In my final chapter in my Isaiah 7:14 series, I wish to share a very personal story regarding the impact the Emmanuel prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 has had in my life. Allow me to just jump right into the story…
A Most Surprising Conception
In 2006, I got married. A year later, my wife and I had moved to Alabama, where I began to teach at a small Christian high school and she enrolled in a nursing program. Three and a half years later, in December of 2010, she had achieved her goal and became a registered nurse. With that accomplishment achieved, we both felt we could finally start a family.
The thing was, though, she had a bit of endometriosis, and so she made an appointment with a doctor in early December to have a D & C done. Within days of having the D & C done, though, she started feeling nauseous in the mornings, and for that matter, throughout the days as well. It couldn’t have been morning sickness, we assumed, because we hadn’t had sex since her D & C yet. In addition to the nausea, she also started having pain in her right leg, right around her knee.
Christmas came and went, the nausea continued, and the pain in her leg seemed to get worse. And so, in early January, she went back to the doctor to ask about the constant nausea. He wanted her to do a birth control test, which she found funny, because, due to the constant nausea since the D & C, there had been no opportunity to “make a baby.” In any case, she took the test, and lo and behold…she was pregnant.
What soon became apparent was this: we had gotten pregnant about 7-10 days before she had gone in for the D & C, and they had done the D & C while she was pregnant…and somehow, that little fertilized egg had survived the D & C. That was one tough little fertilized egg! So wouldn’t you know it? We were going to have a boy!
…but the pain in her leg continued to get worse.
The doctor didn’t want to do an x-ray on her leg during the first trimester, so it wasn’t until the end of February that we had the x-ray done. What it revealed, though, caused our hearts to sink: that pain in her leg that started around the time our child was conceived was cancer. My wife had osteosarcoma in her leg, and the cancer had already almost eaten through the bone.
Within days, I, my wife, and her mother were driving down to Birmingham to see surgeons, cancer doctors, and to find out what treatments were possible, and whether or not she would be able to keep our baby. The drive down to Birmingham was quiet and somber. There was a sense of doom, and I had this foreboding feeling that I was going to be a single parent.
Once we got to Birmingham, our initial visit didn’t ease that sense of doom. The surgeon’s initial comments were ominous: yes, it was cancer, yes, there would have to be chemotherapy and eventually surgery, and no, he wasn’t sure if it was possible to keep the baby. If we held off on chemotherapy until after the baby was born, it might be too late for my wife, and she might die. The choice might be forced upon us: the mother or the child.
I remember that moment after the doctor left the room—my wife’s mother and I were silent, just trying to soak in the news. At that moment, my views on the whole abortion issue took a radical shift. No, I do not like abortion, and no, I am not 100% “pro-choice.” But at that moment I realized that there are situations in which such a choice is forced upon you—you sometimes have no choice but to be forced to make a choice. I can’t be for banning abortion in all cases, because there are horrific circumstances when the government shouldn’t force the hand of a couple when they are forced to face the hardest, most painful decision they will ever have to make.
In any case, after a few moments, my wife looked at both me and her mother and said, “What? I’m keeping this baby. It was a miracle that he survived the D & C, I’m not going to terminate this pregnancy.” Personally, I was relieved to hear her say that. It was a miracle our baby even survived the D & C—I didn’t want to terminate the pregnancy. In any case, I told her I would support her no matter what.
As it turned out, we didn’t have to make that dreaded choice after all, for when we saw the second doctor, the one who specialized in cancer, he informed us that there was a chemotherapy treatment that would attack the cancer, but that wouldn’t affect our unborn child. Our child would probably be born smaller than normal, and would probably be a little delayed in developing initially, but in time he’d should catch up.
And so, that was a relief to hear. Still, that meant that we were facing chemotherapy during pregnancy. That was going to be tough.
Treatment…and the Name Emmanuel
And tough, it most certainly was: trips to Birmingham for chemotherapy every three weeks, vomiting, sickness, constant worry—this was the new normal. My wife’s mother came to help, and ended up living with us for a year, first to help with the cancer treatments, and then to help with the baby while she was recovering.
Early on in the chemo treatments, we were still trying to finalize a name for the baby. We had agreed that his first name was to be Elliot, but hadn’t figured out a good middle name. I had been mulling over the name Emmanuel for some time. I reflected on what the name meant, “God with us.” I also reflected on what I had learned about the greater biblical context of Isaiah 7:14. Yes, it meant “God with us,” but it was a prophecy spoken in the midst of turmoil and trial. It was a prophecy that said, “Yes, God will be with you when His salvation comes, but He is also currently with you, in the midst of hardship and suffering.
Hezekiah was born in the midst of Assyrian oppression; Jesus was born in the midst of Roman oppression. We were dealing with the oppression of cancer. And so, one night while we were in the ER due to what ended up being complications, I suggested that we give Elliot the middle name of Emmanuel. My wife agreed—it was our statement of faith that God was with us, even in the midst of cancer.
The Birth…and More Surprises
Our fifth wedding anniversary was spent in the hospital in Birmingham. That was the date my wife had surgery on her leg to cut out the diseased bone and to have it replaced with a titanium rod. A happy anniversary, it was not. The surgery was successful, though, so that was another hurdle we cleared.
A month later, though, my wife developed preclampsia, and due to her situation, the doctor wanted to keep her in the hospital in Birmingham. Elliot was originally due to be born on August 25th, but because of the preclampsia, the doctor determined Elliot would have to come a month early. The date was set: July 25th we were going to have a caesarian.
