If I could give one gift to all of my friends and family, as well as complete strangers on the internet, it would be a perfect soundtrack to carry them through the dark, hopeful nights of the advent season.
I have been devoted to Christmas music since I was a teen, adding one new Christmas CD to my collection every winter. Remember those days? They are all still socked away in a CD accordion, and instead the songs make their annual appearance via my snappy demands to Alexa, resident music robot.
I have pretty much everything, all the classics from Bing Crosby to Tchaikovsky, to best-of mixes, operatic one-offs like Josh Groban and even Sting’s subdued winter meditation.
But one Christmas album rises above the rest like that first star of Bethlehem:
James Taylor at Christmas. It is absolutely perfect.
That presesnt he’s holding out to you? ACCEPT IT.
It isn’t just his gorgeous, familiar voice that serves as the ideal Christmas comfort. It’s much more than that.
He curated the song choices better than a sommelier selecting wine for one of the Queen’s state dinners. It’s obvious that his final choices were deliberate and thoughtful, full of intention, restraint and excellent taste.
And the collaborations!
Winter Wonderland – with Chris Botti (!) Go Tell It on the Mountain Santa Claus is Coming to Town Jingle Bells Baby It’s Cold Outside – with Natalie Cole (!) River Here Comes the Sun – with Yo Yo Ma (!) Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas Some Children See Him Mon Beau Sapin The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) Who Comes This Night In the Bleak Midwinter Auld Lang Syne
The only ones I ever occasionally skip are Santa Claus and Jingle Bells, because they’re the frivolous two. The rest I listen to dozens of times between the day after Thanksgiving and January third.
Over time I’ve come to believe that most Christmas songs have one artist whose version is so spectacular that they essentially own it, and efforts by other artists are but earnest imitations.
For instance, Bing Crosby created the greatest selling single of all time – of any song, this is an unbelievable, but true, fact – White Christmas. Sinatra might as well be renamed Santa with his jauntiest version of Jingle Bells. It’s 1960’s nostalgia for days when Nat King Cole begins The Christmas Song. All hail the Boss when Springsteen rocks Santa Claus is Coming to Town. You may actually fall on your knees at Celine Dion’s O Holy Night, and Luther Vandross leaves everybody in his wake in his triumphant rendition of O Come All Ye Faithful.
That’s why his efforts on these songs are so mesmerizing — he (and his team) created fresh arrangements for well-known songs, keeping them familiar but elevating each one so you find yourself marveling that it was ever sung any other way. Here Comes the Sun is not a Christmas song, but in his arrangement, you find yourself believing it was always intended as a Swedish hymn to carry us through the winter solstice.
I usually find Go Tell It on the Mountain to be a bit of a grating Sunday school-type melody, eliciting feelings of a teacher admonishing students to evangelize. In James’ hands, it nearly brings me to tears. He altered the lyrics to convey seeking after the Lord and being saved, and it transforms the song from universal to deeply personal.
When he sings River, it’s so gorgeous and sad, Joni Mitchell herself probably hears it and has to pause in her Christmas hustle to marvel and then pull it together.
One might think it’s Kate Winslet’s weeping in her cozy English cottage that breaks your heart in The Holiday, but no, it’s that she’s listening to Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas by James Taylor. Nancy Meyers was aware of this album’s brilliance long before I was — the album came out the same year the movie did: 2006.
The reason this album is so transcendent is that it can suit any situation. Driving in the car? Beautiful. Cooking or baking? Suddenly enjoyable. Gathering of friends? Soundtrack to your memories. I use it in all these scenarios, including mailing Christmas cards and wrapping gifts. It never ages.
Of course, I listen to all manner of other Christmas music through December, but JT is my bedrock. Every year an artist tries to enter the cannon to be established as a classic, but most fall short. We don’t want to be screamed at (I’m looking at you, Kelly Clarkson). We can tell when it’s overdone (ahem, Carrie Underwood). We know when it’s empty drivel (Katy Perry, obviously). We can also begrudgingly love a song we fully intended to hate (Taylor Swift and her blasted Tree Farm).
(I admitted that last one to Amy while we were in Nashville and she told me her friend bought Taylor’s actual uncle’s Christmas tree farm in Pennsylvania, and that connection gave me permission to love it without reserve.)
I asked my sister if it was crazy to write about my passion for James Taylor’s Christmas album, and she said, “No! When ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ comes on, I can barely keep it together.” I felt so seen. That song brings me to my knees.
