New Years Eve, 1983. Central Tennessee. It had been a cold, silent night. It was a crisp, quiet dawn. Morning’s first rays slipped across the living room floor and climbed up the Christmas tree. Prisms flashed from crystal ornaments and bathed the room in rainbows. The Madonna stared down at her baby in the nativity scene hanging half way up the tree. “God with us”—it would be a day that could use that reminder.
Jake was the first to stir. He was barely two—old enough to peel a banana and operate a remote control. He was watching cartoons when his dad came to get him ready to head to town. Dave had a big day planned. Today he was going to cut a ton of firewood, but he needed to get his chainsaw sharpened first. His wife Anne was still asleep, and he peered in on baby Jeannie. Keep the house quiet, he thought. Let Jeannie and Anne get some extra sleep. Dad and son took off to get some breakfast, leaving the girls to their early morning dreams.
The rope that tethers life to time frays when we least expect it. Invariably, it starts to unravel just about the moment we’re taking it for granted. While Dad sipped coffee and visited with his boy, a lifeline at home was threading and shredding apart. Anne sensed something was wrong when she opened her eyes and looked at the clock. How could she sleep this late without Jeannie needing to be fed? Robe. Slippers. A race to the nursery. When she stepped up to Jeannie’s crib, she knew something was terribly wrong. The baby blankets covered her lifeless body, and when Anne pulled them down to look at her, it was obvious that she was gone. At that moment, Jeannie’s spirit was winging its way to heaven, leaving behind the tiny infant house that she had lived in for a brief three months.
Anne ran out on the front porch and broke the silent, still morning with her scream for “Help!” She could have just as easily screamed “Why?” Their home was so far out in the country that no one could hear her.
When Dave and Jake turned down their driveway as they returned from town, they were shocked to see an ambulance in front of their house. The fear and confusion intensified when the silhouette of a state trooper’s vehicle filled his rear view mirror as they both raced toward the house.
It was sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). You’ve probably heard of it, but until you’ve gone through it with someone up close, it’s hard to process the impact and devastation it has on a family. Anytime a family loses a child, it’s tragic. But the subtle benefit of a child dying in an accident or from a disease is that you at least understand what caused the death. That knowledge can assist your grief when it finally comes time to put closure on your loss. The problem with SIDS is the mystery that surrounds it. It not only puts the question WHY? in all capital letters in your mind, but it also leaves you second-guessing everything you’ve ever done with, for, or to the child.
Dave and Anne were no exceptions to this pattern of second-guessing. In the days and weeks that followed the funeral, they were not only paralyzed by their pain but by their doubts as well. It took the best experts in the field and the best friends they had to convince them the loss of Jeannie was not a result of their neglect or mistakes. It just happened. No one knows why.
Jeannie’s room became an obstacle to Anne’s grief. Because of its location, she had to pass by it several times a day. At first, it simply sat empty, crib and furniture stored away—door shut. After a while it became a storage room for items that people donated to Anne and Dave for an auction they held to raise money for SIDS research.
After the auction, Anne decided that it was time to live in that room again. It wasn’t serving Jeannie’s memory by leaving it a mausoleum to the family’s pain. Some fresh paint, some nice art, a box full of toys, a rocking chair, a basket of children’s books, and a love seat where the crib used to stand made the room a great place for Anne and Jake to spend time together during the day.
One afternoon Anne was sitting on the love seat, trying to get comfortable but finding it difficult because of her enlarging stomach. Her next child was in her final trimester of the birthing cycle. She’d be born in a few months. Jake was sitting next to his mom, listening as she read him a story. When it was over, they both sat quietly for a moment.
Little minds run wild in the vast forests of a kid’s imagination. Jake had been thinking, wondering, figuring. Somehow, he had been under the impression that Jeannie was still at the hospital. Anne gently explained to him again that Jeannie had died—that she was with Jesus. But he was still confused. He didn’t understand how she had died at the hospital. “Jake, honey, Jeannie didn’t die at the hospital. She died here, in this room, in her crib that used to sit where we’re sitting right now.” His little eyes looked at his mom and then looked away, trying to sort everything out. Then they got big as saucers, filled with excitement, and his mouth started to form an ear-to-ear smile. “You mean to tell me that Jesus has actually been in this room?”
Click! She could almost hear the tumblers turning in the lock that had bound her pain so deeply in her heart. God had handed her little boy the key to set her free. One simple observation from the uncomplicated mind of a two-year-old did the trick. The tears flowed. But they were new tears, different tears, tears of relief, tears of closure, tears of hope. Jesus had been here. He had promised that He’d never leave them. In fact, He’d come personally to give special care to their daughter.
Dave and Anne have four children now. Mom and Dad serve on the staff of FamilyLife, helping married couples gain hope and confidence from the Lord. I tell their story this Christmas because, in many ways, it mirrors what Christmas is all about. There was another mom who had a baby. He, too, died suddenly and tragically. She also cried out to a countryside where no one could hear, or would hear, her pain. But it was from the hollow of a room that had once entombed her son’s body that she learned what Anne would some day learn: “Immanuel, God with us.”
We all know that life is filled with mysterious hurts and shrouded with doubts. It’s at times like these that we need to understand the reality of Christmas. God stepped into linear time. He lived among us. He paid a price. He bought us freedom from the pains of life and bought us a promise for the joy of eternity.