A few weeks ago, I started unpacking our Christmas boxes. Now, I was full of merry: we are still together, living in a warm and cozy home (not a NICU or homeless shelter) with two of our boys sleeping soundly in their beds every night. Samuel–for whom I promised God every worldly possession of mine, every bit of earthly stature and every selfish desire and ambition if only he would live–toddles around the house with pink cheeks and an affinity for unpacking my purse whenever he can get his hands on it. This fall, his cardiologist finally assured us that Samuel would live a long life. We are a long ways from un-merry . . . this Christmas.

Last Christmas, however, was not so merry. We were overwrought with worry and the daily tasks of caring for a delicate cardiac baby and his two-year old, tantrum-throwing brother. The Christmas boxes went back into the attic having barely been unpacked. For the first time in my 12-year marriage, I didn’t decorate the Christmas tree. I tried not to flog myself for the fact that we never enjoyed the Christmas Eve dinner I had prepared, going to bed so exhausted that night that the hunger paled in comparison. The pictures of me holding Samuel Christmas morning, helping him unpack his stocking, are of a woman I barely recognize: battle-weary, worn down to the nubs.

I thought that woman remained back there in that Christmas. But, when I started opening the haphazardly packed Christmas boxes, she came rushing out at me. With every new lid lifted and garland strewn, there she was, waiting to unpack the memories: all the struggle, all the fear and pain. Soon, I was walking around the house decorating, tears streaming down my face. Why am I crying? I was crying for her: for all the tears she didn’t have time to cry last year. I was crying for every emotion stuffed back in those Christmas boxes so that she could continue to function for her family. I was crying for all of those fears she plowed through as she packed the stockings away for next year: Jack, Tay, Abraham, Samuel, Caleb. She wondered last year if it would be the only Christmas she would ever fill Samuel’s stocking. She wondered if next year, Abraham would have two brothers in heaven.

I have known many beautiful, happy Christmases. And, I have known Christmases filled with fear, and grief, and the gaping hole a child or grandfather leaves behind when they go to worship the Christ-child in His home. The merriest of times become the loneliest.

I encourage all of you facing an un-merry Christmas to ask Him to fill your emptiness. Ask Him to be born in the hollows of your heart, ask Him to reveal Himself to you. We cannot control the waves, but we can ask that He meet us amidst the storm and teach us to walk on water. He is coming, for the merry and un-merry alike. He longs to fill our empty mangers.

I realize there are some hungers, some pains that never go away. This is our fifth Christmas without our first-born, and that pain lingers still. I still hang his stocking next to his brothers’, along with a little cross-stitched sign that says, “A family is a gift that lasts forever.” I remind myself that someday we will all stand together at THE manger, and that this pain is only for a while.

In the meantime, Jack built me a tiny little manger this year. We placed it in front of the Christmas tree: the first present of the season. It is empty until Christmas day, and then a Cabbage Patch doll named “Hope Patty,” dressed as baby Jesus, will take up residence in the straw. I cannot extract pain from my life, and from my Christmas, but I can offer it to Jesus. After all, these holes life bores into us cry out for healing, cry out for Him.

Until we all stand at THE manger together,

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light
From now on,
our troubles will be out of sight

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Make the Yule-tide gay,
From now on,
our troubles will be miles away.

Here we are as in olden days,
Happy golden days of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more.

Through the years
We all will be together,
If the Fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.
And have yourself A merry little Christmas now.