The evening thunderstorm took a brief reprieve, yet stubbornly remained in the Florida air as a stodgy haze. Some girlfriends and I had sent our husbands on a surprise RV camping trip for Father’s Day weekend. It was the first Saturday night in months that I had been by myself.
I stood in my four-year-old daughter’s room, lit only by a Frozen nightlight and a twinge of moonlight seeping through her blinds. As she slept peacefully, I noted her rosy cheeks and sandy blonde locks. She looked beautiful and innocent. However, I felt shaky and heavy-hearted, all too aware of how vulnerable it is to be deeply attached.
As the heaviness of the air seemed to indicate, it was just hours away from the one week anniversary of the June 12 mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. My dear city, the place I’ve called home for the last 13 years, was hit by the largest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Forty-nine lives, taken by hate and evil: a child’s beloved daddy, another’s cherished boyfriend, a grieving mother’s daughter.
In the days since the horror, we had started to learn the victims’ stories, to see their faces, and to shed tears of agony, shock, and anger on their behalf-and for those left to mourn them.
I felt a deep ache in my chest as I tuned back into my daughter Hannah’s breathing, trying to imagine what it would be like if I ever lost her.
The Pulse shooting occurred just 10 days after I returned from Recovery Week with the Allender Center, where I had been immersed in some very dark chapters of my own story. I recalled the faces of the courageous women that I journeyed alongside with both tears and laughter. I thought gratefully of Dan and the Allender Center facilitators warring for innocence, goodness and play to be restored in the lives of our small group of women. My heart then moved to my wise and kind counselor, Jan, whose words over the last year have felt like beams of light gouging through dark, heavy clouds of shame.
I reflected on how the tragic stories that emerged from the Pulse shooting had pierced our hearts and so did the stories of beauty and redemption. First responders, medical personnel, friends, neighbors, businesses and churches all felt desperate to push back evil in some way.
As I stood over my daughter, I thought of the surgeons at Orlando Regional Medical Center who worked tirelessly for days. I recalled the Illinois man who drove 1200 miles to deliver 49 crosses for a memorial downtown; the Jet Blue passengers who wrote pages and pages of condolences and gave heartfelt hugs to the grandmother of one of the victims, traveling on their flight to Orlando; of the members of the Orlando theater community, dressed as angels, singing “Amazing Grace” to counter a protest by a hate group at a victim’s memorial service and the 50,000 who honored the victims at a candlelight vigil as a rainbow spanning the Orlando sky welcomed them.
With my heart so full of contrasting emotions, grief, and gratitude, I knew that a few episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond with a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream could have been a kind gesture to myself. But, I decided, crazy as it may sound, to watch Les Miserables: some movies and literature allow our hearts a place of expression when words seem so insufficient, and my heart was hungry. I needed to weep, to see a glimmer of beauty in midst of such widespread suffering, and to claim Victor Hugo’s words that, “Even the sun will rise in the darkest night.”
One scene in particular from the 2012 version starring Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway gripped my heart. I was enraptured by Fantine’s bravery, her unyielding love for her daughter Cosette, and her brutal honesty in wrestling with God as she grieved, “I had a dream that life would be so different than the hell I’m living.”
This was a woman whose dreams of love and kindness had been shattered. She had endured severe degradation, even the loss of her hair, her teeth and the claim to her own body to support her one love in life, her daughter.
There is a moment in the movie, as she lies on her deathbed, where you can see in her eyes that Fantine dares to believe that rescue is imminent. Jean Valjean, once a tortured prisoner and now a philanthropic mayor, extends irresistible grace. As he holds dying Fantine, he vows that he will care for her darling Cosette in her absence.
As I sat in the dark, watching this tender moment, I hear Jesus whispering to me. “Be brave. Don’t stop fighting. There is something more.”
As I thought of the suffering of those in my beloved city, and the faces of the women on my Recovery week, I considered the courage it takes to love with abandon in a life where there are no guarantees. Evil wants us to numb our hearts in fear, to isolate and withhold our deepest affections. As I pictured my Hannah, I remembered that there is one who holds her tenderly and He is far greater and more powerful than me. I recalled the words of Fantine, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” I was reminded that there is a great rescue coming where there will be no more mourning, where our hearts will be free to love wildly without fear and the plans of evil and hate will be forever destroyed.
Rachel Blackston loves all things beautiful…rich conversations over a hot cup of lemon ginger tea, watching her two little girls twirl around in tutus, and Florida sunrises on her morning walks. She resides in Orlando with her lanky, marathon running husband and her precious daughters, priceless gifts after several years of infertility. Rachel and her husband Michael cofounded Redeemer Counseling. As a therapist, Rachel considers it an honor to walk with women in their stories of harm, beauty and redemption.