I equipped the big walk-in closet in the living room of our tiny duplex with a green second-hand crib and stocked the built-in drawers with soft little layette items. Long, wispy, white curtains tied back with yellow ribbon made an inviting entrance to a close room. Everyday, my tummy grew larger. Every day, I fingered and rearranged clothes, blankets, and toys. I felt happy and excited, despite the christening I gave many toilets and gutters. Even with the little white pills, I threw up several times a day for nine months.
The baby squirmed and punched, kicked, and danced. I massaged hands and feet that fluidly traveled across my abdomen, pressing tight under ribs, giving me indigestion. The mountain of head and back rose, fell, and shifted. I had always wanted to be a mother, and now I was.
November’s sun began dipping to the south. The air held a slight chill, even for California. I counted the days—expectation high. With my friend’s stethoscope, I listened to the music—the strong, steady rhythm of life. But two weeks overdue, the rhythm stopped.
Kelly and I met in mid-August 1973. We worked with an over-zealous ministry that concentrated so much on Christ’s soon return that we made many decisions abruptly and unwisely. One of those was to marry quickly with little preparation or counsel. I guess we feared the Lord might come back before we had a chance to have sex. The night Kelly introduced me to his parents for the first time, we calmly announced our engagement. For all they knew, I could have been an axe murderer. Actually, for all I knew, Kelly could have been an axe murderer. After we left, his folks “discussed” our decision long into the night and woke with hangovers in the morning. But they bravely came alongside, and we did marry. In this time of “Maranatha madness,” we were encouraged by our pastor not to have children, but to totally commit to the “work of the Lord.” We married in October, and by February, I was violently throwing up—a sure sign I was to be a mother. We figured my pregnancy just had be a miraculous work of God. Of course, as our friend Joe put it, “Those who use faith as birth control are called parents!” And so we were to be.
By the time I was six months pregnant, we moved from the ministry’s communal quarters to a small duplex down the street. For the first time, Kelly and I lived alone. It was a precious and necessary time to actually get to know one another after several months of marriage.
Then the baby died. November was a blur of death, tears, comfort, cremation, and far flung ashes. Thanksgiving came and went. It was hard to feel thankful when my arms ached to hold my little one. As cheery Christmas songs began to filter through radio speakers and shopping mall sound systems, my ache grew to intense pain. One part of my heart leaned in to the Savior, understanding that He too felt pain and loss. I wanted to trust that I was safe in His love and care. Another part of my heart felt cold and brittle, betrayed by life and Lord. A battle raged. Tears seemed never-ending, dreams dashed. Questions went unanswered. Joyful Mary knelt by her beautiful baby Jesus in nativity scenes all over town, but my manger was empty.
Years have added layers of depth and understanding to my loss, but even today there is a raw place—a place of longing for our baby girl Noelle. With a new Christmas season right around the corner, I have been reflecting once again on the incarnation. What does Christ’s birth really mean to me? My thoughts, as they often do at this time of year, are interwoven with thoughts of the death of our first child. Noelle was named for Christmas—a reminder of the miraculous event when God came to earth as a baby–the God-man. It has crossed my mind, “What would our lives be like if Mary’s manger had been empty. What if Jesus had never come?” My sense of loss is great, but the devastating loss of Christ as God’s gift to the world would be unfathomable. No high priest to intercede for me, no forgiveness, no fellowship, no whispers of comfort in the night, no eternal promise of heaven.
After the funeral home cremated Noelle’s remains, Kelly and I drove to a secluded wooded area near his grandfather’s cabin to spread the ashes. The tiny white box fit in the breast pocket of Kelly’s plaid shirt. He held my hand tightly as he led the way uphill, brushing by scratchy shrubs and tree branches. Weak in body and spirit, I struggled to fix my steps on the narrow rugged path. Tears fell and feet fell. When finally we reached the top, we prayed. We held one another and the remains of a life so little known, then threw her ashes to the wind to become a part of the trees and bushes in that special place.
Christ carries my death next to his heart. He came to set me free from the spiritual consequences of my sin. I am free, but the way is often rugged; and through my tears, I don’t always see too clearly. I have no idea what’s up ahead. But He is in the lead. He holds my hand, and all I need do is stick to the path and match Him step for step.
I met that tearful Christmas many years ago with empty arms, but because of the babe in Mary’s manger, because her manger was not empty, I continue to have hope.