A Story About Samuel and Christmas

Four years ago our Christmas was stripped of all the extras.  We were in a large desert city in northern China, far away from Western influences, almost in Mongolia.  There were no Christmas trees, no holiday lights, no church service with kids dressed like wise men and sheep.  We ate at a restaurant on Christmas Eve that had a techno version of “Last Christmas I Gave You My Heart” playing on a loop.  We still taunt each other with that song.  Otherwise there was nothing. 


Our first five minutes

We arrived on Dec. 23rd, got off a plane and drove to a hotel.  As we walked into the lobby with our suitcases, a little boy was waiting for us.  He cried, but let me hold him.  He was sweet, probably not sure what to do with us, the funny-looking people whose English sounded like gibberish to him.  He quickly made friends with Jana and Michael, and they played games with the telephone in the hotel room.  He was wearing a hat and race car tennis shoes, and he wouldn’t let us take them off.  So of course, he slept in his shoes.  The next day, Christmas Eve, I held him on my lap in the back seat of a taxi, and drove to some government offices. After a multitude of fingerprints and signatures on papers we couldn’t even read, he was ours.  Our son.  Didi, little brother.  We had been praying for that moment so hard.  He was the gift we had been waiting for.  Our perfect Christmas gift in a city that didn’t know about Christmas.


Brown smog on Christmas Day

I thought a lot about Christmas that year, looking out the hotel window onto that sprawling city.  Three million people, living their lives, with no thought about Jesus.  It occurred to me that even though it didn’t “feel” like Christmas, that year might have been closer to the heart of Christmas that my normal experience of holiday joy.  That huge city, all those people, needing God, and they didn’t even know it.  That’s why He came, right?  Not so we could bake cookies and give gifts, not even so we could have family time, light candles and sing about angels.  But because the world is lost and dark and we need Him.

As we got to know that little boy in those first few days, I reflected on the hardships he had already faced.  The first day of his life, wrapped in a blanket on the steps of an orphanage, his mother weeping with a broken heart as she walked away in the darkness.  The months in a crib among many cribs, without a mother or father.  Moving to a foster home.  More disruption as he left the foster family he had grown to love, and met us.  He was too little to understand the changes or why they were happening.  We named him Samuel, which means “God has heard.”  We wanted him to know that in spite of the tragedies he had been through, God was there.  God heard his cries when he was hungry, or scared, or lonely, even when no one else heard.  God loved him, and had never left him.  God was with him.

Four years later it’s Christmas again, but Samuel is gone.  I can’t wrap my mind around it, but it’s crushing me regardless.  And I don’t want to celebrate Christmas.  I’m left standing, broken and empty-handed, while everyone else’s life rushes past me in a blur.  The lights and laughing and gift-buying of the season are hollow and empty.  “Merry Christmas,” everyone says.  It isn’t merry.  I just want my baby back with me.  But as much as I hate it, I wonder if we might be close to the heart of Christmas again this year.  Samuel gets to spend Christmas IN the arms of Jesus.  That should make me happy, but it doesn’t, not really.  I confess my short-sightedness and lack of faith, and I’d rather have Samuel in MY arms.

But isn’t this why Jesus came?  Because our world is broken, and we desperately need a Savior.  He came for cities that have never heard, for orphans crying alone. He came for broken mothers, for mourning families, for uncertain friends.  We sin, we hurt others, we get hurt, we grieve, we are confused.  We try to make our own way, and we try to hold on to the earthly things we treasure, but it’s not enough.  God tells me that what I should treasure most is Him, and that somehow at the end of it all, He will be enough. When pain seems out of place at Christmas, maybe it’s because we’ve distorted the day.  We don’t rejoice at Christmas because everything is happy.  The joy of Christmas is because we find God, right in the middle of us, in the middle of our pain and sin.  He came to be a light in the darkness, and to bring victory over death.  Heaven is possible because Jesus came to us.  Hope and peace are possible because He came to us.

“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”  Immanuel, God with us.  Christmas is God with us. 


Jana’s Injuries

Jana had facial reconstructive surgery on the third day. The surgeons put a metal plate in her cheek, gave her a synthetic orbital socket (hers was crushed beyond repair), and moved lots of little bone fragments back into place so they could heal. The doctors, both fathers of young children, promised to care for her as if she was their own. Still, it was a terrifying morning. The loss of one child was imminent. What if Jana didn’t wake up too? I prayed desperately and numbed my mind to it until I was by her side again, my fingers tracing gentle swirls on her hand, assuring her (and me) that she was going to be all right. 

