Rachael died the day before her daughter was due to be born.
But baby Ruth was already over four months old when Rachael died. She was born so early she weighed less than a pound – 0.95 pounds, to be exact. That’s less than the weight of a four-stick package of butter.
Our physical bodies are on loan to us. They will die. It is our spirit bodies that are unique and will never die. It is our spirit bodies that fall in love; our physical bodies only transmit it through touch. It is what we leave behind of our spirit bodies, our love, that becomes our legacy.
Rachael left behind a baby. A husband. A mother. Friends. Her life. Eclampsia is what happened. Eclampsia is the clinical, horrifying word we assign to what happened (and it did – and it is scary and horrific and life-threatening). But what happened throughout this tragedy was love.
This is a love story and that’s the way Ruth will know it.
On October 24, 2014 I woke to a text message from Rachael’s husband: “This is Steven. Rachael is in a coma in the hospital. Please pray for her, I’m so terrified I might lose her.” Their daughter Ruth was born via emergency c-section on October 23rd and survived against all odds. Rachael had experienced preeclampsia, then full-blown eclampsia that caused seizures and a stroke that left her in a coma. Between breaks from crying in the fetal position off and on all day I managed to create a Facebook group message with people I could think of who were close to Rachael, asking them to pray. I gave the most information I could, summarized. I tried to remain calm, realizing I had no idea how long I’d be the one in charge of furnishing fragile information. I did realize I might become the one to tell people about her, or her daughter’s, death.
I was dog- and house-sitting ten miles away from home the night of October 24th. The bike ride there was torture; the open space for me to think and worry and be afraid was too much. It was overwhelming and heart-wrenching. I was alone that first night. I was alone and scared in a house I did not know, there were noises and it was dark. I believed Rachael was going to die. I believed her spirit would enter my dreams. I had no proof Ruth would make it either. My lifeline was Steven on the other end of my text messages 3,000 miles across the country, just as his lifeline was moving between wife and daughter as they both fought for their lives. That night I was also communicating with two priests from my church and I asked one of them to give Rachael Last Rites. He did. I curled into the fetal position on the floor of the kitchen and my body was wracked with sobs. I didn’t care where my tears fell, where my nose ran, where my slobber flowed. I didn’t care that the dog was licking my face. When I woke the next day I thought there would be a funeral to go to. I was scared of looking at my phone but it was an automatic, robotic move that caused the phone to fall into my hands. The draw of any information – terrifying or hopeful – was more powerful than the fear I had of knowing. I didn’t want to know, but I had to know. Relief. I was flooded with relief that both Rachael and Ruth survived that night. This was to become a pattern.
For four months my mind was saturated completely with Rachael. The first thoughts upon waking and the last thoughts before trying to sleep were of her and her daughter and her husband and her mother.
No one, not doctors, not Steven, not me, not Rachael, knew what was to come. What did come was fear each morning of the news I would or wouldn’t get. What happened was that my life revolved around the Harveys. I faced multiple fears and anxieties, multiple emotions, multiple hopes. I swam in grief that threatened to overflow and swallow my life. I couldn’t function, I couldn’t manage, I couldn’t interact socially. My grief was triggered by everything: babies, families, Toyota Rav4’s, cameras, memories. Memories. My life became a shrine for Rachael. How much hope should I have? How much should I prepare for additional tragedy? How should I brace myself for news each day? Every breath was a reminder that I was alive in California and that Rachael and Ruth’s lives were on the fragile brink of nonexistence in North Carolina. Every movement, every breath, every thought during every moment of every day was in anticipation for news – good or bad. I learned the meaning of hanging by a thread.
What came of the Facebook group message I created the first day was a community of love and support for Rachael, Ruth, and Steve. I lived for the times I could share updates with this group of Rachael’s closest friends. The group message became my mission to round up support for Rachael, Ruth and Steven. It was a way for me to communicate en masse summarized updates, provide links for how people could help, or remind people of upcoming dates (such as Rachael’s birthday). I, from 3,000 miles across the country, managed to line up some donations, visits, and a couple meals, but in most ways I felt utterly and depressingly helpless. I talked by text with Steven every single day for four months (a little less often towards the end); it was the first thing I did waking and the last thing I did before sleeping with many conversations in between. The more I knew, the less far away it all felt. I desperately wanted to be there. Rachael was like my sister, she was that kind of friend. I wanted to adopt that baby if anything happened, I made that decision early on. Because I couldn’t be there I found myself angry with those who lived so close to them who weren’t by Rachael and Ruth’s (and Steven and Reita’s) sides 24/7. Why weren’t people there doing more? Why couldn’t I do more? Why couldn’t I be there?