The reverence is what keeps me coming back. He could have chosen a dozen Christmas standards, recorded them as written, completely phoned it in, and still sold/streamed millions of records. Instead, he made unexpected, thoughtful song selections with lyrics that catch your ear, rather than fly by unnoticed like so many Christmas songs. A huge part of the joy of Christmas music is that the One Great True Story of God’s love for us is being told over airwaves for an entire month. But often we know them so well, we barely hear the words.
In Who Comes This Night, which was written by Dave Grusin specifically for this album, he sings, “Who sends this song upon the air, to ease the soul that’s aching? To still the cry of deep despair and heal the heart that’s breaking.” It’s the tenderest song about approaching this newborn stranger, “for those who would the stranger greet, must lay their heart before him, and raise their song in voices sweet, to worship and adore him.”
All that when he could have just sung Joy to the World in two takes and been done with it. This is why he’s our homegrown American legend.
For now, today, listen to his spellbinding timbre as he holds the last note in the line, “In a year our troubles will be miles away.” You’ll find that it’s so beautiful you believe it, but his voice is so heart-rending, you know he knows it isn’t true. Which somehow makes his attempt to comfort us all the more endearing.
It isn’t often in parenting that you can definitively feel the turning of a page, but occasionally it’s unmistakable. My life has shifted because four of our kids are in school now, so I have several days a week with just little Claire. It’s unbelievably freeing, and she and I look at each other in the quiet house, like…what now?
I started with twins, so I’ve never had just one baby at home with me. It’s like there’s nothing I can’t do. Errands, chores and parks? Look at us go!
It’s been a minute, so here is the current line-up:
Henry and Arden, 9, third grade Hunter, 7.5, first grade Jameson, 5.5, kindergarten (3 days a week) Claire, 2.5, home with her lucky mama
This change in our life also means I’m able to get away a little more. Last month Mike invited me along on his business trip to Nashville. It’s easy to decline when the destination is say, Boise, but he knows I have a love affair with the South.
I bought my outrageously priced ticket as soon as our wonderful parents agreed to tag-team babysitting.
His trip was a Sunday to a Wednesday, but I added Friday through Sunday and invited one of my oldest friends along. Thankfully, Amy was willing to drop other commitments and flew from Philly for 48 hours with her fellow redhead in Music City.
My flight was at 6:30am, but when a mom knows she’s traveling solo, waking at that hour is a lark. For instance, when I picked up my carry-on and walked away from security, I felt naked due to the lack of children and additional luggage. It was unnerving and thrilling to sail out of there unattached.
I made it to the gate before the coffee shop was even open, which in Seattle is really saying something. A man walked up to his buddy sitting across from me. “Bad news,” he said. “The bar doesn’t open until 6.” I looked at my watch. It was 5:55.
This turned out to be a harbinger of a theme of the weekend.
I bet I’m not the only one who marvels at what folks wear to board airplanes. Before departure, I played a good-natured judgmental game I like to call “I Look GOOD.” I watched passerby and pictured them getting ready that morning, looking in the mirror, saying “I look GOOD” and heading to the airport. I saw one woman and imagined how she must have pulled on the sports bra and leggings, hesitated as she reached for a shirt, then ignored the need for outerwear and grabbed her luggage. And there she stood in the boarding line, happy and shirtless.
The men’s version of the game removes the word “look.” It’s more “I’m Good.” A man passed me in enormous plaid pajama pants, Crocs, and a hooded sweatshirt. I pictured him waking half an hour late, pulling on the sweatshirt, thinking “I’m good,” grabbing his bag, and heading for the door. I’m 35; why can’t I wear pajamas on a plane? I’m good!
Have you been on a new plane in the last few months? The seats on the planes fresh off the production line are laughably small. I’m only 5’5″ and my knees were touching the seat in front of me, and it was virtually impossible not to rub arms with the men on either side.
This was tolerable until I pulled out my in-flight entertainment: The Wall Street Journal…print edition. I’d saved a couple days’ worth to cover the hours in the air, and every time I turned the page it was like snapping a bedsheet across the three of us. With a CRACK I’d snap it back, and then if it didn’t fold cleanly I’d have to karate-chop the seam to bend the pages, sweating from embarrassment. I’d never mentally bargained with paper that fervently before. It would’ve been bearable if this was a one-time thing, but clearly we all knew I had to get to A18. Imagine how their relief turned to dismay when I finished, only to discover it was yesterday’s paper as I pulled today’s fresh copy from my bag. I’m surprised they didn’t ask to change seats.
After a late arrival in Dallas that required actual sprinting to make my connection, I landed in Nashville and these lookalikes were reunited after three and a half long years.
We gabbed and unpacked and then had a drink in our boutique hotel’s exquisite bar. We stayed in the Arts District at Dream Nashville, and everything was hyper-designed and glamorous and really helped these two moms shake off the responsibilities of home.
