I was anticipating a restful, traditional Advent as a prelude to my son’s birth sometime around New Year’s Eve. But all of that changed when he arrived early, requiring a stay in the NICU — and a change in the way I approached my Advent.
by Heidi Indahl
Pregnant with my son, due New Year’s Eve of this year, I had a lot of expectations about how I might spend my Advent. Not just waiting and preparing for the birth of our Savior, but also for the birth of my son. Advent is one of my favorite liturgical seasons and our family has many traditions for celebrating the season together. Anticipating our newest family member was only going to make this year’s Advent even more meaningful.
We all know babies set their own timelines, however, and shortly after Thanksgiving I found myself in labor at just 35 weeks of pregnancy. To be honest, even at the time, I was not particularly nervous about delivering at 35 weeks because I have done it before. My last three babies were born before 37 weeks, and all did just great.
Our precious Tomas, however, had a different plan. Shortly after he was born, early in the morning on the first Sunday of Advent, it became clear that his little lungs hadn’t quite caught up with the rest of his plans to be born. As a small regional hospital, the place he was born was not equipped to handle his needs and he had to be flown via helicopter to another hospital about an hour away.
In those first hours, after almost 24 hours without sleep, my husband quickly drove to the other hospital and a friend came to help me through those early recovery hours. I had a C-section (repeat) so I couldn’t simply hop in the car and follow. Thankfully with the help of my friend and an excellent primary care provider who understands that moms belong with their babies, I was able to be discharged late in the day on Sunday and my friend drove me to the hospital to join my husband, Tim, and our son, Tomas.
As my hormones surged and my spirits sank while I watched my son struggle to breathe even with the help of medical equipment, I found myself longing for Advent as much as I longed to hold him. I wished for that peaceful and reflective season of preparation that, in many ways, is so like those first days after birth. It can entail a reflection on the journey of a particular pregnancy while beginning to settle into a peaceful and gentle relationship with your new child. As I shared my frustrations and heartache with this new path that had been put before us, several friends encouraged me to find my own Advent this year. To forge my own path of reflection, preparation and seeking peace.
No Room At The Inn
We soon discovered that the NICU setup did not allow for parents to stay onsite with their children. They were welcome to be bedside 24 hours a day, but to eat, drink, or sleep (and for me, to pump my breastmilk) it was necessary to leave. Leaving meant extra time away from our son each day as we traveled from the hospital to home. The onsite rooms were reserved for particularly critical babies or those who were preparing to return home. The Ronald McDonald House had an unusually long waiting list. The local hotels were more than we could afford. Our only choice was the leave each night, drive to our own home late in the evening, and return early the next morning.
I often reminded myself, in those days without a place to lay our heads that would allow us to be close to our son, that Mary and Joseph too heard that there was no room for their family. That others had greater needs than their own. And yet, I don’t imagine in their time of need that they were bitter or angry. I picture Mary quietly doing whatever she had to do for her son, in the best way that she knew how.
I would love to tell you that I was able to perfectly imitate the grace that Mary surely demonstrated, but I assure you that many times I did not. When I found myself struggling the most, however, I tried to focus on the Holy Family’s journey instead of my own. One night I was particularly battling with all of the emotional and physical aspects of the process and my husband told me to close my eyes and say the Rosary while he gently rubbed my (extremely swollen) feet.
In Minnesota, Donkey = Snow
When I imagined Mary’s physical comfort (or lack thereof) riding to Bethlehem on the back of a donkey, I was admittedly grateful for the relative comfort and speed of our little car. That was until it snowed.
We live in Minnesota. It is December. It snows in Minnesota in December.
There were two trips (one each direction) that we took in a cloud of worry over our safety during the journey. I wondered if Mary and Joseph were ever concerned for their safety on their journey? In demonstration of perfect trust, I somehow doubt it, but this is certainly something I have never previously considered in all of my Advents of years past.
A Different Kind of Fast
After several days of driving back and forth, we were able to find a room at the local Ronald McDonald House. We had been on the waiting list, but were so far down the list that we didn’t expect to move through so quickly. We had been carrying a change of clothes back and forth with us each night just in case, but on the night that we finally made it through the waiting list we were less than adequately prepared. As we walked out of the building and to our car the next morning, I was wearing nothing more than my slippers and my husband was without a winter coat. As we lamented our lack of appropriate winter clothing, I realized that it was Friday. I told my husband God was providing us with a different kind of fast this week wince there was almost no way that I would have otherwise even noticed that it was Friday.
We were blessed that our stay in the NICU was relatively short and uncomplicated when compared to many others. On our son’s 10th day of life we were discharged and sent on our way to begin our new life as a family of eight. Like Advent prepares the way for the Christmas season, our NICU stay was a part of our own preparation for our new family life. The NICU was not the beginning we had planned for our son, but it was only one step on our journey.
Advent, I realized this year, is also only one step. We can try to plan that step in the way that is comforting and convenient to us, but oftentimes (as in life) God has a different plan for our Advent journey. Advent is an important time of reflection and preparation, but its purpose leads us to something more. Advent leads us on our journey towards Christ, not just at Christmastime, but through the entire Church year.