Track 22: You’ll never walk alone – Joni James
A Christmas to Remember By Anita Stansfield
I’ve realized over the years, especially since I’ve become a mother, that the progression of life is often marked by the biggest holiday of the year. We take more pictures at Christmastime, and we have more family gatherings and celebrations than at any other time of year. We talk about the Christmases when the children were certain ages and all of the associated memories. Even though every season of the year has its pleasant aspects and its challenges, I often find myself thinking of how fast the time has gone since last Christmas and how quickly Christmas is approaching. It seems that as soon as school starts in the fall, before we know it, we’ve passed Halloween and then we’re buying gifts and making plans for the upcoming holiday of holidays. It’s funny though, in a strange kind of way, how much life can change from one Christmas to the next—especially when events take place that you couldn’t foresee and weren’t counting on. At such times, Christmas can become not only a measure of time but an accounting of what’s truly important in life.
The Christmas of 2009 was notable in our family since our youngest son had gone into the MTC on December 16. We’d held some of our traditional celebrations prior to his leaving, which meant having to come up with some original plans for when Christmas actually arrived. It’s always hard to have a family member missing for Christmas, but we were thrilled by Steven’s commitment to serve a mission, and as a mother, I felt joy in knowing where he was. Even though I missed him terribly, I figured that my support of his missionary service was likely the best gift a mother could give to Jesus for His birthday. I knew more than anyone how Steven had earnestly been working toward a mission since his early teens, and I also knew of the personal battle to get there since he’d dealt with some very perplexing health problems for years. But the problems had miraculously cleared up, and he had been given the medical go-ahead to serve a mission. For him, it was a great accomplishment to be in the MTC for Christmas.
On Christmas Day, our oldest son and his wife announced that they were going to have another baby. That was truly a great Christmas gift for me, and it gave the year ahead an especially happy anticipation.
The holidays ended, and life pressed forward. My goal for 2010 was to find a path to better health, and I prayed very hard for it. Two years earlier, I’d been diagnosed with celiac disease, which was supposedly the answer to why I’d struggled with mysterious health issues for nearly a decade prior to that time. But for all of my efforts to diligently treat the celiac disease, I was still unwell and having many challenges. An answer to prayers came when doctors discovered that my gall bladder was very diseased, and I was scheduled to have it removed at the end of April. Doctors felt confident that getting it out would help me feel much better.
Recovering from the surgery was as miserable as one might expect, but I had the hope of feeling better once the recovery was complete. I was just starting to feel better when I woke up one night with excruciating pain in my right shoulder and arm. It turned out that a disc in my neck was compressing crucial nerves. While struggling to meet a deadline for a book I was writing and trying to get the right diagnosis, word came that Steven’s health had taken an unexpected and dramatic turn for the worse. After weeks of trying to help him from a distance, the decision was made for him to return home. My heart broke for him, knowing that his heart was breaking. In the end, he found complete peace in knowing that a six-month mission was all the Lord had wanted him to serve, and this had been a part of his life’s plan. I came to learn that for some people, the true sacrifice is in not being able to serve in a way they wanted or planned.
With Steven home, we both became immersed in doctor appointments. For me, the same day I got an MRI on my neck, I also got my routine mammogram. It came back suspicious, which led to another mammogram, then a needle biopsy, and then the need for a surgical biopsy. It was decided that I needed to get my neck fixed first, since it was more crucial. I had neck surgery the end of July, soon after our new grandson was born. I then pressed forward with trying to heal, writing another novel, and caring for my family. The surgical breast biopsy was scheduled for September 23. On September 22, while our roof was half off the house in the midst of its being replaced, we encountered a freak rainstorm, and our home flooded from the top. The day I was in the hospital, ward members came and packed up the entire upper floor of our house, and the next day, while I was staying in the home of a friend, a demolition crew tore out all of the walls and ceilings, which would have to be reconstructed. I lived for seven and a half weeks with a friend while most of my belongings were packed up and not accessible. It was during this time that I was officially diagnosed with breast cancer. It had miraculously been caught at a non-invasive stage, but the only practical solution to guarantee survival was a complete bilateral mastectomy. Prior to the surgery, we had managed to put the house back together enough to be functional, but it was far from ideal, and we knew it would take many months to recover, especially with Christmas coming and my need to finish another book.
