I don't have many Christmas traditions that are set in stone. When I was in grade school, we spent many years as a nuclear family running around the beach in sweatpants and filling our hair with the smell of salt before a picnic or presents. When we moved back to the Midwest, we traded the beach for ice skating on the back pond and sledding down hills before bedtime. When I reached adolescence, some of my Christmases were spent far from family in Bangladesh or Antarctica. All of these memories are good, tying me more closely to the reason for the season than to something specific my family invented along the way. Christmas was mobile, fluid and always faithful.
My Christmases in Bangladesh have given Boxing Day special meaning. After such communal joy on the 25th, I've noticed that I often get quiet and pensive the next day. The 26th makes me attentive and vulnerable because I have sensed Emmanuel most deeply in the wake of Christmas.
On December 26, 1998 I stayed back from dinner and dancing at LAMB Hospital in Dinajpur, Bangladesh. I felt funny and thought I needed a nap. Flu-like symptoms crept over me as I waved goodbye to the group and I was glad for solitude once the door closed behind them. I don't like to be sick and didn't want others to see how crummy I really felt.
It took less than an hour to start fading in and out of consciousness, spike a fever and hallucinate. I remember what felt like hours alone, curled up on my hands and knees beside a filthy squatter toilet. I talked to bugs and shook uncontrollably.
I heard the group return later and remember that my behavior frightened some of them. I couldn't make sense or hold myself up. Our team nurse called a doctor and they moved me to a cot, trying to hold me still. I have never been so sick or so frightened, so when the doctor arrived, I had high hopes for his diagnosis and treatment plan. Instead, he pulled up a chair and laid hands on me. He prayed long and beautiful prayers that further confused me. And then I realized that prayers were not an afterthought in this hospital or a cute accessory to modern medicine. It was the middle of the night in a rural, third world nation. Care was basic and limited, so prayer was the only place they ever started.
When I remember my weeks and months of Dengue Fever, I first recall how cold his hands felt because my flesh was roasting with a temperature above 104 degrees. I remember his calm words and gentle grip on my flailing arms. I remember him being there until I fell asleep.
I slept for days and barely recall the journey to southern Bangladesh, which required hours in a small and stuffy van, treacherous ferry crossings and a short plane ride. When I was strong enough to participate again, we were in a little village called Dumki. Here, I received some care from a female doctor. She addressed the lesions that covered my mouth and throat, finding creative ways for me to eat and regain strength. But first, there was always prayer and healing touch.
This was twelve years ago, but I think about it often. Once a bubbly extrovert, Bangladesh made me a vulnerable and quiet observer for a few weeks. I noticed things, prayed things and believed things I never would have without Dengue. Boxing Day changed me.
Six years later, I returned to Bangladesh with a new group that included my father. It felt good to be back in Dumki with healthy energy. On Boxing Day, we went to a village I'd visited years earlier. Women had powerful stories to tell about their economic savings groups - the ways working together was changing their communities and helping them become valuable leaders in their families.
At the end of the visit, I wandered off with the kids. We made animal noises, played tag and laughed a lot. I fell in love with a little boy named Reuben. Our interpreter said he'd run home to change when he saw us coming and his red sweater vest was for special occasions. His hair was slick and he tried out several of his best English phrases on me. Every time I replied to his question or comment, proof that I could understand him, the gaggle of kids would hoot and holler with laughter. Before we left, our interpreter told me that most of these kids were delivered by c-section at LHCB, the Dumki hospital we support and were visiting. Most of them were delivered by the doctor who had cared for me six years earlier. And most of them were about six years old.
This news hit me hard. These beautiful faces and feet on the other side of the world had been held and prayed for by the same doctor as me. Reuben's bright eyes danced with mine in conversation and play today because we were both cherished and loved. We were both here, healthy and strong, thanks to the same hands and the same God. I wept quietly all the way back to Dumki, imagining their brave mothers with round bellies bumping up and down in rickshaws for the two hour journey from village to hospital six years ago. They were all Marys. And they were all blessed, full of grace.
It took days to learn that the earth rumbling gently beneath us that morning had shaken the whole world - that the earthquake so far away had caused waves of destruction everywhere but there. And thank God not there. Bangladesh is already flooded most of the time and Dumki would have been washed away before receiving any warning. We would have been washed away if the waves could have mustered strength in the shallow Bay of Bengal - me, my father, Reuben and all the prayers that had carried us this far.
Back in Dhaka, we watched a lot of Sky News. My friend Katherine was with me for both Boxing Days and the Tsunami had both of us dumbfounded. We sat on our beds in the hostel watching images of Asia tormented by waves and water, images that could have been our reality. Again, Boxing Day changed me.
This year Boxing Day meant celebrating the First Sunday of Christmas with lots of light. It meant white paraments and red plants and candles everywhere. It meant songs filled with promises that are not so separate from bright eyes and healthy boys in sweater vests on the other side of the world.
Christians in Bangladesh decorate by putting big red stars on the roof of their houses and in their worship spaces. I might not have a lot of Christmas traditions that are set in stone, but a red star has become one of them. Red paper ornaments I bought in Dhaka long ago adorn our little tree at home. And on clear winter nights I look up at the stars that seem yellow here, trusting that they still burn red above the doctors who pray and Reuben while he sleeps.
Happy Boxing Day.