I did manage to see Rachael and Ruth twice during that four month period.
During all this my grandfather was also dying of cancer. We didn’t realize how quickly his health would deteriorate; Thanksgiving 2014 became the last time he would walk on his own. My mother called me on December 18th, 2014 to tell me he was on his death bed, so the decision was easy to fly that day to North Carolina. Because I didn’t get to be with my grandmother when she died I made sure I could be with Papa. This also gave me the opportunity to see Rachael and Ruth.
After Papa’s death on December 20th, 2014, I stayed in Oriental for a couple days and then went to Durham, where Rachael, Ruth, and Steven were. I met Ruth on her two month birthday, in the NICU, on December 23rd, and she wrapped her beautiful fingers around mine and stared at me with her blue eyes. She was two months old and wasn’t due to be born for two more months. I fell in love. Then something beautiful happened.
I was there in the room when Rachael and Ruth saw each other the first – and only – time it had been safe enough for the two of them to do so. Ruth remained in her safe incubator that was pushed next to Rachael’s bed where they could see each other. It was breathtaking. The air in the room ceased to move; it felt as though we were all floating in time and space. At the same time, we were all stuck. We waded through this space of paused time wondering where we fit, what our roles were. Hoping for a connection. Perhaps in all our minds (nurses, doctors, family, and me, the friend) we were wishing desperately for a miracle, for Rachael to pop up in bed and grab her dear baby. What did happen was a special, tender moment witnessing the Harvey family all together for the first – and the last – time, as it would happen. This was a moment suspended in time; we could forget about our fears for an instant and watch a family simply be together. It was Christmastime, after all. It is a blessing I will never forget. It is a blessing I must hold onto so I can tell Ruth one day about being there in the room with her when she met her birth family.
I stayed with Steven that night in the duplex they were given to use by a church. I baked chicken. I cooked breakfast. I sat with him in the living room while we ate. I didn’t know what I could do to help the most so I just made myself present, hoping I was being more helpful than a nuisance. I wanted to be the person he could talk to about Rachael, because I knew Rachael in ways that many others didn’t, perhaps in ways he could appreciate. I hoped I could be that safe person who would understand without him needing to explain her as a person. We existed in silence and in distracted conversation and television. Perhaps that is all we could manage in our fragile mental states.
The last time I saw Rachael was on January 7th, after Papa’s funeral on January 3rd. These were the holidays. As I sat with Rachael in her hospital room with our mutual friend, Jed, the contrast of the joy in the outside world to our feeble hope inside the hospital walls was glaring and cold. I had more hope this time though, because Rachael was breathing easier and was more relaxed than when I saw her just a couple weeks before. All the machines and the lines she was hooked to were humming and beeping. Rachael’s hair had been lovingly braided by someone earlier in the day. Pictures from Steven and Rachael’s engagement shoot and wedding, including their wedding photo book, were among the precious possessions left for visitors to see and share with Rachael whenever she would open her eyes. It was left up to the visitor to believe whether or not she was registering what was being shown her. Rachael was asleep during this visit, but I held her hand and I talked to her. I kissed her cheek. I was also communicating via Facebook messenger with our friends, asking if anyone wanted me to tell Rachael anything. Our friend Jenna asked me to play her The Beatles’ song, Blackbird. My phone wasn’t working so I sang it to her instead, quietly and shaking. Jed and I sat in silence a while and looked at the wedding album. I wished I could have stayed all night with Rachael, sharing with her the din of the hum and the beeps of the machines monitoring her existence. Sharing silent memories of our pasts. I did not know it would be the last time I would ever see her.
