December 25, 2015
My dearest Wifelet,
I write with a divided heart. On the one hand, the Christmas Eve we shared last night was perhaps the most unique and memorable of my life; on the other hand, it felt so foreign to be here, away from home, while the usual family gatherings were happening just a couple hours’ drive distant.
So why are we in Leavenworth? How did we get here? Well, by train, of course! And that was a delightful holiday treat in and of itself. But the real answer to the question is: because we could afford to be. If we’d been able to afford more, we might have been in the Scottish Highlands instead of the Cascades. “As far away from the usual hustle and bustle as possible” was the real objective.
This decision to share a holiday in isolation is not without precedent, after all. One of our other Top Three Christmases was 2002′s sojourn at Strachur’s Gatehouse. Since we were going to be in Europe anyway on the heels of our Operation Christmas Child week in Romania, it just made sense to hole up in the Scottish Highlands. We were transitioning out of ministry at Normandy Christian Church, out of Dramatic Insights Ministries, out of your job, out of almost everything we’d known since we’d married. It was a world-shakeup for us. Why not stir the pot further by being on our own for Christmas?
Before that, even prior to our wedding, we had committed to spending holidays with those who couldn’t spend it with families–servicemen and women, hospital workers, the homeless–or didn’t have them in the first place. After all, we had been on that side of things ourselves, and knew we’d never have our “own family.” By choice and by calling, “our people” was always going to mean a much bigger group than immediate family.
But then we came home from Romania and Scotland… and within four months you were critically ill. Had we known that the Christmas dinner we shopped for in the Dunoon Safeway would be the last holiday meal you’d ever eat in total comfort, we still couldn’t have done it any better… but we would have shed more tears, and blessings, over it.
Although you were recovering from the ulcer and h. pylorii at Christmas 2003, you still weren’t fully healthy. And with the full relapse of nausea in July 2004, while on the Wright 50th Anniversary cruise to Alaska, came gastroparesis… and the permanent end of all things “normal.” By October, you were down to 89 pounds and I was carrying you piggy-back up and down the stairs to our apartment. Your “What, me worry?” physician, she who shall not be named, finally prescribed I.V. nutrition… and the holiday saga really began. You were three days out of the hospital when we traveled to Disney World with your brand-new PICC line, and you were so weak that I pushed you in a wheelchair to hear Jim Caviezel narrate the Candlelight Processional at Epcot. I’m sure I told you later, but tears streamed from my face behind you as Caviezel read from Scripture about the child-king born to suffer and die.
Over the next 8 years, we’d really get our wish about spending holidays with hospital workers. Better than half of them were spent in a hospital room. Just before Thanksgiving 2006, I literally walked from your bedside to a press screening of The Fountain… a movie about a man watching his wife slowly die in a hospital bed, and being powerless in the face of death. As the Tree of Life died at the furthest reaches of the galaxy, my heart died with it and my tears flowed hot.
December 31, 2008 was the worst. Mom and Dad and J-W were there that night. So were Mike and Donna Gunn, in the midst of their own anguish. Virginia Mason Hospitalist Randy Morrison was your angel that night, holding you in your pain and self-loathing as I watched from the shadows in my own kind of agony. I’m pretty sure you hated life more that night than you ever had before.
The experience stuck with me. I distinctly remember standing in the bedroom in our apartment at the end of 2009 talking to Mom on the phone about Christmas plans. You were sleeping in the living room, sick again, and my forehead was against the wall as the words fell out of my lips. “I’m starting to hate Christmas, Mom.” I wept bitterly. “I just hate it.”
The apex came, though, on Christmas Eve 2012. This is still the second-best Christmas memory we have. We had spent several days at Ocean Shores with the Wright family, and the night before had spent a raucous evening watching the Seahawks beat down Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers. And yet there you were at 6:30 pm curled up on the hearth in septic chills.
It was the night of the Long Drive in the snow from Ocean Shores to the ER at VM, the night of the Big Talk about what we should do if the end came for you while I was driving. The kind of night couples should never have to endure, much less on Christmas Eve. I can only imagine what Mom and Dad and Elane were thinking as we drove away in a grim rush. I’m not sure, but I think you spent all of Christmas Day asleep in the Intensive Care Unit.
But we weren’t done. We were back in the E.R. for New Year’s Eve, too, with a blown I.V. in your jugular. Gallows humor took over on the drive home in the wee hours on January 1, 2013. “What do you call the hungriest I.V. tech in the E.R.? Phlebotomist pit!”