After a chef’s-choice dinner at Butcher and Bee, we crashed early from the exhaustion of our pre-dawn flights. The next morning we hit the ground running. I was bursting to see every single thing.
I was not prepared for Broadway. People told me I was visiting the new bachelorette capital of the States, but the day drinking! Holy Dolly Parton, y’all! It was Saturday morning and the street was filled with people moving in and out of the live-music bars, riding down the street on pedal pubs, hollering from drinking buses. Y’all, there was even a tractor pulling a bar.
If it isn’t yet obvious, I will be using y’all with complete abandon.
Amy made killer reservations for our entire weekend, places that are, to borrow from Ferris Bueller, so choice. Naturally, this included Husk. I ordered the fried chicken to nourish my Southern heart.
At the end of our meal, the waiter tried to sell us on a specialty brandy. We were like, “I bet your bachelorettes go for that every time. Unfortunately, you’re looking at two 38 year old moms.”
A huge part of our happiness was our never-ending conversation and reveling in our freedom.
Want to walk over there? Sure. Want to eat? I do. Want to tour this place? Yes, ma’am.
Thankfully, Amy is as eager as I am to tour historical attractions, so we spent our afternoon walking the grounds of Belle Meade Plantation.
I should note that I am a complete sucker for the civility of southern gentlemen. Every single time a man addressed me with “ma’am”, I was a puddle. It made no difference if he was young or old, attractive or not. If someone who looked like he crawled from beneath a bridge said, “yes, ma’am” in a southern accent, I was like, “Listen, I’m married, but thanks to your drawl I’m willing to set that aside.”
But this weakness met its limit in our tour guide at Belle Meade. This guy was so extreme in his undulating radio voice and so drenched in dad jokes we were ready to run screaming from the estate.
As he mercifully wrapped things up, he asked if there were any additional questions.
A lady standing next to us in a t-shirt that read “Tasha’s 50th Wild Weekend!” spoke up for her group of gals and said, “Nobody has any questions, we just want the damn wine.”
Did I mention the tour came with a tasting of the estate’s finest?
I was interested until Amy held my arm and said “Abby, this is not…wine. This is….” she reached for the words.
“What do you mean?” I said. “The place is packed.” There was hardly an empty seat to be found in the courtyard; bachelorette groups, moms and freshly legal daughters, birthday gaggles of women over sixty.
“You’ll see,” she said wisely, patting my shoulder.
The ladies behind the bar of the tasting room whipped out wine glasses and started pouring before we could even glance at the wine list. I received a pour of white and looked at the description, which mentioned “notes of peach, pineapple, and lime,” none of which should ever be involved in wine.
I took a sip and grimmaced. “It’s dessert wine,” I said to Amy.
“Interesting,” Amy replied dryly, and then added in a thick Southern accent, “because the lady behind me just said, “Okay now this is too dry for me.”
We laughed but there was no time to chat, because the lady behind the bar was already coming at us with the rose.
Amy said, “The smell! Smell it!” And I wish I hadn’t. It was like tire rubber. The notes called it “a nutty aroma.” I looked for the spit bucket.
“There are no spit buckets,” Amy noted. “They think it’s delicious.”
We had to knock it back because the reds were being poured with “dark strawberry notes” “hints of tobacco” “flavors of allspice” and “a zesty white pepper finish.” I couldn’t help myself with the giggling judgment. I come from the land of wine; the snobbery is not even a choice anymore.
On the Uber ride back through the town of Belle Meade, I was a complete airhead, so this compensated nicely for the wine elitism. Our driver was explaining that this was a wealthy suburb of Nashville with the likes of Carrie Underwood and several titans living in the mansions we were passing.
“Oooo,” I said, leaning toward the driver. “Titans of which industri–“
“AH!” Amy tried to save me. “No no stop -“
The driver tried to be gracious. “I meant the Tennessee Ti-“
It clicked. As if my brain would ever, ever go to football first.
He drove us to our next restaurant, Rolf and Daughters, and once seated, it occurred to us that mustaches are back.
“Those two are clearly on a first date,” I nodded toward a couple across the restaurant. “And he is unironically sporting a stash. So was our concierge at the hotel. And they both look 25. Something is happening.”
She sighed. “Kids these days.”
Changing the subject, she asked if we should start with the beef tartare.
“That depends,” I replied. “Is it sliced or ground?”
“There is no ground,” she said. “It’s only sliced, like tuna tartare.”
“I’m pretty sure it also comes ground. You should ask.”
“I’m not asking because ground is not a thing.” She was confident.
