Snowflakes swirled softly, descending on a peaceful scene of Mary, Joseph, and newborn Jesus, cradled in a manger. Peace and serenity reigned there in the snow globe, on the shelf. But that was just a snow globe. I turned away. Lights flashed, blinking Christmasy red, green, blue, yellow. These lights emanated not from a Christmas tree, but from a heart monitor, I.V. drip, bili blanket, feeding tube, oxygen tent. My newborn baby laid in the neonatal intensive care unit of a downtown hospital, cradled in an incubator. Rather than peppermint and gingerbread, I smelled only my own fear.
We named her Stella Lucille. Born just a few days earlier, her name meant “Star Light,” for the star of Bethlehem that showed the wise men the way to Jesus. But our little star couldn’t breathe or eat on her own. I held her flaccid, tiny body in my arms, after her birth. Though she was swaddled in a warm blanket, her head flopped back like a rag doll. She was cold, so cold. Her fingers and mouth slowly turned purple, then blue. Within minutes, a small army of specialists and nurses had whisked her away from me. We now knew that she had three holes in her heart, and Down Syndrome.
Merry Christmas, right? My other small children waited for me at home. We’d planned it all out, this baby was the biggest, most exciting Christmas present for our family. Everyone waited for her. There was a dolly cradle under the Christmas tree, where we’d planned to lay our newborn for a Christmas family photo. We would light the candles in our Advent wreath, sing carols by the warm glow of candlelight and Christmas tree lights, and celebrate the births of baby Jesus and baby Stella. Then, off to Christmas Eve Mass with my extended family. After Mass, we had planned to crowd into Grandma’s house with all the relatives, eat Christmas dinner, and enjoy the celebration with cousins, aunts, uncles and siblings until late into the night. Even an old family friend would make his annual Santa Claus appearance, after supper. He’d come in his stuffed red velvet suit, bells jingling, handing out gifts to all the children, laughing his Ho Ho Ho’s, calling each child by name and surprising them with the tidbits and details he knew about their antics. This was how we wanted Christmas to be.
But, Stella wasn’t coming home. I had been discharged from the hospital that morning, but I couldn’t bear to go home without her. Like Santa, I wore my own whale-sized, post partum velvety green Christmas outfit. My other children waited for me. But I didn’t go home for the family photo. The cradle under the tree remained empty, and my heart remained filled with fear. My husband arrived, the nurses assured me my baby would be safe and cared for. But I just couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t leave my helpless, weak daughter alone without someone watching over her.
“The other kids need you,” coaxed my husband, Doug. “We have just a little more time here, then you have to leave, for their sake.”
My heart felt torn in pieces. I caressed Stella’s soft exposed arm with my finger.
“God,” I prayed silently. “help me to trust you with her.”
Doug gently loosened my fingers on my baby’s arm. “It’s time.”
My tears welled up inside, as Doug escorted me out of the NICU. The fear of the unknown, the fear of abandoning her when she needed me, the fear of being abandoned by God surged in my heart, threatening to burst through as we approached the hospital’s security exit door. I forced my legs forward. “God! Send an angel to help me through that door!” I pleaded.
Doug’s hand rose to push the locked handle, when suddenly, a familiar, smiling face loomed close on the other side, peering through the window into the unit. Startled, we opened the door to find our very own Santa Claus, standing sheepishly in the hall with his wife. “I don’t want to intrude on your privacy,” he began, “But I came to see Stella so I could tell your other kids that Stella got the first present on Christmas Eve.”
How quickly God can turn our sorrows to joy. “Come and see her! You’ll be her first visitor ever.” My smile was genuine, and we ushered Santa back to the NICU.
“Family only.” The nurse at the desk arched her eyebrow at us.
“That’s all right, I’m his brother!” Santa replied, patting my husband on the back.
“Oh, I’m so glad!” the nurse smiled. “Welcome, Santa!”
“Ho, Ho Ho!” Santa chuckled, as we magically walked back through the doors.
Once inside the NICU, he sat in the rocker, next to her incubator, whispering hushed Christmas secrets that only Stella and Santa could share. Catching a glimpse of the snow globe behind them, I beamed. In sharing the joy of her birth with Santa and his wife, a bond was forming. A bond of trust between God, who answered my prayer, and Stella, a child who never would be alone.
God had sent me his angel for whom I prayed, dressed up as Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. I began to realize that even though the circumstances were grim, even when nothing goes as we planned it, and we feel abandoned and alone, God is still with us. He watches over us, and He has a plan.
A little later, we left the hospital. Real-life snowflakes swirled, softly descending on Doug and me as we made our way through the starlit parking lot. The hush of a Silent Night surrounded us, enclosing our family in a circle of trust, just like that snow globe. Peace and serenity grew in my heart, like the newborn faith I felt. I was ready to celebrate Christmas Mass with my family.
Stella Lucille, our little star of Bethlehem, began to lead us on a journey toward trusting God. She truly was our family’s best Christmas gift, though perhaps not in the way we, ourselves, had planned.
And that Christmas Eve night, when I felt so afraid and alone, God sent Santa Claus to help us find our way.