~ By Shawna Belt Edwards
It was the night before Christmas Eve. John was already asleep beside me, unconcerned about the last minute plans I was making. I had meant to be all ready for Christmas, but I didn’t count on the chicken pox. For three days and nights I had cared for Rebecca and Scott, trying to soothe the constant itching. How annoying, I thought—couldn’t they have waited until after the holidays? But now the worst was over; they would sleep well tonight. As I drifted off, a jumble of images fill my mind – no visions of sugar plums – just things to do: Christmas dinner to make…the house to clean…some gifts to deliver…packages to wrap…toys to assemble…a few more stocking stuffers…a list of phone calls…so much to do…
I was awakened early Christmas Eve morning by Rebecca’s touch. “Mommy, my chin hurts.” I could see some puffiness around one of her chicken pox. I admonished her not to scratch it, and closed my eyes again, but she tugged at me again and said, “I don’t feel good.” I reached for her forehead, wondering why her fever had returned.
Since the first of December, she had been counting the days to Christmas, faithfully reminding us every morning what day it was. Yesterday she had proudly announced, “It’s two more days ‘til Christmas!” But this morning, she didn’t say anything about Christmas.
Medication did nothing to ease Rebecca’s fever. Her chin and cheek became hugely swollen, and she lay on the couch, her eyes dull and lifeless. We couldn’t even coax a smile out of her. Something was terribly wrong.
That evening we admitted her to the hospital. I was vaguely aware of the carols playing over the intercom, the strings of colored lights, and the Christmas tree. Mostly, I noticed how strangely quiet it was. As we carried Rebecca down the hallway, I overheard a nurse say, “Wouldn’t it be horrible to bring your child to the hospital on Christmas Eve?”
Yes, it was horrible. I had cried earlier as I selected one present from under the tree for each of our four boys and said good-bye to them, sending them to my parents’ home. Ten-year-old Gary responded, “We don’t even want to have Christmas without Rebecca.” Often the true spirit of Christmas is manifested in a single moment, and this year, the moment was now. “Bless you, Gary,” I said.
Rebecca had cellulitis, a deadly, strep-like infection of the skin that invades deeper and deeper layers of tissue, threatening breathing passageways and the brain within hours. It was not surprising to hear how fast the disease could spread – we had literally watched her face grow throughout the day. Had we waited too long to call the doctor?
Both John and I stayed in her room that first night, watching, worrying, praying and trying to make her comfortable. In the morning she awoke slowly. The infection had spread under her chin and to the other side of her face. John looked at me from across the bed and said grimly, “Merry Christmas.” Rebecca gazed blankly at a white teddy bear on a chair in the corner – a gift from Santa. I was struck by the contrast of this morning with all the other Christmas mornings of my life: No whispers, no giggles, no squeals, no wrapping paper or boxes or bows, no noisy toys, no surprises.
Funny—a few days ago we considered it a hassle to have chicken pox during the holidays. Yesterday, we worried that she was too sick to enjoy her presents. Today we didn’t care about presents. Today we didn’t care about any of the frantic and frivolous Christmas rush.
For two days, we stayed by Rebecca’s bed and watched the infection grow as an IV steadily pumped a high-powered antibiotic into her tiny veins. Her fever hovered around 105. She was afraid of the nurses who came to test her blood for toxins. She was motionless one moment, and restless the next, and miserable all of the time. I prayed in a way that I had never prayed before, and realized more than ever what an immeasurable blessing it is to know that He lives, to know that He would hear my prayers. I begged Him for a miracle. Oh, please, I kept saying, please make her better.
By the third day John and I were nearing exhaustion, but we began to notice a change in Rebecca. Her appetite returned and her fever began to drop. She felt well enough to be bored. When she saw herself in the mirror, she pouted, “My face looks stupid.” Actually, the swelling was beginning to go down. I lifted my eyes heavenward and whispered, “Thank you for this gift.”
After lunch the next day, I was sitting on Rebecca’s hospital bed, reading a new book to her. “Mommy,” she said suddenly, “I missed Christmas.” Tears welled in my eyes. She was right—she had missed Christmas, but none of the rest of us had. Instead, we experienced the most meaningful holiday of our lives. We understood more completely all the true gifts of Christmas, the gifts freely granted us because Christ the Lord was born a babe in Bethlehem: The gift of hope, the gift of love, and yes, the gift of life itself.
We brought Rebecca home two days later when the only sign of her illness was a knot on her chin. The unopened presents were still under the tree where we had left them nearly a week ago, but they held little meaning for us. We had our Christmas gift.
Grace Crowell penned these words that were so appropriate then, as they are now:
I shall have leisure—I shall go out alone from my roof and my door;
I shall not miss the silver silence of stars as I have before;
And oh, perhaps—if I stand there very still and very long,
I shall hear what the clamor of living has kept from me—the angel’s song.