It is difficult to summarize the short but amazingly full life of Rachel Catherine Barnes. I knew Rachel first as my little cousin, the one who her sister and I would take advantage of (she later called it "torture."). Rachel often reminded me that instead of actually letting her play kickball with us, we would only send her to get balls out of the creek. And once, we convinced Rachel to give us her entire life savings for a cookie because she was not yet old enough to count money. She learned quickly from our tricks, though, and it did not take long for her tough, independent, feisty and very determined personality to emerge.
During my mid- to late teens, I watched Rachel grow from a distance. She was always private and reserved, only letting those closest to her really know her. Up until she was a beautiful, intelligent and ambitious 16 yr. old, I thought of her as being 8 yrs. old with big glasses and a big smile watching the movie Annie or playing her mall game.
I went off to college, and the next thing I knew, Rachel was driving, working her first job at K-Mart and going to prom! She was taking full advantage of her high school experience, as I had done, with the pep club and the yearbook. Also with the talent I was lacking, Rachel was singing in the school chorus and was on the dance team. Rachel had grown into an active, social, confident and absolutely gorgeous young woman. I was so proud of her and I wanted so much to know her as more than just a little cousin. I never had a sister of my own, and even then, I tried in the short periods of time that I was around her to be a role model and to have an impact on her life.
In May 2001 she graduated from Pikeville High School and had made plans to begin Morehead State University in the fall. Rachel was so talented and good with computers, and I saw a future for her full of endless possibilities. Even then, I greatly admired her. When she graduated, her mother wrote a letter to her that captures who Rachel really was as a child and a young woman. I am going to share some of that letter with you now.
I'm sitting here thinking about what I want to say to you, but there are not enough words to express the way I am feeling. I guess I am feeling every emotion there is all at the same time. I feel great sadness because I know that this is a part of my life and your life that is ending, but I am also overcome with happiness and excitement about your new beginnings and the endless possibilities that lie before you. I feel pride that my youngest daughter has accomplished so much in only eighteen years, but I also wonder how she can possibly be that old. I worry about you as I have always done, but I feel assured that your life will be good and that you will ultimately always do what is right. I feel admiration for you as you have a lot of qualities that I would like to have myself such as your ability to make your own decisions, your confidence, your beauty, your talent, and your inner strength. But above all of these, my greatest feeling is love. The love I feel for you is truly awesome. It is overwhelming. It is God sent, as you are.
On July 9, 1983, you came into the world. When I saw you I truly fell in love, and I knew that Rachel Catherine would be the perfect name for you. I thought long and hard about your name and what it meant, Rachel meaning "lamb" and Catherine meaning "strength." You were always a good baby, easy to take care of and independent even then. You were quite a character with the funny things you said and did. I remember one Christmas night when you were three you stayed up until midnight determined that you master a puzzle, which of course you did.
You would never cry in front of anyone. You had to have blood drawn from your arm one time when you were three. They had to stick you eight times which would make anybody cry, but not you. Two little tears ran down your little cheeks, but you never made a sound or moved a muscle. There are so many stories I could tell you. I have watched you grow from my precious little baby into a beautiful young woman.
Now you're getting ready to graduate from high school. It is your time to find your own path in life to follow. I want you to remember that success is not just making a lot of money and having a prestigious job. It is caring for your fellow man, sticking up for what is right, and being honest in all that you do. But most importantly, success is finding peace with yourself and your creator. When you have found that "peace that passeth all understanding" then your life will be complete.
Rachel accomplished all that Marilyn had hoped for in a little over four short years. When Marilyn wrote this letter, she was thinking, of course, that Rachel would have a long lifetime to work her way to that person who would become successful by doing what is right and ultimately find "peace" within. No one expected that 6 mo. after Marilyn wrote this letter that Rachel's life would change so drastically in an unimaginable way. Certainly her health narrowed those once "endless possibilities," but in no way was cancer a road block in Rachel's journey of growth and development. Instead, like she had always done, Rachel made the very best of the worst of times with her unwavering faith, unconditional love, consistently positive outlook, witty sense of humor, and deep compassion for others. She was the one who was suffering, but she worried constantly about those around her- she prayed first for her family, then for her friends, and lastly for herself.
