My first baby was born during a snowstorm on an early December night. She was extremely sick and whisked away by ambulance to the nearest children’s hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. There, she went directly into surgery and we were told she had a 50% chance of surviving. Visitors overnight weren’t allowed, so I came every day following her surgery, sitting by her ICU bassinet. But it wasn’t until 16 days later, on Christmas morning, that her doctors felt she was stable enough I could hold her for the first time. Nurses helped situate me into a vinyl, hospital rocker and taped her ventilator tubing, IVs, and feeding tube to my shoulder so I wouldn’t accidentally jostle them. They showed me how to support her little body and let her know I was with her. That morning I was able to rock my infant as she nestled into me for the first time since she’d entered the world. I tell myself she’d known I was always there before, but in that first enveloping physical connection, we both sighed into comfort feeling that something had been righted. It’s the best Christmas present I’ve ever been given.
At the hospital she stayed in, Santa visits sick children on Christmas Day. And he happened to be in the NICU while I was holding my baby for the first time. Trailed by a professional photographer to give parents a keepsake they otherwise wouldn’t have due to their child’s hospitalization, Santa Claus asked if I’d like for my daughter and me to take a picture with him. I said I’d love that. As he leaned in next to me, he gave my arm a tight squeeze, and whispered, “Christmas will be better next year.” His eyes locked with mine and he nodded with a depth of understanding. He knew what I was feeling and in that look we shared, I became aware of what I felt. Then we smiled toward the photographer, my eyes welling with emotion. It was the most ethereal experience of my life.
That Christmas season was filled with uncertainty for me. I was lucky enough to have a supportive partner, employers who were understanding, extended family and friends who dropped off meals and checked in on the dog when I stayed late at the hospital and tried their best to understand what we were going through. But the unknown is stressful and when the only certain thing is that there will be uncertainty, I found myself compromising connections with those around me and emotionally isolating myself.
It wasn’t terribly unlike how this holiday season is turning out. Traditions and gatherings with loved ones have been cancelled entirely or reduced to well-intentioned, but feeble virtual husks. The Nutcracker Ballet, Union Station bustling with a holiday model train display, the crowds of shoppers in bulky coats jostling in aisles, caroling at nursing homes, holiday music programs at schools, decorating cookies with friends, all the cousins in pjs snuggled on the couch to watch movies - it’s not happening this year. And that loss of the “normal" leaves me feeling sad and unmoored from tradition.
But just like that Christmas in the NICU where uncertainty and stress and fear pressed against me, I’m finding some solace in focusing on what I can control this holiday season. I can still search for joy and magic and celebrate when I find or create it. I can connect with others. I can reach out with a card or a text to let friends know I’m thinking of them and can’t wait until we can be together again in person. I can always answer the phone when a relative is calling even if it’s not an ideal time; they need to hear a familiar voice right in that moment. I can redouble my efforts to be helpful - donate blood, shovel a neighbor’s driveway, drop off food at the local food pantry, give a poinsettia to someone who may need some cheer, make a donation to an organization I believe in, or send a note of appreciation to a frontline worker. Even small acts can make a positive impact. And I’m re-centering my thoughts on not what I’m losing this holiday season, but rather all I have to be grateful for. And it’s a lot that I have to express gratitude for. I just need to remind myself sometimes.
I know normalcy will eventually return. It won’t be forever that we can’t hug our loved ones as we meet them at baggage claim or gather with our friends around a boisterous restaurant table. And when our regular lives do return, I’ll be mindful to carry this time with me as a lesson of how much I should continue to appreciate the “normal everyday”. To celebrate it and our connections to each other. One of my favorite authors John Updike once wrote that it was his duty to “give the mundane its beautiful due”. What a wonderful charge to carry through life. When this time passes, I’ll endeavor to avoid complacency and instead seek daily joy in gathering face to face, hugging those outside my household, sharing a meal at the same table, seeing smiles in real life again.
Months after that morning that Santa visited us in the intensive care unit, my daughter was discharged from the hospital. And years later, every birthday, we tell her the myth of the night she was born during a snowstorm and how Santa visited her Christmas morning in the hospital. There’s still magic and joy in the season, I just might have to look a little harder to see it shining through the murk of the difficult time we are in. And I’ll keep in my heart that though it may be hard now, it will be better next year.