The original text is by Allie. The words in italics were added by Missy
I met Rachel our first week as college freshmen at Pensacola Christian College, in 1996. Not quite 18, we were both far from home and needed someone to talk to. At that point, we became acquaintances, and she was simply someone I recognized as I moved among the thousands of students, someone I always associated with our shared birthday, a special connection that somehow set her apart in my mind even though we spent little meaningful time together that year.
In the summer of 1997, I met Missy, beginning a friendship that will always be inextricably linked with Rachel’s. Missy and I requested to be roommates for the school year beginning Fall of 1997 and then again in 1998. I remember getting our room assignment that year and rushing over to see who our new roommates would be. Stacked to one side were boxes with the name Rachel Birtwell. I was so excited that I already knew who she was. Along with Brandy (who we all knew as Caprice back then), that year was the highlight of my roommate experience.
I remember Allie's excitement the day we read Rachel's name on those boxes. Somehow, in that brief getting-acquainted time a year earlier, Rachel had made a really wonderful impression on Allie. When I asked her what Rachel was like, she said, "I don't really know her; I just feel like I do. I only met her once, and since then we've said hi, but I know you're going to like her! I've been wanting to know her better for a long time. She's going to be a great roommate!"
It turns out, Allie was more than right.
What a blessing it was to have such good friends to come “home” to at the end of the day. As roommates, we did more than just talk about classes and boys (although we did that, too), but we prayed together. More than the mandatory nightly “Prayer Group,” we would wait for “lights out” every evening and take turns praying aloud. Sometimes, in twos or three, we would go to the “Prayer Room” on our floor to open our Bibles and really talk to God.
Praying together after lights out was the highlight of my year also. It was after dark one night during an impassioned discussion from our bunkbeds when the four of us determined that we would always be "Sister Vessels," a term we made up to define our longing to be used wholly by our Lord and to love each other through anything life brought, always strengthening each other and pointing each other back to glorifying our Lord.
I don’t remember when Rachel’s academic struggles began to intensify. She never focused on her limitations. Years later, she would remind me of how difficult some things were for her, even then, but all I ever saw was her strength. All I ever knew was that we understood each other, that our faith was stronger together. “My strength is made perfect in weakness.” (from 2 Cor 12:9)
As a nursing major having my eyes constantly opened to new and wonderful bodily functions and symptoms, I did notice Rachel's physical struggles, but as Allie said, not because Rachel spoke about them or made them prominent. I watched Rachel prepare her hair in the mornings or sit at the desk in the evenings and attempt to focus on her homework. One day I asked her about her symptoms, and without asking for pity, she calmly described a typical day to me. She talked about her frustration in the classroom. She talked about her inability to keep up with her friends. She talked about her embarrassment when she fell in front of others, especially boys. That's the kind of easy, no-pretenses type of relationship we all shared in that college dorm room. Rachel knew that, with us, she did not have to cover up or act like she was able to do everything. We all loved each other the way we were.
What impressed me the most was the way she did not make excuses or ask for a pass on life. She proudly told me how hard she had worked to get to where she was. She ALWAYS gave glory to God and credit to her parents for her present condition and abilities. She was so thankful to have made it to college, and she was determined to finish. Rachel was a very driven person, but in chatting with her, you would never know it. She always made time to stop and talk. She always made time to hug a friend that she happened to be passing. She always asked passing friends about intimate details of their lives about which she was praying. She looked beyond herself and blessed everyone nearby.
After most of our classmates graduated in May of 2000, Rachel and I had one more semester to go, and again, we spent it as roommates. In July of 2001, she flew to California to be a bridesmaid in my wedding.
For the next few years, our contact was sporadic. She was always good about sending cards, but we both had a lot going on with our adult lives. She became involved in several different ministries over the years, but none of them seemed a good permanent fit. I suppose her light was too special to be hidden away in one place. Never was this more apparent than in 2004 when Rachel joined Live Journal. In the days before everyone was on Facebook and people everywhere could tweet from their phones, Rachel took to blogging like a bird taking flight.
Rachel shared with me one time that blogging for her was freedom from her limitations. Somehow, typing used a different part of her brain, an unhindered part, and her thoughts and fingers flowed effortlessly together in a way that rarely occurred for her in any other activity. When that effortless activity finally became fettered too, she struggled internally with that limitation, and that is the first time that I recall seeing her truly down.
Rachel was also an artist. She had an aesthetic sense that I could never comprehend. I could see a pretty picture, but she had an intuition of how to crop it, add text, and lay it out on a page. She was almost always crafting, typically painting or crochet.
Rachel was the best sounding board. She always made me want to do better while still reminding me not to be too hard on myself when I didn’t succeed.
Yes! Rachel had a rare combination of compassion, drive and practicality, and as my Sister Vessel, she hugged me, pushed me, and brainstormed with me through various life situations. Oh, how I needed that!
Happy Birthday, Rachel. Your pain and limitations are gone. You always wanted to live to the fullest, and now you have life that will never end. I hope I never forget everything the Lord used you to teach me. I hope I always remember to glorify Him in all things as you did.
You made it, Rachel! You finished your race well, and your broken vessel is filled with God's brilliant glory spilling out through all the cracks and overflowing from the top, just like we dreamed.
Thank you for being my friend.