It was a gray, cold day as we sat in silence in the doctor’s office.
Nana wasn’t feeling well. She had a headache and was dizzy; two chronic issues with which she’s suffered her entire life.
Searching for conversation, I noted as I stared out the window how cozy the cloudy skies looked. Trying to spark a positive thought, I remarked how they make me feel blissfully sleepy and how wonderful it would be to curl up on the couch with a fuzzy blanket.
She replied, “Bleck.”
Oops, I forgot for a minute that she can’t stand overcast, cold days. My bad. And my fail as that didn’t work to uplift her spirits.
The doctor entered and we discussed her current health topics. But the overlying topic is her cancer, and it was why we were there. There’s just no good news. This type of cancer has one end. She knows it and I highly admire her strength to face it head-on.
The cancer has progressed. She’s living on borrowed time. As we sat together and the doctor did his thing, the only words I found hiding in my heart which peeked out merely as a weak whisper, overcome with empathy and enough panic for the both of us are, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
There is nothing else to say. There is nothing else we can do. For someone who likes to git ‘er done, I can’t do anything to heal her.
It’s then, as the doctor filled out paperwork and I stared awkwardly down at my shoes, she said with melancholy, “Just get me to Christmas.”
There was palatable silence in the room. A moment when the doctor paused his busyness and I gazed at the bare trees enveloped by ominous clouds. No one spoke.
But I prayed in my heart, “Amen, Lord. Let it be so. Please get Nana to Christmas.”
Her words haunt me. They won’t let me go. They’ve gripped my heart for days and I haven’t understood why. Then, God reminded me it is because they sound familiar. They feel familiar.
He led me to think about Joseph and Mary on their trek to Bethlehem. There were a couple of different routes they could have taken. Most speculate the distance was 70-100 miles which is anywhere from a 7-10 days walk. They mostly likely chose their route based on the terrain for her pregnant sake as well as the regional and social climate towards Jews where they had to pass.
It’s common thought that Mary rode on the back of a donkey. Nine months pregnant, riding on the back of a donkey, can we even begin to imagine what that was like?
I’ve ridden a mule. They are slow, but you also feel every move they make. Every bump and dip in the ground. Every shift of their weight to each of their four legs with each step. The jostling of the rider when the beast shakes the bugs from its face. The rider thrusting forward when the beast stops to eat or to itch its foot. The abrupt halts for reason or no reason at all. And the rider continually shifts their weight to counterbalance. There is constant movement between person and beast to maintain their cohesive center like a gyroscope.
It’s not a smooth ride. And to take that ride nine months pregnant, with a bladder bouncing up and down, the back and its vertebrae continually stretching and compressing, tense neck and shoulders working hard to coordinate with the legs and back, and leg muscles flexed tight to hold their grip, with the baby kicking and moving, not to mention hormones and all that comes with them – as woman who’s carried three children, I give total creds to Mary.
However, she could have also walked and used the donkey to carry their things. Given a donkey’s stubborn nature, they don’t make the best transportation. They are temperamental and unpredictable. They walk when they want, stop when they want, and let you think you’re leading. Given that, it could’ve been safer for Mary to walk. But walk all that way in her condition? Bless.
Who knows if she walked or rode? The Bible doesn’t give us those details, but we can look at cultural life at the time…and even today where donkeys are used as the baggage carrier, not the vehicle.
Either way, walking or riding 70-100 miles in one trip, fully pregnant, how many times she must have prayed under her breath, or even out loud, “God, just get me there. Get me to Bethlehem.”
Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem because of a government-required census. The birth of Christ that we celebrate had yet to happen. And this is what Nana is hoping for…to live long enough to celebrate Christmas, the birth of her Savior, one more time.
Ecclesiastes 3:1-2, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die…”
How hard the heart struggles to juggle the two; joyfully celebrating the birth of our Savior while feeling the tangible weight of eminent death of a loved one.
I’ve been here before, caught in a paradox of eternal life colliding with earthly death.
It was 1994 and Granddad had been suffering from lung cancer for the past three months. (It was actually the past five years, but the medical world kept reading his x-rays wrong and finally caught it…too late.) He was taken by ambulance to the ICU on December 23rd. My grandmother, husband, sister and her husband spent Christmas Eve in the ICU family waiting room taking turns to see him while obeying the hospital’s one-visitor-at-a-time rule.
We slept on the pleathor sofas and only went home to let out our dog, Molly, and feed her and our cats.
I brought Christmas paper plates and napkins, the banana bread baked for Christmas morning, and a cassette player with a cassette tape of Christmas music with me so we could somehow salvage a teeny bit of the feeling of Christmas at the hospital.
