Oh what a difference a year can make.
On this Christmas Eve, I sit on my couch clasping a warm cup of coffee—legs curled under a soft blanket from my sister-in-law—and slowly inhale the wintry magic that only Christmas lights and ribbon-trimmed garlands are powerful enough to conjure.
And a wave hits me. A wave whose stirrings originated in currents of fear, grief, and heartache. A wave who has traveled miles of tumultuous ocean to finally catch sight of the shore. A wave who has felt the stabilizing embrace of soft-but-sure sand that transforms surging tides into playful pools.
A wave of gratefulness, thanksgiving, and relief.
On Christmas Eve morning last year, I sipped my coffee from a padded, wooden chair in my daughter’s hospital room. The early morning light was still grey—barely bright enough to illuminate our small space. We had arrived from Jordan via a medical evacuation plane the night before, and this was the first morning in a week without needles and screaming and tears.
It was only temporary, I knew. A calm before the next storm. A big storm—an evening of terrible tests for my tender, fourteen-month-old babe, Nove. These were the beginnings of the tests we had traveled for—the reason we had left our home in Jordan just days before Christmas. But I squirmed thinking about how horrible they would be.
Finishing my coffee, I returned my cup to the tray. The clink of porcelain on porcelain pierced the room, and Nove’s limbs jumped. Wincing, I crept across the floor to her crib. She had barely slept the last week, nurses and doctors coming in at all hours of the day and night to check her vitals, administer a handful of medications, and run countless tests in attempts to determine what was happening inside my baby’s brain.
Despite the clink, she had remained asleep. I leaned my head in closer, careful not to push on the bars and cause them to squeak. I wanted to hear her breath, to smell her still-baby scent, to feel close to her while she enjoyed a longed-for moment of rest. Her little blonde head glowed, reflecting the window’s growing rays. “Angel girl,” I whispered.
And I wished I could take it all from her. I wished I could trade places with her and be the one melted into the hospital bed, tethered to drips and pumps and monitors. I wished I could carry the burden of her pain and confusion and fear in my own body. That I could release this angel baby to laugh and play once more. Deep injury is done to a heart as it watches its child suffer. Even long after the wound has healed, scars remain. You hear the screams in your sleep. You see the writhing in your mind’s eye. You feel their fear reverberating through your body. Regardless of the final outcome, no one is the same after watching their child endure terrible physical pain. No parent forgets the guilt of not being able to rescue your most precious treasure from life’s harshest moments.
Hours passed and the sun shone stronger and laughter and joy filled our hearts as family poured into our room from Jordan and America. My husband, Peter, and our four healthy kids had traveled through the night with the assistance of my best friend, Kyle, who generously left her own family to help get my whole crew to London. My in-laws had flown in from Nashville to make this a special time for the non-hospitalized grand-kids. My brother-in-law, his wife, and their three kids had dropped their Christmas plans with their “other family” to be with us at our most vulnerable hour. It was a strange mix of emotions that day. Peace after so much chaos. Smiles after so many tears. The attempt to anchor my heart in the real-time of this beautiful day before the dreaded night of tests arrived.
Christmas pajamas were opened. Long hugs were exchanged. My sister-in-law—who feels more and more like my own flesh and blood with each visit and life event we journey together—hung a soft, floral blanket on Nove’s crib and strung Christmas lights over the room’s large whiteboard. My nieces taped flowers made from discarded tissue paper onto the windows and walls. The gorgeous commotion of too many loved ones in too small of a space was what I needed to prepare me for what was to come.
And come it did. After sedating Nove in the evening and allowing her to fall into a deep sleep for a few hours, a doctor and four nurses entered our room to start their work. “It’s going to be pretty rough,” our doctor said with genuine compassion worn across her face. “You’ll need to wait in the parents’ room, and we will get you when we’re done.”
My body shook a little as I tried to swallow my own fear and the exaggerated lump growing in my throat. I knew I wouldn’t be allowed to stay. But it felt like the day had gone too fast. Like the beauty and the stillness and the peace hadn’t lasted long enough. Where had our quiet, grey-lit morning gone? Where were the laughs and commotion and pajamas of the afternoon?
Not wanting to wake Nove from such a peaceful sleep, I hovered my hand six inches above her small back and mouthed, “I love you.” I squeezed my stomach tight and released a deep breath as slowly and evenly as I could—a trick they teach you in youth theater when you’re feeling scared. But having your sick child poked with a bunch of big needles is weightier than dancing the Charleston in front of three hundred people; my techniques didn’t help, and I felt dizzy.
