Growing up Hindu in cosmopolitan Bombay, I looked forward to Christmas with a sigh of relief. Christmas for us did not have the bearings and pressures of other Indian festivals, so we could just enjoy its beauty in a laidback fashion through common symbols like the Christmas trees, church bells, decorative snow made from cotton balls, and delicious plum cakes. After coming to America, Christmas became another avenue for justifying material greed that was validated by the culture as a way to celebrate this day. Nothing wrong with shopping, but that just as I had done back in India, I missed seeing the depth of Christmas. The legendary miracle of Christmas was only a fable to me until Christmas acquired a transformed meaning for me and my family.
Four years ago, much to my shock, I spent Christmas at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) in Florence, South Carolina.
My son was born two weeks past his due date after a strenuous, dangerous, and heart-breaking birthing process. He was taken for a routine checkup when he started having seizures. Doctors informed us that he would have to be rushed to a specialized NICU, an hour and a half away, since that hospital was not equipped to deal with serious health conditions in infants. What health condition I asked. “We suspect meningitis,” said a very concerned doctor.
The next morning, he was zipped up in a see-through bag to be put into an ambulance. I saw him clearly for the first time. Strong, calm, and big at 9 pounds, he looked nothing like a new-born. I blew him flying kisses as tears rolled down my eyes. Because of my own medical recovery, I would not be able to get to him for three days.
Three days passed in agony. I walked through a large room that was the NICU. There were about twenty infants there, primarily premature infants who would be kept in the unit until they reached 40 weeks, the normal gestational period. The slow exploration of miracles started when I saw babies close to two pounds, being kept alive in incubators; surviving, fighting, wanting to taste life. On the far left in the back of the big room was the critical section. That’s where I saw my son. Among others, he looked like a giant. His dark eyes wide open and aware.
I held him for the first time on Christmas eve. At this point, any contact with him felt like a gift. I stroked his hair; did he even know that I was his mother? As I met the nurses that I had been distrusting of (How would they treat him? Would they be kind to him?), I saw how they held him, like their own. They magically appeared every time he cried, as if they were telepathically connected to him. Truth be told, they knew how to care for him better than an emotionally and physically wrecked first-time mother. They had fed him bottles of donor breast milk, another gift in this process by unknown women.
“We were thinking about a feeding tube for him, but he took to the bottle like a champ,” said the nurse. By now I had established my own milk and on Christmas Eve I fed him the first time as well.
We awoke in a hotel room near the hospital on Christmas morning. I had imagined Christmas to be at home with a tree, presents, a fireplace, welcoming our first child. When we went to the hospital, I noticed for the first time that they had a Christmas tree in the ICU. Under it were presents with each child’s name on them. And right toward the front, I saw one for my son. When I headed toward his bed, I was introduced to a woman who had been waiting for me. She introduced herself as a chaplain and that she was here to pray for every child. As she prayed for his health, for a speedy recovery invoking a miracle from God, the nurses held me while I wept.
One of them said kindly, “The best part of our job is that we see miracles every day.”
After the prayers, the nurses serenaded Samuel with Christmas songs: Holy Night, Silent Night, Jingle Bells. My heart melted when I saw these mothers sacrificing their own Christmas mornings with their children to be with these wonderful little souls. It was a glimpse of the selflessness that motherhood calls for, something that, in time, I’d learn myself.
Trolleys of gifts were being rolled around the room and I saw that each child had a small blue teddy bear. When my son received his, I read the tag on it. It was a gift to all the children from a little boy who had spent Christmas, in this very NICU, fourteen years ago. He did not fail to send gifts each year as a reminder of the victory of recovery.
When my husband and I walked out of the NICU, we were met by an unknown couple. They took us aside and gave us a fifty-dollar bill. “We wanted to give forward to the parents of a child here today but didn’t know who to choose. So, we stood here thinking we would give to the next couple that walks out the door.” And that was us. “Go buy yourself a Christmas dinner. Merry Christmas,” they said.
On that Christmas, my life changed. Little miracles opened my heart to a new reality – that of the true miracle of Christmas. The story of Bethlehem was no longer a fable for me. I witnessed the miracle of birth and life, of a soul coming through the darkness. I was following the guiding stars of light into the unknown to experience the magnificence of a child. Through this suffering, my understanding of Christmas was transformed from a consumer to its real purpose.
After Christmas that year, Samuel started to make a miraculous recovery. He fought his lot well, and soon it was concluded that he was fighting E-Coli in his blood all along and was spared any life-threatening circumstance. In two weeks, he was back home with us.
This year, as a four-year-old, he embellishes the Christmas tree and makes stars and snowflakes, his giggles are a rippling reminder of the miracle that he is worth all the trials and joys. A living proof of prayers answered.
Preeti Hay is a freelance writer. Her writings have appeared in publications including Times of India, Yoga International, Yogi Times, Khabar Magazine, India Currents, and anthologies of fiction and poetry.