The humble joy of an unorthodox Christmas

**Special note: this post includes lessons I learned while my infant daughter was hospitalized at Christmastime. If you have an ill loved one or are sensitive to related content, you may want to skip this one! **

Christmas this year won’t look like Christmases past. Hopefully, it won’t look like Christmases future, either. But there is good to be found in all of its uniqueness, wisdom to be gleaned from its challenges. This Christmas will bring memories and insight that will serve you for years to come, even if it takes you years to comprehend them.

I learned this lesson six years ago. Christmas 2014 was day 43. Forty-three days of IVs and interventions, new realities and dashed hopes. Forty-three days of watching our firstborn grow into a three- and then four-month-old from the side of a hospital crib.

This wasn’t the Christmas we’d imagined the year before when we learned she was unexpectedly growing inside of me. There was something magical then about learning of our first pregnancy at Christmastime when the anticipation of the most important birth in the Christian faith is met with great hope and joy. The Light of the World came down from Heaven in the form of a helpless child born in the lowliest of places. And now we, too, would have our own slice of heaven as our young family grew by one.

That was before we knew much about life all it, it seems. Before our 38-week prenatal appointment when the baby was measuring at under five pounds. Before our daughter’s birth when we learned she has Down syndrome. Before the fateful cardiologist appointment when we discovered that she would need life-saving heart surgery. Before the most dreaded day when we handed our helpless infant to an anesthesiologist for that necessary but indescribably terrifying procedure.

By day 43, we learned that Christmas in a children’s hospital is surprisingly warm. The love and goodness of humanity descend on those who truly need it most. There were musical performances and surprise gift bags. Lots of good food and free “shopping” for gifts in a large room overflowing with donated bikes, toys, and stuffed animals. By far the most humbling were the patients’ handwritten notes of gratitude displayed on the front of the nurse’s station in our unit. The most poignant were not one, but two transplant patients who were grateful for their new hearts. I knew there were many more who were waiting for theirs.

Still, living in the hospital is like another dimension where you lose all sense of reality and time. This made it difficult to get into the traditional holiday spirit. I tried to switch up the songs I sang regularly to Grace to include some Christmas carols, but the lyrics escaped me. A train passed by tooting a familiar tune, and it took me several solid minutes to place it as Jingle Bells. We put up a tiny tree but asked our families not to visit, as we didn’t want them to spend their holidays in that bubble. Joy often evaded us as we embarrassingly envied the families on the unit who we heard ringing the celebratory discharge bell, knowing that we would not join them anytime soon.

On December 25th, I got the Christmas gift of perspective when I woke up to some of the biggest ever smiles on Grace’s face (at 2 am, 4 am, AND 6 am!). After she spent her first Thanksgiving intubated and heavily sedated, the bliss of those smiles was not lost on me, no matter the time. My gratitude was only heightened when I noticed the nurse had left us a note. Something about the visual of that handwritten “Merry Christmas, Grace!!” still brings a lump to my throat. The holiday season hadn’t been what we’d wanted. We didn’t get to take pictures of our newborn under her first Christmas tree. We didn’t get to see the smiles on our family members’ faces as they took turns passing her around and cooing over her in a way that only an infant can elicit. But that note marked the uniqueness of that day among the blur of the 42 others. It was a reminder that no matter the location or circumstances, it was Grace’s first Christmas, the perfect day to celebrate the simple gift of huge smiles and marvel at the awe-inspiring gift of new life.

We were discharged two weeks later planning to “officially” celebrate Christmas, thinking we’d put up a tree, wrap gifts, and take all of the pictures. By the time we got home, we were too exhausted to do any of that. Eventually, we understood that we didn’t need traditional celebrations to appreciate what we’d been given. Grace’s first Christmas wasn’t without sorrow, suffering, or envy, but we realized that doesn’t matter so much when you share a common area with a pediatric oncology wing where many families are praying for just one more Christmas with their child.

Despite all of the grief that accompanied our hospital stay and that holiday season, gratitude and humility remain the greatest gifts of that Christmas. The memories are vital reminders that the most meaningful reward is the one we cherish most dearly, the gift of more life together.

Christmas this year won’t look like Christmases past. I’m not saying it won’t be difficult. I don’t mean to demean any challenges you’re facing. I’m so sorry if this Christmas leaves you grieving a lost loved one. But there may be wisdom to be found in the differences between this year and years past. I hope you are someday gifted the perspective to discover it.

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