Ten minutes later the waitress presented her with a bowl of bright red ground beef. There were spices and crumbles of something mixed in, but one sprig of parsley wasn’t hiding all that raw chuck.
We stared at each other as she took a bite. I raised my eyebrows and asked, “How’s that going down?”
“It’s okay if I don’t look directly at it,” she mumbled.
Sometimes you’re confident the beef will be sliced, and sometimes you’re confident there are titans of industry living in Belle Meade. The important thing is to take turns.
But back to the glories of downtown Nashville.
At home in our normal lives, Amy and I drink at the same rate, which is about a glass of wine a month. In a lot of cities that’s the main attraction at night, so we were curious how we’d do here. We needn’t have worried. It’s the live music, y’all. Neither of us listens to country music regularly, but here, forget it. We just went for it. We also found a bar playing 90s covers and we sang and danced with abandon.
There is no way to overstate the proliferation of bachelorette party costumes.
“How can I thank you enough for not suggesting we come here in hideous white cowgirl boots?” I said as we walked the street.
“What if you’d begged me to get on Amazon for matching snakeskin cowgirl hats?” she replied. Looking around us, other ladies had not been so generous to their flock of friends. It was clear that sequin cowgirl vests had not been optional for the bridesmaids.
We stayed up late sitting at a rooftop bar, sharing things we never could over text or children-interrupted FaceTimes. It was glorious swapping secrets like we did when we were thirteen.
The next morning we went to the Nashville Farmer’s Market which is every bit as adorable as you’d expect.
Lattes and sunshine, y’all.
We walked half the city that morning, and I kept commenting on the 62 degree loveliness. It’s so humid in the South in the summer, but this was pretty much ideal.
“There’s a name for that,” Amy replied. “It’s called fall.”
“We don’t have that in Seattle,” I sighed. “It’s 75 degrees at the pumpkin patch one weekend, and the next it’s 45 and raining.”
After a lovely brunch at Liberty Common (seated near a bachelorette party of approximately 18), we packed up our glam hotel room and Amy headed for the airport. It’s so awful saying goodbye when we don’t know when we’ll see each other again, but we have been saying this same goodbye for twenty-five years. We know we’re in this for keeps.
Mike arrived that evening after I’d checked into The Westin. “Wait until you see our hotel room,” I texted him.
I had a fun conversation with the receptionist, as she’d just moved to Nashville from Spain. Apparently it paid off, because on the ride up the elevator, an employee asked which room I was staying in. When I told him, he said, “Lucky you. That’s the nicest room in the hotel, after the presidential suite. It’s the corner of the top floor. The windows are fifteen feet floor to ceiling.”
He wasn’t kidding.
We walked to dinner at Adele’s, and Mike’s parents sent us a cute picture of the kids. We sent this one back, but it backfired because seeing our faces made Jameson so sad he couldn’t go to sleep.
A quick FaceTime outside the restaurant calmed him down. And lesson learned…that was the end of sending pictures home.
We walked down to Broadway because if there’s anything Mike enjoys, it’s live music. We had a great time but didn’t stay out too long because he had to work the next day.
I didn’t have to work the next day, so I took an Uber to Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage. Mike met me there after wrapping up a meeting and I savored being unrushed and able to read every single placard to my heart’s content.
I miss living on the East Coast sometimes, and having access to all of the historical pleasures in the area. I love Seattle, but everything is ten minutes old. It’s not the same.
I really feel for the West Coast kids who might not be able to visit former presidents’ homes, or places like them. Nothing can prepare you for what you’ll feel when you cross the threshold of former slave cabins. No book can convey the weight of such a reality, because words inevitably fall short. It’s sobering and informative, and made me grateful my parents took us to countless similar sites as children.
Intermixed with the seriousness of our visit were little joys in the experience, too. The joy of traveling without children is that you can linger. I essentially stood directly next to the tour guide so I could catch every word, and then lingered after the group moved on so I could ask follow up questions. Mike was like, babe, let’s move it along, and I’m like, “after I find out if this staircase is original to the house.” I tour hard.
As we headed for the exit, we dodged this unappealing offer:
“Something everyone will love!” Lies.
I begged Mike to take me to Franklin, which I’ve dreamed about for two years. It’s a little suburb of Nashville with an idyllic Main Street, beautiful homes, a strong community, and charm for days. We walked the streets and I asked him to please move us immediately.
No shame. I can’t help myself.
I found a Franklin brochure and stared at this quintessential Southern bourgeois lady, Buffie. This is the problem: if I moved to Franklin I’d just want to be Buffie in all her Southern Buffieness. Oversize pearls, big hair, and weird mother-son dynamics, y’all. Can’t have that.
Brandon and Buffie forever.