After surgery the swelling and bruises crossed to the other side of her face, leaving her unrecognizable. Now both eyes were swollen tightly shut. Her face was so distorted she couldn’t cry properly. Her lips were distended, she could hardly open them. She wined with a high-pitched breathy noise. She couldn’t eat. I sat by her side, unable to ease her suffering. I’ve never felt so helpless.

Jana was in pain and understandably mad about her situation. She pulled away from us when we tried to touch her. She wanted to watch a movie, but couldn’t open her eyes. She would listen to an audio story restlessly, then the next dose of morphine would come and she would fall asleep. Every hour a nurse would come, pry her eyes open, and shine a light in them. This all lasted two or three days. Endless days.  

In the middle of this, we had to tell Jana and Michael their little brother had died. 

Losing someone you love is crushing. Watching the pain in your children’s eyes as they try to understand how they will never see their little brother again burns off parts of your soul that will never be restored.

I can’t do this. 

Nobody asked me though, and nobody gave me a choice.

Jana found comfort in one thing, the piles of notes and cards that filled her room. She had about a hundred and fifty of them…cards from school, from the kids at church, and a basket of notes from a community prayer service that was held for Samuel. In the quiet hours of night when she couldn’t sleep, I read them to her. Notes from higher grade teachers made her feel important, and she especially liked one from a kid who said he wrote on behalf of the middle school. When I finished, she would ask me to read them again. We passed hours this way in the dark, me reading by the light of the medical monitors next to her bed. Sometimes I thought she had fallen asleep, but if I paused, she whispered for me to continue. It was the only time she wasn’t agitated. She would sit still, her head resting back on the pillow, soaking in the words of love and prayer and encouragement. 

A week after the accident, Jana was discharged. Her injured eye was still swollen shut, but she could awkwardly manage soft foods. She couldn’t walk because of her traumatic brain injury. She struggled to support her own weight, was dizzy, and could not put her feet one in front of the other. She didn’t have control over her legs. Because of her concussion she would get a headache if she read more than a single line of writing. She was constantly nauseous. She was still on heavy pain meds. We had referrals for physical therapy and speech therapy. They predicted she would make an excellent recovery, perhaps even a complete recovery, but there was no way to tell how long it would take. She might regain her functioning in weeks, or months.

I could hardly believe she was alive. 

We left the hospital, the first time I had stepped outside in over a week. Our new reality was staggering. We were a family of four, loading Jana’s walker in the back of the car. It was all wrong.

Last Days

Samuel lived for four days.  He never regained consciousness and never took another breath on his own.  He didn’t have any brain activity except for a small movement in his arm when the medical staff pinched his shoulder.  The doctor apologized for the growing bruise where they kept pinching, but that minuscule movement was our only evidence of brain function.  On the fourth day, it disappeared. 

The doctors declared his death on that day, but we think he was probably gone before that.  He might have been gone even before arriving at the ER.  Who knows when the soul departs from the body?  The doctor said that if emergency responders had taken 5 more minutes to arrive at the accident, he probably would have been gone at the scene.  His brain injury was that severe. 

The last day they removed the probe from his head, and allowed his body to return to a normal temperature.  Those actions were signs of defeat.  They meant there was no chance his brain could heal, but they made him look and feel more alive.  I could finally cover his legs with the blanket the neighbors made for him, and his hands felt soft and warm again. 

It sounds awful, but it was almost a relief when the PICU doctor told us that his arm movement had disappeared, and they were now ready for the series of tests needed to declare brain death.  We felt in our hearts that he had already died, and for three days we were making his empty body breathe.  His condition didn’t deteriorate quickly or crash as they had predicted, which meant we were facing choices of removing life support.  I am so thankful we were spared that choice.  So thankful.  I could not have done it.  I couldn’t have taken life away from my child, even knowing that life was already gone.  I would have second-guessed our choice all the way to my own grave.

And so he was gone.  Paperwork to sign, choices to make.  Funeral home.  Organ donation.  Floods of emails.  Our lives shattered like a precious glass ornament that falls off the Christmas tree.  All his personality, his hopes and dreams, his joys and fears and loves and imagination, gone.  Just gone.

Those few days were like being lost in a thick fog.  I was numb.  I don’t grieve well in front of others, so I stayed “strong” in public (and almost all of hospital life is public), and sobbed into a pillow every night in Jana’s room.  She was still seriously injured, so I gave her my attention.  This was survival, but I feel guilty about it now…that even in Samuel’s dying, I didn’t pay enough attention to him. 

