It's Christmas Eve, and the lake in front of me is frozen hard. Snow surrounds the edge, crunching beneath my feet. The sun is beginning to sink, and the trees, heavy with snow, cast long shadows over the paved path that runs along the shore. Several runners make their way around the perimeter, careful not to bump into the occasional walker on the inside of the path. I stand for a few moments in that familiar spot, beneath the giant oak tree, looking out over the smooth surface. As I'd driven through the icy streets on my way to the park, past familiar shops and sights, I'd noticed few changes in the three years since I'd been gone. I take a deep breath and exhale, leaving faint clouds in the winter air. I have work to do. I open the tailgate of my truck and grab the legs of the heavy wooden bench that I'd loaded earlier.
When I was a boy, my father would wake me early on Saturday mornings, and we'd drive to a lake, much larger than this one, on the outskirts of my hometown, and push our tiny rowboat into the water. We'd always start before dawn. At the lake, we'd row out to our favorite spot and prepare our rods for a morning of fishing. Together we'd sit in silence and wait for the slightest tug on our lines. Often, we'd speak in whispers. My father was convinced that even the smallest noise spooked the fish, but when my father did speak, he'd say, "Be patient, Nathan. One will come, " or "Be still, Nathan. Be still."
At the end of the day, we'd row back with our catch--we threw back more than we ever kept--and then, as we approached the shore, my father would sometimes tell me about his hopes and dreams and ask me about mine. "Even God's smallest plan for us is bigger than any dream we could ever hope for," my father said one morning, pulling the boat onto dry land.
I don't know why I have always remembered that moment; maybe I recall it because there was a time when I was a boy that I'd prayed for a miracle that never came, one that would have kept our family intact and saved my mother's life. I was eight years old when she died of cancer during the first morning hours of Christmas Day. Earlier in the evening I had run to Wilson's Department Store and bought her a pair of shiny beaded shoes. Looking back, I know they were gaudy and awful, but in my child's mind I thought she'd look beautiful as she walked into Heaven wearing them. I didn't know my mother would die that night, and as I climbed into bed and pulled the blankets high around my neck, I prayed again for a miracle.
As I helped my father pull our boat onto shore years later, I wondered how he could believe that God's plan for us was greater than anything we could have ever imagined if God wouldn't send a miracle when we needed it most?
A year earlier, I went with my mother one winter morning to visit my grandparents, who lived high on a hillside. WE drove up the winding road that led to their home, and because the trees were naked, as I looked over the bluff at the top, I could see into the valley below. It looked so different from above, not as immense as I'd thought. We got out of the car, and my mother took my hand on that cold, windy day and looked down into the valley with me. "I liked it better looking up," I said to her. "Everything's too little from here." She knelt beside me and drew me close to her side.
"Time in the valley will teach you to be a man, Nathan. It's where your character will form." I looked down the slope and back to my mother. I didn't understand how roaming around in the valley below would help me to become a man. She laughed when she saw my puzzled face and stood up, taking my hand again. "You can only see small things when you're on top of a mountain. Do you know what I mean, Little Man?" I shook my head. No, I didn't.
She knelt in front of me and held my face in her hands. "One day you will, I promise. But I hope you don't go straight to the top of the mountain, Nathan. I hope you go through the valley first so that you'll learn how to love and feel and understand. And when life wounds you, I hope it's because you loved people, not because you mistreated them." I didn't understand anything my mother was saying. She smiled and kissed me. "Always remember that regardless of what happens, Nathan, in the end there will be joy. I promise." As odd as it sounded, I've come to realize that it was her heart's cry for my life, spoken not necessarily to me, but for me.
People talk about a defining moment in life. I've come to realize that there is no one defining moment, but instead a series of events and circumstances that define who we are. They change us little by little, leading us to something bigger or unexpected or maybe to a closed door, and that is when we experience a grand moment of realization that drives us closer to our destiny. The times with my father on the lake and with my mother overlooking the valley are two such moments.
Today, I know that each of us is designed for something, a purpose that often seems muddy, or vague at best. We want nothing more than to know what our purpose is, to know that we haven't just been plopped down to fumble our way through to the end, but that there's a reason for our being here. We may not discover that purpose in the way that we'd want, as time in the valley will be longer and darker than we imagined, but if we are patient or still long enough, we will catch it in fleeting glimpses. We will see tiny sparks of revelation that push us closer and closer to our destiny. There will be pain; sometimes more than we bargained for, but as my mother promised so many years ago, in the end there will be joy.
