When searching for a way to emphasize the meaning of Christmas to my children when they were young, we began a tradition of writing Christmas stories that we read to one another. I have 30 years worth of stories now and treasure this tradition more than any other. Over the years I’ve tried to bring the subtleties of my growing understanding of psychology and faith together in my stories. Here’s one for you to sample with my wish that you have a very Merry Christmas.
By Gwen M. White
Based on a true story
I was born close to death. Not my own, but my brother’s. Twins. One dead. Me left alive. My birthday is the day of his death and my life has always been colored by that. So I’m going to tell you why the Magi brought myrrh. A burial spice. It’s not only because Jesus was born to die. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me tell my story from it’s proper beginning. At the beginning of me.
My mother and father worked for a missions organization. They had been overseas when my mother became pregnant, but came back to the United States when the pregnancy became complicated. In the states they joined a small church near the main office of their organization. They had made some close friendships over the years through working together. This network of people began a journey together that is at the heart of my story.
First, there were Joan and Stan. They had twins of their own, but they were grown women by this time. Joan offered a lot of practical help to my mom. When her feet would swell, Joan would rub them with baby oil so my mother couldn’t put her shoes on again and walk around until all the oil had soaked in. Then Joan would go off to wash the dishes in the sink. My mom tried not to be embarrassed. Stan was a nervous man, full of warnings. Joan laughed at Stan’s worries. They were the oldest people in the group that circled my parents. A bit out of touch with the culture. Sort of condescending, but with “good hearts” my mom would always say. They sort of thought that becoming a Christian equaled becoming a capitalist and had been required to return to the states after several attempts to retrain them had failed. I suppose you could call them “short-sighted” even “imperialistic.” “Stuck in their ways.” They irritated some people, but they would have done anything to help my parents.
Then there was Charlie. He was single now and in his early thirties. Charlie had been through some tough times. He’d been an alcoholic during his college days and into his first years in business. He had become a devoted AA attendee after his wife divorced him when he confessed to an adulterous encounter with a waitress from a bar. lie didn’t even remember what he had done, but when the waitress filed a paternity suit against him and the DNA test proved lie was the father, he didn’t have much more to say. He stayed drunk for a few weeks, then started at AA. His life had gotten better, but he talked in AA mottoes and tended to bore my father. He had become a Christian back in college through some of the work my father and mother had been involved with so once he was sober he ended up latching on to them. He always had a better idea for how to do something my father was working on. He showed up at the door with Kentucky Fried Chicken once a week.
Tony and Tammy were my parents’ friends from the missions field. They had come back to the states so they could share administrative responsibilities as co-directors in the office. They had two young kids and were eager for my parents to become parents. Tony tended to work a lot. Really long hours. Tammy took care of the kids and tried to remain involved with the directorship, but Tony’s drive and ambition pushed Tammy out of the picture at times. My parents knew there were tensions, but they didn’t realize that the marriage was dying.
Carol was devout. She always, always said the right thing, in just the right way. She never got angry and seemed to he an endless stream of smiles and faith. When things became difficult in the pregnancy for my mother, Carol told her that she would pray everyday and on Tuesday she came by to pray with my mother. She never missed an appointment to pray with my mom. She came precisely when she said she would and stayed exactly one hour. She never shared anything about herself, but she spent the hour praying for my mother and for my brother and me. She prayed life into us. Except, I guess, I got it and my brother somehow missed.
Finally, there was Terrell. He lived next door to my parents with his mother. She screamed at him often and so Terrell, who was eight years old, visited my mother daily. “I like you ‘cuz you don’t yell and you smile when I come in the door.” Terrell had trouble in school and was falling behind in his reading. He would come and sit with my mother and read her stories from the books that lined her bedroom walls. She would read two pages and he would read one. I think from the way she tells the story Terrell was her one true friend until the day of my birth.
There were others from the church who were more reasoned in their efforts to support my parents. They prayed and some cooked meals to share or called to ask if there was anything they could do. But Joan and Stan, Charlie, Tony and Tammy, Carol and Terrell seemed to take our family into their skin. They died with us and they were born with us, too. It’s like that. Death then life. Magi bringing gifts that are for the dead. Merry Christmas.
What really triggered things was that one appointment when the doctor couldn’t hear the second heartbeat. The tests were ordered and the word came back that one of the two babies growing in my mother’s womb wasn’t growing anymore. To allow the other to develop so that he would be healthy, she would have to carry the dead baby to term, birth the dead child and hope for the best with the other kid. I’m the kid that came after the dead baby. Sorrow and joy don’t get their own day.
