For author and artist Sarah Buck even the hardest holiday was a gift
Photography courtesy of SARAH BUCK
MAYBE IT’S UNORIGINAL, but Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. The twinkling lights, family gatherings, children’s school plays, parties and glowing decorations in store windows all make my heart swell with hope and excitement each year. Most of all, the magnitude of meaning behind this holy day never fails to leave me in awe. As my family celebrates the birth of our Savior at Christmas, I can’t help but feel my hope renewed and my fears relieved.
My childhood memories of the holidays exemplify the wonder that the advent season is meant to bring — a gift from my parents that I don’t take lightly. Now, my husband, Forbes, and I are doing our best to give our children rich Christmas memories of their own.
But, like so many things, Christmas doesn’t always look or feel as we hoped, and sometimes it can be full of pain instead of joy. In the past eight years, I’ve experienced two Christmases that will go down in our family’s history as the worst and the best.
During the Christmas of 2013, I was 23 months into a battle against a mystery illness that was literally stealing my life away. By the time the holidays rolled around, I had seen 19 doctors and still had no answers as to what was plaguing my body. I had only three fingers that still worked, overwhelming nausea, excruciating nerve and muscle pain and a leg that dragged when I walked. I was 30 pounds below my usual healthy weight, and my head bobbled back and forth uncontrollably.
Needless to say, it was not our normal holly, jolly holiday (to top it all off, I had contracted bronchitis that year; there would be no singing). I spent Christmas Day wrapped in a blanket by the fireplace at my parents’ house, passively watching life happen all around me. At dinner, I asked my mom to seat me with the children in the kitchen — the thought of trying to seem “normal” at the adult table was simply too much to bear. Lacking the dexterity in my hands to use a fork, I gave up on eating. Instead, I decided to simply sit and listen as the kids joked and giggled with one another. My heart was heavy with the weight of the unknown, but in that moment, the children reminded me of the ultimate joy that Christmas brings, one that transcends pain and suffering and fear.
Not long after, I was diagnosed with neurologic lyme disease and set on a long course of healing. My progress, I would argue, is a miracle. My life was given back to me: a stunning, awe-inspiring gift.
Over the nearly two years of my health struggles, Forbes and I walked out of the journey two completely different people, but what changed the most might surprise you: Our faith. What we believed and in whom we believed was unchanged, but the depth to which we believed it had multiplied a thousand-fold.
Three years later, as my health and our lives were nearly back to normal, God leaned in and pressed adoption onto our hearts. “What?” we thought. “Now?”
On Nov. 29, 2016, amid Hurricane Matthew’s aftermath and the grief of turning down a potential match due to complications, we received a call that changed our lives. Five short days later, we had a baby in our arms and a new life to celebrate.
The adoption happened much more quickly than expected, which meant we were required to stay in our new baby’s home state for 10 full days, smack in the middle of the Christmas season. We made it home before all the big family festivities began, our precious baby girl in tow.
Two Christmases, just three years apart, that could not have been more different. In Christmas of 2013, when everything felt so dark and heavy, I was still confident, by God’s grace, that the hope of Christmas was just as real as it had been all those many Christmases before. And then there was the Christmas of 2016, when the birth of another child, some 2,000 years after the one we celebrate at Christmas, changed our family forever.
I know this holiday season is hard for many. I imagine it will be even harder this year as our world has suffered through so much loss and heartache recently. Gathering for the holidays will likely feel different, and for some, there will be empty seats at the table. But the joy of the season is rooted in something so much deeper. The hope of the Christ-child coming at Christmas to redeem a broken and hopeless world cannot be undone by illness, or loss or grief.
This Christmas season, no matter what challenges you carry into it, I hope you find joy in the bitter and the sweet. Both are gifts of grace in their own way.