-by Melissa Nelson
Guest Contributor 

Life is a Highway

At 15-years-old, life was a dance of homework, grades, and socializing with friends. Towards the beginning of my freshman year of high school, a girl with a smile that shined across her entire face sat next to me on the school bus and immediately struck up a conversation.  She was bubbly with animation to her bright blue eyes and an obvious feistiness in her mannerisms. That ball of sass was Tera Raynor. We were fast friends despite our differing backgrounds. She was born and raised in Tennessee with country music running through her veins, a twang in her voice, and a background in cheer and dance. In contrast, I was born and raised in a small suburb of St. Louis, kept my head down in whatever book I was reading, and had “teacher’s pet” written all over my report cards. Where Tera was bold and outgoing, I was quiet and introverted. We were stark opposites, but our friendship was an instant spark.

Changed

One day, while hanging out at her family’s townhouse, we sat at an old computer chatting about boys and flipping through songs. Our music choices ranged from country to pop, then to rock and rap. While scrolling, Tera stopped, her eyes wide and her hand hovering over the mouse. “Have you ever heard of Rascal Flats?” she asked me excitedly.

I, being raised on classic rock and pop ballads, was very unfamiliar with country music at the time. I shook my head no and she laughed at the musical rock I had been kept under. She flipped through a few songs introducing me to the smooth voice of Gary LeVox. His melodies were sweet, laced with stories of love, heartbreak, and the simplicity of life. She paused and said, “Wait until you hear this song. It’s sad, but it is so, so good!”

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As the beginning chords of “What Hurts the Most” began to play, I instantly fell in love with its striking violin, soft piano melody, and emotional lyrics of loss and regret.

Raynor Family

How They Remember You

Over the course of the school year, Tera and I grew even closer. In that short time, I grew to know her younger siblings and her parents. Their home radiated southern charm, making anyone who entered feel as if they were a part of their close-knit family. When you entered the Raynor household, you instantly felt important; loved. They were the type of people who wore their hearts like a medal for everyone to see. As a child raised in a home of alcoholism, abuse, and nightly fights, my time with her family offered me a sense of security that I craved.  Her mom, Raylean, made a special effort to make me feel like one of her own. From there, my friendship with Tera grew. We became sisters.

After freshman year, the Raynors moved back to Tennessee following her father’s change in jobs. Despite the distance, Tera and I continued to talk daily and be a part of each other’s lives. As adults, we talked less frequently but always managed to check in. When she became pregnant with her first child, I was one of the first people she told. She sent me ultrasound pictures and shared her fears about becoming a mother. I had no doubt she would make a great mom. When she gave birth, she introduced him to me as my nephew. We shared in the joys of each other’s marriages, and she shared in my pain during my later divorce. A few years later, when she announced her second pregnancy, we brainstormed baby names for girls together. She absolutely loved being a mother, and she was amazing at it too. Her whole world revolved around her son, Brantley, and her daughter, Remi. I took pride when she referred to me as their Aunt.

Bless the Broken Road

When my grandfather died in 2019, she reached out to me with a song. A lot of our friendship could be explained with a series of songs. Many times, our conversations didn’t need words. A simple song said everything we knew the other one needed in a certain moment. Music and our sisterly type love forged a bond between us that lessened the gap of distance and adulting.

As with many long-term friendships, the distance and our busy lives unraveled into an argument that ended in a falling out in 2019. Although we weren’t on speaking terms at this point in our lives, I still browsed her social media page every so often. The hope that we would talk again always existed in the back of my mind. I loved to see her happy and living her life. Just knowing she was out there in the world living her life was enough for me to feel at peace with our current lack of friendship. One day, we would reconnect when the time was right.

Raynor Family

This past August, I happened onto her profile through an old memory as I often did.  I noticed she was tagged in a post about her father's passing. I felt an ache for her and her family as I remembered her father, Johnny Raynor. He drove a truck for a living and even led a wrestling career. He was strong and stoic, but his dry sense of humor made him easy to feel comfortable around. He was the backbone of the Raynor family and I knew that I should reach out and be a friend in her time of grief. With the hope of rekindling our friendship heavy on my heart, I then noticed comments saying “How’s Tera? What’s the update on Tera?” My heart stopped, and in a panic, I read every comment I could to find out that Tera was currently on a ventilator in the hospital; COVID.

The next day I purposely typed in her name, searching desperately for updates. Her sisters shared that she was fighting an infection of some sort and doctors were trying to get her fever down. They had been told there was a slight improvement. Hope.

By the time I checked the next day, the news had been shared that she passed. My heart sank and I felt it inevitably rip into pieces just reading the words. She didn’t make it.

I was no stranger to grief. I had lost many important people in my life, some that I was very close to. However, that grief didn’t prepare me for this as I burst into heavy sobbing. I would never have a chance to reach out. I would never have a chance to make amends. I would never have a chance to tell her how I felt about things. We would never reconnect. She was gone, and all hopes of reuniting were gone along with her.

When I lost my grandpa, I learned that grief burned. It burns from your heart down to your gut. This was a different burn. This was regret.

Healing is still trying to embrace me as I await her funeral. How do you permanently say goodbye to someone you have such loose ends with? How do you bear the weight of regret and find a way to live while holding it? I reached out to Tera's mother, Raylean, who was recovering from COVID in the hospital. She had just been taken off a ventilator and was showing enough improvement that arrangements for her release were being made. When she was released, she began making the arrangements for her husband and eldest daughter’s funerals.  Three days before her husband’s funeral, due to COVID complications, Raylean also passed.

Raynor Family

What Hurts the Most

I find comfort in going back to that day at her house. Raylean bragging about her cooking, especially her infamous biscuits and gravy. Tera’s younger brother and two sisters teasing each other in the living room. Johnny, booming down the stairs to the basement to pick on us about being loud, giggly girls. Our laughter filling the basement over the loud music. Her blue eyes sparkling as she shared a song she loved with me. Us, together, singing lyrics in our own tone-deaf symphony, not a care in the world; not knowing that the song would hit in a different way years later. At 15, in a home so full of love and life,  I heard a new song that I fell in love with through my best friend, my chosen sister; At 31, I found the song would become a reality I was never ready to take on.

“Still harder getting up, getting dressed, living with this regret
But I know if I could do it over
I would trade, give away all the words that I saved in my heart
That I left unspoken

What hurts the most
Is being so close
And having so much to say (much to say)
And watching you walk away
And never knowing
What could’ve been.” 

-Rascal Flatts

Here Comes Goodbye

My heart goes out to the remaining Raynor siblings (Mekenzi, 26; Jacob, 25; Reagen, 18; and Jase, 8) who are left with the task of planning the funerals of their mother, father, and sister and to Tera's children who will grow up without their bright-eyed mama.  If you would like to donate to this struggling family as they navigate the unexpected end-of-life expenses for their loved ones in this time of tragedy, you can do so via their GoFundMe account at https://gofund.me/0cdd9b8e.

If like me, you have had a falling out with someone important in your life, let go of the past and reconnect with them today. No argument is worth trying to make amends at their funeral.

In loving remembrance of Tera Bradshaw (Raynor), Raylean Raynor, and Johnny Raynor.

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