I flew home and resumed life, grieving the death of my grandfather and maintaining the commitment I had had for the last three months regarding Rachael and Ruth’s progress. Both continued to improve – Ruth much faster than Rachael. On January 23rd, three months after Ruth was born, I got a tattoo of a bird on my wrist matching the one on Rachael’s shoulder. Ruth went home on February 6th, accompanied with a mountain of prescriptions and gadgets and instructions. On February 11th, the evening before her 28th birthday, Rachael was moved to a nursing facility where it was unknown how fast or how far she would progress. I recorded a video of myself wishing Rachael a happy birthday and sent it to her husband and mother to play for her. I sent another video on February 23rd telling her how proud I was of her, how much in love I was with her daughter, and how I hoped to see her soon. It seemed things were looking up, or at least leveling out.
In late February a blast of cold winter weather hit Raleigh, NC, in the form of a snowstorm, keeping Steven from going to visit Rachael as he had been doing consistently. On the morning of February 27th, a Friday, I woke to a text from Steven. I stopped breathing. This was not a nightmare, but the nightmare had somehow ended. I gasped. I was in shock. Rachael was dead. I did what I’ve done after heartbreak before. I put on running clothes in between body-racking sobs. I tried to suck down water in between gulps of mucus and slobber and convulsions. My body spasmed as I tied my shoes. And I ran. I ran until I couldn’t breathe. I stopped and cried and kept running, harder, harder, harder. I wanted to die. I cursed the heavens. I looked at the ground and found a penny. I kept it. I looked at the water of the Sacramento river from my favorite bridge but I couldn’t distinguish it from the tears. I looked at the sky and cursed the heavens more. I ran. I didn’t know what to do. I also knew what I had been dreading all along. I would be the one to tell our friends. I was to be the bearer of that news. News of tragedy, of life extinguished far too soon, traumatically. For four months my life had been consumed with this fear and in an instant all those months were drained from my memory as I reached the present. This. This was what we were waiting for, all this time. Why this? Why now? Why this way? WHY. Why Rachael? She was improving. She had a baby. A family. Why?!?!?
When I got home I asked a close friend who was available in the middle of a weekday to come over. I was in shock. I mumbled robotic statements and was numb. There was no way I could make sense of the reality of this news. I was still living in the body that I’d lived in the for the past four months, anticipating that something would change, that this wasn’t really real, that tomorrow I would wake up with different news. The last four months were over and I couldn’t grasp the reality.
Two days later in Church, Mel (my boyfriend at the time) and Cyd (friend) held me while I cried through the whole service. They held me while I walked to the front of the congregation to deliver the news of Rachael’s death (I had been updating them on her and Ruth’s progress for the past four months). Then, when I collapsed, Mel and Cyd carried me like a baby back to my pew. During that service I decided I should give a eulogy at Rachael’s funeral in North Carolina, even though I didn’t know how I would afford to get there. I just knew I had to be there. I am forever grateful for my friend, Maria, for setting up a GoFundMe page to get me to Rachael’s funeral. I would not have been able to go otherwise.
The first time I held Ruth, fed Ruth, cared for Ruth, was March 5th, 2015, two days before her mother’s funeral. I looked into her eyes and could see nothing but love. I did all I could for her family; I like to think I was considered family inasmuch as it could be defined in that situation. I did as much as a best friend could do in an awkward situation, a situation no one can navigate easily. I had Rachael’s portrait for the memorial service printed by Southeastern Camera (bless them for seeing my tears and figuring out what the portrait was for, and for giving it to us free of charge). I shopped for flowers with her mom. I helped arrange details and furniture in the funeral home. I sat and talked with and listened to her mother, Reita as she discussed plans and mourned in the way she needed to. I sat and held Ruth and fed Ruth and spent time with Steven. I wrote a eulogy and I delivered it to a room full of people who knew and loved Rachael:
A short remembrance, written by Rachael’s aunt, Mary B. Rea-Poteat:
A Person of Beauty and Truth: Rachael Jane Harvey
Rachael had a strong and free spirit that led to beauty and truth.
- Beauty and truth in her confidence to be her own person—her strength and courage to live her life with intention.
- Beauty and truth in the way she related and interacted with others—her kindness, acceptance, loving deeds, and advocacy for others.
- Beauty and truth in the way she related and cared about nature—her commitment to preserving the environment and her enjoyment of making natural crafts and flower arrangements.
