The Spirit of Christmas Lost & Found

"It would be a Christmas etched on my heart forever, the one when God and His holy angels spoke softly to me." by Nancy Kopp

The first Christmas commercial flicked across the TV screen in early December. My eyes were closed, head resting on the back of my chair, a cup of tea balanced on my lap, but I heard the tinkling of sleigh bells, the sound of carolers and laughter. I stayed still, wishing the joyful sounds away. I didn’t want to feel Christmas this year.

I didn’t spend my days Christmas shopping or decorating the house or baking cookies. Instead, I read books about babies born with spina bifida, asked questions of doctors about hydrocephalus and made phone calls to a hospital an hour away from our home to ask about the condition of our only child, Julie, born that November.

It was 1966, and we didn’t have the option of staying with Julie at the large children’s hospital. When she was a few days old, we drove on icy roads to admit her after our pediatrician had made the arrangements. Misplaced files gave us four precious hours with her in the crowded waiting room before the clerk told us to go to fourth floor west where a nurse waited for us.

Ken and I rode the elevator to the fourth floor and walked down a long corridor breathing in the hospital toward us. She reached out to take our baby girl. As I placed Julie in this stranger’s arms, I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. I wanted to crumple in a heap. Instead, I looked into the nurse’s eyes, and we smiled at each other, woman to woman.

She held Julie in the crook of one arm and smoothed the pink blanket with her free hand. “We’ll take good care of her.” She turned and proceeded down the long, empty hallway before I could make any farewell gesture to our sweet baby girl, before I could hold her close and inhale that special baby smell.

Ken and I walked down the hall, hand in hand, too choked up to say a word.

We returned a few days later to find that we could only view our daughter through a nursery window. She lay on her tummy so there’d be no pressure on the bulging tumor in the open area of her spine. She would soon have surgery to close the opening. Later, a shunt would be placed at the base of her brain to drain fluid. Further down the road would be more surgery to straighten her legs in hopes that she might one day learn to walk on crutches, not a certainty, only a hope.

I asked a nurse about the big wooden rocking chair that I noticed sitting in the nursery.

“Oh that’s for our hospital volunteers who come in to rock the babies. It’s nice to have a personal touch.”

Why couldn’t it be me who rocked her? Why not a mother’s touch? But
hospital rules in those days were strict, and parents were discouraged
from asking favors. The rocking chair appeared to be the one thing that didn’t scream institution. Bare walls, bare hallways, no color except in the waiting rooms. But that would soon change.

I still didn’t care about Christmas, but the hospital volunteers must have signed on as Santa’s helpers. The next time we visited, the halls glowed with Christmas banners and ribbons and small, decorated trees sat on tables in the waiting areas. The babies had dolls or toys tied to their cribs, gifts from the hospital auxiliary. The nurses wore Christmas pins on their uniforms, the green and red colors standing out on the snowy fabric. I chose to ignore these obvious signs of holiday spirit. When Christmas drew too close, I pushed it away.

As we waited with other parents to talk to our child’s doctor, I wondered if these mothers were skipping Christmas this year, too. I’d probably go out soon and buy the necessary gifts for our parents and siblings, but it would be an obligation, not a joy as in past years.

On Christmas Day, we stopped by the hospital before going to my parents’ home. By this time, Julie had been there for nearly four weeks and had come through two surgeries. When the elevator doors opened onto the fourth floor that Christmas morning, holiday music played softly over unseen speakers. The melodic carols fairly floated down the long corridor. The banners and ribbons on the walls seemed brighter than they had on our other visits. A nurse passed by us with a “Merry Christmas” greeting, which I didn’t return.

Julie was awake when we arrived at the nursery window. Still lying on her tummy, she raised her head and looked right at us with her big blue eyes. I had a sudden vision of Mary and Baby Jesus looking at one another just like Julie and I were doing. The message was there for me. I needed Mary’s faith, needed to stop the sorrow and self-pity, needed to dwell on the positive strides Julie was making.

Ken put his arm around me while we watched our little girl on her first Christmas morning. The music surrounded us, and I felt the ice around my heart crack and break into tiny bits as I let the spirit of Christmas warm me. I’d pushed it away with every bit of force I could muster, but today thoughts of Mary and her precious son took over. After all, wasn’t this what Christmas was all about—the birth of a child the world had waited for? Wouldn’t we want to teach the treasured story to our child one day, too?

Shame for the way I’d tried to shut Christmas out of my life brought a single tear trickling down my cheek. I should have embraced this special holiday from the day I’d heard that first TV commercial. I needed the spirit of Christmas more this year than any other.

We blew a kiss to our little girl and walked hand in hand to the elevator. I’d finally opened my heart to what Christmas had to offer when I found the spirit in the face of our baby girl. The carols sounded sweeter, the nurses cheerier and the decorations more elegant. It would be a Christmas etched on my heart forever, the one when God and His holy angels spoke softly to me.

This article was originally published in the December 2016 issue of The War Cry.

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