It was springtime when I started to feel the stirring: a building sense of expectation, excitement. I felt like I was getting ready for something. I felt foolish to say the words—even to myself–but I felt like God was preparing me. For what? I had no idea.
That summer, I sheepishly confided this to my husband. To my surprise, he said he felt it too. It was exciting time. We were so hopeful about what lay ahead.
Soon I was pregnant with our second child—was it the baby in my womb lending a special weight to this time? We were in the midst of a hard season—was God leading us to sunnier days?
The weather turned colder, and we were still … waiting. As Christmas drew near, we eased into the rhythms of the church calendar. I have always loved the Advent season, with its hushed waiting, contemplation, pondering. Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel has always been my favorite carol, with its beautiful, haunting longing, and its call to “Rejoice, rejoice!”—but in a minor key.
Our little boy—our firstborn—was nearly two that Christmas, chubby and towheaded and absolutely giddy at our Christmas celebration with the whole extended family. Nearly-two is such a fun age at Christmastime: climbing into the cardboard boxes, happily playing in piles of torn-up gift wrap, oblivious to expensive toys.We snapped a million photos to remember the day, because they grow up so fast….then we drove home, exhausted, and plopped our spent baby into bed.
The next morning, we got a phone call: A family member had already begun photoshopping the Christmas photos, and his camera had captured something in our son’s face the naked eye couldn’t see. Plenty of his photos looked perfectly fine, but there was one that concerned him. He wasn’t sure what it meant, exactly, but he knew it wasn’t good.
I called my doctor, feeling a bit foolish. I thought he’d tell me I was crazy: it’s just a Christmas photo. Instead, he said, “I’ll get you in right away.”
This can’t be that big a deal…right? Not necessarily.
At least we caught it early… right? Not necessarily.
Several days later, we hear the words: Cancer. Stage five.
How many stages are there? Five.
Several days later we’re sitting post-op with the world-class oncologist in the far-off city, who tells us it’s nothing short of a miracle that we caught the cancer when we did. It presented so unusually that the odds of a routine check-up catching it were slim.
She asks again, “It was a photo?”
I tell her again, “a Christmas photo.”
“Sounds like a Christmas miracle to me. The odds look very good for your son.”
Nearly eight years later, he’s doing well, with no signs of recurrence. Cancer has its complications, of course: there are secondary cancers and scars and nuisance side effects. But he’s doing great, living the life of a normal 9-year-old. And yet, the Christmas season is tangled up with cancer in my mind.
We now have four kids and the joy, excitement and anticipation of a coming Christmas can be overwhelming, at least to your ears. And this year we have another two-year-old, and it’s just as much fun with our fourth as with our first. But there’s more to our Christmastime now: there’s a shadow.
Our old Christmas photos leave us with lumps in our throats and new ones are closely inspected, not just looked at. And I continue to struggle with the daily realities of my son’s medical history—the constant reminders that cancer sucks and it’s a fallen world. They remind me that I am still waiting.
Christ was born on Christmas Day—Rejoice!—but he is also coming back. And so we wait.
Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel isn’t just a song for the Advent season. It’s a song for today. For everyday.
Come, Lord Jesus. Come.
This post originally appeared on the now-archived blog Introverted Church.
For more information on childhood cancer–including the warning signs to watch for in your own child–please read and share How a Photo Can Save a Child’s Life.
image courtesy artbystevejohnson