So many wrongs, Samuel, and so many regrets.  I’ll love and miss you always.  You were a treasure, brave and amazing.  I can’t describe how deep my sorrow that you will never fully know how special you were. 

The Day it all Changed

It was the weekend after Thanksgiving. Our family was loaded up in the van and we were headed out for a day trip to meet some friends at a waterpark. It was a mild day, but we’d thrown our coats in the back of the van along with our towels and swimsuits just in case. I had bags of snacks and piles of books. The kids were in good moods, and were all reading. Samuel, our youngest, was finally big enough to move out of his 5 point harness car seat into a booster seat. This meant he could sit in the very back of the van now, and he’d been enjoying this privilege for the past week. He loved feeling big, and I loved that he could fasten his own seatbelt. Jana, in third grade, had a stack of five chapter books on her lap.  My book lover, with enough books to read for two solid days. Michael, our middle child, was lost in a Star Wars story, and muttered light saber sound effects as he read. The background noise of my life. Jeremy and I chatted in the front seat.

We pulled up to an intersection and stopped at a red light, the last in a row of several cars. As the light turned green, Jeremy glanced in the rear view mirror and gripped the steering wheel. “Too fast!” he shouted. We lurched violently.

“Jeremy, are you OK?” I was shaking, panicked. What just happened?

“We have to get the kids!”

“But are you OK?” Were we just in an accident?

“Oh God, the kids!”

He wouldn’t answer my question.

Behind me I saw Michael and Samuel, both unconscious, heads hanging. Jana looked dazed and was slowly nodding her head up and down as if she was trying to stay conscious. Blood started to cover her face as I watched. She touched the blood with her fingers and looked at it.

“It’s OK honey, it’s just a bloody nose. You have a bloody nose, but you’re going to be OK.” My voice was unsteady. Her head drooped. We were deep in the ditch between the lanes of the highway. What just happened?

Jeremy somehow climbed into the back of the van. He held Samuel’s head up, but couldn’t move him because his legs were trapped and he was stuck in his booster seat. “Oh God, oh no, please, save my children.” Jeremy was praying.

Someone was talking to me through the window.

“My kids, my kids are in the car! Call 911!” I told him frantically.

Michael regained consciousness and started to wail. My seat was leaning strangely back, reclined almost all the way to his seat behind me. I unbuckled him and pulled him onto my lap. “It’s OK, we’re going to be OK,” I tried to reassure him. I kept shaking.

Then there were a lot of people. Police officers, firefighters, concerned drivers. Trying to open the van doors. Trying to get in through the back. The EMT’s came with a backboard, and someone was taking care of Jana. I was still confused, what happened? Get the kids out of the car, they are scared! Shhhhh, Michael, it’s going to be OK.

Somehow my phone was right there. I called one of our friends. “Hey there!” His cheerful voice didn’t fit. “Chris, we’ve been in an accident. Samuel’s unconscious. Please tell the church to pray!” I didn’t know what hospital we were going to.

I think they got Jana and Samuel out of the car first, but I don’t remember how they did it. A firefighter took Michael off my lap and put him on a backboard. They secured a neck brace under his chin. Another firefighter helped me out of the car, and pulled me up the steep grassy embankment to the road. Cars were lined up as far as I could see, and a lady was sitting by one of the firetrucks, wearing a neck brace. She must be from the car that hit us. I turned and stared at our van. The back third of it was crumpled into nothing.

Jeremy was distraught and sobbing, but we were pulled in different directions. I went with Michael into a firetruck, and Jeremy was talking with the police. They started an IV on Michael, and handed him a little stuffed horse. He was shaking too, and his eyes were wide and scared. Three helicopters landed on the road. I listened to the discussion, which hospital was best equipped to handle these injuries? The first two helicopters took back off, and then Michael and I were led to the third. Someone put headphones over my ears and snapped my seatbelt harness as if I was a child. Jeremy would ride to the hospital with the police.

I couldn’t stop shaking, but my head was calm and detached as we took off. I tried to see the helicopters carrying Jana and Samuel ahead of us, but I couldn’t. From the air I could see the traffic was backed up forever behind all of the emergency vehicles and flashing lights. The land was beautiful beneath us. It should be nice to see the countryside from the air like this…farms, woods… Something inside me said I should be really scared, all my kids were being flown in helicopters, not to the nearest hospital, but to the best trauma center. But I couldn’t feel worried about it. Instead I remembered stories of medical helicopters crashing, killing everyone on board. But I couldn’t feel worried about that either. The sound of the helicopter was loud but soothing somehow, reverberating in my head. Farmland turned into apartments and traffic, and I tried to identify the roads we were over. Soon we were circling the hospital.

