In 1976, when I was 12 and she was 10, I met my cousin Beverly. She, her brother Trey, her mother Mary, and her grandfather Bob pulled into our driveway in a huge station wagon which, in our Sterling Park currency, meant they were rich. That meant there was no hope that we’d ever be friends. In fact, we very nearly came to blows within 15 minutes of their arrival.
Yet over the week or so that they visited, friendships developed, friendships that were later steeled in tragedy and bathed in laughter. Always laughter.
In that first week I saw a glimpse of one of Bev’s passions, maybe even before she knew it would be a passion. Our mothers let us sleep in the backyard one night under a sky streaked by a meteor shower. I don’t think any of us had seen a meteor before but that night we counted dozens, maybe even a hundred. Between shouts of shooting star sightings, we compared life in Atlanta versus life in the DC suburbs. We discussed our plans for our futures (we were completely wrong in our predictions). We became cousins and we became friends.
I remember thinking that night, “She’s really excited about these stars!” We all were, of course, but Bev marveled. After each meteor was gone, she continued to stare at the spot where it disappeared, seeming to will its return.
What I was witnessing was perhaps the birth of Bev’s lifelong love of nature and its majesty, its unpredictability, its reflection of God. That passion never waned. Rather, she threw herself into it, taking on mountain climbing, rock climbing, hiking, kayaking, hang gliding – anything that would take her a little closer to nature and a little farther from the mundane.
That’s how, a few years ago, we ended up traveling Iceland together. That’s Bev in the picture, awed by the power and beauty of a huge waterfall. One of the best nights of my life happened on that trip when we accidentally found ourselves shivering on hay bales, watching the Northern lights dance for hours.
With Bev, I only had to say, “Hey, do you want to…” and the immediate response was always, “Let’s go!”
That’s also how we ended up in Montana and Banff together. Remember the cousin who ate the brownie that the mouse had gnawed? Yep, Bev! We stomped through blizzards, camped in abandoned campgrounds, and saw more of God’s remarkable creation.
About 10 years ago, Bev was diagnosed with breast cancer that we later learned was metastatic. The diagnosis set her on her heels very briefly (like a couple of days, from my perspective) and then she gathered her weapons and entered the fight of her life. A hell of a fight it was – she beat every prognosis, every prediction.
During that time, I had a front-row seat to watch the amazing evolution of a remarkable woman. Trust me on this: cancer was never going to define Beverly Stripling. She had much higher goals.
About 6 months before her diagnosis Bev had a very real, very intense encounter with God. That encounter birthed a faith that buoyed her through the fight. She called me and told me the story but when she said it involved a televangelist and a stolen Gideon’s Bible, I had huge doubts. So huge, in fact, that I flew to Tucson to see for myself what was going on.
It was legit. In fact, Bev quickly grew to be the strongest, most grounded Christian I’ve ever known. (If you know anything about my background, you know I’ve known a lot of Christians.) She didn’t depend on a church to teach her about God. She read her Bible, asked a lot of great questions, and saw God everywhere. Literally everywhere.
Going anywhere with Bev meant stopping to pet a stray dog or maybe chatting with a homeless man. Sometimes it involved close up studies of wildflowers and other times it required pulling rocks out of a mountain stream to see the gold veins in them. Every one of those experiences occurred when I was with Bev, and a thousand more.
In fact, that mountain stream provided the setting for my last in-person chat with Bev, but I only played a bit part in the conversation.
In September 2021, I went camping with Bev and Trey in the Smokies. (Quick interruption here: they camp like the badasses they are while I camp like a prissy diva.) One morning Trey went off to photograph elk so Bev and I threw together a lunch of brie and homemade bread and set off to wander the Smokies.
We came across a beautiful stream so we kicked off our shoes and broke into the brie. After a while, I realized Bev had gotten really quiet. I looked over at her and just stared. Though she had lost all her hair and it was pretty chilly out, she had thrown off her hat and sat with her head tipped back. Her eyes were closed and she grinned ear to ear.
I said, “Bev, you ok?”
She paused and, still grinning and eyes still closed, whispered, “How incredible is it that God created all of this just so you and I could be here right now, having this moment together?” A couple of seconds later, she released one of her trademark shouts of “Woo hoo!”
That is the heart of someone who was filled with wonder. That is someone who knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God loved her with all of His heart and wanted nothing from her but the adoration she so freely gave. That is someone who saw God in every little thing and actively looked for Him in people and in nature.
Bev died about an hour ago. I know I should be celebrating because she’s free and she’s experiencing beauty and wonder she couldn’t have imagined an hour ago. But right now, I’m broken.
Bev, thank you for our midnight chats, for always saying, “Hola, mi cousin” when you answered the phone, for sharing your parents and brother with me, for loving me unconditionally when I was at my worst, and for teaching me the beauty and peace in a wonder-filled heart. I didn’t say it enough but I love you and I am immensely grateful to have had you in my life.
EPILOGUE: I wrote this on November 26, the night Bev died. In the week that has passed, I’ve been in Tucson with her mom, brother, aunt, and uncle. Making arrangements and dealing with all that comes after a death is always hard but doing so hundreds or thousands of miles from home is so much harder. Bev’s remarkable group of friends rallied around us in innumerable ways, from providing meals to answering endless questions to crying with us. Now I understand why I could never convince her to move back east.