Last year, I realized I was still living with a form of Post Traumautic Stress Disorder from our 2012 holidays. Your September hospitalization hadn’t helped. A week or so before Christmas, I was working a crossword puzzle and the clue for an eight-letter word was “Desperate.” I said aloud, “I know that. It’s hopeless. Yes–it’s hopeless.”
It’s common knowledge that the holidays are a peak stressor for everyone–but you can only live with so many years of holiday dread before it catches up to and overwhelms you like the roller you try to outrun in the undertow. I started drowning last Christmas, and with the surf roaring in my throat I vowed it wouldn’t happen again this year. With your approval, I made an executive decision that we simply wouldn’t be doing Christmas in the usual way again. I booked a train trip and a week away at Leavenworth for 2015. I didn’t give a rat’s ass if history showed that the odds of being healthy enough to actually go were less than 50%. I gave less than a rat’s ass about what the family might think. I was determined that sheer will power would make it happen, that, by God, we were going to have a magic Christmas all our own.
And sure enough, we made it. But in our first three days here, it seemed like the ghosts of Christmases past were going to again chase us down. I couldn’t find happiness in my soul about anything. It wasn’t as if I were anticipating you getting sick–I just had no joy. And I was making things hard for you, too.
Then yesterday morning when we were talking about our plans for Christmas Eve, it dawned on me: I was still fighting the holiday battle of emotions from 2014. For an entire year I had been running from Truth. For an entire year I had been hiding from God, whom I hated for doing all this to you–to us. For turning our seasons of Good Will and Good News to Much Ill and Bad News. For making me hate the celebration of his Son’s birth. For being the great Grinch in the sky.
But here’s the thing. We’ve long recognized that God puts us where he wants us, whether we think it’s a good idea or not. And when we decide to cooperate with that agenda, it can take an awful lot of unpleasant forms.
After we held hands through Blackbird Island last night and sang “O, Holy Night” from the bridge, we returned to Blackbird Lodge. Across the street–literally across the street–stands the Leavenworth Emergency Room. Across the street. We rang the access bell and wished the desk attendant, Lester, a merry Christmas.
Have we ever vacationed anywhere across the street from an E.R.? Is that idea even conceivable?
Long ago, we made a covenant with God to live for others, to consider strangers more important than ourselves and our immediate families. Before we were ever married we decided to spend holidays with those who couldn’t be with families–servicemen and women, hospital workers, the homeless–or didn’t have them in the first place. We made that covenant, and He’s been holding us to it.
But these days, my love, you are finding out more about who “your people” are–the homeless, the hurting, the alienated, and the young. And how to minister to them. It is beautiful to watch.
And God brought us here to show us that… among other things.
Through a great deal of pain, we are also finding out who are not “our people.” Is it possible that it’s time to move on from those old covenants? Is it possible that God is using this Christmas to heal us of those Christmases past? Is it possible that last night was our penultimate Christmas Eve visit to an E.R.? I would like to hope so.
I would like to hope that, next year, holiday gatherings are not to me like eggshells and sand grinding between my teeth. I would like to hope that I might look my sister and brother in the eye with real joy and without holes in my heart. I would like to hope that I can once again live with real hope, not just a glimmer of the form of hope.
But today, at least, my heart is at peace, thanks to God–and to you. Last night was the Christmas Eve of our dreams.
Silent night, holy night.
No wrapping paper, no Christmas cards, no shopping mall purchases. Food as an afterthought. Life itself as The Gift.
Hymns in the dark in the silence of snow. Peace like river, on the river. Tender love. Snow angels. Candlelight. My wife shouting to the night sky, “I feel young again! I feel 43!”
And, maybe, one final visit to the E.R.
Could it be?
A Merry Christmas to you, Lester, and to all like you. To Randy Morrison, to Dr. Davis, to Dr. Friedman, to Dr. Schwartz, to Dr. Ingram. To nurses, aides, and I.V. techs like Betsy and Donna. To Rahn Inman and Stephanie at ThriveRx. To Don and Daniel at Coram. To Dan Richards. To Amanda Bishop. To Abbe and Habtom in the parking garage. To Joe and to Robyn and John and Leah at registration. To Dr. Eintracht, Dr. Chang, Drs. Lee and Kobashi and Lucioni, and to Dr. Kirsten Hohman… and even to Dr. Carrie Bagatell.
And a merry, merry Christmas to you, my bride. May your days be merry and bright.
And like this year’s, may all your Christmases be virginal… and white.