We had dinner that night with Mike’s aunt Julie and favorite cousin, Dustin, and his family who live locally. It was so fun meeting their kids and it made us miss ours.
The next day Mike went to meetings while I visited the Grand Ole Opry, which was overpriced. The joke’s on me because I’m not a country music fan, but it felt like an obligatory Nashville experience and it let me be a tour nerd, so mama was happy.
I Ubered to the 12 South neighborhood to visit Draper James (Reese Witherspoon’s store), which makes me a basic Betty, but I couldn’t care less.
I wanted to buy everything in powder blue gingham, but that doesn’t really translate to misty Seattle afternoons. Everything there is darling and twee, but also very one-note. Like it’s all ideal if you’re sitting on a wraparound porch in the middle of summer in the South with a glass of sweet tea in a Mason jar. Otherwise, it’s not gonna work.
So instead of shopping, I went back to the hotel and had a facial. Like one does.
The next morning I bid adieu to our gigantic windows.
I flew home in the morning while Mike stayed to work, and I had a four hour layover in Houston. This wasn’t a burden for me so much as my parents who had to do four extra hours of grandparenting thanks to my lousy route home.
I was browsing for snacks at the airport when I heard Bleachers over the tiny snack stand speakers. I smiled and sang along while debating Popcorners or Skinnypop.
Sidenote: this summer Mike took me to a Bleachers concert because he loves them. At the time, I liked them, but was ambivalent. Midway through, the lead singer asked the ladies to get on shoulders.
I said, “Eh, I’m good.”
Mike was adamant. “Let’s do it. C’mon.”
Then Jack Antonoff said, “I refuse to start this song until you get on shoulders.”
Mike didn’t hesitate. “This is happening.”
As soon as I was up, they played Rollercoaster and I was grinning like an idiot. I instantly felt 22 again. The girl behind me grabbed my hand and held on like we were at Woodstock. She was hammered, but it was love all the same.
Antonoff walked over to our side of the stage, looked right at me and we beamed at each other. It was sublime.
After that, I wasn’t ambivalent.
Later a friend texted asking if I’d been at the concert, because a friend of hers had seen me up front. I hadn’t seen this person in at least ten years, so how she spotted me, I’ll never know, but I’m so glad she texted our friend a video so I have it.
End of parenthetical.
I don’t have AirPods (because when in my daily life am I using them?) but Mike owns several, so he gave me a pair for the trip. I would like to state for the record that I have never – not once – put them back in their case correctly on the first try. This is probably why I’m not cool enough to use them.
When I had to sit and charge various devices, I used my little AirPods to listen to Everybody Lost Somebody. The song has a melancholy heart, despite its unmistakably happy sax-laden sound, which filled me with affection for all the strangers milling past on their various journeys home.
At last I made it home and walked in the door to the greatest tight-neck hugs, squeals of delight and three dozen questions and life updates, all spoken in unison.
I’m so thankful I said yes to the trip, and even more thankful to our parents for their selflessness in caring for our babies.
Mike just reminded me he leaves Sunday for his next business trip. Where to?
Before they could even wheel me upstairs, I asked if I could stay in the maternity ward so Claire could come stay with me. They said they’d ask about it, but for now I needed to go to the surgical wing.
The nurse who greeted us was brisk, no-nonsense, and kind. She was a young brunette with a ponytail who looked like she ran eight miles after work every day. She whipped around the room setting up my wires and IV, and I gave myself a mental high-five that I’d scored a good nurse.
Mike had arrived in the ER and traveled up with us while his mom watched the kids at home. He and my mom stood at the foot of my bed and we all quietly registered that it was 9:30pm and there was nothing left to do.
They both offered to stay, but I said I’d be fine; there was no reason for all of us to wake up for the nightly vitals checks. My mom had the pained expression all moms wear when there’s nothing they can do to help their baby. Mike insisted on staying, but I absolutely wanted Claire with him, and no one else — our mothers are wonderful with our kids, but Mike is the kind of dad who innately knows how to care for a newborn. Innate, or practice with the four before her…either way, I knew she’d be at perfect peace in her daddy’s care.
“But tomorrow is your birthday,” he said sadly.
I had barely had the thought, and didn’t care at all. I love birthdays, but they seem absurd when you’re consumed with health issues.
After they’d left, I asked Miss Efficiency when the doctor would be by to assess and make a plan. She said she’d check.
I had missed the hospital dinner hour of 5pm, so I asked if there was anything in the snack room, since I hadn’t eaten in a long time. I also needed to pump again. The nurse brought a peanut butter snack pack, crackers, a sad turkey sandwich, and some oreos. I sat on the edge of the bed and pumped milk. The room was dark except for the blinding light over the head of the bed. Glamour? Loads of it.