- Beauty and truth in her zest for life—her love of fun and zany humor and laughter.
- Beauty and truth in the way she interacted with the world—her love of travel and her openness to learn about people and places.
- Beauty and truth in her paintings and art work—her love and dedication to becoming an artist.
- Beauty and truth in her intellect—her capacity to learn, remember and interact on a myriad of interested subjects.
- Beauty and truth in her love for Steven—their joy and anticipation of bringing a baby girl into the world and becoming a family.
My name is Charis, but Rachael called me Reese. Rachael and I met at Meredith College, because of her camera. I heard she enjoyed photography, so I poked my head in one day and asked, “Hey, wanna have a photo shoot?” We grew up just 40 minutes away from each other, our birthdays were 9 days apart, and we enjoyed breaking the rules. We became suite-mates our final year in college, then we lived together after graduation. In the end, we became more like sisters.
Rachael’s zest for living life fully kept her pretty busy during college. Late one night during our first year, she helped paint a big blue bare foot in the kitchen on our hall in Barefoot Dorm. Friends may recall partaking in other activities: an EPIC water gun fight, dressing up as pirates, or filling a campus water fountain with rubber duckies in the middle of the night. Rachael loved being outside. She loved good hugs and art. She loved animals and orange juice.
Rachael. Rach. Suitie. Sweetheart. Duckling. Daughter. Wife. Mother. Sister. Friend. Artist. Rachael’s love spilled out in her brushstrokes and her handmade cards and gifts. An artist to the core, she wanted to show beauty in the world that no one else could see. And a project was never complete; she was always redoing some minute detail.
Rachael’s father died when she was 15, but he lived on in the journal he left her. It is Rachael’s father the photographer who instilled her passion for photography. Rachael preferred to be behind the camera; yet it is her infectious smile, the scrunching of her cheeks, the innocent yet sly twinkle in her eye in her wedding photos that tells the world she found her match, the man with whom she would spend the rest of her life.
From Rachael’s mother, Reita, came her passion and joy for arranging flowers and decorating, as well as a fondness for desserts. Rachael relied on the love of her mother more than she may have known. Reita has never left her daughter’s side.
When Rachael found Steven, her devotion drew them together with an intensity that took Steven’s words away when he knelt to ask her to be his wife. Before their marriage Rachael wrote to me, “We talked about getting married when we started dating and never really looked back. .. Best I can explain it is that there are just so many moving parts to it all.”
I heard about Rachael’s pregnancy by mail last July. Written beside a photocopy of Ruth’s first ultrasound were these words: “just a little note to share my latest project. Lots of love, Rachael. *ps: picture is about a month old – project will debut August 1st so NO spreading.” Rachael put her whole life into her final, perfect project, Ruth.
Rachael’s joys were many, and she put her passion into them all. She packed a full life into her 28 years.
A tradition at Meredith College is to sing a melody to our sisters who are graduating. Please sing with me, Sisters Dear, if you know it, to give Rachael her rest:
Sister dear, our time’s come to part. We’ll always keep you deep in our hearts. Dear Rachael, we love you and to you we’ll be true.
Through the years as we go along we’ll think of you through all the days long. Dear Rachael, we love you and to you we’ll be true.
On the night of March 23rd (five months after Ruth’s birth and nearly a month after Rachael died) I had a dream about Rachael. In my dream she was healthy, happy, and beautiful. Her response when I asked her what I needed to know from her was the word “safe,” whispered in my ear twice. Safe.
Rachael was finally safe. And free.
Now I must find ways to continue to celebrate my beautiful friend. I must continue remembering Rachael and I must help raise Ruth. Since the day Rachael died I have collected each penny I’ve found in a jar that will go to Ruth when she is older. Each time I see a bird, any kind of bird, I say Rachael’s name. Rachael loved birds and I feel her presence every time I see or hear a bird.
Pennies and birds. Blackbird singing in the dead of night.
Rachael lives on. Rachael lives on in Ruth, in Steven, in Reita, in me, and in all those whose lives she touched. Ruth will know that and so much more. Rachael will always be the wings beneath and around Ruth.
I love you
Here is a gallery of images from Rachael’s life when I knew her (including her baby!):