Thirteen years ago, just as advent began, my wife and I were battling a difficult pregnancy. After years of infertility, the joyful adoption of our eldest daughter Lily, years more struggles to get pregnant, we were finally awaiting the birth of our second daughter. But about halfway into the pregnancy we got bad news. The ultrasound technician seemed to be taking a lot longer than we thought it should take. And she was being a little too evasive in her answers to us. We waited. The doctor came in and told us our daughter had a serious heart condition–treatable with open heart surgery within a few months after her birth, but very serious. We took in that sobering news with a lot of prayer and mutual support. Then we found ourselves in the hospital a couple of times with our daughter’s heart rate plummeting and my wife having contractions–months too early for any of that. We were bracing for losing our daughter. But she hung in there. And so did my wife. Then in early December things again turned worse. We rushed to the hospital. For a moment things calmed a bit, but given the serious nature of the situation we were sent to a better equipped hospital in another city thinking we were going to wait it out a bit longer. But again things quickly turned worse and the doctors performed an emergency c-section. Our daughter Coco Madalena was born on December 7th, the date of both my grandfather’s and godson’s birthday, the day before the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and a month before her due date. And she was beautiful.
Heart scans indicated that she immediately needed a less invasive heart valve operation to help her survive until the major heart surgery she would need in a few months. Naturally we agreed to the surgery. It seemed to go well. The doctors were happy. All looked good. But then she had a heart attack. Emergency procedures were done. She pulled through. But then she began to struggle. During either the operation, or more likely the emergency procedures from the heart attack, she got a rare form of meningitis. The meningitis attacked her brain, and in only one month’s time she died in my arms. She never left the hospital.
All during that Christmas season my wife and I lived in a kind of limbo. My wife was at the hospital every day. I came many days, but was also juggling work. Our oldest daughter was just old enough to be both super excited to get a sister and to know something serious was going on. Family and friends all helped as they could. Many people were praying. And when Coco died our community gave us great support.
Yes, this was a big tragedy for us. A very hard time. But, the truth is, God also came so close to us. It is hard to describe, and even harder to convey. Through all the struggle, all the tears, all the difficult days and nights, We felt God’s presence. God was with us. Often I so desperately wish our girl was with us now. I think of her a lot. I also know of God’s love in the midst of trials. The journey for me was about going from head knowledge to heart knowledge, from my mind to my soul. I would never wish suffering on another, but I do believe suffering may be the only way or, ironically, the best way to come closer to God because in suffering God comes closer to us. The cross gives us a picture of this most profoundly.
We live in a hard and harsh world. So much evil, so much suffering. And that doesn’t stop just because Christmas is here. But God is with us. Christ came as a light into the darkness. Someday He will return in the awesome fullness of His glory. For now we have the Holy Spirit, we have the gospel, we have the Church, we have fellowship, we have the poor and needy all around us, and we have the communion of saints. In these ways God is with us even now.
Perhaps I have always known that, but I know it better because of the gift God gave my wife and I of our daughter Coco. In that difficult time I came to know Advent a little bit better.