Miss Efficiency whipped back the curtain and started typing on the computer and said the doctor should be in around 11pm.
It occurred to me I had a television. What else could I do with my time?
When 11pm came and went, the nurse said she didn’t know why he hadn’t come.
In the morning, after two night pumping sessions, still no doctor. I asked a new nurse why I’d been in the hospital for twelve hours with no sign of a doctor, and no plan for a procedure, and she didn’t know what to tell me.
“I’ll check,” she replied.
“I’ll check,” may be the most commonly used phrase inside hospital walls.
Mike brought the kids in for a morning visit, and I fed Claire while the kids roamed the room and ate my breakfast. I’d over-ordered on the muffins, eggs, juice, yogurt, and fruit, because bogarting my hospital food is one of their favorite pastimes.
Siri sent bright flowers and the kids brought candy and cards for my birthday. I felt like a deflated balloon hanging in the corner of the room, watching the scene from above. I knew how much the kids were expecting me to be happy, so I tried to force myself to be as excited as they were.
Jenny and Heather visited with birthday treats and fresh cheer. I was so grateful they’d come, and so struck by how energetic and vital they looked. “That’s me,” I thought to myself. “I get dressed and run errands and hustle kids and get things done. I don’t sit here like an invalid.” It was hard to talk because I didn’t have any news about my condition, any plan.
After they’d left, my beloved doctor, the one who delivered most of my kids (not Dr. Not My Doctor!) came to see me. He arrived at 1pm and Mike was with me for our meeting with him. Just the sight of him flooded me with relief that he’d know what to do and when to do it.
“We’ve been in this room for 16 hours, and you’re the first doctor who has come in,” we told him. He was stunned.
Then he told us everything was going to be fine. He would arrange for the abscess to be drained, the fluid tested, and a drain tube put in. He was frustrated because he said if Dr. Not My Doctor had come when he was supposed to, they could have booked the procedure already and prepared me for it. Now there likely wouldn’t be an opening in the schedule until tomorrow.
Mike was furious. I was like an indignant Nordstrom customer, appalled at the lack of service.
He reassured us that he would do everything he could, and as he turned to go, he looked back at us and said, still in disbelief, “You never saw the whites of his eyes, huh?”
“Nope,” we both said. “You’re the first doctor we’ve seen.”
He shook his head and closed the door.
We took a moment to check in with each other since my mom had taken the kids home. Mike looked utterly exhausted and overwhelmed, and he was.
This picture makes me cringe, because it perfectly captures the sheer exhaustion and white-knuckling this ordeal required from us. It was a thrill of joy to see Claire every minute, but a plummet to earth with the management of four other kids, meals, school routines, housework. Seeing Mike handle it all while I sat in a hospital was hugely stressful.
My mom returned a few hours later, and we were surprised when a nurse came in and said they’d scheduled my procedure for 5pm that day.
“You mean in half an hour?” we all asked.
“Yep,” she replied, assuming we’d be happy. We were, but this was not my first rodeo, so I knew this had implications.
“But I’ve been eating this afternoon,” I said. “How will they give me medication during the procedure?”
“Oh, you won’t be able to have the normal pain medication, but it will be okay. They’ll give you something to help calm you.”
My heart began to race and I clenched my fists to resist panic. My strength just wasn’t there after the last two weeks of ordeals, and being told to be strong and deal with it left me feeling unable to do either.
As the nurse rolled a different bed into the room to wheel me away, I looked at my mom and started to cry. I felt like I was five years old, out of steam, no pride left to halt the embarrassing tears.
I sniffled my way through my ride down the corridors and the elevator. When I arrived in the procedure room, it was like Santa’s workshop.
“Well HERE she is, look at this great new mama! She’s here and she should be home with her baby so let’s get her in and out of here, guys! Oh no, oh what are these tears? What’s troubling you? How can we help?”
In walked the blonde happy nurse from my CT scan in the ER. She recognized me instantly and beamed, but then saw my tears and wrapped me up like I’d been her patient for years.
The other nurse chimed in, “I know, let’s play some music — does that sound good? What song do you want? Any artist you want and we’ll play it.”
It’s hilarious the way the bedside manner methods work; as an adult with a functioning brain, I know this is what they’re trained to do when a patient is distressed. I think: this won’t work on me. I’m upset, I’m about to be worked on, and babying me is going nowhere. Try the next sucker, doc.
But as a human with a functioning heart, I completely gave in to the infantilization. I stuttered through explaining that I was told I wouldn’t have pain medication, and they gave me every assurance that I’d be pain-free. They also insisted I name my favorite singer.
