If you have ever spent time in a hospital, you will detect a rhythm. Under all the bustling of the doctors, the nurses, the respiratory therapists, the entire infrastructure of acronyms that keep the thing running, there is a quality of silence, stopped time as people wait. Even in the direst moments when everything is moving at full speed, there are pauses – waiting for lab results, specialists, OR rooms to become available, 30 seconds here, a breath there.
I didn’t really understand that rhythm until I became a patient myself, an object of all the bustling as opposed to performing it. Sitting in the space, waiting, is hard, especially when you know that the result, the consult, the surgery, could change everything. I often filled the spaces with books and blog posts and articles. It’s strange how book or words can become a sort of friend in those places, buoying my spirits or just holding the space with me and affirming the mixed emotions in those moments.
Waiting was what I was doing in spring of 2014 after an unexpected result from my FET. Pregnant but with far too many worrisome signs for confidence, Arthur and I had to decide whether or not to go ahead with a long-planned trip to attend a writer’s festival at our alma mater. Several authors I admired were on the schedule to speak, we’d shelled out the money for tickets, hotel, and time off. My RE gave his blessing to go ahead since we’d only be a few hours away and I knew where to go if the symptoms became more concerning. So we went, hoping for a distraction from the seemingly interminable wait.
It was definitely the right decision, as hard as it was to make at the time. I listened to lectures by James McBride, Ann Lamott, and so many others. I went to the English department reception where I smiled, listened, reconnected with people, and shared stories. All while simultaneously gritting my teeth as I’d feel the blood seeping out and the panic rising, then be blessedly inspired and challenged by new words, new books to read.
That’s how I wound up in a session with an author named Rachel Held Evans, who wrote a blog (and books) on faith, Christianity, and wrestling with (and eventually leaving) evangelicalism – a process both Arthur and I were going through, though in different stages -as well as a heartfelt and surprisingly funny second book on the meaning of “biblical” womanhood. Arthur and I had read the book and had some good discussions. After the session, there was a meet and greet and I told her how much I had enjoyed the book and admired her openness writing about faith, life, and menstruation. I came closer than I want to admit to bursting into tears and confessing that I was really excited to be here but also probably going through a miscarriage and that I was really grateful for some of her writing, that the presence of her and these other authors had made this waiting just a little better. Thankfully, my sense of manners and decorum kicked in to save me from serious awkwardness and oversharing, but I also suspect she would have been very kind. The moment ended, we moved on.
One of her books kept me company a year or so later in the NICU as I waited beside my daughter’s incubator. Arthur and I read it aloud as we put our tiny baby on our chests, sleep deprived, and needing healing words. Her words kept me company in the empty space when my brother died. Her words again encouraged us when we walked away recently from the denomination that married us and baptized both our children and were there for us during infertility and the NICU after a decision made at the denominational level to further exclude our LGBTQIA+ brothers, sisters, and non-binary in faith that Arthur and I found cruel and wrong.
Rachel Held Evans died on Saturday, May 4 after a sudden illness that led to complications at the age of 37. It is for the people who actually knew her in her real life to mourn her in that intimate, deep way that comes with relationship and they are the ones that are truly bereft in this moment. My heart aches for them as they move forward without her daily presence and grieve her great loss.
As simply a reader of her books and not someone who knew her personally, I’m just grateful for her words and quite sad that the lovely and luminous person behind them is gone from this world. Those words held my hands and abided with me in some awful spaces. They are and were a source of presence and balm.
While the many articles and obituaries have quoted Rachel’s final blog post on Ash Wednesday that is unexpectedly apt and poignant in the wake of her passing, the words from her book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again are ones I remember now and as a fellow reader they resonate deeply: “I know I can’t read my way out of this dilemma, but that won’t keep me from trying.”