Grief and mourning can be powerful, can be intense and gut-wrenching. Grief and mourning can break some people down, but then again they can also raise some people up.
After almost a year of grieving the loss of a dear 17-year-old to cancer, the Erik Evans family of State Road chose to mourn by seeking to help others.
I’ve noticed that kind of thing happens a lot around here in the hometown.
The Evans family single-handedly bought, cooked and served a benefit spaghetti Sunday dinner on Oct. 11, on the 18th birthday of the late Rachel Evans. The family accepted donations to pass on to another young family now in a fight for life much like the one the Evanses waged.
At 9 months old Rachel was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a swollen heart. After six weeks on a donor waiting list, the baby received a successful heart transplant at Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem.
Rachel is my first cousin, twice removed.
The most powerful moment I’ve ever experienced in church, outside of acceptances of salvation, was the Sunday morning when Erik stood up during a service and held aloft his baby with the beating heart that was not her own.
The scene was reminiscent of the ones in the 1994 Disney movie “The Lion King” and the 1977 TV miniseries “Roots.”
“For those who don’t believe in miracles,” Erik exulted, “look at this!”
Little Rachel would need anti-rejection drug therapy for the rest of her life. Erik described as up and down the years of seemingly endless treatments and checkups and trips to the doctor.
As an East Wilkes High School student Rachel began experiencing kidney failure liked to organ rejection. Preparing for a kidney transplant, Rachel was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. T-cell injections at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City were not successful. She died last November at Baptist Hospital.
A month ago Rachel’s mother, Kim, came home from work and suggested a birthday party but with a twist. She had learned of a lady at church whose grandson was diagnosed in January with a rare disorder that causes frequent seizures and requires extensive medical treatment and round-the-clock care.
“We just wanted to do something,” Erik told diners at the spaghetti dinner, “because of all that was done for us.”
With their own funds the family bought spaghetti, salad, garlic bread, canned sodas, desserts and even dressed the Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church fellowship hall as for a birthday party. Rachel’s portrait served as the centerpiece. The family accepted only one donated menu item, spaghetti sauce from Mazzini’s in North Elkin.
Erik and Kim, their 20-year-old daughter Samantha, Erik’s mother, two cousins and a friend cooked and served.
“The church and the community had helped us so much,” Kim said as I sat with her and Erik later in the day on their front porch and reminisced. “We know that money doesn’t fix anything. You can have a million dollars and live in a mansion and it wouldn’t have changed a thing. But maybe the money can provide someone some relief.”
The family hopes to turn Rachel’s birthday into an annual benefit. They call the effort Rachel Strong, for the way the young lady lived her life and fought the good fight right up to the end.
In her last hours “we were talking to Rachel and we told her that she was Rachel Strong,” Kim said. “She never gave up.”
The family served spaghetti while wearing gray Rachel Strong T-shirts that were printed and sold at a church-sponsored fundraiser for the Evanses last January at Rachel’s alma mater that included a concert and silent auction.
“By all rights we shouldn’t have had her for as long as we had her,” said Erik, remembering Rachel’s short but anxious wait for a heart donor and then the years of medical treatments. While still grieving, while still in mourning, the family feels blessed and thankful for the time that Rachel was with them.
They are channeling their emotions into actions that they hope will lighten the burdens of others in similar circumstances. “Maybe it will buy a tank of gas or make something a bit easier,” Erik said.
That’s powerful. That’s Rachel Strong.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.