While visiting a friend’s daughter at a children’s hospital in Atlanta, a nurse stopped me as I passed the front desk. A young girl in the oncology ward was dying and her pastor was stuck in traffic. Could I help? I followed her to the patient’s room, passing cartoon murals along the way: Linus, Lucy, Charlie Brown and Snoopy; elephants, giraffes, zebras, and monkeys. The halls seemed thick with dreams; good ones, I hoped.
The lightly dimmed room felt peaceful and warm. A young mother with old-looking eyes greeted me. Her daughter had battled a rare form of leukemia for two years. The doctor felt she would die within a few hours. At the age of six, her memories of life had revolved around poking and prodding; vomiting and immense pain.
I thought of my daughter with pigtails and red tennis shoes. I saw her running to greet me when I came home from work. My mind floated to her swim meets, graduations, and now a student in medical school, as a confident young woman. No parent should out live his or her child. It just didn’t seem natural; and yet, I knew it happened.
She held a tattered doll, bald, and worn. The doll had been through all that she had been through for he always went first. The many injections, the bone marrow tests, the radiation and chemo, her doll always went before she did. I smiled listening to her mother’s description; we laughed when she told of how many times the doll has been through the spin cycle on the washing machine. “But she loves that doll,” her mother said; her voice choking back the tears she wanted to release.
The little girl’s big brown eyes opened on a face sunken and pale. She had no hair and sores all over her body. Her mom immediately explained who I was and why I would be there until their pastor could come. Slowly, she handed me her doll, “Bless him, please?” Her voice was soft and difficult to understand.
“Of course, ” I answered, lifting the doll into my arms, “What is his name?”
“Jesus,” she replied assuredly.
As hard as I tried, I couldn’t force the lump in my throat down. Her mom began to cry as I prayed over her doll and then her. Sitting beside her bed, I told her as many stories of Jesus as I could, in simple, child-like language, until her eyes slowly shut again. Several nurses came in and out. It wouldn’t be long now. Her pastor arrived just as the gates of Heaven opened for the little girl who held baby Jesus next to her heart.
There are times when being a pastor is difficult; yet, always a privilege. This is one such time. For in the grief of her mother and the precious simplicity of a little girl and her doll, I renewed in my heart the “true” meaning of Christmas.