So my mom came weeping home. My dad cried with her. Then they made a few phone calls and the crew came. Tammy was first, full of fear. Charlie was only ten minutes behind her, without any idea of how to make this mess better, but he did have Kentucky Fried Chicken for the refrigerator. Joan and Stan came together, the benefits of forced retirement. Joan started talking as soon as she came in the door. Stan told her to be quiet and she listened to him. When his worries came true, Stan sort of shined. Terrell came next because he always came at that time of day. Tony’s knock on the door was soft, he left work to come. And Carol was last that day, almost as if staying away could keep the failure of her prayer from her mind. But she came.
It was December 6. The waiting took on its paradoxical heaviness. A death and a birth that demanded response, that demanded attention, that couldn’t cancel each other out.
“You still gonna have a baby. That’s a good thing.” Terrell tried to take in all the adult sorrow, but couldn’t seem to forget the flavor of his own world. “My mama say, two babies is a lot of trouble. I’ll help you with one.” Joan jumped in to shush Terrell. “Maybe your mama needs you to be home with her now.” My mother intervened. “Joan, Terrell can stay. Please. I want him to. I need to remember I’m still having a baby.” Her voice drifted as tears punctuated her sentence. Terrell slid close to my mother’s side and glared at Joan. This is when Stan touched Joan’s arm so she didn’t say anything more.
That evening together was short. Charlie insisted they eat the chicken. The women created a meal from the recesses of the kitchen and resolved to restock it over the next few days. My mother was confined to her bed. A flood of visitors spread around her for the first week, then the stream narrowed to this unlikely crew of incompetent lovers. Terrell seemed almost a permanent fixture of my mother’s bed. He would leave when adults came in, but always waited in the living room to close the front door after them and return to her side. They seemed to feed off each other’s loss. She mothered him and he soaked up the grieving tenderness like an infant at the breast. The others learned to accept this. The women quit shushing Terrell. Maybe it was Carol who first learned to take strength from him as my mother had. She started praying again. Charlie kept bringing chicken. Stan stopped warning Terrell to be careful and watched the little boy to see how he was able to take strength from all the sorrow. Joan grew more silent with each week, but she rubbed my mother’s feet daily. In the shared silence the two women grew brave. Tammy curled up in bed with my mother almost like Terrell did, She cried with her and finally told her how she couldn’t bear the death she felt in her marriage. Later Tony wept at the side of my mother’s bed as well. He hoped there was a twin birth for his marriage, the dead giving way to the living.
She went into labor on December 23. It lasted into the 24th as the child to be born first was without life and the pushing was ineffective. All seven of the crew were in the delivery room throughout the ordeal. It was Charlie who smuggled Terrell past the nurse’s station. The doctor gave his consent without much pleading from my mother. They even came into the birth suite. It was Terrell started walking around the perimeter of the room in a slow circle. Carol was first to join him. Everyone knew she prayed as she walked. Then the others slowly join the sober process. Terrell began to hum. Stan turned that into a string of hymns sung slow and low. My father, of course, stayed by my mother’s side, but he tells of feeling that cadence penetrating into his bones.
After more than 30 hours of labor my mother pushed my dead brother into the arms of a nurse. They named him John for the beloved disciple. In the weeping, they held him. All of them. They kept him there with them as my mother labored for another 6 hours before I was born. In those hours, they grieved. They prayed. They walked. All those inept, flawed people became heroes of faith to my parents. An impossible parade around that room: a child carrying a dead child followed by a group of mourners who knew death in their own lives, all awaiting the birth of a living baby. And this I know: When I was born, there was great joy in that room of sorrow.
They had a funeral when my mother was able. I went to that, too. My brother’s ashes were spread over the water of a quiet lagoon near our home. They collected some of that water and when I was christened, it was that water that baptized me.
So as I grew up, it was with this group around me, pressing me into the part of the wise man carrying myrrh at every Christmas pageant. I never resisted that part. I’ve always felt the loss of him myself. We were together from the beginning after all. I felt his death first. His death led to my birth. I carried the myrrh each Christmas. It’s my part. Isn’t it all our parts to carry the myrrh, if we call ourselves Christians? To find life, to wait for birth, in all the dying within and without us. We carry the myrrh.
So that’s my story. Jesus came into the world, a light to that hapless crew who circled my birth, and the Magi came and death came with them. Now there is a connection with joy in all the dying of this world. Those who walked in darkness have been given the light of life and so they still stumble and shriek and sin and impossibly shine.