“I hate life.” My 9-year-old daughter slumped on my lap, a tear meandering down her cheek.
“Oh honey, I know. I’m so sorry,” I said, pulling her close.
“I hate Zoom and remote learning and I hate it when Daddy gets us school lunch even though we’re not at school and I hate it that we’re not going to Grandma and Grandpa’s for Christmas. Also, I have a stomachache. And my eye hurts.”
I almost launched into my Pollyanna speech about focusing on the blessings we have instead of the things that have been taken away, which I give my children almost every day. But I stopped myself as a memory surfaced in my mind. Me, in a hospital bed, waiting to be wheeled in to get an MRI scan of my brain. I lay there, heart racing, feeling odd sensations on the right side of my body. A heaviness in my arm that I couldn’t shake, tingling in my back, numbness from my hip down to the outside of my kneecap. With such a strange confluence of symptoms, everything had to be ruled out, and scanning my brain would help the doctor zero in on what was going on.
It was April 2014, and I had just begun to experience panic attacks and clinical anxiety for the very first time. Anxiety looks different for different people, but for me it often presents in psychosomatic form, with physical symptoms so convincing that I’ve been certain I’m having a heart attack, a stroke, possibly throat cancer. I’ve gone to the emergency room multiple times with anxiety masked as another illness, and while I am in a much better place now than I was in 2014, I still occasionally struggle with psychosomatic symptoms.
When it all started so suddenly in the spring of 2014, however, and I had no medical history of anxiety, it was terrifying not to know what was happening; my ignorance only deepened the crippling panic that threatened to engulf me. And while of course I did not want a scary diagnosis, my symptoms became so severe over the course of a single week that any diagnosis would have been a relief.
I don’t remember much about that hospital visit except that my mom was there. After days of confusion and me nearly incapacitated in bed most of the time, I had asked her to make the eight-hour drive from Michigan because I just needed her with me. She was scared as well; I could tell because she had much less to say than usual. I needed her to walk me to the bathroom when the weight on my limbs made it difficult to stand up. I needed her to drive me to the hospital when I finally decided to go back there (it took three hospital visits to come to a clear diagnosis). But even more than getting me from here to there, I just needed her to be with me, wherever I was.
She sat beside the bed in one of those ugly visitors’ chairs, vinyl with a plaid design. “Will you hold my hand?” I said. She pressed her cool, dry palm around my clammy, clenched fingers. I closed my eyes and waited for the MRI tech to call me in.
“Sing me a song,” I said to my mom, hoping for one of my soothing childhood staples.
“I am Jesus’ little lamb,” my mom started the song. Her familiar, pitch-perfect singing voice relaxed me immediately. Even though I was afraid, someone who loved me was with me, and that was all I needed as I waited for clarity about my situation.
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us” (Matthew 1:23).
This past week I sat with my own daughter, who has been frustrated and bewildered by changes and restrictions for the last nine months. I thought about how much I wanted to solve all her problems, and how my mom probably felt similarly when she sat with me in the hospital six years ago. In both cases, mother had no power to bring a solution to her daughter’s distress…no power except the power of being present to a suffering person, no power except the power of a cool, dry hand and a quavering singing voice. No power except the power to come alongside and be with.
Which is to say, we had the same power as the incarnation at Christmas, when Jesus arrived to be with us, and we can bring this same power of presence to our relationships. Christmas perpetually astounds me because it is God’s way of showing power through weakness. To come as a baby is the ultimate show of vulnerability, but this stunning stooping to our level is exactly what we can give to others who are in need. My mother did it for me six years ago, and I did it for my daughter just last week. I turned from the temptation to preach and solve and instead just sat and held my child. My daughter cried for awhile, repeating again her list of frustrations, chief among them that she can’t do anything to fix COVID and make all her problems go away. When she was finally quiet, I asked, “Do you want me to sing you a song?”
“Yes,” she answered. “My favorite one, ‘I Am Jesus’ Little Lamb’.”
Physically being with someone is difficult right now, with social distancing, limitations on gatherings, and an inability to see each other’s faces when we wear masks. For many of us, there are a few people we can be physically present with, in our households or bubbles or pods, and I encourage you to do that to the best of your ability. When you can’t be physically present with someone who is suffering, there are many ways you can be virtually present with them, thanks to Zoom and Facetime and Skype and Google Hangouts and…the list goes on. Although technological togetherness is not ideal, we can still offer the gift of our presence in these ways—and receive the gift of the presence of others—until we can join together again in person.
Because of Jesus, God is with us. How can you be with someone this Christmas?