This year doesn't feel like Christmas. Not a whit. Not a bit. Not a jot. I've been to no parties. I've baked no gingerbread. I've neither strung lights nor rung bells nor sung carols. (And I do love to belt out 'Joy to the World').
We started out this holiday season poorly. Thanksgiving passed unobserved. Instead of the planned repast at my in-laws' Atlanta home, we caught an emergency flight to Boston and rushed to the bedside of my brother-in-law, diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. We prayed and we cried and we talked about anything we could think of to ease the tension of waiting. When dinnertime came, he ate slices of turkey and cranberry relish from a hospital tray. Later on, I excused myself down to the chapel and cried for my new brother and for all the hurts summoned by a hospital room. We were offered leftovers by dear, kind friends around 11 o'clock on that Thanksgiving night, but I was carsick and could not eat it. I fell asleep on their living room sofa. The next day I watched my mother-in-law weep great hot tears that fell on the cover of a leather Bible and wipe them on the bedsheets so that no one would see. But friend after friend like came a steady river, beseeching Heaven for healing. And there was laughter in that room, and kind words and embraces, and in that room Christ was with us.
After several days at the hospital, we returned home to northern Virginia, but only to pack up our apartment and move across town in freezing cold weather. We were joined in this effort with by friends that I think ought to be canonized, though one of them rejoined that he would have to die first, so would I kindly not rush the business. We missed that Sunday service, the second of Advent, rushing to scrub the dirt and grime from our old apartment. But as our friends helped us move, Christ was with us.
The following Sunday, it was my turn to work in the nursery. It was the Lessons and Carols service, one of my favorite services of the year. It's a time of lit candles and holy words and lovely songs, a reverent ushering in of the Christ child. So I was feeling perhaps a little curmudgeonly as I sat down in the basement with the goldfish crackers ground into the carpet while my husband went up into the pews. But then the two- and three-year-olds built a cake for Jesus out of building blocks and crayons and Scotch tape, and they sang 'Happy Birthday' to the infant Savior out of tune and out of rhythm. And I held in my arms the softness of a little baby boy who clung to my hands, and I stopped minding quite so much. And as the children sang, Christ was with us.
And the week after that, I went outside and waited for my bus to come. It never came. I stood for an hour in a five-degree wind chill, stamping my feet to keep them alive. Two days later I came down with a flu that has kept me housebound for the better part of a week. I missed church again, and with it my last chance this year to sing carols in the dear brick church where my husband and I were married. But it snowed. It snowed a soft, fine, bright shawl over the cold ground, as though to remind the world that its sorrow and sinning shall not stand forever. And I sat and drank the soup my husband brought home for me, and I watched the bits of whiteness fall. And in this apartment with its towers of half-filed cardboard boxes, Christ is with me.
And so, you see, this Advent, we have had none of that expansive joviality (aided, perhaps, by a mug of mulled wine) that Christmas seems to warrant. But then, we have had family, and friends, and the most angelic of choirs. We've had snow outside these walls and love within them. We have had the the dearest of all messages that Christmas brings: that now we have Christ with us always.
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