On Nov. 2, Michelle Brooking Rees, 40, of Winchester, Va., unexpectedly took a quick step from this life to the next. She leaves behind a husband, nine children and a loving army of extended family and friends.
More importantly, Rees leaves behind a legacy that her loved ones sum up in a single word: Overcome.
Those who knew Rees and her family would agree the word defines her earthly life perfectly. Rees’ missions in life were to overcome adversity, break some of the most destructive cycles imaginable and to prevent others from suffering the way she had.
I first met the Rees family nearly seven years ago. Michelle was loud, kind, funny and wired with a gregarious personality. She wasn’t perfect and would be the first to admit she was, in many ways, still an unpolished gem. But she also believed that within her hid a pearl of great price, a divinity that the world could never devalue — no matter how hard it might try.
Her husband, Mike, had been working in the Middle East as a private contractor for two years and was scheduled to return home, for good, on Dec. 6. But a complex series of events involving corporate politics, contracts, money and family councils created a tender mercy none could have predicted.
They had no idea why he was leaving his assignment early or returning to the U.S. without a job. They simply trusted that they didn’t have to understand all the reasons, because God did.
So, instead of returning as scheduled in December, Mike Rees landed in Virginia on the afternoon of Oct. 30. Just two nights later, Mike discovered his wife had passed away in her sleep. Despite an attempt to revive her, he knew she was gone.
However, it was not the first time he thought he'd lost her.
Years ago, after a surgical procedure, Michelle Rees developed an addiction to painkillers. The black hole was filled with paralyzing depression, impaired judgment, suicidal tendencies and even a suicide attempt. As she came to accept and understand her addiction, she opened up about her childhood and found the roots of her pain ran deeper and had more rings on them than she’d ever realized.
As a child, Rees experienced things no little girl should ever live through. She was both witness and victim to abuses not suitable for publication for a family audience. She was tormented by memories that would haunt the bravest of men and women.
Many could not have survived. Many would not want to.
But Michelle Rees overcame.
In the final years of her short life, Rees spoke of her ancestors cheering her on from the other side. She hadn’t been the first in her sprawling family tree to suffer abuse, but she was determined to be the last. Rees’ husband notes that in just the last year, after a great deal of hard work, she’d completely forgiven her deceased father and all others who knowingly or unknowingly were involved in her troubled youth.
“She came to this earth to break the cycle,” Mike Rees said. “She talked about this specific mission all the time. She was a great mother. Never a moment of the things she experienced herself as a child.” Rees added that when it was time to sign up for this life, to align our earthly families, his wife must have raised her hand and said, "I can overcome that. Send me.”
With a broad, proud smile on his face, Rees reports that the last year of his wife's life might have been her best. She was happy, always working at being an amazing wife and mother, settling in with their newest addition, an adopted baby girl named, quite appropriately, Faith. In between everything else, Rees was a homeschooling mom to a houseful of energetic students with never-ending curiosity.
Also in her final months, Rees was active and faithful in her church, having gone through the temple with one of her daughters as she prepared to serve a full-time mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints last summer. She was keeping her promises and sharing her testimony at every opportunity.
I asked the family how they’d summarize the complicated but beautiful life of their mother. One daughter said with a laugh, “World’s worst housekeeper, but best mom ever.” Her husband, after he’d quit laughing, said his wife’s life was about second chances, both those she needed and those she granted.
With the funeral, meals, cards and flowers fading behind them, the family is readjusting to their new family dynamic. There is home schooling to be done, a job to be found and a new history to write. In the memory of their mother, there’s no doubt they’ll do exactly what Michelle Brooking Rees would do.
They will overcome.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Michelle Brooking Rees Memorial Fund, account No. 6559707048, Wells Fargo Bank, 201 North Loudoun St., Winchester, VA 22601.
Jason Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars" and his latest, "The 96th Annual Apple Valley Barn Dance." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, applevalleybarndance.com or jasonfwright.com