We landed, and someone guided me by the arm under the chopper blades, across the landing pad, into the hospital. I think I went to Michael’s room first. The peace of the helicopter was gone. He was surrounded by busy staff so there wasn’t space for me to go next him. Someone asked for an insurance card, and I made sure a nurse knew that he couldn’t eat any gluten or dairy. I told them he was celiac, just to be sure they would take it seriously. Then I was taken to see Jana in the next room. She was also surrounded, so I stood back, watching, numb. She started vomiting large amounts of blood. I noted that the staff cleaned it up in seconds, impressive. But deep panic grabbed me inside, and for the first time a sense of seriousness pushed through the numbness. Something is really wrong, she’s really hurt. She’s bleeding internally. Someone, a doctor, or nurse, came beside me and said that vomiting blood is common when you have a broken nose, they see it all the time. The blood drains into the stomach, causes irritation, and then you vomit. I wasn’t reassured.

More business. People everywhere. Where was Samuel? Jeremy arrived. Really quickly, actually. The drive should have taken over an hour, but he got there shortly after I did. How fast did they go? He was upset and scared, while I stayed calm (strong, they said, but that’s generous, it was really shock). Soon we were putting on heavy lead vests to watch the kids have CT scans, and then Jeremy was whisked off to his own CT scan when he admitted that both his head and his leg were hurting. The doctor said something to me about Jana having a facial fracture near her eye, not a broken nose. An ophthalmologist came by to see if her injuries were threatening her eyes, and they were not. Maybe she would need surgery to repair the fracture, but they weren’t sure. And really, where was Samuel? They weren’t letting us see him, and this was significant, but I pushed it away. I couldn’t think about that now.

Some friends arrived, but I can’t remember much of what they did or where they were. Kelly found out somehow and came, Scott our pastor was there, and Chris and Steph from Bible study. I remember feeling sad I pulled all these people away from their families and Thanksgiving leftovers. I think at one point I handed Kelly a styrofoam container with an uneaten sandwich. Otherwise I don’t remember what any of them did. Leah, who we were meeting at the waterpark, came sometime too.

One by one the kids were moved out of the ER. Michael was taken to a regular pediatric unit. He was still wearing the neck brace, had a concussion, and had thrown up. But nothing was broken, and he was stable. He was most unhappy about a little scratch on his chin. He was going to be OK.

Samuel and Jana were moved to Pediatric ICU.

We had not seen Samuel since he was pulled out of the van. Around 3pm the PICU doctor found us and invited us into a little windowless room with sad walls the color of masking tape. He was kind and gentle. He explained that they weren’t sure what happened, but that Samuel’s brain had been deprived of oxygen for some amount of time. They couldn’t find any specific injury to explain the lack of oxygen, but somehow it had happened. He was still unconscious, and on a ventilator. They put a probe into his brain to measure the pressure, the amount of swelling and pushing of his brain on his skull. Normal pressure is low, below 10. Samuel’s, he said, was at 70. He said there was very little they could do, but wait and see what would happen. They were going to keep his body temperature low, as that might help his brain respond. They would support him as much as they could. But there were no interventions to cure his brain. Sometimes the brain pressure peaks and then decreases, and brain functioning begins to return. We would wait and see. His eyes filled with tears and he shook his head slowly. “I’m so, so sorry”, he said.

Jeremy and I were strong. We cried, but we clung to hope. I reminded Jeremy of a man we knew who had a horrible brain injury just a year earlier, and he’s now fine. How awful that this was happening, but this was going to be God’s stage for a spectacular miracle. Tomorrow, or maybe the next day, Samuel would start breathing easy. His eyes would open, and he would be happy to see us. And everyone would know how it wasn’t the doctors or medicine, but God had reached in and healed our baby. And maybe we’d have some changes to make at home, supportive services for him, or something like that. Wheelchairs, physical therapy. No problem. We would take care of him no matter what. My biggest fear was that the injuries would take away his clever and curious mind.

