My Year of Living Backwards – How a Stranger Saved Christmas

imageTwenty-four years ago this week, I was trudging through thigh-high snow, dressed in bright red pajamas and an open overcoat, sobbing and enraged. It was a watershed moment in my life.

Our middle child, Julian, had been born with a genetic defect in his heart. Diagnosed at age two, he was now almost five years old and ready for surgery. Throughout the previous three years, I had lived in a state of continual dread. It made me crazy, doing and saying things that would make a rational person cringe. But the time of waiting was over. Or so I thought.
I was preparing to leave for the hospital when I received a call from Mark, who had spent the night at Julian’s bedside. He told me that the surgery had just been postponed, for the second time. In a blind rage, with no thought for the weather, my state of undress, or the wisdom of my actions, I shoved my bare feet into boots and stepped out into the morning.
Anger was an emotion that had always frightened me. Like many women, I had been trained to suppress it. That day, I learned its uses.

It had been bottled up for a long time. We had been back in Canada for less than a year, dead broke and living with my mother and sister. We had no understanding of how the Canadian job market functioned and were confused and frustrated by our inability to find work. The six-hour trip to Halifax for the surgery had been made by bus. With no funds for a hotel, we were staying in Ronald McDonald house, a few blocks from the hospital. (That was a blessing for which I will be forever grateful. While there, Julian also received an enormous pile of Christmas gifts from the Shriners. Never underestimate the kindness of strangers.)

Now, it seemed, we would have to make the long trip back home. A young boy, the same age as Julian, had been severely injured in a collision with a snow plow. Julian’s surgical team had been reassigned to him. We were told to return home to our city and wait for a third call informing us when the surgery was back on. That news sent me out the door in my pajamas.

Three, four, five blocks passed by in a blur of tears. Sobbing, I marched into the hospital lobby then upstairs to the office of the hospital director. I will never forget the shocked, white face of his receptionist as I stormed past. The director looked up from his papers to see a wild-eyed, red-pajama ‘d woman standing before him. He listened kindly as I raged on about our arrival in Canada, our lack of funds, the cancellation of the first surgery, and the bus ride. It worked: the surgery was back on for that morning. And I learned that anger, properly channeled, honestly expressed, is a powerful force for change. Just ask MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving).

In all this, I had, I admit, given no thought to the badly injured child who had been rushed to the hospital that morning by parents who were just as frantic, just as crazed as I was. But now, post-surgery we were sharing the same ICU. They had a private cubicle and what seemed like an entire church-load of people supporting them and praying for them. There were guitars and soft, pleading voices raised in song.

Mark and I had no one. He had stepped away from Julian’s bedside for a few moments to get an update on his condition. I sat there praying, rosary in hand, feeling we were very much alone in the battle for our son’s life. At that moment, a tall young pastor appeared beside me. From the group in the next room, he had seen me sitting all alone and came over to ask if he could pray with me. I was a pretty dogmatic Catholic in those days and wasn’t sure what God would think of me praying with a Baptist preacher. But he was all I had and I seized the lifeline he offered. I don’t know his name or the name of his church. But I will never forget him, or what he did for me that day. He remains a young, anonymous pastor from somewhere just outside Halifax, reaching out to a stranger in need, in a children’s hospital at Christmastime.

The other couple lost their son. He was one of two little boys on either side of Julian who passed away that morning. The other was right beside me and we gazed into each other’s eyes shortly before he died. Two families returned home alone that Christmas. But three days later, on December 19th, we three were back on the bus, homeward bound. Mark had a sedative-filled syringe in his pocket, to ease Julian’s pain during the long ride. We never had to use it. He bounced back in the way that only a five year old can. And I too began to heal. The craziness had been washed away and I was relieved of a burden I barely knew I was carrying. I like to think the pastor’s prayer was responsible for that as well.
We are given our emotions for a reason. Too often, we distort them, misuse them, despise them. But that morning, I reached out in anger and found help from a harried hospital director. A young pastor reached out to me in pity, from the bedside of a dying child. I will be forever grateful to him and to the grieving family who loaned him to me for that moment. If you know of a Baptist pastor who may have been in that hospital during the Christmas of 1991 please read him this story. Pass on the sincere thanks of a mother with a debt of gratitude she can never repay. It’s a blessing that is forever with me in these years of living backwards.


Susan Young de Biagi is a regular contributor to prdn.

“As a trained historian, my twin passions are writing and teaching. In addition to Cibou – my first novel – I have written or co-written three books of non-fiction, and authored a number of digital, educational products.”

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