A few days before Christmas my grandfather passed away, and so my dad, my sister, my two boys and I drove from my parents’ house in Illinois to Ohio for the funeral and visitation. To break up the 8- or 9-hour drive, we had planned to drive partway the night before, but heavy winds and falling snow forced us to stop even earlier than we had planned. We found a motel room, but after we all finally got settled, Luke, my two-year-old, who we’d thought had been mostly over a cold, started coughing and continued coughing the whole night long. All through the next day’s long drive in the new snow and during the visitation at the funeral home that evening, poor Luke couldn’t stop coughing.
That night he couldn’t fall asleep in the hotel-provided Pack ‘n’ Play. My dad and I finally got in the car with him about midnight and drove around town, hoping he’d fall asleep in the carseat, which he did, but it was so cold he woke up as soon as we tried to take him back into the hotel. After another night of very little sleep, he looked and sounded so bad the next morning that it just didn’t seem possible that we could go to the funeral. So the boys and I spent the morning in the hotel room instead. I was sad to not be able to share in the celebration of my grandfather’s life or to be present for my grandmother’s sake, but I was also growing increasingly concerned about Luke’s cough and the way it was preventing him from getting any rest. Every time I laid him down, his cough woke him right back up. My older son Ben and I walked him up and down the hotel hallway in his stroller, hoping he would nod off. No luck.
Later that day, he seemed a little better and so we went over to my aunt’s and uncle’s home to spend time with our extended family. Someone suggested we give him some honey on a spoon to ease his cough. Five minutes later he threw it up all over the nice white carpet. Every mom in the room kindly sprang into cleaning action as my mom and I hustled him into the bathroom to clean him up. Shortly thereafter we headed back to the hotel where he fell asleep on my mom’s shoulder and then on mine when she had to go back to my grandma’s house.
My mom and I were both concerned about the way he seemed to be gasping for breath between some of his coughing fits, and as I lay there in the dark room, holding him as upright as possible in the hopes it would lessen his coughing, that scary “my child is really sick” feeling started to build in my stomach.
Luke had slept very little for two nights now because of the coughing, and he was so exhausted. And now the gasping. I wanted nothing more than for him to feel better, but other than analyzing each of his congested little breaths with minute attention, it didn’t feel like there was much I could do to help him. Being in an unfamiliar place made me feel all the more powerless.
When he coughed himself awake again and asked for one of his trains to hold, I just about fell off the bed trying to get it for him as quickly as I could. If he’d asked me to bring him a Clydesdale, I would have given it a shot, just out of sheer gratitude for something to do that might help.
I’ve been blessed with two healthy children, which I take too much for granted almost all of the time. When one of them does get sick, it reduces me to the most elemental part of my nature, as though I’m operating solely from the reptilian brain. I can think about little else but that illness and what I can (or more often, can’t) do to make him better.
As I held Luke that night, analyzing with minute attention each congested little breath, I started wondering if God hears our prayers the way I hear the requests of my sick child. To God, we are all sick children. I was reminded of Jesus’ words in Mark 2:17 about how he came for the sinners since it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. We are all in various stages of sin sickness, and it must pain God incredibly to see the suffering we cause ourselves.
I see God like a parent, saddened and worried over our constant state of unwellness. Surely God jumps at the chance to help us if we ask, even though we ask for a train when we have a cold–for a comfort rather than something that will heal us or keeping us from getting the same sickness again. How God must rejoice when we actually ask for something that might help make us well, or make others well. And surely making others well is inextricably linked with our own wellness.
I did what little I could for Luke that night. I called the nurse hotline and described his symptoms to make sure I didn’t need to take him to the ER. Then I carried him into the bathroom where I ran the hot water to see if it would ease his coughing. Most importantly, I talked to God about placing Luke and myself in God’s capable hands.
Luke fell asleep again soon after, and kept sleeping. I continued to keep my vigil, but every hour he slept made me more certain he had turned the corner so now it was more a vigil of gratitude. I prayed for my grandparents, the one who had died and the one who had to learn to live without him for the first time in 67 years; for my mother, who was trying to comfort her own mom while missing her dad; and for everyone who was facing a Christmas that didn’t feel very celebratory.
Of course, the truth of Christmas is even more meaningful in times of darkness and sadness and pain. Jesus came for all of us, as sin-sick as we are. Jesus came as the light to our dark world. Sometimes the darkness seems impenetrable, and then sometimes the sun rises and light shines on a sleeping boy in a hotel room in northern Ohio.