“What’s her name?” I wondered aloud. I’m one of those people who, when asked for my favorite song or artist, suddenly cannot think of a single song or artist, much less my favorite. But out of the sterile air her name came to me:
“Lauren Daigle,” I replied. “I’d love to hear Lauren Daigle.”
“Wow!” the sweet nurse said as she typed, continuing the game that I was eight years old. “Look at this! She’s won a Grammy! Did you hear that everyone? She’s won Grammys! Let’s her this gal sing!” I laughed as I cried.
As Lauren’s voice filled the room reminding me of who our good God is, they began the sedative and the doctor began his work. I don’t know how we got there, but I told him I was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, after he said he went to medical school in Philadelphia.
“Turkey Hill ice cream,” he said. “That’s from Lancaster, isn’t it? Turkey Hill ice cream got me through late nights studying in med school.”
I was amazed at this microscopic connection, and the immense comfort even the tiniest commonality brought.
He described everything they were doing, and when they accessed the abscess, he warned me I’d feel the fluid as it erupted. It was like they’d poured warm tea all over my abdomen. They rushed to mop it up and made various comments on the color and viscosity.
I mouthed the words to the songs and felt the faint detachment of whatever sedative they’d given me. Before long, they had stitched my skin closed around a drain tube with a bag taped to my side. They said it’d be with me for a week.
Back in the room, I lifted my hospital gown and saw the tube coming out of my side. I looked at Mike, and all of the things I am privileged to carry came tumbling down on me at once. I told him I couldn’t recover from a c-section, have a newborn, care for four children AND have a tube hanging out of me that needed to be checked and drained and cleaned regularly.
Of course I could do these things, and many people do far more, but in that moment I felt like I couldn’t. I went dark for half an hour, unable to see the way forward. My mom told me the darkness wasn’t my mentality, it was the after-affect of the drug used during the procedure. This rang true because my brain felt hopeless at a chemical level.
It was an awful hour, made worse by the pending doom of them leaving me for the night, which neither of them knew how to do being that it was my birthday and I was so depressed. I didn’t remotely care that it was my birthday, but it made it emotionally harder for them to navigate.
Late that night, two nurses came in to do the first “flushing” of the tube. They showed me how to twist different parts to insert a syringe and push clear fluid through. Except when they tried to plunge the syringe, it wouldn’t budge. They took turns pushing and twisting and all I could think was of my checkered post-birth past and how forcing anything caused a visceral reaction.
I insisted they stop and get a doctor, and they said they’d have him look at it in the morning and they wouldn’t push anymore.
Look, I’m a squeamish gal. There’s no getting around this. It’s not blood. It’s things that are both inside and outside the body at once. If a surgeon goes inside me to make me well and sews me up so all evidence is concealed, groovy. If he puts a cast on the outside of my arm, hand me a pen and I’ll sign. But catheters, colostomy bags, chest tubes, tracheotomies, IVs and drain bags? Shiver me timbers and run for the hills.
I had two of these happening at once. It was all I could do not to look at my body below the neck. Every time I got out of bed to use the bathroom or sit on the edge of the bed to pump, I clenched my teeth and moved at a glacial pace to avoid yanking my IV or drain tube. The sensation of either one moving inside made me cringe.
I prayed and prayed that somehow I wouldn’t have to go home with the drain tube. I couldn’t imagine being around the kids without them accidentally snagging it. The thought made me wince. It wouldn’t be their fault, but they are all over me all day; there’d be no way to avoid it.
The next morning, Valentine’s Day, at 8:30am, my wonderful doctor came to check on me. I told him what had happened with the nurses and he did an assessment on the tube and tried the syringe. He knew immediately that it meant the abscess had drained fully during the procedure, and this was why there was nothing in my bag. He said the syringe wouldn’t shoot the fluid through because the blood where the abscess had been had successfully clotted at the site.
I smiled as hope shot through me.
“Do I have to go home with this then?” I asked. “This thing really freaks me out.”
“I know it does,” he patted my leg kindly. “I’m going to talk to the team who performed the drain and see what the results were on the fluid and I’ll let you know.”
Say no more, doc! I’ll alert the prayer people!
I texted the families to pray and sent a message to Jackie, my friend from church who’d been sending me verses and words of encouragement.
A little after 10am, my friend Nina came to visit, which was miraculous in itself — it was a weekday and she had a babysitter watch her four homeschooled kiddos to be able to see me.
She sat on my bed and prayed over me that God would free me of the tubes and I’d be healed before I even went home.
We went over to sit by the window, me gingerly approaching the hospital recliner with my IV pole, she sitting in the sun-filled window seat. We were only talking a few minutes when a nurse came in holding handfuls of gauze and scissors and tape.