I spent a lot of time with Rachel both in the hospital and in her home, and she was terribly sick during most of that time. People often asked "How do you do it?" "How can you stand to be around so much sadness?" These questions always shocked me, because the real question for me was, how could I NOT be with the person who was a tremendous source of comfort and joy to me? She had such an appreciation for even the smallest things in life, and she taught me to love life just as much as she did. I feel extremely privileged and blessed to have had the opportunity to laugh with her, hold her, and really know and love her.
Once, not long after she'd had the bone marrow transplant, we were alone in her hospital room after our cousin JP had left from a visit. She had been so sick and weak, and we were all terrified of the worst. She smiled, and beginning to cry, she pointed to a smiley face balloon her daddy had brought her that morning and she said. "You see that balloon, that's how I feel on the inside. I am so, so blessed. I don't deserve all of this love and all of the blessings God has given me." This is only one example of her graciousness, humility and true faith. The theme throughout her struggle was "I am blessed." And you wouldn't even think about mentioning the word "fair" in front of her. Rachel hated hearing "it's not fair" or "why you"- and she'd reply in her sassy, matter of fact way, "why not me?" "what is fair?" and she'd share examples of people who had not made it out of the BMT unit, like the one young mother of two little girls who passed away while Rachel lived. She would remind me that "no matter how bad things are, there are always people who are worse off ." This is a lesson I will carry with me always, and, like Rachel did, I hope that people will follow her example and appreciate the beauty and blessing of life.
On June 6, 2005 Rachel endured her last trip to the Markey Cancer Center. I, again, was blessed enough to be able to accompany her there. She had had a remarkably good weekend that she attributed to her diligent praying the week before that she would feel well enough to enjoy her company. After she returned home from Lexington that Monday evening, her health declined rapidly and that Tuesday she had the very worst day of her life. I know this because two weeks later she said to me "Please don't think I'm crazy, but I want to ask you something." I, of course told her she could ask me anything, and she said "Have you ever really felt God's presence?" I told her that I had many times (often in her presence), and she told me that on that Tuesday night she laid in bed thinking that she was passing on because she felt so awful. But, when she closed her eyes she saw God's hands and felt him touching her, and then she felt the most amazing peacefulness, and she was able to sleep the night through. Rachel, even before this experience, believed whole-heartedly in God's power to heal and comfort.
She lost so much of what she loved during her illness, though she rarely complained. She told her mommy once that she'd lost everything: she'd lost her hair, her boyfriend, her school, her job, her dog and her fish had just died. Despite these losses and so much hurt, she trusted and believed that God was taking care of her on every level. Rachel told me a couple of weeks ago that God had sent so many special people into her life, sometimes for just brief periods of time, but always at just the right times. Some of these heaven sent friends were her dear friend Jason whose funeral she attended when she barely had the strength to walk, her neighbor Vanessa, her best Everquest friend Big Lou, Marlena and her BMT buddy Derek who is still fighting to survive.
Clearly, the biggest blessing in Rachel's life was her parents. She loved her mommy and daddy dearly and appreciated them more than they will probably ever know. Her little daddy was out all hours of the day and night both here and in Lexington trying to find anything and everything that could possibly comfort and nourish her. All she had to say was "daddy" and he jumped, eager to grant her every wish. While her daddy was her provider, her mommy was her solace. Marilyn rarely left her daughter's side- she will probably never fully realize it, though Rachel affirmed over and over again that her mommy was her inspiration, her best friend, and the strongest person she had ever known. Rachel and I tried to find a way to publicly recognize Marilyn, like e-mailing Oprah or entering her in some kind of Mother of the Year contest to win a makeover or something grand, but we never found anything suitable because Marilyn didn't want the recognition. Rachel knew her mommy didn't care about her own happiness and wanted no attention drawn to herself. So, I want to take this time in front of those who love Rachel and her parents to publicly recognize the sacrifices Marilyn has made and the true devotion and love she has shown for her baby girl. You helped mold her into the strong, genuine, and loving woman she was, and she loved you more than anything in the world. Someone once said, "Nothing is so strong as gentleness; nothing is so gentle as real strength," and both you and your baby embody that gentle strength. Your tough little lamb was and always will be my sister at heart, my hero, my inspiration, and my angel.