From the time I was a little girl, I was taught that Christmas was a miraculous time, where hearts softened and turned to the Lord. Of course – the holiday is based on the miraculous birth of a babe who brought peace and joy.

In my family, as in most, Grandma was the heart of Christmas. But she wasn’t the apron and rolling pin heart of Christmas. One picture pretty much says it all:

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Sparkly gifts. Everyone dressed to the nines. Trays of candy (See’s and our homemade favorites. Nothing less.) She drove a 1973 Mercury Grand Marquis – probably bigger than a Hummer – and that baby was completely loaded down with gifts for a total of 8 people.

So it’s entirely fitting that she would be the recipient of a Christmas miracle.

By 2003, we were living in rural North Carolina. She lived in the same small town where I lived with my husband and three sons – ages 9, 6, and 6 months. With the boys active in school activities, sports, and my husband as the President of the Chamber of Commerce, we were extremely busy and Gram was a part of it all. Every school awards ceremony, Christmas play, parade, every basketball game – she was there in the front row for the great-grandkids, who had supplanted us grandkids as the apple of her eye.

So when she didn’t want to go to the parade that the boys were riding in, I knew something wasn’t right. She claimed it was just a flu, but when she worsened in a few days we went to the doctor. She thought it was a virus, gave her a breathing treatment and some medications, and off we went. In another week she could barely walk, so we went back to the doctor.

I was totally shocked when the doctor met me in the waiting room with a worried look on her face, then handed me an EKG strip and said:

“Your grandmother has had a what looks like a significant heart attack. I don’t want to wait for an ambulance. I want you to get her in the car and drive to Wake Med ER right now. Don’t park. Pull up to the door and get out and hand this to the orderly and say that she needs to be helped in right now.”

Testing at the hospital revealed that she indeed had a massive heart attack (days earlier, likely), and that her heart had ruptured. It was an encapsulated rupture, and it was already a miracle that she had survived. The cardiac surgeon met with us and told us that he needed to do surgery and that they would then put her on a heart-lung bypass machine for as long as possible to allow her body to heal, but that seven days was the maximum time they could use the machine.

At the end of the seven days, they would transition her off of the machine, but there was no guarantee that her heart would take back over.

Seven days. The date was December 17, 2003 – meaning it would be December 24 when she came off the machine.

Family gathered from around the country, and we had our Christmas a few days early, opening all of the gifts Gram had lovingly wrapped with the last of her energy – during the week she was “sick.” We took pictures and video to share with her in the hospital.

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Gram was never an overtly religious woman. She didn’t attend church or regularly read scriptures. She had a quiet, simple faith that was evident by the way she loved and helped others. But when we asked if we could pray with her, she nodded yes as a tear rolled down her cheek.

In the prayer, my husband assured her that the Lord knew who she was and loved her, knew of the pain and sadness she’d carried quietly during her life since she never wanted to burden other people, but that He was ready to take that from her. I heard a faint whimper as I felt her tears drench my hand. In closing, the prayer assured her she would be at peace no matter the outcome.

When the two of us were alone, she wanted me to sing “O Holy Night” for her, her favorite Christmas hymn. I softly warbled the words as tears filled both of our eyes.

On the 24th, we gathered in the ICU waiting room, and waited. And waited. Finally we were allowed to visit her one by one, for only a minute each, to witness a miracle with our own eyes and kiss her forehead. Her heart, though weakened, was doing its job.

And again, we sang:

Fall on your knees
O hear the angel voices
O night divine!
O night when Christ was born…

After months of rehabilitation, Gram was able to return home and back to the basketball gym, baseball field, awards ceremonies, and birthday parties.

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Sadly, she passed away nine months later. But the next Christmas Eve, my best friend and I stood at Gram’s gravesite as the sun went down and sang:

O Holy night, the stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
‘Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn

Fall on your knees
O hear the angel voices
O night divine!
O night when Christ was born
O night divine!
O night, O night divine!

Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother
And in His name, all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we
Let all within us praise His holy name!

And now, at this hour, my family will meet for Christmas Eve dinner. On the way there, again I will sing. Tears of gratitude for the gift of this woman and the Christmas miracle we received will fill my eyes, but I will sing and know that someday we will embrace again.