Today was my youngest niece’s first birthday. We celebrated her last weekend with a party and cake, and I spent this morning with her and her mom and sister, doing a little bit of girl bonding while shopping. When I came home, though, I found myself thinking of a profound God moment that happened shortly after Abby’s birth, and in which she played a special role. I wrote her a letter this afternoon to capture that sentiment, and with her parent’s permission, I wanted to share it here.
For Abigail May on her first birthday.
You were born one year ago today, and I remember smiling as I got the text telling me of your arrival. I was so excited to welcome another niece into my heart and family, and couldn’t wait to hold you, to snuggle, to enjoy watching you grow. It’s been a year full of all of those blessings, and you are a cute, funny, active little girl, crawling all over the place and hinting that soon you’ll start trying to walk. You love your parents and your big sister, and your smiles, though sometimes hard-won, light up your face.
But I’m not really thinking about those things today, Abby girl. Instead I’m thinking about a moment that came less than two months after you entered this world. It was a sacred and holy moment, one I’ve returned to often during the upheaval this last year has brought in my life.
One night in January of 2015, though you were too little to know it, you kept vigil with your mama and I as we sat next to the hospital bed where your great grandma was dying.
Your great grandma was an interesting lady, Abby. I lived with her for the last five years of her life, and I saw her foibles and her gifts more closely than most. She was spunky and friendly, never without a greeting, and her memory for dates and people, even in her last years of life never failed. There wasn’t a person in the family who had a birthday or an anniversary who didn’t get a call from her on that date each year. My favorite picture of your great grandma is hanging on the wall in my kitchen. She’s wearing a dress and a funny straw hat with a bow, and straddling a giant alligator, nearly sitting on it’s back! That was your her, Abby-May – all primness and spunk, straddling generations, but willing to step out, and so, when she was 75, she got a passport and joined your grandpa and your daddy and your great-aunt Cheryl and great-uncle Brian and went on a mission trip to Ghana, where she ended up looking just a bit Mary Poppinesque while straddling an enormous alligator.
She was one of the first in the family to see you, Abby. She got to visit with you in the hospital – you were born in the same hospital that she was in for the last few months of her life. Someone printed out pictures of this newest great-granddaughter and tacked them to the wall across from her bed, and she pointed them out to everyone – she was always telling the nurses and doctors and really whoever would listen to her about her beloved family members.
That night, the last night she spent on earth, your mommy and I took a shift together at the hospital, keeping vigil with her, and you joined us. It was a moment of sacred sweetness, Abby. I arrived at the hospital before you and your mama, and I remember thinking that it would be so lovely if your mama would sing to grandma – how much grandma would appreciate that. When your mama arrived, we were on the same page – Jesus had given her the same thought, and she showed up, handed you to me, and pulled out a songbook. For the next few hours your mom and I held grandma’s hands, we sang to her, and read her scriptures and song lyrics, and we prayed for her. Grandma wasn’t really conscious anymore – her eyes flicked open every so often, and she was starting to struggle with breathing, but I think she knew we were there.
The nurses came in and out, alternately talking with us, and giving us space – doing as much to care for those of us who gathered around your great-grandma’s bed as they were doing to care for her in those moments. They were wonderful, Abby, and made me proud to be a nurse. Several came in, too, because they’d heard we had a baby with us. They were excited to see you, Abby, and they told us how Grandma would talk about you and your sister, pointing out your picture on the wall. “Oh! This is the baby in the picture,” several said.
What I can’t explain to you, Abby, is how much your presence in that hospital room that night was a gift from Jesus. I have a picture that I’ll treasure forever, of you sleeping at the foot of grandma’s hospital bed. A life just beginning, and a life ending, both resting in the same bed. That hospital room was what the Celts called a “thin place” that night Abby, a place where heaven and earth are nearly touching and you can feel it – and you being there was a part of that. There was something deeply healing and holy for your mom and I in having you there – in seeing your new life juxtaposed against grandma’s waning life. I don’t have a lot of words for that, but I wanted you to know how special it was that you were there. That your presence was special, and that in being there, you were present for a holy moment – one that was filled with sorrow, but also immense joy and peace. As your mom and I walked back to our cars that night, we just looked at each other – neither of us had words for those few hours, but we knew that we’d been gifted with the peace of Christ in that space, and that somehow, you being there was important for us to see. And so, Abby-May, this is your first birthday, and I’ve just spent several hundred words describing a moment you’ll not remember. But I pray this for you, as you grow, sweet girl. I pray that you will have many more moments that are as sacred as that one. I pray that you will grow to know within you the peace of Christ that your mama and I experienced that night. I pray that you will love family deeply and fully the way your great-grandma did, and that you will know Christ’s mercy and forgiveness in the ways she did too. And I pray that you’ll have even a little bit of her spunk – that you’ll take chances wisely and seek to deeply enjoy life – that you’ll laugh, and maybe one day you’ll be the old lady who looks just a bit like Mary Poppins, straddling an alligator.
I love you sweet girl. Happy Birthday.