope and desire, and thoughts and wishes, and wondering and waiting, and grace for myself and others. And swearing. Like, “Shit” with a stuttering heart. And, “Goddamit” wherein I’m actually asking God to damn Illness and Suffering to hell from whence it should not return.

She died anyway. 

Rachel was my friend.

Not a bestie. 

Not close. 

Not someone to whom I can lay claim. 

But Rachel was my friend. 

She ate at my table.

We laughed in my car.

We talked about vulnerability and authenticity and what happens when people are jerks on the internet.

We took a picture together with my Christmas tree… in May.

She didn’t make fun of me for having ketchup stains on my couch.

And, most importantly, she let me — and all of us — into her life and her expansive heart as she deconstructed a Christian faith built on fundamentalism and reconstructed her Christian faith upon Christ alone.

Truthfully, Rachel’s and my connection was minuscule compared to others’ connections with her. You’ll hear in the coming days and weeks from folks who knew her far better. But Rachel’s magic was this: she made those around her feel valued and heard and loved. And she was willing to allow the vulnerable and marginalized — those who are the very heart of God — to reshape her into an agent of Love. This the Work of God. I can think of no greater eulogy.

On Saturday afternoon, hours after Rachel passed and I came home, we hosted our first wedding at Cairns Farm.  

The bride wore plaid. The minister quoted The Office. The couple said their vows under an arch my 12-year-olds constructed of sticks and twigs, with fairy lights and pictures from their lives bearing witness, and their son as their attendant. 

I flirted with the handsomest two-year-old I ever did see while we sat in the sun. 

It felt surreal to watch love play out in front of us when Rachel so recently left.

And felt so very, very right that love was multiplied this day.

Because that’s where we go from here. To Love One Another. As Christ loved the church. Unto death. Running the race. Until the finish line, whenever that may be.

May the Fourth.

What a strange, terrible, wonderful day. 

I was in the hospital when Rachel Held Evans died. I belatedly wished my kids a Happy Gotcha Day. I witnessed the miracle of lives intentionally joined. I sat in the sun. I watched it go down. 

May the Fourth. Fraught with confession. Fraught with vulnerability. Fraught with pain. And full of gratitude. Full of grace. 

May the Fourth. When duality is made real, like Samhain when the veil between Good and Evil grows thin. A day when we wonder whether Light or Darkness will win. 

And yet a Light shines in the Darkness, and Darkness has not overcome it. Not yet. Not ever if we can help it. And we can help it. Lives like Rachel’s teach us so. 

Waving in the dark,

 

 

 

P.S. Rachel invited me to guest post on her blog in 2012, on Mother’s Day, about faith and parenting. I worked on that blog for three weeks, word by word, to make them as truthful as I knew how. It was a fissure in my facade; a cracking point in Truth Telling and Living Out Loud; a final acquiescence to honesty about a complex faith. Ask. Seek. Knock. Breathe. was the product of that effort. And I’m forever grateful to Rachel for tending to that flame. 

P.P.S. This. Because Rachel loved it. And it’s oddly instructive for right now as we consider what the fuck we do next. I’ll tell you. We build our nests. 

P.P.P.S. Finally, to you, Rachel —  Eshet Chayil. You, my friend, were a woman of valor. Well done. 

 

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ABOUT BETH WOOLSEY I'm a writer. And a mess. And mouthy, brave, and strong. I believe we all belong to each other. I believe in the long way 'round. And I believe, always, in grace in the grime and wonder in the wild of a life lived off course from what was, once, a perfectly good plan.
9 comments
  1. There are no words… only grief, deep and bottomless and unending… and we are here in it together.
    Always remember, the Way is Love.
    Keep speaking. Keep spreading the Light. You are carrying on her legacy.
    Take care, Friend. You are not alone in your pain.

  2. Sending love…

  3. I have been absolutely gutted by this, this week end. I never met Rachel, but her words and her spirit have been so important to me in my own unraveling of faith. And I’m so sorry for your migraine. I get it. I’ve been in the hospital with them too. 🙁

  4. “May 4th — May the Fourth — is a day that’s somewhat fraught for me, though it eases with the passing of the years. It’s the day Greg and I adopted our 2nd and 3rd kids and weren’t ready — emotionally or maritally — to tend to their needs or our own. It’s a day I feel flooded with guilt for failing to be present in a way our children desperately needed us to be. And it’s a day I feel gratitude that we’ve cobbled together a good life out of the rubble. It’s very Both/And, in other words. Both sad and triumphant. Both reckoning and reconciliation. Both loss and love. You know? Like all of life, I supposed, just magnified.”

    Change the date to the next month, and change the husband’s name, and this is me, word for word. And now it’s coming up again. And this time, four years later, we’re headed for an UnGotcha Day, too. Because that 3rd kid needs A Loving Family more than she needs Our Last Name. Because I refuse to put her in residential care as has been recommended for years, as though too many years in an institution wasn’t already Most Of The Problem. Because I can’t “just call DCF to come pick her up,” as one of her doctors (!!!) recently suggested. Because she can’t stay here to continue to miss out on life and be surgically force-fed (by choice, dammit, because a feeding tube is better to her than eating food or drinking water given by Mama and Daddy; she eats just fine for strangers and therapists) and harm herself for attention and threaten to kill the baby.

    And on Saturday, when my husband was supposed to take some of the kids to church, he stayed home instead. Because my eyelid wouldn’t quit twitching, and I couldn’t Use The Words, and I couldn’t walk straight, and all of the sounds including my voice were painful, and he didn’t want to leave me here with the others. And oh, the shame. They’re missing out AGAIN and it’s MY FAULT. I am supposed to be the one taking care of them, not getting taken care OF. And…and…and… Yes: Oh Fuck and All The Things. And yet, yes, John 1:5. One of my favorite verses. Sometimes whispered, sometimes yelled through gritted teeth.

  5. Thank you. Ironically, my atheist daughter shared one of Rachel’s posts with me back in 2012. I can’t say that’s how I found you, but it started me on a journey to seek out other’s like her, and you happened along sometime after that, I think. I got to meet her in 2014, and I’m beating myself up that I can’t find the photo we took with her. She made me feel like an amazing mother. In five minutes. And I LOVE that your tree was still up in May! I just removed my Christmas door mat from the front door yesterday. Grieving with you. Cursing the darkness. Looking forward to that day when we all can say, “Further up and further in.”

  6. You have at least one point wrong here. You say you can’t lay claim to her. Except you can. She was your sister in Christ and if you loved her, in whatever form that took, you can claim her however you want. If she held a peice of your heart that peice is no less valuable than someone who knew her “more”, who loved her “more”. Remember that. Your grief journey is uniquely yours. My friend died from ovarian cancer a little over a year ago. We weren’t best friends either (though I would have loved to have been considered as such) but that lady was my faith rock. And now she is gone and the world still feels so confusing. But I will be damned if anyone tells me to my face we weren’t close enough for the pain of her loss to be as deep as it was, as deep as it still is.

    1. Thank you Lisa, I needed to hear that. I lost my faith rock a little more than a year ago, and I often felt that while I considered her a friend that there were so many closer friends that needed to spend time with her in her last days that I nearly missed my chance. The fact that she wanted to see me and have me visit her should tell me that I can lay claim to my dear sister in Christ.

  7. I was in the ER on Monday with a migraine. I can truly feel your pain. And the loss of Rachel will haunt all of us for a long time to come. I’m glad she was present in your life and that you were able to write for her blog. Eshet Chayil, to you and Rachel.

  8. It’s been surreal and sad. What a gift that you got to spend time with her, once upon a time!

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