On Christmas Day in 2009, I waited for a miracle on the pediatric oncology floor at Boston Children’s Hospital, but God was nowhere to be found.
My four-year-old daughter was in the middle of her second stem cell transplant to treat stage IV high-risk cancer.
It seemed sacrilegious to be mad at God on Christmas. I was supposed to be celebrating baby Jesus’ birthday—but since Emily’s diagnosis, God and I had been struggling.
I’d spent the past seven months asking God, “Why Emily?”
God owed me an explanation.
Every Sunday and on holidays, my parents took me to church to show God that we were “all in.” I spent 12 years going to CCD and learning the rules of how to be a good Catholic. I was expected to confess my sins, but other than cheating on a Latin test, I couldn’t think of much.
I feared God at times. I was convinced that if I broke one of the rules, like having premarital sex, something bad would happen to me. If I were a good Catholic, I’d be safe. So, every year, I begrudgingly gave up Diet Coke for Lent and considered the sacrifice a shield of protection.
As I got older, my sense of duty and dedication started to wane. I went to church only on holidays and got married by a Justice of the Peace. I made up for it by baptizing my girls, carefully dressing them in the family’s heirloom christening gown. My family was pleased. But I didn’t bring the girls back.
It was easy to let my faith lapse.
I was a busy working mother. I signed up the girls for soccer rather than CCD because it was more fun to play with friends than to learn about rules.
I believed in God, but I didn’t have time for God. Yet, God was the first one I turned to when Emily was diagnosed.
Every night, before I fell asleep, I said an Our Father to get God’s attention. On the nights that Emily was getting pummeled by chemotherapy, I said several in a row. In the dark space between the covers and my pillow, I promised God I would be better and do better. I couldn’t think of what else God wanted.
As Christmas approached, I pulled God aside in our dimly lit hospital bathroom and pleaded.
Please make her better. Let her go home for the day.
Doctors sent any child home who could make it 24 hours without active care, even pretty sick ones. “The hospital is no place for a kid to spend Christmas,” a doctor said during morning rounds the day before Christmas. “I wish Emily was a little better and we could get her home.”
Emily had her finger on a morphine button. Mucus filled her lungs and her blood pressure was high. She slept all day propped up on pillows so she could breathe better. I repositioned an oxygen mask near her face all day.
It was ridiculous to think she might be able to go home, but God was known for miracles, especially on Christmas.
My situation with God was tricky. I was mad at God for allowing Emily to get cancer—but I was also counting on God to make her better.
No one else could promise me they could do that. I wanted to stay on God’s good side; I just wasn’t sure how. Maybe I needed to pray more or talk more nicely to my husband.
At times, I questioned if God was the only one in charge of miracles. Not every kid who survived had a parent calling on God and not every parent who called on God had a child who survived. Miracles that swirled through the pediatric oncology floor defied logic.
When I accepted that Emily wasn’t going home for Christmas, I asked God to make her feel good enough to wake up and open a few gifts. It felt like a fair request, a way to make the day feel less tragic. I sat on the edge of her bed and stroked her forehead but she only opened her eyes when she struggled to cough.
I imagined the four of us in our living room surrounded by wrapping paper and the sound of Kenny G’s holiday album. My girls squealing when they opened their American Girl dolls. Lost in my thoughts, I felt like my angel would show up. My Clarence or Ghost of Christmas past, present, or future.
It was hard to tell where God was on Christmas Day. The hospital hallways were empty. The city streets below were brushed with frost and missing the hustle and bustle of cars, buses, and pedestrians dodging traffic. I ate pita chips and cottage cheese and thought about what my husband and six-year-old daughter were doing.
When Father Bob tapped on Emily’s door, I was watching Home Alone on mute. “Great movie,” he said, pointing to the television. He muttered something about the mystery of God, but I only half-listened.
I didn’t want to be mad at God’s messenger too.
Father Bob told me about his plan to head to his niece’s for a feast after his hospital visits. “It’s so good to see family.” It didn’t seem fair that God’s representative was heading to enjoy pecan pie with his family while my family was trudging through pain that was killing us.
On New Year’s Eve, the cardiac team was called in to drain seven ounces of liquid from Emily’s heart. The doctors and nurses swirled through the room, their polite smiles unable to cover the urgency beneath them. I helped push Emily’s hospital bed into the operating room and waited.
For hours, I talked to God.
I put on my boots and walked on the icy sidewalks around the hospital. I sat in my car and screamed. I looked in the bathroom mirror and talked to myself as if God was in the reflection. I begged that Emily be okay.
I can’t take any more tests of strength.
And then, I sat in Emily’s empty hospital room and became still, something I didn’t often do.
When I was still, God felt close. There was peace in surrendering, in listening rather than talking. I could breathe better. I gently handed my grip on the mystery surrounding the outcome to God. It was scary and comforting placing all my belief in something so big and quiet.
Later that afternoon, the head surgeon found me in the hallway. “Honestly, it’s a miracle she made it through that,” he said. “We were worried.”
For the past 12 years, I get quiet on Christmas. It doesn’t last long during a day of chaos. But for a few moments, I fill my soul with gratitude for God.
Then I send a prayer to a mom on the pediatric oncology floor who’s waiting for a miracle.