Because I had to finish fixing up the house and putting in new flooring in the baby’s room, various family members helped out by spending time with my wife in Birmingham. I had spent time with her for a few days up until a week before the new due date. Then as I went back home, her mother came down to spend a few days with her, and then when she had to leave, her aunt and grandmother spent a few days with her.
The caesarian was scheduled for a Monday. As it so happened, her aunt and grandmother had to go back to Illinois the Saturday before the caesarian. My parents had driven over from Little Rock on that Saturday to our house. The plan was then for my parents and I to drive down Sunday, and then be there for the caesarian, and then her mother would be able to get there shortly after that. That meant my wife was by herself for Saturday.
…and wouldn’t you know it? (Yes, you’re guessing correctly)…
With the baby’s room ready, my parents and I were ready to drive down first thing Sunday morning. We all went to bed that Saturday night, but then at 2:40 am, my phone rang. It was my wife—her water broke, and they were about to take her into the delivery room. Our unborn baby had his own timetable, and I was a two-hour drive away.
I hung up the phone, told my parents to go back to sleep and just drive down in the morning, and then by 3:00 am, I was pulling out of my driveway. On my way down to Birmingham, I actually got pulled over by a police officer. I hadn’t been excessively speeding, but at 4:00 am, he apparently had nothing better to do. When he came up to the car, I explained that my wife who had cancer was about to give birth to our premature son. He immediately said I could go.
I got to the hospital at 5:00 am. My wife was in recovery…it turned out that our baby, Elliot Emmanuel, was not the type of baby who was going to wait for anyone. He had made his entrance to the world at 3:00 am, the very time I was pulling out of my driveway. The labor had been all of 15 minutes. I missed the birth of my son.
My wife was fine, but obviously in need of sleep, so after checking in on her, the nurse took me to the NICU. It was there I met my son, Elliot Emmanuel Anderson. He was born at 3 pounds, 6 ounces. His arms and legs were so skinny, my first thought was that he looked like a Kermit the Frog doll. When I held him for the first time, I can honestly say there wasn’t any immediate emotion. It was just surreal. I was sleep-deprived, exhausted, and just in shock…but also extremely relieved. At the same time, I remember thinking, “O wow, this is going to be hard.”
Well, as small as Elliot was, even though he spent the first few days in the NICU, he turned out to be just fine. Within the first 24 hours he was breathing without help, taking a bottle, and yes, he showed he had the ability to poo. Although my wife still had two more chemo sessions to go, we felt the light in a very dark 2011 was finally breaking. Our son was born, Elliot Emmanuel had arrived…God was with us.
Only, the darkness continued…
But There Rarely Is a Happy Ending
I wish I could say that the light dawned and that everything turned out fine. But life isn’t always like that. There still was a long road to recovery for my wife, and over the course of the next year, the stress and strain of everything that had happened resulted in the eventual end of our marriage. In October 2012, she filed for divorce, and that started another painful chapter of life that went on for another year and a half. And then, once the divorce was finalized in May 2014, it was at that time that another chapter in my life began, one that I’ve written about before: I was informed by the new young earth creationist headmaster of the school I had worked at for seven years, that I was no longer a “good fit” for the school because I didn’t subscribe to the belief that humans and dinosaurs lived together a mere 6,000 years ago. I have to hand it to the guy, he had an incredible sense of bad timing. Talk about kicking man when he’s down.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel
And through all that, I was faced with the challenge of raising my son, my Emmanuel child, as a single parent. The foreboding sense I had on that first drive down to Birmingham proved to be true, just not in the way I had feared it would.
The delays the doctor said Elliot would have are there, but he’s improving and catching up every day, and I still have hope that we’ll get to that point in the near future. Every night I tuck him into bed, more times than not in my own bed. Every night, when I’m ready to go to bed, I pick up my sleeping child and move him to his room. And every morning, right around 6:15 am, he comes into my room, crawls into my bed with his Kindle, and I slowly wake up while he attempts to sing along to some numbers song, or the alphabet song, or “The Wishy Washer Washerwoman” by the Learning Station.
This is my life…and God is with me. Every day. Through IEPs, speech and occupational therapy sessions, through potty-training, through unemployment, through the pain of divorce, through cancer, through all the pain, hurt, self-doubt, frustration and despair—Emmanuel.
I know it’s easy to focus solely on a cute Christ child, and feel the warm fuzzies of Christmas as you drink hot cocoa and open presents, but I’ve got to tell you, Emmanuel isn’t cute to me. Emmanuel and the Christmas story is a harsh slap in the face of reality. Yes, the Emmanuel sign is ultimately one of hope, but it is born in pain and despair. It is born in times of oppression and heartache. The Emmanuel child is raised when it seems all hope is gone, and his first steps are often those taken in flight from danger.
When I read Isaiah 7:14 and contemplate its fulfillment in the birth of Jesus, I am reminded that life is harsh, and tough, and unforgiving. When Emmanuel comes, we do not escape those harsh realities. If anything, Emmanuel signals the beginning of more, and he forces us to bear even more than we thought we could bear. Yet somehow, we do, for the burden we bear is Emmanuel’s gift of Himself. We bear that gift because it becomes our responsibility. By bearing Emmanuel’s gift, we learn what transformation looks like in real time: it is absorbing the pain and suffering while dedicating ourselves to go about the business of raising the salvation gift God has allowed to be born in this world of heartache and sin, all in the hope that one day, “those walking in darkness will see a great light.”
After all, for unto us a child has been born. Unto us, a son is given.
But we must remember, that’s not the end. That is only the beginning. We must live out, and actually raise, that salvation in the course of our lives, in the midst of a world that can be very bleak at times.
So, O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appears.