Just over two years ago, Rachel Barkley started a new life. It would look nothing like the life she had planned in the months leading up to the birth of her son.
A Blessed Life
As the granddaughter of Lithuanian immigrants, Rachel heard stories throughout her youth of overcoming extreme hardships to not just survive but thrive in America. “I remember thinking, wow, my grandma had it so hard, and I have it so easy,” Rachel shared.
Rachel’s 20s were filled with achievement and adventure. She found a job in public policy doing what she loved right out of college. She traveled all over the country. She competed in marathons and races, played volleyball, backpacked, went scuba diving, and literally climbed mountains. In her mid 20s, she met her now husband, Taylor. They were both passionate about sharing the love of Jesus with others, and together, they hosted “deep thoughts” discussions to engage with people from all walks of life. They married and spent the first couple of years together traveling the world. They bought a rowhouse in D.C.
When it felt like the right time to start their family, Rachel got pregnant. During her pregnancy, Rachel’s job working for a congressperson ended after the midterm elections, so at 16 weeks pregnant, she decided to start her own business. She hit the ground running, worked hard to build the life she wanted, and began to make plans for her new life with a baby. Everything was right on track.
“My whole life I’ve felt very blessed by God,” Rachel said.
Rachel’s son was born on May 21, 2019. Some women experience the birth of their first child as a momentous transformation: before, I was a woman. Now, I am a mom. This was certainly true for Rachel, as well. But after Hudson’s birth, something about her recovery just didn’t seem normal.
After some investigation, doctors discovered a three-inch tumor inside her spinal cord. Three weeks after Hudson was born, Rachel awoke from a risky surgery as a parapalegic. During her month-long stay at Johns Hopkins, she also developed a pulmonary embolism that nearly killed her. From there, Rachel was transferred to the Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia for three months.
And Rachel’s new life—as a mom and quadripalegic—began.
Dark Night of the Soul
There were no promises given about how much, or if, Rachel would recover. The weeks and months following her surgery were hard, exhausting, and depressing. Rachel wondered constantly, “Is this my new normal? Am I going to experience more healing, or is this the body I’m going to be stuck with for the rest of my life?”
During most of the first year following her surgery, Rachel was largely wheelchair bound. Many of her normal bodily functions were not working. She had to rely heavily on her mom and her husband for simple day-to-day tasks. “Even sitting up in bed took a herculean effort,” Rachel said.
As a charismatic Christian, Rachel has always believed in God’s miraculous power to heal, just like he did in biblical times. But as the months after her hospital stay trudged onward into winter following her operation, healing—at least not the miraculous healing she expected—didn’t come. While all of Rachel’s energy was focused on simply surviving day by day, she’d occasionally think to herself, “How can God see me and not give me a ‘pick up your mat and walk’ moment?” It threw into question the very essence of belief. “But the alternate reality that there is no God is even more bleak. It’s confusing and hard to understand why God chooses not to perform miracles, but it’s even worse to think that this is all nothingness and meaningless.”
“Those first eight months were pure survival,” Rachel said. “And then COVID hit.”
The Pain of Our Present Suffering
In the midst of her own personal suffering, all of humanity began to share in global suffering. Rachel and Taylor spent a lot of time talking about suffering during that season.
“This isn’t the most popular perspective, but the reality is the world around us is not heaven,” Rachel shared. “The norm is suffering.” While the Bible is filled with stories and letters addressing the subject of suffering, nothing she had been taught in church had really prepared Rachel for this state of existence, which is largely full of really hard circumstances.
“We should expect suffering in real life,” said Rachel. “You aren’t special if you’ve suffered. It’s unique if you haven’t. Truly our only hope is heaven. We have this feeling that things aren’t right because they aren’t right. For the first time in my life, I had this sensation that this is what aching for heaven feels like.”
Miracles a Millimeter a Month
In the months after Rachel’s life changing surgery, improvements came slowly. Some of her bodily functions returned. She began to be able to do daily tasks with less exhaustion. She required less help. She was able to walk with crutches sometimes. She could stand while cooking a little bit.
Now, it’s been two years. When Rachel looks back over those months, the change is dramatic.
“I wanted that ‘Pick up your mat and walk’ moment, and today, I walked a mile on the treadmill at my gym,” Rachel shared. “I’m walking with a cane. I easily stand up and cook dinner without being exhausted and full of pain,” Rachel said. “It feels like a very long two years, but two years is not that long. From me on June 19, 2019, to me today, it’s a radical change. That is miraculous.”
Over the last two years, God has revealed a truth to Rachel. “Miracles don’t have to happen instantly. They can happen a millimeter a month.”
The Kingdom of Heaven Is Right Now and Not Yet
Of course, the millimeter a month is hard in and of itself too.
Rachel attends a gym every week and works with a trainer to keep on her path of emotional and physical recovery. Her trainer sees potential in her that she can’t yet see. “That gives me the emotional strength to take on other challenges outside of physical to mental health,” said Rachel.
On gym day this week, Rachel worked out and then picked up Chick-fil-A afterward. Her son and husband met her for dinner at a park nearby. As they ate and walked around the park, Rachel was filled with a tremendous sense of gratitude for how much she has recovered and for all that she gets to do: move about the park without the help of her wheelchair, return part-time to the business she started prior to Hudson’s birth, enjoy her family, and more.
“Look at me doing this! I thought to myself,” Rachel shared. “And also, I saw all of the other moms running beside their two-year-olds, and I long for more — I want to be them,” Rachel confessed. “Both things are true — I’m grateful for where I’m at and I’m longing for more.” And isn’t that the way of the kingdom of heaven, promised by Jesus? It is here, and it is also not yet.
Hope Does Not Disappoint Us
Two years removed from that fateful surgery, Rachel sees her life as “steeped in gratitude.” Because of all that she has endured, “Mortality is more real to me,” she shared. “My moments of frustration with parenting a toddler are so much more short-lived because I’m so glad to be here with him. It feels like this immense privilege to be married and be a parent — no one gets to know and love my husband and son like I do. It’s the most beautiful thing ever.”
“We took our first family of three vacation last weekend to the beach and I made sure to pick a very accessible hotel to make things easier,” said Rachel. “It was the first time that things just felt normal for like two days, and it made me realize that the wheelchair is not terrible. It’s only bad when the wheelchair is in places it can’t go. Through this season, I have lost many of my preconceptions about disability.”
On this side of suffering, some of the Christian culture truisms, like “all things work together for good,” have been purified by the refiner’s fire to reveal their more complex essence. “I’m so much more willing to accept that there’s a lot of grayness and mystery. I was a lot more black and white before all of this,” Rachel shared. In response to those truisms now, Rachel would like to say instead, “Can I have an hour long conversation with you about the goodness of God?”
Before all of this happened, Rachel felt like her life was blessed by God. It’s still blessed by God. Whether life is easy or life is hard does not change the nature of God’s nearness and love.
“God is at work, God is speaking, God is healing – I’ve always believed that,” Rachel said. “After this event in my life, I believe that even more, but my perception of what miracles look like has shifted. This is so much bigger than I could have ever imagined.”
You can follow Rachel Barkley’s journey on Instagram and tune in to the Barkleys podcast, hosted by Rachel and Taylor, where they discuss the intersection of politics, culture, Christianity, and media.