A love note is still visible on Evelyn Husband's makeup mirror in her bathroom. The words were written with a bar of soap by her husband, astronaut Rick Husband, shortly before his departure as commander of the space shuttle Columbia on January 16, 2003. It reads, "I love you Evey, love Rick." It was only meant to appear there temporarily.
"Of course I can't wash that off," Evelyn says.
It's been nearly a year since Evelyn stood with the other families of the space shuttle Columbia's crew at the landing site in Cape Canaveral, Florida, waiting for her husband to return home. The shuttle was just minutes from landing when NASA's Mission Control lost contact with the Columbia crew. The next few moments were a blur of events: video images of Columbia breaking apart over the Texas skyline, NASA officials scrambling to move the family members away from view of television cameras. Evelyn remembers looking at the faces of her son, Matthew, and daughter, Laura, then 7 and 12. Matthew turned to his mother.
"He said, 'I guess I'm not going to be in Indian Guides with Dad at the YMCA anymore.' It was the first thing that hit him," Evelyn says.
Laura also was trying to process this new gap in her life. "Who's going to walk me down the aisle one day, Mamma?" she asked, teary-eyed. "Who's going to help me with my math homework?"
"They were instantly aware we were a different unit," Evelyn, 45, says of her children.
So began the Husbands' painful journey of loss. In the months following the accident, Evelyn, a committed Christian, spoke openly about how the faith she found as a 13-year-old girl had sustained her. Two days after the accident, she appeared on the Today show and shared how she was trusting in God to give her strength through this difficult time. As Evelyn recited the words of Proverbs 3:5-6, the show's producers flashed the verses on the screen.
That was the beginning of Evelyn's efforts to deliver a powerful message: Even in the midst of intense suffering, God is faithful. In recent months, she's told her story to tens of thousands of women across the country at Women of Faith conferences.
"Most of you aren't going to lose the person you love most on national television," she told an audience of women in California last summer. "But every person will face big tragedies and little everyday crises. Your only consistency is Jesus Christ."
Where did this incredible strength in the face of pain and loss come from? For Evelyn, it was partly from experiencing God's comfort in the past.
"Deep inside, I knew God was going to walk me through this somehow," she says. "I knew it because he'd walked with me through other crises earlier in my life."
One of those crises began shortly after Texas Tech University sweethearts Rick and Evelyn were married in 1982. They'd been trying to start a family without success. During the couple's first five years of marriage, Evelyn miscarried twice and began infertility treatments.
"After the second miscarriage, I went through depression," Evelyn says. "I prayed, 'God, take away my desire to be a mom if it isn't your will, because this is just so painful.' I had to let go and trust God with my future."
That experience helped Evelyn deal with the loss of her husband. "The past year I've had to take hold of God's hand and step out in faith into absolute blackness," she says. "I've gone way beyond the polite stages with God. I've yelled and cried out to him with a deeper, gut-wrenching cry than ever before. But he's proven to me he's there, holding my hand as I take each step forward. That's why when you walk through a crisis, it's so important to have a foundation of faith already established. Because you have to know whose hand you're holding in order to step into the darkness of an uncertain future."
Not that it's always easy to take those steps. Last August, an independent investigation committee released its report on the cause of the Columbia explosion. The findings sent Evelyn reeling. While the committee concluded the shuttle ultimately broke apart because of a wing that was punctured during liftoff, it said NASA's careless, risk-taking culture was as much to blame for the accident as the damaged wing itself.
"If a meteor had hit them, or if something else catastrophic had happened, it would have been easier to deal with than an oversight," Evelyn says. "But there's a way NASA handles their management that needs to be changed. As a Christian, I have to figure out what to do with these realities. I'm on my face daily asking God to show me."
The report determined the astronauts probably lived for 30 seconds after the shuttle broke up and then died of blunt force and thermal injuries in association with exposure to extreme altitude.
"I thought I knew what would be in the report, but I didn't realize all the details it would include," Evelyn says. "I do better when I see things coming."
The moments when she's been overwhelmed with unexpected grief have been hardest to bear. "I remember one day shortly after the accident when we'd run out of milk," Evelyn says. "I walked in the grocery store and saw a magazine with a picture of Rick on the front and a headline that read, 'The last seven horrifying minutes for the space shuttle crew.' I saw Matthew looking at it. By the time we checked out, I was a hysterical, sobbing mess.
"Going to the grocery store is still one of the hardest things for me to do," Evelyn adds. "Rick used to buy this weird non-fat peanut butter that he loved to put in smoothies. And he loved to eat almonds. I go down the aisle now and think, I don't need to get those things. It's so painful."
The same pain that makes mundane tasks such as grocery shopping so draining has become the catalyst for Evelyn to reach others who suffer or who are struggling with their faith.
Women of Faith President Mary Graham says conference attendees love listening to Evelyn because she's honest about her imperfections and has a wonderful sense of humor. She's also the image of a survivor to women facing uncertain times.
"Evelyn didn't make it through this by turning out the lights and crawling under her bed, but by taking one tiny baby step of faith at a time," Mary says. "When women hear her stand up and say, 'I can make it through this crisis because what I believed about God in my head now has proven true in my heart,' then they think, I can trust him with my everyday dramas, too."
Evelyn recounts her story of loss in High Calling: The Courageous Life and Faith of Shuttle Columbia Commander Rick Husband (Thomas Nelson), which releases in January. In it she describes Rick's faith and how God was at work in the moments leading up to the tragedy, providing precious memories for her and the kids to share with Rick before his mission.
Before he went into quarantine to prepare for the mission, Rick videotaped devotionals for the kids to watch every day during his trip. "Now they have on tape an hour-and-a-half of their dad talking to them about God," Evelyn says.
Rick also left Evelyn a journal he started for her in the weeks leading to up to his mission. She keeps it by her nightstand.
"He wrote in it every single day until he left," she says. "It was very unlike him, but God was at work in his heart. Rick ended up giving me an account of the last days we had together."
On February 1, the one-year anniversary of the tragedy, Evelyn and her kids will travel to Washington, D.C., to dedicate a memorial to the Columbia astronauts in Arlington Cemetery. Standing next to the site is another memorial already established for the Challenger crew who perished in 1986.
"Three years ago, I went with Laura's fifth-grade class on a field trip to D.C., and Laura and I visited the Challenger memorial," Evelyn says. "I remember standing there with my arm around Laura begging God, Never let it be us.
"In light of what happened, you'd think I'd be disillusioned with God. But strangely, it hasn't been that way at all," she says. "I've learned Jesus was a man of sorrows who's well acquainted with my grief. He knows how deeply I'm mourning. And he's been with me every moment. He's also given me a real chance to honor him through this situation. That's what I'm trying to do."
Corrie Cutrer, former TCW assistant editor and now a regular contributor, lives with her husband in Illinois.
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