And I knew. Freedom was at hand.
She told me I’d been given the all clear to have the tube removed.
“Right now?” I gasped. “Really — it’s coming out and I don’t have to wear it home?”
“Right now,” she smiled.
I shrieked with joy. Nina and I looked at each other in awe. Answered prayers never lose their shine.
The nurse laid me down on the bed and Nina held my hand as she removed the stitches and pulled the tube straight out. Nina deserves a lot of credit, as witnessing this extraction was more than she bargained for in her hospital visit.
After Nina left, I laid there stunned, completely overwhelmed that I went from a week at home with a drainage tube to total healing inside hospital walls. I was going home without the ball and chain.
I started to cry from gratitude, life-giving, humbled gratefulness. I knew I had to worship through song. It was as urgent as being hungry and eating, thirsting and drinking, being tired and falling into slumber.
I stood up (without cradling my side!) and guided the IV pole to the enormous window. I turned on a favorite song and raised my arms to honor my Great Physician.
Hallelujah, praise the One who set me free…
I sang to the Lord for how gracious and compassionate He is, my Rescuer.
The sun warmed my eyelids as I cried, lost in the joy that I wasn’t the one who got me out of my misery.
Jackie came to visit that afternoon (I still had antibiotic IV treatments before I could leave). We drank Jamba Juice and marveled that I would be going home in a few hours.
And go home I did.
I was too weak to dance so I let my smile do the dancing.
Who wouldn’t glow going home to this doll?
In the many months since that day, one thought has haunted me again and again: I got out. The majority of people I know, and many that I don’t, haven’t yet experienced walking to the other side of wellness and good health – maybe most never will before old age. It’s a gift most of us take for granted, that we can hop out of bed each day, put on our clothes, eat our food, and fret about all the things we need to fret about.
But this past year I’ve come to see that while hospitals may be places down the street, they’re figurative places, too. For one reason or another each of us will likely have to go there, and we’ll discover that the doors are locked from the outside. When you’re in there, you don’t know if you’ll be given a key to leave. You don’t know if you’ll get well. Figuratively, if you don’t get well, your hospital becomes a prison. You might go home, but you are locked in a state of physical pain from which there is little escape.
And instantly, as quick as a glass shattering on the floor, you realize: all my life I’ve been outside the hospital, and millions of people have been inside. They weren’t given keys. Those in chronic pain, those with prolonged illnesses, those with bodily failures that modern medicine cannot fix, those with disabilities from birth or newly acquired, those with injuries that happened out of the sheer blue sky that can’t be undone — they’ve been carrying the burden of suffering while I’ve blithely lived my healthy life.
But now you’re here, and the door is locked, and you realize that you too, may be denied a key to escape your bodily ailment. And just as quickly the next thought arrives: what will you do then?
Will you despair? Will you adapt? Will you give in to bitterness? Will you rage against the unfairness of your position?
When I was lying in bed in the darkness of the hospital room, listening to the machine beeps and staring into the glow of my phone, I looked up a favorite blogger in hopes of reading an encouraging word. I was struck dumb that she was recommending a book called, “Suffer Strong.” The title and cover image alone made me put down my phone and close my eyes in the harsh recognition that I was not suffering strong. I was weak. I wanted this to end. I wanted to go back to my life before I was locked in the hospital.
And the arrogance of that thought – of that feeling – is what haunts me today. Though it’s an entirely natural human desire to want to be healthy and able to function, how dare I be so blind to those who cannot escape their ordeals? It’s not as though I was unaware of suffering before — I have several people in my life who suffer substantially physically, and of course I’m aware of global human suffering. But having gone through the briefest of visits to this prison of suffering twice now, I could feel true empathy for the countless others who are permanent residents.
In His mercy, God healed me and allowed me to recover. I don’t know why He did, and I don’t know why He sometimes permits others to continue to suffer. These are questions I’ll always have. I know enough to know that God is good, and He works to bring beauty out of our ashes.
To my shame, I still haven’t read this remarkable book. My escape is still fresh, and I am very aware that the keys I was given to leave the hospital are no longer jangling in my pocket. Should I enter bodily suffering again, I have no assurance I won’t be there indefinitely.
But now that I know, really know that life could be taken away, or made infinitely more difficult by physical burdens, it has fundamentally altered me. As cliched as it may be, every single day I have felt a foundation of contentment that wasn’t there before. I’m alive, my kids and husband are alive, we have a God who loves us, and a roof over our heads. It is blessing over blessing. And if the Lord decides that we are to move into that hospital permanently, I am praying He will be my portion to suffer strong.