Mom was strong. She was fiercely independent, a fighter and provider.
But Mom was sick. Her body had been turning against her as long as Elaine could remember. Fibromyalgia, depression, a torn meniscus; the illnesses followed her everywhere. She was always on medication, trying to combat her own body and keep it at bay.
But Mom was strong. She gave up a lot so her children could always have. She ensured her children could live in safe neighborhoods to go to good schools. Mom was funny and witty and highly offen- sive. She was invincible, that woman, a constant that never gave up and never gave in.
It was Wednesday. Feb. 12, 2014. It was chapel time on campus and Elaine’s phone rang. Colby was calling. She silenced the call. He called again. She silenced it. He called again.
“I’m in chapel,” she texted him.
“Please call me when you get out,” he responded. This had to be about Mom.
Chapel let out and Colby told her in the lobby: Mom had died.
She was 15 minutes late for work and her coworkers worried. Mom was never late for work. They called the police and they delivered the news.
Is there a word to properly describe death? Is there a way to express the sense of loss felt by a soul when one is taken? The crushing, overwhelming weight coupled with emptiness that threatens to squash all hope: is there a word for it?
This word is bottomless and empty and continues forever, like a forest without a tree line and water without the ocean floor. It’s like a winding path in a wood, shielded by trees, covered with sharp rocks and closing in faster and faster and faster. It doesn’t seem to ever end, it seems to lead to nowhere. It is painful. It is dark. It is deep.
In every sense of the word, Elaine was lost.
“I don’t know what to do! What am I gonna do? I don’t know what to do,” she shouted, pacing the floor of her room after hearing the news.
She didn’t know how to pack; she didn’t know how to think; she didn’t know how to be. Mom was gone; the one concrete, the one constant, sucked away without a moment’s notice. How was anyone supposed to live after that?
Her roommate returned and held her for a long time. She helped Elaine pack and book a flight and eat lunch. Then, she took Elaine to the airport.
On the night of Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, Elaine said goodbye. Not in the ceremonious normal way one is supposed to say goodbye to a loved one, but fleetingly, as if she was rehearsing lines from a play and this horrible Shakespearean tragedy would soon end.
Mom’s apartment was there. Her things were where she left them. Her pastors arrived to help her through the process; through planning the funeral and arranging the cremation. She and Colby; kids without a mom. Alone.
From there, life went on in a daze. Two weeks passed and Elaine returned to campus. Life had lost its color. All her motivation had been drained and life felt meaningless. Her floor supported her and gave her flowers and cards. Empathetic stories poured forth, but nothing helped. She cried. She cried all the time. Straight A’s became C’s and D’s. Life continued to spiral. Down, down, down it went.
Her grief was real. It cut like a knife and lingered, slowly stealing her life. There was no cure. There couldn’t be, not for pain like this.
“One day I asked the Lord, ‘I just want to go home. Drop out of college, go home and work at McDonald’s. Lord, can I do that?’” She said. “He said, ‘Yes, but it wouldn’t be my best.’”
So she tried.
She tried and she cried. Endlessly, it seemed, but life continued. She attended grief counseling. She talked to others and realized their pain wore a different suit; their darkness simply wore a different face, but it was real. Their grief hurt, but it didn’t hurt alone.
“I have a lot of reasons to be joyful. But I’m just realizing that I’m not gonna worship that grief. It’s a part of my story, but that’s it.”
This is the testimony Elaine Gibson Gadberry Rainwater has out of this: the joy of the Lord is her strength. Everyone has pain and grief and stories, but everyone reaches the other side. In the end, she says, we win.
Story by Sydney Ilg, Photo by Abby Friedman