My surgery was on December 10, which meant that Christmas Eve was exactly two weeks out, and I was fairly warned by the surgeons that I would not be feeling well. Amazingly enough, I managed to get my Christmas shopping done before the surgery, but my typical Christmas plans were far from in place. I had to learn to rely on my children to help pull everything together, and I had to let go of many expectations. I spent the days leading up to Christmas with a pain pump and drainage tubes protruding from my body, sick from the medications and still in a great deal of pain. The preparations for the holiday passed me by as I lay in a fog. I remember sitting on the couch Christmas morning, observing everything almost as if from a distance, feeling joy at seeing my family members having a good time. But the day fell short for me in many ways. My adult daughter, Anna, who had become my right hand through these experiences, was ill on Christmas Day and was, therefore, unable to help do things on my behalf that would have normally been a part of our celebrations. I went back to bed after all the gifts had been opened and wondered what had gone wrong with my life since the previous Christmas. My house was in chaos, and my body was in more misery than it had ever been. I remember recalling that I’d been told in a priesthood blessing that I would have an especially memorable Christmas. Well, it was certainly memorable, I thought, wishing for an induced coma until my body could heal. Even in my misery, though, I actively made an effort to count my blessings every day and to express gratitude to my Heavenly Father for those blessings. The list was long, and I can earnestly say that gratitude was the remedy that got me through. I knew there were many people much worse off than me, and I knew my own situation could have been much, much worse. Still, pain is pain; chaos is chaos. And I was struggling to keep perspective.
It was actually some time later that I fully realized it had been an especially memorable Christmas. I had learned things about life and myself that I now believe were essential for my own life’s plan. I learned more than I ever have before that what God is trying to create out of our lives is something that we, in our mortal limitations, can never comprehend. When I was able to separate Christmas Day itself from the overall impact of the season as a whole, I was able to see some especially memorable experiences. I will never forget having my children wrap gifts in my bedroom, where I lay recovering, while we watched our favourite Christmas movies. I’ll never forget the visits of friends and the love and support they gave me through this time in my life that will always stand out as one of the most difficult experiences I’ve endured. Most of all, I will never forget how deeply I felt the power of the Atonement through this season. My testimony of its healing, comforting powers was magnified immensely through this time in my life, along with my testimony of the ministering of angels. I know beyond any doubt that miracles have not ceased, and angels have not ceased to minister unto the children of men.
By the end of April 2011, on the anniversary of my gall bladder surgery, I’d had six surgeries in one year. But I could see that this had been a very direct answer to my prayers. I had prayed for better health. God had known my gall bladder was diseased, my neck was about to fail, and cancer was brewing. And through these surgeries, my digestive system is now in better condition than it has been in years, and my neck pain is also better than it has been in a very long time. The cancer had not been a predictable health risk, but if it had gone unchecked, it could have taken over and quickly robbed me of my life, given the type of cancer that it was and how widespread it had been. I could also see that through the course of these health traumas, I had written four novels and a screenplay, and my family had been well cared for.
I began to see life like a set of railroad tracks. I can imagine our suffering, heartache, and grief running constantly on one track, and on a continual parallel beside it are the miracles, blessings, and undeniable evidence that God’s hand is in our life, if we’ll only make an effort to notice and take account. Both rails are necessary to move the train forward, just as they are necessary for us to become what we came to this earth to become.
In future years, I’m certain I’ll always remember the Christmas of 2010 with a strange kind of fondness. As time takes me farther away from it, I’m more prone to recall the blessings and forget the pain. I’m certain that every Christmas throughout the rest of my mortality, I’ll be grateful that I don’t have to do that again, and I’ll be grateful for what I learned, having to go through that. It was truly a Christmas to remember.