During a break in rounds, I retreated to the lounge and sank into the sofa. I leaned my head against the wall and rubbed my temples. If I’d known there was going to be someone like Dr. Goetz in my future, I never would have signed up for medical school in the first place. I glanced at my watch and noticed it had stopped running again. I tapped the face, but the second hand wouldn’t budge. I took the watch off and flipped it over to thump the battery casing. I ran my finger over the inscription: With all the love in the world, Mom.
My mother died about a year after she stood with me on the hill overlooking the valley. Maybe she knew she’d never see me grow up; perhaps she was preparing me for the long valley I would go through without her, or maybe preparing her family and herself, for death was the final step of faith she would take.
I remember my father coming into my room during the early morning hours of that Christmas. He said that my mother had stepped into Heaven. He let my sister, Rachel, sleep; she was much too young to understand what was happening anyway. I ran to the living room, where my mother lay still on the hospital bed; my grandmother was holding here hand, weeping. I watched my mother for the longest time, praying she’d move again, that she’d reach for me and say, You need to get back to bed, Little Man, but she couldn’t reach for me, and I knew it. She was thirty-four years old.
Wilson’s Department Store was about to close on that Christmas Eve as I ran from one department to the next looking for the perfect gift until the shoes caught my eye on a sales rack. I ran them to the front register and pulled a crumpled wad of bills and loose change out of my jeans pocket. When the clerk told me I didn’t have enough money, I was heartbroken. I just had to buy those shoes for my mother. I turned to a man behind me, and, before I knew what was happening, he paid for the shoes, and I ran out the door for home. When I helped my mother unwrap the shoes, she held them to her chest and made me feel as if I’d just handed her Heaven itself. We buried her in them. I started leaving shoes on her tombstone again when I was sixteen. The owner of Wilson’s somehow found a similar pair every year and ordered them for me.
During the last weeks of her life, my mother wrote a series of letters to my sister Rachel and me. In one addressed to me she wrote,
I have had many joys in my life but none that have compared to you and Rachel. I always want you to know that I fell more in love with you every day. Please don’t ever dread Christmas, Nathan, but remember to look for the miracles instead. It may be hard to see them at times but they will always be there because Christmas is the season for miracles.
She finished the letter and signed it, With all the love in the world, Mom.
I was helping my mother string lights on the shrubs outside our home the winter before she got sick when she first told me about the miracles of Christmas. “Jesus was born at Christmas,” she said, wrapping a long strand around a juniper yew. “He left Heaven to live here.” She bent over the back of the yew and tugged at the lights, stuck on a low branch. I pulled along with her, and together we continued wrapped the bush. “That’s kind of like us becoming a worm and living in the dirt,” she said, wiping her nose. “Love came down on Christmas, Nathan. That’s the greatest miracle of all. That’s the true blessing of Christmas and why it will always be the season for miracles.” She stood back and admired her work, frowning at the tangled mess. “It’ll look better when the lights are on.” She dug into the box and pulled out another jumbled string, talking as she worked. “If you get too busy, you won’t see the miracles that are taking place right in front of you,” she said, replacing the blown light.
Before she died, my mother bought special gifts for Rachel and me; she wanted my father to give them to us on our sixteenth birthdays. Rachel got a gold locket and I got this watch—a flat, gold-faced Timex with a simple black band. The inscription was a reminder of something I’d always asked her.
“Is your love for me as big as Texas?”
“Bigger,” she’d say.
“As big as the United States?”
“As big as the world?”
“It’s even bigger than the world! But if you combined all the love in the world, it might come close to how much I love you,” my mother told me.
I’d worn the watch every day since my father gave it to me, as promised, on my sixteenth birthday.
Soon after my mother’s death I told my father and grandmother that I wanted to be a doctor. When people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up I responded the same. I wanted to be a doctor so I could help people just like my mother.
Before I knew it, I was through college and into medical school. What a tribute to your mother’s memory, an aunt would say or, What a tremendous way to honor your mother, an old family friend would comment. I felt the pressure mounting—people were counting on me to become a physician—my mother’s memory depended on it. But after three months of rotations and watching people suffer and die, and now a week with Dr. Goetz, I questioned whether I’d made the right decision. In all honesty, when someone died it left me emotionally drained, and I was taken back to the morning my mother passed away. I felt as if I didn’t measure up, that I wasn’t cut out for it. I opened my eyes and realized I needed to get back to rounds.