Now that the nights are longer and the Christmas lights are twinkling, my mind wanders back to my son’s first Christmas nine years ago. Back then I used to say that my little Louie was a perfect angel, because real angels don’t eat or sleep; they possess infinite energy and are always on a mission.
I’d never heard of a baby quite like him—he seemed to be all spirit and fire. My days and nights were consumed by his fire, calming and comforting him so that he could be fed or put to sleep for a few hours.
Old friends and even family members faded away as my descriptions of Louie’s behavior became more troubling and complex. They couldn’t have done much to help anyway, since my baby was so terrified of people that some days he wouldn’t even allow his own father to hold him. My husband, Oliver, and I were physically drained, and we argued about little things that blew up into big things week after week.
No one had yet whispered the word “autism” into our ears, but we were slowly coming to realize that our son would not experience a normal childhood, and we were trudging through all the stages of grief. “Be gracious to me, Lord, for I am in distress; with grief my eyes are wasted, my soul and body spent” (Psalm 31:10).
I had already left my teaching career to take care of Louie, and my incomplete doctoral dissertation was gathering dust. I knew that I was willing to sacrifice anything for the well-being of my beautiful, radiant child. But I didn’t realize how much more I was close to losing.
Unexpected Diagnosis. It was two weeks before Christmas when my doctor’s office called. “Your lab results are in, and the doctor wants to see you tomorrow.” I said I would be there and hung up, stunned. Oliver and I sat on the living room floor, wondering how bad the news would be.
We found out the next morning. “It’s melanoma,” the doctor said, handing me a copy of a lab report. “A very, very dangerous cancer, but it looks like it hasn’t spread.”
It was just a small brown freckle on my arm. Oliver hadn’t even noticed that it changed color or shape. Now he was looking at me with the same anxious eyes that I saw when my baby and I went into distress during labor.
“I’m arranging for you to see an oncologist,” the doctor continued. “Then you’ll see a surgeon. Once you’ve got a clean bill of health, you’ll need a complete skin screening every six months to one year.”
Help My Unbelief! I walked into the oncologist’s waiting room a week later, and all eyes turned to me with a questioning look. I was by far the healthiest person there. Some patients were sitting with portable oxygen tanks, a few were attached to IV drips. I saw one very thin child with sunken eyes.
I did what my mother taught me to do at the sight of a person in distress: I began to pray silently for everyone in that room. It seemed we were all united in prayer, as if I could hear the heartfelt supplications in a soft murmur. I was amazed at the hopeful tenacity I sensed in the souls around me. “The prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up” (James 5:15).
I felt like a whiny brat. After all, I had received many blessings in my life, and even with this melanoma, my prognosis was excellent. The oncologist confirmed this. Yes, it was serious, he said, and gave many warnings about precautions to take in the future. Yet he wasn’t too worried about the cancer spreading, and he scheduled my appointment with the surgeon for the week after Christmas.
But I was still scared, plagued by “what ifs.”
In God’s House. It snowed all day and all night on Christmas Eve. No one came to visit us. Our families were hundreds of miles away. So when my baby woke up early on Christmas morning, I decided to let my non-Catholic husband sleep in while I whisked Louie off to Mass at a nearby church.
I slipped him into my front carrier and zipped him inside my parka. His little feet were dangling out of the bottom of my coat, and his head poked out above my zipper just below my chin. He squirmed and squealed with pleasure. Outside, it was a winter wonderland, quiet and peaceful with a pale lavender-gray light shining through the clouds onto the snow. Everything felt new to me—the cold air, the snow, the morning sky—because I was seeing everything from Louie’s point of view.
Inside the church, we were welcomed by a Latin inscription written in huge letters above the sanctuary: Hic est non aliud, nisi domus Dei et porta caeli—“Here is nothing else except the house of God and the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:17). Louie loved the music, and I held him close to make sure he could hear me sing and pray with the congregation. Every word and every hymn that fell from my lips was a thanksgiving for my child and my imperfect, uncertain life.
I was still afraid, but somehow it became easier for me to live with the fear.
Treasures of the Heart. Later that day, we called our faraway relatives. “It’s the best type of cancer,” I joked with my sister, “because it’s tiny and it didn’t spread.”
“You know, it’s the second time this year that you’ve had to think about death,” she said, referring to the complications I had at Louie’s birth. “Do you get the feeling that God is trying to tell you something?” It was an odd question, coming from a professed atheist.
That night, as I lay in bed with my sleeping son close to my heart, the message was clear: “For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Luke 12:34). I recalled how ecstatically happy I was on the morning when the home pregnancy test turned instantly pink. This is the child I longed for and prayed for, I thought. His small body, so tense and tight all day long, was now relaxed, and he seemed to melt into me. In the semidarkness I inhaled his sweet breath and the sweaty, salty fragrance of his hair.
My exhausted husband finally finished the dishes, turned off the lights, and glided noiselessly into bed with us. He leaned over, gently stroked Louie’s warm cheek, and whispered, “You did so much for him today, so much every day. He would die without you.”
“I need him as much as he needs me. He’s my angel.”
“I think you are his angel.”
Everything I had ever desired was snuggled there in bed with me. I drifted off into a brief, restless sleep. In my dreams I listened to the three of us breathing together, our hearts beating in unison on a Christmas night both dark and bright, our baby’s first. n
Karen Wang is looking forward to a quiet, treasure-filled Christmas at home in Michigan with her husband, Oliver, and sons Louie, 9, and Denny, 3.