At the same time, there has been a palpable incompletion this Christmas. As Christmas hinges on a tiny baby boy, I am so very aware of my tiny baby boy's absence. Samuel's absence is tangible and painful. Being at my mom's house and having only 5 grandkids seems....well, incomplete. Where is the 6th child? Where is my baby boy to hold through Christmas morning while we open presents? Where is my sweet Samuel when we all gather for a big family photo shoot? Why are we all having professional photos made when Samuel's not here? In so many ways, this Christmas feels wrong.
One of the most momentous parts of this Christmas has been meeting my niece, June, for the first time. She is 16 hours younger than Samuel. I have been nervous about seeing her ever since I knew Samuel was going to die. I have known that one of two paths was open before me: June could be a special niece to me with a very special place in my heart because of her close age with Samuel, or she could be a very painful reminder of our loss and someone I avoid and resent. I desperately wanted the first to be true, but I couldn't predict my emotions. I knew I would choose to love her, but I didn't know if that would be an uphill battle or a natural outpouring of love.
Being with June for the last few days has been....wonderful. She is adorable and entirely loveable. She's beautiful and happy and so right in my arms. A couple of days after Samuel's funeral I asked my brother, June's dad, what God was thinking when he gave us children so close in age and took one away. Matthew said he'd wondered the same thing, but maybe part of why June is here is to keep Samuel close to our hearts -- to give us a picture of Samuel and what he would be up to. I found that to be so very true this trip. And I can imagine it holding true for the rest of my life.
One of my friends, Wendy, wrote something to me about seeing June this Christmas, and it's been a real comfort and source of peace:
"I pray that seeing June, while it will surely be acutely painful in some ways and a reminder of how much you miss your son, would also be wonderfully like your dream, in which you got to hold a lively, growing, smiling Samuel. I pray that holding your niece would give you a small glimpse of the healthy, whole Samuel who celebrates Jesus' birth in his presence this Christmas!"
This is what I was pondering the entire Christmas Eve service at Matthew and Ashley's church. I held June the whole time, and I wept silently for most of the service. It was a gift to hold June and feel her wriggle in my arms, to see her big, brown eyes and her endless offering of smiles. To cuddle close a baby whom I love and to think of my baby as happy as June and celebrating Christmas in Jesus' very presence...it was a beautiful and comforting picture. For all the joy we experience here on earth at Christmas time, Samuel's joy far surpasses it. I love that.
And then at Christmas dinner, my 5 1/2 year old niece, Vivian, prayed for Samuel -- for him to be happy with Jesus in Heaven. This, too, brought tears to my eyes. As did a text from one of Bryan's friends and co-workers, saying his 6 year old daughter had just prayed for Samuel and for us. God is putting our family on the hearts of children! What a humbling and awe-inspiring thing!
I think the most heartbreaking thing this Christmas has been seeing how very much and very deeply my children love June. Joel asked for her moments after we first walked in the door of my mom's house, and later he sat beside her and kissed and stroked and hugged and cuddled her endlessly. He couldn't stop staring at her and being so sweet to her. He held her for a long time, and I don't think he ever would have volunteered to give her up. He kept bending his head forward to see her face and to kiss her cheek. Numerous times since then he has spontaneously piped, "I'nna hold June!" (I'nna is Joel's shorthand way of saying "I wanna".) And Caleb asked to hold her during Christmas Eve service and was beaming with joy and pride with her in his lap. He was sad to give her back to me when she started fussing and later told me that holding June was his favorite part of going to church. It has broken my heart to see my kids love on their baby cousin so tenderly and to know they want to be loving on Samuel, they miss him, they wonder about him, and they are sad to miss the chance to be a big brother to Samuel. I am deeply thankful that they have been able to hold and love June, and I am sure it's part of their healing as it has been part of mine, but how I wish I could offer them their own baby brother to hold and love and care for.
This morning at my mom's church, we sang "Great is Thy Faithfulness," a song we sang to Samuel on occasion. I often pondered and prayed a line from that song during the month of August. In fact, I am pretty sure it was a status update on facebook. "Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow" meant something very different in August than it does now, and that realization lead to a torrent of tears. In August, I was desperate for God's strength to make it through the day, to trust Him, and to hope for Samuel's future. I needed Him to face every piece of good news and bad, every fear and uncertainty, every question about his health and how to proceed. And I needed God to give me hope that Samuel would come home, live a full life, and be in my arms someday. Now, however, I need strength to face each day without Samuel and bright hope for the "tomorrow" in which I get to spend eternity with my son. It's an entirely different prayer now, though no less relevant or true. And singing it was sorrowful, overwhelming, and refreshing all at once.
This Christmas is one I will not forget. I didn't have my baby boy to hold and care for, but I have a new picture of him celebrating Jesus in Heaven. I didn't have Samuel to kiss and stare at, but I have June to soak up and treasure. I didn't get to scold Caleb and Joel for being rough with their baby brother, but I got to witness their shear joy in holding and loving their baby cousin. I didn't get to tuck my newest son in on Christmas Eve, but I have a new appreciation for Christ coming as a baby and for Mary and Joseph's wonder at His birth. God continually gives me gifts of grace, peace, hope, and strength, and I continue to experience Him in ways I never would have if Samuel hadn't been born the way he was. My God amazes me, and this Christmas I celebrate Him more sincerely than ever before. What a gift we have in Jesus!