As we head into Christmas, I am always thrown back to Christmas 2019-2020, which was one of the most difficult Christmas seasons our family ever experienced. It was also one of the most real and meaningful.
I know that many of you are walking through difficult seasons now. In fact, this year there have been two deaths in my own immediate family over the past two weeks: my grandmother and my aunt. So often in life, our mourning and our rejoicing are commingled.
So I’m reposting this piece, which I wrote next to my infant son’s hospital bed, to remind us all that hard things are not inconsistent with Christmas; that our holidays don’t have to big big and shiny and perfect, but can sometimes look like still, small moments of awareness.
I hesitate to assume that there’s such a thing as a “typical” Christmas, but if it exists then I feel quite confident in stating that this has been a very atypical Christmas for our family.
As some of you may know, I have spent the past five days in the pediatric inpatient ward of the University of Vermont Medical Center with our 7-week-old son. This was completely unexpected and sudden. Our entire family – including all four daughters – had driven happily up to Burlington for some scheduled testing for the baby. We’d planned to have lunch and look at holiday decorations after what we assumed would be an hour-long appointment. But, to quote Joan Didion, “Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.” And in that instant, we were being told that the doctor was concerned about our baby’s growth trajectory and wanted to admit him to the hospital for “failure to thrive.”
So, without any preparation or planning, without a toothbrush for me or extra clothes for the baby, and with a long list of pre-Christmas plans and to-dos that was going to require sudden and extreme revision, I found myself ushered into a pediatric hospital room. I found myself discussing who-takes-the-girls-where-and-when logistics with my husband (whose birthday was the following day.) I found myself groping through my own dashed expectations as I tried to explain to four teary girls what I knew of the immediate plan, and how little idea I had of anything beyond the next couple of hours.
This is not a medical drama, so I will very quickly set your mind at rest about our son: He is fine. He was tiny at birth and has always been a robust spitter-upper. His pediatrician has been monitoring his weight since birth, and everyone was pleased with his steady gains until his spitting up increased dramatically after a routine outpatient hernia repair surgery. His weight gain never stopped or reversed, but it slowed. After a couple of days of testing at the hospital to rule out Big Scary Things, he was diagnosed with severe reflux, which we will manage at home until he outgrows it eventually.
But I didn’t know the end of the story as I sat in our hospital room that first night, trying in vain to sleep in a pull-out chair while my freaked-out baby fussed beside me and nurses came and went all night long. The next days would be the darkest of the year; this made a certain narrative sense to me. What I couldn’t quite manage was to find the sense in our situation – I couldn’t figure out where God was in the whole thing.
Even though you know better, it’s so easy to fall into thinking that life should reward the good and punish the bad. We are adopting our son, not to earn brownie points with any person or deity, but because we love children (this one in particular; he’s our son) and we wanted to provide a good home for a child who needed one. Since his birth, our sweet boy has not had an easy road: Each of his seven weeks of life has brought some new health wrinkle – none deeply serious, all treatable, but most of them involving a degree of disruption and discomfort for him and for the rest of our family. All of this is outweighed by the extravagant amount of love the little guy has brought into our lives. Still, the temptation every time we hit the next hurdle is to say, “Really, God? This kiddo has been through so much; can’t he just get a break? We’ve all been through so much; would it have killed you to make this just a little less hard?”
On that first night in the hospital, I looked out the window at a narrow strip of dark winter sky barely visible between the buildings opposite our room, and my heart screamed, “Where ARE you, God?”
A passage of the Bible that I’ve always loved for the beauty of its language is 1 Kings 19:11-12. The backstory is that the prophet Elijah has been doing everything right, risking his life by warning the Israelites and the corrupt King Ahab and Queen Jezebel to turn back to God. In response, Ahab and Jezebel kill all the other prophets and threaten to do the same to Elijah. Elijah escapes into the wilderness, where he is on the run for forty days and nights until he reaches a cave on Mt. Horeb.
11 Then He [God] said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. [New King James Version]
When Elijah hears that still small voice, he knows it’s God, and God gives Elijah instructions about what to do next.
It took me three days in the hospital to realize that the answer to my cry, “Where ARE you, God?” was: Right here. It took that long because God’s voice didn’t boom down from heaven, there were no chariots of fire, comets, flashy miracles, or apparitions. But there was a still small voice – a series of them, in fact.
God was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire:
God was in the nurse who, while tenderly giving my son a bath, told me how she’d switched from geriatrics to pediatrics seven years earlier, when she learned she couldn’t have children.
God was in the young man from Patient Transport who, while wheeling my son down to a swallow study, told me how he drives his mother an hour to her haircut appointments in our town. (“She used to go with my grandma, but after my grandma died, I started taking her.”)
God was in the doctor from radiology who, observing me walk the halls for an hour as the barium solution moved through my son’s digestive tract, ushered me into the staff break room. “There’s a nice, big window,” he explained.
God was in the gentle hands and kind words of the countless doctors, nurses, and staff throughout our stay who counseled us and brought bottles, warm blankets, white noise machines, and mobiles to make my son more comfortable.
God was in the faces of the hospital patients – the really ill ones who passed us on gurneys in radiation, the other children on the pediatric floor – and their caregivers.
God was in my parents, who took our daughters at no notice and provided them with love, security, and fun.
God was in my husband, who couldn’t have cared less that his birthday had been overshadowed, and who drove an hour up to and back from the hospital numerous times to bring me clothes, toiletries, and Chipotle dinners.
God was in my daughters, whose primary concern was never their own plans, but the fact that they were separated from their baby brother.
God was in the stunning sunrise in the strip of sky between buildings on the morning of the darkest day of the year – a reminder that there is always light in the darkness.
And God was in our baby, because this experience taught us that he needs us, and we need him.
Since this all happened days before Christmas, I was thinking of another baby, too: A New Testament baby who was the embodiment of the “still small voice” in 1 Kings. Isn’t that just like God? He doesn’t show up like you’d expect, in the earthquake, wind, or fire, or with the rich, powerful, or lovely; He shows up in the hospital corridors, amid those who suffer and those who serve. He shows up as a helpless newborn baby, born in a barn on the back edge of an empire. There may have been choirs of angels in the sky, but God lay in the straw crying for milk.
On this most atypical of Christmases, I learned to stop scanning the skies for those angel choirs, and to listen instead for the still, small voice in the dark.