On Christmas Eve, I prayed one prayer as Granddad’s death was near. I prayed, “God, please don’t let him die on Christmas day. I don’t want his death to overshadow Christ’s birth for the rest of our lives. Please, not on Christmas.”
God answered that prayer. It was the morning after Christmas, December 26th, when the nurses rushed all of us into his room. It was time.
Suddenly, God commanded something utterly audacious of me. He told me to ask Granddad if he wanted to recommit his life to Christ, a deathbed confession of sorts. My Granddad was a good man. Giving, caring, kind. He attended church every Sunday. He tithed. He read The Upper Room devotional every single day. He blessed our meals and was an honest man.
However, I never heard him profess Christ as his Savior. Tho this wouldn’t be rare as he was a man of few words.
I deeply wrestled God with this request.
I said, “Who am I to question his faith?”
God said, “Do it.”
I pleaded, “I am the baby of the family. It’s not my place.”
God said, “Do it.”
I begged, “Please don’t ask me to do this. I’m not comfortable with this.”
He said, “You have to do it, and do it now.”
So, I did.
Physically shaking and feeling like I was going to throw up, I gathered all the courage I could find in my 24 year-old self and stuttered as I searched for the words that would be both dignified and respectful to Granddad, the patriarch of our family, as he laid there unable to move or speak.
I leaned in close to him and looked into his crystal blue eyes, and with a quivering lip I asked, “Granddad, would you like to recommit your life to Christ?”
I choked back the lump in my throat and gripped my neck which was stinging with pain and stress. I said to him, “I know you can’t talk, so if you want to, just nod your head.” Then I waited with bated breath for his response. Afterall, this was God’s idea, not mine.
Shockingly, he stared back at me and nodded yes. I was stunned and speechless!
“Okay. I will pray the prayer for you out loud, and you nod your head in agreement at the end, okay?”
He nodded yes.
I gently rested my hand on his arm and prayed. I wasn’t eloquent or wordy. A simple prayer owning sin and asking for God’s grace and forgiveness through Christ’s bloodshed and death on the cross and resurrection – all confessing he is our Lord. Amen.
Granddad nodded in agreement and within moments…he died.
I felt sick to my stomach and relieved at the same time. My insecurities almost made me refuse to do what God was asking. But thankfully God chases after us and won’t let us go like the Good Father he is when he draws his children close.
The emotions of that Christmas bring back mixed memories. But they also remind me that God answered my prayer of waiting until the day after Christmas to call Granddad home.
I’m thinking about Mary and how she must have prayed to make it to Bethlehem so her baby could be born in a proper place – though little did she know there’d be nothing proper about a stable for animals as Christ’s first nursery.
Yet, who defines proper? We can’t understand how our King could be allowed to be born among the animals and their waste. However, if that is the starting point to his life on this earth, then with whom can’t Jesus relate? Who is beyond his understanding? For whom would he not have compassion?
And as only God can orchestrate, Mary, Granddad and my mother-in-law are woven together in the salvation trifecta of life, death, and death after life.
Only God can create a way for life and death to coexist and give Hope a voice amidst the longest journeys, scariest moments and darkest hours.
Hope fuels Perseverance. It gave strength to Mary mile-after-mile. It gave Granddad the will to wait for one last prayer. It gives my mother-in-law the courage to suffer until Christmas so she can participate in the joy of the One who makes everyday worth living. The One for whom we would give our lives. The One who will raise us to eternal life at our last earthly breath.
Christ is our eternal hope. He is the reason for perseverance. He was these for Mary, he is for us, and he is for my mother-in-law.
Where the doctors give us no good news for Nana’s prognosis, we hang on to the Good News that cannot be governed by the laws of nature.
Read Luke 2:8-11 with me. “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you GOOD NEWS that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord” (emphasis mine).
Mary cradled the Good News in her arms. Grandad clung to the Good News in his last breaths. Nana fights to celebrate the Good News one more time on earth before seeing Jesus in eternity.
What are you hoping for this Christmas? Why are you persevering through the days leading up to it?
Perhaps you are hoping to make it TO Christmas. But perhaps you’re hoping to make it THROUGH Christmas. Perhaps you are at peace with either, if you can only persevere in the meantime.
Is your prayer for life like Mary’s, or regarding death like mine? Is it somewhere in the vast myriad between the two?
In this season of hope, I encourage you to persevere. No matter the journey you’re asked to travel, circumstances beyond your control, or news you must accept, may the hope of Christ sustain your heart. May perseverance breathe life into your soul.
May both refocus our attention on why we are celebrating the News that is GOOD All. The. Time.