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How Love Endures After They’re Gone

A Space Shuttle Columbia widow remembers her first year without the love of her life.

Rick and Evelyn Husband

It’s been a year—a year I could never have imagined happening, let alone getting through. A year since I lost the love of my life, the man I expected to be with forever, the man whose face I still long to see when I wake up in the morning. My husband, Rick, was the commander of the space shuttle Columbia.

On February 1, 2003, he was supposed to come home to our two children and me but instead went to his eternal home in heaven when the shuttle broke apart in midair over east Texas.

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For some couples, it’s love at first sight. For Rick and me, it was love at first date. I had admired Rick from afar since high school in Amarillo, Texas. He was a year older, popular and good-looking. I’d see him singing in choir and starring in school plays, and I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

The funny thing is, when we met in college at Texas Tech, Rick was the one staring at me. I was walking to my seat at a basketball game my freshman year and noticed a cute guy with sky-blue eyes watching me. Of course I recognized him. I waved and said hi. Rick was so startled that he didn’t say a word…until the next day, when he called and asked me out. (He’d remembered my name and gotten my phone number from the Tech operator.)

Our first date was that Friday, January 28, 1977. Rick stood in my dorm lobby, so tall and handsome. He smiled and I knew it: This guy was special. The evening proved it. There was none of the usual first-date awkwardness—not even when he knocked over his water at dinner and I had to scoot out of the way to avoid getting soaked. We just burst out laughing. I don’t remember a thing about the movie we went to except for how right it felt to have his arm around me. Neither of us wanted the night to end. We parked by a lake and looked out at the big Texas sky and talked.

That’s when Rick told me about his dream: He wanted to be an astronaut. He’d written to NASA for a list of the requirements: a master’s degree in science, math, or Rick’s choice, engineering. A daunting number of hours as a fighter pilot—better yet, a test pilot—which was why he was going into the Air Force after graduation. Wow. I was beyond impressed. A man with this kind of passion and commitment was the one I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.

We dated all through college. I loved everything about Rick: his kindness and warmth, his intelligence and integrity and his closeness to his family. I even loved his quirks, like his offbeat sense of humor. His favorite movie was Young Frankenstein. The first time I saw it, I could say the lines right along with the actors because I’d heard Rick quote them to me so often. I admired his frugality—Rick would sew up the holes in his socks rather than buy new ones, keep cars until they fell apart (we still have the 1975 Camaro he drove on our first date) and fill up every square millimeter of a note card. I didn’t just love Rick, I totally idealized him.

We were married on February 27, 1982, at my church in Amarillo, the same church where my parents and maternal grandparents had their weddings.

I loved being married to Rick. That’s not to say we didn’t have our rough patches. Rick applied three times to NASA’s astronaut program and was rejected. He worked intensely toward his goal, putting in brutal hours in test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base, then poring over engineering textbooks nights and weekends so he could earn his master’s. It meant that we had to spend a lot of time apart. But his dream was my dream, and our time apart ultimately strengthened us for challenges to come.

Right after Rick graduated from test pilot school, I miscarried. Six months later, I miscarried again. Each time Rick held me while I wept. “We can’t lose our hope, Evey,” he said. “God has a plan for us.” Our hopes turned into joy in October 1990, when our daughter, Laura, was born. Neither of us could get enough of our sweet girl. Of course, as most couples find, first-time parenthood is equal parts wonder and exhaustion. Often my only respite was reading my Bible while Laura napped. I’d come away energized by God’s Word.

I talked to Rick about my growing faith, but he didn’t seem to understand. One summer evening in 1991, I found out what was holding him back. Rick told me about some things he had kept bottled up inside for years—mistakes he’d made, doubts and struggles he’d never mentioned for fear of letting people down. We talked all night. Why hadn’t Rick shared all of himself with me until now, I wondered. For the first time, I realized he wasn’t the flawless being I’d built him up to be.

It was a spiritual wake-up call, as if God were saying: No one is perfect. Sometimes you will face pressures you can’t handle on your own. That’s why you need me.

Ever since we met, I’d put Rick on a pedestal, denied him his human imperfections—a burden he should never have had to bear. Lord, as much as I love Rick, now more than ever, I know you are the only one who can bear that kind of burden, I prayed. Help me learn to put you first in my life.

Rick was chosen for the U.S. Air Force/British Royal Air Force test pilot exchange program in 1992. That June we moved to the English countryside. Our time abroad gave us an opportunity to focus on building a stronger relationship with God and with each other. Rick searched his heart and discovered something unexpected. “Being an astronaut is not as important as I thought it was,” he said one day. “What means the most to me is to try and live my life the way God wants me to . . . to be a good husband and a good father.”

Faith transformed us as a couple. With God at the center of our lives, everything else fell into place. Our marriage grew to a whole deeper level now that no barriers, emotional or spiritual, stood between us. Rick applied a fourth time for the space program and got the call from NASA the same week I found out I was pregnant with our second child.

In Houston, no matter how worn out Rick was after a long day of NASA training, he was 100 percent focused on family at home. Laura would climb on his lap, and he’d read to her. He would pick Matthew up and zoom him through the house like an airplane. There was no sweeter music to me than the sound of our kids laughing with their father.

Maybe that’s why I was so anxious at Rick’s first shuttle mission, as pilot of the Discovery in 1999. The memory of the Challenger explosion was also in the back of my mind. I watched Discovery lift off from Kennedy Space Center in a plume of smoke and flame. The shuttle climbed in the blue Florida skies. Tears rolled down my cheeks—tears of pride and joy for Rick and our family, and of an overwhelming peace that could come only from God. Rick’s in your hands now, Lord, I prayed. You love him even more than I do.

The Discovery mission was a success, so I was much more at ease about Rick’s next trip, as commander of the shuttle Columbia, even though the launch date got pushed back several times to January 16, 2003. We took it in stride. Rick surprised me with a twentieth wedding anniversary trip to San Francisco. Rick and I stayed at an English country-style bed-and-breakfast and went for long walks in the hills. What a wonderful reminder of those years in England that had so deepened our commitment—to the Lord and to each other.

Just before he moved into crew quarters for pre-launch quarantine last January, Rick filmed video devotionals for Matthew and Laura. He wanted to surprise each of them with a message from Dad every day that he was in space. My message I discovered on my mirror, in Rick’s familiar handwriting with a bar of soap: “I love you, Evey!”

I watched the shuttle lift off last January 16, completely at peace thinking that in a little more than two weeks Rick would be pulling me into his arms and whispering those words in my ear. Then on February 1 as the Columbia entered the earth’s atmosphere it broke apart over Texas. It was like watching my whole life break into pieces and fall from the sky.

“Who’s going to help me with math?” Laura asked. “Who’s going to walk me down the aisle?” I held her close and cried. I couldn’t answer. I couldn’t think that far ahead, couldn’t imagine life without Rick.

Never before had I been so stunned and grief-stricken. Yet there was a voice deep inside me that assured me I would be okay, the same voice that had brought me comfort during the other tough times in my life. I knew I would have the strength to go on, and where that strength would come from. At the center of our marriage had been a love that superseded even our own. It was that love that would save me now.

February 27 would have been our twenty-second wedding anniversary. In a way, this last year has seemed as long as all the years of marriage that preceded it. Grief has that way of seeming to bring time to a halt. Yet love never stands still. Love is always in motion. I have drawn on an even greater love than that which I shared with my husband. The unconditional love that comes from God, who has been there in the times I have wept and yelled, as well as the times I have rested in him and thanked him for the years he gave me with Rick, the wonderful marriage we shared and the beautiful children who keep us connected still. That love is never-ending.

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