I closed the door quietly behind me and counted under my breath as I walked to the parents’ room at the end of the L-shaped hall. “One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi…” I was twenty-five seconds of “normal paced steps” away. But it felt so, so much farther.
Choosing a seat in the corner of the empty room, I hugged my knees into my chest. I wished Peter could be here with me. But our four little ones were spending their first night in a new place after a long journey, and we felt it was better for him to stay near them that night. They had endured a lot of confusion and fear the past week, too.
Squeezing my eyes closed, I tried to pray for my small baby. But I was so emotional, all I could muster was, “Help her, help her, help her.”
Glancing down at my phone, I saw it was three minutes until midnight—the time the tests were supposed to officially commence. Earlier that afternoon, I had posted on Instagram and Facebook, updating friends and family about Nove’s day. I had asked anyone who was able to join me in singing “Silent Night” at 12am London time. A song of hope for my baby as she began the challenges this night would bring. At exactly midnight, I started to sing. I barely made it through one line before I began choking on the words, cheeks streaming with disappointment, sadness, and fear.
But I persevered, and as I reached the second verse, I heard it. A terrible, chilling scream from a room about twenty-five seconds down the hall. I flung my hands over my ears and tightened my knee-to-chest stance. My carol ended abruptly, overtaken by an audible lament of sobs.
Almost simultaneously, little dings began chiming from my phone one after another, steadily growing in number and frequency. Taking a breath, I peeked just enough to see the screen: dozens of notifications from friends and family, all over the world, announcing they were singing over Nove at that very moment. Pictures and videos flooded my social media. Individuals standing and singing in their kitchens. Whole families holding hands and lifting their voices in unison in front of sparkling trees. Entire congregations clutching lit candles and releasing words of hope—of The Hope of the world—over my angel baby.
That night, Nove endured four lumbar punctures (more popularly known as spinal taps), a handful of throat and nasal swabs, and a tray-full of blood samples. I heard the sound of those tests. It was anything but a “silent night.” And yet, the world wrapping their arms around Nove and our family as we lived through this terrible pain was one of the “holiest” nights I’ve ever known.
Unfortunately, most of the tests done that evening came back “inconclusive.” And Nove had to repeat them multiple times over the coming week. It was a harrowing experience, to say the least. Memories that unleash a physical response in my body to this day.
But our story has a happy ending. We did get results. Our baby did get better. And now we have a very-cheeky, two-year-old Nove who commands the whole family with the point of her chubby finger or the pout of her plump, rosy lips. This year—this Christmas Eve—is a world away from where we were last year. My feet rest on my own couch in my own living room, and my hands are warmed by my favorite mug filled with familiar coffee. And no one in our family is sick.
However, this is not the case for so many families around the world. 2020 has brought incalculable loss. Lives. Jobs. Dreams. And not everyone will get their happy ending—a reality that should continually sober anyone who has seen the desires of their once-terrified heart fulfilled.
As much as I’d like to forget it all, today beckons me to flip back the pages of the calendar. To run my memory fingers over the bumps of my scarred heart and revisit the pain of watching my baby suffer. To wade through the dancing waves of my own relief and venture out a little deeper—far enough to feel the weight of the cold, restless currents. To feel the pull of a tide that has yet to be tamed by a steadying shoreline. To remember the treading and enduring of anything but a “silent night.” To connect with a world enduring fresh, raw pain.
Because this is the promise of this blessed eve. The reason for celebrating this holiest of holy nights: that, through the coming of the Christ Child, the Divine extended Itself into the deepest recesses of pain and fear and brokenness in the human soul in order to reconcile the world unto Itself. That in the midst of our darkest hours and most horrific moments, the Holy One—Immanuel—is with us. In the middle of pain, in the middle of heartache, in the middle of not knowing how this chapter will end:
I can’t help but imagine Him running His fingers over His own scars today—weeping for His suffering children. The Light of the world—the ultimate, redeeming end to every broken story—willing to join us in our pain. To meet us where we’re at. To finish the song and carry us forward when we are too weak to sing or move ourselves.
Immanuel: God with us.
Merry Christmas. May you experience the Holiness of tonight in the midst of the ocean you tread.
Until next time, Ana