Then we were allowed to see him. The first thing I noticed was the brain probe. It looked like a large bolt and screw sticking out of his head, right above his forehead. It was horrible. But the rest of him looked peaceful. He didn’t have any visible injuries or bruises. He was only wearing a diaper and a neck brace, and not covered with blankets. They were keeping his body cool to help his brain swelling go down. I think he was laying on cooling pads. His hands were cold, and felt like death. Click, swoosh, click…the ventilator was soft and rhythmic. He was hooked up to about 12 different monitors, all with buttons and blinking lights. If he was awake he would have loved them, would have tried to be good and not touch them, but his little fingers would have reached for them anyway. He couldn’t resist buttons and lights. But he wasn’t awake. He was very, very still. Click, swoosh, click… Eyes closed, sleeping. So cold.

Jana was settled into her room in the PICU. She was also in a neck brace, and we were told her injuries were more severe than they had discussed in the ER. She had a fractured skull, and not one, but multiple facial fractures (I asked how many, and the surgeon said “imagine how a glass shatters”). The bone holding up her left eye was crushed.  Her eye was swollen shut and bruises were now spreading across her face. The doctor in the ER had stitched a small gash on her cheek, but it still dripped blood. Somehow she didn’t need any pain medicine. They were concerned because her internal facial injuries were bleeding and that blood was pooling on the lining of her brain, so they came to check on her every hour. “What’s your name honey, do you know where you are? Do you know what happened to you? Squeeze my fingers. Sorry to do this, but I’ve got to open your eye and shine a light. There, all done. You did great. You are so brave.”

Night came, and we settled in. The kind doctor arranged for Michael to be moved to an empty PICU room, even though he didn’t need that level of care. That way all three kids were on the same hallway, making it easier on Jeremy and I. Our friend Leah slept in Michael’s room so he wouldn’t be alone. Jeremy stayed with Samuel, and I stayed with Jana. Our other friends went home.

Jana tried to sleep between neuro checks, but was restless. I sat in the chair next to her all night long. There was a couch in the room, but it was behind her bed. When she woke up, afraid, she couldn’t see me laying on the couch. So I stayed in the chair. She became more and more irritated at the neck brace as the night went on, sleeping only minutes before trying to move and waking up, agitated and afraid. And every hour the nurse would come in, shine lights in her eyes, ask her questions, take her pulse. The minutes crept by. I slept a little with my head resting on the edge of her bed.

Sometime in the middle of the night she seemed to be in a deeper sleep. I took the risk of leaving her and went to check on everyone else. The night staff chatted quietly, ignoring me either because it was 2:30am or because I was that mother and they didn’t want to make eye contact. I don’t know which. I remember the floor was cold under my socks, and some removed part of my brain vaguely told me I shouldn’t be walking around a hospital without shoes on. Michael’s room was dark, and he was sleeping. There were more lights in Samuel’s room. Jeremy was wrapped in a blanket, asleep, on the couch behind Samuel’s bed. A doctor I hadn’t seen was there with a nurse, making some adjustments to the array of monitors, machines, and I don’t know what. I talked to him about something. Click, swoosh, click…

And then he said it. “No one would blame you at all if you just pulled the plug right now.” I think I just stared at him. And then I stared at Samuel, trying to blink back the tears that came anyway. It felt wrong to cry in front of that doctor. He was clinical and harsh and spoke of Samuel as if he was pointing out a broken toy that needed to be thrown away. Reality slammed into me and my grief surged, messy and out-of-place in his antiseptic presence. I wanted him to leave, but he didn’t. So I turned and fled, past the averted eyes of the night staff, back to Jana’s room.

I couldn’t breathe. Someone had driven a knife into my heart, surely this was a real knife in my heart. The words of hope the doctor had given us that afternoon, they were empty. They were the 1% chance of hope. Or less than that. There really was nothing they could do for Samuel. His chest was rising up and down with the click of the ventilator, but he was not coming back. 24 hours earlier we were warm and safe and comfortable, sleeping in our beds at home. Turkey leftovers in the fridge, pumpkin pie half gone. 18 hours earlier the kids were putting on their swimsuits and picking books for the car ride, so excited to spend the day with friends at the waterpark. It just didn’t make sense, it didn’t seem real. I think if I had been anywhere else I would have screamed. But there was Jana, restless but eyes closed. I sat on the floor and sobbed silently into a pillow instead.

Sometime towards early morning Jana’s pain started. It took the nurse about an hour to get approval from a doctor somewhere, and then they could give her something. Morphine. And finally she slept.

There wasn’t any morphine for my heart.